Saturday, March 29, 2008

Leave it to Hedges


To get one to thinking. After coffee with Warren Thursday, many new ideas spinning and spawning. Check out his take on the 70's proto-video game Sea Wolf as well as his reading of Richard Lanham's, The Economics of Attention. Hmmmm. Ruminating. Ruminating.

I've been working back through Tanklin, my goofy video game, and thinking lots about game play.

Warren pointed out that the appeal of Tanklin was similar to Sea Wolf; it's a slow, methodical experience based not on twitch, but on foresight. This creates a different kind of tension that seems to use and affect a different part of the brain.

As I reworked Tanklin to implement some of the changes I'd discussed with my son, Sam, I found the nature of the game was changing and not necessarily for better or worse. It was just becoming. . . different.

The first change I made was to simply boost the score value of the orange "probe" ship. Originally all of the targets were worth 10 points. This gave the game a pleasingly primitive and pointless feel. Ooh, one of the ships looks different. . . and it doesn't matter. Har har. 10 points. I didn't change the behaviour of the probe yet, because that would violate the cardinal rule of programming (especially for a quasi-programmer like me): do only one thing at a time. So, the probe still acted the same as all the other ships, but it was now worth more points.

In terms of gameplay, however, everything changed. I found myself obsessively focusing on the probe and just avoiding the blue cars. My score went up faster--a lot faster. But independently of the score, the game now felt easier to me because I now had a strategy: shoot the orange ship, avoid the blue ships. Before, I was always in conflict between the need to survive and the desire to score. That tension, Survival vs. Scoring, is fundamental to most games of the arcade era. (Consider the saucer from Space Invaders, or the fruit in Pac Man.)

In the arcade era, I'll argue you were better off tending towards survival, because in the arcade era, the economics of games was based entirely on, well, economics. The investment one made in the game was strikingly literal. You were paying a set sum of money (a dime or a quarter--a hefty sum back then) for an unknown quantity of entertainment. This drove depression era and depression-era influenced people crazy. It didn't make any sense. If you had a cruddy 20 second Sea Wolf experience, or had 5 bad bounces in a pinball game, you had, essentially, been ripped-off. If you went to the moving picture show, by contrast, the quality of the entertainment might be dire, but at least you got to sit in a dark room and see photons dance for 2 hours. It would be rare to extract a similar quantity of entertainment from your dollar by playing arcade games.

Nowadays, online games are FREE in terms of actual coin. We are paying with our attention. Well, gee, I guess I'd better read that book.

Anyhow, I just had a stupid idea regarding Tanklin, Art, and the attention economy. More on that later as it develops.

1 comment:

Warren said...

No, leave it to you man. You got me thinking after meat space, I got you thinking. May the circle go unbroken.

I really like what you had to say about the economics of arcade games. One thing it made me think about a little is the social space of arcades. People watched you play. Geek hierarchies developed. You hit high scores. Putting them online shifts this somehow.

I think you are right that Benjamin was a proto-blogger. Especially in (frankly this blows my mind a little) his _Arcades Project_. Makes my head hurt, but in the good way.