At the recent Dutch Festival of Games, Tom Armitage of worldwide social software consultant firm Headshift gave an address on playing together, a meditation on what games can learn from social software.
Armitage's work, in his own words, comprises "making interesting things on the web" - mainly things that slot into the increasingly important social side of Web 2.0.
The UK-based firm he works for has developed social website projects
with major companies such as the BBC, Channel 4, and The Saatchi Gallery.
After his talk, Gamasutra sat down with Armitage for an exclusive round of questions to discuss how relinquishing control to players is the key to taking games to their next level, and why development must move past the speed of hardware.
What do you see as a challenge facing game developers?
Tom Armitage: I think one of the big challenges, maybe not for the individual developers, but for developers at large, or the industry, is the idea that more than ever games are a single part of tapestry, a single part of a puzzle.
Actually, they canít exist in isolation anymore. They need to be part of all the other services I use. They currently exist very much as islands Ė both in terms of the platforms but also the way platforms talk to things like the internet, the social web, and all the other things people are doing in their lives, basically, because theyíre becoming quite insular.
They never seem to go far enough, theyíre always in sort of a proprietary cul-de-sac. A lot of the object sharing stuff publishes out to the publisherís site rather than to wherever the player chooses.
Do game developers have social skills?
TA: Everyone has social skills. They vary, but you canít say itís because game developers donít understand the social stuff. They do. They tell people about games theyíve played. Iíd hope most game developers would play games and talk about games.
Talking about games is the same as talking about football matches, or talking about a movie you saw. Everyone has their own way of doing the social thing. People do it differently.
Actually, the thing youíll see in the social web is that itís not about, "There is one right way to do it." Itís about giving people the freedom to express and share as much or as little as they want.
Some people are very protective, and keep their networks small, as in real life. Some people are very much social animals but have a lot of shallow relationships, as in real life.
I think thereís this problem that to properly understand that, there is complexity and ambiguity and itís really fuzzy. Itís actually quite hard to model. So what you end up doing is you have to trust the user and or trust the player.
The thing with the social networks is they donít tell you how they want to be used. They let you work it out. Thatís actually really weird, the idea of relinquishing a bit of control.
Games are something we relinquish control of when they go into the hands of the players. But trying to relinquish artifacts from that game, or the experience people have, or content creation Ė itís a big leap, the idea that you have even less control over product than you thought you did.
Itís not so much they donít understand the social side of things, itís more that the games industry has never been built for building fuzziness.
Theyíre about rules, and necessary systems, and engines, and this is all really important, but if you look at the social world, itís kind of the opposite of that. Itís this freeform sandpit just connecting things to things and things that belong to people.
So people are connected by things. The network always has an object in the middle.
Is it going to be particularly difficult for developers to shift their thinking to start developing this way?
TA: I donít think developers are the problem. The thing is, I think itís going to be hard to find platforms that will let them do this.
So if you look at the problem of developing a console title, when you develop an online title for the Xbox, youíre tied into the Live service, or youíre tied into PSN, and you have to follow the rules. Though, to be honest, those services are getting a lot better.
Are Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo scared of the social web, or are they just not prepared for it?
TA: It moves faster than they can. The thing with the social web is, I can build a website in an afternoon. Not just like a static site -- I can build something that does something. The tools are really about fast, rapid prototyping, itís about product thatís never finished, and is constantly improved, itís about learning from the users and building on that.
Actually, the problem is I can have gone through ten iterations of a website in the time it might have taken to develop a feature Ė and then it has to go through a certification process.
Basically, the problem is not about the developers, itís just trying to get that kind of thinking, where you can move quickly, iterate rapidly - maybe start with a really simple idea and build on it later.
It's trying to build systems that enable you to do that, and those systems arenít just technological, theyíre about the people as well.
Theyíre going to have to create policy that actually says, "We have to speed up certification because if we have to certify every single thing that goes out for download, weíre never going to get anywhere. Weíre just going add three weeks or a month to every single release time."
Thatís thinking is unrealistic because that now means that the developer has a one-month lag, and thatís not like developing software anymore. Thatís like developing hardware Ė where you have to respond to the market at the speed you can change it.