Playful ’09

Playful 09 was great.

Playful 09

I really enjoyed Playful 08 so was delighted to be asked back. Last year I demoed my Rock Band MIDI guitar hack. This year, rather than extend my P5 Glove project into another MIDI instrument, I decided to set myself the challenge of talking about games and films. This was perhaps a little foolish, as I know only a little bit about games and barely anything about films. However, the audience were mercifully forgiving of my ill-prepared nonsense and laughed in all the right places.

In case you missed it, here are my slides, complete with dodgy audio recording of the talk.

Thankfully for all concerned, the rest of the day was much better. Here’s some of what happened:

Playful 09 Leila at Playful Robin Burkinshaw talks about Alice and Kev Daniel Soltis at Playful James Bridle's MENACE Rex Crowle at Playful

A great day with lots to take home and think about. Thanks to Toby Barnes and everyone else at Pixel-Lab for making Playful happen.

More people who have written about it: Suw Charman-Anderson, Leila Johnston, Howard Pull, Adam Davis, Lawrence Chiles, Libby Davy, Daniel Soltis, Priyanka Kanse, Melinda Seckington and more, plus the official record: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

‘Enemy of Chaos’ walkthrough

Enemy of Chaos mapped (vertical)

Spoiler alert: when viewed large, this is a complete map and walkthrough of the wonderfully geeky ‘choose your own adventure‘ meets ‘Fighting Fantasy‘ style interactive book/game, Enemy of Chaos by Leila Johnston.

You might have read her previous book, How to Worry Friends and Inconvenience People. More recently, Leila’s reading from Enemy of Chaos was one of the forty very interesting things that happened at Interesting 2009. If you were foolish enough to miss that, I hope you’ve at least read Cory Doctorow’s review of the book on Boing Boing.

Earlier this week, Leila was kind enough to give me a copy. I loved it, and within a day I’d decided I absolutely needed to see what a map of every possible path through the book would look like.

I made this using the `dot` renderer from GraphViz, which does all the hard work of drawing the graph and laying it out. The source file only took about 20 minutes to create. I quickly flicked through the book from beginning to end, documenting all the ‘now turn to page x’ choices like so:

digraph g {
  node [ shape = plaintext, fontname = Tahoma ]
  1 -> 166
  1 -> 37
  23 -> 201
  24 -> 48
  24 -> 178
  31 -> 110
  31 -> 191
  // ... (etc)

Viewed as a graph, it also acts a walkthrough, revealing the dead ends and the various paths to the final page. It also highlights a few interesting things about the structure:

  • A six page loop between pages 201 and 23.
  • A glitch which means page 227 can’t ever be reached except by flicking randomly to it; it’s a reverse dead-end.
  • There are quite a few ways to reach the end, but a lot more ways not to. It’s very hard to win, and gets increasingly hard towards the end.

Below is the same map, laid out horizontally. As Leila points out, it “looks like a big Romulan ship”, which is quite appropriate for what must be one of the geekiest books of the year.

Enemy of Chaos - mapped

EZi Entertainment Zone

Simon Lumb recently spotted an amazing(ly bad) looking games console in a motorway service station which, shall we say, borrows heavily from the design of of the Wii.

I couldn’t resist trying it for myself, and picked one up on eBay for a little bit less than £20 including delivery. Quite a bit less than the RRP you’ll see quoted in some places online. A games console, complete with 87 games, for £20. Bargain. Right? Well, almost.

EZi Entertainment Zone  EZi Entertainment Zone  EZi Entertainment Zone unboxing  EZi Entertainment Zone  EZi Entertainment Zone - 18 sports games  EZi Entertainment Zone - 69 arcade games

EZi Entertainment Zone

EZi Entertainment Zone - pingpong  EZi Entertainment Zone - Fish Story  EZi Entertainment Zone - Freestyle  EZi Entertainment Zone - Deformable  EZi Entertainment Zone - Javelin Throw  EZi Entertainment Zone - Santa Claus


  • The graphics are sub-SNES quality and many of the games are barely playable. The knock-off design is laughable and the bargain basement price reveals itself at every opportunity.
  • The two stick controllers each include four red flashing lights at the bottom, a-la the blue lights on the Wiimote, but these ones don’t do anything except flash irritatingly and constantly.
  • The stick controllers do include a very crude motion control. Certainly nothing like the Wiimote of course, but simply a basic (and flaky) movement detection, presumably through something like a mercury tilt switch. It just about works for the Tennis and Pingpong games but it it painful in the extreme for any of the others, especially baseball and golf where it’s practically unusable. You can turn ‘sport’ mode off to disable the motion control and use the buttons instead (or just use the other game controller which you only get one of but is a much better bet for most of the games).

I have not tried all 87 games yet, but here are some highlights



Little Indian

While many of the other games I’ve tried so far have been predictably awful, other have turned out to be quite playable in a retro generation-before-last sort of way. Especially with the volume muted. The quality of the (18) games on the sports cartridge, while still quite mixed, is markedly higher than the (69) games on the arcade cartridge.

Some of the names are amazing. How can you not love a console that ships with titles including Cross Strert, Assart, Aimless, Polk, Grot Kid, Knocking, Ramming, Fish Journey and Girl.

I’ll try to continue to capture and review more of the games in detail. Rather than do it here, I’ve started an owners wiki where I’ve begun to document the EZi’s various games and hardware. It already includes the photos and videos used above, plus Pingpong, Boxing and others, and I’m sure it will grow as I (and others?) add more. I do hope anyone else who is brave/mad/foolish enough to buy an EZi Entertainment Zone will join me there.

Trials HD

When Ian recently mentioned Trials HD I was hooked as soon as I tried it. If you have not played it, here’s what you’re missing:

Trials HD is, in short, brilliant. Staggeringly simple (controls: accelerate, brake, lean forward/back. You can’t even steer), easy to pick up (you can pass the early levels very quickly) and very very hard to complete (grrnnnnghhh). The race levels are great while the additional skill games are a lot of fun and act as a reward and incentive for medal hunting in the maps. Best of all is probably the level editor. I’ve already spent nearly as long making my own levels as I have playing the game.

Here are some big swinging balls and a glass bridge I made. Careful now.

That's no moon!    The glass bridge

Unfortunately, any custom maps you create can only be shared with your friends. I’d love to be able to play the best of what’s being created by everyone, but I don’t particularly want to clutter my friends list with strangers. I wish the developers had implemented (and, more importantly, could afford to run) a LittleBigPlanet style global content sharing system. Despite that shortcoming, Trials HD might actually be my favourite game so far this year. And for 12,000 Microsoft points ($15 / £10.20) it’s also great value.

Mustache TV

Mustache TV

Jesse Thorn kindly sent me a ‘Mustache TV‘ as a thank you for supporting Maximum Fun. (Disclaimer: I donate a small amount of money each moth. As you know, I’m a fan, and a card-carrying member of the Maximum Fun club and "a proud adherent of the principles of The New Sincerity").

Mustache TV’s lovingly detailed instructions include a scoring system (3 points for a clean-shaved man, 5 points for a lady, 6 points for a world leader) and it turns out to work quite well for games too. Lots of fun.

Mustache TV - Spaced Mustache TV - Mirror's Edge Mustache TV - The Wire

Press the red button now…

In focus and in control

Press the red button now

This month, I’ve mainly been playing Burnout Paradise and rewatching The Wire.


Something for the weekend?

After watching Chris Delay from UK games company Introversion Software presenting at Playful last week, I went digging around their back catalog. I’m excited about their upcoming game, ‘Subversion‘, but I was pleased to be able to download demos of Uplink, DEFCON and Darwinia.

DEFCON is already a personal favourite. I was glad to see that, as with their other games, as well as a Windows version it’s also been ported to both Mac and Linux (the Mac version is being distributed by Ambrosia GTames).

It’s strikingly beautiful. Based on a gorgeous world map (with nostalgic Cold War era national borders) the careful placement of silos, airfields, radars and naval units, the escalation of hostilities and eventual all-out nuclear war. Timing is everything. It’s actually pretty tense.

DEFCON - First Strike

The gameplay is simple, with defined countdowns from DEFCON 5 all the way to 1, at which point (as we all know from watching War Games) the use of nuclear force is authorised. You can accelerate time at will, unless you’re playing the real-time ‘office mode’ game mode.

Launch Detected

Unlike most war games, DEFCON doesn’t glorify it. The ambient background music interlaced with atmospheric sounds include a very disconcerting coughing noise and the messages which pop up when a city is hit, telling you how many million people just died, are shockingly stark.


After playing 3 games, I’m now reliably beating the computer. It must be time to start playing online against human opponents; multiplayer games with strategic alliances look like fun.

More detailed reviews (going back a couple of years now) from Gamespot. IGN and many more.

This could be heaven or this could be hell…

Roo Reynolds plays “Hotel California” from Tom Armitage on Vimeo.

Thanks to Tom for capturing this video. That was fun.


Here are my notes from Playful.

James Wallis James Wallis (Spaace) woke us all up by blowing our minds. He’s shared his slides (also embedded below) as well as publishing some notes on his blog.

  • Why are they called ‘plays’ when there is no play?
  • 2 types of entertainment: spectacle and narrative
  • OuLiPo
  • The story of Three Alert Peas, first interactive fiction [you can try it for yourself here]
  • OuLiPo treats both the writing and the reading as playful. La Disparition, written entirely without the letter ‘e’
  • Three Alert Peas -> Fighting Fantasy -> Warhammer -> Warcraft

Roo Reynolds was up next (that’s me!). I muttered some un-prepared and technical-hitch-ridden gubbins about my Rock Band MIDI guitar hack. Steve took the lovely photo on the right. Tom Armitage captured some lovely HD footage of what was (for me) the the highlight of the presentation, an attempt at playing Hotel California.

I’ve retro-engineered some slides (essentially some photos of the action and some screenshots of what I was doing at various points during the presentation) which I’ve uploaded to SlideShare along with the audio from my session to make this slidecast. The audience seemed to be genuinely warm and on my side, despite frequent technical glitches with audio and my general air of random ill-preparedness. Thanks for bearing with me, everyone.

Matthew Irvine Brown (

Adrian Hon Adrian Hon (Six To Start) decided not to talk about his specialist subject of ARGs, displayed a touching openness and honesty about a close shave with game-induced alcoholism.

  • Playing Team Fortress 2 between 1am and 3am every day makes you tired but jittery. Solution: alcohol
  • “I started drinking because I was playing Team Fortress 2 a lot”.
  • Then decided to stop
  • Playing really good games can have consequences which change peoples lives

Chris Delay (Introversion Software) talked about Procedural Generation (aka ‘how to make expensive game content when you can’t afford an art team’. He demonstrated some lovely work in his upcoming new game ‘Subversion’.

Eric Clough (212 Box) told us about his (incredible) ‘Mystery of Fifth Avenue‘ project.

Kars Alfrink (Leapfrog)

Kars has shared his slides and transcript on his blog, and his slides on SlideShare. My notes…

  • Design for play is like squeezing a bird. Too loose, it will fly off. Too tight, it will die
  • Film: Dogtown and Z-Boys – pools and skateboards are tools, used to play
  • Streetfighter 2 = “tool for having fun” according to its creator
  • Dourish – “Users, not designers, create and communicate meaning”
  • When designing for play, underspecify
  • Mitchel Resnick – Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams “What’s needed are microworld construction kits, so that you can create your own microworlds, focusing on the domains you find most interesting”

Alex FleetwoodAlex Fleetwood (Hide and Seek) talked about an interesting project but asked us not to blog about it. Since I (foolishly) stopped taking notes at that point, I have very little recollection of what he told us, so can’t decide if there’s anything I should mention here. Ah well.

Tom Armitage (Headshift) was, as always, both clever and thoughtful. Plus he made me want to play Fable 2.

  • Everything is multiplayer now
  • Social software. Software about people. More than one person.
  • “The important thing is not what I tell you, but what you do with it”
  • Raph Koster – ‘single player games are an historical aberration’ (even single player games are played in a multiplayer context of persistent profiles)
  • ‘The Spectacle’.
  • Jyri Engstom: social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object
  • Layers of metadata. ‘We leak data.’
  • Supercontext. Grant Morrison via Matt Jones.
  • Disproportionate feedback loops
  • Keep the spectacle spectacular
  • The myth of multiplayer. MicroMachines 2 – 8 people in a room around a 14 inch TV
  • The real world is asynchronous.
  • Geometry Wars 2 – Playing online vs sharing highscores.
  • Sync activity with shared context.
  • “I miss it [xbox live] when I turn on my PS2, because I realise that I’m really on my own. Totally alone.”
  • Everything is multiplayer now, but actually Everything always was multiplayer.
  • Sharing context, at least, if not location.
  • Multi play is a sliding scale.

Sandy Spangler (Sony) delivered a bit of a corporate sales pitch, but it ended up being quite interesting anyway. Especially the videos of the history and early prototypes. Sandy claims that Sony “created a new genre: Physical and social gaming” (may seem like a stretch, but remember this was 2003 – a long time pre-Wii)

  • Sandy is a game designer with Eye Toy team
  • 2003: Eye Toy Play for PS2 (collection of controller-free mini games + webcam). Won a Bafta
  • 10,500,000 Eye Toy cameras in Europe alone
  • Dr Richard Marks, ‘the father of Eye Toy’
  • Early research and demo work: Video effects, Augmented reality, Colour tracking for augmenting objects, Player augmentation
  • Design mechanics rather than games
  • Lots of prototypes and robustness testing. Does it break? Is it fun?
  • What’s next: colour tracking peripherals. Played with real toys
  • Pom Pom Party (pink and green physical pom poms). Cheerleading game.
  • Eye Toy Hero (sword). Story driven adventure. First-person gameplay (feedback from seeing floating object; no need to reflect the player on-screen)

Eric Zimmerman (Gamelab) talked about games as an emerging forms of literacy

  • Literacy: creating and understanding meaning
  • Games design is an interesting model for thinking about understanding the world. Not being addressed by education today, but will be dominant in the future
  • Three components of ‘game literacy’: Systems. Play. Design.
  • Play is the driver of innovation
  • Showed Gamestar Mechanic demo – launching early next year.

Matt Biddulph (Dopplr) talked about tinkering with games controllers and has already put his slides online:

I for one welcome our new Wiimote carrying overlords

  • Wii – cheap consumer electronics
  • Johnny Lee at TED. 5 months from lab to commercial game
  • Today, anyone can make something interesting without needing a fabrication lab
  • Arduino – handy way of joining the real world with your computer. Easy for software hackers to control hardware
  • MIDI – it’s about getting a flow of date from one point to another
  • Reading Oystercards – recent examples of Oystercards as unique key for voting
  • BBC DABagotchi
  • Laser Harp
  • ‘Giving the blind computer a view of what’s going on in the room’.
  • Nintendo DS – current generation of Nintendo is doing a lot more with a lot less
  • DS Brut – arduino-like hardware addon for homebrew DS
  • Book: Making Things Talk – emphasis on friendly, anthropomorphic interfaces

Iain Tait (Poke) talked about high-scores.

  • First game with hi scores, Seawolf – 1976
  • Star Fire – first time you could put your initials
  • Localised bragging rights within the realm of that machine
  • Twin Galaxies – International Scoreboard
  • Documentary: King of Kong – a fistful of quarters. “I wanted pretty girls to say “Hi. I see that you’re good at centipede”
  • 1982 – high scores are a metaphor for prowess
  • What do they mean in 2008?
  • Scoring as children: gold stars. Now: 5 a day. Alcohol units: That’s just counting, no ascribed value
  • Pay slip as score
  • Am I Hot or Not, Rate My Poo, eBay, LinkedIn,, …
  • Going from Abstract to Actual, from Metaphors to Measures, from Simple to Complex, from Designers to Everyone as scoreres, from In Game to In Life

Jolyon Webb (Blitz Games) talked about teeth in video games. I’d seen the (incredibly powerful) dying man tech demo video from TruSim before (last year, in Coventry) but it’s very very good, and still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This was a funny presentation, mainly about teeth.

  • A few facts to get started: 1: have face tracking working with webcam. 2: DS screens are pressure sensitive, a feature which a homebrew art app [Colors!] takes advantage of
  • TruSim demo video. Not aiming for photo realism but to provide a better connection
  • Teeth are difficult. Translucent, sometimes wet, sometimes dry. Rigid, but with flexible cover (lips)
  • Why are they so badly done? Because designers don’t care?
  • Perfect teeth (celebrity and model teeth) are often what’s used in CG and games
  • The body is made up of what’s internal (skeletal structure) and external (muscle)
  • A little bit of ‘snaggle’ adds realism

Kieraon Gillen is an editor at Rock Paper Shotgun, which I’m duty bound to like, because they linked to my ‘LEGO is full of WIN presentation earlier this year, which surprised me as it’s not in their usual field; PC games). Kieron seemed slightly flustered, but made some very astute (and very funny) points about games.

  • On speaking at a games conference: “Its like asking a teenager to present at a porn conference. I’ve seen it all, but I’m not equipped to talk about it”
  • Plagiarism and videogames aka ‘ripping stuff off is awesome’
  • EVE Online – no level structure. It’s flat, yet no-one else is learning from it
  • Why has nobody ripped off the Sims?
  • Learning from other people is good.

In short, Playful was a brilliant conference, and I had an amazing day.

The Unfinished Swan – looks all white

The Unfinished Swan – Tech Demo 9/2008 from Ian Dallas on Vimeo

How cool is that?

[via waxy]

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