Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Videos: A Look At Pet Society through YouTube

Some wonderful home-grown videos are surfacing on YouTube, from the international base of Pet Society players.

This one minute video was created by Jamie, an engineer from Singapore. The footage shows the pets visiting each other, a key act in Pet Society. The original game was designed by Playfish to transcend language, and featured theme weeks from many different countries.

"Adios, Pet Society" is another short, loving tribute to the joy of the game. The author is fluent in many languages and may have picked Spanish for the titles because Pet Society has many players who speak it.

A longer but quite charming 5-minute tour-de-force from the French: a Pet Society homage to Disney's Snow White.  The Pet Society scenes were created from bits of art that you can buy within the game and arrange as you wish. Then the auteur must costume the various pets and lure them into posing -- they can be just as difficult as real-life pets or children in that respect! 

So in a few minutes, without having to play the game, you have had a glimpse into the sweet world that is slated to vanish on June 14, 44 days from now. 

PS -- If you are hiring for video games, any graphic artists or game designers who have Playfish or Pet Society on their resume should go to the top of your pile. This is wonderful work.

Uprising: The Pets Fight Back!

It's been only two weeks since Electronic Arts announced that they would shut down their Flash-based games, including Pet Society, a game played by millions around the globe.

EA may not understand that Pet Society more than a game whose players can be moved on to the next shoot-em-up. Playfish -- the company that originated Pet Society, which EA bought for $300M in 2011-- put lightening in a bottle. They created a magical, creative environment where the pixilated pets seemed to take on a life of their own. The nonverbal environment transcended borders, and drew players from every country with internet access.

By corporate standards nowadays, it apparently makes sense to spend $300M one year and shut down the operations completely two years later. To Pet Society players, shutting down this game is like losing a beloved family pet because the animal control officer exterminated them. A business decision is affecting not only the lives of thousands of employees around the globe who are getting pink slips but millions of players who are vowing to never spend money on a game again, or boycott any EA products. (Note: if you are a hiring influence, snap up any artists or game designers who worked for Playfish, particularly on Pet Society because they do brilliant work.)

Pet Society players are banding together. Within hours there was a petition on change.org urging EA to save the game (over 16,000 signatures so far, somewhat hampered by being a US-based, English-speaking site). Several groups formed on Facebook; SavePetSociety has over 27,000 with people posting in many languages. Others are putting up blogs, like this one. People who don't tweet are learning to use Twitter.

Some wonderful videos capture the interactive magic of Pet Society; will be posting links separately.

Today EA may be realizing it has some unhappy customers. But this is not the answer.

Message: We love this game. It transcends language. We appreciate the peaceful haven it provides, a space you can share with your children, a consolation in times of stress and illness, an outreach to friends across the miles who have their own troubles. We marvel at the creativity of the game designers who supply such wonderful items to use within the game. We laugh at the photos we can take as our pets interact with each other and their environment. We remember in our hearts what it was to be a child.

For every nine people who are mad as hell and walking away from spending money on games at all, or boycotting EA, there is one who wants to see Pet Society preserved in some fashion. Some of us are willing to pay for a subscription-based service, if that is what it takes. We don't need new swag or quests; we just want to see our pets and visit their friends around the world. There's enough material in the game as it is to play with for years to come.

I fervently hope some arrangement can be reached before EA scraps the code and scrubs the servers on June 14. This game does not deserve to die.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hedwig, Kali, and the Petlings

Here's a little memorial I prepared for both Pet Society: Last Call and my blog at Strangegirl.com

Hedwig and the Petlings
Hedwig and one of her beloved petlings.
Social gamers already know that Electronic Arts will be shuttering several of its popular Facebook titles on June 14. The decision is controversial for a number of reasons, but my primary issue with the decision is very personal. Quite simply, I love my Pet, Hedwig, and her little kitten and unicorn petlings.

When I heard that the game will be going away, I decided it was time to get some use out of the hundreds of outfits, pieces of furniture, and food items Hedwig's amassed over the last four years. I'm still in the midst of a mad dash to screen cap every inch of her oddly-designed little Sarah Winchester house, a veritable Pet Society Llanada Villa. Heck, I'll probably be screen capping up until the second they shut down the game servers. 

While Flash glitches and real-life work and social obligations have kept me away from the game for long stretches of time, I still cherish the quiet, comfortable neighborhood-world that Pet Society offers me.

My favorite ingame activity was - and is - building rooms and gardens in which my pet - and my friends' pets - could frolic. I loved decorating for the holidays, and while Halloween and Christmas got the most room space in the game, I managed a Thanksgiving kitchen and a Valentine garden, too.

Halloween Room
One of our Halloween rooms.
I didn't throw lavish theme parties every month like Danine, and my room designs were always more aesthetic than deeply conceptual, like James' and Christina's rooms. Still, the creative potential presented in every beautiful item and theme was inspiring. In many respects, the home atmosphere presented in Pet Society picks up where the "Classic" Neohomes on Neopets.com left off; it's gentle, it's pretty, and it's a unique platform for sharing quirky ideas with online friends.

At the end of the day, it's been nice knowing that Hedwig and pals would there for me when I needed some quiet time away from my everyday stress. I'm going to miss them when they move on.

Hedwig at L'Opera Petulaire
Hedwig plays the pipe organ a L'Opera Petulaire.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pet's Performance

In a post on the Save Pet Society blog the author requests (on behalf of many of us) "If it is infeasible to develop new themes, we would be more than happy for things to stay as they are, so long as we can still visit our pets. The thousands of items (clothing, furniture, decor, etc.) Playfish has already designed for this game are enough to keep us happy for years."

I wholeheartedly agree.  The artists and designers of Pet Society really understood how to create useful (in fact, multi-useful) items and settings that could mix and match in virtually limitless ways.  To prove the point, I went into Pet Society yesterday and created a series of vignettes, depicting the 14 canon shows in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, to show how versatile the existing stock can be.

So, in order of initial production date:
Thespis, or, The Gods Grown Old
Trial by Jury
The Sorcerer
HMS Pinafore, or, The Lass that Loved a Sailor
The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty
Patience, or, Bunthorne's Bride
Iolanthe, or, The Peer and the Peri
Princess Ida, or, Castle Adamant
The Mikado, or, The Town of Titipu
Ruddigore, or, The Witch's Curse
The Yeomen of the Guard, or, The Merryman and his Maid
The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria
Utopia, Limited, or, The Flowers of Progress
The Grand Duke, or, The Statutory Duel
And there you have it.  A concrete example of how many different looks I was able to get with my existing inventory and a few free minutes.  Even if the game was not updated, there would still be plenty of play value.  So I urge EA to consider keeping the game alive, or sell the property to a company that would continue to run it, even if they never updated it.  My pet still has stories she wants to tell.

The Long-Awaited Virtual Hang Out

This is a sort of game I dreamed of finding for years. I had long wanted to play a computer game that focused on providing a pleasant place to hang out.  Not thrilling. Not competitive. Not risky and costing multiple virtual lives. But an imaginary place on a computer to spend however long surrounded by a subtly varied environment of sights and sounds and contents that engage the mind gently.

About 30 years ago I recall playing (for a magazine review) a text adventure game that included a scene in a museum-style room. Some of the exhibit cases contained items with clues to solve puzzles on the path to completing and winning the game. But the setting included many other exhibits that I could navigate between to enjoy the fascinating descriptions of the contents. I wished there was a game with no puzzles to solve, no winning goal, but plenty of that style of descriptions of museum exhibits to entertain me at length.

Four years ago I was introduced to Pet Society on Facebook, I was amazed to find this was just the sort of virtual hangout I had dreamed of. Even better, it was a social game that had real people behind the scenes featuring each pet, not just static files on a disc.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Words and Pictures in Pet Society

In the first year or so of Pet Society, I was struck at how much the designers of the game avoided using words in the world of the pets and the game interface. Once you got into the game to play, you were immersed in an environment of pure visual images. Working as a technical writer, I'm accustomed  to looking for opportunities to convey information clearly in a strictly visual way, so an international audience isn't at the mercy of text being translated at all,  or translated clearly and correctly. Pet Society practiced that in an amazingly effective way.

There was text in a few parts of the game interface. I'd occasionally switch to French (which I largely understand) or other languages and see that the creators of the game were very rigorous on translating any scraps of text they included. In French, even the name of the game changed to "L'association des animaux". Also, the text they wrote had a style that added to the character of the game. I was delighted to see "You are one lucky pet" whenever Scoop received coins each day.

For a long time, nothing you earned or bought in the game had a word on it. I forget what item was the first to break that rule, but it got my attention when it happened. When you visited another pet's home, you didn't see words with one exception. One thing you could buy in the stores for 50 coins each were the white squares, each with a letter on it in black, cartoonish lettering. You could place these on the walls of the pet's rooms to communicate a message in words. Most often, these would present the name of the pet proudly. In other rooms you'd see more extensive statements, sometimes expressing a dislike of some aspect of the game. In any case, the words you saw in a pet's room were a personal communication the pet's owner had chosen to place there, 50-coin square by 50-coin square.

In two other ways Pet Society was rich in opportunities to express yourself in words to other players and the Facebook world at large. You could write a status for your pet, and it would appear on your own Facebook page, with a link so someone reading it could go play Pet Society. Also, you could send a short letter within the game to another player among your friends, and even to the unknown creator of a pet you met in the Cafe. Many games lack a way to communicate in your own words with other players, but Pet Society incorporated this feature into the fabric of the game. Of course, you had to wait for your pet to take a break from doing important plushie rearranging before opening the envelope, thus enabling you to read the message.

One of the most desirable new items when it was offered was the message crawl bar, which could present a longer message that would stream across that area in a room. This was originally intended to echo the pet's status message that appeared on your own Facebook wall, but that became decoupled, I think after the Playfish designers saw how players were using this feature extensively and creatively. Some messages would sometimes explain something about the scene arranged in that room. Other messages expressed jokes, thanks to other players, inspiring words, prayers, or news about the player's own life. Sometimes the messages were in memory of a deceased family member, friend, or actual pet.

In Pet Society, each player's environment can absorb a lot of that player's personality and accumulate a lot of meaning and memories for them and their friends. The words that players place inside the game are a clear way that each brings something creative and builds something wonderful and moving out of nothing. That's just one facet of what makes this mere virtual pet game so important to many of us.

My Genteel Protest

Needless to say, this had been a rough week in Pet Society. Tizzy has nearly half a million coins to spend before June 14. She's been putting out dozens of wine glasses at her wine bar for the guests at the parties she will be hosting as long as she can. Unfortunately only Tizzy can consume the wine, so she's been tidying up a lot.

Once I learned that only a small percentage of customers spend real money in online games, I made a point of keeping Tizzy's Pet Cash Stash replenished, often during seasonal "deals." It averaged out to about $10 a month, roughly what I'd spend on a couple of lattes and a movie admission. It was worth that to me to "Vote With My Dollars" for the game I enjoyed. And it let me keep Tizzy in a classy wardrobe, thanks to the amazing staff of artists who work on this game. 

The outfit Tizzy is wearing is based on the lovely tea gowns that were popular in the 1890s. It was part of a theme week loosely based on Lord of the Rings. Maybe I should make myself one of these in solidarity with my pet! (Image from Project Gutenberg. Search on "tea gown image Liberty Worth" for more museum gowns.)

Today I made my little Facebook protest. I change my profile photo to Grumpy Cat carrying the placard that says "Do Not Shut Down Pet Society."  I will be changing the photos to show off Tizzy's theme rooms. She has a bit of Sarah Winchester in her, I think. There are so many beautifully drawn items that you can buy in Pet Society, I enjoy putting them together.

Wine glasses were very rare in Pet Society at first. I wondered if the artists were taking decorating cues from Tizzy when they started including wine glasses in many setups! She often has either tea or wine set out on tables in case her pet friends come to visit when we are not watching.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Education of Scoop Rabbit

When I first entered into Pet Society, I had to design my pet. The various characteristic of my pet came together rather quickly into what was obviously a rabbit. When it was time to give the new pet a name, I looked at his big ears and open eyes and thought, this is someone who wants to see and hear everything! He wants to go everywhere and find out "what's the scoop". And so, I named him Scoop.

His initial appearance and name have stayed constant for four years. That's just who Scoop is. (Later I realized how much Scoop resembled Crusader Rabbit, a TV cartoon character I adored half a century ago.)

In the first few weeks of playing, I didn't spend many coins on Scoop's furniture, outfits, and fancy food. Each "new day in Pet Society", Scoop would receive additional coins and be told "You are one lucky pet!" He'd invest most of his coins buying the least expensive food, usually apples. Scoop spent his time visiting the pets of friends and of all the pets visiting the Cafe. Scoop and I would feed and wash and brush (remember the brush?) other pets who were in need. And we'd observe all the ways that the pets were dressed and their rooms designed.

We especially looked for elements in the game that the pets interacted with or that moved. I would leave notes in other pet houses to appreciate some nice bit of decoration, ask a question about an unfamiliar item, or to suggest placing certain items on the floor so the pets could play with them - a potential not always pointed out when a player purchased the items.

All this activity earned Scoop a lot of experience points, which qualified him for more rooms in his house. He didn't spend much time there, so the rooms were still rather bare - just something to sit on and a plushie or two to carry. But Scoop and I wanted his house to eventually be a wonderful place for other pets to visit.

When Scoop found an item that he could play with at another pet's home, we'd stock his home with those delightful things. Among the distinctive items were the radio that a pet could turn on and dance to, and a pinwheel that the pet blew on to set spinning. There was also a toaster that the pet could make toast pop out of, the only kitchen item at the time that the pets could use themselves.

One of Scoop's first big investments was when ox plushies were being offered at a low price before being removed from the store. We splurged and got a dozen of these plushies that were put together in his yard. He improvised a cowboy look, since there had not been a cowboy theme introduced to the game yet. I helped him with using letter stickers to spell out HOME ON THE RANGE. Visiting pets could assist Scoop in herding the cattle around, carrying one at a time.

After a while, I moved the ox plushies into Scoop's entry room. The stickers now spelled out RANGE IN THE HOME. This scene changed over the course of days, indicating Scoop's attempts to move the oxen back outdoors. At one point, steaks were placed on the top of a stove to frighten the oxen.

This ox herding sequence led Scoop to frequently get a lot of some one item and then see what would develop. It also led me to think more about the potential of having a storyline unfold from day to day within the landing room in Pet Society, using the letter stickers to add a little context to the then rigorously non-verbal settings of Pet Society. This collaboration between Scoop and me led to the first of several Burning Pet Festivals. But that's another story.

April The Cruelest Month?

Amid the beauty of Spring, April brings many sad reminders for me. My mother's death, on her wedding anniversary -- not that she knew what day it was anymore. That was the same day her mother had been found murdered in her home decades earlier. Then there's the birthday of a dear friend who did not make it to her 60th.

Does my life suck? Other people are dealing with far worse issues. (Just read your morning paper.) But we all have to cope, and grieve, and work through our sorrows and bereavements. Pet Society has been one way I connect with my friends and salute the living and departed. The Garden of Memory above is a tribute to my mom (1917-2011), who loved oriental art and cute things.

This photo was a shout-out two years ago to our friend Deborah, who had organized a group outing to see "The Drowsy Chaperone" with two dozen friends in vintage attire. The production has a song about a monkey on a pedestal, so that was our little joke. (Scoop and Tizzy made a habit of dressing up as if they were going out with us to various costumed events.) Deborah did not play Pet Society, despite our urging. We joined FarmVille and Fairyland on her behalf. The gentle online games were a great comfort to her during many months she was laid up with chemo. 

Sometimes I went with Deborah to the ballet, which Tizzy enjoyed vicariously. 

A solemn reminder (well, as solemn as the Pets get) that disasters do happen. And that gentle games like Pet Society are a great solace to people who are coping with death and chemo and other harsh realities. 

When I signed the petition on change.org, it seemed for every nine persons who were angry, there was one person saying, this game meant so much to me when I was sick. It's certainly true for me. I got through a lot of funerals with dry eyes, but I teared up visiting Tizzy, knowing the game would come to an end.

Happier posts to come, with accounts of Burning Pet, the Petsby Picnic, and other antics Scoop and Tizzy enjoyed with their friends. I needed to be serious for a moment, because losing Tizzy and Scoop is like losing yet another real-world friend. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Real Martian Week

One of the best things about Pet Society is seeing what people do with the same stock of props and set pieces.  In the last few years, Pet Society would announce a theme for each week.  Theme-related merchandise would appear in the shops and  players would mix and match the elements with older items and see how they might repurpose items in a creative way.

What's that you say, Bocopai?  The ice planet is dangerous?

Why do I feel so strange?

It all makes sense now.
When "Mars and Venus" week was announced, Bocopai was thrilled.  Until he found out it wasn't actually about the planets Mars and Venus, but the notion that "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus."  That's not right, he told me.  He wanted to do a theme week that had Martians and the Red Planet and was fun.

Fortunately, Pet Society provides a canvas upon which we could draw our desires.  A little collaboration with some other players and Bocopai's Martian Week Theme took on a little life of its own in our corner of the pet's society.  Bocopai designed the ice planet and the "Martian" look himself.  That week, several of us played along.

Gustav and Chloe armed for the Mars Week Takeover!

Martian Chloe follows Martian Leader Louis into battle!

Spaceman Scoop demands, "Take me to your leader!"

Space Princess Tizzy firmly ushers Martian Chloe out of the room.

Martian Chloe reports back to Team Leader Gustav on her failure

Let's return to our home planet.

Welcome to Mars!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chloe, Bocopai and Gustav

When my son was a tiny baby, I spent a lot of time sitting on the couch nursing him, bored out of my skull.  I had run out of books to read, and I wanted something a little more creative.  At about that time, Dani and James mentioned the fun they were having with Pet Society, so I gave it a try, and created my bunny girl, Chloe.

I took her name from a line in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, where the Bucks and Blades enter the little village and exhort the innocent country maidens to dally with them: "Come Amaryllis, come Chloe, come Phyllis..."  She didn't look much like an Amaryllis or a Phyllis to me, but Chloe suited her fine.

Is Hideeni a dashing "buck" or a daring "blade"?

Eventually, my little nurseling grew up enough to enjoy "helping" me play Pet Society.  He enjoyed it so much, I created a second account so he could create his own pet, whom he christened Bocopai for reasons that nobody can figure out.

Can you see the family resemblance?

This worked pretty well, until the day the little one figured out that if he logged on to my account, he could buy things with my coins and send them through the mail to his character.  He cleaned me out in about fifteen minutes, and I password protected my computer after that.

Because we were having so much fun (and to give Bocopai another revenue stream) my husband started his own character, Gustav, whom he claims is a Swedish Tiger

The Happy Couple

And so the three of us, Chloe, Bocopai and Gustav, played happily together with Scoop and Tizzy and our other friends.  We enjoyed it so much, we even lured my mother in law into creating a character.

The gender-bending mad scientist Louis/Louise

In all, Pet Society has been a charming and low-stress way to play together as a family and make new friends who are always so happy to see us.  If it goes away, our lives will be poorer for it.

Chloe could use a drink after hearing the bad news

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Keep Calm And Carry On

Tizzy's first reaction was, Keep Calm and Carry On. She's a trouper.

Here's a wide shot of her tea room, which leads to a kitchen at the left.

Other pets reacted differently. Lemondrop tried assisted suicide shortly after Tizzy met her at the airport. (Fortunately it did not seem to take, and Lemondrop and her photos are still with us.)

Part of the charm of Pet Society is that although everyone can earn or buy the same elements, each player uses them differently. It's very inventive. The pets are always happy to see each other, but in between visits, they keep busy playing with objects in their rooms.