Giygas vs Psychology of Design: Part 1 – Fear

Obviously, spoilers ahead if you have not completed the game Earthbound/Mother 2.
Proceed with Caution – You have been warned!

Finishing the final battle of Earthbound, I felt a number of things. I spent the next day pouring over the Internet to read ideas, theories, interviews, thoughts on that final fight. I had chills during it. It’s been stated Earthbound’s final fight is one of those crazy boss battles you have to experience to believe, and so I sealed myself off from as many spoilers as I could and I’m thankful I did.

What is it about Earthbound’s final fight that makes it so memorable, so elusive, so disconcerting? I want to discuss here some of my thoughts as a usability designer as a series of aspects I noticed, and what I assessed and recognized as I read theories on the topic – hoping to make a bit more sense at what made this experience so memorable and what pearls a UX developer might be able to glean from aspects of it.
Also I will say this: as we go forward in this analysis series, I work to make it a bit depthier and create more correlations between the past ideas, so I have to build a strong foundation – even if it might seem obvious . But let’s start from the top and dredge through the Deep Darkness, shall we?

Fear

One thing I recognized was the way in which the game represented fear. Fear is of course, a strong motivating emotion, evoking fight or flight – drive over the obstacle or run as far as possible from it. What’s intriguing about Earthbound’s representation of fear is that they do so by non-traditional means, which I believe makes it so effective. Giygas could easily have been represented as a myriad of things and evoked terror, but representing Giygas as a thing would make him tangible, defeatable, humane.

The representation of Giygas as vastness, as an abstraction of a concept so far removed from a physical body, gives a sense of looming dread. Porky even echos this thought:

If you were to ever see Giygas, you’d be so petrified with fear, you’d never be able to run away! That’s how scary it is…..so are you terrified? I’m terrified too….I must be experiencing absolute terror.”

This representation does more than provide fear however. The level of fear, the representation of an evil that has no face or body, this provides gravitas. Thematic elements such as music and colors assist in setting mood in any scenario, but coupling these with Giygas’s lack of form creates the sense of a true threat against the universe. There is no man, there is no place to point a finger. Just emptiness, abstraction, the purest feeling of dread and destruction and desolation as a concept.

Many video games give us villains. Few games create a villain from the conceptualization of the deepest root of villainy. And in that, Giygas becomes more than just one final boss fight – he becomes a quintessential version of the boss fight, he is beyond the boss fight. He represents the manifestation of the idea of the boss fight, the meta of meta.

In any game we have a boss driven by hatred, destruction, anger, greed – a myriad of negative emotions comprising their psyche, yet still comprising a form potentially capable of other traits and feelings. Giygas’s representation is not as this form, but as the glimmer in its eye, that seed of what drives evil in its purest, unconstrained form – and this is what makes him all the more fearful. Giygas is the mind of villainy devoid of reason and body – a core abstract idea that due to lacking a for, allows us to interpret it as players in whatever way our minds can decipher, making him an abstract image of our own mental constructs, our own minds – a terrifying concept for every player, indeed.

“You’ve traveled very far from home…do you remember how your long and winding journey began…?” – Mr.Saturn, Earthbound

EarthBound copyright Shigesato Itoi, Nintendo, HAL Laboratory and Ape Inc.

GHC Reflections: Video Games

The video games topic was definitely helpful not just from a video gaming perspective, but from future technologies and augmenting reality points of view as well. Even if you’re not an intrepid game developer, some of the points were definitely worth noting for any developers, and even interactive media/story planners. Intrigued? I was. Read on for more.

ReconstructMe (http://reconstructme.net) plus correct camera technologies (they suggested Asus Camera) was an interesting project, and was showcased specifically between Maya and Unity. The basic premise of ReconstructMe is using a camera rotating around an object to then render a life-perfect 3D model of that object: a backpack, a laptop, a tree. You could use the technology even on animals and humans – but of course you would only have them in a singular pose unless you were able to edit the model joints from the mesh (which I am uncertain of the capability for). You can then  retrieve (from a 3D technology such as Maya) and paint mesh skins for the models to use them in any 3D application (such as Unity), or even configure the models to 3D print replications (like making statues of yourself to put on trophies – for being awesome, of course). When it comes to wanting real-to-life object models, or when the model is needed quickly, ReconstructMe definitely looks like a viable option.

The next presenter focused on developing a hierarchy for critically evaluating learning games, so that they can be more widely accepted and used in STEM classrooms and their merit understood on a broad metric scale. She based her evaluation on Bloom’s Taxonomy, with criteria for Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. She would then correlate the objectives of the game and player actions to these categories – if task one in a game was to design your own character, she may check that creativity is present in task one. Examples she had of quality STEM teaching games were CodeHero (for Unity and Variables) and Spore (for predator prey interaction). It was intriguing to see someone attempt to quantify a metric for gaming and entertainment based on valuable content rather than personal preference. Something like this, if done with care and properly implemented, could easily make its way into school systems to evaluate games that could be used in the core curriculum and have value to students – an exciting prospect for getting children excited about learning in a fun and different way!

Next, we focused on developing true stories in games – striving for non-linearity. One of the largest downfalls of gaming as a story mode is that our stories often must end up linear: this interaction must occur before this event, leading up to the final boss and ending. While this linearity from a coding perspective seems near unavoidable, this topic focused on ways to branch our stories such that the linearity does not become a limitation. A key takeaway was that our stories may be linear, but our gameplay should strive to be non-linear. A suggestion was “Satellite scenes”, which are based on a player action and then dynamically modifies a tiny bit of the story, until the fragments become the linear whole. Scenes that are the quintessential backbones to the story and must exist or must be in a certain order are known as “Kernel scenes”. Therefore, more open world and progressive, non-linear gameplay lies in tying satellite scenes to shaping the world, and not overpowering the game with a progression of consecutive kernel scenes. Some terminology to remember as a takeaway also: Actors perform actions, the world changes, and these events should relate to each other – and always remember that actors should be people, not things, two or more agents who understand each other and respond properly. Put effort and focus on depth in satellite scenes and letting the player see the little changes their choices make to the world at large (strong core story with flexible relevant nodes that add to gameplay), and your game will provide depth beyond the standard linear story.

This intrigued me from the standpoint of an experiences (as a user experience lover!) – be the experience a story, video games, or an alternate reality/marketing plan, considering the ripple effect on individual users rather than the funnel to the end goal is definitely something that can add finesse and excitement to any endeavor where participation from and excitement by the audience is hoped for!

The final presenter discussed the XBox SmartGlass, which is relevant for contextual use of augmented reality and future media consumption beyond simply video games. The XBox SmartGlass is designed to turn any smart device into a controller. It accounts for devices and the media SmartGlass is being used with through simplified text entry and contextual user interface – with the hope of keeping users engaged even when away from their initial screen, or continue to keep them interacting with their secondary device and engaged while at the primary screen. Examples included Forza, where the second device would provide an aerial GPS view, or a game like God of War, where SmartGlass may provide hints, maps, weaknesses, or additional scenes and content contextual as you progress, so there is never a need to look up a game guide. Again, as a UX person, I loved the idea of contextual content and assistance or depth added for users without additional work on their part, or without distracting them if they do not wish to utilize that aspect of the experience. I would love to see more contextual work like SmartGlass appearing in other media, and hopefully as AR continues to develop, on more devices as well.

As a lover of video games, I went into this talk expecting to be happy I went even if the content was lacking (because video games!). Instead I found quite a bit of content that inspired me beyond what I anticipated, and points for innovation beyond the gaming sphere. It’s amazing how gaming has become so strongly linked to experiences and technology development in our culture, and it’s exciting to see the possible applications across other modes and mediums as we continue to develop these immersive entertainment worlds.

“Video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow.” – Nolan Bushnell

ReconstructMe copyright ReconstructMe Team, Spore copyright Spore, Xbox copyright Microsoft

Google Pokemon MAPster: On Nintendo and Mobile

If you have any aspiring Pokemon masters as friends, or happened to open Google Maps up today, chances are you found out about Google’s April Fools prank this year:

Granted, there actually ARE Pokemon in Google maps today: just in sprite form and no traveling required. (Unless you count hopping from Harajuku to Old Faithful via the Maps app travel)

While a collaboration between Google, the Pokemon Company, and Nintendo was a rather ingenious prank to tug on any kid-at-heart’s nostalgia and gain some excellent publicity for all parties, what might not have been expected of the prank was the conversations it brought about to the future of Pokemon, and well – Nintendo games in general.

Nintendo franchises are some of the most beloved and memorable games: Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, and Link (Legend of Zelda) easily spring to mind among others when one is asked to think of a video game. One of Nintendo’s best selling points for its games is the exclusivity of its characters: typically confined to Nintendo only titles with rare cameos to outside titles, and exclusively playable on Nintendo console systems.

Does that exclusivity exclude Nintendo from some successful business ventures? Any console junkie will tell you that when it comes to hardware, Nintendo may have innovative ideas (a controller with a screen? Some of the first motion detection titles?), but their processing power can lag years behind Sony PlayStation or Microsoft XBox. Some mobile devices may even have better processing capabilities and features than current generation Nintendo devices.

Would it be better business for Nintendo to farm out their franchise characters? Or start developing and selling for mobile? Maybe opening up a retro games section of the Play store filled with mobile formatted nostalgia-inducers?
Think of the possibilities mobile could offer: the augmented reality type game described in the Google Maps trailer isn’t so far off – granted it might have to be scaled down a bit since it’s unlikely one will hop a plane to Egypt to finish a game.
Mobile could hit a base of users Nintendo is missing too. Users who love Mario and Pikachu, but can’t bring themselves to shell out the money for a console just to play one or two titles, but would gladly pay the money for those titles on their mobile device. Or even users who would play more classic mobile games a la CandySwipe, Cut the Rope, etc. that would buy extra levels or make a micropurchase for a small game with their favorite characters starring. There’s a potential market left untapped.

Yet for all the possibilities, and all the frustrated Nintendo lovers but non-console buyers who would clamor for mobile Nintendo love, there’s some sound strategy to what Nintendo has done so far. As stated at the beginning, Nintendo built its characters partially on their exclusivity. Only seeing Mario in his Nintendo environment gives an expectation and a context, and it gives a level of quality expectation for the product. Letting Mario run around just anywhere willing to shell out the cash for him could dampen the iconic-ness of him and other Nintendo franchise.

Plus, just like Sony and Microsoft, part of Nintendo’s profits come from console sales. While PlayStation and Microsoft have plenty of great third party developers to contract out games to and are known for a vast array of different games being available to them, Nintendo again breeds its consoles in part for the exclusiveness of their franchise titles – third party developers are almost akin to just gravy. Take the franchise titles and put them anywhere, and when stacked against the competitors with better horsepower, who is going to buy the Nintendo console anymore? They may have novel hardware innovations, but given console sales for Nintendo already are less than their competitors, who can say how much more the scales would tip?

None of these conversations are to say Nintendo needs any advice. Their brands speak for themselves: the company has amassed quite spectacular revenue and while their current consoles may seem in trouble, the company itself is far from likely in the same waters. These are what ifs, and exploring the whys.

The bottom line seems to be that for all the excitement and potential new markets Nintendo could open up by expanding its horizons, it could also become a fatal blow to the company. Dwindled to a halt console sales could potentially rip open any gaming company,  and beyond that the iconic nature of Nintendo franchise characters could get lost in the mix as they jump from game to game, console to console. While it might seem backwards to those looking at the potential innovations ahead of us, Nintendo sticking to what they know may be exactly what they need to continue on their path of household gaming entity.

Plus, if the technology already exists, that means it can always become a part of the next big Nintendo thing. The 3DS already HAS augmented reality features, for example: they’ve just never been that strongly used in a franchise game to my knowledge. Maybe this Google Maps trailer is opening doors to something right in their backyard?

Regardless of what they choose to do in the future, Nintendo is a savvy company who chose to opt out of the console horsepower war and opt into developing further what was already working for them: their characters. I’m interested to see how their business plan continues to unfold, and I’m actually doing a marketing course research survey project on Nintendo and mobile devices, so you may see more blog posts about this from me.

But until then, I’m going to go back to searching for all these Pokemon in….where am I now, Kyoto? And hoping against hope if I find them all Google sends me a lovely little Pokemon master card to hang on my wall, right next to my pile of Pokemon plushies.

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll” – Shigeru Miyamoto

Pokemon and respective characters (c) Nintendo, Game Freak, and the Pokemon Company International; Mario, Luigi, and other characters (c) Nintendo