Criticising the Critics


Posted by Colin Northway | Posted in Thinking about Thinking | Posted on 18-10-2013

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Yesterday I started to read Tevis Thompson’s piece on Bioshock Infinite and Game Criticism Generally. And, like Tevis’ writing has done before, it made me angry so I tweeted some tweets:


Most of which I stand by. But that middle tweet “Don’t listen to critics, they are trying to make you love what they love” reeks of bullshit to me now. What should we fellow human beings be doing about art if it is not bringing eachother an experience that we will love? Of course everyone should be evangelistic about things they love. That’s a wonderful thing to do.

I do think that the world of painting and sculpture has been stolen from us by critics though, and here is why:

fountainI love contemporary art, part of the joy of traveling is that we get to explore contemporary art galleries from Tokyo to Istanbul to Paris to Vancouver but this love of contemporary art has come despite the established art world. For generations and generations painting and sculture was seperated into high art and low art. Low art was pictures of puppy dogs and sunsets, mickey mouse and advertising. High art was often oils, eventually abstract, basically whatever hangs in a museum. The divide was boolean and at the extremes the gulf was great: The Mona Lisa is a masterwork of great value, mickey mouse is common and not very interesting. Duchamp tried to smash down this wall. Pop art took a fire-ax to it. But both ended up being terribly horribly co-opted. Replicas of Duchamp’s Fountain (the original is lost) are displayed in galleries and have value whereas the average toilet urinal is not and does not. So while people have smashed at the divide between high art and low art it still stands, solid and unwavering. Staring any common-man who walks into an art gallery straight in the eyeballs.

monaLisaAnd this is the damage that the critical divide between “good” and “bad” art does, it stares you in the eyes whenever you walk into a gallery and tells you what you “should” like. What you can admit to liking without having someone more knowlegable than you chuckle at you. You can say you like the Mona Lisa for instance, and Mondrian and 17th century portraiture. Saying you like these will make the people around you nod their heads in a greement. No one will laugh at you, those are some acceptably high-art tastes. But does anyone who hasn’t studied art actually like those things? No. That’s why going to the art gallery is a chore and not a joy. Because the things that you are expected to like are only exciting to people who have poured their entire lives into art. Mondrian was incredibly exciting at the time but now his work has been co-opted and reshaped so much and so many times his original works are boring and stale. It is only if you are educated in what came before and after does the work become interesting so it is only interesting to people who have dedicated themselves to studying painting. Those are the people who decide what is good, who can defend their decisions, and the rest of the world looks to them to decide what to look at when they go to a gallery.

So people don’t go to the third floor of the Vancouver art gallery where the contemporary art is. They stay on the first floor where the Picassos hang. Never mind that you’ve seen those paintings a million times already, reproduced in ads and movies and magazines and online. Those are the high-status paintings and high-status in the art world is everything.

whaleBut the stuff on the third floor is amazing! It’s got no history, you’ve never heard of the artist and you’re not sure if it’s even “art” or not but god damn, hanging from the ceiling is a whole whale skeleton made of lawn-chairs! How cool is that!? Lets be honest, anyone can appreciate a giant whale made of lawn-chairs. If that’s too shallow for you then over in the corner there’s work that talks about modern local issues in a way that you can understand without an art education (as long as you’re from BC). It’s a minor miracle this stuff is even here, the Vancouver gallery is particularly good at exhibiting local artists who do work that’s interesting to a crowd with no art-education. On the other hand the MOMA and the SFMOMA are particularly bad at it. They play to what you are supposed to like, artists that critics have all agreed are good and important. But these artists are talking straight over our heads because critics are bored by the stuff we like. That’s not surprising, they’ve spent their whole lives looking at paintings. I don’t think your average art historian would get The Stanley Parable just like I don’t get the Mona Lisa. Insisting that we have the same taste as someone who has spent their whole life engaged with a medium isn’t productive and it’s what keeps people out of art galleries.

When I read pretty much anything Tevis writes I get mad because his writing oozes a certainty and an authority that I think is slowly building a wall between the Mona Lisa and Lawn-Chair Whales. But I was so wrong to call out all criticism as bad. Critics probably had something to do with getting Brian Jungen’s work into the gallery to begin with. Many games right now have a frightening relationship with race and gender and it’s incredibly valuable to have people pointing that out.

Realistically games aren’t going to go the way of paintings and sculptures anyway, they are of too much populist interest. More likely we will fall into the casual snobbery of films and music where the wall exists but is more permeable. I just love that right now, among my friends, Angry Birds is a “good” game and so is The Stanley Parable. No one feels the need to call one inherintly “better” than the other. That discussion, along with “is it even a game” and “what is art” isn’t useful and doesn’t need to happen.


p.s. I also think I have some insight into why players are horrible assholes to people who criticise games they like. In a disagreement between the casual enthusiast and the studied critic the enthusiast has almost no way to argue his point. Art is very hard to talk about. Why do I love the whale? I really have no idea, I can not express it in words. I think this helps explain why well written pieces that sharply criticise a popular game are met with angry invectives instead of anything constructive. These players want to express how much and why they love this piece of art but have no idea how to do that so they collapse into hurtful personal attacks in a horrible attempt to defend the thing they love. I studied film a little bit in university so I can express to you very clearly why the structural problems in Game of Thrones make it infuriating for me to watch. But what’s your comeback going to be if you haven’t? “Oh… I like it”. Being able to justify your position has an odd importance in our world, that’s why some art galleries have those rediculous little writeups filled with art-speak and high-minded ideas, because, “Holy shit, that looks cool!” is, for some reason, not enough for us.

If you do need a greater reason to like the whale: “Brian Jungen’s sculpture ‘Shapeshifter’ makes a statement about cultural hybridity and institutional displays of marine life in aquariums and natural history museums. Jungen, who investigates the intersections and fluid boundaries between Aboriginal and Western cultures, asks us to consider the skeleton of a whale, not an anatomically accurate whale, but a composite influenced by the forms of chairs and by actual whale species. With his choice of material – the ubiquitous monoblock plastic chairs found in discount stores around the world – the artist explores the potential for communication inherent in mass-produced objects in the context of a global economy. Many societies are fascinated by whales and have endowed them with special significance. Aboriginal groups consider the whale to be an animal of great spiritual power, while whales in captivity are popular tourist attractions. The title “Shapeshifter” refers to the spiritual process of transformation from human to animal or vice versa.”


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Rebuild now available for Android phones & tablets


Posted by Sarah Northway | Posted in Biznizz | Posted on 02-04-2012

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Yes, you can now get Rebuild for your Droid Nexus Galaxy Razr Epic Maxx, or whatever you call that thing! But first, an update:

Rebuild in the PlayBook top games

Rebuild in the PlayBook top games

Rebuild’s doing way better than expected on the BlackBerry PlayBook. This week it’s featured and in their top paid games – up there with three versions of Angry Birds (or is it 4 now?). It’s gotten mentions on,, and

All of this is so awesome, because the port took zero effort… and I’m rather fond of my new PlayBook.

Rebuild's PlayBook Sales

Rebuild's PlayBook Sales

But even with all this extravaganza, my sales there are just barely matching the current iPad/iPhone sales (where Rebuild is #500 in games, #50 in strategy with a super-minor feature in iTunes – bet you can’t find it). So being a relative nobody on iOS == stardom on the PlayBook? Bummer for RiM, but I’m just so happy to be loved that I’d rather not dwell on that.

Up next: the terrifying Android marketplace. I’d been avoiding Android because of my instinctive fear of all those different devices. Despite all my laboring over the iOS version, Rebuild is still a little sluggish and crashy on the iPad 1 and iPhone 3GS. There are much less powerful Android phones out there and no easy way to target only the ones with enough RAM and CPU/GPU power to run Rebuild smoothly (although I’ve tried using compatible-screens). So it is with trepidation that I announce Rebuild on Google Play.

But apparently that’s not enough. I knew the hardware base was fractured, but I didn’t realize the app market itself was also fractured. There must be 100 different sites that sell Android apps, and each one wants me to upload my binary to them along with screenshots and promo art in different arbitrary dimensions. Many of the Android “review” sites either require you to sell through their store, or charge $200 for a review. Am I really seeing this right?

I’ve submitted to Amazon so I can get it on the Kindle Fire (although for $200 the PlayBook is a massively better hardware deal). But I’m not sure I have the stomach for all these other stores. Have I been naive to only buy apps through Google? Android users – where do you get your games?


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Rebuild: Regarding Clones


Posted by Sarah Northway | Posted in Biznizz, Game Design | Posted on 16-06-2011

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Last week someone released a knockoff of Rebuild for the iPad. When I contacted them, the publisher politely said it was a mistake and took it down immediately, but it reminded me of what’s at stake if I take my time with the sequel (which will come out for iPad as well as Flash).

It also got me thinking about the topic of clone games, which have always bothered me, but I find it hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a clone and why I find them offensive. The conversation tends to gets heated when the topic comes up, but I think it’s important that we talk about it all the same. It’s going to buzz around my brain until I do so I decided to look at some examples and ask some questions.

Rebuild vs clone of Rebuild

Rebuild vs Knockoff Rebuild

The Rebuild clone is an extreme case and it’s been taken down, but I’d like to start with it. The gameplay was the same, the art was better but strikingly similar and the events were rewritten in different words. Perfectly legal, except that they named it “Rebuild” which was probably an accident. I think it’s crazy that someone could spend so much effort to produce a beautiful and polished game while skipping the fun part of designing the gameplay. I imagine profit must be the only motive, but I’m not sure. I am sure that it shouldn’t have been legal.

There are good reasons why you can’t copyright gameplay. Gameplay is hard to define, and borrowing ideas from earlier games is an important part of how genres evolve. I agree, it would suck if someone owned the copyright on aiming with a mouse, or levelling-up a character, or if Square Enix could sue you for using the FFVII class system in your vector-based robot platformer. I’m happy anyone can iterate and expand on ideas from other games, but there’s a difference between that and being a total, shameless knockoff.

Clones are like porn: you know it when you see it.

Fantastic Contraption vs Magnificent Gizmos & Gadgets

Fantastic Contraption vs Magnificent Gizmos & Gadgets

After Colin wrote Contraption, he started negotiations for an iPhone port with a developer but it fell through when Colin realised the deal they offered was rediculously out of scope with the industry standard. Three months later they released a nearly exact clone of Colin’s game with a pretty graphical makeover, almost beating our real port to the iPhone market (free tip: before you deal with someone see how many outstanding law suits are pending against them). Apple didn’t take it down, but (with our publisher inExile’s help) they did feature us and the clone got buried.

The situation was unusual because Colin new the cloner and suspects they’d already started on the game (as an official Contraption port) before negotiations collapsed. It might have held up in court if it had been worth suing over, but I’m really glad we didn’t have to find out.

Don’t rely on Apple to make any moral decisions regarding knockoffs. They’ll take something off the App Store if it violates copyright, ie if it uses your name or characters or graphics, but they’re slow and don’t reply whether they decide to act or not.

Tetris vs Brick Game

Tetris vs Brick Game

Possibly the most cloned game ever, Tetris, has been beset with copyright problems since the get-go. Knockoffs show up everywhere from naughty versions on xxx sites to “9999 in 1 Russia Brick Game” handhelds at dollar stores. Last month the company that owns Tetris sent Google a DMCA notice regarding 35 games on the Android market which were all promptly removed. Some of them used the word “Tetris” which is unarguably illegal, but many just had similar gameplay.

It’s interesting that this sue-happy company can so easily throw their weight around to enforce copyright on a 30 year old title. I guess the system does work for some people. But I wonder if Tetris is so well known that it should be considered a genre in itself, gameplay in the public domain. Did any of the unauthorized games combine new and interesting concepts with our beloved block game?

FarmTown vs FarmVille

FarmTown vs FarmVille

Facebook games all look the same, to someone uninterested in spamming her friends every time she grows a tomato. Talk about shameless mimicry! Consider Zynga‘s multi-billion dollar line of clones: FarmVille, PetVille, Café World, Mafia Wars. They wait for a game to be successful, copy it to a T, then aim their firehose of players at it – ka-ching! They must have a strong sense of irony, because now Zynga’s threatening to sue people for using “-ville” in their game names.

Granted, they’re not the only ones at it, and Zynga is spectacularly good at optimizing games to maximize virality and revenue. Did FarmTown lose money when it got cloned, or did the sudden popularity of farming games bring them new players? Is there room in a player’s feed for two (or three, or four) such similar games?

Minecraft vs Fortresscraft

Minecraft vs Fortresscraft

Microsoft just announced that Minecraft is coming to XBLA. This must be a disappointment to the creators of top-selling XBLIG game FortressCraft, one of the most recent in the genre of “first person multiplayer voxel art mining sandbox roguelikes”. Unlike the owners of Tetris, Notch has no intention of suing, in part because he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on: Minecraft started as a self-admitted clone of Infiniminer (by Zachary Barth, creator of SpaceChem).

You could argue that the world wouldn’t have discovered this new genre if Minecraft hadn’t picked up after Infiniminer was cancelled and iterated on it to make a really great game. On the other hand, the graphical similarities are so obvious it’s embarassing. Barth says he’s flattered that his game design has become so popular, and leaves it at that.

Crush the Castle vs Angry Birds

Crush the Castle vs Angry Birds

Angry Birds has been in the App Store top 3 for over a year and has made over 70 million dollars. Apple constantly features the game because it’s in their interest to have fewer, more popular games whose household names might intice people to buy an iPhone or iPad. Few games get into the top 10 and they tend to stay there, which makes developing for the iPhone kind of like playing a slot machine.

As you probably suspected, Angry Birds’ gameplay was copied from a Flash game called Crush The Castle. The difference this time is that Angry Birds used a completely different look, having you whimsically toss suicidal birds at pigs instead of cannonballs at armored men. It feels good, it sound good, and it’s obvious why even our parents are playing this game.

Is it innovation if you just change the setting? I know I wouldn’t have been so miffed at the Rebuild clone if you were fighting aliens on a moon base instead of zombies in an identical looking city.

WaveSpark vs Tiny Wings

WaveSpark vs Tiny Wings

In another case of innovation via higher production values, top-selling iPhone game Tiny Wings is far, far more polished than an earlier game WaveSpark which used the same gameplay. WaveSpark was created as part of a project to write a different game every week, and the creator Nathan McCoy didn’t spend a lot of time making it look good. It goes to show that polish pays. So do cute birds.

It seems that’s what players care about, as McCoy’s request for credit was met with jeering at his game’s simple graphics. I’m hesitant to call Tiny Wings a clone, but I’d like to see developers (and fans) give credit to games that inspired theirs. Do they not for fear of being sued?

Desktop Dungeons vs League of Epic Heroes

Desktop Dungeons vs League of Epic Heroes

QCF Design has finally started preorders for Desktop Dungeons, and last week they briefly had a beta version of the game online (I’m bummed I missed it). They’re being secretive for good reason: they’ve been burned before.

They started off releasing alpha versions of the game as they were writing it, incorporating feedback from the community and growing a tidy fan base. Then one such fan released an iPhone game copying Desktop Dungeons’ gameplay right down to the classes and spell names. After months of friendly but fruitless discussions between the two developers, QCF finally brought in their lawyer and spoke publicly about the situation. The cloner relented and graciously took his game down.

He didn’t seem like a bad guy. He just wanted to make a good game, and Desktop Dungeons was a good game. But releasing it before the original was even finished? Ouch.

SimCity vs Rebuild

SimCity vs Rebuild

I’m just kidding about this comparison, but SimCity was one of the inspirations for my game. So was X-Com and zombie movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead. Like I said, all games borrow from other games and I’m happy they can.

I know I’ve gotten all high and mighty, but there’s a line that gets crossed too often. It just ain’t right, and something needs to change! If the law can’t help and distributors like Apple won’t help, at least players can have an effect by respecting the creators of original gameplay and not buying the knockoffs. Or at least give credit where it’s due and play the original games too.

Colin notes that the real tragedy is that the cloners aren’t just stealing a good idea. They are stealing refined, thought out game design that might have taken years to make work. It takes much less risk to just steal great gameplay and polish up the graphics.

Good thing there will always be foolish indie developers who are more interested in making something cool than simply making money.


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How Complex is BrainSplode!?


Posted by Colin Northway | Posted in Game Design, Travel | Posted on 03-06-2011

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Playing BrainSplode! in Honduras

When we were in Honduras last year we had a pretty crappy Internet connection. It was pretty slow and we had to pay for our bandwidth by the meg. When you pay by the meg suddenly podcasts and torrents are less fun. Fortunately there were a few indie games I sucked a lot of fun out of. They kept me entertained for days and all they asked for was a few megs of bandwidth.

One of those games was BrainSplode! by Rich Edwards. BrainSplode! isn’t even a proper game. It’s just a prototype. But it’s so good it drives me crazy that Rich is continuing to prototype stuff rather than just double down on BrainSplode!.

You can think of it as a game about programmable howitzer shells. I like it for a couple of reasons. One is because it is incredibly, rediculously fun. Another is that you can so easily enumerate the complexity of BrainSplode!.

I will give a very brief description but you should really just go play it. Brain Splode! starts off as a very familiar ballistics game ala Scorched Earth or Crush the Castle. But it mixes in some Roborally/SpaceChem style programmable elements. Namely, you can chose to change the direction of the shell, fire off a booster rocket, pop a parachute, or any combination of these three actions at any time after the shell is fired. You do this by lining up three ‘actions’ to take before you fire the shell and then activate them in turn by pressing the mouse button.

As an example, I can fire the shell high and to the left, then I can make it face backwards, then I can fire off a booster rocket which sends it flying to the right and then pop a chute to slowly glide towards my final target.

Manually calculating ballistics trajectories

BrainSplode! has something like 6 variables to play with. Two for the cannon, one for how I program the shell, one for how I set the direction changer (assuming I use one) and then another couple for when I choose to activate each action.

Since a lot of these variables are along a continuum and not discreet choices it’s hard to enumerate the total number of options available but we can easily see that the solution space is huge. In fact I think it’s too big. BrainSplode! is yet another game in a long series of games that I love but utterly fail at convincing my friends to play. I pestered everyone I knew and almost no one else finished BrainSplode!. I think that has to do with the complexity of the solution space.

There is some good empirical evidence that the two variables of the ballistics game on their own represent a comfortable level of complexity (Angry Birds). So I think BrainSplode! is stumbling outside the optimum complexity fun-zone. As an interesting experiment I’d like to try pushing it back into the fun-zone. Here’s how the experiment goes. You can play along at home.

  1. Download BrainSplode!
  2. Beat BrainSplode! normally.
  3. Go back to level 7 and set the cannon to shoot up and left with minimum power (put the power meter in the very top left of the square). Now beat level 7 without moving the cannon.
  4. Do the same for level 6.

You have to beat the game first because steps 3 and 4 are very hard (since the game isn’t designed with them in mind) and if you didn’t the difficulty curve would be way out of whack. By holding the cannon variables constant we push BrainSplode! back towards the optimal-fun zone where the complexity is more manageable. I think as players and designers we intuitively understand when something is too complex or not complex enough, but only after the fact. We pretty much have to build something and play it before we know if it needs more or less stuff glued onto it. Worse still after we’ve been living with a game for a while we lose perspective on the optimum complexity: “I have no problem understanding the game I’ve been making for 4 months, I don’t know why other people are having trouble”.

I’d love to understand the relationship between complexity and fun better. Mostly I find it an impenetrable fog. I’m always trying though and BrainSplode! is probably the most fun experimental complexity playground I’ve yet to find.


p.s. if you’re really looking for a BrainSplode! challenge I have two more for you:

- Try level 7 but with only one set of programed commands. You can use parachutes and rockets and everything, but you can only set them once  at the beginning and never change them. This includes the green change-angle power. You can use it but you must chose one angle at the very  beginning and never change it. You also have to leave the cannon locked in one place, but you can set it anywhere you like. No changes to  anything! (if you play RoboRally then think of it as having all your registers locked).

- Then try level 6 the same way.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the world to get these ones. Even Rich shied away from these challenges. Happy ‘Sploding!


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False Unicorn Horns


Posted by Colin Northway | Posted in Game Design | Posted on 08-03-2011

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The game I’m working on is really really fun. When I first played it I had near orgasms of delight. The problem is, it’s really really hard. I want to give players orgasms of delight but to experience them they have to learn a lot of stuff. I’ve decided to try to solve this problem with a false unicorn horn.

No one I ever try to explain this to has ever seen The Last Unicorn (which is a shame) so I will fill you in on what I’m talking about. In the movie there is a last unicorn. It also contains Mommy Fortuna, a relatively evil witch who keeps a traveling sideshow of rare animals. Most of her animals are very humdrum but she uses a magic spell to make it appear to onlookers as if they are manticores and satyrs. The pertinent idea here comes up when Mommy Fortuna captures our Unicorn. Since unicorn horns are invisible to the general public she magically applies a false one. This is a great idea that I want to steal.

Since the game is so hard players will never learn how to play it if I just explain all the buttons and throw them in. Red-faced, they will exclaim “this is just a horse” to each-other between quaffs of ale, have a good laugh, and then move on. I need to apply a false horn so that people will play the game even when it is not at its orgasm inducing peak in order to bring them great joy later on when they can see the horn for real. I think there are a couple ways to do this and I want make use of as many as I can. More ideas are appreciated, there is a comment feature on this blog.

Abuse of Dopamine Receptors. The ultimate false unicorn horn, behavioural psychologists have done a pretty good job of ferreting out the strings attached to our brain that make us dance and have called them dopamine receptors. Things that our brain loves: bright colours, intermittent rewards, a feeling of progress, close calls, basically Peggle. Basically our brains were put here on earth to play Peggle.

Our brain loves these things because they are hints that we are learning something. And god DAMN do we love to learn. The problem with Peggle is that any player-skill is swamped out by the random element. So, like gambling, it’s just a trick. An illusion. It tickles the brain making us feel like we’re learning something and improving but we aren’t. The horn on the unicorn is a fake. There are a lot of other games with big fake horns, like Farmville, WoW, and Drop7 (actually I’m willing to budge on Drop7 if someone can find me a player that reliably gets very high scores).

So anyway, I have to get some fake learning into my game so I can get people to the real learning. I’m not really very good at this and it will take some serious study. Time to download WoW I guess.

The other way that I can think of to paste a false horn on this unicorn is the “puzzle mode” strategy. The idea here is to provide a totaly different game mode from the one I want players to eventually play. But a game mode that has a learning curve. You can think of it as a very extended tutorial. Or like an upside-down Scribblenauts. Scribblenaut’s orgasms came from the sandbox mode. Making Scribblenauts the best kind of game. Everyone could see the horn right from the beginning. But you can’t really sell toys right now. Well not un-musical ones anyway. So they had to affix a false horn to get we who aren’t good without a reward structure to fondle the real horn.

I have the opposite problem but want to take the same approach. I’m planning to have a fairly long set of puzzles that are more in line with “permute choices until you win” style of play like Splitter or Angrybirds. Which give you all the skills you need to play the more Aramdillo Runy, Contraptiony game later on.

I have hacked out a small level-set to try this out on just a very few testers and the results have been. Well, lackluster is the word. So I definitely have a road ahead. Fortunately the puzzle design was pretty crappy and it had no Peggle elements so I might still manage to weave a horn that will wow the beer-soaked crowds. I can’t quite remember how The Last Unicorn ends but I’m pretty sure Mommy Fortuna comes out on top in the end.


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