Decision Problem
Big Games

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.

In 2005 I started a company called area/code which will focus on creating Big Games. Here are some of the relevant projects I've worked on up to this point:

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.

Here's the syllabus for this class. Here's an interview about PacManhattan that I did with

The Big Urban Game
In the summer of 2003, Katie Salen, Nick Fortugno and I 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.

The Design Institute's official B.U.G. site appears to be down. You can read more about B.U.G. here.
Before I started area/code I was the Director of Game Design at a company called gameLab. Every year, gameLab designs a Big Game to be played by all the attendees of the Game Developers' Conference. This was the 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 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 my 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.
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.
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.
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.