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 can't exist in isolation anymore. They need to be part of all the other services I use. They currently exist very much as islands - 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 they're becoming quite insular.
They never seem to go far enough, they're always in sort of a proprietary cul-de-sac. A lot of the object sharing stuff publishes out to the publisher's site rather than to wherever the player chooses.
Do game developers have social skills?
TA: Everyone has social skills. They vary, but you can't say it's because game developers don't understand the social stuff. They do. They tell people about games they've played. I'd 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 you'll see in the social web is that it's not about, "There is one right way to do it." It's 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 there's this problem that to properly understand that, there is complexity and ambiguity and it's really fuzzy. It's 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 don't tell you how they want to be used. They let you work it out. That's 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 - it's a big leap, the idea that you have even less control over product than you thought you did.
It's not so much they don't understand the social side of things, it's more that the games industry has never been built for building fuzziness.
They're about rules, and necessary systems, and engines, and this is all really important, but if you look at the social world, it's kind of the opposite of that. It's 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 don't think developers are the problem. The thing is, I think it's 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, you're tied into the Live service, or you're 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, it's about product that's never finished, and is constantly improved, it's 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 - and then it has to go through a certification process.
Basically, the problem is not about the developers, it's 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 aren't just technological, they're about the people as well.
They're 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, we're never going to get anywhere. We're just going add three weeks or a month to every single release time."
That's thinking is unrealistic because that now means that the developer has a one-month lag, and that's not like developing software anymore. That's like developing hardware - where you have to respond to the market at the speed you can change it.