Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Simple Lifeform I

Friends, it is time to close up this old blog o' mine. I am moving house.

Some weeks back just before Christmas, I left my job working as a producer and moved to a partnership in a startup company. Simple Lifeforms is its name and social games are its domain. We have a blog in which I will be relaying my new grand adventure. I hope you'll join me there!


Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Economic Crises: A Game Design Approach

With the recent set of turmoil that has engulfed markets all around the world, I can't help but think of it as a game. At the moment the banks are all in trouble, the levels of trust in markets at an all time low. It is, in essence, a game of poker that has gone bad, and many people are taking their stakes and going home. There's a lot of culture of blame going on, with various groups and politicians calling for curbs on pay packets to executives and the like, which I tend to think is basic scapegoating when the actual problem is that the rules of the market game were poor and lacked balance.

Investment banking, indeed any kind of financial business, is really just a game. There are rules to adhere to, diplomatic phases to engage with, trades to be done and so on. The reward for playing the game well is money of course, but after a certain level most investment bankers would agree that the money that they get is really just points. The rules of the game allow for a vast accumulation of points, reinvesting of points to build even more points, complex deals based on the promise of the transfer of points etc etc. It's just a big MMO.

What happens with any game of any sort is that players instinctively try to exploit it. Grokking, as it's generally called, pretty much demands this sort of behaviour. To be a great player, you have to learn now only how to play but also how to play well, and what the limits of the system are. An example of this is rocket-jumping in Quake, or the road-rail cheat in Transport Tycoon. All game systems have unintended emergent behaviours and the more complex the system becomes, the more opportunities for exploits become available.

Exploits, it should be noted, are different from actual cheats. A cheat is where the player uses some outside influence to artificially alter the system (such as looking at your opponent's cards). An exploit, however, is legal within the system even though many players may not consider it sportsmanlike behaviour.

The current financial crisis is essentially the result of two things:

1. Poor rule design in the game of the markets.
2. A proliferation of exploits gone bad

Rule design
The key rule design that has been flawed is that of the complex derivative and credit swaps market. In short, the intergovernmental system had adopted a highly free market approach to all business as much as was possible over the last 30 years (pretty much since the 80s) which had had good effects in liberating a lot of credit but also had bad effects in limiting monitoring and oversight. While free markets sounded good in principle, in actuality they drove the complexity of transactions. It has been said a lot in recent days that the core of the problems really stem from most of the players having a very poor understanding of the transactions to which they were committed. A whole vast industry had arisen on the basis of this exceeding complexity to the point that pretty much nobody knew what anything was worth any more and everybody believed that everything was secure until they realised that it wasn't.

So what about those exploits? Well transactional complexity figures largely here because they essentially allowed the players to inflate their value in the absence of a clear sense of worth. Secondly in many countries the relationship between players and rule-makers was too close. Financial institutions (being as they are players) are motivated to want to collect as many points as possible and so they lobby for changes to the rules of the game in order to get those points. This is not dissimilar to high-level long-time players whining about their characters in WoW to Blizzarrd in the hopes of getting some advantage for themselves.

So since lobbying is legal, it has been an oft-used exploit. Another is the practise of creating new kinds of financial product at a rate much faster than the hobbled government can catch up to and examine them. When you have a mortgage market with hundreds of thousands of separate "products" (meaning deals) in it offering all sorts it seems that our political structures simply cannot react fast enough to them. The same thinking applies all across the credit market, and led to some real limiting-inducing types of product such as a the 110% mortgage with no deposit. Nobody seemed to understand why this is a bad idea any more because of the exploits involved.

The failure here is therefore political. Unlike the players in the market, it is ultimately governments that set the rules of the game. You can always assume that a player will play a game with such high stakes in an unfair manner if they can (because that's how it is in the top leagues) so the real fall-down is not with the players who simply played, it's with the politicians who either didn't understand what they were doing or didn't see the consequences, or convinced themselves that they couldn't govern. Non-governing government is a central theme in all of this, and it explains how they were caught so flat-footed.

Simply put, politicians of all stripes over the last 30 years have slowly relented from their responsibilities in government. This too is for reasons of a game: while a government controls so much of a bureaucracy or a series of departments it is vulnerable to attacks or even downfall from those avenues. This means a government running road, rail, postal services, schools, military, police and so on can potentially take a lot of heat - especially in an age of 24-hour news.

So their natural inclination has been to get as many of these concerns off their books as possible. Privatisation benefits the government because it makes headaches over the rail system someone else's problem. Extreme liberalisation of markets benefits the government because it gives them a convenient set of targets when everything is going to hell. And so on.

Sometimes it's good to liberalise, sometimes it isn't. In so doing to an extreme degree, the governments of the west have essentially been allowing the exploits to multiply for a long time. They have also been retreating ever further away from their essential role of the rule-maker, but it is still a role that they have.

Moving Forward: Digital Nation
This is where we, the game developers, can make a difference. The real issues of complex systems and exploit management are our bread and butter. We make games for a living, some of them very complex. We model systems and simulations on a more or less constant basis and we do so from the position of experts both in systems and in player behaviour. If you accept that markets are essentially driven by game thinking, then who is better placed to come up with innovative solutions that we?

More importantly if we are also going to prevent this sort of catastrophe from happening again, who is better placed to help modelling a new form of digital governance than we? Politicians don't seem to have the tools at their disposal to make informed decisions any more or really see the results of what they are deciding, but we can. We can make systems that model the entire development of a civilisation  if we put our minds to it. We are the professional systems makers, simulationists and gamers.

So, when looking at the latest series of rises and falls on Wall Street and the latest ever more listless cash injections being used to try and preven further meltdown, think of it like this: What you're seeing is a badly designed game in operation being managed by people who don't have a firm grasp of it because of its complexity and who are really just hoping not to get the blame. We can do better than this, and we should.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Embedding and sharing in the Play Room

The Play Room is proving to be quite entertaining, and it's always fun to share within it. Some tips:

It's really very easy to join. Simply register a username on (this takes all of ten seconds) and then click this link: and the Join This Room button.

You can share items to the Play Room very easily using a bookmarklet. This is simply a button that you drag on to your browser's bookmarks toolbar. Thereafter, any time you see a page that you'd like to share, you simply click the bookmarklet and a little box appears asking you to fill in some details. Don't forget: While the bookmarklet is opne you can also click one of the pictures on the page to add it into your share. Shares with pictures are always more attractive. The bookmarklet is here:

You can embed a little frame of The Play Room on your own blog or site if you like. Simply add the following piece of javascript to your site, and you will see a widget just like the one on the right hand side of this page:

<script src="" type="text/javascript"></script>

Come join in the fun!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Nine members

Well it's a start.

So far the activity in The Play Room has admittedly mostly been mine (come on members, get with the sharing) but some of those items have been quite interesting even if I do say so myself.

Two articles, for example.

  • One is about piracy and Cliff Harris's call for pirates to speak to him directly about why they pirate (A mildly confrontational, but I suspect fruitless, challenge).
  • The other is from Gamasutra and is about the hurdles that Johnathan Blow encountered with the Microsoft certification process for XBLA.
Both links are sitting in the room now. Come, join, comment, share. 

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Play Room: Friendfear?

Something I hadn't expected.

I've asked a few friends, not many - people in games - to sign up to the room. A few have. But some of the reactions that I've had from those who haven't has been something that I hadn't expected: Fear of publicity.

Specifically, that they didn't want discussions, even light-hearted discussions, on the subjects of games in case somebody somewhere (from their jobs mostly) might Google them and find them.

It says a lot about what it is to work in games when even a link-sharing group strikes terror into the heart.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Play Room: 24 Hours later

Well things have gotten off to a good start: There are 7 of us in the room now.

I've had an interesting day talking to a few friends about it in fact, giving them a link etc. All but one of them didn't know what Friendfeed was at all, and there was a lot of suspicion. One friend kept badgering me and asking what was in it for THEM. It was hard to explain that it was one of those "what you put in, you get out" deals.

For those that don't know: This is a wiki page about what Friendfeed is.
It's not a spammy service, it's just a simple gathering tool, not a million miles away from a webforum or Facebook group, but it's really easy to pass interesting links that you've found on the web and start discussions etc.

Come, join in.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Play Room

I don't know about you, but recently I have become very very bored with the whole blogging scene. Games blogging such as it is had this really high wave of activity about 3-4 years ago when people like Greg Costikyan and Scott Miller and Daniel Cook were at the height of their powers. It was all big, serious-minded people writing big serious essays on every subject from how to manage a brand to very in-depth talks about game design.

But lately the scene has just gone to seed. We're not along in this either: Lots of the world's biggest blogheads are engaged in furious debate at the moment over why blogging has gone so damn boring. A lot of them are now talking about micro-blogging, life-casting and sundry other concepts which could be described as fascinating and horrendous all at the one moment.

I'm not proposing to start life-casting my day or anything of the sort, but what I am proposing is to get a conversation going and leave the blogspace to become more noteworthy and probably turn into Google Knol in the fullness of time. As with games themselves, this blogging lark should be fun, no?

Well here it is: The Play Room.

The Play Room is a room on the social meta-service called Friendfeed. It is a service in which you can share links and comment on them, share photos, embed feeds, all that good stuff. A room in Friendfeed is simply a sub-division of that space in which an administrator (in this case me) sets a very few ground rules (like staying reasonably on topic would be nice) and really just lets everybody else get on with it. Friendfeed is ridiculously easy to use. Just sign up, set up the things you want to embed in your own feed, and then click on the link above (or here) and join in.

The subject of the Play Room?

GAMES of course. And social media. And funny videos. And webcomics. And photographs of queues outside shops at midnight to buy Halo 4. And blog posts. And links to neat magazine articles. And deriding E3. It's basically a place to share, think, comment and enjoy. Share and enjoy.

That's it, that's the pitch. Come on in, tell your friends, get them to come on in too.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.