Global Game Industry News Blog

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whither Mario Factory?: The Downside to Academic Publishing

I've been sitting on this material for a while. Many of my informants would recognize it as coming from back in 2006 when I was passing the PDFs around Vicarious Visions. Starting in 2008, the essay has been reviewed well and reviewed poorly and still not accepted. One interesting thing has been that despite good reviews it has even been rejected, told to go to something more "New Media" or "Game Studies." One of those notes came from a journal with "New Media" in its name, but I digress. So while I'll continue to push its publication through, the empirical material is simply too interesting to keep closed off from view as I await further feedback. Thus, some excerpts from an as-of-yet unpublished manuscript, "Whither Mario Factory?"

On Halloween of 1994 Nintendo filed for a series of patents that were later granted between the years 1997 and 2000. This essay refers to them more homogeneously as "Mario Factory" (Hibino and Yamato, 1994; Yamato et al., 1994a; Yamato et al., 1994b). This sequence of documents describe a videogame development, testing, and manufacturing system designed specifically for hobbyists and users to enjoy the creative possibilities of developing games for console videogame systems. Many of the systems and ideas described in the documents have not yet come to market for licensed Nintendo game developers and certainly not for the general player or hobbyist game developer.

Mario Factory, at its core, was about creating, not only the possibility of (co)creative content creation for console video games, but an entire set of tools by which users could begin (co)creating games. Figure 1 depicts a splash screen from this hypothetical device. While the patent seems to specifically target less technically inclined would-be videogame developers, it was also stated that these same tools would prove as productive prototyping and testing systems for more experienced videogame developers.

This invention relates generally to a method and apparatus for generating unique videographic computer programs. More particularly, the present invention relates to a video game fabricating system designed primarily for users who are unfamiliar with computer program[ing] or video game creating methodology. Such users may conveniently create a unique video game through and icon driven, interactive computing system that permits a video game to be executed, stopped, edited, and resumed from the point where the editing began with the editorial changes persisting through the remainder of game play.
In accordance with the present invention, unique video games may be simply created by users ranging from a relatively unsophisticated elementary school students to sophisticated game developers. A unique hardware and software platform enables users to create original games by selecting icons which access more detailed editor screens permitting the user to directly change a wide variety of game display characteristics concerning moving objects and game backgrounds. (Yamato et al., 1994a53)

As early as 1994, Nintendo was critically aware of the complexity associated with videogame development practices and the kinds of interdisciplinary creative collaborative practice that is necessary for success. While their patent hints at perhaps a declining collaboration between engineer, artist, and designer, it seems to be more about creating tools that foster effective collaborative practice between those groups.

Mario Factory was, in effect, a DevKit for the masses. This approach hints at a very different possibility than one that is currently experienced by game developers. DevKits were introduced so that game developers could create games for consoles where the hardware differed significantly from that of PC's. Nintendo developed technologies to bridge the gap between the PCs, where code was typically written, and the consoles, which ran the compiled code.

Hibino, T. & Yamato, S. (1994). U.S. Patent No. 5599231. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Assignee: Nintendo Co., Ltd.
Yamato, S. et al. (1994a) U.S. Patent No. 5680534. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Assignee: Nintendo Co., Ltd.
Yamato, S. et al. (1994b) U.S. Patent No. 6115036. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Assignee: Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Consequences of Vilification: The Decline of CS and "Security"

[Cross Posted from Shambling Rambling Babbling]

I wrote a post just about a year ago on how "Hackers and Hombrewers are NOT Pirates." Like most of what I post to the web, it serves little more than to remind me later of the evolution of my thoughts on particularly relevant research interests. Like beer. Recently however, there has been a resurgence of commentary/thought on the decline of computer science programs. Though I now consider myself primarily a "historically inclined cultural anthropologist who studies cooperative work, with game development and the game industry as my primary lens," I began my secondary education as a computer science and mathematics major with women's studies and sociology as the instruments that later led me to graduate school.

What follows is my analysis of recent reports on how, "Lack of Programming Skills Puts U.S. Security at Risk," and the "gender gap in perception of computer science," [the actual report] are a product of a continual assault on the "hacker," "the tinkerer," and "hobbyist" more generally in our culture. To which I first say, "serves us right, what you reap, you sow." Having gotten that off my chest, I'll attempt to be a bit more constructive with what follows...

The problem is really two fold. One, perhaps most directly is indexed by Douglas Rushkoff, that:

"In a computing marketplace where altering one's iPhone will 'brick' its functionality and where user improvement to programs is treated as an intellectual-property violation, it's no wonder we have adopted the attitude that our technology is finished and inviolable from the minute it has been purchased."

Is that we are both culturally and legally discouraged from tinkering or hacking our devices. I actually index some of these ideas as rooted in the history of the videogame industry, in an upcoming article in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. This should actually worry us more than simply the realm of computer science. These issues are crucial for other areas as well, and foundational to the videogame industry. When I write in my TWC Essay that, "The importance of, the desire for, or the drive to understand underlying systems and structures has become fundamental to creative collaborative practice." This fundamental drive is being subverted by things like the DMCA and our desire for smooth technologies that encourage us to not play. So, that is certainly part of it.

The second aspect I think speaks more clearly to the decline of CS and interest by students. It is the "boring" or "nerd" factor. Now, admittedly, I am a died in the wool nerd. I don't fight that. I continually geek out, but that is the product of interest and passion.

For example, boys tended to use words such as “design,” “games,” “video,” etc., with more frequency than girls. By contrast, the secondary words used by the girls tended to take on a more negative tone—with “boring,” “hard,” and “nerd” being used more frequently.

I'm just going to come out and call a spade a spade. Yes, Fibonacci is a useful tool for teaching recursion. Yes, palindromes are a useful way to teach the utility of stacks. Yes, string parsing and number crunching are the primary things one does in computer science, but these are means to an end. These things are f-ing boring to an incoming student. Most don't see the link between these concepts and their application. Remember, so many college students have not been taught to think in the US educational system. They've been taught to memorize and there is no way to memorize the solution to a complex problem or design. So much of CS is design and problem solving, it is thinking about elegance and functionality. It is in short, interesting. But instead most CS programs start with teaching the uninteresting parts instead of giving students a glimpse of the possibilities.

"[O]ne needs to look at other factors that are turning off these young people. Why isn’t a high school interest in computer science translating into enrollment in college computer science classes?"

I taught a class full of men and women in a non-programming class to use Löve to create interactive graphics and even a few games emerged. They all got into it. Into programming. When they wanted to do things beyond their skills I then started telling them about data structures, string parsing, and number crunching. Start with the fun. That is what drives students away and gets nerds like me labeled such.

All of those other disciplines that students pursue have geeks that live within them. The geeks and nerds are those that geek out, that find passion and interest burried within the often tragically boring ways in which concepts are taught.

However, time and again, especially in the context of technology, we are encouraged or legally forced to not ask questions and look for the underlying systems and structures that make things work. Could you imagine if a student in med school when asking about how a particular device functioned, lets say a dializer for example, if the teacher responded with, "well, that is covered by the DMCA, so I don't know and we cannot find out. Just assume that dirty blood goes in and clean comes out alright?"

Tragically, my favorite computer company seems to be one of the most guilty parties in this regard. Batteries sealed in laptops and non-user replacable hard drives in "pro" laptops. Tower macs are of course much more "openable," but the laptop is on the rise. Even my favorite cell phone is marred by the fact that it is so thoroughly closed. The software APIs are open but I cannot even interface with it without the use of its dock.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thus an Experiment Begins: Programmer Art

I've been prototyping quite a few different game designs recently and have been struggling with not having place-holder graphics that give enough sense of the overall aesthetic of a game concept. Boxes, lines, and colors are useful to an extent, but I've wanted something more before I start recruiting people to help me out with the art side. Plus, there are all sorts of technological issues associated with transitioning to real art created by talented artists that are already taxed for time that I would rather not put off.

Thus, began my new experiment. I started thinking about how much time I invest in the tools that make me a better programmer, designer, writer, etc. What I realized was that I had not put much time or energy into the tools and software that I was using to create art. I use Mellel for writing, TextWrangler for many text editing things, Versions for SVN management, Omnigraffle for diagrams, Bookends for bibliographic and research material, Evernote for research and archival, ScreenFlow for software demonstrations, and even a special program for using Gmail, Twitter, etc. Now, I will cut myself a bit of slack, because I long ago invested in Pixelmator for image editing, but I use only a fraction of its capabilities.

So, I have begun testing out graphics creation and editing tools. Some for bitmap graphics, some for vector graphics, etc. But I've also invested in a small "Bamboo" Wacom tablet. It only makes sense to invest in my tools, right? I ought to pay as much attention to how I'm going about creating graphics as I'm going about selecting a new graphics library. So, I'm going to document the process here. Now of course, I'm tweaking things a bit here. Obviously based on the above software selection, you can tell I don't immediately go for the Microsoft/Adobe solutions, but I try to support independent developers first. Often I find much "sharper" tools as I term them.

So, first on the docket are a selection of indy graphics tools before I launch into those "other" programs, unless I find the cat's meow first!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Java? Really?

I recently came upon an article, "Java looked upon as the hottest prospect," to which I thought, "Java? Really?" In a world of AJAX, Ruby, Perl, Python, Lua, and numerous others, Java is still a topic? I know that Java is in wide use on the server side in many places and in many embedded devices like J2ME on cell phones. To quote the article:

Part of the reason, this person says, is that Oracle believes it can make far more from Java than Sun ever did. That is because Sun decided a decade ago virtually to give the software away to make sure it was widely adopted. Many of the Java licences - including one that Sun granted to Nokia - were for 10 years and come up for renewal next year, implying that, in future, Oracle will look to extract a higher price for the technology.

But, if the price is too high, many of these companies may go the way of Apple or Netbook makers and simply begin making devices closer to real computers. Then they can run Linux variants and full blown application development environments. Java was a magic platform bullet, that failed to really arrive, and even on J2ME devices platform variations plague development. What does Java really do that cannot be accomplished with the combination of other technologies? I don't think very much.

What really amazed me about the article was that the real punch line was left for the final paragraph of the article, a mistake that I beat out of my students early in their classes with me. Never, ever, hide the real punch line.

The final big software prize is MySQL, the open-source database program Sun bought last year for $1bn. Oracle's databases handle more massive workloads, but MySQL has been adopted rapidly by next-generation web companies looking to save on cost. With Oracle in charge of MySQL, it could reap revenue from related services contracts while ensuring that the programme does not develop into a more serious rival product.

Yes, MySQL is a much bigger prize than Java. Duh.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Everyday Lives of Videogame Developers

So, I know that my article over at Transformative Works and Cultures, "The everyday lives of video game developers: Experimentally understanding underlying systems/structures," has been live for a while now, but I have yet to blog it. It's a nervous tick I have about my work I guess. I like to see a little more reaction after the fact. It also doesn't help that I was in pre-GDC chaos, which I have now returned from. Anyway, the article is indeed live and can be reached at:

O'Donnell, Casey. 2009. "The Everyday Lives of Videogame Developers: Experimentally Understanding Underlying Systems/Structures." Transformative Works and Cultures 2

The editors and reviewers at TWC were excellent and I'd recommend that other scholars of new media look at it as a venue. I was quite impressed with their process. They have also really mastered OJS, the Open Journal System. Between reviewing for New Media and Society and working with TWC, I've gained a lot of insight into using it and am now trying to mobilize that for Cultural Anthropology. TWC is an Open Access journal, so for numerous reasons I really appreciate what they're doing.

There have been a few folks who have commented on it and I really appreciate the email feedback that I've gotten thus far. When you send these things out into the aether-web, you never know if anyone reads them or how they find them. A couple of other blog posts out there have mentioned the collection and my essay in different ways. Here are some of the spots that have noted the special issue thus far:

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No Popcap Developer Framework Love for the Rest of Us

I'm working on another post related to my efforts on finding useful frameworks and tools chains to use in my classes and independent game development here in Athens, GA. That is a longer post, but this seemed important enough to be its own post. I recently found the Popcap Developer Framework, which for independent 2D game development looks really exciting. It is my understanding that this framework was used in the development of games like World of Goo and of course many ofPopcap's games. What a boon to the community I thought! Then I clicked the download button, which sends me the following message:

You do not have access to this page.
You must be logged in to before downloading files

To which I dutifully clicked the "Register" link, which returns the following:

Sorry, registration has been disabled by the administrator.

I've sent several messages through the "contact us" link with no reply. I have found the alternative Tuxcap port of the library, but it is a little sad to see such a great community boon lost to the non-responsive industry ether that pervades in many cases. Of course I can't ask the question on thePopcap developer forum because registration is closed. Thus I cry my tears into the Internet ether.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Media and Society Essay: Free/Open Game Development

I decided over the weekend that it was high-time to move my old essay from Flow TV, "The Wii-volution will not be Televised" into the academic arena. In particular it was several recent (not so recent now) articles about Sony "opening" up the PS2 that seemed to push me over the edge. While I have not decided upon a particular venue for this essay yet, though my initial estimation is with New Media and Society.

In part this was due to watching several people at conferences in my relatively recent past talk about precisely what I had written, as if it hadn't ever been mentioned before. I have actually written about it twice now, once in Flow TV and once in my dissertation, but if my words fall in the forest and no one is listening, apparently it doesn't really make a sound or matter.

So, with that in mind, I've decided that given the significant amount of data that I have already gathered on this particular topic that I need to update and think a bit more about. Not to mention that I've seen a handful of recent articles about how Sony is "opening" up PS2 development. At this point I remain largely unconvinced. That isn't to say that a lot has changed in the last couple of years. However, most of the "open" consoles require either the same old licencing/NDA crap (Wii-Ware) or they largely lock you into proprietary languages and tool-chains (XNA Express on the Xbox 360 or the iPhone). I am continually bothered by the "same old stuff" being talked about as open or different, because it certainly isn't. I cannot go to a Sony web page and download an SDK for the PS2. I don't blame Sony for this, but I don't expect to be downright lied to.

Then there is probably the most insidious, which I have to wonder if it will ultimately rear its head in the upcoming Global Game Jam, is the use of proprietary NDA covered technologies that ultimately prevent education and industry wide learning andadvancement . Sony has "opened" the PSP or PS2 in such a fashion here in the US, but those agreements specifically go against any sort of pedagogical ideal that learning is connected with sharing and collaboration.

Still mulling, but pulling things together.

Labels: , ,

Digital Distribution and the Death(?) of Rentals and Sharing

I have been thinking a great deal lately about what the rise of digital distribution means for the videogame industry. I have also been thinking about what it means, culturally, for videogamers. It is something I've been thinking about for a long time, because I've heard many game developers talk about how much videogame rentals and videogame resale hurts developers by depriving them of much more frequently needed funds.

I have also been thinking about my childhood, growing up as a moderate gamer who went on to be both part of the videogame industry, but also that academic industry that now generates people capable of thinking critically about and creating videogames. Seems like those aspects of the industry that encouraged me to pursue work in the videogame industry might have influenced others to do so as well.

One of those experiences was riding my bike to the video rental store where if I rented a game on Friday afternoon, I could keep it until Sunday morning. For a working class family without a lot of money, $4.00 for a weekend of fun was much more manageable than $40-50 for a game that I may or may not play for more than a weekend. My friends and I also took games over to one another's houses. It was a chance to see different games and play them for a short while. It was also an opportunity to perhaps demonstrate how far you had progressed in a game.

Now, here I am in 2009, thinking about all of those Wii-ware games and Xbox Live Arcade games that I have downloaded to my consoles. None of these games are sharable. I couldn't take an SD card over to a friends house and show them how great Lost Winds is. I could take my Wii over, which doesn't seem so daunting, but dragging a bulky Xbox 360 or PS3 seems another story. Not to mention that it just doesn't make that much sense. Of course I understand that with digital distribution comes the possibility of piracy, but what I'm talking about isn't that. It is a shared gaming experience of gaming with others.

Rentals become even more problematic. Presumably digital distribution means reduced costs and an opportunity for developers to sell games for less and sell more. I understand that many developers see videogame rentals as lost revenue, but that really isn't true. As a kid, I COULDN'T have bought any of those games. Perhaps instead my parents would have given me $4.00 per week to save for a new game. This would have meant that I could play 5-6 games per year instead of many. Playing all of those games gave me the background and vocabulary to be a game developer. Not having it would have meant my trajectory would have been very different.

So while I read articles saying that, "Digital content is the fastest-growing portion of the videogame industry," I have to wonder what the consequences of that will be ultimately.

Labels: , ,