You’re In A Room

What’s this all about then?

Fruitbat (that’s us – Tim Mannveille and Clare Huxley) ran a game called You’re In A Room at the recent(ish) first of Hide & Seek’s “Games with Audiences” Sandpit series, on Friday 25th May.

We’re particularly pleased with how it turned out, since it involved players creating challenges for each other (uh-oh…) but the nature of the format meant that players pretty much always completed those challenges by the skin of their teeth! (Hooray!)

This is the story of how that came about!

And why do you need me?

The game involves a small team guiding one blind-folded player through a virtual dungeon, with that player generally asking a bunch of questions. We’re having form reflect content by you playing that role.

Where am I?

You’re In A Room! This was the repeated-and-therefore-magical phrase that was invoked whenever a player advanced in the late 80s/early 90s kid’s TV show Knightmare, in which a player in a bucket-like sight-blocking helmet was blue-screen-comped into a matt-painted / CG dungeon populated with actors, props, and virtual peril, there to be guided by their team-mates watching over them through a television, thereby creating a game perfectly designed to make you want to shout at the screen. You can get an idea of the show very quickly by watching this clip:

So where does your version fit in?

One day at work, Tim discovered a desk-side bin hidden inside another desk-side bin, with a piece of paper taped to it featuring an upside-down face and the word ‘Friday’:

Clearly, the previous occupants of the office would wear this bucket on their heads on Fridays in some kind of ritual, the purpose of which we can only guess at.

On hearing this, Clare was reminded of an impulse from long ago to make some kind of “bucket head” game, using the sighted-players-guide-player-with-bucket-on-head device so familiar from Knightmare.

A few days later, Hide & Seek announced the dates of their summer 2012 sandpits, starting with one themed around “Sports and Game Shows,” and even though this was only four weeks away and all we really had as an idea was “Bucket Head”, we figured this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
Leonard Bernstein

Clearly, we didn’t quite have enough time. So all we needed now was a plan.

What’s in this room I’m in anyway?

What? Er, a computer. Anyway, the plan was to very quickly come up with a workable idea, playtest it once, tweak it, and run it.

After quickly veering away from an ambitious idea involving multiple simultaneous players guided by walkie-talkies (which we may may well come back to), we were ultimately drawn to a more literal idea of creating a kind of mini, Sweded version of Knightmare, the hope being that some of the back-seat-player audience involvement engendered by the original show would carry across.

"You're in a room, it looks like there's a locked door at the far end..."

Clare suggested one key twist: that the players should have the opportunity to come up with dungeons themselves, thereby solving the problem that the original Knightmare had more people running the game than actually playing it. But could it work?

We distilled what we thought were the key elements from Knightmare (a character, a puzzle, a reward, a physical challenge, an obstacle that could only be passed with the right item or spell), created three-room templates, rustled up some friends, and just gave it a go.

"Where am I?" "You're in a room!" "Is this fun?"

So did it work?

The optimistic vision was that a game might take 5 minutes, and Tim in particular was drawn to the idea of a constantly rolling drop-in format in which one could rapidly move up a sort of engagement ladder:

From passive audience member, to…
> Back-seat-player
> Player
> Dungeon designer
> Dungeon operator.

The test very quickly revealed a problem with this idea: people naturally tended to design complex dungeons that took more like 15-30 minutes to play, and some of their rooms would take longer to set up than to play – not ideal.

On the positive side, it had one particularly outstanding feature: dungeon-designers wanted the players to experience everything they had made, so when playing the part of monsters/hazards/obstacles, they would tend to tweak things on the fly such that a player would succeed – but only just. This is great, because we’ve seen before that the moments that players enjoy the most are those in which they feel they succeeded by the narrowest of margins. We had stumbled upon a game format that pretty much generates these moments by default. Wow!

So how did you tweak it? And does this computer have internet access?

Er, yes it does. First we revised the instructions (and briefing) so that, with some guidance from us, a team could hopefully invent a dungeon in 15 minutes that would itself take 15 minutes to play.

Second, we had another look at the logistics, and were drawn to the idea of a structured rolling format with two tracks of players – dungeon-designers, and dungeon-players – hoping that this would create exactly the opportunity for progressive involvement (from audience member on upwards) mentioned at the start.

Finally, we realised that riddles were a fun feature of the genre, but it was tough to come up with them on demand, so we prepared a random selection that players could draw from if they got stuck.

On liaising with Hide & Seek, we were advised that this 15-minute version probably wouldn’t schedule well with other games (which tend to have defined 30-to-45-minute slots); a better format would be to have defined 1-hour slots in which 3 teams could first design their dungeons, then rotate through the roles of audience/dungeon-operators/players over three 15-minute slots. Although this removed the possibility of allowing spectators to become players and then performers, it seemed the most practical way to try the game out in this context – and in particular, to see if we really could have people stick to that 15-minute time limit.

What happened?

What happened was this: for the first group of players, we actively pushed to have dungeons designed and run as quickly as possible – and ended up finishing the hour slot with just under 10 minutes to spare. We let things follow a more natural pace for the remaining two hour-long slots, and amazingly they worked just about perfectly.

The other nice feature was that in the absence of specific theming, people came up with a huge range of dungeon types. Here’s a quick overview of what was produced:

7pm-8pm, Team A: North Korea Dungeon. Great use of one of our hat props for that authentic single-party-state feel.

7pm-8pm, Team B: Fun House Dungeon (a kids gameshow from the same era and channel as Knightmare). We particularly liked the use of the whiteboards as story-board-like captions, for example, the guy playing Pat Sharp holding a sign that says “PAT SHARP APPEARS” as he appears:

7pm-8pm, Team C: The Mirror Dungeon. The players find a map with mirror writing showing that the left exit from the room is deadly. Which way do they go?

8pm-9pm, Team A: A somewhat adult-themed dungeon we later realised was probably called the Knightclub dungeon. Notable for use of the spell ‘B-E-E-R-G-O-G-G-L-E-S’.

8pm-9pm, Team B: The Jelly Dungeon, featuring an extra challenging variant on the form: with the entire dungeon made of jelly, the blindfolded player could only ever stand on one leg. Tricky, but as it turns out, doable – hooray!

8pm-9pm, Team C: The Classical Dungeon, in which a player had to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a paper flute to put Cerberus to sleep. Most notable for this exchange:

One of Cerebus’s heads: That’s not how it goes at all!
Player: I’m doing the intro!

9pm-10pm, Team A: Robot Science dungeon. An amazing use of the form in which the player first discovers that they are actually a robot, before solving the final room by discovering the human within themselves. Not bad for 15 minutes.

9pm-10pm, Team B: The Not-At-All-Based-On-Indiana-Jones Dungeon, most memorable for the entire dungeon-operating team stamping their feet just behind the player to simulate the approach of a giant boulder.

9pm-10pm, Team C: The Pirate Dungeon, featuring some great pirate acting and buried treasure recovered seconds before the Sandpit event came to an end. Hooray!

I write a blog post about You’re In A Room. So what would you change for next time?

A lot depends on the setting. If the venue was suitable, we’d love to try some version in which the game is ‘rolling’ – probably with some volunteers on hand to do the dungeon-operating part by default, but who could step aside if people want to come up with a dungeon themselves. This means players get to see how the game works before designing a dungeon (a major challenge in this first run of the game), and also brings back the possibility of bystanders graduating from back-seat players to actual players.

Another setting-dependent issue is the noise level. With two other games making use of amplified sound nearby, and the general hubbub, it was tough for the dungeoneers to hear their directions. As a quick fix, teams simply stepped into the room themselves, which made things a bit surreal, but did work. Unfortunately, this also meant that any bystanders / audience members would struggle to follow what was happening unless they too got right up close to the action. In a similar situation, some kind of amplification may be called for.

The most important change would be to further distill the instructions. The set we used worked – players were indeed able to come up with suitable dungeons within the time limit – but they did look quite intimidating. If players also get to see a dungeon in action first, this also becomes much easier.

Finally, we’re also thinking about adding more hats, because hats are where it all began, and because everyone loves hats.

Okay, I publish the post.

-Tim & Clare, now known as Octopus Fruitbat

analysis game

Learning to Cheat Without Breaking the Rules, Part 2: Frameworks for Cheating

For the same reason as in Part 1, these posts are illustrated using the Hand of Fate: Comic Strip Playing Cards by Karen Rubins. This is Part 2. Part 3 is here.

In the first part I explained how a sequence of games taught me to become comfortable with bluffing and even lying outright, from a position of not being able to do either. That’s simple. The harder question is this: what kind of games can teach you to bend or break rules?

To tackle that, we should probably step back and ask how games teach us anything. And to tackle that, we should probably make sure we have a working definition for a game.

Here’s one provided by Greg Costikyan (emphasis added):

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.

Yes, something like that. From there it seems clear that playing with decisions in a game is how we learn. So the question becomes instead: what kind of game could let us play with the decision of whether or not to break rules?

Form or Content?

I don’t know of one, but I imagine you could make a game about cheating (in the rule-breaking sense, not just bluffing or lying). Perhaps players take the role of political factions within a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with in-game costs and benefits for following or breaking in-game rules. Or it’s Moon colonists with competing sets of societal rules, struggling for domination while following or breaking the rule sets of the competing factions. Or, I wonder, do football simulations these days give you the option of going for a risky tackle, knowing that you risk a red card if it goes badly? I don’t know, but they certainly could.

But in the process of abstracting away the costs and benefits of cheating, it feels as if something gets lost. Just as making decisions in poker has a very different feel when real money is on the table, a game with a cheating theme seems far removed from the potential power of a game that is about cheating the very rules of the game itself.

So we want a game whose rules somehow give players interesting decisions to make regarding whether or not to follow those rules, which sounds like an almost Gödelian paradox. So let’s take a step to one side and look at exactly what it is that drives whether or not rules are followed in a game.

Game frameworks for cheating

There are two key dimensions to consider here, I think:

1) Do people play the game to win, or do they play it for fun? Perhaps more accurately, does the pleasure come from winning – or striving to do so – or just from taking part? There’s a spectrum here, of course, and players of the same game could be at different points along it. For the sake of simplicity we’ll assume it’s binary.

2) How are the rules enforced in the game?

  • By design. In video games this is simple: the game should only let you do what you are allowed to do. Other kinds of games can also facilitate enforcement by their design – for example, playing a piece in Connect 4 makes a distinctive noise, so it’s hard to secretly take an extra turn if your opponent is briefly distracted.
  • By the other players. In most well-defined tabletop or party games, it’s understood that the players are watching each other to ensure they all play by the rules.
  • By a moderator. Generally speaking, if a game can’t work with either of the above approaches, it resorts to some kind of moderator who enforces the rules.

Let’s take a look at how cheating works across the 6 kinds of game this framework implies, and in particular whether choosing to bend or break rules is an interesting* choice for the players to make.

I should probably define ‘interesting’ here. Let’s say that an interesting choice is somewhat balanced (one choice is not obviously better than another), not damaging to longer-term goals, and is fun. And then let’s not try to define ‘fun’ or we’ll be here all day.

Games Played to Win

Play to Win, Design enforced (e.g. PvP video games)
The rules are enforced by the design of the game. As a corollary, anything you can do ought to be allowed, since cheating is theoretically impossible. In reality, it’s not that simple.

A reasonably notorious example is ‘snaking’ in Mario Kart DS. By performing a particular manoeuvre when cornering you get a speed boost. For certain karts, you could perform this manoeuvre almost continuously, alternating left and right – ‘snaking’ – and you could gain more from those speed boosts than you lost by taking a wiggling route. This takes some skill and practice, which makes the benefit seem fair. And since it’s possible in the game, it should be permissible, even if it’s not clear it was the designers’ original intent.

In practice, however, snaking gives such a big advantage that a player that does it will almost always beat a player that doesn’t, no matter how skilled. People are playing to win – that’s what usually makes a race fun – but if even one player is snaking, anyone that can’t snake can’t win, and so, implicitly, can’t have fun. For that reason, the London DS meetup group I played with had a no-snaking rule, and I see on the internet that other groups did as well. Snaking was considered a kind of cheating, and nobody would want to play with you. So no-snaking becomes an informal rule, and this becomes effectively the same as Player Enforced Play to Win.

(You can dive much further into this topic with Sirlin’s “Playing to win” archives)

Play to Win, Player enforced (e.g. Chess or Go)
As noted by Kirk Battle in this Kill Screen article, players can apply a certain level of flexibility to how rules are enforced in a game like Magic: The Gathering, and get a better game as a result. But this is not a situation in which such ‘cheating’ represents an interesting choice.

In it’s more blatant form, cheating in these games will always be considered bad form, and if discovered can have bad social and future gaming consequences. Chess or Go (when played without an audience) fall into this category. A player would only choose to cheat if they thought the short-term advantage would outweigh the risk of long-term negative consequences if they were found out. That’s not a very interesting choice either, according to the criteria above.

Play to Win, Moderator enforced (e.g. Football, Tennis)
Cheating outside of the moderator’s sight gives an advantage, and can’t be stopped in this system. You’re playing to win, and if you don’t exploit this fact, maybe the other guys will.

We see this in competitive sports like football or tennis, and it seems to be (I say this as an outsider) a key part of the entertainment: arguing about whether something counts as a foul, which side of the line the ball bounced on, and in general whether or not the moderator’s decisions are accurate.

Does this mean there’s some scope here for a game that could teach us about cheating? It seems close, but if people are playing to win, it gets dangerous – some degree of violence attempted outside of the moderator’s views seems likely, so I’m going to disqualify this on the grounds of encouraging non-fun behaviour.

Games Played for Fun

Play for Fun, Design enforced (e.g. Endless MMOs)
If you (and everyone else) is playing for fun, things change. If something is possible, and makes for more fun, few can blame you. If you were (somehow) playing Mario Kart just for fun, and through a streak of bad luck found yourself in dead last by some margin, perhaps it would be okay to snake your way to 7th place – that would be more fun for all concerned.

In Kingdom of Loathing, a kind-of MMO in which fun is primarily derived from exploration, an ‘exploit’ was discovered to generate more meat (the game’s currency). Who could resist such an exploit? Why resist it? Could you really begrudge those that used it?

In the case of online games like this, the rules are enforced by design, but there’s also some moderation in the form of game updates and code changes in response to things like this. In this particular case, the exploit effectively crashed the game’s economy, which impacts everyone’s ability to have fun. (Brilliantly, this was fixed with the addition of some entertaining currency sinks, rather than some kind of hard rollback).

So cheating is kind of interesting here, but again becomes more about player- and moderator-enforcement, so strictly speaking this category is ruled out.

Play for Fun, Player enforced (e.g. Mornington Crescent, DDR)
At this point, what constitutes ‘cheating’ is massively dependent on the players: having fun is more important than the rules. We’re right on the edge of what constitutes a game here and it’s an area I think most adults struggle to give themselves permission to enter. The most well-known example I can think of in this category is Mornington Crescent.

Less directly, this arises in Dance Dance Revolution (aka Dancing Stage), in which (for the benefit of the one person reading this that doesn’t know) players must step on specific directional arrows in time to the music. On the arcade machines, a raised bar is supplied behind the player, ostensibly to prevent anyone from falling off the dancing platform backwards. At a high level of gameplay, working out how to shift your bodyweight between feet while meeting a high-speed series of instructions is part of the challenge. However, some players realised they could lean their weight back on the bar and tap away with their feet without worrying about this issue; this also uses less energy. Is this cheating? As could be expected, that depends on who is playing.

In both of these cases, the decision of whether or not to cheat tends to have very little riding on it, so is unlikely to be interesting.

Play for Fun, Moderator enforced (e.g. Schooner or Later)
The Moderator’s role is to ensure people have fun, arguably as a higher priority than ensuring that people follow the rules. In this context, you might ‘cheat’ but do so with the moderator’s implicit or explicit blessing; or you might try to cheat by hiding your action from or misleading the moderator, and since people are only playing for fun this shouldn’t lead to anything particularly harmful. With the right set of incentives and approach by the moderator(s), this could well provide a framework in which a decision to cheat is actually interesting.

In conclusion, returning to our grid of possible games, here’s what the options for learning to cheat look like in each:

This final category is where The Haberdashery’s Schooner or Later comes in, the game that led me to cheat in a manner that could only be described as brazen, and shocked me into this whole line of thinking. I’ll describe how exactly that came about in the third and final part of this series.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and has previously not cheated in order to earn stickers he made up at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.


A Game Based on Cheese Sandwiches

After being blown away by a Sandpit event in 2009, getting very competitive at Time*Trails at the 2010 Hide&Seek Weekender as team Fruitbat, and having all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences at other Hide&Seek events, it was time to give something back.

That something was Competitive Sandwich Making, at the Seaside-themed Sandpit on August 4th 2011:

With a table layout like that, it’s pretty clear what the game is about: tessellation. Before the games had officially started, a group of players liked what they saw, and we figured we might as well kick things off a little early (you can see the queue to register in the background):

The Rules in brief:
Every 15 seconds, all 4 players simultaneously choose a cheese piece, and add it to either of their bread slices. The winner is the player that manages to tessellate the most cheese on their slices, with no overlap or overhang. (For the purposes of scoring, the pieces have their area written on the reverse side, hence the calculators).

Over the previous couple of weeks we’d had some excellent feedback from play-testers, and had resisted the many temptations to make the game more complicated, so on the night it all ran very smoothly (although you apparently can’t emphasise enough that pieces can be turned over).

It became obvious very early on that people who liked the game, really liked it. We had learned from our earlier Time*Trails experience that people like ‘achievement’ stickers (us included), so we created two types:

The winner of any 4-player round got to be a Big Cheese, and we let them know that if they won a game against 3 other Big Cheeses, they would earn the title Earl of Sandwich.

We considered setting a time towards the end of the evening for the Big Cheeses to reconvene for such a match, but this didn’t seem in the spirit of a drop-in game, and would clash with the final scheduled games in any case, so instead we just hoped that it would happen organically. Brilliantly, it did: just before 10pm, four Big Cheeses came back to play, and we had our first Earl of Sandwich:

The 1st Earl of Sandwich (second from right), and other Big Cheeses

As the other games came to an end, and after the excitement of the Big Cheese face-off, we started to gather a crowd. We figured we could quickly run a couple more qualifiers…

… then have one final Cheese off, to crown the 2nd Earl of Sandwich (who also achieved the highest in-competition score of 95):

The 2nd Earl of Sandwich and current high score holder (second from left), and other Big Cheeses

In Conclusion
People that liked tessellating seemed to really enjoy the game, playing it repeatedly and coming back for more later. People that didn’t like tessellating could see what the game was about from afar, and avoided it accordingly (we saw them!).

There is an important caveat to this, however. The tessellation challenge was designed to be approximate: sharp-edged cheese on rounded bread slices, not to mention that half the pieces were based on squares and half on rectangles, leading to slightly incompatible angles. While this seemed to encourage an addictive attitude of “I could do better if I had one more try” at the Sandpit, when I later tried the game out with some post-grad mathematicians, there was noticeably less appetitie for imperfection.

So to extrapolate and exaggerate:

If you like tessellation, you’ll love this game. If you love tessellation, you won’t.

If We Did It Again, We Would…
1) Bring a better camera (these were taken with a mobile and had some Photoshop work to fix them up)
2) Take notes!
3) Improve the ratio of instruction time to playing time, which ended up being 50:50 as the game is quite short; perhaps by covering a few basics and then explaining the rest as the first game played out, as there’s quite a lot of quiet time during the first few rounds.

– Tim Mannveille & Clare Huxley

One of us (Tim) got to play Ordnungswissenschaft, compellingly categorised as involving:

Movement, strategy, timing, Brechtian despair

When I later tried to look up quite what ‘Brechtian despair’ might be, I found it in the same paragraph as a reference to cheese sandwiches. Clearly, this means something.


Sandpit 13: The Postman, Free London’s Monsters

(Continuing from my first post introducing Sandpit 13, which took place on the 24th June 2009, and the next which described The Following)

The Postman

This was unlike other games in one particularly interesting regard: it did not have a beginning or, apparently, an end.

It began when we noticed that scattered around the Spirit Level in the Southbank Centre were cards with a simple warning written on them: “Watch out for the Whistling Postman”. A while later, when we found ourselves between games, we noticed a strange man whistling ostentatiously and clutching a set of envelopes – and when approached, he looked through these envelopes, and found one apparently addressed to each of us. (Mine was addressed “You Here Now SBC”).

These envelopes contained cryptic messages, which eventually led us to another strange fellow sitting outside, who in turn directed us to search for ribbons in a certain place, where no ribbons could be found, but there were a handful of other people looking for red ribbons.

Such was the nature of the game. Strange clues and apparently broken mechanisms, which nonetheless led to gradually larger groups of people teaming up to work together on whatever it was that we were doing, without having any idea what that was. This strange process reached a fantastically surreal climax when our group (now numbering ten, and each with a red ribbon) converged on a phone box just as another group of ten (with white ribbons!) did the same, and then the phone rang.

There was then a brief period of sanity as a recognisable structure had emerged: two teams, following clues and interacting with strange characters to progress towards the unknown end – which a short time later we appeared to reach, in the form of a website:, which had only a countdown timer to a point some 7 days hence.

I was fascinated, but the other players seemed disappointed. They followed the last stooge we had interacted with to see if anything else would happen. It didn’t seem to.

As far as I can tell, it seems it was all part of a larger Alternate Reality Game, some part of which it appears was being played out at the subsequent Edinburgh Fringe festival, but other parts seem (at the time of writing) to be ongoing, possibly making much of today’s aesthetically pleasing date. (I particularly liked a comment on the website from ‘A Critic’ that simply read “This isn’t really theatre any more”. I hope they take that as a compliment).

I like that this kind of thing goes on, even if I don’t feel driven to fully engage with it; crucially, dabbling was still fun. However, in the context of an evening of games, there’s no doubt some people found the open-ended nature of the thing frustrating, and the actors/stooges didn’t seem quite prepared for the barrage of questions put to them by the players. There’s often a barrier to entry of ARG’s in terms of catching up with back-story, so I would be interested to see someone tackle the challenge of creating a similar experience that was firmly bounded within a single evening.

Free London’s Monsters

Having played and indeed designed mobile GPS games before, we knew more than most others when we stepped up to deposit a credit card and pick up a smartphone in order to play Free London’s Monsters, by (?) Fish Are People Too.

“It uses GPS, right?” we asked; yes, it did.

“Does it work?”

They smiled. “Clearly you are familiar with this sort of thing.”

The game, it turns out, was smartly simple. (Much like early video games, this is generally the best recipe for success in a new medium). Given a piece of paper with photos of scenery from around the Southbank area, the task is to locate the locations from which the images were taken. Through the miracle of GPS, upon reaching one of these locations the smartphone would emit a wonderfully laid-back warning: “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster”, and indeed if you held the phone up, the screen showed the scenery around you (through the phone’s camera) and some surreal kind of monster lurking on top of it (actually just a floating 2D image). To prove your successful finding of the monster it was necessary to answer a question about it on the sheet of paper, such as “How many teeth does it have” or “what colour are its dogs”.

This happily transformed what seemed to be a flaw in the design into a fun feature. Given the current accuracy of GPS, hotspots must necessarily be large (the Mscape Experience Design Guidelines [pdf] recommend a diameter of 20 meters), and this meant we would often bump into a monster before we expected to, or even one we weren’t expecting to see at all. We would then use a combination of the pictures on the paper and the context of the question to work out which monster we were actually looking at.

The problems alluded to in our opening conversation seemed to hinge on the time it takes for the GPS navigational signals to be received before the device can understand and begin to track its location. I have found myself that GPS devices sometimes need several minutes with a clear view of the sky before this modern equivalent of the modem handshake can be completed, and given these devices were being handed out from an indoor location it came as little surprise that many would-be monster hunters had trouble getting enough ‘Captoplasm’ (a nice in-game analogue of the satellite signal level) in order to play successfully.

Returning with a goodly haul of monsters, we discussed the game with the creators, who evidently have an excellent grasp of the technical and gameplay mechanics they are wrestling with. In particular, I think it’s very sensible to combine a pen-and-paper mechanic with the location-based technology, combining the strengths of each.

There will be an opportunity to Free Bristol’s Monsters at the imminent Igfest, which starts tomorrow and is highly recommended. The Sandpit concept itself is currently on tour until 12th November 2009, with forthcoming visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Southend, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle Upon Tyne planned, so be sure to check it out if you find yourself in the vicinity.