Today, I get a full five minutes to share at RemakeCamp about lessons I’ve learned from working on Mediactive.com. I plan on talking about principles for selecting good tools for citizen journalists. People at this thing are way smarter than me, so I’ll probably learn more than I share.
In other news, I’ve started a journalism tech podcast with @chcameron. It’s appropriately named JTech Weekly. Well, it hasn’t been entirely weekly, so the name is somewhat appropriate now, but will achieve full appropriateness as we meet our goal of weekliness. If you get a chance, give a listen and give feedback at the cast’s site. It’s brand new, so the more critique, the better.
- Serious Games Summit as it overlaps well with newsPlay and democratized media topics.
- Soren Johnson keynote as the discussion of meaning emerging from rules rather than theme is an important topic for anyone interested in newsgames.
- Some of the social games talks (especially interested in the Zynga talk for lots of reasons, including that crazy Haiti charity story. I really want to see who’s steering that ship).
- Some of the games writing sessions as I’m always interested in how creative writing can apply to explanatory style.
Lately, I’ve been turning my ears to Another Castle, a series of interviews with exceptional games thinkers. The interview with Heather Chaplin in particular makes an amazing clarification that resolves one of my questions about the relationship of videogames to journalism. Chaplin’s comments target a common mistake people make when examining James Gee’s suggestions about games in education. She says this (at the 40-minute mark):
I’ve interviewed [James Gee] a bunch of times and one of the things people mistake about his work, because his book is called What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, people think he’s advocating the use of videogames as teaching, but really what he’s saying is that videogames and the way that people play with them is a model for learning that the education system could learn from, which is a very different thing from saying we should start pumping videogames into the classroom…It’s more saying look at how people learn while they’re playing videogames. Something’s going on there that we could learn from.
I see the same two approaches showing up with games and journalism:
- Do we pump games into the paper and turn journalism into games?
- Or, do we learn from what’s going on with people playing games and apply that to news?
Here’s the thing, I think both are valid approaches and would fit into Dave Cohn’s metaphor that any experiment in journalism right now is a plank in the water that we may use for building the raft.
On the first point, you have things like Persuasive Games‘ news/editorial games, which actually inspired me to start this blog in the first place. However, matching development process and time of games with that of regular news delivery is still a large challenge (this learned partially from personal experience). Experiments with newsgames are still important/worthwhile and they are especially well-covered by the News Games blog out of Georgia Tech’s Knight-funded research project dedicated to studying the relationship between videogames and journalism. While many of the posts evaluate specific games, there are more than a few that point out the gamification of the news.
Gamification of the news is what point two is about. The Unity3d blog had an interesting post about 2010 being the gamification of everything. The basic thought being that everyone’s going to start picking up on what sites like Foursquare and TheSixtyOne have been up to. That is, using quests, goals, rewards, points and social activity to stimulate engagement. 2010 is a good guess with smart mobile devices, geo location and social media all crashing into each other right now. If 2010 really is the gamification of everything, than my cynical side wants to guess that gamification of legacy media will be occurring somewhere mid-2011. We’ll should see some good planks in the water here and there though.
If you’re coming to game development with a journalist background, chances are you’re looking for other skilled individuals who can supplement your programming and art skills (or lack thereof). This puts one in the dangerous place of being the “idea guy.” Purely “idea guys/gals” scare off the digitally talented for obvious reasons. They show up with an idea (something quite common and of dubious value) requesting code and artwork (things of very literal value, but which many people don’t like paying for). Frequent requests can look like the following:
- “I have an idea for a game called Gentrification Rumble. I need a team.“
- “I need someone to teach me Flash.”
- “I would like to feature a game about water sanitation in my publication. I need several developers and an artist. It doesn’t pay, but you will have a product for your portfolio.”
This “idea guy” problem recently showed up as a topic on the Kongregate forums (some of those examples are near copies of posts gathered by Ringer). A typical pattern emerges. Idea folks show up on the Collaboration forum, pitch their idea, other idea folks encourage them, legit folks ignore them or send them to tutorials, and it usually goes nowhere. Now, the real issue is that ideas can be stimulating when you have them and you usually want to get feedback and bounce them around during this early idea stage. However, the excitement of the unskilled can clog a good forum with unrealized dreams. Few will follow up on learning new skills to execute their idea, but in the end, sending someone to a tutorial can be the best way to find out if they’ll actually work hard to see their idea come to fruition. So, rather than handing out fish one at a time in the form of tutorials, one Kongregator suggested a master list where idea guys could learn to fish themselves. This was a good idea and while something may be similar elsewhere, I jumped at the chance to develop one of my own.
Below, I’m pasting my first draft of where to start to self-educate in Flash game development. Some sections need to be rounded out a bit and I want to craft this into a list beyond Flash and more tailored to those coming from journalism and other generalist domains. Being a generalist myself, I figure what I find useful will be useful to others of my ilk. Enjoy and please critique:
Where to Start with Flash Game Development When You Don’t Know Where to Start:
Assuming you’re interested in jumping into Flash and Actionscript, there are several places to start.
- The getting started tutorials that ship with Flash itself aren’t bad. While not game-centric, they’ll introduce you to the development environment, motion, tweening, the timeline and some basic scripting. This is a good foundation for jumping into game tutorials
- Kongregate has an entire section dedicated to tutorials as well as a great intro package for developing a shooter, appropriately name the Shootorial.
- Actionscript.org has an excellent collection of tutorials on best practices in AS3 as well as a wealth of scripting tutorials.
- The TIGSource forums have an excellent section for tutorials all aimed at developing games.
- If you learn from video, you might want to check out Lynda.com’s Actionscript Games and Particle Effects courses (the first chapter on Actionscripting a shooter is free to non-subscribers).
- Finally, for a foundation in the concepts of programming, Code Warrior: Principles of Programming is considered one of the best. It’s hard to find even used copies for sale, but a pdf version is up on scribd here.
When it comes to developing as a digital artist, there are a couple directions you may have to investigate. One, is the principles of art itself and the other is using the software to create art.
- For flash gaming, you should investigate vector art and know how that’s different from bitmap images (Lynda offers a good explanation here in the video “What are vector graphics?“).
- Kongregate’s tutorials section has many tutorials on approaches to art and creating game characters and backgrounds.
- The TIGfourms’ Tutorials section has tutorials on 2D, 3D and pixel artwork.
- Lynda.com is a top-notch teacher when it comes to digital art and software. If you’re serious about developing as a digital artist, the monthly subscription amount is worth the money and much cheaper than taking a real-life class. Initial videos in any course are free to view and will give you a good idea of the training style. Flash and Illustrator courses would be the good jumping off spot.
- (Need some good links for foundational art concepts)
Music, sound effects and possibly voice comprise the audio bits you may want to create for a game. While free audio files are to be found online, you’ll need to learn recording and editing to begin developing your own. Here are some places to start:
- Even though it’s aimed at radio and not games, Transom.org still has some of the best introductory articles for editing audio. This is due to the site’s focus on the complete amateur. Within the Tools section there, you’ll find excellent intros to the concepts of digital audio as well as how to start editing audio files. While there are articles on ProTools, tutorials on Audacity may be the best start for a newbie. For one, Audacity is free and it’s paired down to the most important tools for the job. Audacity will work well for editing voice and grabbing sound effects from larger files, but not very well for music. However, this may be a way easier learning curve before jumping into music. Here are three specific articles to check out:
- (Need some good links for music)
I want to share three games that affected me in good ways when I played them. I’m not yet sure exactly why. Each is simple and can be played in a short sitting. All have unique gameplay and barely breach the threshold for “game.” It may be that they each deal with relationships in their own way. Though “relationships” is a rather broad term and even Mario and the block he breaks have a certain “relationship.” So, “interpersonal relationships” may be the element I’m looking for. Getting more specific would add unnecessary spoilers to each game’s experience.
The combination of these elements would also make for a decent newsgame:
- Simplicity with a short play session
- Unique gameplay or gameplay that centers on a single approach, avoiding unnecessary distraction
- Telling a bigger story through the relationships of it’s subjects
(Of course, this isn’t the formula for all games delivering news; it’s just a combo that I believe would work well.)
Jason Rohrer‘s Passage may take a moment to figure out, but discovering the gameplay is part of the process. I won’t say more. Just jump in and enjoy.
Daniel Benmergui‘s poetic puzzler just won an award as part of a trilogy at Indiecade last month. It’s hard not to be charmed by this one and the award isn’t surprising.
Gregory Weir tells a very different type of story from the first two games, but engaging in its own way. This one is more about motives and misunderstanding, but that’s my take. Weir also has a blog/podcast worth checking out on using games for purposes beyond entertainment (not that entertainment isn’t a high goal in itself).
Following yesterday’s Knight News Challenge post, I wanted to feature this useful interview with Knight’s Gary Kebbel by the Nieman Lab. The main thought is that some applicants try too hard to recreate ideas they’ve seen win in previous years when Knight is looking to support new and different things (usually).
If you’re interested in the News Challenge, check it out here.
Just sat through a conversation with Cronkite folks and David Cohn of Spot.us. His site was a winner of the Knight News Challenge and the majority of the conversation centered around questions from people applying for this year’s grant. As the Challenge application is due October 15th, Dave’s thoughts are timely. Let me paraphrase what I found useful:
1. Brevity is key and your idea should be clear in your first paragraph. For example, don’t start with, “We’re in the midst of a rapidly changing media landscape.” Dave referred to this as “throat clearing.” It helps to get your thought out in your first draft, but it’s good to winnow out in your final draft.
2. Along the same lines, avoid jargon.
3. Make sure you aren’t on the “not” side of the following questions:
- Is this not local?
- Is this not digital information?
- Is this not open source?
4. Innovation trumps heart strings. The highest goal of the News Challenge is to find and fund innovation. Ideas to help the least fortunate are definitely welcome, but don’t submit an idea that hinges on this without offering any innovation.
5. They really are looking for crazy ideas.
On that last point, the Knight News Challenge is a place to seriously think about ideas that apply the things games are teaching us to journalism. The first round application is all online and rather brief. It could easily be crafted and submitted in an evening (as long as you have a good idea).
While that’s particular combination was probably a bit obscure, but it’s heartening to find another game lover with an appreciation for new radio. A Life Well Wasted is a gorgeous podcast about gaming that feels like it emerged out of the Ira Glass playbook. While a lot of game coverage focuses on the product, A Life Well Wasted zeroes in on the people in the world of games.
I’m still on the first episode, so I’ll say more later. Check it out though. The first episode is about the end of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which should be interesting to those in the magazine world or declining media in general.
Sony has jumped into the free-to-play MMO model with their new game Free Realms. I was expecting something a bit more kiddish when I first saw the style and game activities, but I find the gameplay friendly to a larger age range. The game is quite polished at the moment and downloads content for the user as needed. This allows for a rather low entry barrier for the new player (as compared with a several hundred mb initial download for other free-to-play games).
The game also launched with a wide range of in-game activities. There’s a World-o-Warcraft-lite fighting system for players who like traditional MMO activity, a match three and Cooking Momma style crafting system for the casual gamers, and some driving/racing games for the Mario Kart fans (which may be one of the most universal groups). Free Realms also rewards exploration, making a game out of exploring the world’s nooks and crannies. I haven’t played enough to say how this all holds up over time, but initially it seems extremely successful at accomplishing what it sets out to do. Though I’m basing that on the assumption that what they set out to do was create a decent MMO playground of sorts.
The payment scheme is the interesting part (though the ideas in it aren’t exclusive to Free Realms). Playing for free, gives the player access to a extremely large slice of content. However, some jobs (like being a ninja or wizard), some quests, some items, additional player slots and the chance to be listed on the leaderboards are exclusive to subscribers. Subscription fees are at an extremely low price point at around $5 (US) per month. The game includes micropayments as well. Some in-game content can only be bought with Sony Station Cash. This includes buying pets and there’s a whole pet training mini-game to level up in as well.
Station Cash can also be used for getting new cards in a Free Realms collectible card game. This game is played online and accessed through the Free Realms world. However, a physical card game is also being sold (by Topps) in parallel with the digital version. Physical cards have codes that can be entered online to receive a digital copy.
So, this game is being monetized upside and down and I think it may be the most wholistic incarnation of multiple revenue streams I’ve seen in an MMO yet. (Though I haven’t seen any in-game advertising). The fact that it’s coming from Sony is really interesting as well. Since Everquest, Sony has really struggled in the MMO market. Everquest 2 released in stride with World of Warcraft, but has only garnered a fraction of WoW’s population. Star Wars Galaxies was just sad in every way. Vanguard was a big risk in its attempts and has played out in an underwhelming fashion. However, Sony has run some very small online games for meager subscription rates as well as collectible card games. It feels like Sony may have finally taken its experience and designer talent and finally created something that matches what people have been saying about web-based, free-to-play, micropayment, casual, reward-flushed, color-rich games for a few years now. All in all, Free Realms really feels like a game made in a laboratory. At this point, I really doubt it could be a total flop (Reviews are positive and in the above average range) and I’m interested to see how many players it brings in and who they turn out to be.
Finally, how does this apply to journalism in any sort of way? Well, micropayments are still that controversial topic for sure. In situations like this, I think games like this are the perfect testbed to see what people will pay for when they are enjoying themselves and being rewarded. The news doesn’t always reward though. Sometimes, it’s quite discouraging and a bit grueling. One thing to note is that in games people are paying to contribute or interact, not just spectate or get preached to. I think if newspapers want people to pay, they need to offer greater interaction with that (though this can get into all kinds of sticky issues with money influencing news and would need hard and fast boundaries at some point).
Also, even though papers know this, multiple revenue streams is important. Papers have always had these, but they are getting quirky about which streams to jump into online. Do they take on craigslist with a better classified system (not sure if that’s possible), do they compete with Yelp on local reviews, do they go head to head with CafeMom and develop their own mom hangout they can advertise on? I think a lot of the angles they try seem safer to them, but can be just watered-down versions of better things out there (especially since a lot of the ideas revolve around getting eyeballs and just throwing up a bunch of ads, making for a worse experience than a better site with less anoying advertising or none at all). I think where Free Realms may come in is that you start to get really creative revenue streams when you start jump domains and look at what they’re doing.
For example, the idea of micropayments per article feels a little too hopeful to me. In this game, I wouldn’t make a micropayment for every battle or every cooking game. I’d just start to dread getting into another fight, because it’s going to cost me more money. In a paper, I’d dread running across a headline that’d make me curious since I’d have to pay for it. Instead, I’d just avoid the temptation (and the site) completely. In the game, micropayments are for a pet dog or a cool sword. These are things I get to keep and they live with me. An article doesn’t do that. So, I think the game gives a good lead in that, I’ll subscribe for access to a swath of content I can’t access otherwise. I might make micropayments for accompaniments that enhance the experience as I explore/enjoy the world you provide for me.
BBC News has a nice article up about the growing micropayment industry surrounding games. Maggie Shiels focuses more on the development in the mobile phone sector, which is definitely a place news should give as much attention to as it does the Web.
The biggest thought in the piece is whether North America will jump on board with micropayments as hardcore as Asia has once the friction of payment hassles is smoothed out. I think the technology definitely has something to do with it. However, I think North American gamers bring to the table an egalitarian notion that is more kneejerk in reaction to the spoils going to the one who forks over the most cash. Veteran gamers also tend to be upset by the idea of buying half a game and being nickled and dimed for the rest of the content (why free to play models are important). The article ends with the best note of how micropayment models may (negatively) affect good game design:
In a struggling economy, much is being made of the new payment models trying to take root. Some in the industry however are concerned there is too much focus on making money.
NGmoco’s Mr Young is also wary.
“As long as developers don’t prioritise greed over game play. You need to remember that at the end of the day, we are there to provide fun gaming experiences for people. Not something where they are constantly badgered to pay up for something.
Thanks to @oleschaper‘s feed for tipping me off to the story.