September 2006 Archives

Funny Farm

It's 3 AM, and I'm still awake. I should be soundly asleep by now, as I probably will be tomorrow at 10 when I should be in a meeting at work. And it's all because of the clunkily-implemented yet maddeningly compelling word association game/puzzle, Funny Farm. Just guess at words that are related to the ones already visible.

There. Now I've infected you, too.

My work here is done.

Comments (9) | last by Marcelo, Oct 19, 10:15 PM


Sometimes, being in the relative boonies of the Pacific Northwest really bites. For one thing, we have no decent amusements parks anywhere in the state. For proof, you need look no further than Wild Waves / Enchanted Village. When a deep-pocket outfit like Six Flags decides they want to buy their way into your state and the best they can find is The Theme Park that Time Forgot, you know you're living in an entertainment backwater.

New York City, on the other hand, is an entire amusement park in and of itself. All the more so this past weekend, when it hosted Come Out and Play, a festival devoted to so-called "street games." Yeah, it's a lousy moniker conjuring images of three card monte and full-contact monkey ball. In this case, though, it refers to games played outside in public spaces, using the city as the game board. I participate regularly in one style of such games, so this is a topic of keen interest.

Some observations from browsing the list of games:

  • Experimental gameplay graduate students are enamored with the espionage theme.
  • Nothing makes me lose interest in a live game event faster than the word "spy" or "agent".
  • Payphone Warriors sounds like it was a great idea.
  • The game I most wish I could have played is Plundr, which had a number of terrific ideas. I love the notion of exploring a virtual space by moving through a physical one. The designers seemed to have a good handle on keeping things fun-- allowing the first player to discover an island to name that island is a simple but brilliant way to inject personality and whimsy. If I ever design a game where this is feasible, I look forward to unabashedly stealing that idea.
  • Reading about some of these games has gotten me interested in the gameplay possibilities enabled by cell phone text messaging. I know nothing about the APIs and protocols for such systems. If I wanted to create a game with text messaging, are there any turnkey software solutions for handling the back-end or would I need to roll my own?

  • Comments (2) | last by Stephen Beeman, Sep 27, 4:05 PM


    The last time I was this excited about a television show they handed me a check for a quarter of a million dollars. I'm talking about Heroes, NBC's new superhero show that plays as straight drama instead of high camp. People around the world are discovering they have superhuman powers: flight, invulnerability, regeneration, precognition, teleportation-- all the usual suspects are here, but without the spandex or invisible jets. Each of them reacts differently, if not entirely believably. Teen cheerleader Claire, for instance, is horrified to discover she's an invulnerable "freak" with homecoming just around the corner. Japanese sci-fi/comics fan and salaryman Hiro, on the other hand, is ecstatic to find he can bend space and time and is not the same as everyone else.

    Hiro's not the only one who can speed up time. The producers have shamelessly ripped a page out of the Lost playbook to create links among these seemingly unconnected people. But instead of learning about these links over the course of many episodes, they dump them many of them on us in the first sixty minutes. Ok, so perhaps nuance isn't in the cards for this show. Can the heroes avoid the nuclear armageddon foretold by the painting precog? Will the Indian genetics professor figure out what's creating these superhumans? And what does the sinister government agent-type have to do with all of this? Tune in next week, same Bat-time...

    I'm a sucker for certain linchpin moments in genre films, like the moment of disaster and the immediate aftermath as seen in The War of the Worlds. I love watching how characters react to outrageously unlikely events. In Heroes, we get to see how a bunch of different people respond to the manifestation of superpowers, and for me that's an E-ticket ride. There are a gazillion ways that ride could fly off the rails. I'm hoping the creative team manages to keep it on course and deliver on the show's promise.

    Comments (3) | last by Lou, Sep 28, 7:49 PM

    Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!

    I have little to say yet about the new season of Survivor, except that the whole race brouhaha is a tempest in a teapot. The real question is what happens once the tribelets merge. Since that happened in week three last time, we shouldn't have long to wait. Survivor doesn't really get interesting until a few people have been ousted, anyway.

    I was ready for the Muslim pair to leave The Amazing Race after all of five minutes, but even I thought they got the shaft. Admittedly, a fairly small one-- I don't think they could have sped up their progress much, but if they knew they were under threat of elimination perhaps they would have. It'd be nice to know what the players were told about the rules of the game before the race began.

    With that cat out of the bag, however, I think this could be a huge improvement to the race. If ANY point along the route-- not just pit stops-- could be an elimination point, the tension and drama amp up dramatically. I was hoping they'd really play this angle up and remove all "the last team to check in may be eliminated" language so that teams really felt like an elimination could happen at any time, but that doesn't appear to be the direction they're going. It seems like an in-route elimination will be a rare surprise rather than a systemic change, which I think is a shame.

    Next season, however, I hope one of the surprises they introduce into the race will be NOT casting a stereotyped gay couple, a pair of male models or beauty queens, or a bickering couple with an abusive man.

    Comments (2) | last by Jodi, Sep 27, 10:59 AM

    The Numbers Explained

    I'm not sure why they decided to relegate information so central to the Lost mythos to a web site instead of the actual television series, but fans will want to watch this-- the culmination of a summer-long promotional game on

    Last weekend I escaped the Muggles to participate in Hogwarts and the Draconian Prophecy. This Game was run by Snout, the same team that ran the Justice Unlimited Game a couple of years ago. With such a richly themed subject and an experienced GC at the helm, we had high expectations for this event and were not disappointed. Snout hit many balls out of the park.

    Their biggest success was with theming. The world of Harry Potter is rich with detail and flavor, and Snout leveraged that to create an intensely thematic Game experience. We were Sorted into Houses, rode the Hogwarts Express, attended classes, used wands (by far the coolest thing about the Game, and described in detail below), snuck into Hogsmeade, collaborated with other teams in our House, mixed potions, withdrew funds from Gringott's, and evaded Dementors. Surprisingly, however, there was no quidditch. Some kind of faux sporting event involving all sixteen teams would have been a blast, and this seems like a real missed opportunity.

    The entire staff remained in character throughout the Game-- headmaster Curtis never once slipped from his faux British accent. In their last Game, I felt like Snout dropped the putative premise of the Game-- that we'd been recruited as substitute superheroes in the wake of the disappearance of the more established ones-- almost immediately and instead just presented us with puzzles that incorporated references to established Marvel and DC superheroes. With Hogwarts, they let the theme inform the Game design and incorporated it thoughout the event. And they did so without once using any of the established Hogwarts characters but Hagrid (if Curtis' headmaster was Dumbledore, I don't recall ever hearing the name used).

    The second area in which Hogwarts excelled was in story. The Game wasn't just themed as Hogwarts, but followed the basic outline of a Harry Potter novel. Imagine our surprise to discover that the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor had gone missing even before the Game began, or that the substitute turned out to be evil! The flow of the Game followed the story very well, and while not every puzzle made strict "in-story" sense, a remarkable number of them did. The plot actually advanced and got resolved in a dramatic and entertaining way.

    By dividing teams into Houses and awarding House points, Hogwarts was the first Game I've played in which encouraged collaboration among teams (Our Mooncurser's Handbook Game encouraged interaction among teams, but not cooperation to this extent). We've competed with The Burninators in past Games, but at Hogwarts they were in our House and we wound up collaborating with them on many puzzles. Our playing styles are very different, so it's unlikely this would ever have happened under other circumstances. We enjoyed getting to know them better. I particularly liked the one puzzle where all four teams in each House needed to work together to get the solution, and wish there had been more such collaborative moments in the event.

    The clues in Hogwarts were perhaps the least successful element of the Game. Most were perfectly fine, but none were especially innovative, surprising, or delightful (although the wand device was amazing). We often referred to a textbook given to us early in the Game, and in fact this crutch was overused. Having only two copies of the book also limited the number of teammates who could actively participate at times. On the other hand, very few clues came on paper-- Snout did a great job of delivering interesting materials to manipulate.

    Snout didn't get everything right (more on that below), but the magnitude of their successes far outweighs the things that could have been done better. This was a stellar Game and a terrific experience. All involved should feel exceptionally proud.

    Now for the play by play.

    Comments (8) | last by Justin Graham, Sep 24, 7:33 PM

    When Danielle was nominated, Will made sure she didn't have a chance to talk to Erika. He should have done the same thing this week to keep Erika away from Janelle. With nothing to lose, Erika was bound to spill everything and make Janelle realize that she'd been played. And to her credit, Janelle finally smartened up and made the right play. As much as I wanted to see Will pull off the impossible, Janelle is the other worthy candidate.

    Meanwhile, shortest... endurance challenge... ever. I feel bad for the craftspeople who put that volcano together and then never even had it erupt. Perhaps they'll recycle it next season. And Mike... you're no Richard Hatch.

    So here's the thing. Neither Erika nor Mike can possibly take Janelle to the end, because no matter what people think of her, they respect her. How can you not? She's only still in the house because every time she was in danger, she won the necessary competition to keep herself safe. Taking her to the finals is tantamount to handing her the check. And if Janelle wins HoH, I don't think it matters who she takes, If the final two are Erika and Mike, I'm not sure who wins. Neither was a power player. Erika floated below the radar until the late game, and Mike hid in Will's shadow. The jury's pretty pissed at Will, and that animosity might well carry over to Mike. On the other hand, they might feel that while Mike was part of a masterful campaign to survive and manipulate others, Erika was just not worth anyone's time to evict.

    Chances are it won't matter. Janelle's come through in the clinch time after time this season. She'll be bringing her A-game to parts two and three of the HoH competition, and I certainly wouldn't bet against her.

    Comments (2) | last by Chris Lemon, Sep 6, 8:47 AM

    I Smell a Repeat

    The players on this season of Big Brother are, without question, the dumbest group of "all stars" ever assembled. If the Landers twins were to walk in, the collective IQ of the women in the house would skyrocket.

    Everyone in that house either watched Big Brother 2 or heard second-hand how persuasively charming and deadly Will was. And yet, week after week, players have refused to nominate him or vote him out. Worse, his cloak of protection has enveloped Mike as well, leaving a strong 2-player Chilltown alliance intact to wreak havoc behind the scenes all season long. Will and Mike were helped immeasurably by the existance of four players from season 6, and they wisely leveraged that threat to distract attention from themselves while throwing competitions to avoid appearing theatening. That, and the producers' weekly sacrifice of a goat on a blood-stained altar somewhere in the bowels beneath the house.

    Oh yeah-- and the unmitigated stupidity of everyone else in the house. But the grand marshall of the Stupid Parade is Erika.

    Ok, so she's making kissy-face with Mike. But how can she possibly believe that Mike would take her to the finals instead of Will? Will and Mike are close friends and business partners. Nothing is going to come between them-- especially because I'll bet Mike thinks that people would vote for him instead of Will in the finals. Erika is delusional if she thinks for a second that Mike's loyalty is to her and not Will. Her smartest play would have been to get rid of Will, thus leaving Mike with no choice but to stick with her. I don't think she had the votes to do it, mind you, but ousting Danielle-- who was clearly gunning for Will and trusting Erika-- was crazy. Erika needs Will gone, and the only scenario now under which that happens is if Erika herself gets nominated and wins the power of veto. The HoH is safe this week, but it's the veto winner (assuming the HoH doesn't win) who holds all the power as the only vote deciding who goes home. Nobody but Erika would both put Will up and vote him out. If Janelle wins the vote, she's canning Mike or Erika. Mike or Will will get rid of Erika or Janelle.

    This is Janelle and Erika's last chance to make a smart move and team up against the guys. If they don't pool their resources, Chilltown's waltzing into the finals where Will will become the first reality show repeat champion.

    And the thing of it is, he deserves it. The man has been nothing short of brilliant to not only survive this long, but engineer virtually every eviction throughout the season. It's been astounding to watch the puppetmaster pull everyone's strings so subtly that none of them even felt the tug. Janelle's been a phenomenal competitor, but Will's the true master of the game.

    Comment (1) | last by Doug Orleans, Sep 1, 5:27 PM

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