Sunday, June 16, 2013

A New Gaming Model: in Star Wars?

Well, it's been an exciting week in Lake Wobegon, as Garrison Keillor's monologues always began.

Our computers began to crack last week under the strain of the impending closure of Pet Society that was scheduled for June 14. We were rushing to record videos of visits with our pets and their friends. We take a lot of photos within the game, but those don't capture the charming animations you see onscreen.

Tuesday night James' MacBook Pro developed the Blue Screen of Death. (I did not know Macs could do this, but Intel Inside may have its downside.) So we were off to the Apple store, moving his video efforts to my little MacBook Pro Retina. It would be several days before his logic board could be replaced.

It was time to call in reinforcements, so we made arrangements to meet up Wednesday evening with my son the software engineer to discuss our various problems. Food was brought in, problems were solved, and we still had time to admire his current video gaming setup.

My son was showing off what could be done in a game he has enjoyed playing for quite a while, the Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game now owned by Electronic Arts under license from Disney. Yes, this is one of the games that Pet Society players have vowed to boycott when Pet Society vanishes -- but hold your fire, and hear what I have to say.

Star Wars: The Old Republic may hold the key to a business model that would enable EA or some other company to make enough money off our little game to keep shareholders happy, let players who want to play for free, offer worthwhile perks to monthly subscribers, and provide a legal trading post for items you don't want.

(I loved Star Wars, by the way. I took the software engineer to see the original film when he was a mere moppet. I worked at LucasArts back when Industrial Light and Magic was suspending plastic models in front of blue screens. I did data entry on theater measurements that went into the design of the THX sound systems. I even dressed as Princess Leia from "Hardware Wars" complete with sticky buns on my ears at WorldCon 1984. But I digress.)

So there on my son's wide-screen tv, with personal computer power undreamed of in 1984, was the world of George Lucas' brilliant imagination, the back story. And as my son walked us through the features of the game, I realized: this is Pet Society in 3-D.

The basic elements of both games are the same. You have a character. You can customize your character as much as you wish. You can buy costumes and change their colors. Your character can go places and do things within the game. You earn points for playing the game and buy more cool stuff with it. Within the game you find a world of almost infinite variety. Surprise may lurk around any corner.

Bonus, the interface is not limited to your friends on Facebook. Once you are in the Old Republic game, you start seeing other characters who are all online at the same time. You can contact them within the game if you wish.

You can play the game for free, or you can buy a monthly subscription that gives you certain perks, like more money to spend within the game, and better things to buy with it. Both groups, the people who won't pay for games, and the people who don't mind paying if they get value for their money, are accommodated. (This game is not an X-box game but a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) -- do read the Wikipedia article if this is all Greek to you. It has some good info about the economics and logistics of the business of games.)

The scales fell from my eyes, so to speak. Once you get past the 2-D vs. 3-D issue, the common elements of the games are clear.

So Star Wars may not be our enemy -- but a friend in disguise! Click your heels together three times, EA: the solution may be there in your game portfolio. Knights of the Old Republic is a model of how Pet Society could continue, with some players gladly paying for bonus swag, and others playing for free. (We've wrangled about this on the Pet Society groups, free vs. subscription, and here you have the problem nicely solved. Offer both!)

My pet's notion of space garb.
Some company out there should be able to make money off this situation, with 32,000 avid players around the world who refuse to abandon their pets. As of last Friday, Pet Society was still ranked at over 1 million players per month, and over 100,000 players per day. We are still hoping for a resolution that will be a win for everyone, including the EA shareholders.

Just to be clear, I am happy with our childlike 2-D pets. I'm not sure I'd feel so engaged with a 3-D pet game. There is some psychological evidence that filling in the blanks (reading comics, or novels) engages our brains differently than watching a film, let alone a 3-D epic. Our impulse to complete the incomplete, to decipher the code, may lie underneath the way Pet Society players engage with the game. But that's a another post, for another day.

Two days past the scheduled closure, Pet Society is still online. We accept each day as a miracle. Now it's time to visit my pet, while I still can.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

This Relationship Is Not Working

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching the Electronic Arts "press conference" at the G3 trade show in Los Angeles.

"Conference" is somewhat of a misnomer. This was an elaborate, carefully-scripted production that made the Academy Awards look spontaneous and unaffected. Like all game companies, EA was there to tout the forthcoming titles in its repertoire.

To be honest, I was looking for any rays of hope about the fate of Pet Society, the Playfish game for which EA paid $300+ million less than four years ago. But I also wanted to understand more about why a company would be so intransigent about selling an intellectual property, so eager to jettison the past and move on.

As I watched game after game highlighted on the vast convention stage, with thundering sound effects to match, I began to notice something. Where were all the women?

My son and his friends, now 40-somethings, have been gamers for the past 20+ years. The women in their circle, married or single, are just as into gaming as the men. But onstage, I saw only one woman operating a console, among several dozen men. There were two female figures onscreen: at least the fantasy woman of today is powerful and active, not a frail flower awaiting rescue.

Are women still invisible in this fantasy world for men who at heart are teenaged boys? Seriously. It's not 1980, when you expect the women to take notes and make coffee.

And the games themselves. Yes, they are brilliantly programmed with hyper-realism. They may be great fun for people who are just coming of age and don't have a lot of real life data to interfere with what they see onscreen.

For me, those shining towers crumbling will forever evoke the horror of watching the 9/11 attacks over and over, trying to grasp the terrible thing that was happening. The viewpoint of a character taking over a building somewhere in a desert climate: didn't I see that footage on news coverage from some intrepid photographer embedded with our troops?

And a game about wild driving. Oh please. Just get on the freeways in the Bay Area. Someone will inevitably whip in front of your car like a lane-splitting motorcycle because they've honed their driving skills on games like this. I had enough real-time driving adventure, thank you, hitting a metal object in the fast lane, shredding my tire, and driving on the rim across four lanes of traffic in Oakland. Real life delivers enough excitement for me. (But I'd gladly watch a program showing how their director made it happen; a short glimpse behind the scenes was quite interesting.)

Plants vs. Zombies is EA's idea of cute, which the plants are, in a perky, Pixar-like way. But when you've watched your loved ones turn into zombies, so to speak, under the depredations of advanced age, and dealt with their collapsing houses, zombies are hardly balm for the soul. Then there was a role-playing game set in the Inquisition. Torture and religious persecution, what's not to like! The irony of selling expensive games in which you fight for survival, running on equipment that many who struggle in life cannot afford, is not lost on me either.

It struck me, these dudes are stuck in their first chakra, so to speak. Where it's all about sex and survival. This is a normal place to be when you are a 15-year old guy. I've raised one, so I speak from experience. Those were the years when I often sighed that my son was going to wind up in M.I.T. or jail, and I wasn't sure which. Raising boys can be tough sledding. Kudos to both sides for surviving the teens.

There's nothing wrong with guys being guys, or loving sports, or honing your competitive skills. It's just that as humans, we are so much more than sex and survival.

In introducing a wrestling game, one presenter pontificated, "Fighting is the earliest universal sport." Historians and anthropologists might differ, with dice and early board games like Go, or throwing bones having a long pedigree. And what about the teamwork involved in taking down a hairy mammoth for dinner, or in discovering the ripest berries and herbs that won't poison the tribe? I suspect cooperation is even more essential than fighting for human survival, but we are stuck with the "fight" metaphor as a way of living.

Apparently EA has decided that only those who feed their inner 15-year-old boy are their target market. That's their call as a business, like Abercrombie and Fitch wanting to drive fat people out of their stores.   As a woman who derived so much joy from the fine product EA is now tossing out like old athletic shoes, I want to shout at them:

"There is so much more to human beings than the mere struggle for survival. Where are the games that stimulate other parts of your brain? That urge you to explore beauty and wonder and empathy? That let you express the odd mixture of love and frustration and play and exhaustion and loss and recovery that humans undergo every day, everywhere? Games that enhance our lives and increase our enjoyment of the world around us? Games that can appeal to people of any age, that transcend language? Games that don't need sex and violence and 3-D graphics to give enjoyment?"

Pet Society is one of the rare games that could be played with satisfaction by anyone, child or grandparent, sophisticate or rube, with people whose language you could not speak. I know I'm shouting into the wind here, but I don't care. I shout for those who have no language, no voice; for those who found refuge and hope in a simple game while recovering from illness. I shout for the small children who aren't really supposed to be on Facebook but who play with their relatives and are training to be the computer whizzes of the future. It's been a grand part of our lives, and we will stand by our pets as long as we are able.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Saving Gaming for the Rest of Us

"Anyone who can't make money off Sports Night doesn't deserve to be in the business of making money." —Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night

The game companies of the world are gathering this week in Los Angeles for E3 2013, a major conference in the world of game development. Electronic Arts will hold a press conference at 1:00 on Monday.

I am looking at the E3 site, and other sites about gaming, like AppData, which tracks numbers of users for all apps on Facebook.

I am trying to make sense of the larger world where it makes economic sense for a corporation to spend over $300 million buying a successful company and to throw that investment away less than four years later, as Electronic Arts is doing with Playfish and its products.

Pet Society is still up there on AppData, as EA's third most popular game, with over 100,000 individual players each day, and over 1 million players a month. Some companies should be very happy to have those numbers. Pet Society is still ranked 157 overall, in AppData's odd way of lumping online games in with Yahoo, Yahoo toolbar, Bing, and Pinterest as apps. This is technically correct, but in terms of how real people use computers, lumping apples with oranges.

And I'm thinking, EA, do you actually enjoy being named Worst Company in America for two years in a row by Consumerist? Are you going for three?

And what about you, game companies, and game analysts? I'm looking at the categories for games on the E3 site. Here's are the genres discussed on their forum:

First Person Shooter
Strategy, Real-Time Strategy
Rhythm and Music
Survival Horror 
Third-Person Shooter

I am not decrying other games. I merely note, there is almost no slot, no pigeonhole here for the sort of game that Pet Society is: a focusing, open-ended, noncompetitive experience where you can apply your natural creative impulse. Imagination. That what-if, let's-pretend capacity that's innate to small children, and gradually crushed out of us through rote schooling and formalized jobs. Creativity. Call it what you will. We value it at its highest flowering in art and literature, but don't know how to encourage the creativity that lies in everyone.

My husband loves comic books. Always had. Tried drawing his own. Not very well. In Pet Society he found a place where the brilliantly designed elements fell into place for him. He found an inner child in his pet Scoop, and created a brilliant little world for his pet. All the pet friends and their players could come and play with Scoop's toys, and wander through his house. 

What genre is there for the gentle games that soothe us, delight us, and awaken a sense of wonder? Can computers hone creativity as well as reaction times? Can we light up other areas of the brain besides puzzle solving or heroic rescue or quest retrieval? 

The players of Pet Society are making a stand. We want to be noticed. It's more than just losing our personal pet. Real life pets get old and die, we grieve, and go on. 

We protest the willful destruction of a beautiful, unique environment that encouraged creativity. That could be played with joy by people of any age, or any language. Where every pet and every room in every players house was as unique as a fingerprint. Standard-issue goods were combined in wonderful ways. 

Pet Society was a brilliant achievement in programming and in visual and sound design. Since it defied categories, and looked on the surface like Second Life for 3-year-olds, it may never have received the acclaim it deserved. It's been a marvelous experience that's held my attention for the past four years. One flick of the switch, and that world will be dark forever on Friday.

How someone can not make money off this intellectual property, with its devoted following of over a million fans? As Forbes wisely observed, social games should have a plan for the life of the game, including how it winds down. Can other companies make what they consider good money housing Facebook games? Is a subscription model possible? Mark Zuckerberg, don't you want happy customers  too? Does anyone at G3 see that there's an audience out there that is not being served? 

This sudden closure has won EA a new round of antagonists. Pet Society players are already boycotting EA products. Unless Monsanto somehow gets on the radar of Consumerist voters, that third year title could be already cinched.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why It Hurts To Say Goodbye

I'm using this blog as a "bully pulpit" to look into the phenomenon of Pet Society. We are now one week away from the scheduled shutdown of this very popular game. There are many groups on Facebook (one with over 32,000 members!) protesting this closure and searching for what can be done.
Even Forbes has taken notice of this intense international alliance of players who stand by their pets.

Art by Greta Crippa

This drawing captures the emotional bond so many players have found with their online pets. Some of us who pretend to be respectable adults have "come out" to speak about our support of this game, and inflict our tweets and postings upon the world at large. Our voice, what we have to say, may matter. It may register that something special was going on with this particular game; that Playfish managed to capture "lightning in a bottle." 

Whether artistically sophisticated or simply direct in message, many players share a bond with their particular pet. Some describe themselves as "pet parents".  Others, like this tweet, capture another facet: "I have loved her since the minute she was born. Please don't take her away."

Whether you are six or 70, no matter what language you speak, or how many college degrees you have, the feelings of love and anger and loss are much the same. My own sense is that through some magic, Pet Society was designed to create little creatures that are as individual as human beings, with the happy, creative, curious, and self-reliant attitude of well-behaved two- or three-year olds. (Minus the colds, whining, and temper tantrums.) 

The pets are naturally cheerful and self-reliant. They are not emotionally needy, pressing their face up against the screen from time to time, demanding your attention (as in another competing game, now gone). They do need to be fed and washed, like real toddlers and pets. In a properly set up room, with plushies to carry and objects to bounce on or ride, they can amuse themselves indefinitely. 

Whether you've done "inner child work" or not, playing Pet Society is likely to awaken memories of being young and innocent and full of creativity and fun. Being a grown-up all the time can be wearying. The financial responsibilities, the natural concerns for the well-being of those around you, the stress of illness and impending death, the very viability of the planet we live on: it's a sobering burden we confront each day. Many of us no longer have real children in our lives; they have this way of growing into responsible adults and taking a very long time to produce children of their own to be doted upon.

When we touch base with our "inner child" we remember why everything else we do matters. Deep inside, I still have the curiosity and love and joy and perplexity of my two-year-old self.  I experience this connection through playing with my pet, so losing my pet becomes like losing part of myself, part of who I am. That is my best intuition as to the dynamic that is going on here. When a game becomes more than just a game, it's worth taking notice. But that's another blog post.