Back in September, Mike Wozniewski came out to talk to us about the idea of games as social media. That is, games as objects shared on social media the way photos and videos are.
Mike is the founder and president of Hololabs, an award-winning indie development studio making games, mobile apps, VR experiences, and art installations. He has recently relocated to Victoria from Montreal, where he spent over 15 years building interactive media of all sorts.
Mike’s Master’s degree (from the Centre for Intelligent Machines at McGill University) focused on authoring tools for intelligent environments, human-computer interaction, motion tracking, and virtual reality. After that, Mike joined the Society for Arts and Technology [SAT], where he developed software for immersive audiovisual environments. After founding Hololabs in 2011, Mike has worked with many artists, designers and developers to build creative, experimental, and somewhat wacky games and art projects.
Mike built the SPIN framework to support Spatial Interaction and 3D visualization in networked virtual environments. Then Unity came along and wrecked that :) SPIN was great but Mike wanted to make these tools available to the wider public.
In 2008 Ian Bogost published Persuasive Games: Video Game Snapshots, an article about how photography went from a super technical profession to something everyone could do when Kodak created first camera anyone could use (the Brownie) and how a similar thing is now happening with videogame development.
The Kodaks of networked media are technologies like: blogs, epub, and print on demand for writing, and instagram, smugmug, and flickr for photography. In the past you had to get your work published or into a show in order for people to see it. Now you can release it online anywhere and anytime you want.
The snapshots part of the video game snapshots concept revolves around the idea that snapshots are about personal meaning, not artistic merit. A video game snapshot isn’t meant to be a compelling 40 hour experience like Skyrim, it’s a way to share an experience with your friends and family like you would a photo, video, or piece of writing.
Many simple game creation tools have cropped up in that direction. Some examples of browser based game creation tools are:
Sim’s Carnival had player created games that were ”open source” – you could easily remix and customize a game someone else made. It also offered support for lots of different game mechanics using templates and allowed players to customize those games with their own art.
Popfly Game Creator had arcade templates that could be mashed up with web content.
PlayCrafter was a drag and drop flash based physics game builder.
On consoles there are:
Little Big Planet has a level editor and 9m+ levels created by users. On the downside, it’s awkward to create with a console controller.
And on PC there are:
Kodu – now Project Spark
Project Spark is an icon based programming language for making games. In Project Spark, programs are broken down into pages and ”brains”, a context free grammar (ex, see apple, move toward it quickly). There is a library with plenty of pre-made brains available. When Kodu became Project Spark the team added terrain modelling and a social platform for sharing games.
Scratch was initiated by MIT in 2003. Unlike many of the other tools listed Scratch is still going strong. It’s aimed at 5 – 14 year olds and has a simplified programming language using “puzzle pieces” that snap together. Scratch also has a social network to share creations with each other. It’s like Project Spark but much simpler.
And on mobile there is:
Createrria allows you to create games directly on the iPad without needing technical skills.
Pixel Press allows you to create a game by drawing levels on grid paper and taking a picture of it.
PaperCade is a tool for building game snapshots. Users start with a template, then bring in their own photos and text. The games happen in a cardboard box like an elementary school diorama. You can also take pictures with your mobile device and import them into your game (simple photo editing can be done inside the app too).
Papercade’s aesthetics is a nostalgic papercraft look and craft packs available with different themes for power users who want more content. It has a basic social platform for sharing your papercades.
Some of the lessons Hololabs learned while building Papercade were:
Don’t give users a completely blank canvas! They don’t know what to do with it. A mad libs style creation mechanic where you remix existing games works a lot better. It was too much work to create an open world, so they switched to a shoebox diorama.
In the development process they added story points (for example, find a key, then open a door with that key) to allow narrative/end goal, but ended up switching to arbitrary linking mechanism because story points got complicated – what happens if you find the door before you find the key that opens it? How do you communicate that problem to non-programmers and help them fix it?
Hololabs also constrained the narrative to title, setup, challenge, game, and resolution to make it workable. The app ended up very constrained, it was hard to create games but everyone loved putting faces on things.
Currently, Papercade snapshots are only sharable within the iOS app, but they’re working on sharing to web.
After his presentation Mike was kind enough to take some questions from the audience.
Q: How did you monetize papercade?
A: Craft packs are paid for and power user features like multiple boxes can be unlocked by paying
A: Interesting idea, could be worth while and sounds a little like JibJab. We wanted to give users a bit more expressive potential.
Q: Have you considered aiming Papercade at teaching ESL, or special needs to use for icebreaker classes?
A: So far our biggest fans are educators and young parents. We might convert Papercade to a kids’ app, with a focus on storytelling.
Audience comment: What about aiming for a similar market to Pixton comics? They have links to education – trying to make content creation as simple as possible.
Q: Can tools like this oversaturate the market?
Audience A: this is personal, to create a thing to share with friends and family
A: Content discovery is a hard problem. Often user generated content isn’t very good, Papercade isn’t meant to compete with Halo or anything.
Audience comment: It’s more like creating personalized children’s books
Audience comment: The cute childlike art style might be putting off potential users
A: We’re thinking of adding different art styles in content packs
Q: Could you use something like photos and text to generate game?
Audience A: Sure, just write an AI :)
Q: Are there not enough users or are users not spending enough in the app?
A: We made some poor monetization choices, focusing on creative features and extra content as in-app purchases. Unfortunately, < 1% of users are creators so the product is not a financial success.
Audience comment: What if you went with more of a minecraft model? People come to minecraft for base content, then a few people create more content, maybe create a game that people want enough to buy app, then a few people add more content
A: We would love to make that game!
Q: Who is your target audience?
A: We don’t know anymore. Originally the app was aimed at teens/millennials, people with time for a tool like this. Unfortunately, as an indie studio, it’s hard to find that audience so we are currently looking to partner with a brand.
Thanks so much to Mike for coming out and talking to us about the idea of games as social media. We’re looking forward to seeing what Hololabs gets up to next! (hint: check out FloorKids.com)