Simon Roth on Kickstarting Maia and why some studios have “killed the wonder” of making games

Originally published on Edge Online, September 16 2013.

A distant alien world. Tuesday. The subsurface colony has been expanding rapidly and needed more power. A large wind farm was built on the planet’s surface, which necessitated killing off much of the local vegetation. That, in turn, killed off the local herbivores, leaving the surface covered in hungry carnivores. Sadly, the colony’s limited defences were intended mainly as a deterrent so the starving alien predators eventually make their way past them and to the base proper. As we watch, they tear through the airlocks, the base depressurises and the unsuited colonists start asphyxiating in Maia’s hostile air. One after another, they slip into unconsciousness, just as the hungry aliens make their way in.

That’s the vision for Maia, indie developer’s Simon Roth’s emergent science fiction game. Pitched as Dwarf-Fortress-meets-Dungeon-Keeper-meets-Alpha-Centauri, the god game was intended to be his personal project – but getting £140,000 in Kickstarter funding meant that Roth has been able to polish his vision more than he ever expected. Though the money hasn’t been without stress. “Prior to the alpha release, it was a source of intense anxiety for me,” Roth explains. ”I had no idea what sort of reaction the game would get and had an awful lot of people waiting to download… things have been slower to develop than I’d of liked, but the end product is turning into something far more rounded and detailed than my initial plan had foreseen.”

A lot of that is to do with the number and spread of the audience. Something about the game – the beautiful concept art or the pitch or Roth’s iconoclastic but grounded descriptions – won it a singularly large, committed and international audience. “Having twelve thousand people testing and picking at the game is far less of a weight on development as I had expected and provides me with some serious QA grunt,” says Roth. “One of the interesting effects on development was receiving instant feedback from gamers who usually struggle to get their voices heard. I’ve had detailed advice and critique from colour blind users and even talked to a couple synaesthetics who reviewed the game on how it tasted.” On top of that, all the text created by Maia’s writer, Paul Dean, has been left as an open format, so that volunteers can localise the majority of the game before Roth’s professional editors clean it up.

That story is as hard science as they come, focussing on the building of a space elevator on the planet Tau Ceti E, AKA Maia, in 2113; the aim of this towering masterpiece of engineering is merely to transport goods more efficiently between the planet and space. “Really, the priority of Maia’s pioneers is nothing more glamorous than extraterrestrial infrastructure, paving the way for more and bigger projects,” says Dean. “It’s just a job. This is a reality where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, where space travel is slow and boring, where corners get cut and where tired people are sometimes negligent.” Dean’s aim is to keep the story away from high drama, deliberately underwriting it. “Too many games have too much story. They’re too concerned with writing lots of plot and then serving up lots of plot and then pointing at that plot to make sure you’ve seen it. We should be showing rather than telling.”

That ethos extends both to the game’s minimalistic tutorial and the early availability of the game’s alphas. Maia’s alpha builds have been downloadable by backers at a point most traditional developers would balk at. The current build is without any sort of GUI, requires knowledge of console commands to do anything, and works on only a fraction of backer’s machines. “It’s a strange thing for me to see games grow like this,” says Dean. “but once you have a core that people can play with, you can keep building around that to add new elements. The big question is how soon you release that core. Too early, and you give people too little to play around with.”

That’s not all that traditional mass market game developers would shy from – but then Roth has always been critical of them, presumably from his time at NaturalMotion and Frontier Developments. “I guess at a fundamental level it’s their loss of imagination. Chasing after mythical mass audiences at the behest of publishers has really killed the wonder that brought a lot of people to this medium. Stemming from this I am really frustrated at how they run their businesses and treat their staff. The concept of crunch flies in the face of a hundred years of research into workforce productivity, common sense, and frankly, quite a few laws.”

Roth himself has found no problems either working with an international part-time workforce or maintaining a gender balance in the team. “Certain triple-A developers claim that women are unrepresented in the industry. From my standpoint I haven’t seen much a differentiation between numbers of quality male and female candidates – there are more unskilled male applications, but when you whittle those away it’s far more even. I think larger studios are perhaps misreading their own PR and HR problems as a gender skills gap.”

Roth envisages the 1.0 release of the game to be finished in early 2014. Before that the team has to get the Steam candidate ready (the game was recently approved for Greenlight) and adding in that crucial alien food chain. “The game in my head in massive, yet the design is complete, and I am quick to stamp out feature creep. Not to mention, I’d love to pick up the final stretch goal from the Kickstarter and produce different planet types as free expansions next year. Whether I will ever be happy enough with it to call it ‘done’ is an interesting question…” Given that he has a fistful of other projects he wants to do – “a technoir adventure game, a primordial life simulator, and a first person survival RPG set in the Maia time line”, an anthology of Maia-inspired short stories, a ‘70s synth soundtrack album – we doubt that he’ll ever be quite finished with Maia.

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The top 100 most-influential videogames (2014 edition).

Back in 2014, I contributed a list of the 100 most influential or important video games for a book called 100 x 100 in the USA or 10,000 Things You Need to Know: The Big Book of Lists in the UK. The book seems to have sold very poorly, so I’ve reproduced the list here.

The games are listed chronologically, with a second list after them clarifying where they sat in my putative top 100, back in 2014. Intriguingly, the final edition probably has a different list, as the US publisher pushed back on me to add Duck Hunt, Paperboy, Street Fighter 1, Double Dragon, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Clash of Clans, and Candy Crush Saga… and we compromised on some of them, but I can’t remember which.

Anyway, here’s the list:

Continue reading The top 100 most-influential videogames (2014 edition).

Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy | The Irish Times

Video games remain largely associated with youth and immaturity. When Frank Underwood – the evil, scheming central character of Netflix’s House of Cards – relaxes after a day’s politicking by playing the blood-splattering Call of Duty, the impression is conveyed that here is a man both juvenile and sadistic.

But according to Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos, Underwood and real-life gamers may be doing a kind of philosophy, no less, by blasting enemy forces from the comfort of their armchairs.

On the grounds that “philosophy is about everything and games are about everything”, the authors of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us advance the thesis that gaming is a forum for learning about key subjects like the nature of consciousness, logic and ethics.

Some games perform the function better than others, they say, citing Soma – a complex science fiction game based in an underwater research facility – as a stand-out example. Describing it as “a masterpiece on what it means to be human”, they say it produces “a feeling of existential dread that we’ve not experienced anything like (except perhaps after reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger while eating bad seafood)”.

The authors also put up a valiant defence of violent video games despite admitting “many of the most popular games treat . . . killing and dying as the most trivial thing in the world”.

As this week’s “Unthinkable” guest, Griliopoulos – the appointed “death” specialist of the duo – explains just why video games should be taken seriously. “Despite their problems, games are also educative,” he argues. “They can show us how to grieve, what the value of life is, how to prepare for our death and that of our friends, and when killing is a mercy.”

What does the research tell us about a link between video games and either violence or a loss of empathy?

Griliopoulos: “With regard to violence, research tells us that there’s no link and no correlation. Prof Christopher Ferguson has been researching this field for several years, because the existing research in the field was so consistently terrible and biased. He’s come up with some startling findings – like finding that school shooters in the US are actually less likely to be interested in video games than their peers.

“Honestly, these questions seem to come from a background of assuming there’s a problem, then trying to find one. It’s a familiar form of moral panic, which happened with video nasties, Dungeons & Dragons, movies, rock and roll . . . and probably back as far as the printing press.”

Your survey of existing games shows that players tend to prefer simulations where they are immortal, or can be reborn. Does this reflect a fear of death, or a low boredom threshold – in that people don’t like to have to repeat their steps?

“I’d say, it more reflects a power fantasy, mingled with expectations from their real lives. Death is a rare occurrence in life and unique in an individual’s own life – that is, we will never directly experience our own death, only the states that lead up to it. So to reduce our capabilities from the real world would upset many players.”

Many futurologists believe we will be spending more time playing virtual reality games as technology pushes humans out of the workforce. Can one gain philosophical insights or enlightenment by playing such games?

“Absolutely, if you play the right games. Like all forms of media, games draw upon and inform the human experience. Soma might be a horror game, but through its narrative about mind-transference, it raises very difficult questions about identity, what constitutes a human mind and what is of moral worth, which philosophers have been exploring in thought experiments like The Chinese Room for generations.

“Similarly, the Ultima series of video games explored the ethics of being a good person, aka virtue ethics, whilst the blockbuster game Bioshock 2 took a look at the practical ethics of maximising happiness, aka utilitarianism.”

What would you say to the view that video games are inherently anti-philosophical as they only ever deal with a representation of reality. Plato, for example, gave us the allegory of the Cave where the prisoners – representing the ignorant – spent their time staring at flickering lights divorced from the real world. He would find it hard to see any merit in “Call of Duty”, would he not?

“Plato also wanted to ban poetry, because he saw it as a representation of a representation, and hence doubly-misleading. I’m sure he’d see all forms of fiction including games, movies and books in the same way. Whilst he’s the founder of philosophy, I wouldn’t argue that his views are widespread today.

“Nor would I accept that games are inherently anti-philosophical. They’re entertainment experiences that provoke feelings and thoughts, which are the foundations of philosophical insights.

“And mainstream games are more moral than most other media, partly because of their interactivity. They tend to have strong moral codes which the player has to enact to win the game, rewarding the player for actively doing the right thing, whatever that may be.

“The US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald that games had informed his moral code, that along with history they had taught him that “seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries”. Very few games revel in the sort of nihilism that blockbuster movies and popular crime books get away with every day.”

****

Ask a sage:

Question: Can wisdom come from staring at a screen?

Plato replies: “The mind’s eye begins to see clearly when the outer eyes grow dim.”

Source: Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy

The Virtual Reality of Virtual Worlds – Improbable

This is a repost of The Virtual Reality of Virtual Worlds – Improbable to see how it affects the traffic on our corporate blog. 🙂

“We’re writing a feature / launching an event on virtual reality and we’d love to include Improbable.” – we hear this often, and it causes mixed feelings. After all, it’s always very flattering for our company to be seen as a thought leader. And we certainly share the excitement about the possibilities of virtual reality hardware as a way to explore the huge virtual worlds our platform, SpatialOS, makes possible. But we don’t make VR hardware and we don’t make VR games, so are we the right people to talk to?

Our company does something quite complex in a very new field, so it’s understandable that people find us hard to categorise. Generally, when seeking understanding, people tend to look for familiar comparisons, and “virtual worlds” and “virtual reality” are close enough to connect.

 

Sky News called us “British virtual reality company Improbable”, as did City A.M. C.N.N.’s headline said of us “This virtual reality startup is now worth $1 billion.” The New York Times’ more nuanced take was “SoftBank Leads $502 Million Stake in Virtual-Reality Designer Improbable”. Even our national news outlet the BBC said “UK virtual reality firm Improbable raises $500m”. This is not wrong, exactly, but it is something worth addressing.

For us, virtual reality technology is an interface – a doorway into virtual worlds. We provide the platform that developers build those worlds on.

The unreal history of imagined realities

In science fiction culture, virtual reality and virtual worlds were synonymous. The assumption was that you’d access your virtual world or virtual reality through a piece of technology specially designed for the purpose. And that piece of technology took a variety of forms – from the familiar headset or glasses, to optical projectors, spinal cables and neural meshes. Large or small, wearable or implanted, this was the technology science fiction writers thought would enable VR.

Credit Tim Douglas on Flickr – "HD capture from Ghost in the Shell"

Here’s how it was envisaged by Neal Stephenson in the novel Snow Crash, as worn by the eponymous Hiro Protagonist:

“He is wearing shiny goggles that wrap halfway round his head; the bows of the goggles have little earphones that are plugged into his outer ears. The earphones have some built-in noise cancellation features. This sort of thing works best on steady noise…

The goggles throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes, and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness. This boulevard does not actually exist; it is a computer-generated view of an imaginary place.”

Virtual Reality today

This was horribly prescient – all of the tech in that piece didn’t exist then, but does now. However, the reason we’re fastidious about the term ‘virtual reality’ is that more recent tech and games culture has altered it. This community has changed the meaning from the entire virtual world – that is, a reality which is virtual – almost entirely to the physical headset that lets you see the virtual world. Which is like seeing through some goggles and calling them a swimming pool.

At the most typical level, modern virtual reality is a very limited, single-player version of a virtual world. A virtual reality world like this is the nearest we could get to the Metaverse – the virtual universe as envisaged by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash back in 1992:

“As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents’ computers for a double date in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop. He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.”

Front cover of Snow Crash

“Hiro’s avatar is now on the Street, too, and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he’s seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in L.A. and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won’t talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality.”

“Through the use of electronic mirrors inside the computer, this beam is made to sweep back and forth across the lenses of Hiro’s goggles, in much the same way as the electron beam in a television paints the inner surface of the eponymous Tube. The resulting image hangs in space in front of Hiro’s view of Reality…”

“So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer generated universe that’s drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place known as the Metaverse.”

Yet, on mobile devices or on PC, modern virtual reality technology itself takes up most of the processing power of the computer, leaving little room to run the simulation. This means that virtual worlds are typically single-player or small multi-player simulations, with small, non-interactive environments. Virtual reality increases immersion, potentially, but reduces fidelity. And, when you are reaching out with your hand, reaching for a book on a shelf only to find that your hand slides off a textured surface can damage immersion even more.

So, we are a long way from the Metaverse, and even further from the Matrix.

Whilst the technology is still maturing and products for first adopters are edging towards mass-market availability, the killer tech hasn’t arrived yet. However, at Improbable we want to support virtual reality – because we think virtual reality is a major contributing technology to the mass enjoyment of virtual worlds.

Image from unrealized Neuromancer videogame

Virtual Worlds > Virtual Reality

Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) can build social networks and long-term relationships between players.

MMORPG creators have never lacked ambition, for example, Ultima Online’s attempt to create a living ecosystem (called the “resource system“) in its alpha release. However, technical limitations have funnelled MMORPGs towards a number of standardised features – sharded areas, PvP arenas, instanced dungeons, levelling of heroes, items and enemies, an expansion-pack driven story and so on. Even the most ambitious projects were limited by the platform they were built on – these standard practices have been adopted as the best compromise between the creators’ vision, the players’ desires, and the limitations of client-server architecture. There are many great MMORPGs, but huge amounts of design ingenuity, technical ability and resource are poured into pushing a little more performance out of single servers, or concealing transitions between areas.

SpatialOS is changing these worlds too. This month saw the closed beta of the first of Bossa Studio’s Worlds Adrift, a massive 3D open universe with a persistent world and pervasive, realistic physics. Other games being developed on the system are equally ambitious, with Klang’s Seed bringing persistence and massive multiplayer to the civilisation-building mechanics of cult hits like Rimworld, Chronicles of Elyria from Soulbound Studios aiming to create a true MMORPG with characters who age and die, and Geekzonia being a huge social hub, which can be explored as easily with VR equipment or traditional mouse and keyboard.

Image of a physical model city

And games obviously aren’t all the possible virtual worlds. At Improbable, we are embarking on exploratory projects to better understand the potential applications of the underlying technologies that currently power SpatialOS to simulations of the real world. These projects might be used as decision support for complex systems or for scientific modelling.

Still, none of these projects is the Metaverse as Stephenson wrote it – a massive, persistent, interactive virtual world accessed through virtual reality tech. But they are all applications of modern-day ingenuity to the same desire, enabled by SpatialOS.

Source: The Virtual Reality of Virtual Worlds – Improbable

Why don’t we just… use games for good? – Big Issue North

As an art form, video games have come a long way since 1958’s Tennis for Two, but the medium still retains certain problems. Like books and movies, some popular games are violent or prejudiced, whilst others seem addictive.

That said, there are some games that are outright good, even educational. Organisations like Games For Change create and distribute these games to promote awareness of humanitarian issues. Zachtronics creates commercial games that combine entertainment effectively with learning. These range from Spacechem, a puzzle game that teaches the players about chemical reactions, to Infinifactory, a production line simulator, right up to TIS-100 and Shenzen I/O, which teach players about programming.

Beyond puzzles though, other genres have been adapted to be educational. Microsoft has released Minecraft: Education Edition for teachers, which uses the original game’s crafting, digging and open world exploration to promote creativity, collaboration and problem-solving. You might be sceptical, but a national survey in the US found that 71 per cent of teachers who used digital games in the classroom reported that they had been effective in improving their students’ mathematics learning.

Beyond the classroom, games also have a unique advantage in teaching philosophy. Unlike other media, games are interactive – the player always gets to choose what they do, to some degree. That means they’re extremely useful for getting people to live through the consequences of their philosophies. I’ve heard them called “social science petri dishes” for that reason.

For example, Papers, Please (PC, Mac, iOS) is a game about working in passport control on the border of a totalitarian state. Players have to keep track of a changing bureaucratic system to keep their job and provide for their family, whilst constantly being presented with ethical dilemmas. Is it worth losing your job (and perhaps life) to allow a political dissident to escape? Like the Democracy series of government simulators or the global disaster simulator Fate of the World, it’s a wonderful way of helping people understand the structures and complexities of modern political systems.

On the level of practical ethics, there are nuanced non-violent games like That Dragon Cancer, To The Moon and What Remains of Edith Finch, all of which deal with loss and grief in different ways. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Soma, on the other hand, manage to combine science fiction and horror with a thorough-going investigation into what it means to be human and what creatures are of moral worth. Even the popular Bioshock series raises questions about free will, utilitarianism and identity.

Of course, it’s easy for me to just assert these things. But games are a form of media that have become a moral guide to the millennial generation, who have grown up with them. US whistleblower Edward Snowden has asserted that games provided him with a moral structure that informed his actions – that they taught him that anyone, no matter how weak, is capable of confronting huge injustice. He told the journalist Glenn Greenwald that, in games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or fight for his beliefs. And history also shows that seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.”

With the advent of massive virtual worlds, games and simulations could be the dominant entertainment form of the 21st century. If they are to be so, we have to recognise and encourage their educational and moral components – to make them games for good.

Daniel Griliopoulos is the co-author of Ten Things Videogames Can Teach Us: About Life, Philosophy, and Everything (Robinson, £10.49). He is also the lead content editor at the technology company Improbable

Source: Why don’t we just… use games for good? – Big Issue North

A mind in balance.

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