Four weeks ago, launched this series with a promise to write every two weeks.
Two weeks ago my car was written off by another person who was going into a diabetic coma.
In videogame terms, I lost a life because I collided with a mob.(1)
Here’s the thing with videogames nowadays: You don’t have three lives, you have an infinite number.
So, this week is an anecdotal exploration of the set of habits we now call gamification, and how they arose in my (and other gaming people’s) life.
I like to start my stories by referencing my whānau. The nuclear unit had, as most will, a few wild-swinging electrons – free radicals if you like – so I periodically had what I understood to be “holidays” with my mother’s parents.
When I wasn’t occupying myself quietly, my grandmother and I would be playing cribbage. Thus, my two greatest comforts in life: Occupying myself without disturbing others, and gaming.
Move to the playground. I’ve got a snatch of a memory – a freeform game. I can’t even remember what our roles were. One child calling, “hey, make it that we…”
Single player becomes multiplayer. With the words “make it,” a rule is proposed. Was it agreed to? That I can’t tell you.
Flashforward to very young adulthood. A transitional flat, with computing resources.
My friends Greg and Daffy were playing on an Amiga. This was the cutting edge games machine of its time. It had graphics and physics capabilities far and away beyond any other home machine of the time.
The mechanics are best described as “asteroids with gravity physics, harpoons, and two characters (3) on the screen”.
The characters stand at the bottom, and can move left and right.
You have a set of circular mobs bouncing around the screen:
- All mobs are subject to gravity. They bounce off the ground, sidewalls and other walls in the game.
- Large objects bounce slow and high. They are easy to both avoid and shoot.
- When large mobs are “shot” (3), they split into two half-sized objects which bounce to half the height and at twice the speed. They are therefore in the “danger zone” for the player effectively four times as much.
- If one isn’t careful, one can split that original large object down to 8 small objects which just pass above your character’s (3) head height – a high risk situation.
This is when the harpoon guns come into play:
- The harpoon fires towards the ceiling trailing a chain behind.
- Initially only one harpoon may be fired at a time.
- Mobs can collide with any part of the harpoon chain, and are split when they do so.
- The harpoon and chain persists on the screen it collides with a mob, or the ceiling. This means one can fire and step out of danger knowing the harpoon will be there to meet the object you’re trying to avoid.
Complexity is developed through increasing the number of objects, creating more complex surfaces for the bounce physics to work within, providing differing kinds of physical barriers to the player, and lastly providing different shooting options.
There are 99 levels. Each level is won when all mobs have been eliminated. In the two-player game, both players need to survive, or the level restarts. Level completion rewards the players with a very small piece of a spacecraft, which will fly our protaginists home, presumably somewhere safer.
Here’s a sample. If you’re able to, watch the whole two minutes, with sound:
In pain yet? That soundtrack persists throughout the game. I would enjoy dancing to Ooops Up if it was thrown in to a mix at a club, but just the one bit on loop? Ugh.
So, Greg and Daffy wanted that spacecraft. I encountered them playing about halfway through the journey and sat in. They had the soundtrack off and some good music on the stereo. I was quiet, gaming was involved, therefore I was happy, even though I very definitely wasn’t allowed to play.
So they could focus on play, I started helping out with the gamer’s best performance enhancing drug, caffeine. This was definitely going to be an all nighter.
At some point, I became emotionally invested in that spaceship myself. At some point, the caffeine stopped helping. The lads got stuck on the same level for an extraordinary length of time. Something darker happened. Something called gamification.
Their performance needed improving. Tried and true methods weren’t working, so I suggested an alternative: I would take charge of performance.
What elements could I control? Nothing of what was happening onscreen. No technical elements of the controllers or system. Nothing that was happening in the now-wrecked bloodstreams of my friends.
What was left? The sound. Did I put on some really great “let’s win this videogame” music from our favourite band?
If I decided the boys weren’t playing up to scratch, I would turn the selector on the stereo from the CD changer to the computer. We’d just all have to live with that 50 second loop driving us nuts until they got better.
Did it work? You betcha. It got to the point where I’d just need to mention I was thinking about it, and they’d beat that problem level in no time.
What did the complete spacecraft look like? I won’t tell you.
(1) A term from MMORPGs originally, but one I use here to mean any non-player controlled moving element. Gamification makes one the protagisnist.
(2) Videogames usually come with a wide variety of names for individual markets.
(3) For the purposes of videogame discussions, I refer to “player” meaning the human person controlling the actions of the “character” who is the person (or other object) on screen they control.
(4) Shot is a problematic term. “Collides with a player controlled element in a way that doesn’t harm the character” is more cumbersome, but in many ways clearer.