Game Design & Musical Play

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Christin and Tikva rock out.

So Christin and I travelled through dark and drizzle to the Eyebeam “Mixer: Version” party out in Chelsea last Saturday. Britta and Rebecca had invited us to come check out the public installation of their excellent Windowfarms project, a take on DIY urban gardening. Photo below.

Britta's and Rebecca's Windowfarms.

A handful of other projects were installed at Eyebeam for the event. We played a quick round of David Jimison’s Mad Libs+karaoke thing (we needed more alcohol, honestly) and after doing a round of meet-and-greet with the (actually surprisingly small) contingency of former ITPers we settled in for a round of the very well put-together World Series of [You] ‘Tubing project. Check out the link for the details, but quickly: A player goes to a kiosk and picks out five of their favorite funny/absurd YouTube videos. Mind were mostly along the lines of hamsters having sex and cats acting weird. I know what I like. And then you go up onstage and “play” your videos alongside someone else’s video choice. And the audience decides who has the better video by pointing with green laser pointers. Hamster sex video? A winner! Cat swatting at a hammer? A loser. I lost. Overall. So my YouTube skills must be weak. But. Very fun game. Very nicely put together.

The pic at the top of this post (and the one below) are of Hans-Christoph Steiner’s hacked iPod musical performance project. Briefly: You pick an instrument. Each has an iPod stuck to it with custom sound-generating software that you kind of “scratch” (DJ-style) by touching the scroll interface on the iPod. I fiddled with the drums which apparently worked by pushing the four buttons above the wheel (on a third-gen iPod) — but it had crashed or something and I couldn’t seem to get it to work.

Now. I’m not trying to get on Hans’ case — I liked the project. It looked great — I loved the whiteness of everything. Plus, it was quite a technical achievement. And people had a lot of fun with it — I mean, check out the pics. Girls gone wild. But. The sound was wild cacophony. Wild cacophony can be good, at times. But this wild cacophony came from people having a rather limited perception of what sounds poking at the iPod would make. And if they knew that, then they seemed to have little idea about how to use the sounds (besides just poking furiously). And if they figured out something good to do, they had no way to coordinate with the three other people making random noises on stage. And this is a very common problem for projects which expect audience members to come up and participate in the creation of sound.

So. My graduate thesis for ITP (called “MMMI”) kind of sucked. I mean, it had its moments. The technology was kind of clever and I think I had a very polished visual design — but the resulting music wasn’t so hot. So, y’know, failure. It was a musical project, afterall. Specifically, a project that invited about twenty people to interact with the same musical interface at the same time with a specific goal of creating an intelligible piece of collaborative music. (The project also involved a bit of phone-to-screen technology which I’m not going to get into because it’s neither here nor there as far as this discussion. If you want to know more, go here.) Okay. I failed. But I think I was on the right track. Here’s why.

People need structure. People need to be told what to do. Or, at least, to be given a shove in a certain direction. Whole broad swaths of design are built upon this notion, from architecture to web design to game design. People need this because they want to have success with things they may not be experts at. I want to successfully use the bathroom in the Chrysler Building despite the fact that I have never stepped inside the building before in my life and don’t even know how many floors it has. I want to successfully buy a Hickory Farms beefstick party pack from their site despite not knowing intimately how payment authentication on the web works. I want to have fun with Call of Duty: World at War even though I don’t know each and every level inside out and don’t even really know how much damage the different weapons do to bad guys.

But in a creative environment people don’t want to be told exactly what to do. They want hints — signposts that can direct them, but be ignored if the user thinks of something better they’d like to do or try. And this is where I feel like applying “game-like” design strategies to musical instrument design is key — especially if you want several people who have never played your instrument to be able to collaborate in some meaningful way.

My grad thesis, MMMI, tried to solve this by giving players points by hitting the balls on the screen and making sounds. Everyone had the same score, so it was cooperative rather than competitive. I wanted players to keep the musical balls bouncing on the screen, so I rewarded them for doing that. How they bounced the balls around to make different sorts of sounds — that was where their creativity and freedom came in. But. In order to advance “levels” — to get to the next set of sounds and visuals — they had to reach certain points thresholds. So. If players liked where they were and didn’t care to advance, then the points could be ignored without any penalty. Good, right? I offered a structure, but also allowed players to ignore the structure without serious consequence. This is one of the reasons I call this sort of thing “game-like” design or “applying game-like mechanics” — it’s not a game in the usual “win-lose” sense.

So, yeah. My particular implementation wasn’t that awesome — this sort of design can be challenging, it turns out. (It also, just to note, probably alludes to the generative composition movement and possibly the sort of audience-performer breakdown of a “happening.” But who knows.) You have to provide a game-like structure but kind of modulate the punishment and reward systems to match what you, as “composer,” think would be a positive experience for your amateur performers.

Why not just have a musical score for your players? (Score like sheet music, not like points.) Well, that’s certainly another way to go about it. But I think that feels just less “fun” overall — maybe because I’m biased towards the term “game” over the term “score.” The latter feels like something you have to do. The former feels like some you explore and play with.

Anyway. Obviously this sort of application of “game-like” design for creative purposes interests me quite a bit. I feel like this has been touched upon, but we still haven’t seen it flourish. People credit games like Flower or Guitar Hero with being in this realm, but they’re not. Electroplankton kind of is, but at this point it’s fairly dated and obviously incomplete. I might go so far as to say if you can lose at something, then it’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean, you can paint a shitty picture, but if you start painting the sky green and the grass red your canvas shouldn’t abruptly vaporize and tell you how much you suck. Because maybe that’s what you want to do. Maybe that’s what you want to explore. What if I want to play all of the wrong notes in Guitar Hero? The song shuts off and I hear booing sounds.

Okay. Don’t lie: You haven’t read this far. Okay. Maybe. Just in case, here’s a conclusion: I haven’t had the opportunity to work on a project with this theme in a while — since my thesis, really. But I want to. I’m currently exploring a few ideas for applying this sort of thought to iPhone games. And, actually, what’s neat about the iPhone is that there are a handful of apps which kind of do what I’m talking about. No, not “iFart.” (And not Brian Eno’s “Bloom,” either.) The Smule apps, I mean. “Ocarina” and “Leaf Trombone.” (Given the jillions of apps out there, I’m sure there are more.) Whereas my examples in the previous paragraph land a bit on the “this is just a game” side of the aisle, those two kind of land a bit too far on the “this is just a toy” side of the aisle. But it’s nice that they’re there. So, yeah. Hopefully I’ll come up with some clever notion and will get to write another windy blog post about it, here.


Britta and Tikva rock out.

I read the whole thing, yo

Posted Wed, July 15, 2009, 10:41am EST by Dan Phiffer

I think the interactive guidance you're talking about definitely makes a big difference, not just in games or game-like-instruments. I've become a bit gaming illiterate, but one example that I like a lot is the help messages that accompany JumpMan. They are subtly presented and just the right amount of ambiguous. On the other hand I also have affection for You Have To Burn The Rope. Curious what you think about RjDj.