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July 2011

The new intimacy


Ding. You have a private message. Ding. You have a new follower. Ding. Someone replied to your post. Ding. You've got mail. Ding. Time to make your move in Warlight.

Screens big and small dominate my life. I stare at them for most of my waking existence, rarely breaking my gaze. The digital dream has come true. I Skype with an old friend in China. I have thousands of songs in my pocket. My productivity is through the roof. My neck aches sometimes and my fingers tingle, but I don't slow down. I'm pugged in. I'm an early-adopter. 

See, I'm in control. These touch-screen toys can be turned off. I can close the lid on this laptop whenever I want. I can walk away. But I rarely do. Hours pass. I'm still here juggling tasks, keeping abreast, staying in touch. Feeling connected. Me and my screens. The new intimacy.

My daughter walks into the room. "Daddy, when will you be done?" "In a few minutes, sweetie." "Come downstairs, Daddy." "I'll be there in just a couple of minutes, okay?" "Okay, Daddy." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Somebody likes my podcast. Ding. Spam problem needs attention.

Twenty minutes later. "Daddy! When are you coming?" "I'm almost done, sweetie. Just another minute. Almost done." "I want you to swing me." "I will, sweetheart. Just as soon as I'm finished." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Check my traffic. Ding. A quick peek at Twitter. Ding. Shoot a link to Instapaper. Ding. Software update. Ding. Stuck on the post. Ding. Ding. Ding

One hour later. Google Plus notifies me and I respond. TypePad alerts me and I respond. iCal reminds me and I respond. My attention is required. Click. Click. I'm relevant. I'm vital to the conversation. I'm in the middle of something big here. Ding. My daughter has given up.

The house is quiet. I walk downstairs and look out the window. My wife is pushing Zoe on the swing. She's laughing, my broken promise forgotten. It occurs to me I could get some real work done in a quiet house like this. 

That's when it hits me like a bus. The sad, self-absorbed reality of it. "Go outside, breathe the air, and play with your daughter, you SOB!! What's the matter with you?!" Ding. I feel ashamed. Ding. I get the message. Ding. I jump off a moving train.

Call it penance. Detox. I stop gazing at screens. Five days with no tweets. No Zelda. No email. No RSS. I jettison the barriers - the screens, the earbuds, the chatter. I disconnect to reconnect with the non-virtual world I inhabit. Recalibrate. Reevaluate "productive." Embrace silence. Ride my bike. Build towers for the joy of knocking them down. Pay attention.

I adore video games. I treasure the online community and the authentic connections all this amazing technology enables. I love writing my blog. None of this has changed. I don't mean to equate the interactive grid with prison. YMMV.

But I think it's possible to find yourself drawn into a cyclical "ding-response" existence which feeds on perpetual content-flow. It feels important at the moment it grips you, but ultimately evaporates when the next momentous thing comes along. Jump off that train, and it barrels along without you. When you decide to reboard you'll realize that you may have missed a few stops, but that train never really had a destination anyway.

Balance. I needed to find my way. Now I hear Zelda inviting me back. Excuse me, I need to take this call.

It’s a B+ world


Let’s play a game together. We’ll call this game “Guess the Score.” Before we begin, let me warn you that I will win this game. Don’t get discouraged. In the end we both lose.

Here’s how to play: 

  1. You are a real-world developer of a AAA video game. We’ll define “AAA” as a game with a relatively big budget, promoted by a relatively ambitious ad campaign, and reviewed by at least 50 print and online review sources. We’ll agree that relying on rickety adverbs like “relatively” is a necessary evil when characterizing titles across a wide universe of releases. 

  2. Dream up an idea for a game. Any genre or platform. Original IP or sequel. Anything you like.

  3. Invent a snappy title, some way-cool art, and a knock-em-dead blurb that describes how ridiculously awesome, immersive, game-changing, and paradigm-shifting your new game will be.

  4. Go make your game. I will wait.

  5. A week before release, invite me to your studio to preview your new game and offer feedback. As you begin your pitch, I will close my eyes, plug my ears, and sing “La-la-la-la-la” until your pitch ends. Then I will enter a trance-like state and utter a few incantations for dramatic effect. Finally I will deliver my verdict: “Your game is a Metacritic B+. Good work!” Then I’ll disappear in a puff of smoke. Or I’ll just get up and leave. 

  6. One week later your AAA magnum opus will arrive on shelves, greeted by a Metacritic composite score of 87. “Why, that Abbott fellow is a genius,” one of your co-workers will exclaim. “Indeed,” you will concur, quietly conceding my victory in our little game.

How on earth did I do it? Can such prognostication be learned, like a dark art? Why, yes it can. The source of my wizardry: a little data gathering (with help from a student named Donovan Bisbee) mixed with the unholy alchemic power of Excel.

Actually, it’s no trick at all. I simply collected composite “Metascores” on 58 major games released in the last 24 months. Two Nintendo titles bookended the list: Metroid: Other M at the bottom (79), and Super Mario Galaxy 2 at the top (97). You can see my list here.

The average among all 58 games is 87.3 - a high number, but not a surprising one if you’re familiar with the inflated nature of game reviews. I won't go on about this. It is what it is.

The bigger surprise, although admittedly not a shocker, is the scant standard deviation of 4.5 (the real secret to winning my “Guess the Score” game). Drop only a few outliers on both ends - SMG 2, Uncharted 2, Portal 2, and Metroid: OM), and the variance from the mean among the 54 remaining games falls to below 4.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering news to anyone who pays attention to game reviews, but I do think the data lends credence to the idea that major releases, with few exceptions, aggregate inside a very narrow spectrum of scores. Publisher, platform, genre - none of these appear to matter (unless you’re Valve or Blizzard). 

The data suggests that if you’re developing a AAA game, you’re probably headed for a B+, an A- if you’re lucky, or a plain old B if you’re not. Don’t worry about a C. That just won’t happen. Unless your name is Duke.

I have all sorts of issues with Metacritic, and I’m not prone to wringing my hands over review scores. The problem here isn’t about numbers, but about differentiation among games - the deadliest threat facing the mainstream video game industry.

Put simply, too many games look like games we’ve already played. While we may find notable variety in the indie dev scene, who among us could sit through last month’s E3 press briefings without gagging on deja vu? We’re producing ever more of the same old stuff. Under such conditions, it’s hardly surprising to find dozens of games sitting bumper-to-bumper in a Metacritic traffic jam. Not even the reviewers can separate them.

Perhaps it’s useful to know that SMG 2 soared well above the average; and maybe a sub-par score for a Metroid game says something important. But when the vast majority of other major titles fall within the same small range of scores, numbers lose their meaning. 

I think many of us have a creeping suspicion that the industry we've relied on to give us Halos and Metal Gears and Marios has become a snake devouring its own tail. When meager differences among games become indiscernible to everyone but experts, there is trouble in paradise.

For the love of...


This one isn’t about a game.

This one is about old books, old movies, and new technology. It's about a simple but nimble yarn, adapted and presented in different formats, its essence preserved in each.

It’s about old inspiring new, and new amplifying old. It’s about different storytelling traditions coexisting on a spectrum of expressive possibilities, each standing on its own, while supporting and enhancing the other.

This is about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, one of the best short films I’ve seen, one of the best interactive books I’ve read, and one of the most elegant iPad apps I’ve encountered. Before going on, I encourage you to watch the trailer below, which effectively conveys the spirit of the story.

Homage hunters will find many easy targets in Morris Lessmore. Morris himself is a dead-ringer for Buster Keaton, and the animators do a wonderful job of capturing Keaton’s gait, stone-face, and expressive eyes - they even manage to reproduce his trademark corkscrew pratfall. The hurricane sequence in Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. inspires the opening minutes of Morris Lessmore

The film’s playful mix of color with black and white cinematography (and spinning house) are a nod to The Wizard of Oz, and its overall visual style draws from a wealth of Technicolor musicals from Hollywood’s heyday. 

But the most distinctive aspect of Morris Lessmore’s art style is its use of old-school miniatures and 2D animation, blended with Pixar-style computer animation. (Director William Joyce is a former Pixar animator.) As a result, the film manages to look both old and new at the same time, and the familiar Pixar sheen is mottled with dust.

Book_standing Morris Lessmore, the iPad app, is a brilliant translation of the film into an interactive storybook for kids and adults. Unlike many other e-books I’ve seen, these elements don’t feel like bolted-on afterthoughts.

Page after page, the reader is presented with ways to interact with the world of the story, much as Morris does, through exploration and discovery. Nearly all of these are optional, and the reader can choose to have the entire story read aloud with no interactions at all, if she wishes.

But the best way to experience The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is to simply play and see what happens. My 3-year-old daughter and I have read the book together a dozen times or more, and each reading unfolds like a new adventure to her.

She’s engaged in a kind of reading that encourages her to think about why the books talk, and why it’s important to help them find their way home. This is far more compelling than the “touch the monkey to make him jump” routine that passes for interactivity in most of the e-books I’ve seen.

Ultimately, Morris Lessmore is about loving books and passing that love onto others. That’s the ‘message’ of the film/storybook, and it’s a wonderful message to share. But Morris Lessmore is also about loving silent movies and Buster Keaton and pork pie hats; it’s about loving animation and exquisite art design; it’s about loving Star Trek come-true technology that lets us play and read and explore together on a device that still feels like a small miracle to me.

When I read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore with my daughter on my lap, each of these loves are in play, each brings me joy, and I’m grateful for all of one more. The one on my lap.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the short film, is available on iTunes. The iPad storybook is available in the App Store.

Tiny Tower: FAIL

I don’t think that having one wall completely missing is up to code.
                                    —Dora Spencer, Tiny Tower Bitizen

Tiny Tower is not a fun game. It just isn’t. Endlessly poking at a little screen, repeating the same tasks ad nauseum may be somebody’s idea of fun, but not mine.

Tiny-tower_3 Don’t take my word for it. Let me prove it to you. But first, hold on a second while I restock my sandwich shop with supplies...

Okay, I’m back. What was I saying? ...Oh, right. Tiny Tower is no fun, and here’s proof. Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins - two of the most respected scholars in their fields - agree with me. In their seminal essay “The Art of Contested Spaces” they attempt to explain how games deliver fun. 

They cite “Spatial Exploration” as a key. Well let me tell you that staring at a static blocky tower for hours on end ain’t exactly my idea of exploring a space. Squire and Jenkins also mention “Virtual Romanticism” (good vs evil, heroic quests, etc.), and Tiny Tower comes up empty there too. 

It turns out that Tiny Tower fails nearly every Squire/Jenkins criteria (atmospheric design, social space, etc.) Okay, fine. But I know what you're thinking. Maybe I’m being unfair to the game by applying only one critical lens.

Let’s consult another respected source: Tom Francis - one of the best writers on games in the business. But hold the phone a sec, a VIP just showed up in my lobby, and I need to get her up to the 7th floor pronto.

...So, Tom Francis. Right. He wrote a clever piece recently called “What Makes Games Good,” and his list includes a bunch of other criteria that Tiny Towers chokes on. Here they are, accompanied by grades assigned by me, because I’m a teacher, which entitles me to assign grades to anything.

  • Challenge: After a few minutes figuring out how to play Tiny Tower, the only real challenge I can detect is remembering to check my iPhone every ten minutes. Grade: D
  • Feel: I’m poking a screen with an input device that obscures said screen. Fail. Holding my finger on the screen makes the elevator go up. That’s about it for “feel.” Grade: F
  • Freedom: This game delivers the opposite of freedom. Playing it makes me feel like an indentured servant. If I slough off even a little, everything shuts down. I'm buried in notifications that all deliver the same message: Get back to work!! Grade: F

Speaking of work, a tenant just moved in whose dream job is to work in a travel agency. Eureka! I just opened a travel agency. Supply discounts for me! Hold on while I evict a guy and move this keeper into his job...

Okay, I’m back. So, wrapping up Tom Francis’s list:

  • Place (“a world you want to be in”): Tiny Tower has no appeal here. In fact, keeping my distance from this place helps me keep tabs on the big picture. These blocky little people may like it here, but I’m definitely on the outside looking in. Grade: F
  • Promise (“the temptation of further possibilities”): Uh, no. The only “further possibilities” I can see with this game are more floors followed by more floors. I suppose building a ridiculously tall tower can be seen as promising to some, but I can’t see myself devoting that much time to such a repetitive game. Grade: D

So, as you can see, Tiny Tower fails the Tom Francis test. But wait. I made my own list of “Fun Factors” awhile back. Maybe this game delivers on some of those. Let’s check and find out...after I install some dollar slot machines in my casino. Because, see, if I get a celebrity in here any time soon, this floor will deliver major moolah that I need to open more apartments. Because I need more workers in this joint. Because I’ve been evicting dead-weight tenants left and right.

Well, I just consulted my Fun Factors Catalog, and guess what? That’s right, Tiny Tower stumbles badly again. Puzzle solving? Nope. Sense of danger/fear/surprise? Nope. Learning from failure (i.e. “the hard teacher)? Nope. Competition? Nope. Creating and feeling connected to a character? Nope. A heaping mound of fail.

Tiny Tower is hopeless. As game design, it’s a disaster. Clearly, the players who enjoy this type of game fall into one of two categories: 1) People with empty lives. 2) People who can’t handle real games. I’m glad I don’t fall into either category, because if I did I would feel worthless and pathetic. I play games like Outland - a game for people who truly appreciate video games. I’ll write about that one very soon.

In the meantime, I need to figure out if it’s possible to sync my Tiny Tower saves between my iPhone and iPad. This one feature would improve my quality of life dramatically. Because I can’t always carry my iPad with me, and those coins really add up when you’re not playing. Plus, somebody just delivered flowers to Dora Spencer, and how is she supposed to get them if I’m not there?

Bloody play


You enter a darkened room. With no map or HUD to assist you, navigation is a matter of trial and error. You turn aimlessly in various directions until you detect a small glimmer of light in the distance. You walk toward it and discover a small candle on the floor, lighting only the tiny spot around it.  

You search for other cues, but finding none you turn 90 degrees and begin walking. "Maybe I'm in a hallway," you think to yourself. Suddenly you hear a loud thunk, as if a large object fell to the floor above you. Muffled music can be heard coming from somewhere. You suspect you're being watched.

After a series of wrong turns, guesswork finally brings you to a bright light shining at the end of corridor. The music intensifies as you approach and you hear voices, so you follow the sound and light. Finally, quite unexpectedly, you emerge from the dark into a 1930s-era nightclub full of NPCs in tuxedos and gowns mingling and dancing. A beautiful woman offers you a cocktail. You take a seat and look around. "Why am I here?” you wonder. "What am I supposed to do?"

Sleep-no-more-prep A few minutes later a mysterious woman invites you to follow her. She leads you to an anteroom and tells you in hushed tones that she wants you to explore the building. "Something dreadful" has happened here, but she won't say more. 

A curiously formal man escorts you to an elevator, and you get in. After the doors close he urgently advises you to explore each room and examine every object. "Don't be shy," he tells you. "Bold action can reap big rewards in this place. Are you willing to be bold?" The doors open, you step out, and the man disappears. 

You're on you're own. No map. No instruction manual. No FAQ. What now?

We’ve devoted lots of time and ink to studying - and celebrating and bemoaning - all the ways other media have influenced video games. Narrative games clearly owe much to film, novels, folklore, and other storytelling systems, and these influences continue. I mean, who would have guessed the ancient Jewish Book of Enoch would inspire a game

But what happens when we turn the tables? What happens when a generation of artists emerges, reared on electronic interactive entertainment, with no memory of a world without video games? What kind of art will this generation produce?


The opening paragraphs of this post do not describe a video game. They describe a theatrical production called Sleep No More, a fully-realized convergence of live theater and real-time non-linear multiplayer horror-adventure game. Quite a mouthful, eh? Convergence can be a little messy. Another, more personal way to characterize the production: Sleep No More is the first time that both strands of my life’s work - theatre and video games - have coalesced to form something that feels at once deeply familiar to me and breathtakingly new.

Sleep No More is an “immersion theatre” event in which audiences are free to roam, explore, and investigate (almost nothing is off-limits) a vast space that includes 100 rooms spread over 6 floors of a transformed abandoned warehouse in Chelsea, NYC. Scenes and apparently spontaneous situations unfold throughout the building as 21 actors move from one stylized location to another, and each room is filled with period artifacts related to the story. The production's director, Felix Barrett, puts it this way: “In our world, every single drawer, cupboard, wardrobe that can be opened, should be opened because you’ll find something inside."(1)

SLEEP Sleep No More is based on Macbeth, infused with a heavy sampling of Hitchcock. Audience members arrive at the McKittrick Hotel from Vertigo; Mrs. Danvers, the diabolical housekeeper from Rebecca, appears to poison a pregnant woman; and samplings of Bernard Herrmann’s scores are woven into the complex bed of sound heard throughout the building.

It’s easy to discern the theatrical and cinematic elements mashed up to create Sleep No More, but the whole event begins to levitate when game elements are stirred into this witches’ brew.

The audience member (essentially a Player in this construction) explores the spaces of SNM, examines items, and seeks clues to explain what has happened in this place. She also responds to events that occur in real-time all around her. While her agency is limited (she cannot, for example, prevent Macbeth’s demise), she is free to go wherever she wishes and pursue her own interests, including interacting with the characters or other audience members.

In true adventure-game fashion, the joy of SNM is exploring, piecing together clues, and carefully observing the characters and environments around you. SNM is a giant puzzle to be solved by the player, with more than one possible solution. Meaning is assembled by the player, provoked by SNMs innumerable stimuli. Shakespeare's Macbeth is one possible narrative frame, but certainly not the only one.

SNM is an incredibly stimulating sandbox, chock-full of fascinating characters, artifacts, and narrative events. Throughout my time there (I saw it twice), I was struck by a familiar sense of open-world freedom, bound by intentional designer-imposed limits, but ultimately responsive to my desire to test those limits, tweak the system, and observe the results.

Sleep-No-More-3 At the second performance, I found myself digging to figure out how the system works; looking for the seams; seeking ways to give myself an advantage over the other audience members; developing strategies to overcome the system’s rules.

In other words, I played Sleep No More like a game, and its design encouraged that behavior. SNM isn’t a sender-receiver event. Like all great games, its system responds to player actions, including those that would seem to fall outside the “acceptable” range. SNM gets more interesting the harder you play with it.

What’s the best way to play Sleep No More? Follow one character from room to room? Remain in one room and see who shows up? Take notes? Stay with a friend, or purposely separate and try to locate each other (a challenging mini-game in this vast space)? Find a hiding place?

And how will you respond when the 4th wall crumbles completely? When a visibly distraught Lady Macbeth grabs your hand, pulls you down a flight of stairs, and leads you into a graveyard, what will you do? And how will you get that blood out of your shirt?

Sleep No More’s run in New York City has been extended into early October. See it. Play it. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.