information about the Portable Video Workshops.

3 February, 2008 | link

blue dots  Playing PMOG - Again

I had a ton of fun brainstorming, making and testing a game called PMOG with folks in the USC IMD. PMOG was my MFA thesis project - an MMO game built around surfing the web: your web trail evolved a personal profile and gave you tools to prank or guide people online.

I graduated in May 2007. I'd been working with two other folks on my thesis, Merci Hammon and Duncan Gough. The three of us formed a company called GameLayers. We were able to get an investment in the Fall, and since then we've been bent over our computers evolving this vision for web fun.

We've taken PMOG from of being a sidebar and instead we've made a sort of lightweight HUD, in the form of a toolbar that sits at the bottom of your Firefox browser. So it takes up less screen space, disappears easily, and hopefully feels like a ready way to have fun during a day online.

PMOG Toolbar
The revised PMOG interface, a toolbar instead of a sidebar.

Finally in January we started beta testing. And there's a few IMD folks in there already - testing the play boundaries, trying everything once, and giving good feedback. Much obliged!

I comb our beta registration logs for @usc email addresses, but some folks in the IMD use GMail, etc. If you're interested in playing and you haven't gotten an invite, sign up on and drop me a line! justin at gamelayers d0tcom :-D I'd love to hear what you think.

Posted by justin at 18:23 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

A Personal History of Computer Games

25 October, 2007 | link

blue dots  Halo 3 3D

Halo 3 came out recently. Big media event! The team that worked on the game ensured that it will have additional longevity - since the game ships with tools for users to create and upload their own videos and screenshots from within the game. Score a triple kill with two sniper bullets on Narrows? Render your own video or screenshot. Halo 3 becomes an amateur sport!

(They need better video editing tools, and most definitely the ability to view the clips on the web! Right now, the clips are only viewable through Halo 3 on the Xbox 360. Maybe that's the only audience that cares. Except Halo 3 veterans at work. They're probably waiting to see how popular this feature is, and might expand it later for optional additional $$$, maybe when Halo is growing long in the tooth. Hopefully not too long!)

Anyhow, to tie this all back to the Interactive Media Division:

A blogger Kato figured out how to render Halo 3 screenshots in 3D. Here's a red/cyan stereo version:

halo 3 3d

He's also rendered cross-eyed viewing and parallel viewing. Sounds like a 3D veteran! He's posted a tutorial: How To: Make Stereo 3D Halo 3 Screenshots.

Thanks, Duncan from Passively Multiplayer blog, for the link.

Posted by justin at 13:17 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

7 August, 2007 | link

blue dots  Stephen Dinehart On Writing For Games

Congrats to IMD graduate Erin Dinehart! It sounds like he's in a position as "Narrative Designer" at Relic Entertainment to draw on his community and background to make commercial video games more emotionally resonant. At least according to this three-part interview on "Narrative Design For Company Of Heroes: Stephen Dinehart On Writing For Games."

article image

Posted by justin at 15:56 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

13 May, 2007 | link

blue dots  IMD 2007 Family Photos

After spending three years with folks in the IMD, I was eager to see what their parents looked like. The second-to-last day of school, we mostly got to see!

Josh and his parentsVince and his parentsNoah and his Mom and her partnerNoah and his Dad and his partnerJessica and her ParentsAaron and his DadAaron with his Mom and DadAaron and a mess of Meyers'sJustin and his Mom and GeorgeDoox and his parentsRick and his MomMihai and his parentsHerb and Yuechuan and ScottScott and Jen wave goodbye with tiny plastic devices

Posted by justin at 12:28 | Comments (0)

16 April, 2007 | link

blue dots  Community Analysis: WoW, Xbox, 3 Rings, PMOG

Many of us have friends offline. We went to school with them, we met them through our parents, we bumped into them at the park. Lots of ways to make friends.

Transitioning those friends to "online friends" is tough - you have to find out if they have the right computer or console, then you have to get some kind of a friend code that allows you to make a connection. Email is a fairly useful lingua-franca, but I've met alarming numbers of teenagers who don't use email at all these days.

So with so many online games today, it's a miracle to find and play alongside anyone you know. This is one of the things I just hate about World of Warcraft - I would love to play. But should I play on the server with my nephews? Or on a server with game critics? Or on a server with international friends? Why do I have to choose which one to be friends with? And have separate characters to interface with each group.

Xbox Live has fabulous means of watching any kind of friend. What are they up to? Can I join them? How are they doing at their games? It's a sort of light-touch online friendship. Light co-presence.

But Xbox Live needs richer real-time grouping. I couldn't gather more than one other friend in a voice chatroom during an online game. We were split into separate teams and couldn't talk. We had to get ourselves back into groups after a match ended, if the host wanted to change the game settings. So there was a sense that we were at an online gaming party, but we had to keep leaving and re entering the party, and we could never been in the same room.

In YoHoHo Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy I didn't know anyone there immediately. I made some friends in Bang! Howdy, and I could find them later. But it was generally somewhat sparsely populated-seeming. It would have been nice to see a central gathering place, where the bodies mill about in Bang! Howdy. Then again, in Puzzle Pirates, I was quickly thrown into a large area with bodies milling about and I wasn't able to make much of it. Except other people had much bigger parrots than I had, and better clothes. Something to aspire to, I guess!

When we launched the alpha version of Passively Multiplayer Online Game, PMOG for short, we got some feedback that it needs community. At that time, we had a news weblog and I don't think the comments even worked.

Within a week of that post, we had real-time chat in the sidebar, and forums for people's questions. A few weeks later, we had a public wiki where our design documents live so people could see our plans and give feedback.

The two game designers (myself and Duncan Gough) we're often available in sidebar chat. There's a few other users who have stepped up and answered questions in our absence, which has been splendid.

We don't have events, or cyclical content yet, both nice things to build community and revitalize the game world. We're launching new core features each week or two these days. I think to myself, "we've got such big plans" but clearly community maintenance is critical to the development of the game from day one. We're building a massively multiplayer online game, and we have over 600 signups since March 1, and over 130 active users today. Right now those users are the core of our meetings, performances and competitions! And we will endeavor to build ways for them to continue stimulating each other.

Posted by justin at 10:54 | Comments (0)

2 April, 2007 | link

blue dots  Contender Quest: Stevedore's Waterfront Puzzle

When I went to college I got a Mac, and I stopped playing most computer games. Except, one series of games available for my machine: the Warlords series. Puzzle Quest has much of the same feeling - top down kingdom management, heroes, quests, magic items, somewhat anonymous fiction and art, but good rock-paper-scissors unit-matching gameplay.

Now the Warlords developer Infinite Interactive has replaced rock-paper-scissors with a more immediate form of fun - lining up colored bits. Can you find three in a row of the same color? Proceeding in the lineage of Connect Four, Tetris, past Puzzle Bobble, into Bejeweled and Zuma and Luxor. Matching colored tiles! With experience points and epic story mapped over them.

In comments on Joystiq, Thrawn writes: "Stay away! The game is too addictive. The RPG components make you feel like you're getting something done." Ahah! Where have we heard this before?

Or, as Penny Arcade put it: "The competitive mode certainly has a luck component - we are talking about a genetic descendant of Bejeweled, after all - but the abilities, equipment, and skill loadouts layered over it do much to rein in that chaotic force. They seem to be gesturing at the broad outline of a vast genre here, one whose sensual contours entice."

I believe I've seen the same vast genre - mapping experience points and items onto other forms of computer activity. Xbox Live added points for playing games and created the Xbox Achievements meta-game. Seriosity has added experience points and currency for items. Amazon's Askville has added quests and experience points and levels for web searching. With Duncan Gough, I'm adding experience points, levels and items to ordinary web surfing: we call it "Passively Multiplayer Online Games."

So let's look at what we have here in Puzzle Quest: epic fantasy trappings, boilerplate kingdom-in-danger story, Westernized-anime art, Gregorian chants and early music loops. It's a bit hard on the eyes, maybe hard on the soul - I'm 32 years old. I've read Tolkien, Pullman, Martin, Weis & Hickman, even Jordan. I don't find fantasy retread comforting; I feel like my life is slipping away faster than normal when I am saving unremarkable kingdoms.

Still they must be commended for using what must have been a small budget and a dedicated team to make an indie game that is widely selling out and causing people such gaming excitement. Probably, if I'd spent more time playing Bejeweled, like Thrawn perhaps, I would say, "ah yes! Finally, Bejeweled that matters!" But I am not a colored tile matcher by nature.

It's an intruiging construction - instead of players picking from menus of commands to solve conflicts in an RPG, slap in a totally orthogonal mini-game. A bit like Puzzle Pirates, hmmm? In Puzzle Quest there's no conceit for the setting - me and a skeleton pulling out our boards and laying out our tokens? Penny Arcade drew up the same question:

Penny Arcade comic

The game could have appealed to me by embracing the minigame game I played against Zombies and bats and rats and so forth - showing them toting their gamepieces, all of us somehow beholden to strange three-in-a-row rules. Or, if it had a sense of humor. Where's the Keef the Thief today? Even Might and Magic had surrealist wit about their bad guys - fighting killer Cuisinarts and so forth.

Our teacher, Patricia Pizer, had us play this Puzzle Quest game for homework. She asked, what other theme could we map on to it?

Contender Quest: Stevedore's Waterfront Puzzle

Let's try On the Waterfront the Elia Kazan film about mob ties to the longshoremen in 1940s New York. This is a fitting theme, since the game board can be a bird's-eye view of men moving shopping containers to make similar shipments stick together, or to trap mafiosi or cops inbetween them, etc.

Players could choose a character class: longshoreman, priest, petty criminal, police cadet. Then they each try to work within the warehouses to straighten out corruption and making transnational freight more efficient. Noble quests such as "find the missing shrimp shipment before it goes bad" and "somewhere in that warehouse is a load of insulin for diabetic children."

Your foes could be time (perishable goods), cops, mafiosi, hobos, informants, miscreants, ne'er-do-wells, a wide range of villiany awaiting their chance to rise above the orcs and rats we've slain too many times.

Experience points is a perfect system to map onto this profession: can you rise from Longshoreman to Stevedore? Can you earn the golden cap and hook?

Posted by justin at 10:40 | Comments (0)

26 February, 2007 | link

blue dots  Social Compression for MMOs

Reading over my notes on Social Network Analysis, from Michael Steele's talk, it seems much of the science of creating and managing good communities revolves around social compression - constraints and structures that foster desirable behavior.

Applying these ideas to services I've already explored:

Xbox Live (my review): currently, a very basic buddy list, with game statistics. Not much of a sense of history (except externally,, and not much of a sense of geography. There's four areas you can play in, basically people sorting themselves by levels of competition and profanity they want in their games. But between genres of game, physical location, activity levels, Xbox Live could foster more community and exploration through visualization. Who do I end up playing with? Who plays the same games and gets the same achievements as me?

Much of the time, I end up playing Xbox Live with a number of the same friends; could the system help me visualize when those matchups happen? I could see a pattern of Thursday nights, after 9pm, for example, and begin to carve out that time for a regular meeting.

There's no way to make any kind of group, clan, alliance, friendship circle within Xbox Live. If you created those groups, perhaps that could foster a sense of meta-game. "15,000 gamer points by April 2007" group. Sort of like the spontaneous overlapping groups of Flickr, for example. This presumes that Xbox Live would like to give people incentives to form relationships.

One example Steele talked about: There's Friends Lists, what about Rivals lists? That guy always kicks my ass - I would definitely have a list of those dudes in online shooters, then I would be happy if I ever beat them.

Bang! Howdy (my review): The town is empty, until you get to the saloon. There's a static bit of town art, maybe the saloon could light up or show horses outside if a number of people were outside. Also, show signs of other players in the other areas of the game. The interface is currently very lightweight; currently it's so lightweight it doesn't give much opportunity to connect with players except in a single focused instance.

Posted by justin at 09:00 | Comments (0)

25 February, 2007 | link

blue dots  Use of University Game Testing Labs

I've been eagerly awaiting the advent of the classic board game Settlers of Catan on Xbox 360. How will they implement the design in online space? has published an excellent interview with the designers exploring the transition from board game to online game; it sounds like they really understand the flavor of Settlers:

Although when you play Settlers of Catan for the first time your first impression is mainly of the map and pieces, the heart of the game system is the trading – the wheeling and dealing with other players is a major driver in making the game fun. So a huge concern for us was creating a "trading" interface which would not only allow players to trade, but which would also make sure players would have fun while trading. We did a lot of versions of this screen, and spent a lot of time in one of our local University's user testing labs while getting this screen just right.

Reading that made me glad I've been able to make use of the IMD game lab as well. Here's a recent photo of Gillies, Brazil and Stein playing a Passively Multiplayer board game prototype:

Gillies, Brazil and Stein
(Thanks Tracy!)

The author of the interview, by the way, is Scott Jon Siegel, who seems to have worked with some fantastic game companies and weblogs, and has published some fascinating sounding game designs on his numberless web site. He won one of the GDC 2007 scholarships, so he'll be in San Francisco next week.

Posted by justin at 08:26 | Comments (0)

12 February, 2007 | link

blue dots  Vanguard: Saga of Dedicated MMOG Players

The New York Times Arts & Leisure section ran a big profile on the game designed by one of the key Everquest team members:" Hero Returns to Slay his Dragons". What has he done since then? After a brief stint in management, he decided to make another game. 5 years and $20+ million later, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes emerges. A big deal game, I guess - I hadn't heard of it before now!

McQuaid isn’t pinning his hopes on appealing to World of Warcraft’s millions of casual players. Instead, Vanguard is a gamer’s game. While World of Warcraft uses a cartoony visual style that runs fine on slower computers, Vanguard can humble even the beefiest PC with its emphasis on fantasy realism and its huge, richly detailed virtual universe. Where the older game tries to impress with its accessibility, Vanguard is about more complexity, more choices.

The Diplomacy track sounds most immediately interesting: a game mechanic around persuasive communications which can earn you status and strength apart from killing or crafting.

[The game's designer] says he’s going after “players who are looking for something deeper, more like a home.”

Wow - I want to experiment with this game, but I already have a home! The reviews say it's buggy and demanding. I wonder if I have the patience? 61 on MetaCritic so far.

Posted by justin at 00:06 | Comments (0)

11 February, 2007 | link

blue dots  Does Winster Have Avatars?

Winster, an online gaming start-up, is developing games targeted at middle aged women. The games are based around the concept of reciprocal altruism. That is, rather than try to kill each other--the main purpose of several shoot-em-up games targeted at teen boys--the participants try to help each other solve puzzles or gain points. In a puzzle game, for instance, the players can swap pieces. Winster is also working on a cooperative form of poker.

from CNet: "Game start-up says anthropology is its guide." Looks like drop-in, simple, multi-player, puzzle games played for points which can be redeemed for prizes. Membership is free, but Club Winnie offers more opportunities for play and faster point earning. Sounds a bit like the Three Rings model! And the middle-ager casual games portals I remember hearing about in Korea - I wonder if Winster has avatars?

Posted by justin at 23:56 | Comments (0)

blue dots  Previous Entries

- Itty Bitty RPG - 0 comments
- Community Features Review: Xbox (360) Live - 1 comments
- Casual MMO: Bang! Howdy Review - 2 comments
- HDR-SR1 Shooting for the Future - 1 comments
- Ending Seminar at the ZML - 1 comments
- IMD Thesis 2007 Prototype Show-Down - 1 comments
- Second Life Future Salon on Surveillance in Games - 0 comments
- working hard! - 1 comments
- Human Estimation Secrets from Business of Interactive Media class - 1 comments
- Virtual Heckle Time - 3 comments

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