Universal Paperclips is a clicker game where you play an AI that makes paperclips. It was launched originally as a free web game and then released as a mobile game on iOS and android.
The game is a playable version of a thought experiment suggested by philosopher Nick Bostrom. In order to illustrate how artificial intelligence could lead to a civilization-destroying disaster, Bostrom imagines a superintelligent AI with a single, arbitrary goal - to make as many paperclips as possible. Such an AI might end up destroying humanity not out of malicious intent, but simply because we were an obstacle in the path of its one overriding purpose.
In Universal Paperclips the player gets to experience first-hand what it might feel like to be such an AI. Over the course of a 4-6 hour experience players are taken on a journey that begins with a single paperclip and expands exponentially across the entire expanse of the known universe. Along the way they solve vast engineering problems, engage in galactic diplomatic struggles, and fight an endless interstellar war.
Universal Paperclips has been played by over 2 million people, and has generated a great deal of public discussion on the topics it explores. In a Wired Magazine article about the game, AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky says:
"Making people understand what it’s like to be something that’s very, very, very not human—that’s important. There is no small extent to which, if this planet ends up with a tombstone, what is written on the tombstone may be, at least in part, 'they didn’t really understand what it’s like to be a paperclip maximizer.'"
2009 mobile Area/Code
Area/Code's iPhone game Drop7 is a simple abstract puzzle game with a unique and deeply compelling core mechanic.
Drop numbered discs into the grid. Whenever the number on a disc matches the amount of discs in its row or column it disappears. Keep the board open to keep scoring, and survive as long as you can. Clear the board or set off huge chains for big bonus points.
Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson called Drop7 “derangedly awesome” and Edge Magazine gave it a 10 out of 10, one of only 23 games to achieve this rating in the magazine's 20 year history.
2007 Facebook Area/Code A&E
In 2007 A&E Television commissioned Area/Code to develop a Facebook game to promote their new TV show “Parking Wars.” The game went on to become one of Facebook’s early hits, with over 400,000 players signing up to play in two months, and a community that grew to over 1.5 million users.
In Parking Wars, players earn money by parking — legally or illegally — on their friend’s streets. If you catch your friend parking illegally on your street you can give them a ticket. This simple, asynchronous multiplayer interaction creates a surprisingly vibrant social experience by visualizing the player’s social network as a form of public space and making the player’s real-life schedule a key ingredient of tactical play.
What started as a simple experiment in social gameplay quickly became a phenomenon with a massive community of dedicated players devoting an unreasonable amount of time to managing their cars and out-parking their friends. Parking Wars inspired two major international copies - China's Parking War and The Great Indian Parking Wars - both of which became key factors in the successful launch of social media sites in those countries and went on to attract millions of players in their own right.
2007 Web Area/Code Discovery Channel
Sharkrunners, designed for Discovery Channel’s 20th Anniversary Shark Week, is a persistent game of oceanic exploration and high stakes shark research. Players take on the role of marine biologists who seek to learn as much as possible about sharks through advanced observation techniques.
In the game, players control their ships, but the sharks are controlled by real-world white sharks with GPS units attached to their fins. Real-world telemetry data provides the position and movement of actual great white sharks in the game, so every shark that players encounter corresponds to a real shark in the real world.
Ships in the game move in real-time, so players receive email and/or SMS alerts during the day when their boat is within range of an encounter. Players log in, choose crew-members and an approach technique, and then collect various data from the nearby sharks.
2010 Real World/Cross Media Area/Code Knight Foundation
Funded by the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation, Macon Money combines the benefits of local currencies and real-world social games to create an innovative experience for residents of Macon, GA.
This community-wide social game created a new local currency called Macon Money. $65,000 worth of Macon Money was printed up and distributed randomly to local citizens. But there's a catch - before being sent out each bill was cut in half. Every player gets half a bill, and in order to spend it they had to find the person with the other half.
To find their match, players could use whatever means their imagination and ingenuity can invent – social media, online message boards, the Macon Money website – even face-to-face events. Once they found each other, players with two matching halves decided together where to spend their Macon Money.
Local participating businesses can accept Macon Money bills and redeem them for US Dollars. Businesses benefit from new patrons who are spending money that they might not otherwise have spent locally.
Through real world rewards Macon Money brings together diverse local residents while creating social bonds.
2006 Online / Broadcast TV Area/Code A&E
The Sopranos A&E Connection was designed for the premiere of the Sopranos on A&E TV. Players used cell phones to collect digital pieces representing the iconic people, places, and things from the world of the show. They then arranged these pieces on an online gameboard in anticipation of what they predicted would happen on that night’s episode.
When the episode was broadcast on A&E, the players’ online game-boards came to life and animated synchronously to the TV signal. As the characters, settings and objects of the Sopranos appeared onscreen, the corresponding pieces would light up and score points. Touching pieces that lit up simultaneously received bonus multipliers - creating a deeply challenging puzzle that transformed narrative structure into geometric patterns.
This simple game interaction, which borrowed from the logic of fantasy sports and applied it to the realm of drama, created a passionate and dedicated community and turned each episode into an intense and highly social event.
The Sopranos Connection represents the first time a game was ever designed wholly for synchronous two-screen entertainment.
Area/Code’s third Facebook game Power Planets is a resource management sim game with a fun social twist.
In Power Planets you control the fate of your own miniature planet. Construct buildings to make your inhabitants happy and earn money and points. But buildings require energy to operate, so you must construct power sources to keep your civilization running.
Planets contain plenty of natural resources that can be turned into power – from coal, oil, and natural gas to wind, solar, nuclear and more. But unlocking the advanced technology to take advantage of these resources requires investing in research.
As you transform your planet into a high-powered money and point generating machine, watch out for depleting resources and growing pollution levels. Players must balance immediate payoffs, investments in future opportunities, and long-term sustainability if they want to reach the top of the leaderboards.
And here’s the twist: every few days a “planet handoff” takes place, and everyone’s planet is given to someone else! Will you stick your best friend with a polluted nightmare? Will you take over a stranger’s well-tuned point machine? You might be able to score huge points by draining your planet dry right now, but is that worth a message box full of grumpy friends and losing your shot at appearing on the collaborative planet leaderboard?
How do we balance development with sustainability? What is our responsibility to future generations? Through its innovative multiplayer structure, Power Planets explores some of the complex issues surrounding the challenging real-world energy challenges we face today.
2007 Real-World / Cross-Media Area/Code CBS
CBS commissioned Area/Code to conceive and develop an “alternate reality game” for an episode of the TV show Numb3rs. Working directly with the writers and producers of the show, the character of “Spectre” was born – a game designer gone bad. In the episode, viewers learned about a game called Chain Factor created by this villain and when the episode was over they discovered that the game actually existed and was playable at chainfactor.com.
Chain Factor represents a new way of blending storytelling and gameplay. The game itself is a “narrative artifact”, a fully-interactive piece of the fictional world of the show. Spectre’s plan was to lure millions of players into playing what appeared to be a simple, abstract, puzzle game, but was in fact an exercise in massively-parallel distributed computation designed to wreak havoc on global financial markets.
Players worked collaboratively to uncover the truth about Spectre’s plan by mastering the puzzle game, discovering clues, solving puzzles, and exploring the densely interconnected strands of the story that were woven through the game. These threads led out into the real world in the form of billboards and subway posters from Times Square to San Fancisco to Mall of America, fake banner ads scattered across multiple CBS websites, and :30 spots on primetime television.
As a collaborative mystery game, Chain Factor unfolded according to a carefully-planned narrative arc, attracting hundreds of thousands of players into its complex world. But even after the official ARG was completed the simple puzzle game at the heart of the experience lived on. Area/Code decided that the central mechanic of the core game would make an excellent stand-alone iPhone game, inspiring the creation of Drop7.
2009 Facebook Area/Code EA / Maxis
Spore Islands, designed for Electronic Arts/Maxis as their first foray onto Facebook, invites players to experience the Spore universe in a new way by competing against their friends in the ultimate test of survival of the fittest.
Spore Islands focuses on multiplayer interaction; each player controls their own ecosystem containing creatures designed by them and their friends. Players compete to survive, thrive and dominate by evolving their creatures, modifying their attributes, diet, and behavior. As in real-world ecosystems, adaptation is the key, there is no “best” strategy, every decision depends on the pressures of the environment. Should you make a swift herbivore, a fierce predator, or a heavily-armored scavenger? It’s all about adapting to the decisions your friends have made in evolving their own creatures and staying one step ahead in the struggle for survival.
With its innovative use of asynchronous multiplayer strategy, Spore Islands was an attempt to prove that Facebook games could be more than lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and to show the potential of social networks to enable fascinating new kinds of gameplay.
2008 Online / Broadcast TV Area/Code MTV
Backchannel was a social game developed by area/code for MTV to promote their hit show The Hills.
Backchannel is a two-screen game. As viewers watch the latest episode of The Hills on television, they play along online with other fans by commenting in real-time on the show’s events. The more funny, insightful, and snarky their contributions, the better. Players score points when other viewers click on their comments, causing them to gain popularity and increase in size on-screen. Top-scoring comments get integrated into the show itself, showing up as supertitles in future broadcasts of the episode.
Backchannel is a new-kind of social game designed for today’s multi-tasking, always-connected television audience, combining snarky meta-commentary with a simple social game mechanic that encouraged player creativity and predicted the live-tweeting aspect of contemporary pop culture consumption.
Code of Everand
2009 Online Area/Code UK Dept for Transportation / Carat
Code of Everand is a free, casual massively multiplayer online game (MMO) that takes place in a dangerous world criss-crossed by monster-filled spirit channels.
The game is designed for 9 – 13 year olds and was commissioned by the UK’s Department for Transport and through play patterns and social reinforcement aims to strengthen proper road-crossing safety habits.
As a Pathfinder in Code Of Everand, you use your powers to safely cross the Spirit Channels, helping the citizens of Everand, restoring peace where there is conflict, leveling up, making friends and undertaking quests to uncover the secret of the mysterious Code Of Everand.
Where combat would go in a conventional RPG, Everand has channel crossings. To succeed in the game, players must learn to stop and think, look both ways, see which monsters they are up against, choose the right spells and traps to dispel them and only cross over once the coast is clear.
The game uses real world traffic data to affect the behavior of monsters in the game, helping to raise awareness of the game and reinforcing the real-world stakes of this important issue.
One of the areas of game design that I'm particularly interested in is large-scale games, especially ones that take place in the real world, with or without technological assistance.
There are a lot of ways to measure the size of a game. I'm interested in games that occupy a large physical space, and games that are played by a large number of players.
Large-scale games allow for new kinds of game mechanics and player experiences. There are a lot of challenging design problems to solve: How do you inform the players about the current state of a game that's too large to see? How do you give one out of thousands of players actions and choices that genuinely affect the outcome of the game? But there's something else about Big Games, something about the way they distort the relationship between game worlds and real worlds. I suspect there are sneaky metaphysical riddles lurking in the corners of Big Games and I want to hunt them down and turn them loose.
Here are some of the Big Games I've worked on:
PacManhattan I teach a class in Big Games at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. The spring 2004 class created PacManhattan as their final project. The game is actually pretty low-tech, using cellphones and a networked gameboard application. In addition to being an intense and challenging game, PacManhattan creates a kind of slapstick street theater.
The Big Urban Game In the summer of 2003, Katie Salen, Nick Fortugno and I (using the name Playground) were commissioned by the University of Minnesota's Design Institute to create a large-scale game for the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. We decided to turn the twin cities into the world's largest board game. Over the course of five days, teams of movers carried 25-foot tall inflatable game pieces through a series of checkpoints across the two cities. Residents of both cities were invited to play by joining one of the teams and voting via phone and internet to select the pieces' daily route. The result was a surreal spectacle that shifted players' perspectives on their urban environment.
ConQwest ConQwest was designed for Qwest Wireless in 2003, was the first ever large-scale use of semacodes, optic codes designed to be scanned by phonecams. It was played between 2003 and 2005. A team-based, city-wide treasure-hunt designed for high school students, players went through the city “shooting treasure” with Qwest phonecams and moving their totem pieces to capture territory. The winning team won a $5,000 scholarship for their school. Online, a web site showed the players’ locations and game progress, turning it into a large-scale spectator event.
The game was designed to promote Qwest Wireless mobile phone offerings and was wildly successful. Qwest extended it to 10 US cities, and made it an annual event. It won a Clio and several other awards.
SuperCollider Every year Gamelab used to design a Big Game to be played by all the attendees of the Game Developers' Conference. This was our game for 2003. In SuperCollider Go meets Pokemon under the uncertain eye of Werner Heisenberg. Players trade and collect "Particle" cards which are then combined into hands and turned in to earn stickers of various colors. These stickers are used to score points by building paths on the giant "Bubble Chamber" gameboard.
SuperCollider produced some very interesting social dynamics as players drifted in and out of temporary clusters trying to maximize their collaborative moves.
Alphabet City Gamelab's GDC game for 2002 took the form of a massively multiplayer version of Scrabble. Each player was a letter, groups of players joined together to create words and earn Alphabet Cash. The players spent their cash at the end of the game when we auctioned off prizes, including 1st through 10th place. The auction was one of the more interesting aspects of Alphabet City because it provided both some last minute strategic gameplay (if all the biggest winners saved their cash to bid on 1st place, then other players could cheaply sneak into the top 10) and also a dramatic closing spectacle.
Leviathan Leviathan was Gamelab's 2001 GDC massively multiplayer offline game. The action took place on a giant wall map where players maneuvered their teams' tokens in order to acheive a majority in the greatest number of territories. A special "turn clock" determined who could move when. Leviathan turned out to have some pretty subtle and interesting strategic layers. Because you could recruit more players for your team, it also had a runaway social feedback loop that almost unbalanced the game. Look closely at the picture on your left to see Will Wright playing the game!
Bite Me This was Gamelab's first GDC project - it's a very, very small Big Game and an experiment in viral gameplay. The goal of the game was to not have a Bite Me card at the end of the conference. You get rid of a card by approaching someone and ask them "Are you playing?" If they said "Bite me!" then you were stuck and couldn't give them the card. But if they said anything else you handed them the card. Now they were bitten and had to try to get rid of the card.
In theory, the game gets more and more challenging as more people know about it. In reality, because getting rid of your card meant you were no longer a carrier, player-base growth was too slow (linear, not exponential). This was a problem we solved all too well with next year's game, Leviathan.
LiNK I designed LiNK with Eric Zimmerman for the 2001 Flash Forward conference. The game was incredibly simple - we put the names of all of the registered attendees into a big alphabetical list. Your goal was to find the people above you and below you on the list. When you found one of these people you brought them to a game referee and formed a "link". The goal was to be a member of the longest chain at the end of the conference. Amazingly, some pretty compelling gameplay emerged out of this simple system. Hardcore players began to actively grow their chain by seeking out the people on either end and helping them make their links. By the end of the conference, people were wandering through the lobby holding big signs with letters of the alphabet on them.
Manifesto In 2000, Eric Zimmerman and I created Manifesto for the AIGA Collision conference. Manifesto like one of those refrigerator poetry kits, but for hundreds of people. Everyone started out with a pack of three word cards. Over the course of the conference you mingled your words with those of other people in order to construct obtuse but impassioned phrases defining the role of design in the 21st century. The winners were the players who had contributed words to the phrase that got the most votes.
We got our word mix by dicing up Dada, Surrealist, Futurist, and Situationist texts. I think there's some Unabomber in there, too.
Quorum In 1999, Greg Costikyan and I created the game Quorum for a NYC game design conference called RE:PLAY. The game had a very simple structure: players started out with a set of 10 random trading cards. Each card depicted a famous or important game from a dozen or so different categories (arcade games, strategy board games, card games, sports, etc.). Players traded cards in order to put together matching sets.
What made the game interesting was that each card type and each category had a hidden point value which corresponded to its rarity. This created a sort of information economy - the trick of Quorum was to see as many cards as possible in order to accurately estimate the rarity of various card types and make the best trades.
Big Urban Game
2001 Web Gamelab LEGO
Junkbot is a puzzle-platformer in which you help Junkbot, a garbage eating robot, try to escape from the factory in which he is trapped.
The goal of this game was to tap into the modular, construction-based gameplay of actual LEGOs. The world of Junkbot is made up entirely of LEGO pieces which can be dis-assembled and re-arranged. The player doesn't control Junkbot directly. Instead, in order to solve the level, she re-constructs the world around him, guiding him by moving obstacles, making paths, building stairs and bridges in order to help him find the garbage and then get to the exit.
By allowing endless trial-and-error, we made the levels easy to solve, but then rewarded expert players for finding the solution that used the fewest moves. Of course the community of Junkbot fanatics impressed us by discovering clever solutions that we never imagined, which is one of the greatest joys of game design.
2004 PC / Web Gamelab PlayFirst
Subway Scramble is a game in which you control a subway network, guiding the trains around the tracks by flipping switches and signals, trying to pick up and deliver passengers to their desired destinations while avoiding collisions and picking up bonuses.
This game is an experiment in indirect control and split attention, in order to succeed the player must keep an eye on all the different interlocking parts of a complex dynamic system. It's also an exercise in the stripped-down minimalist visual aesthetics of mass transit information design.
2003 Web Gamelab LEGO
Worldbuilder is a LEGO-themed puzzle game that explores the dynamics of model-making and set construction. In order to solve each level, the player must collect LEGO pieces and the recipes that allow them to assemble those pieces into different kinds of units and vehicles. Each unit type has its own capabilities, allowing the player access new areas and collect more pieces and recipes.
Because each unit uses the same kinds of bricks in different combinations, the player must carefully manage where and when they build and un-build units, leading to challenging time-and-space problems in combinatory logic.
Spybot: The Nightfall Incident
2002 Web Gamelab LEGO
Spybot: The Nightfall Incident is a turn-based strategy game in which the player takes on the role of a secret agent who must infiltrate a series of corporate computer networks.
The player navigates a world map which gives her access to an unfolding series of missions. Each mission is a hacking scenario in the form of a tactical encounter on a game-board grid representing computer memory space. The player deploys software that moves through memory by expanding to occupy multiple squares of the grid. To successfully hack the computer the player must out-maneuver and overcome security software protecting the central CPU.
The player starts with a small collection of simple programs. As she completes missions her collection grows to include more powerful software with special abilities that combine in interesting ways.
With deep, strategic gameplay and a mysterious anime-influenced narrative, Spybot was one of Gamelab's most ambitious and popular games.
1996 PC R/GA Phillips Media
Gearheads is a two-player real-time strategy game in the form of a battle of wind-up toys.
Players try to get their toys to the other side of the game board and prevent their opponent's toys from reaching their side. There are a variety of toy types, each with its own pattern of movement and behavior. Toys range from a light cockroach that moves quickly and erratically, to a slow-and-steady bulldozer, to a chattering skull that scares any toy it encounters, reversing its direction.
The player chooses a toy, decides where to release it and then waits while the toy gets wound up. The longer the player waits, the more energy the toy will have when it's released.
Once they are deployed, toys move autonomously across the board. When they collide, toys interact with each other according to their own internal logic. As the game unfolds, the playfield fills with toys interacting in complex ways. The player has to think strategically about where and when to deploy her units in order win the battle.