Josh@SXSW: Saturday, March 13

Friday, March 12, 2010

So, yes, SXSW 2010 is upon us. I arrived in Austin Tuesday evening and have been madly hammering out the last updates to my talk, Add Some XBOX To Your UX. I’m really looking forward to finally getting it out there — I feel like I’ve been working on it forever. I started taking notes on it soon after I first submitted it way back in, what, May or something? June? Wow. Anyway, I hope it’ll come off well. I’m confident.

So. After the talk, I’m going to put up, here, a version of my notes edited for easier reading — along with a few outtakes from the talk which I think are interesting but just didn’t fit in. The original full version of the talk clocked in way too long, so some good stuff had to go. I’ll also post some links to books and blog posts and such — my bibliography, of sorts. (Check out the books in my Shelfari shelf widget to the right, as well, to get an idea of what I’ve been reading.) Hopefully SXSW will record some audio or video or something.

Anyway: Check out my talk! Add Some XOBX To Your UX. Saturday morning, 9:30am. Bring a cup of coffee and a breakfast taco.


Book Review: Racing the Beam

Monday, January 4, 2010

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost @ MIT

I really enjoyed this. It looks at game design from the perspective of the design of the Atari VCS (2600) system itself — how the limitations and quirks of that game console led to certain design decisions (good and bad) that affected some very seminal games.

Racing the Beam coverI’m a programmer, so when I think about game design it’s very hard for me to completely distance myself from thinking about what would be easy or difficult (or impossible) to actually implement. Sometimes laziness prevents me from making design choices that would be harder to execute. But I like to think that having an intimate understanding of the platform (say, iPhone) gives me a more refined sense of how to make something good particularly for that platform. I can avoid getting mired in things that just won’t work. Like how painters study their brushes so they know what the possibilities as as far as texture, stroke weight, etc. So talking about game design from exactly this perspective clicked with me very nicely.

Also: I am just a bit young to have experienced the Atari 2600. I’ve seen them and probably poked at a game or two as a kid, but I’m of the Nintendo generation. Reading this book with the internet handy to watch some of these games in action gave a really great introduction to the Atari 2600 (or, at least, as good as one could get without really playing one). And this book contains a lot of info about the history of Atari (and Activision and other 3rd party devs) as well as the historical context of all of this.

Finally, this book seems like a great introduction to the hardware history of computers. The book talks about the chips, the design of the motherboard (if that’s what it’s called), and how the hardware impacted the platform. And get to learn a bit how TVs work. Electrical engineers won’t be impressed, but I learned some stuff.

So, yeah — even though this book can get fairly technical (on an introductory level, at least), it’s still a very easy read. Well organized. Fun. Very interesting. Great book!

Crossposted to Game Design Advance.


Book Reviews 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

I’ve started using Shelfari to organize some of my reading. You may have noticed the widget in the sidebar with books I’m reading. For fun, I thought I’d just copy over my reviews from that site over here every once in a while. Two reasons:

1. I’m still kind of mildly uncomfortable putting thoughts into sites like Shelfari. Maybe it’s a fear that they’ll drop dead one day and I’ll loose my notes. So might as well duplicate them on my own server.

2. It’s as much of a snapshot as to what’s on my mind as anything, so I might as well toss those notes onto this jumbled scrapbook, as well.

A side effect of using Shelfari has been that it’s hooked into my OCD need to mark things “complete” which has given me a little extra juice to finish books I might otherwise drift away from. And having the widget on my blog gives me a little extra kick to pick up and read new books in lieu of other time-killing hobbies like whipping up on junior high schoolers in Modern Warfare 2 or spending hours mindlessly poking around Reddit.

(This isn’t everything I’ve read this year, to note.)

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

“A very good read, and despite being 20 years old (or so) quite illuminating as to our current financial crisis.” ✭✭✭✭✭

Columbine by David Cullen

“I hadn’t thought too much about the Columbine massacre since first hearing about it and then around the time Bowling for Columbine came out. I enjoyed this book, though (as much as one can enjoy the story of something so horrible). Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are painted in very vivid colors and Dave Cullen does, for the first time that I’ve heard, really get to the core cause of the tragedy. And very interesting to hear about the effect on the community over time.” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante

“One of the few Fante books I haven’t read. It’s good. Like the other Arturo Bandini books it’s tense and tightly wound, the fantasies of a young writer ramming up against the indignities of real life.” ✭✭✭✭✭

Chuck Klosterman IV by Chuck Klosterman

“Fun. Like sugary cereal or a donut.” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe

“David Plouffe is a good writer and even though I followed this election pretty closely, I enjoyed hearing the events strung together into a narrative from his perspective. It’s an exciting read (despite knowing the outcome!) and, as always, Obama’s an inspiring guy.” ✭✭✭✭✭

When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish by Martin Gardner

“I grew up reading Martin Gardner’s math books. Loved ‘em. So I was excited to give his new collection a shot. And it has a few good essays. I enjoyed learning about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum and the poem Evolution (from where the title of the book comes). And I’m always game for a good thrashing of Ann Coulter. Sadly, though, the math chapters were way too elementary and have been covered by Gardner himself on many occasions. And the chapters dealing with faith and skepticism are so basic and so much like shooting fish in barrels that I started skipping them altogether. So. I think this book might be wonderful for a high school student, but there’s just not really enough there for an adult reader. I still have great respect for Martin Gardner, but either I’ve outgrown him or this isn’t his greatest effort. Possibly a combination.” ✭✭✭✩✩

Final Thoughts

Lots of 5-star reviews, right? I guess two factors are at play: Since I don’t read that much, I tend to be highly selective about which books I’ll even crack open. And I think I have pretty decent “book radar” as far as selecting good reads. Especially with authors like Michael Lewis and John Fante who I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Oh, and I tried for the second time in my life to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this summer. And you know what? It’s not for me, I’m pretty sure. I gave up about halfway through. Too much effort. Not enough payoff. Which is sad, because it has some truly amazing sections. But I just lost the energy/will to dig through DFW’s massive, dense disgorgement to pick out the diamonds. So it goes. Maybe I’ll resume next summer.


First Snow of the Winter

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We had a blizzard in New York last night. I don’t think I’ve really experienced a “blizzard” before because I’ve never seen weather like this. Dense snow. 30-40mph winds whipping around. Around midnight I put on my winter jacket, gloves, and hat and went out to walk around in it a bit. Failure. Too windy — ice shards blowing into my face. Cars stuck in the road on snow banks. Drunk people slipping around. I lasted about five minutes before I came back in. Wow. Anyway, things are much nicer today.


SXSW 2010: I’m in!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I learned a couple of weeks ago that my talk, Add Some XBOX To Your UX, has been accepted for SXSW 2010. I know a lot of people speak at SXSW (2010 will have, like, 220 panels), but I’m pretty excited. It’ll be the first lengthy solo presentation I’ve given since graduate school and, well, it’s just nice to have an excuse to cogitate and do some deeper research on a particular subject. It really does feel like a thesis project, though. In a very good way.

I haven’t settled on any specifics, of course, but the main thrust of the talk will be about how features that one might commonly associate with games — “game-like mechanics,” I tend to call them — can be applied to non-game social software to enhance the user experience and to guide users towards particular outcomes. And despite the “UX” in the title, the talk won’t be geared specifically towards people with “user experience designer” on their business cards — it should appeal to anyone interested in new ways of thinking about how we do things together online.

The talk will build on the idea that so much of what we do together online is done for fun. Services like Twitter and Facebook can pat themselves on the back about the importance of what they do — allowing people to organize in new ways, find old friends, take political action, and such — but the core of the most well-used social media sites today is all about, I feel, people using their services to have fun. Sharing information (photos, videos, bars I go to, etc.) with friends is fun. And Twitter would not have had the impact it had on the Iranian election if millions of people like me had not signed up in the first place because it looked like a fun way to chat with a circle of friends. So what can we learn if we look at Twitter (for example) through that “fun” lens? Can we think about what that piece of “fun” is and how we might use game design strategies to amplify it?

Another starting point will be the subject of sites that use game mechanics to achieve very particular non-game goals which would be otherwise difficult/impossible. Google Image Labeller is a good (though not very new) example of this sort of thing. Opening ourselves up to games can give us a whole new box of tools to use when designing user experiences to achieve a certain goal. The concepts of friending people and rating things with stars or thumbs up/down and leaving comments and such are reasonably well understood and used all over the place. What other ways can people interact socially online? What other effects can we achieve?

These are fairly hefty subjects and I’m talking about them rather clumsily here. I’m definitely still refining my ideas. But I’ve been reading books, doing research, and having conversations about it — and expect to continue up until the day of the talk. Really, this is the most fun of the whole thing. Although the talk itself is a great opportunity, of course, and I look forward to kicking ass.


Working Conditions

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sukie has developed a habit of crawling up on my shoulders while I’m trying to work…

I said what what, kitten butt.

(I took this with PhotoBooth — it’s me looking at my laptop screen.)



Monday, November 2, 2009

A couple of years ago a simple game called Passage by Jason Rohrer made waves in the scene and got written up everywhere. An “art game,” it’s intended to poignantly depict the feeling of one’s passage through a life and the choices one might make using a very lo-fi Atari or NES-era aesthetic: blocky graphics, blippy 8-bit soundtrack. The game takes about five minutes to play through, so go check it out if you haven’t. (Also: it’s free.) It’s a valiant effort at communicating something a bit more poetic than usual via a video game.

One of the things that stuck with me the most about Passage is the depiction of one’s perception of time. At every moment in the game you can see the entirety of the “life” you’re constructing. The moments around you, though, are large and clear (relatively speaking) whereas both the moments far ahead and far in the past are compressed and difficult to make out the further away from you they are. And when you’re young at the beginning of the game you have no past, when you’re old you have no future. I enjoy the symmetry, the idea that we experience our pasts and future in similar ways — both are kind of possibility spaces of stories and interpretations that get foggier the further away from the present we get. I mostly know what I did yesterday. I mostly know what I’ll do tomorrow. Ten years back and forward, though, are more difficult to perceive. Jason Rohrer has a creator’s statement accompanying Passage, if you’d like to hear his take.

I suspect if you’re over a certain age (30s? 40s?) this might all seem sort of obvious. As I age I kind of see that getting older is really only something you can understand by doing. I’ve had a conversation on several occasions with Christin about my 92-year-old Grandmother, how it’s difficult for me to understand what’s going through my Grandmother’s mind sometimes because I live — and have only ever lived — a life where almost everything for me is in the future and she’s living a life, now, where everything is behind her and her future’s on very shaky ground (she’s quite healthy — but there are human limits at play). I wonder sometimes if certain religious feelings or perceptions of things like the afterlife become especially vivid at this point: If when people loose their actual “future” they sort of hallucinate it, like a phantom limb or what Oliver Sacks describes here. She talks about seeing my deceased Grandfather in heaven and about how she wants to spend as much time with the family as she can so she’ll have memories to take with her when she passes over — still planning for a future. It’s very, very hard for me to conceive of what I would even be like if I had no future to plan for and work towards. I suppose if I live a long and healthy life I’ll get to find out for myself someday…

Anyway, this wasn’t intended to be a morbid post. Just kind of free-associating, as I do.


Critter Defense Dataporn

Saturday, August 1, 2009

(Originally posted to the Mojito blog. Archived here for posterity.)

So we track pretty much everything we can when someone plays Critter Defense. It’s neat to watch and see how your game design holds up when people actually play. And you get a few surprises — like (for example) that our toughest levels seem to be in the Seashore (middle) stage — Seashore-3 and Seashore-4, specifically. Hm! We’ve haven’t settled on the significance of this, but it seems to be a fact.

Anyway. If you’re interested, I’ve put together some Google Charts with data we’ve collected so far. If you’re playing Critter Defense, it could be interesting to compare your experience to. If you haven’t finished the game and are looking for a little hint, maybe this will at least tell you which waves may be the toughest. So you can steel yourself.

The pie chart on the right shows the percentages of times players have won or lost a level. The bar graph on the right indicates within which waves players lost. The taller the bar, the more losses.