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  Game Sketching with John Buchanan  
Posted 2007-05-28 by Tony Walsh
While on a working trip to Tasmania, I had the pleasure of meeting John Buchanan, Director of Carnegie Mellon's ETC in Adelaide, Australia. I participated in Buchanan's demonstration of a "Game Sketch" system he's working on with his students. Game sketching is a method of pre-prototyping the basic interactivity for the purposes of playing with game ideas. Although technology-independent, Buchanan and his students have developed a 3D tool where simple interactive systems and play modes can be toyed with. Using this tool, any simple 3D object can be made into a controllable game piece with rudimentary functionality. The tool is destined to be distributed free, without a license, from what I hear.

As with any kind of sketch, the purpose is to boil a concept down to its essence by removing distractions. The multi-user tool actually relies on live puppeteering and moderation--not unlike tabletop or live-action roleplay. In this way, play situations can be changed on the fly without downtime resulting from having to create new assets or scripts. The demonstration in Tasmania actually involved live performance (I played a ninja!) as a substitute for the tool, which was having trouble with limited network bandwidth. The experience was a bit similar to what I know as "paper prototyping" which often involves sketched elements moderated by a human controller.

I plan to add game sketching--without any kind of computer-based tool--to the game design courses I'm teaching. I already focus on a series of basic interaction design exercises, but I think sketching would be a useful bridge between these and full-fledged game prototypes. It's important for students to understand that good games boil down to good game play, regardless of presentation. Thanks, John, for introducing me to game sketching!
  Going Downunder May 14 - 26  
Posted 2007-05-14 by Tony Walsh
I'll be in various parts of Australia between May 14 - 26, lending my mentoring skills to the LAMP residential entitled "Story of the Future." Eight projects have been selected for expansion and development--I'm tentatively assigned to "Thursday's Fictions," a story-centric experience (based on a book and film by the same name) which asks participants to decide what they'd take with them if they had five minutes left to live.

Assuming the jet-lag doesn't strike me dead, I'll be speaking about "The Real, The Virtual and The Mixed" on Thursday, May 17 as part of "Mixed Reality, Branded Entertainment," a day of seminars hosted at the Museum of Sydney between 1 and 4pm.

Between May 20 and 25, I'll be working at the LAMP residential in beautiful Freycinet. I should have internet access during this time, but don't expect to be posting much (if at all) to Clickable Culture.
  Child Porn Panic Hits ‘Second Life’  
Posted 2007-05-10 by Tony Walsh
As recently reported in the Second Life Herald, Second Life Insider, and acknowledged by Linden Lab, German TV network ARD has revealed Second Life depictions of child porn to national viewers and authorities.

Linden Lab explained yesterday that it was contacted last week by ARD, which presented footage of an adult and child avatar "engaged in depicted sexual conduct." The virtual-world maker assured readers of its blog that both participants were adults, and were "immediately banned from Second Life." Apparently, an ARD reporter also found pictures inside the virtual world described as "sexual photographs involving a child," and ARD reportedly handed over the images to German authorities. Linden Lab's requests for the location of the photos in-world have not been responded to, according to the company's blog.

Continue reading: Child Porn Panic Hits ‘Second Life’
  IBM Rolls Its Own Virtual World  
Posted 2007-05-08 by Tony Walsh
IBM staffers have created their own metaverse, according to eightbar, a blog authored by staffers of the company's "Innovate Quick" team. IBM recently announced plans to roll out a high-powered server capable of running massive virtual worlds, and has been tinkering with Second Life for about a year.

The IBM-created virtual world was spurred by "a desire to have a more secure intranet environment where [the team] can meet and explore the potential technology and social implications," writes eightbar contributor Ian Hughes, adding that "We in the IQ team are certainly not trying to be Second Life. We are however using some of the elements of virtual presence, and examining the potential balance of content creation versus deployable content in a business context."

The company is using Garage Games' Torque Game Engine, a low-cost game platform supporting dozens of simultaneous users (about as many as a single Second Life area). Hughes writes that the team is integrating their Torque-based virtual world with existing IBM communications systems: "What we need is the ability to gather some people together and use the human aspects of the avatar interaction to be more effective in our communications."

Continue reading: IBM Rolls Its Own Virtual World
  Eat in a World Without Hunger, Drink in a World Without Thirst  
Posted 2007-05-07 by Tony Walsh
In the virtual world of Second Life, avatars aren't required to consume digital food or liquids. It's possible to force an avatar to "eat" or "drink," but the digital denizens lack a simulated nervous and digestive system--consumption is akin to playing "tea party."

As it happens, a few outside businesses have joined Second Life's "tea party" recently, bringing along artificial food, drink, and scent. Earlier this year, Calvin Klein made a stink with its ck IN2U perfume, reportedly showering avatars with "fizzing fragrance bubbles." Last month, Coke kicked off a "virtual thirst" campaign (but failed to complete the simulation with a virtual tooth-decay campaign).

Today, Kraft Foods and American TV personality Phil Lempert bring "Phil's Supermarket" to the virtual world, reports the Business Communicators of Second Life blog. According to Lempert's web site, users will be able to browse for over 100,000 products by the end of the summer, and "pre-shop" (but not "actually shop") for real-world items. This seems like a great way to collect data on the activity and preferences of potential customers, if anyone will bother to "pre-shop."

The greatest failure of "Phil's Supermarket" is that it requires users to go shopping twice. Who has time for that? I'd rather order groceries online using a web site--a superior tool for finding and buying real food I can actually eat. Throw in automatically-delivered Second Life equivalents to the web-ordered food, and you've now got a service that saves time and bridges both worlds.
  ‘Second Life’ Trademark Infringement Quantified  
Posted 2007-05-04 by Tony Walsh
In 2005, I wrote that Second Life intellectual-property infringements were rampant, but were largely unrecognized due to the virtual world's barriers to entry and separation from the web. In 2006, I noted that aside from the dramatic increase of outside businesses entering the virtual world, "Basically, the only thing that's really changed here is that the stakes are higher."

Today, Virtually Blind posted an unintentional follow-up, entitled "Rampant Trademark Infringment in Second Life Costs Millions Yearly, Undermines Future Enforcement." In the post, the virtual world's "dirty little legal secret" is quantified. After providing some examples of infringement, intellectual property attorney Benjamin Duranske finds that well over 1% ("probably closer to 3-5%") of in-world merchandise carries unlicensed trademarks--about 115,000 items in March, 2007, or about $2M USD in counterfeit transactions at a conservative estimate of $1.50 per item. Duranske notes that "businesses will need to begin paying close attention to the problem of trademark infringement in virtual spaces much sooner than they think, if they wish to avoid legal and practical difficulties later." Glad he added some numbers and simple examples in the mix, it illustrates the problem quite well--hop over to Virtually Blind for a read.
  ‘World of Warcraft’ Visa Rewards:  Free Game Time  
Posted 2007-05-04 by Tony Walsh
Phil Torrone of Make zine saw it coming last year: Major credit cards and MMOs linking real-world spending to virtual-world benefits.

Blizzard and Visa have introduced the World of Warcraft Rewards Visa, which racks up free Warcraft play time at a rate of 1% on purchases. The card is available in 13 different visual varieties, featuring the most popular races from the massively-popular online game, such as orcs and Night Elves. Sadly, it doesn't seem as though one's character name or visage is emblazoned on the card--that'd be the logical next step (and another Torrone prediction).
  School Authorities Arrest Teen Game Map Maker  
Posted 2007-05-02 by Tony Walsh
According to Fort Bend Now, a Chinese-American teenager who created a game map of his school has been "removed from campus" and placed in another educational facility. The president of the Fort Bend Chinese-American Voters League told Fort Bend Now that the teen was arrested by school police. The teen's house was reportedly searched with consent; the police found a hammer on-site, and decided the boy was a threat. No charges were filed, but the teen "won't be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies with classmates."

Fort Bend Now reports that "Speakers at the [school board's] April 23 meeting...drew a connection to the April 16 shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in which a Korean student shot and killed 32 people." The commentary on the story by Fort Bend Now web site readers is particularly interesting. Several commentators accuse the teen of bad judgment, something I completely disagree with. In my opinion, this is at the very least an overreaction with political motives, if not flat-out racism.

What the authorities in this situation don't seem to be aware of (or care about) is that it is not uncommon for gamers to reproduce familiar real-world environments as game maps, from offices to schools, to malls. If you want to learn how to create game content, it's easiest to start with locations you know well--it's the same mentality that goes into creating model railroad scenes which replicate one's town or neighborhood. It's fun to play a familiar game in a familiar setting, just as its fun to operate model trains in a familiar setting: We like to play with what we know. I don't think a gamer is any more likely to be a murderer than a model railroad hobbyist.
  Ypulse Interviews ‘Gaia Online’ CEO  
Posted 2007-05-01 by Tony Walsh
Ypulse has posted a brief interview with Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Online, a web-based community currently boasting 5 million registrants and a record concurrency of over 86,000 users. The entire interview is worth a read, but here are my take-away points:
  • Gaia Online forums represent 25% of community activity. Usage averages 1M posts daily, 1B posts created (since 2003).
  • Gaia Online's business model is based on sponsorships (integrated branding rather than billboard ads).
  • Gaia Online sells 2-3 virtual collectibles monthly at $2.50 USD each. This is a "key source" of revenue. Some real-world items for sale, such as "OMG" cap, based on virtual items, have been "really popular."
  • 85% of users have recommended Gaia Online to friends
  • International expansion of the service is planned.
  Integrated Media Festival Panel to Discuss ‘Digital Intimacy’  
Posted 2007-05-01 by Tony Walsh
I'll be a panelist on the topic of "digital intimacy" in Toronto next week as part of the 2007 Integrated Media Festival, a 1-day event produced by The Centre for Creative Communications. The panel, which discusses inhibition, relationships, and sexuality in the digital realm, also involves Amber MacArthur of CityNews/CP24 and Cynthia Loyst of Sextv. I'll be presenting for about 10 minutes on some of the ways intimacy is expressed in virtual worlds, and how pliable boundaries between public and private space in worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft touch the human beings behind the avatars.

The 90-minute panel begins at 1:30pm on May 7, 2007, at Revival Bar, 783 College Street West, Toronto. The event is free, and open to the public. A schedule of the entire day can be found here.
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