Apr 01 , 2013

Hexagons! Newtons! Musics!

It filled me with such titanic joy to see Super Hexagon on a giant screen, framing the amazing Chipzel and a crowd of revellers headbanging to her chiptunes. Incredible.

Thanks to Venus Patrol & Wild Rumpus for an amazing event.

Oh god the physics.

Apart from Chipzel, I finally got a chance to play Super Space ____, a brilliant cooperative shooter where 4 players each control the turret of a spaceship under assault from asteroids, enemies and sometimes the level itself. Touch the red boundary of the level (or an enemy), everyone dies.

The genius? You control the ship… by shooting away the direction you want to go. Pure newtonian physics, perfectly balanced so all the players feel like they have agency. That balance is what impressed me most; the action is hectic but your shots move the ship just enough that you feel in control.

Also impressively balanced is the tradeoff between co-operation and competition. Each player has an individual score, and Super Space ____ does just enough to pull them together (for example, creating an obstacle that *all* players have to push against at the same time) and immediately foment mutiny (by creating a power up only one person can use).

Super Space ____ is a perfect example of the principle that you can make something ludicrously difficult and your players will absolutely love it – and will even find failure hilarious – *if* they clearly understand what’s going on.

Serious kudos!

Soundself & Panoramical

I also got to play (with) Soundself and Panoramical, both experimental musical toys.

It’s interesting to compare Soundself, a kind of audio visual feedback loop for one or more people singing into a microphone, to Super Space ____. I was left with the overriding impression that I’d played two radically different implementations of the same game.

Both are about a group of players interacting with a game loop, where the actions of one player can radically change the outcome and all players have to work together to get the best outcome. But in one, the victory condition is rigidly enforced whereas the other leaves that to the players. Moreover, Super Space ____ *has* a victory condition, whereas the act of playing Soundself is the win state. In the first, input is a defined motion with clear feedback, in the other it’s the full range of vocal expression.

I look forward to seeing where Robin Arnott takes it. I think it’s a great Kickstarter to fund (and they need your help with 6 days to go).


Mar 17 , 2013

Quick indie game roundup

People ask me: Raph? What indie games should I be looking out for these days? Well, ask and you shall receive… answer-like sentences!

Play right now

Ridiculous Fishing
Help this all-star team recover from the incredibly lame game cloning kerfuffle of 2011. I’ve been looking forward to this one for such a long time.

Why you should care: The fundamental gameplay is unchanged since 2010′s popular flash prototype: avoid the fish on the way down, catch as many as you can on the way up, and, of course, fling them into the air so you can blast them to pieces with semi-automatic weapons. Which is fun. What really inspires me (as always) is Greg Wohlwend’s art direction, which is a swanky modernization of 8bit. I’ve been obsessed with 30 degree angles since hexagons. This has given me newfound respect for the humble 45 degree, or half-right (as it likes to be called).

Play when it comes out

Fly from gravity well to gravity well in a beautifully rendered 2D sky that’s somewhere between Hubble, TRON and an overzealous particle system.

Why you should care: The movement is gorgeous! Reminds me of surfing, with everything stripped out except that wonderful moment when you catch the break. In space. Try a prototype on their site.

Lovers In Dangerous Space Time
2 player co-op game where you and your lover protect your neon-asteroid-spaceship-home-thing from aliens, space rocks and the like.

Why you should care: I’m in love with co-op at the moment (side point, dear reader: have you ever played Space Team?) and this is a lovely implementation. What elevates this for me is the double layer of gameplay: shooting objects outside the ship while running around on the inside, FTL style. This kind of dual gameplay makes for hilarious multiplayer. Why? Because forcing players to communicate under pressure creates fun in the same way that typing with restrictions creates Scrabble (to quote Reality Is Broken). See also Space Alert.


Mar 02 , 2013

Lessons from First Person Pac-Man

First of all, go play it in a browser near you – it’s free on Kongregate.

It’s exactly what it sounds like – Pacman from a first person perspective with creepy atmospheric sounds. But look at how it completely changes the atmosphere! It’s a tense experience if you choose to engage with it, and a great case study in how point of view can pump up emotional resonance.

What does it isn’t the switch to 3D, it’s the way that switch reinforces the core emotion desired by the game. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is evocative even with its flat 100×16 pixel graphics because it used its mechanics to talk about some very real aspects of going through a normal life. Dys4ia used similar mechanical limitations to make you experience what it means to not fit in. Pacman works because fear, in this case, comes from limited information. “Will I be able to make it before ghosts catch me?” was the question in top down version. Restricting your field of vision adds “Where are those f*cking ghosts”, not to mention “Will they notice me as I creep up behind them.” (the A.I., isn’t). It’s the same trick Amnesia pulled with its water monster by making it invisible.

*briefly hyperventilates*

Seriously, it was quite terrifying.

So here’s the part I love. That emotional distance between 2D and 3D Pac Man is same disconnect you experience every time you discuss your product’s users without taking the time to step in their shoes, or emit a prejudiced opinion of a group of people you don’t really understand.

And just as a game designer can affect the player’s view on the game world, you can change yours in the real world. Some lenses you can affect:

  • Read up about NVC. Study cognitive biases
  • Find excuses to impartially observe people; maybe for your product, maybe for yourself. Learn to draw, photograph, write; these are things that give you ways to really look at the world and the folks in it
  • Study qualitative research methods. For example, if you have users, ask them to diary their world (there’s great tools for this). If you know someone who lives a different life, do it for each other.
  • Be hungry for good comparators. A recent favorite: Where Children Sleep, by James Mollison
  • Intern. Volunteer.
  • And of course, design games that put people in each other’s shoes. My recent favorite: Unmanned, by Molleindustria. This forces you to get down to the raw mechanics of others’ lives.

Change these mechanics, and you change how you understand the world. When you want to feel more emotion for the other, you can.


Feb 25 , 2013


Finally watched Connecting, a charming puff piece about the way the internet of things is turning us into a superorganism, featuring a whole bunch of great designers and design thinkers very smart folks who think critically about design. I spend a good few minutes each day paralyzed with awe at the surface area of human experience covered by individual well designed interactions, so I totally agree with the overall points presented.

But come on: is cliched music, talking heads and depth of field the best way to get these points across? The problem with this way of presenting information as that it takes a narrative that should begin with a concrete near future (mobile phones, haptics, wearables) and build to a pretty epic climax (the human superorganism), and compresses it into 20 minutes that all feel roughly the same. It washes over you, quite inspiringly, but it doesn’t leave you with a bridge to the world it describes.

Look at the way Bret Victor makes a relatively similar point (also this).

Specifics, that build up to a actionable points and techniques (build interfaces that use more of the human, help programmers visualize the state of their programs as they’re creating them). More importantly, a critical eye on the content used to illustrate his points; Connecting uses the Microsoft future concepts as fleeting decoration, while Bret builds a whole rant as a considered reaction to those same images.

Don’t just tell me there’s new ways of connecting people: show me how, give me numbers and choose imagery that makes me feel the scale of what you’re talking about.

Ai Weiwei – Remembering

Basset & Partners! I love that you took the time to make this film, and the folks interviewed are damn good at what they do, but it leaves me wanting the meat to go with the inspirational salad.


Feb 25 , 2013

Writing for thinking

My new personal mission: to write faster and more from the heart. I value writing most of all as a way to force myself to explore ideas fully, but I wonder often if it’s as effective as talking with another person, or just thinking in the shower or during a long walk. If the goal is to fully explore a problem space, it seems like pure hubris to say that the best way to cover ground is to type into Mars Edit or Sublime Text (or the synaesthetic musical text editor I’m working on – more on that later). Plus I’m a visual person – perhaps I should be diagramming arguments instead of rendering them into sequential text.

I dunno.

But one thing is for sure – it’ll be even worse if I try to turn every blog post into a thesis statement. So I’m going to try to lower my journalistic standards a little and focus more on speed. Expect more gut reactions to the things I care about: still games, still behavior change, still health.

We’ll see how it goes. I hope to be wrong more often, and in more interesting ways.


Feb 11 , 2013

The Murder Report

Ah – totally forgot to mention this a while back! Here’s the death toll from the game demos of this year’s E3 press conferences:

  • Microsoft: 87 human deaths, 49 non-human
  • Sony: 50 human deaths, 33 non-human
  • Nintendo: 13 human deaths, 33 non-human

Congratulations Microsoft, with 136 total on-screen deaths!


The Verge – Redesigning Google: How Larry Page engineered a beautiful revolution

Every designer we spoke to at Google repeated variations on the same message: “There’s not one person who’s the grand leader of design at Google,” Wiley says. Doronichev repeated the message: “We don’t have a single mastermind designer.” Google may not have a Jony Ive, but there is nevertheless a coherent process for laying out a design vision across all these multiple teams and platforms.

Doronichev says that “it’s all about teams iterating together and sharing information, and making sure we end up in a sweet spot where our design language is very similar, fits well into each platform, but at the same time keeps being Google.”

I’ve been reflecting lately on the difference between design as a profession and design as a quality of a product. There should theoretically be a one-to-one relationship between those two, but the reality is much fuzzier.

Engineers can happily take credit for a product being well engineered. But for it being well designed? I believe that if a designer has succeeded, the credit should go to the whole team.

There are many qualities of a “well-designed-product” that are clearly produced by both design and engineering (not even getting to other stakeholders).

A good product is:

  • User centered: Designers are taught user research to help unfuzz the fuzzy front end (remote research, ethnography, stakeholder interviews, card sorting, usability, etc…). But engineers hold the key to analytics, and are much closer to bug reporting. Putting those at the center of the design process gives a ruthless honest view of how users are using the product.
  • Prototyped & critiqued & iterated: Designers are taught to wireframe and comp; essentially visualize the possible future so it can be critiqued and stewarded towards reality. But engineers can prototype in code, which can unearth the feel of a product much faster (imagine trying to paper prototype Angry Birds), or help explore features that rely on very varying data (maps, charts,very dynamic layouts).
  • Responsive: A product’s responsiveness depends on its IA, animation, active states, copywriting, even tricks of perception created by its visual design. But the heart of it is the raw quality of its innards (just look at the speed of a search in Google vs Apple maps, or Siri vs Google Voice), and even those details like animation are often best explored in code. 
  • Clearly communicated: Designers may generate the visual design guidelines, but well specced out and accessible guidelines can be implemented across the board, particularly with web products.

There’s more, clearly, but I think these examples begin to clearly illustrate that a designer’s first job isn’t obsessive pixel domination. It’s to make it as easy as possible for every team member to care wholeheartedly for the product and lift it to the next level, detail by detail.

That means joint critiques, workshops, hackathons; clear communication of product goals so people know what needs to be improved, and why; good collaboration tools so people can easily impact the product without having to go through layers of approval; openness so everyone can see which features are where on the roadmap (and which were tried and failed).


Jan 21 , 2013

Your brain gamified itself first

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41).

I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about the wrong thing.

Can I buy a solution to that?

Herbert Simon coined the phrase ‘attention economy’ in reaction to the abundance of distractions of a newly information-rich world, but correctly harnessing attention has always been crucial. Organisms evolved to pay attention to the things that fuelled them, like plants ‘learning’ to face the sun or animals evolving neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine/epinephrine to help regulate attention. Our achievement now seems directly correlated with our ability to focus on the right thing at the right time.

Life is applied attention.

In health, information abundance manifests as the obesogenic environment that distracts us sick. And it’s not just our attention being drawn towards fatty and processed foods; a single healthy menu item can make us significantly more likely to order the double cheeseburger.

I spend most of my time thinking about ways to reprogram our attention system to improve health, and I’ve noticed two major camps. One, often tech focused, believes in sparing our attention. “If we can just create devices and software that will show you the right thing at the right time, we will naturally create better behavior. You won’t even realize you’re getting nudged.”

The other group is the polar opposite. “You should know yourself. Meditate. Learn mindfulness. Spend more time paying attention to what you pay attention to. Yes it’s hard, but you need to do it yourself.”

I find this dichotomy fascinating because both sides provide tremendous value. Willpower is limited, so the nudgers gift us with extra mental resources by restricting their intervention; but willpower is also a muscle, and this approach does little to strengthen it. The DIYers ask you to build new rituals into your life, which takes time and willpower in itself, but their approach lasts after the subtle nudges of an app or wearable device go away.

The nudgers succeed when you keep engaging with them despite their tricks, because the nudges themselves aren’t what you’re there for. The DIYers succeed when you begin self-consciously integrating their practices for their own sake, displacing other things from your life.

The nudgers succeed when they game your attention like derivatives traders in a commodities market*. DIYers stoically build your attention like Warren Buffet-patiently building a Berkshire Hathaway.

Here’s one for fans of the Wire. The nudgers are orchestrating an elaborate sting operation, while the DIYers are painstakingly improving the economic, social and legislative environment so that the criminals targeted by the sting never come into being.

So who do I pay for better attention?

I believe the ideal approach uses nudges in the short term to get people started with their behavior change, and in the (very) long term to design physical/economic/social/legal environments. For those changes to stick until we’ve changed our whole environment (good luck with that!), we need to incorporate mindfulness. It matters enormously because people who learn to direct their attention get better at directing their attention. It’s shockingly cumulative.

And nudges don’t teach you to direct your attention.

Unfortunately, the mindfulness approach faces several obstacles in product design discussions.

  • It’s plain harder on the user. Asking the user to do more means you have to give them more back. In general, it implies a smaller market, or at least a more precipitous drop off. All these things are scary if your business depends on sheer usage numbers.
  • It makes for less sexy & scalable business plans, because there is a perception that these solutions are harder to turn into products.
  • We don’t have the right tools to measure wellness (or willpower growth). It’s much easier to measure engagement.

The solution I want to buy is a hybrid. It uses an array of nudges to get me on the right path and then learn to become more mindful. It’s opinionated. It helps me measure my success. It’s candid when I’m going down the wrong path. It’s encouraging when I succeed. That success, however, is not in following the nudges, but rather in achieving the ability to create my own.

What do you think? Who is approaching the problem in this holistic way?

*A magician is to your attention what a derivatives trader is to a market. So is a designer, by the way.


Greg Canessa, VP of Activision Mobile on Swrve, the tech they’re using to track how players play their iOS games.

For example, in Skylanders: Cloud Patrol:

“certain powers could be balanced by letting a certain global region test one variant while another global region tests another. So, if the region where a lightning bolt attack is 50% more powerful is resulting in a huge mismatch of total points, that’s a good indication that the power may need rebalancing. The data will show this mismatch easily and changes can be made to the game without needing to release an official patch.”


Aug 29 , 2012

“That camera saved the project”

Great story about saving a doomed project with a… selective presentation.

“Tom started up the game, and started flying around, trying to avoid the obvious issues (like shooting your own wings off, or the planes flying backward).

“One of the execs threw out a tough question, designed to show how far over budget we were. Tom put down the joystick, and hit the `cool cam’ button. Then he turned around to answer the question. While he was answering the question, every eye in the room was on the screen as one amazing scene showed after another. I looked at the execs, and I swear, some of them were gaping.”

“I swear, that camera saved the project.”

Reminds me of the vertical slice Valve used to buy another year of development time for Half Life. Your project might be trouble, but there might still be enough small moments of greatness to tell a compelling story. And that might buy the time to bring the whole product to that level.

Can’t find those bits? Ruthlessly cut until you either find them or have a blank slate again.