Toronto's Flash user group 'FlashinTO' held a public meeting last night that included brief presentations from a handful of local Flash designer/developers, including yours truly. Although I've been working the new media trenches here in Toronto for almost 15 years, and have been working with Flash since version 2, I'm way out of the loop in terms of who's doing what with Flash locally (aside from my clients and a few others). Glad to have had a chance to get a bit up to speed.
Other presenters included Andy Tipping of Mischief Media, Tim Willison of Oddly Studios, Tom George of DesignAxiom, and a dude who gave us a preview of an in-browser media viewer called "Radar." Good to be able to get a nice cross-section of what's going on around town, and meet some folks Flashing it up in Toronto.
I had the privilege and pleasure of mentoring 8 teams of talented and open-minded documentary filmmakers last week as part of the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies for BAVC in San Francisco. This is the second year in a row I've been invited down to share my game design experience with the Producers Institute. While last year was a fantastic experience as well, this year focused on projects acting as catalysts for real social change--this emphasis sets the Producers Institute apart from other cross-media labs and workshops I've participated in over the last couple of years.
Most of the work I do is commercially oriented, so it was a nice change of pace to work with people with a genuine interest in positive social impact. I spent most of my time consulting with Susana Ruiz (best known for creating Darfur is Dying) and her team--they're working on a game about the death penalty, imprisonment and flaws in the U.S. justice system. Not only is the game "about" these issues, but Susana's company Take Action Games specializes in actual results--what can a game motivate people to actually do? Darfur is Dying showed that game play resulted in communications sent to the U.S. government. It will be interesting to see what positive action this latest project will result in.
At the end of this week, I'll be flying from chilly Toronto to chilly San Francisco to reprise my role as a mentor for the Bay Area Video Coalition's "Producers Institute." Last year's institute brought teams of brilliant and enthusiastic documentarians together with a squad of knowledgeable mentors under the nurturing guidance of BAVC's staff to explore the intersections of linear narrative and designed interactivity--I expect this year to be just as productive and energizing.
The operator of the upcoming adult-oriented Age of Conan MMO intends to establish strict rules about role-playing on designated servers, according to an official community bulletin. This might be great news for role-play enthusiasts, but I have to wonder if AoC's operator has a plan to police and enforce its own proposed rules. Any such plan must involve human moderators at some point along the chain (software isn't smart enough for the job), which is an awfully costly investment in role-playing, if you ask me.
Names from outside the 'Conan' universe (as in, from another fantasy universe, such as Pokemon) are not allowed. Names from inside the 'Conan' universe (such as Conan) are also not allowed. Neither are derivatives or sound-alike names. Out of character chat is to be "avoided." Making fun of role-players is not allowed. Using role-play to justify immersion-breaking actions and exploits is not allowed. Interfering with in-progress community-driven role-playing events (such as a wedding) is not allowed.
These rules are setting the game operators up for major headaches. A good rule is one which doesn't need to be discussed--it's simply incontrovertible. These are bad rules. Not only do they require human supervision, they are open to interpretation. Who's going to moderate player names, and when will that moderation occur? How much out of character chat is acceptable, and when is it acceptable to speak OOC. What if the sight of weddings drives my character into a berserker rage--isn't it about my immersion, too? What if my entire clan of players has an in-character grudge against that wedding?
Unless the rules are tightened up, enforced transparently, frequently and consistently, the whole system's going to spiral out of control. Transparent enforcement (i.e. we see who was busted for what, and how the policing or punishment was carried out) and frequent enforcement are expensive. Consistent enforcement is sure to be a joke--I can't even go to a bank and get the same answer about the same question from 5 different tellers.
Andrei Petrov wrote in to tell me that GameCamp Toronto 2 will be held Saturday, May 3, 2008 at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Billed as "Toronto's game development showcase," the free event is aimed at "indie game developers, professionals and aspiring students." I'm sure the organizers didn't mean to suggest that "indie" and "professional" are mutually-exclusive terms.
I didn't attend GameCamp 1, but Ryan Creighton did, and posted a brutally honest review about his experience. Here's hoping that the GameCamp folks learned something from their debut event--I already know they're trying to do a better job of publicity, which suggests they're aware of the earlier problems and are trying to correct them. Nothing wrong with errors if they teach you something.
The film is satirical in tone, but actually, worlds like Second Life which allow user-created content and real/virtual currency exchange are viable places for hiring out "sweatshop" labor, depending on what sort of work product you're looking for.
So-called "camping chairs," which pay Second Life users to linger in specific locations (known as "camping" in gamer parlance), pay a very low wage to workers in North America and Europe, but could actually provide a decent income in some countries. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that most Chinese gold farmers make under $0.25 USD per hour. The sweatshop featured in Invisible Threads pays in virtual currency equivalent to $0.90 USD hourly.
Indie warlord Jim Munroe informed his mailing list today that his Artsy Games Incubator is holding an open house in Toronto at the Mobile Experience Lab on Wed. April 23rd at 7pm. Writes Jim, "there'll be short presentations of the games we made using accessible tools... we're also inviting people in the indie games community at large to bring their games-in-progress to demo -- and no, you don't have to identify as an artist." Yes, but how do we define "indie?" And what if I'm not indie but I'm making an artsy game?
The third installment of the Toronto Game Jam was announced to mailing list members today. Registration is now open for the frantic game-making event, which runs May 9 - 11, 2008. From the call-out: "It's FREE and open to anyone in the world with a modicum of game making ability. Coders! Artists! Designers! Musicians! All are welcome." Sounds like fun, if you can stay up for 72 hours straight.
Lastly, the Second Skin virtual world documentary will make its Toronto debut on April 21 and 23. I make a 15-second appearance in the film, so I'm totally biased when I insist that you go see it--more importantly, help the filmmakers get the word out to local media so that the uninitiated flock to the film in droves.
Nothing to do at the airport right now except wait for the bar to open and blog, so here goes: I'm on my way back home from the 2008 Virtual Worlds Conference held in Manhattan. Overall, I think it was a worthwhile trip--next year will be more so once Phantom Compass is able to talk about and demo some of its projects.
Meeting the people behind the avatars. Some extremely friendly and fun gatherings.
1,200 attendees compared to 400 last year. Impressive.
Huge, mainstream business interest in virtual worlds, social spaces, casual games this year. It seemed like there were lots of potential clients in the crowd for those working in VWs and related industries.
Major interest in VWs for kids from numerous parties.
Sponsored panels resulted in a lack of diverse and interesting viewpoints. I didn't pay $600 watch an infomercial.
Weak moderation in most panels--to quote Star Wars, "Stay on target... stay on target..."
Weak speakers in more panels than I would have liked--unfocused, self-promotional, dull. Boooo.
Same speakers on multiple panels (in a few cases). There's no good reason for this.
Beginner-level subject-matter in most panels. Nothing for pros to do here except network.
Most players in the kiddie-world space aren't doing anything interesting. Everyone's building consumer-driven, status-based spaces--buy your way up the social ladder.
Despite the low points, it's likely I'll go again next year. Definitely to the meetups if not the conference itself. I'll be interested to see how VWC evolves--will attendance continue to grow? For the next year or two, almost definitely. Beyond that, who knows. This internet thing is just a crazy fad.
Probably someone out there's already mentioned this, but the Google Docs spreadsheet application shares a few features with virtual worlds. I've been using the Google Docs quite a bit lately to work with my distributed team, and the spreadsheet seems to really shine in terms of worldy potential. Here are the features:
Controlled multi-user environment: Simultaneous usage by multiple persons. Access is controlled by the person who created the spreadsheet--users can be set as collaborators or just viewers.
Presence indicators: All users sharing the spreadsheet are informed of the presence of others in the form of a chat window, temporary notifications, and a mobile avatar (see next point).
Real-time text chat: Plus voice if you use Skype.
Unique, mobile avatars: Each user is represented by a uniquely-colored outline on an individual spreadsheet cell. A simple avatar, but distinct, and user-controlled. It can move around the spreadsheet.
Spatial relationships between users: My avatar can be beside, above, or below yours.
User-generated content: All Google gives you is a blank spreadsheet. The users add the content. I don't think it's possible to add proper graphics to a spreadsheet, but it is possible to color a cell and to add colored text to a cell. It is also possible to lock rows and columns, which could provide a visual effect.
Dynamic content: It's a spreadsheet, so it's possible to put formulas into cells which rely upon and affect other cells.
Inhabitable zones: A spreadsheet can have multiple pages ("sheets"), allowing users in the same spreadsheet to occupy distinct areas--each area is visible only as a tab until clicked, allowing a mild degree of privacy, and a sense of "travel" between sheets.
Persistent world: A Google spreadsheet endures over time--it is a "live," changeable, but persistent environment which remembers its state after the users have logged out.
Communication with outside world: Users can opt to be notified by email when the spreadsheet has been changed, on a global, sheet, or cellular level. I believe a Google Doc can also be embedded in a web page.
Certainly a Google spreadsheet is not a fabulous virtual world, but I see potential for socializing and play there. The barriers to entry are definitely very low, and content creation is easy, too.
[Update1: added real-time chat to the list. Update2: added spatiality to the list.]
As I mentioned during a recent SXSW panel, one of the shortcomings of MMOs is a lack of meaningful personal history (i.e. the world doesn't remember you). Sean Duncan provides earlier thoughts on a similar note, quoting a piece by a WoW Insider writer.
Matteo Bittanti: "There is a growing interest in capturing the essence of gameplay as a performance, gameplay as it is manifested on the faces and bodies of 'those who play'..." I'm thinking about game-faces as unconscious storytelling devices...
Handsome, fit men in brightly-colored tights. What's not gay about 'City of Heroes?' Blurb about indie forum catering to CoH's GLBT community (a community officially recognized and supported by the game's publisher).
From the abstract for Jeremy Douglas' dissertation on Interactive Fiction: "...aesthetic and technical developments in IF... are analyzed in terms of language... narrative theory... game studies / ludology... and filmic representation..."
Imprisonment and in-world punishment as a recurring story in MMOs. Proposition: Let's put troublemakers in prison. Response: I'd do crimes just to see what prison was like. See: Second Life cornfield .
Garneau: "What’s the subtext of your game? What is it really about?" A good question for designers, but a better one posed to players. An easier question to answer for simpler video games--Pac Man is easier to explain than Paper Mario, isn't it?