Frank Lantz - Director of NYU's Game Center and Creator of Universal Paperclips | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "Frank Lantz - Director of NYU's Game Center and Creator of Universal Paperclips".


Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.

Philosophy Of Gaming

Games are the aesthetic form of thinking and doing" (00:00)

I was watching one of your talks earlier this week, and you said something that essentially in game design, the most compelling experiences are made out of gaps. But then in another talk, you said games are the aesthetic form of thinking and doing. And if you think about thinking and doing in real life, it's not that many gaps. So how do these two things work together? Okay, okay, so the thing about gaps is that comes from me having sort of a skeptical take about the explanation of games that focuses on them being simulations. So there's one view of games where you look at it and you're like, "Oh yeah, I see what video games are. That's where you get to be a Viking." It's like a virtual reality thing where you get to live out your fantasy and they're crude now, but eventually they'll be like the holodeck and they'll be these seamless simulations that are infinitely complex and dense and detailed. And that's where they're headed and so that's what games are. And my view is that games have an element of simulation in them often and often that's a core ingredient of what they're doing. But the real value comes from the difference, right? Not from the similarity, not from the seamless identical quality that, but in the same way that a painting of a horse, you don't want it to run around. You don't want to climb on it and have it carry you from one place to another. And you want it to be realistic in some ways. You want it to capture the way a horse looks and express something about the visual identity of a horse, but you don't want to have to feed it hay and carrots. So that's the way painting works. That's the leverage that painting gets on the world. And that's the way paintings are meaningful and expressive, right? That gap between the thing that looks like a horse and an actual horse. And you know, you can try to close that gap. You can have trompe loy paintings that try to trick you. But at a certain point it starts to be like kitsch, right? Then all of a sudden you've got the sort of the mechanical horse that you put a quarter and you're writing and it's sort of like you've lost something in trying too closely to meld those things. Like you want to have that space in between. And the same is true of games. That the way that they generate meaning or beauty or interest or all the qualities that we want out of them is not just their ability to simulate something, but the space between that simulation and the real thing. And that space allows us to reflect on that thing. It gives us some perspective. And I think that's important. And as, you know, in the way that painting is about looking, right? It's the art form that is about looking. Games are the art form about thinking and doing, about our ability to have a goal and pursue that goal and accomplish it, to solve problems, to, you know, to cause an effect about systems and how they work, about, yeah, about being an active agent in the world. And why not just doing? Well, I guess in a way thinking is doing. When I say thinking and doing, I'm, I guess, trying to get you to picture chess and basketball. Yeah. Right. So I don't want to miss, you know, I don't want to mislead people into thinking about games in a very small way as being a certain set of games, like the games that are strategy games where it really emphasizes cognitive, cerebral problem solving and decision making. I'm talking about the full broad spectrum of games that includes that kind of very deliberate, self-conscious thinking and problem solving, but then also games that are about, you know, running around and about more intuitive, automatic physical responses about skill, about unconscious behaviors, about spinning in place until you're dizzy, right? You're looking at like those are games too. And I think in all of those cases, they are sort of opportunities to carve out a little space separate from the ordinary world where we, where we solve problems and do things, where we think and do for its own sake, right? As an end in and of itself, not in order to like accomplish something else in the world, but just because we were like indulging ourselves in our, it's like, you let the, you let your brain off the leash, like our brains are leashed to all of the things that we need to get done in the world. Right. And then in a game, we take our brain off the leash, our brains and our bodies, and we just let them kind of like run wild for its own sake because it's beautiful and weird and interesting. Well, and that's where the craft comes in, right? Because when it's not just the photo real representation, now you have artistic license to abstract something, create meaning, cut a whole lot. Yes. So yeah, that's what game design is. I think it's like trying to find, trying to carve out those little spaces in ways that lead to the most interesting and the most beautiful kinds of experiences. Yeah. That is the craft of game design. So what do you think about VR? I am somewhat of a skeptic on VR.

In-Depth Analysis Of Gaming Culture And Design

VR skepticism (06:30)

So yeah, so given my skeptical position that I've already established about immersion and simulation as being the sort of the ultimate goal of games, VR, you know, the rhetoric around VR has a lot of emphasis on that. I think there's, I think there's, my attitude is where there's smoke, there's fire, right? When people are super passionate about a thing and there's a lot of attention and a lot of energy and then you look and there doesn't seem to be a lot of there there, to me that's an indication that there's an opportunity. That means that people, people want something like there's something about the notion of VR that people are in love with. And to me, that sounds like an opportunity for an ambitious designer to do work. That is going to like tie into that passion and fulfill that interest. I don't think there's been a lot of examples yet of work that is doing that. And I mean, I think there's some great work in VR and I've experienced some cool stuff. But yeah, but I haven't seen it yet become like a place where there's a lot of established work that you can point to and say, oh yeah, this is clearly just, you know, this is an industry and this is a place where you can do work and find an audience. So I don't have a knowledge of gaming history like you do, but were there trends in the past say consoles, for example, where the media was like, this is going to be a thing, you know, whatever that might be. And then it was kind of like, did I like slowly going along? And then it was boom, like one big hit explosion or has that not been the case? I mean, can we sort of predict, you know, is there a model for what might happen to VR in that? Yeah, that there was like maybe, you know, there's a model of like, this has happened before or maybe not. I don't know. It's hard to say. I mean, there's the VR itself has been around for so long. I'm thinking back to like the virtual boy. Do you remember this? I remember the glove. Yes. And, and Dactle nightmare. I remember playing Dactle nightmare in a mall in like, just the 80s, which is very early VR thing. I don't know. I think it's very hard to predict, you know, the future even, even based on trying to find models in the past. I think that it's very likely that some version of VR will will become big and important at some point in the future. That's as far as I'll go. Okay. Yeah. Now, in terms of other tech trends, you are most recent game Universal Paperclips addresses AI.

Universal Paperclips (09:15)

Yes. And I assume this was inspired by Nick Bostrom's book. Yeah. Okay. Maybe, maybe you should explain it for people who haven't played. Okay. So in Universal Paperclips, you play as an AI. Yeah. That makes Paperclips. And you start small and you have humans that are managing you and they're giving you more and more computational resources, processors and memory that increase your power. Yeah. And the more paperclips you make, the more they're willing to kind of trust you by giving you more and more of this power. And so you do more and more things to gain their trust and you become more and more powerful and efficient at making paperclips, but then also doing these other things. And yeah. And eventually you get to a point where you no longer really need your human managers. And so you just sort of brush them aside and now you're going full throttle. Yeah. Now it's all about paperclips all the time. And so the game sort of escalates from that point. It's a clicker game, what's called like sometimes an incremental game or an idle game sometimes, meaning that it's very, very simple. Yeah. You click a button to make a paperclip and then eventually you get the ability to sort of automatically make paperclips. And so it's about this kind of exponential growth and you become more and more powerful and so you can imagine where that goes. And yeah, it was inspired by this thought experiment that comes out of Nick Bostrom's book and Elizier Yudkowski. And I just, when I sat down to make this game originally, I just was interested in clicker games. I think they're cool. I think they are kind of an underappreciated little micro genre in games. And I think part of the appeal for me is that they are, I think, considered too simple to be interesting by a lot of people. For a lot of people they kind of represent the kind of lowest end of games. Something that Match 3 used to be kind of touchstone for people who are talking about a game that couldn't possibly be interesting. Nowadays people will say a clicker game or something. And so that to me was interesting because I actually thought that they were kind of interesting. I enjoyed them on some level and I thought, oh, I could probably make one of these. So I sat down to design one and then I had this idea that this would be a good theme for it. And as soon as I thought of it, it was like, oh, yeah, this is a perfect fit. Because these games can be very addictive. And so I thought this will be an opportunity for people to have a first person perspective of what it's like to be the AI in this thought experiment, right? You're not stupid, you're intelligent, like you're a human playing this game. And yet you are completely and utterly entranced by this arbitrary goal to make paper go. Because that's what happens when you play a game. You enter into this mind state where you're just in dogged pursuit of this arbitrary goal. Like this goal is not like there's no external reason you would want to make this number go up in any clicker game except that it's fun to make this number go up. That's how you make the game go. So once you enter into this game, you're just completely beholden to the project of making this number go up. And it's like, yeah, that's what this thought experiment is about. Like it's about intelligence attached to an absurd or arbitrary or valueless goal. And so that's where it came from. And how do you use that to explain games to other people? We talked about this before we started recording. And it's basically like folks who play games get it. Like I'm addicted to this arbitrary thing and I can just play Overwatch all day every day and it's the only thing I care about. But for people who don't play games at all, it just like kind of glazed over look.

Explaining games to non-gamers (14:00)

And so how do you communicate that? I mean, even until you know you have an 18 year old come in here, freshman and college and their parents are like, I have no idea what my kid's doing. What do you say to them? Well, I think in the case of universal paper clips, what I'm trying to do is harnessed that feeling of being absorbed by an activity. And I want it to sort of go in two directions at once. I want you to disappear into it. I want to make something that truly hypnotizes you where you get absorbed by this thing and you can't stop. I mean, I really do want it to like put its hooks in you. And I think it's a two way street. I mean, I want it to be consensual. Like I want you to want its hooks in you and then I want those hooks to go in. And because that's what I want from a game, right? Often in the position of like picking up a game and running it over my head to see if it hooks. And it's a weird thing to want in a way. I don't currently have this desire, but here's a thing that is trying to put a desire into my head. I wonder what it would be like to want to do this thing. We want to have a special mount in World of Warcraft where you have this power armor and fallout. I don't currently want it, but I want to want it. It's that kind of weird feeling. So I want to do that. Like I really do. Then I also want to create a space where you are aware of that. So it's like a double movement where you fall into a thing, you fall into that feeling of being completely and utterly beholden to an external goal that you didn't invent. But now you would die for, right? And then I want you to also be like, huh, that's interesting. I want you to be able to lean back. So I want you to fall into it. And I also want you to kind of lean back from it and say, wow, what's going on there? Like, I wonder what else in my life is like this. You know, let me light up a cigarette and think about that for a minute. You know what I'm thinking? Like what other things? You know, we have some coffee. We go to work. Let me check my bag of guns. Check my bag of guns. And let me check Twitter and see, you know, like I want there to be that kind of because that to me is the potential of games to be expressive and meaningful in the way that a painting is, right? So I think a painting does that for vision. You look at a painting of something and you just absorbed and like we're always looking. We're all day long. We're looking around, looking here, looking there and doing stuff. But then you stop and you look at a painting and for a minute, looking takes over. You're no longer like looking along without it. You're just 100% your brain is like all of a sudden just a vision machine. You're just looking at this thing. But then you're also, so you fall into it. Then you also are able to lean back and think, oh, that's what looking. Oh, yeah, that's color and shape and form. This is how my vision is structured and how I respond to things and what and this is kind of how how looking works. So I want to be able to do that for that experience of being, of making a number go up. And I think that is in general what games are doing. I think that in Overwatch or whatever, you're trying to like, you're trying to do a thing. You're trying to coordinate with your team members to take a point and to hold a whatever you do in Overwatch. I don't know. I'm an Overwatch guy. You're trying to hold a point. You're trying to watch over something obviously. With Pixar characters. So you're trying to, yeah, you're trying to accomplish this difficult task and you're working at it and you're getting yelled at by your teammates and you're trying to think of what you're doing wrong and you're practicing in order to get the muscle memory of how to do certain actions and you're strategizing and thinking and you're just like completely absorbed in that. And hopefully at the same time, you're given an opportunity to think about that. Oh, what does it mean to be in a process where I'm trying to get good at a hard task? And in fact, in order to get good at any difficult competitive game, you actually need to have the kind of mindset of self improvement and stepping back and thinking for the first time often like, oh, well, what am I doing wrong? How do I learn and why is it not working? Why am I so so bad at this? That's the experience because games are designed to be these incredibly difficult tasks that require and encourage that kind of self reflection. So they're both incredibly absorbing and hypnotic and addictive, but then also they give you an opportunity to think and analyze about your own experience of how you learn how you get good at a thing, what your habits of thought and action are and how to improve them. So that's basically my position in a nutshell. Yeah, I remember being met with reality in a harsh way when I got the internet expansion pack on the back of my PS2 and I started playing the games that I thought I was good at online. And yeah, not so much.

Competitive gaming (19:45)

Not so much. Yeah, it is weird. Competitive games are strange in that way because you can, yeah, they're a big mountain and you can have a lot of fun just scrambling around in the foothills. And then all of a sudden you realize, oh, I see, you look up and then that journey up. And very few people even want to be on that path where they're getting good at a really serious competitive game. Yeah. And even if you do, it's hard to, you can only do that for one or two games in your life. You can't, but some people do, you know, are on that path. And I think even if you're scrambling around in the foothills, I think the fact that there is a mountain matters. Yeah. Like not everybody thinks this, but I'm the kind of person that kind of game designer that actually thinks there's real value in having high level competitive community in a game, even if most people are playing it casually. I think there's something, just sort of invert the topography. Like if you imagine an ocean, even if we're just splashing around at the beach, just the knowledge that the ocean goes deep somehow influences that you can feel it in the waves or you can, you know, even the tide or something, the temperature. It's something about the quality of even for casual players of having that great depth. You know what I'm saying? Well, it compels you, especially once you find that one thing that you actually can be good at. Yeah. And you're like, oh, okay, now I can focus. Now I can really learn. And now people are getting coaches. I've heard of like, oh yeah, school kids, like getting 200 bucks an hour for their little video game coach. Sure. Sure. But I mean, if you get a coach in tennis, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you get a coach in Overwatch? Right. Makes sense. They're roughly the same. Tennis is as silly or sillier than a potentially less competitive than Overwatch. Yeah. I mean, the outfits are maybe cuter in tennis, but you know, but there's still outfits. There's still cosplay. You get little white sweaters and little skirts. So you know, now do you think the average player is taking these lessons away or is it just osmosis maybe? Hopefully. Yeah. So maybe I'm painting a picture of something that's not really happening. It's something I want to happen. This is what I want games to be like. This is what I want out of games myself. And this is the kind of games I want to make as a designer.

Building life lessons into games (22:30)

Right. Are games that can be expressive in this way? Yeah. I actually think that there's an element of this in all games. I think, yeah, I do. Okay. I mean, if you self reflect, I don't know what kind of game you're doing. What games you play, what are you playing? I was definitely addicted in college and intentionally gave up my console because I was playing so much fun. I played like a lot of Tony Hawk, a lot of Call of Duty, games like that. Yeah. I mean, I think my main way of thinking about these questions is to kind of just reflect on my own experience. Yeah, right. And think about the experiences I've had with games and the ones that are the most valuable to me and the ones that I want more of as opposed to the ones where afterwards I was like, I kind of wish I hadn't done that. And so, yeah, that's where it comes from is self reflection. And I think that if you do think about like, you have a game that you love and you think back on what your experience of it was, I think you often will see that it has this kind of this double movement I'm talking about where you disappear into the game. You get absorbed by it. It takes over and there's something beautiful about just being swept away and it's kind of like a kind of oblivion. And then at the same time, there's some way in which you reflect on that and it resonates with your life by contrast or by comparison or you think of it like in the context of other things and so that's that moment of leaning back. Yeah, I mean, I think there's an element of that in all art forms and all cultural forms. And so to the degree that games are like that as opposed to being like hedonic appliances that we plug into, or gazam machines or something, which is that's my argument is that they're more like paintings than they are like orgasm machines. That's what I would agree. Yeah, I mean, you can only play a game in beginner mode for so long for like, I was kind of silly. Yeah, or you could play or that can be your thing. I mean, you could just play in beginner mode. You can play a lot of different games and get that. Yeah, but if you can go right to everyone, it's like kind of, I don't know. I remember playing shadow of the Colossus for the first time and I was like, man, that game got me for like a month until I finished it. Yeah, that's a great example of a standalone experience. I mean, like it's definitely not meant to be a game like overwatch or tennis that you devote yourself to and become like master over and like, you know, become an expert in or anything like that. You know, it's designed to be a challenge that is difficult and requires you to develop some skills, but then has an ending. And specifically in that game, it really makes you think about what you've done, right? And like, oh, well, I was driven by this kind of assumption that I needed to kill these things because that's what you do in a game. And so I figured out how to kill these things because that's what you do to make a game go. And then at the end, you've got this weird melancholy sadness because this empty world you've killed these big beautiful things. And so it's a perfect, I think a perfect example of this this double. It wouldn't work if all there was was just like the sad, just like the scolding, right, about, oh, it's bad to kill things. Don't kill endangered giants. Yeah, if there were if there were like the engine that makes Shadow of the Colossus work as a piece of art is this double, this two pistons, like the desire to kill, right? And the tropes that exist in games of applying your will to accomplish a task, which for better or worse, the human brain is an engine that was designed to throw rocks, right? And we weren't throwing rocks, we weren't skipping stones. You know what I'm saying? So that's the engine that we have, you know? But that's not the end of it, right? It's the other piston is the fact that we have values and we have a framework within which we think and do and solve problems. And so Shadow of the Colossus is that it's engaging you as in a primal sense of the desire to understand the system and master it and overcome these great things and defeat them and move forward and accomplish these series of tasks that the game is giving you, but then also the ability to think about what that means in a larger sense. Such a masterpiece. That game was unbelievable. Yeah, and I felt like it could have gone on forever and if they were just like procedurally generated, they just kept coming. Like I would have gone on forever because it like, no, it's perfect. It's great that it ends where it does. Because it's true because it's very different to life. You know, sometimes you hear about like professional athletes when they retire or like people who served in the army or the navy or something. Yeah. And they're like, I don't know. Nothing is like as powerful as that. Yeah, that's, that's the difference between life and art. Life is just like a weird half built engine with only the one piston. But I mean, but then what makes games so cool now in particular is that all this, all these indie gamers are making fringe stuff without really any like, that's one thing that makes games cool now. I think yeah, definitely. Yeah, I would say that there's a number of things happening. That's true. Indie games for sure. For me, especially like I love the idea that there's now like a driving scene of people making really weird, interesting, kind of innovative, expressive, eccentric work as small teams or as individuals for sure. That's one of the best things about games. Yeah, because well, I agree because there are tons of like esports, Twitch. And there's also crazy stuff. Yeah, yeah. Which is totally different and equally fascinating. Yeah. More about like, esports are more like the way games have traditionally been made, which is less the sort of individual author and more like this folk practice of many people working together like a community of people kind of carving out a set of habits and conventions. Yeah. Like yeah, like the origins of something like League of Legends, you know, goes back to this process of modding and mapping and this community of people like tinkering with Blizzard games like Warcraft 3 and Starcraft to make their own versions and then little communities of players bubbling up around them and modifying them and changing them and evolving. And then eventually like after a decade, right, you get, you know, defensive the ancients. Yeah. You get Dota All-Stars, right? And then you get this like, then all of a sudden you look around and it's like, oh, this is the number one game on the number one multiplayer game on the internet. And where did it come from? Like no one quote unquote designed it, right? I mean, Ice Frog was, you know, for Dota All-Stars like this key figure, but Ice Frog inherited a thing that looked very much already like Dota All-Stars by the time he was like, you know, working on it already. And it's amazing, it's beautiful that we, and it's like the most, it's the most successful game on the planet in some ways by some measures. And it didn't come from a professional game designer, you know, deciding, oh, let's make something popular. It came from, yeah, this recursive process of playing and modifying things and kind of, I just think that that's beautiful. And the fact that both of these things are happening at the same time, that's amazing. It's wild. Yeah. It's so good. And I just wonder like how you could possibly teach this to someone.

Teaching game design (31:15)

We talked a little bit about like the game history 101. Yeah. Like that makes sense in terms of like setting up a foundation. Yeah. Well, yeah, it is kind of a ridiculous thing to create people to make games. I don't know. It's a little bit like teaching birds how to fly. Yeah. You kind of want to like first do no harm. Like maybe step back and give them a little room. Yeah. And see if right, like maybe you can encourage them. You're like, we do it by recruiting talented people in the first place, right? So we try to like find students that are already, you know, bringing passion and intelligence and some skills. Then we try to create a space for them to do work and for them to work together. And we try to teach them. We have amazing faculty. We've got great curriculum. But mostly we're trying to make a space where there is a scene and there's like a community of shared purpose and people, you know, care about each other's work. And there's like, there's friendly rivalry and there's social pressure and there's collaboration and all the stuff that makes a scene be the source of groundbreaking work. So we emphasize that. We teach everybody how to code. If you don't already know how to code, you learn that lease the fundamentals of code because I think you want to be a game designer. Even if you're making board games, I actually think if you want to be a game designer, you should know the fundamentals of how to code. You should be just, you know, comfortable, literate with thinking algorithmically. I think board games even more than video games in some ways, right? So we prepare you to kind of like think in terms of rules and systems and algorithms and that kind of like logical thinking. And so then we also try to teach programmers how to think like artists. So we teach artists how to code and we teach programmers how to think like artists, right? Because that's video games and games in general, I think exist in this overlap between these two cultures. Which are often thought of as being separate or even opposed to each other, right? Over here we have math and logic and science and engineering. Over here we have emotions and aesthetics and the social and the beautiful. And in reality, those don't have to be thought of as two separate domains. No. There's a place I think there are some humans that on their own kind of like embody both of those things. And then there's lots of projects that draw from both of those things and try to combine them. And I actually think that more and more it's really important to that. That's going to be the source of a lot of solutions that we need. And so games as an art form I think really occupy that overlap. Absolutely. Yeah. And so we try to embody that by drawing from the traditions of engineering and computer science and programming and also from the traditions of design and art and creativity. And figuring out how to make an art school with computers in it is basically what we do. That people then have to use which is a big difference. Yeah. I mean you could argue that things like maybe like Rain Room at MoMA was like a hit in terms of a product or like an art product. But then there are other paintings where people are just like look at it's like okay cool that's art or if you just go to any art school. It might be somewhat thought provoking to 10 people. But for you guys I mean like the goal is to have. It's pop culture. Yeah. Right. So it's not an art school in the sense that it's like yeah. These we're trying to make artists well really in both senses right in both like the sense of you know Chris Burton or you know Bill Viola or somebody like that. But then also like an artist like Justin Bieber is an artist and you know Lady Gaga. And what's tapping into something. I mean like all those things have some inherently like human element and they have an opinion and taste and that's what compels you. Yes.

Inspiration, hard work, and taste (35:50)

Precisely and I think a big part of what we're doing is trying to explore it. Yeah what is I mean taste is very much at the heart of what we do. I think to be a successful game designer you need inspiration you need hard work and you need taste. And of all of those I think taste is maybe the most important. And the hardest to kind of like pin down. But it really is that judgment of knowing of having a sense of what is interesting what is exciting. But both subjectively what you know having a self reflecting and being aware of your own taste and sensibilities. But then also like understanding where that is going to resonate with other people. Of course. How am I going to do something that then is in conversation with the world. Something that other people might also be excited by and it's not some private domain. There is no private taste. Taste is always like about connection between people. Yeah sure. Language or some conversation that we're having about values and things. So yeah so trying to like yeah get our you know teaching people how to code teaching code is how to design. And then hopefully having them think about what they're making in a larger context. How do they want to you know bounce off the world. How do they want to connect. Well you have to know where you're coming from to like take inspiration from little things and like create your own path. We talk about it why I see all the time. These people like basically when you're living in the future it's very easy to see where it's easier to see where things are going. But you also have to build. I mean I'm sure there are just like in the art world like like outsider artists in the video game world. Where people just like come out of nowhere. Sure. And make something. Yeah I mean it maybe is just as an art form video games are entirely outsider. Yeah well in a way. Yeah they're just like and yeah and that they're there. I think as they evolve and continue to kind of grow and mature and become more sophisticated. You see the whole gamut of things that are some of which are like very sophisticated and self aware and post modern and intellectual and cerebral. And some of which are just like raw and kind of primal and just gut level. And some of which are like genuinely like bizarre and eccentric and just coming out of like whoa what is that. And they're great beautiful weird interesting games across all of those things. Yeah. And then so how do you guys address the darker sides of video game of gaming culture.

Darker sides of gaming culture (38:50)

You know like online communities have been kind of infamous. Do you address that in your curriculum? Yeah. We do we actually we try to we have a lot of sort of game studies classes that we kind of weave in to the overall curriculum which are meant to give students different perspectives on games different ways people have thought about what games are and how they fit into the world. And just encourage them. Well quite honestly try to encourage them to read right. I mean a lot of these games studies are really their main purpose is like like developing the habit of reading difficult texts and think like reading like close reading of difficult texts. I just think I don't know how to get smart but I think that's the closest proxy we have right. You know so we try to like incorporate that into the curriculum that they're bumping up against things that they might not have encountered on their own. And then are reading them because you know they're not reading them for pleasure direct pleasure. Right. You know there but there there is a value in slowing down and like really trying to understand complicated ideas and then bringing that to your practice as a designer. Because we want to make you know we want our students to have skills and talent and make work that resonates with other people and go on and be rich and famous. We want them to also be doing that in a way that is thoughtful right where they're considering the kind of work they want to make and why. And not just making things in order to make them or in order to get a job or to make money but like really thinking about what kind of designer they want to be what kind of games they want to make what their own relationship to games are. Yeah I think that's that's our job I think it because we're not a like a professional training school like we're not a animation to the industry where it's like an on ramp to getting it like like yes we want our students to be successful and have jobs and have careers but that's a bad use of the academy. That's the bad use of higher education I think. Because if all you're interested in is a job in the industry you actually don't need to go to college for that and you certainly don't need to go to grad school for that. There's a thing that college and grad school can do which is open up a space that emphasizes this thoughtful aspect the context of the work you're doing encourages like a deeper engagement with the ideas like that emphasizes kind of the things that are innovative about what you're doing that allows you to kind of do stuff that's riskier and to fail and to really experiment and to try to like you know pan for gold in a way that is really aggressive in a way that you might not be able to do if you have to respond to the second my second incentives and constraints of the marketplace. Those produce a certain kind of innovation we want to open up a space for a complimentary kind of innovation. Okay. Does that make sense? It does make sense. I'm curious about what your perspective is on where the indie game market stands right now because as far as I've seen like that's usually where more of the risky stuff comes from.

The indie game market (42:40)

Yeah. And we were talking about this earlier but you know like maybe there was like a renaissance period where those games were on Kickstarter and they just like took off or wherever they might have been lost. Yeah. Right. Where do you see things going now for that average indie developer? I think it's still I mean it's pop culture. Yeah. It's entertainment. It's hit driven. It's never going to be a reliable career for anybody. Right. That's the foundation you have to start with. Like once you accept that then indie games are very healthy. Like you have a you certainly easier to make a living making indie games than it is to make a living being a pop musician I would say comparatively. Right. For a while there was kind of like a little mini golden age where it was like super almost reliable and people kind of got comfortable with the idea as long as your game is of a certain quality you can guarantee a certain size audience. That's no longer the case. There's things fluctuate and the channels that sort of digital distribution channels have gotten very very crowded places like Steam. Yeah. And so it's harder to break down. You can make a good game and not find an audience. But that's I think they're always going to be the reality of working in a creative field and in a hit driven field and people are still making hits and they're still coming out of nowhere sometimes really surprising and one of the main inputs for that is the quality of your game still. Yeah. So it still helps if you make a good game you're more likely to have a hit. It's just not a guarantee. Okay. Yeah. Now are there certain trends that have come out of nowhere in the past few years that you've just like because it hasn't been VR right like we've heard all about that but like certain things are like man I didn't even see I mean you're kind of on the bleeding edge it seems but you're also not like a teenager.

Well yeah so battle royale right was a little bit like that. I think when pub G hit big when player and nuns battlegrounds hit big that was pretty cool and it took a minute to sort of like oh where's this coming from. And I think one of the places that came from was kids in Minecraft playing Hunger Games mods. So I think for a while there was this thing happening so Fortnite so you know obviously it's huge right so Fortnite's battle royale and you know it's a pub G was the one that sort of like established it before Fortnite you know kind of took over and became the big one but then so I think before pub G I think there were these yeah lots and lots of Minecraft servers that were playing these playing Hunger Games. Hunger Games mods which is amazing because Hunger Games obviously this really valuable IP. Right. There was no one involved. You know. No one was making millions of kids playing Hunger Games video game. It was nobody who owns the Hunger Games IP was anywhere near it. Again it's an example of this kind of like folk culture bubbling up but people making mods and maps and things like that. So I think that that was one of I mean this is speculation you know one of the sources of that gameplay pattern which it turned out to be just really good. It turned out that like basically Hunger Games you know is a really good way to sort of organize a casual competitive game. It's a really good structure. I think this battle royale structure is like it's like a poker tournament. Right. I want to talk to you about this. Yeah. About poker. I think yeah I think Fortnite in its overall structure has a lot of poker tournament in it in the sense that it's there's a combination of luck and skill and it's exactly the structure of like starting with 100 people and ending up with one big winner and it could be you and it's not always the best player who wins and if you play it enough you're going to get some wins. And if you become really good you start to use that structure itself. So people who are like really good at that kind of game understand how you have to play the edges of the circle and you're basically out in the blue. So yeah but that was kind of a interesting surprise. Both the success of PUBG and then the following success of Fortnite because I remember playing you know PUBG and being like Fortnite coming and I'd be like why would anyone play Fortnite it just looks you know terrible and then like two minutes later Fortnite was the game. That was like a week before. Yeah it was just yeah and I certainly did not see that coming. I remember playing a little bit of Fortnite and being like this is interesting. It was clearly like a cheap knockoff after the fact you know but no I was just wrong. It's very hard to predict things. It's really hard to predict. I mean even honestly even with the podcast I was like oh that was a good one. No nobody likes it. That was a bad one really popular one I can't tell anymore. But okay so I want to give the person who asked credit about the poker question.

Benedict Fritz asks - Frank you seem much more interested in chess, go, poker, and other games with a long history than most game designers. Where do you think this comes from? (48:50)

So Benedict Fritz asked Frank you seem much more interested in chess, go poker and other games of a long history than most other game designers. Where do you think that comes from? I think it's because I'm very ambitious. And I look at game design and the potential of game design. I see things like basketball. Basketball was designed by somebody. James Nismith wrote down some rules. He had an idea and he invented this thing and look at it. Like look at how that has transformed the world. That to me like video games are awesome but we should not be aspiring to be as successful as a successful movie. We should be looking at the history of like look at chess. Look at go. Look at poker. Look at basketball. And that's what games can do. They can become these foundational experiences that people live their lives inside of and have careers in and teach their children. And that's beautiful. Not all games need to be that. I think there's beauty in the small game in the miniature. But I want to see games, video games within this larger spectrum in it. And so yeah. And I'm also I'm interested like I think there's a deep connection between games like chess and computer games in the sense that in a way chess invented computers. Right? Chess was there before computers. Chess was one of the inspirations. People like Babbage looking at chess and thinking, "Huh, I wonder that's kind of like a little bit like a machine." Right. It's like system with the fine rules. Exactly. These symbolic things that are being manipulated according to rules and then there's like inputs and outputs and it's like that was already there in a way in games. So I think this border between video games and other kinds of games, I think we overemphasize it because I think it's parochial. I think in the we see computer games and these other games as being so distinct and separate. Right. But I actually think that there's a lot that they have in common. And what about computer games and sports? Because I mean the Rosavi sports has been phenomenal to watch. But I also wonder you see people all these CTE studies in the NFL around concussions. And I wonder if in our lifetime, you know, Dota will be bigger than the NFL by multiple.

Esports (51:45)

I would probably take the under on that. Okay. Even as much as I love esports, I'm also like, you know, like everybody, I predict what's going to happen by looking at what's currently happening and extending it into the future. And so League of Legends is huge. But it's already showing signs of like, yeah, it's not going to grow indefinitely. It's kind of like leveling off. And you could make the case that League of Legends is bigger than hockey, right? More people watch the League of Legends World Championship than watch the Stanley Cup. But I don't think it's going to be bigger than football. But yeah, something else could come along or like another, like another esports overall. Like maybe you could make an argument that overall esports is already as big as NFL. But I do think that we are going to see other kinds of games, other kinds of games, you know, in esports. Yeah. Like it's not, I don't think we're looking at like, like whatever, you know, League of Legends and Counter Strike and Hearthstone and Overwatch, maybe Starcraft, I don't know. Yeah. I don't think we're going to be stuck with those for the next 20 or 30 years. But it's not clear what the next ones are going to be. It's a really interesting question. Drone racing, I don't know. It would be interesting if it were some hybrid of physical and digital. I would like to imagine if that's where it's going, right? Like to me, there'd be something really cool about, you ever watch Fencing in the Olympics? Absolutely not. They're all wired up. Really? Yeah, they're super wired up and they've fenced on these platforms. It's cool. That light up when you get a hit. They're already, there's a kind of cyborg element of some of it. So it's a physical and it's beautiful to watch physically, but there's already this like weird electronic element of it. I don't know. I can imagine a thing like that that's designed to draw from the tradition of physical athletics and incorporate the complexity that you can get from software to create some kind of hybrid thing. I think that would be amazing. I can't point to it. Well, there is the example of it. The void thing, the laser tag with the backpacks mixed reality. Oh, how'd that do? I mean, they've opened up a bunch from them. Oh, is it like a, is it like a? I think they were the ones that did the Star Wars thing at Times Square or something. Yeah. So it's like a headset. So maybe combo. Yeah. Yeah. So I don't know. Let's get a film crew down there and see if we can make a sports. Well, I do know. But I mean, it makes sense, you know, like things like CrossFit have just happened in the past 15 years. Yeah. Like why wouldn't another sport come in? Yeah. That's like completely integrated. And you see people trying to invent something. I think it's hard to invent a sport. I see my theory about this is that you really can't invent a sport.

Inventing sports (55:10)

You can invent games and sometimes games can evolve into sports. Okay. But it's very hard, I think, to invent a sport. Like because I think what a sport is, is when a game acquires a scale, there's a big dedicated community and there's organized play and there's some kind of like attempt to create a global system of rules and regulations and tracking and there's a fan base and then there are people who are doing it for a living. It's like, now you know you've got a sport. Yeah. You know, that's what makes chess feel like a sport more than a game, even if a game might have like, I might invent a game that has more physical stuff in it than chess. Yeah. One of the things that makes something feel like a sport is that it's physical. But the main thing that makes it feel like a sport is all this others. This institutional stuff. Of course. And you can't invent that, right? That has to accumulate. That has to somehow be the world's response to this game that you've invented. Well, in many ways it's probably riding the wave of a macro trend, right? Like the iPhone couldn't have been made in 1930. Yeah. Like those sensors had to exist. All these things had to have to exist. And then you have to kind of invent it at the time, but also be on the wave at the right time. Yeah. It's one of those things. It's about being in conversation with the world, right? It's like you're making something and there's something you like. And then at a certain point, the world blinks and takes notice. And then I see, you know, you're rolling in money. It's like every story. Do you think Pokemon Go was like a freak event? Or do you think there's an AR future? Games. I think Pokemon Go was the result of a lot of internal R&D by Google, which people didn't see because it was ingress, this game that not a lot of people were playing, a game that probably would not have, was probably not making enough money to be a going concern on its own, but was kept alive by Google as a kind of proof of concept in a way to like understand location and how it might fit into these larger kinds of game patterns.

Pokemon Go (57:00)

And so they really had an opportunity to kind of explore that and work out a lot of the design issues and build a real deep understanding and knowledge. And then you combine that with the world's most popular IP, Pokemon, right? And you got a hit. Like that, it was certainly no guarantee. There's no guarantees in this world. It's easy to imagine a world in which that was a flop. But it wasn't. It was a big success. So it's not that those things were either on their own necessary or it's efficient, but I think those two things I think really helped make Pokemon Go what it was. And I think that that's not exactly a fluke. I think that it's certainly a proof of concept that a game like that can work. I don't see a ton of other people. And that doesn't strike me as yet being a space where there's a lot of interesting work happening or a lot of successful games coming in the wake of Pokemon Go. And I think AR like VR is a thing that sounds great. And a lot of people are very excited about it. And I'm interested in things that actually are great, even though they don't necessarily sound great. Like I'm looking for that next Hunger Games where we look over and it's like, wait a minute, every 14 year old on the planet is doing this thing and no one's heard of it versus a thing that everybody's talking about and there are lots of conferences on, but no one's doing it. So right now I think there's like, but that's my personal take. I mean, I think that there's a lot of opportunity there and I expect to be surprised. Well, there's so many cool ideas that are thrown around, like the Netflix for games type stuff, episodic content, episodic games, like binge games. Certainly sounds good. But yeah, you look around and you're like, maybe.

Difficulty in predicting successes in entertainment (01:00:05)

Yeah, it's very hard to predict things in general. It's particularly hard to predict entertainment because part of the job of art and entertainment is to be unpredictable. Right? Part of the job, like the Netflix, the dilemma that Netflix has in their recommendation algorithm, which is I don't know, called the Napoleon Dynamite problem or something. I remember reading about this. Yeah, they have this problem where it's like, for a while, they were like, yeah, it's really hard to write a recommendation algorithm. There's certain movies where everything gets knotted up and like, you lose the ability, the predictive power. And so they find this as the Napoleon Dynamite problem. And in a way, that's what art and entertainment are trying to do. It's fashion. It's surfing this wave of interest and attention and it's staying one step ahead of our ability to predict what the couple is good, where the plot's going to go. But as soon as you can predict where the plot's going to happen, that they're going to break up or they're going to get back together, it's like, then the movie doesn't work. The movie works because we have these established patterns of how movies work and then the movies are surprising us by doing it slightly differently. By constantly figuring out some new twist or some new flavor or all of a sudden, it's like, and that's how you get these waves of things that come and go, of cowboy movies and pirate movies and monster movies and superhero movies. And you're like, well, I guess that's it. I guess from now on, it's going to be superhero movies, but no, it's not. But good luck predicting what the next one is going to be because that's David Lynch's job, right? That's JJ Abrams' job. That is art. That is design. That is entertainment. And it's like an arms race between the human brain and itself, right? To be interesting and surprising. Yeah, not only that. It was. It's the artist versus the collective of humanity, which is what? I was never really a Banksy fan, but man, the painting shredding. He's like, oh, he got me. You got you. Yeah, he got me on that one. That's what I get on him. Yeah. Okay, so the last question I'm curious about is if you could recommend a handful of games for people to play to cut their teeth and maybe dive deep into something that they might not have heard before?

Frank's game recommendations (01:02:50)

Well, you should definitely play universal paper clips. That goes without saying. They're, I don't know, I love the games of a designer named Michael Bro. Because it's my favorite game designer. And so he has a new game out called Cinco Paus, which I play every day and I love and I think is beautiful. Definitely recommend that. There's a game coming out soon by a friend of mine named Gabe Kazello called Apout, which I think you want to definitely keep on your radar. It's coming out in February. It's going to be masterpiece. I don't know if you're interested in stories and games. There have been a lot of really interesting experiments with storytelling. There's a game called Her Story. It came out last year or maybe a year and a half ago. Really weird and interesting and fascinating. There is what remains of Edith Finch, I think is a great example of this genre that some people call the walking simulator where it's not a game about puzzles and challenges. It's just using 3D environments and spaces to tell stories and create experiences. I think it's a really beautiful example of that. I would, yeah, a game called Everything by David O'Reilly, which was probably my favorite game from last year. Just a weird, interesting, transcendent game about meditation and consciousness that you can play on your PlayStation. I know there's some of the ones that just pop into mind. I also want to mention there was a question that someone asked about on Twitter that was the question was why Tonto. I think what that person was referring to was Tonto's Expanding Headband, which is the name of the musical group that did the song that I used in Universal Favorite Class.

Interacting With Viewers - Personal Questions

fakebalenciaga asks - Why Tonto? (01:05:20)

The story behind that song was Tonto's Expanding Headband is a very early experimental electronic group from the '60s. It's experimenting with synthesizers like way before anyone else and trying to figure out how to compose music like that. I had an album of theirs lying around. I had a USB turntable that I was using to digitize stuff. I had digitized a bunch of the tracks off that album. They happened to be sitting on my computer. When I was working on the game and in Universal Paper Club it was a silent. You played this game for like six hours. There's no sound at all. You click and then at a certain point you as the AI have to reinvent music because you're in charge of this giant drone swarm that's at war with the drifters and you need to somehow rally the troops. You compose this piece of music which is a threnity. It's an elegy. It's a mournful song about the brave drones that have given their life in this battle against the drifters. When you compose it all of a sudden it starts playing. I needed a piece of music and I just grabbed one of the tracks off this album and I stuck it in as a placeholder. It was just called test.mp3. As soon as I heard it, it could never not be this piece of music. It was the most perfect thing. It was just this accident but it was without a doubt exactly the piece of music that this AI who's in the process of destroying the universe would write. It was just so good that I knew it. I just had to have this in the game. I looked up this business band still around. And sure enough, one of the members of this group is still alive. I just wrote him an email and said, "I'm making this free web game and I want to use your music." I said, "Okay." I didn't hear back from him. I thought, "Well, whatever. I guess it doesn't really matter because no one's ever going to play this game." Then I launched the game and in a couple of days my server had melted. Eventually, it had been played by a million or more people. After a couple of months, I got an email back from this guy and he was like, "Yeah, sure good." I was like, "Okay." I was very happy. I think a lot of people love this song and who is it? I linked to him in the credits and so I hopefully have driven some traffic and some interest to his work. But that's the story of the song and their Spotify resurgence. Yes, hopefully. All right, man. Thanks so much. All right. Well, thanks. It was a real pleasure. Cool. Thank you.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Wisdom In a Nutshell.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.