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Headshift's Armitage: Games Must Relinquish Control To Players

Headshift's Armitage: Games Must Relinquish Control To Players Exclusive

June 27, 2008 | By N. Evan Van Zelfden

June 27, 2008 | By N. Evan Van Zelfden
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

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 cant 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 theyre becoming quite insular.

They never seem to go far enough, theyre always in sort of a proprietary cul-de-sac. A lot of the object sharing stuff publishes out to the publishers site rather than to wherever the player chooses.

Do game developers have social skills?

TA: Everyone has social skills. They vary, but you cant say its because game developers dont understand the social stuff. They do. They tell people about games theyve played. Id 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 youll see in the social web is that its not about, "There is one right way to do it." Its 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 theres this problem that to properly understand that, there is complexity and ambiguity and its really fuzzy. Its 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 dont tell you how they want to be used. They let you work it out. Thats 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 its a big leap, the idea that you have even less control over product than you thought you did.

Its not so much they dont understand the social side of things, its more that the games industry has never been built for building fuzziness.

Theyre about rules, and necessary systems, and engines, and this is all really important, but if you look at the social world, its kind of the opposite of that. Its 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 dont think developers are the problem. The thing is, I think its 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, youre tied into the Live service, or youre 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, its about product thats never finished, and is constantly improved, its 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, its 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 arent just technological, theyre about the people as well.

Theyre 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, were never going to get anywhere. Were just going add three weeks or a month to every single release time."

Thats thinking is unrealistic because that now means that the developer has a one-month lag, and thats not like developing software anymore. Thats like developing hardware where you have to respond to the market at the speed you can change it.

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