Thursday, October 18, 2012

So What is Agon and Alea?

Agon and Alea is a game for ladies. It's about heroes and companionship. It's on the iPad and uses new technology ("Augmented Reality" to bring a small digital character 'into' the real world, so she can see it standing on her hand (A bit like the Holodeck from Star Trek). This character is a social and emotional toy one can play with, and a little like a digital child, boyfriend, and pet all wrapped into one. Agon and Alea is also an adventure game in which women coaxes this character through story obstacles and enemies to save the day.

When I started Agon and Alea, I put off starting my blog for about a month. I had no inspiration to write anything. Then one day, in the midst of frustration and uncertainty, I logged in to and began vomiting my feelings and thoughts out into text. This kind of writing is really neat, really therapeutic, really enjoyable- for me. I read my own stuff, and I remember exactly how I felt- it's like a diary of my emotions, my highs, my lows, my epiphanies. Re-reading it is a real big emotional booster for me.

But then some days I just wanna get online and write down the whole cohesive narrative of what the heck I'm doing- instead of tossing around thought vomit ;)

So, what is Agon and Alea?

Graduate school is a doozy; I'm expected to change the world. I came in 'just wanting to make games.' Research sounded stupid. I wanted to make what I played, and play what I made. Strategy games. Horror games. Normal games, I now realize, but better than they had been done before.

Then my Teacher/Mentors stopped me in my tracks with a brick wall of graduate-level questions. I smashed into that wall over and over and over again, crying some days I was so confused about what I was doing wrong. Was something wrong with me? Was I just incapable? Why couldn't I figure out what he wanted me to do?

He didn't want me to do anything; he was trying to make me think about games. This wasn't to say I was adverse to thinking; quite the contrary! Actually, the issue was that we take for granted what we know, and it prevents us from exploring.

Somewhere through my first quarter here at SCAD, I began making breakthrough after breakthrough. Everything about my games changed. The gameplay became richer, more interesting. People started getting excited about what I was doing. I started getting excited about what I was doing. I started off thinking that some of the exercises I was being put through were just that, exercises.

My teacher would ask me to design a game for small children using unique input devices. Blah. That's not a horror game. That's weird edutainment stuff. I got in to this major because I liked Bioshock; not for LeapFrog.  But once I gave it a try, once I pulled out all the stops and really let my mind explore, I started coming up with some things I'd never seen or heard of before. The stuff I was coming up with? Actually meant something in the grand scheme of things.

I meant something. I had power. I could change things. I could invent a product that altered how people thought about something. Me, a game designer! I'm no surgeon, no rocket scientist, no lawyer, no judge. I'd told myself on occasion- whenever I was struck by the thought that 'video game design' and 'novelism' seemed petty in comparison to 'rocket science' (which I would probably also be capable of doing) that I would never want to be responsible for a project where one small mistake could kill a person. Holy crap! Why did I have to tell myself that!? Did I feel like I was wasting my talent? Did I feel like I needed a reassurance, or an 'out', or some explanation for my waste, and that cowardice was an acceptable excuse?

Who knows what I had been thinking. But what I know now is that my chosen career path requires greater courage- and provides for the chance to make greater cultural change- than any rocket scientist ever could. Engineers don't put their stories, their messages, their immersive interactive experiences, into the homes and hands and hearts of today's children. Not really. Not like I can do. I am in an immensely powerful position. My mentor taught me that.

Agon and Alea is an amalgamation of everything I learned about myself and my talents in Interactive Design 101 here at SCAD. And a composite of everything I've learned since. It represents who I am, what I'm good at, what I'm passionate about, where the core of my heart is. For me, games are a way to make the fantastical, real. They let us leave the real world and explore an imaginative space- a fairy world- and then return home safe and sound. To me, each game is a Where the Wild Things Are or a Slumberland. And I'm really big about getting anyone and everyone to get up and let their curiosity lead them off into these worlds, so they can play and escape and relax and wonder for a bit.

Agon and Alea is a video game for ladies. My target audience starts one or two generations my senior and stretches up through the baby boomer dames. My observation is that these are a group of women who just don't get enough play time. No one but Tide Bleach and Better Homes and Garden advertises for them. No one is encouraging them to play, wonder, escape, or relax- unless it's the time share industry (And the damsels and dames I'm aiming for are way too clever with their finances to get sucked into unnecessary time shares.) Even cruise lines prefer to target her children and husband over her and say - "Look, your family will have such a good time, so you should buy this!"

I've been conducting research on my target audience for awhile now. I'm looking both at women in this demographic who already game, as well as women who aren't drawn into gaming- and why. I'm trying to figure out how to make a video game that does something for her akin to what TV dramas do for her- but interactive instead of passive.

Now this is where the research comes in. Because anyone (and I do mean anyone) can look at what I've said about and quickly summon together an opinion about women. I often gets stuff like... let's see... "Hold on a second, you should know that women are more motivated by their families than men." Or "Women just enjoy passive media more than men." For some reason, people can snap together a gut instinct on the issue to explain away the current state of things faster than on almost any other topic.

But that's what my Mentor was telling me all that time ago when I started out my video game quest. You are taking what you 'know' for granted. My job is to stop taking all this 'common knowledge' at face value.  I am disinterested in what women are, or what we know them to be like. If women are one thing, a known constant, an unchangeable pillar, than there are no new products we can pitch to her. If she can't be altered or swayed, if she has no unmet needs, or if her needs are unmeetable, than we have nothing- as designers, developers, producers- to offer her.

But this is not the case. The minivan, tupperware, the microwave, the cellular phone, the right to vote, the dress suit, organized sports in elementary schools- these things changed what it means to be a 'woman,' a 'mother,' etc. forever. These products built on pre-existing utilitarian objects, but they opened up new channels, new forms of culture, new ways of being that previous products never had.

Designers changed culture by designing new and previously unthought of experiences for ladies.

Which means that if I stop accepting the face-value assumption that what women need is a faster can opener, and I start looking at the underlying requirements of her life, I can come upon the startling realization that she doesn't even need cans at all- she needs plastic tupperware. Alternatively, if I stop answering 'why don't women play games?' and I start looking at the underlying requirements of her life, I can find a need that only games could ever possibly meet.

My job is not only to question common knowledge, but to actually ignore facts (effects) about women all together and reach down to find out the forces that drive her. Women love collecting fashion objects? Okay. Why? What does that satisfy in her? What is she longing for? What does she lack? Who did she inherit this practice from? her mother? Her grandmother? Her friends? What need did it satisfy then? How was she first introduced to it?

Zynga asked those questions and realized that women didn't need a game about shoes. They wanted Farmville. They just didn't know it yet.

So Agon and Alea is a game about companionship, social play, emotions, moods, and heroes. It gives a woman a character she can respect- like the protagonist of a TV serial drama- but makes that hero small and slightly vulnerable to her and her alone. He (or she) needs the player's attention and care, and in exchange he is capable of great feats of intelligence, craft, acrobatics, strength, honor, and bravery. He is a character the player can take seriously, drawing in an audience that otherwise despises cartoons and mindless play. A character like Captain Kirk; or the protagonist of I am Legend; or Gregory House.

The character is unique to her, and remembers what she tells him. He has needs, wants, desires, habits (good and bad) and personality quirks. Some can be trained out of him/her; others he will convince the player to accept. The character is intelligent enough to analyze the player, and complex enough to be analyzed by the player, as both attempt to optimize their relationship while at the same time pressing their own needs. He is devoted, loyal, and while occasionally grumbly or aloof, he will always rush to the player's defense in a time of need.

Oh, and she can take pictures with him on her shoulder and send them to her friends.

Agon and Alea is a digital doll, a TV drama hero, a miniature friend, a fun toy, an escape into another world, and a facilitator of play- not necessarily for a  lonely introverted woman- but really for any woman who needs to recapture a little bit of the magic they experienced when watching a movie like Indian and the Cupboard, or from when they once believed their Dolls came alive at night, or Fairies roamed in the backyard garden.

My project with Agon and Alea has another big fundamental component: Distribution. But I'll save that for another blog post. For now, just know that while we spend a lot of time designing this game, we spend a lot more time figuring out how to A) inform ladies about our product, B) get the product to the ladies, and C) lower her guard enough that she'll be willing to give it a try.

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