mamamusings: games

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Monday, 1 June 2009

thoughts on the spymaster twitter game

Yesterday I received a Twitter DM (direct message) from my friend and colleague Constance Steinkuehler that read “Please join me. I’d like to recruit you as a spymaster to my spy ring -”. It looked a lot like spam, but I also noted that Constance and her husband both had a number of game-related tweets in their activity streams, so I clicked through out of curiosity, and signed up for the game. After less than 24 hours of play, and a lot of exploration of both the gamesite and the various responses to it around the web, I thought I’d write up my first impressions, good and bad.

First, let me preface this with the fact that I’ve been wishing for a long time for a way to filter out tweets from my friends that are on topics I’m uninterested in. Most often, these are tweets with hashtags relating to conferences. It’s like being forced to read someone’s live blogging or IRC chats for a conference that I don’t care at all about. Unfortunately, the only way right now to avoid seeing them is to unsubscribe from the person, which is far too harsh a solution. It seems like a basic type of functionality, and one that I’d happily pay for in a twitter client. I mention this because almost all of the current complaints around the tech blogosphere relating to this game could be addressed with this simple feature.

If you read some of the recent rants regarding spymaster (like this TechCrunch article), you’ll see that what people most object to, with good reason, is the littering of players’ activity streams with automated updates about their game activities—from leveling up to purchasing new weapons. These updates are auto-generated, and look like this: “Just bought a Yarygin PYa “Grach” Pistol. #spymaster”

A near-fatal design flaw of the game is that players are rewarded with more in-game income if they increase the number of events that trigger these auto-updates in their stream. Essentially, they’re being paid to spam their social network, and that’s generating justifiable resentment. I asked aloud in twitter why it is that the same people who regularly flood their own streams with conference and event related tweets resent these game tweets so much, and Christy Dena pointed out that the game tweets are auto-generated using templates, rather than user-created—and she’s exactly right.

Similarly, the spymaster game uses the Facebook-like approach of asking you to recruit others in your network to play the game—the interface for sending invites is almost identical to that used by Facebook games. That triggers a twitter DM to your selected followers, and that DM cannot be personalized in any way. As a result, a large number of people I invited had the same “is this spam?” reaction that I initially had.

In terms of gameplay, your strength in the game is increased by the number of twitter followers you have, and even more so by the number of those twitter followers who join the game. You gain energy over time, and can use that energy to complete tasks (although the tasks require no skill; they’re essentially games of chance), which in turn earn you money and experience. You can also attempt to assassinate other spymasters in order to gain still more money and experience. That’s fun for a very short period of time, but the “now what?” ennui kicks in very quickly…there’s no skill involved in any of the actions, and no rewards outside of leveling up and acquiring more money.

I play these games not only because I get a kick out of them, but also because there’s a lot for me to learn as a game developer about what works and what doesn’t work and why. So, that being said, here are the lessons I’ve learned thus far from watching spymaster play out:

  1. If you’re going to encourage people to send messages—public or private—in an existing social network site, you must give them the ability to personalize them. Otherwise it seems clear that most users will (quite reasonably) perceive the messages as spam rather than social updates. And rewarding users for doing more of this spam is a dangerous approach with serious long-term consequences; many people are already alienating friends and losing followers simply by accepting the default notification options in the game.
  2. Spymaster asks you join a specific directorate—US, British, or Russian—when you first login, and warns you that the choice is a permanent one. Requiring a meaningful choice at the beginning of a game is a good thing, but making it permanent and not providing information on the implications of the choice (particularly socially) is very problematic and off-putting.
  3. The game provides an activity stream on the main “dashboard” page to let you know what’s happening with your spy ring, but there’s no way to get information on other spymasters, compare your progress with others, etc. Without a leaderboard or comparable tool, much of the joy of competition and comparison is removed.
  4. There’s not enough to do, and more importantly nothing that requires actual skill. That means that once the novelty wears off, and you get through the first few easy-to-achieve levels, there’s not much to engage players. I suspect there will be precipitous drop-off in player engagement after the first 24-48 hours.
  5. While you’re encouraged to recruit your friends, there’s no way to see at a glance which of them have accepted your invitation, or who was already in the game. You do get DM notifications, but there’s no in-game way to see your social network. That’s a serious failure.
  6. On the plus side, Spymaster is utilizing Twitter’s new OAuth authorization, which means you can authorize them to do these actions under your account without actually providing your login credentials, and you can also easily revoke those privileges (although you need to know to go to Twitter settings->connections to do so, something many users won’t know).
  7. There are some nice touches in the UI in terms of updating and availability of tasks and resources. Nothing spectacular, but definitely some ideas worth looking at and adapting.
  8. If Spymaster does nothing else, perhaps it will finally push Twitter client developers to provide an option for masking specific hashtag posts, something that’s been badly needed for a long time.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the game. My apologies to those in my Twitter followers who were aggravated by either my initial invitation or the ongoing updates.

Posted at 11:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
categories: games | social software

Thursday, 12 March 2009

building a city-based alternate reality game

Last year, Jane McGonigal gave a wonderful talk at the 2008 New Yorker Conference on “Saving the World Through Game Design.” Here at RIT, we’re about to try to save a small piece of the world…specifically our local newspaper, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

Over the past few months, several RIT faculty and newspaper editors have been meeting together to start the planning of a city-wide alternate reality game (ARG) that will draw on the rich history of innovation and risk-taking here in the Rochester area. At the beginning of the year we worked with the amazing Elan Lee of Fourth Wall Studios to help kickstart our planning process, and this quarter I’m teaching a project class with 14 students who share my enthusiasm for generating the structure, content, and infrastructure of the game. Over the summer I’ll be hiring some students to work on the final implementation, and the game is tentatively scheduled to run through September and October.

I can’t share too many details of the game here, obviously, or we’ll ruin the fun of it. But I can say that all of us at RIT and D&C who are working on it are really excited. We won’t be saving the world, but I think we stand a pretty good chance of improving our little corner of it.

Posted at 6:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
categories: games

Thursday, 4 December 2008

one of your classmates has been killed by a werewolf...

This quarter I’m teaching a graduate seminar on online identity, community, and group behavior. I taught it last year for the first time, but now that it’s not all new prep I’m able to have a bit more fun with it.

This week we’re just starting with identity concepts, and I was trying to think of an engaging way to get them doing something related to identity issues. When I woke up this morning, I had the idea of having them play Werewolf, which is at its core all about knowing/deducing identity based on contextual clues.

I hand-wrote roles onto pieces of postcard stock, and handed them out to the sixteen students after a very brief overview of the rules. (One or two of them had played before, but most were new to the concept.) We played a very simple version of the game—for those of you familiar with werewolf, we had no healer and those “killed” did reveal their identity upon death.

It was spectacularly successful. Most of the students were game design & development students, and listening to them process all the game theory issues out loud was fascinating and immensely entertaining. Best of all, it forced even the quietest and most introverted students to engage in discussion (and misdirection), required everyone to learn each others’ names, and created a sense of engagement and fun that’s so often lacking in grad theory classes.

In other words, today was full of win. :)

Some useful links for people wanting to try werewolf themselves:

Posted at 1:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
categories: games | teaching

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

new WoW recruit-a-friend campaign

If you’ve been thinking about trying out WoW, now’s the time to do it. Blizzard is running a new promotion that will allow you to start playing with a friend who already has an account—the friend with an existing account will get a really nice in-game gift, and both of you will be able to level your characters 3x as fast when you’re grouped together.

This addresses a long-standing problem with the game, which is the lack of a “sidekick” mode to allow people with high level characters to engage with friends whose characters are newer.

If this is the thing that “turns” you, I’d be very grateful if you’d let me be your referrer; in return, I’ll happily quest with you to get you leveled up quickly. Just let me know which email you want the referral code sent to.

Posted at 1:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
categories: games

Monday, 26 February 2007

things i'm doing instead of blogging

I don’t expect blogging to resume with any regularity until grading, proposal reviewing, and leveling are all finished.

Posted at 12:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
categories: crafts | games | teaching

Monday, 4 September 2006

werewolves @ rit?

At Foo Camp last month, I finally had an opportunity to play the game werewolf—something I’ve heard a lot about, but hadn’t participated in. It’s not a technology-intensive activity, by any means. No computers, just a deck of cards. For details on the game (and its sibling game, Mafia), see the link above. For those of you too lazy to click through, here are the basics:

A group of people gather around a table. We had around 20 people starting each round, but you could have fewer. The game master (in our case it was danah boyd) hands out cards to each player—on the card is the role you’ll play for that game. The roles in our games were villager, werewolf, healer, and seer. For some of our games we had four werewolves, for others there were three. There’s always one seer and one healer. Nobody knows what anyone else’s role is when the game begins. The game master tells everyone to “go to sleep,” which means you close your eyes and make some kind of noise—humming, etc—so that you can’t hear what’s going on. The GM tells the werewolves to open to their eyes, and to acknowledge each other with eye contact; then the GM tells the werewolves to silently agree on someone in the village that they want to kill off. The werewolves then are told to close their eyes, and the healer is told to open his or her eyes, and to indicate silently to the GM who s/he would like to heal for that round. Then the healer closes his or her eyes, and the seer is allowed to wake up. The seer can point to one person in the circle and have the GM tell them if that person is or isn’t a werewolf. After that, the GM announces it’s morning, and that everyone can wake up. If the person the werewolves picked to kill was not healed by the healer, the GM tells the deceased of their fate, and they have to leave the circle. Then comes the fun part. The remaining players try to determine as a group which players are werewolves. The players can vote to lynch someone if they believe they’re a werewolf, or can choose to do nothing. Then the cycle repeats. The game ends at the point where either all the werewolves are dead (villagers win!) or there are more werewolves than villagers (werewolves win!).

One variant of the game allows deceased players to inform the group of their role, so that the village knows if a werewolf (or healer, or seer) has been killed. We didn’t play with that rule, so we never knew for sure who’d just been killed off.

So, what’s the point? You learn a lot about people from the subtle clues they give off. This is all about deception and perception, about how to read the “tells” from the people around you. The better you know people, I’ve heard, the easier it is to tell if they’re lying.

It is incredibly addictive. And it’s fun not just to play, but also to watch the game. Once you’ve been killed off, you get to see what everyone’s real roles are, and to see who’s most effective in convincing the others of their innocence (whether or not they really are innocent).

Tom Coates, danah boyd, and Jane McGonigal all have excellent accounts of the gameplay at Foo, and observations on the game itself, on their blogs. (Jane also talks about the fabulous “reverse scavenger hunt” that she ran at Foo, which was a great exercise in creative thinking and improvisational acting!)

So, this got me to thinking…are there werewolf players at RIT? If not, there totally should be. I’m thinking of proposing a monthly RIT werewolf game…time and place to be determined. Who wants to play?

Posted at 6:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
categories: games

Friday, 12 May 2006

t.l. taylor at msr

I had invited T. L. Taylor to participate in the social computing symposium, but she had a prior E3 commitment. Much to my delight, Tamara Pesik snagged her to speak in the MSR speaker series this week, so I get a chance to hear a presentation from her today about her research! Yay!

There’s a good turnout, which is nice to see.

She starts by painting a basic picture of MMOG environments, including the software and service model associated with them, noting “breakthrough” titles such as Ultima Online (1997), EverQuest (1999), and World of Warcraft (2004).

Shows an excellent chart from showing subscription data (how does he get this?). The WoW curve is pretty astounding (and it’s six months out of date, showing 5 million rather than 6.5 millions WoW subscribers).

She’s interested generally in the relationship between social and technological artifacts, and sees games as an excellent context in which to “unpack” that relationship.

Becoming a player involves a great deal of socialization—norms, practices, social regulation. There’s a lot of ‘indeterminacy’ — things that aren’t specified in the manual, that users have to make sense of and create through social practice. She uses “trains” in EverQuest as an example of how practice and lore develop around technical phenomenon. (She mentions use of trains for grief play, and this spurs an interesting side discussion, one that I refrain from responding to because this is a particularly sore spot for me in WoW right now.) Excellent point here — “you can’t look at a train and figure out what it means; you need to look at the context to understand it.”

Next she talks about guilds, and points out how different they are. Family guilds, professional guilds, raiding guilds, casual guilds, age-based guilds, and many others. Most involve trust, responsibility, accountability, and reputation. At the highest levels of most games, it’s almost impossible to play without having been socialized into a guild structure.

Shows a social network graph showing relationships among members of a family guild, differentiating between RL and RP (role playing) relationships. (Nice line: “Friends are the ultimate exploit.”) Notes the extent to which people share characters, which is technically a bannable offense—but an example of how users co-opt aspects of a system in ways devs may not expect or want.

Some discussion of the external databases of player-created information about the game. The examples she shows require explicit input by users, but many of the WoW sites now use add-ons to automatically update (like, or auctioneer).

Interesting question from the audience—how much of the reward for playing comes from system-based rewards (levels, xp, honor) and how much comes from social interaction (reputation, etc).

Shows a raid-leader’s screen, with mods everywhere. Wow. I’ve not seen this before. It does change the experience. She notes the social impact, as well, since these mods often show explicitly the micro-level contributions of each player.

Talks about some “persistent critical issues.” She mentions a variety of RMT issues—selling accounts, buying gold, etc. Public vs private sources of control. She shows the warrior protest in IronForge, and the “bullhorn-like” response by Blizzard. (Found the story and the screenshots; scroll down to bottom for system message.) Talks about the GLBT-friendly guild issue, as well, and the whole “should real life come into gaming environments” issue.

Discussion (as is typical at MSR talks) is intelligent and wide-ranging, so I’m not going to try to distill it. The most interesting surrounds the issue of “addiction.” This is clearly a divisive issue, and TL handles it quite well. She reminds people of the moral panic over the introduction of childrens’ literature, and talks about the increasing number of people playing with their kids.

Interesting question—“is there a takeaway from your book for designers of social spaces?” Makes me think there’s a hunger for this right now, for lessons we can bring from these increasingly important and influential spaces of play into other contexts.

Posted at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)
categories: games | microsoft
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna