Thursday 28 December 2017

The Incredible Playable Show: Everything Learned from the First Year

My 2017 was all about The Incredible Playable Show, and what a year it’s been. I’ve performed it in Sweden, Belgium, and Germany, and it went on to win the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade in Los Angeles.

It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I'm very proud of the reception it's had. I've loved creating and performing the show, so seeing audiences respond so well with it fills me with joy. In a lot of ways it's a culmination of the ideas I've been exploring throughout my career so far, and one of my favourite things I've made.

I wanted to wrap up the year by writing down the lessons I’ve learned along the way. This is a very long article, cut down from a leviathan first draft, so bring a coffee or read it in parts, and thanks very much for taking an interest!

For context, here’s the trailer shot at the Bristol Improv Theatre, in December 2016.

If there’s one major lesson I’ve found in the show it’s to be unafraid of things breaking. Often the lessons came out of changing part of the show on a whim, or to figure out why part of it wasn’t working - and understanding why the changed worked only came from comparing all the attempts that led up to it. None of the lessons learned came because I got things right first time.

But before getting onto that, let’s start with the most important question:

Why Make a Playable Stage Show?

Back about two years ago I saw a show at the Bristol Improv Theatre, and ended up chatting to the performers about their craft. I was so excited by improv, and went on to regularly go to the theatre to see shows and take part in jams. Friday night at the Improv became a major fixture of my week.

What really struck me was how much they talked like game designers. They talked about their fellow performers and their audiences just like we talk about players. We want to give players a bit of rope but still offer them the satisfaction of having filled in the gaps themselves, or of coming up with their own unique response. The performers used the word “game” in roughly the same way we use the word “mechanics.”

Go! Power Team! being played at the Bristol Improv Theatre in the first trial run

A generally agreed-upon part of game is “yes, and” - that you should always accept what a fellow performer has added to a scene and add to it. This struck a chord as it reflected my existing approach to making installations, where instead of another performer it was the player.

Great improvisers know when they can break the rules of “good game” and still have it work. Great improvisers understand when it’s funny to say “no” to a performer without killing the performance and still giving them a bit of rope to work with. If you say yes to everything you end up on the moon in a rocket powered with jam - the best reaction you can get from the audience is “wow, so random!” Great improvisers know that a truly resonant performance means building a world, desires, personalities, tension, expectations, and a believable context ready to be subverted.

What they were getting at was that good design is not about adhering to the rules, but about knowing what goals those rules are trying to achieve.

This was hugely inspiring, and I was hungry to explore what could be achieved by using the audience and human performers as a resource for games. The theatre provides not just a new kind players with unusual expectations, but a whole new space. It’s a physical object which I’d rarely seen used for games before.

When I talk about an object being really used for games, I mean that the game made use of the unique properties that that object offered. Robin Baumgarten’s Line Wobbler really uses a door-stop because the analogue degrees of motion it has map one-to-one with the motion of your dot, and twanging it - the most interesting thing about the object itself - is a key part of the experience. You can’t twang and move the dot because of the physical properties of the stopper: the door-stop can’t wobble if you’re clutching it.

A conga line of Power Rangers in the Bristol Improv Theatre

To really use the theatre I couldn’t have people sat in seats watching stuff going on. A good game would have players running around between the seats, climbing over and between each other, stretching to hand objects to the row in front of them, and running back and forth between stage and seating. If there’s a hundred people, all sat shoulder-to-shoulder, I want them to feel like they’re in the middle of the game, and that their being there matters.

That summer I demoed some of my games at the Bristol Improv Theatre, which was popular enough to convince me I had enough material to build on. So I pitched the idea of a complete 45-minute show to the organisers of the GameCity festival in Nottingham, who generously offered me six time-slots to run the show.

With that, I spent the subsequent month creating new games and variations so that I’d have plenty to experiment with during the run. The first Incredible Playable Show debuted on 26 October 2016.

Building Trust

Trust is one of the most important resources a developer has. Trust is the answer to “why should I buy your game?” “Why should I download your game?” “Why should I persevere through the dull bits?”

Trust is certainly the answer to “if I get up on that stage you’re not going to embarrass me, right?”

Getting excitable hosting one of the very first shows - photo by Samathy Barratt
Trust is why “yes, and” works. “Yes, and” reassures your fellow performer that you are on their side - that they can let loose and you will have their back. If I’m inviting people onto the stage to pretend to be Power Rangers then they want to know that they’re not going to be the butt of a joke. My job is to convince them that coming on-stage is an opportunity, not a trap.

I learnt this the hard way. On the very first show I opened with Go! Power Team! - popularly known as the Power Rangers game. My first audience was twenty first-year students who’d all been told to go there by their lecturer and were expecting a “getting into the industry” talk. I needed five volunteers, and it was a struggle to get even one. When the game started and the mighty voice of Zordon began booming its commands, they just stood and shuffled. The magic of the game - where four human buttons are running around doing random stuff while a player is desperately trying to operate a game using them - just wasn’t happening. The act was a stone-cold wreck.

An early version of Match Me If You Scan, where the team huddled at the front of the stage - photo by Gemma Thomson
Here's what I'd done wrong: I’d put the most physical, most expressive, and most “it works if you just go with it” game at the very beginning. I hadn’t earned their trust in the idea that being physical would be rewarding. I hadn’t nurtured the idea that this was an opportunity to make their friends laugh. I hadn’t made them believe that I’m a professional and that, while my games sound a bit weird on paper, they pay off if you play along.

The current 1-hour set list is a much better reflection of build-up of ideas. In order, it goes as follows:

  • Match Me If You Scan - one player running around a seated audience while the audience shouts out to help
  • Codex Bash - four seated volunteers on-stage while the audience clambers around their seats passing around clues
  • Buoy Racers - four players on-stage fumbling around with props, the audience passing around inflatables
  • Go! Power Team! - five players on-stage, running around the auditorium, performing silly actions and interacting with the audience

There’s a clear thread of increasing physical activity and room for an individual to interpret the rules as it goes on. Being a Power Ranger is a more intense version of fumbling with inflatables. Fumbling with inflatables is a more intense version of running around with a barcode scanner.

Of course, the very first game begins with running around, and this can still be a big ask for the majority of spectators. So to get to that point, my job as host is to warm them up.

Warming Up

Even in a room of card-carrying extroverts you can’t open your act by asking for a volunteer and expect a response. The introduction of the show is the part of the show where I need to inspire the audience to get involved. At a bare minimum I need one enthusiastic first volunteer.

The way I do the intro is largely improvised, but some features are fairly consistent. I have two ideas I want to establish: the exciting spectacle that says “come to the stage and be a star!” and the down-to-earth friendliness that says “don’t worry, Alistair’s got your back.”

The four Power Rangers pose as their power animals at Play17, Hamburg - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
The Incredible Playable Show always kicks off with a big opening speech about the wonders that are about to unfold. Throughout this speech I’ll be asking the audience to clap and cheer and make some noise, over and over again. This part is really important.

Shouting and cheering is an action that anyone can do from the comfort of their seat, without singling themselves out. For some audience members, shouting and cheering is enough to feel involved in the show. For others, they want to be more active, and getting them used to making loud noises gets them hungry to do something bigger.

Once they know there's audience participation, people are asking themselves “do I want to get involved?” Shouting and cheering is a dry run to test how it feels. So by the time I ask for a volunteer, the people who are excited to get up have already made that decision.

A stage full of volunteers at IndieCade 2017 in Los Angeles - photo by @seraphki
I also get the room to choose a team name, which will be repeated throughout the show. I’ll wander around the audience asking for suggestions, and the winner will be decided by which one gets the loudest cheer. This process seeds a number of ideas. Firstly, that the games are cooperative, and that there should be a sense of camaraderie in the room. Secondly, that anyone from the audience can shout and pitch in, engage their creativity and be funny. And finally, that this show is unique and their experience of it will be different from any other team’s.

Most of this intro is delivered not from the stage, but instead while wandering around the audience. I want people to feel like I am silly but not intimidating. I want them to feel like I am on their level, so that pitching in feels like playing along with me, and not singling themselves out. I also want the people in the front rows to turn around and look behind them, to seed the expectation that the show uses the whole space of the auditorium.

All of these goals and strategies have evolved from shows where the audience hasn’t connected. One time the stage was so high up that coming on-stage looked intimidating. Talking through the show afterwards helped me see that that was the problem, and realise that not being on the stage was a solution.

For a long time “Sonic the Hedgehog controlled by shouting” was my most successful opening act, because it got everyone shouting. Shouting built energy in the room, but I realised I could get the same effect through a good intro and it didn't actually need a game to make it happen.

Yes, And

One of the selling points of the show is that it’s unique every time, that everyone can get meaningfully involved and make their mark on the experience. Trust is essential here too: the audience needs to trust that their unique input will be valued.

So the host needs to say “yes, and” to the suggestions of the players. Sometimes, for example, someone will suggest a team name and it will get absolutely no cheers from the audience. There’s always a way to respond in a way builds on this input and adds to the room.

Swapping a plane for a seagull in Buoy Racers - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
If they look like they could be upset then “well, it was my favourite!” is usually a successful response. You soothe their bruised ego by pushing the idea that they’re great for having chipped in.

If they look like they find it funny that they got shut down by the room, you can joke with them about how they need to try harder, and try to embarrass them. The message is “you made an effort and I’m going to reward you by playing with you.”

This kind of interaction is always spontaneous, but I’ve found having this kind of rapport has come with practice and a positive mind-set.

I’ve learned to be unafraid of letting the show get derailed in an unpredictable direction - for example, if I get more volunteers than the game supports I’ll often get them all on-stage anyway. If the chaos is funny and the audience is getting something unique then it pays off.

A volunteer turns performer while being kitted out in Karlshamn, Sweden - photo by Sebastian Bularca

If every audience suggestion is treated as funny and imaginative, and everything that people shout out from the back is treated as worthy of a response from the host, it creates a sense of camaraderie, where everyone has the right to be heard and the ability to be funny. The same goes from thanking all players who are brave enough to come onto the stage, and getting the audience to applaud them.

You’ll probably notice that a lot of these details come from the role of the host, and I’ve barely talked about the content of the games. In many ways that’s reflective of a project that has been born out of spontaneity. But the host is also a stand-in for the writing, environment and tutorials that would feature in traditional games.

Like most of my previous games, the driving force is not in the nuts and bolts of computer code, but in the social dynamics going on outside the machine. Being a living breathing human component in this game experience has allowed me tremendous freedom to experiment while these dynamics are in motion. It's allowed me to engage with the mood and personality of my work in a much more nuanced way.

The Incredible Playable Man

Right from the first performance I have been on-stage not as myself, but as “The Incredible Playable Man.” As in, I'm performing as a character, and character is literally called "The Incredible Playable Man." He has a top hat, ringmaster’s jacket and a deep “welcome to the circus of wonders!” voice because that’s what the show was always meant to be: the video game equivalent of circus.

Setting the scene at Play17 in Hamburg - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
A personality emerged naturally, based purely on how it felt right to interact with the audience. The Incredible Playable Man is amazed by everything, and is enthusiastic and excitable. He thinks the games are incredible, the audience are incredible, but also that he’s incredible. He’s fantastic, and for these wonderful people in the audience, he's prepared games as a reward.

An excitable host is an obvious way to build up excitement and anticipation. But it has a subtler secondary effect that makes the audience feel safer about coming to the stage. The host raises a high bar of excitability and expressiveness, removing some of the fear of embarrassment: volunteers know that they will never draw more attention to themselves than the host, unless they choose to match his energy.

The Incredible Playable Man is vain and loves attention, inserting his face into his games and handing out signed photos of himself as prizes. His ridiculous vanity and love of the spotlight means nobody has to worry about being more ridiculous than The Incredible Playable Man - again, unless they make a conscious effort to do so.

Once I was in character, breaking character became a powerful tool. If something went wrong I’d lose the deep voice, so that Alistair would be the one apologising and nervously fixing the equipment, not the Playable Man. It earned me trust by exposing the gentle human being behind the bravado, and encouraged people to volunteer out of camaraderie with me.

Everybody dance! Play17 in Hamburg - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
Eventually I stopped using the deep “showman” voice entirely. I now deliver the show in my natural speaking voice and just project more. This wasn’t a conscious decision - rather, I kept on forgetting to do the voice. I think I simply got more confident on-stage, and I didn’t need it as a prop anymore.

Being on-stage as The Incredible Playable Man has been personally very rewarding. As I look back now The Incredible Playable Man is the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be: imaginative, excitable, confident, friendly, generous, fearless and capable of making people smile. Seeing an audience respond well to him has always been a fantastic feeling.

Performing for Kids

I’ve often claimed the show has taught me to be fearless, throw myself into an unknown situation, and be happy to get things wrong. Performing for an audience of children encompassed all of these things.

In December 2016 I did a run of four shows at the National Videogame Arcade, for a crowd almost exclusively in the 8-12 age bracket. I’d done shows for a mix of kids and adults before, and was happy with how they’d gone, but an audience of mostly kids? That’s a whole other ball park.

A mix of kids and adults at the first run of the show at the National Videogame Arcade - photo by Samathy Barratt
The first show was an absolute disaster. It ended with eight children on a stage fighting over the Codex Bash buttons without a single puzzle having time to appear. The NVA staff were quite encouraging and understanding. They knew that sometimes live performance doesn’t go to plan, and they were confident in the show based off of how popular the GameCity run had been.

But I knew I was capable of better. The reasons it wasn’t working were flaws in the show and not in the audience, and I was determined to make it work. Fortunately, after each show I had time to reflect on where it had broken down, and figure out new strategies for the next one.

The final show of the run was an absolute belter and is one of my proudest moments.

Kids in front of the alt-control Sonic the Hedgehog game. Still from BBC Click, 26 November 2016
It’s very easy to lose the confidence of a room of kids. If they don’t get it, or they get bored waiting for you to faff around, they’re not going to give you any rope. It’s very hard to win them back once you’ve lost them. In fact, for many of them their natural response when it all goes wrong is to plow on independently - I'm just some silly grown-up who doesn’t know what he’s doing, after all!

When children feel like they’ve figured something out, they are convinced they are right and there is no convincing them otherwise. From their eyes, video games are about winning, and being the best as an individual. If they’ve decided that the way to win Go! Power Team! is to press their own power belt over and over then that is what they will do for the rest of the game.

So it’s important that kids aren’t given anything interactive until you’ve demonstrated what it is, and what the rules are. Part of the comedy in the adult shows is equipping volunteers with interactive props but leaving it as a total mystery what they’re for. Kids come up with their own solution to that mystery so the gag doesn’t work.

Another aspect of being a kid, especially given that they view games as synonymous with winning, is that they try to one-up each other. They want to be sillier than each other, funnier than each other, and more rebellious than each other. When this one-upmanship overflows it descends into arguments.

But if I invited three kids and one adult to the stage the kids would, for whatever reason, try to one-up the adult. They’d try to be sillier than the adult, and more rebellious than the adult, and smarter than the adult. But the adult wouldn’t try to one-up them. The result was that the kids still got to be imaginative, rebellious, and expressive, without risk of them winding each other up.

Forming a conga line with some of the younger volunteers from the original run. Unfortunately I didn't get any photos of the December 2016 run at the NVA! - photo by Gemma Thomson

Perhaps the joke of the show is lost on children, who don’t have the prior experience to read that the games are subversive. But what is lost is gained back tenfold in their boundless enthusiasm. Once the games are rolling the kids find them really fun at face value. They don’t need a joke to be in on.

Lessons from the Games

Rather than list out every minor change to the games - and there have been many - I’ve picked out some notable ones. These ones were indicative of issues unique to performative games, or lessons that crossed the boundary between multiple games.

Props that didn’t work

In an early version of Buoy Racers, one of the props was a set of plastic balls with barcodes attached to them. The idea was I’d throw them into the crowd and, when a symbol popped up on the screen the audience would need to throw the corresponding balls to the players that needed them.

Buoy Racers is played by scanning inflatables with barcodes - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
The problem was that most members of the audience wouldn’t throw the balls back. Even though I’d explained what they were for in the intro, most people held onto their balls and asked me “I’ve got the ball, when do I use it?”

Once people have been left alone with a prop they naturally think “this is mine” and that they’ll get to use it for something - especially if it’s something they can hold in their hand.

By contrast, pool inflatables worked in the same game because they were too big for one person to own. It was visually obvious to the audience that the players were sharing the inflatables between them, and it was hard to conceive of how to use something that big without a buddy.

One twist at a time

I’ve been through many many versions of “classic Mega Drive games with unusual controllers.” I love the idea of taking something familiar, adding a twist to it and seeing what unexpected gameplay happens as a result. I love the way it turns a game of skill into a game of communication, and makes the avatars look clumsy and inept.

The four Codex Bash buttons. Still from BBC Click, 26 November 2016
Originally I played around with using the Codex Bash buttons as a controller where the buttons kept swapping, but it was obvious that the spectators had nothing to do. I tried using Micro Machines but it was too complicated a game. I tried doing stuff with the Mega Drive glitches I’d created but nobody understood what was going on.

In a home environment all of these had worked out well because we had time to fiddle around them. But on the stage each one was too complicated for the audience to figure out just by watching. I wanted the audience to get behind the drama of the game, not trying to suss out what was going on.

The best version for a time was the Codex Bash buttons set up so that shouting “jump!” made Sonic jump. But I could tell that the audience didn’t understand how the buttons worked.

With the improved controller at Play17, Hamburg. Notice the buttons have been removed! - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
In a half-hour break between shows I made the world’s simplest alt-controller, to replace the Codex Bash buttons: I opened up a USB joypad, and took out all the buttons, except the D-pad.

Now there’s a narrative reason to shout. The volunteer’s controller is broken, so Sonic can only move left and right. The audience is shouting “jump!” to fill in the gaps and help the volunteer.

The prop of a broken USB controller does not need to be understood - it makes natural sense. The only thing different to normal Sonic the Hedgehog is shouting to make him jump. The audience immediately knows what they’re getting behind and get invested a lot faster.

Changing the staging changes the game

Often a successful change to a game has nothing to do with the content of the game itself, but rather how you frame the environment.

Originally in Codex Bash the four players pressing the buttons could see the screen. The issue was that the players could do the first couple of puzzles without needing the audience. Then, when the audience became necessary for finding clues in the room, everyone got confused.

Getting everyone out of their seats and working together is the magic moment in Codex Bash

So I made the players face away from the screen and made the audience shout out the colours they needed to press. So even before they had to search for clues the audience was actively propelling the action.

The resulting communication challenge is really interesting - the players need to listen for colours from all these disparate voices, and the audience need to agree on what to shout out!

When a prop should just be removed

An early problem with Match Me If You Scan is that while the initial surprise was lots of fun it would lose momentum as the same volunteer kept running around zapping the same groups of people. I wanted to randomly select new players from the audience each time a new puzzle appeared, to keep the energy in the room moving and build a feel of “you could be next!”

I went through so many failed ways to do this, so I’ll pick out a notable one. At the beginning of the act I’d throw plastic balls into the crowd, and each ball had a letter on it. After each round there’d be a letter on the screen, and the person holding that ball had to come up and get the barcode scanner.

Running with a barcode scanner at Play17
Some people wouldn’t want to come on-stage when selected. A lot of the balls went missing under chairs. Most pressingly, between being given a ball and being shown the first letter the reason for having a ball was of no consequence. People forgot what the balls were for.

A ball is not a letter. A ball does not identify a person. A ball is a ball. What was going through the heads of most people holding balls was “when do I get to throw it?”

A much better way to get the random selection I wanted to put prompts up on the screen: “Step up if your name begins with the letter A” or “step up if you are wearing green.” Nothing new needs to be made sense of, and it doesn’t single out anyone who doesn’t want to be singled out.

What makes the Incredible Playable Show funny?

I always intended The Incredible Playable Show to be funny. In fact, going back to Greedy Bankers vs The World I've tried to make people laugh with most of the games I've made. So, just like the games that came before it, I’ve worked very hard at making it funny. If the volume of laughter at IndieCade was anything to go by I managed to meet that goal!

A comedian friend of mine told me that he'd always seen The Incredible Playable Show as always a comedy show. I had never crossed my mind that it was comedy, but it didn't cross his mind to call it anything else. He made me realise how much there was I could learn from stand-up comics. Listening to comedians’ podcasts, reading about the craft, and watching shows, has been a staple of my 2017.

Presenting to the crowd! Screenshake 2017 in Karshamn, Sweden - photo by Sebastian Bularca
My job as host is, in many ways, a double act. As long as I’ve built energy and trust in the crowd, the games always get big laughs whether or not I’m a funny individual. If I can make people laugh on my own then that's a bonus.

I think most of the laughs I get as host are not from telling jokes or using clever language, but simply reacting to what the audience give me. A good reaction seems to be less about being witty but highlighting the absurdity of what the audience has thrown up. If I can feed the audience with prompts that allow them to respond in unpredictable ways, and react to them in a way that makes people laugh, it adds to the spectacle: a show that seems shambolic but somehow comes together. As I’ve performed more and got more confident my ability to find these reactions on the fly has grown.

Buoy Racers is played with an inflatable doughnut - photo by Initiative Creative Gaming
Jimmy Carr, on the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, shared a theory about why jokes are funny. You take two concepts that are disparate, and show that they are connected, and the brain rewards the newly-formed connection with laughter. This is fascinatingly close to the theme of Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design: that the reason that video games are fun is because we learn from them.

All the games draw on some mystery object which makes you go “how do you make a video game out of this?” and then pay off when you see it in action. You go “aha, that’s how you make a video game out of that!” and a new connection between “inflatable banana” and “video game” is made. Perhaps that’s why the games are funny and that so many alt-controller games are naturally funny.

The Biggest Lesson

Running The Incredible Playable Show has felt like a natural next step from I’m used to creating - the thing my games have always wanted to be - and yet the way I've delivered the experience has been a massive departure. The adventure is still going on - I already have bookings for 2018 and am always making improvements to the show.

At the same time I’m hungry to explore the next step from here that builds on what I've learned - be it as a game, performance, installation, some kind of mash-up, or something entirely new. My goal for the coming year is to keep on pushing forwards and be fearless.

Hosting at ScreenShake 2017 - photo by Sebastian Bularca
Fearlessness: before stand-up comics do their knock-out Edinburgh show they do preview after preview where the material just doesn’t work. Standing in front of a room full of people who just don't find you funny is not easy. But only by saying it on stage can they figure out how to turn something that showed promise on paper into something that gets laughs from a live audience.

For everything that works about The Incredible Playable Show there has been a version of it that has not worked. I needed to see it not work before I could understand what didn’t work, why it didn’t work, how to fix it, and what “working” actually means.

Indeed, very often when something’s failing is when the best solutions emerge. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline, or perhaps it’s knowing that the only way to make a better show is to do something different to what I did list time. Perhaps it’s about looking for those opportunities with a spirit of positivity.

Perhaps it’s about not just saying “yes, and” to those players playing your game, but also to yourself. When that little voice pops up with an idea, do it in the here and now, if only for the benefit of knowing what would happen if you did.

Because when things click with your audience it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Photo by Sebastian Bularca

Thanks to everyone who's come to the show, and all the venues who have hosted me over the past year! I look forward to more shows in 2018!