Archive for May, 2008

Beyond Good & Evil Returns: Should We Worry?

Beyond Good & Evil is back! We thought creator Michel Ancel AWOL when he hadn’t been seen or heard from since Rabbids launched with Wii, but talk about a fine excuse. Our favorite realistically endowed “are you sure you’re black?” heroine has returned, with Pey’j in tow. (Could Double H be far behind?) This is good news.

Still, you have to worry. After all, even with so much going for it, the original BG&E bombed. And that title didn’t help. I mean, let’s face it, even the most devoted fans couldn’t figure out what Nietzsche had to do with Jade’s exploits. Everyone else wasn’t interested in a game written by a 19th century philosopher. Is Beyond Good & Evil 2 simply a working title? Let’s hope so.

But there’s something peculiar about the game, too. Even though I have fond memories of Jade’s world and its inhabitants, I remember less of what I did there. Where other favorites like Ico and Rez have big moments you just can’t forget (the windmill puzzle, a running man set to Rock is Sponge), BG&E leaves you with something different. Edge puts it this way:

There’s nothing memorable, nothing meaty in any of the game’s set pieces. It’s a game you finish in a happy haze, entranced by your time in Jade’s world, but hard pressed to remember a single fight, puzzle, race, or stealth challenge that stood out. And it’s this, more than anything, that is Ancel’s secret. […] Ancel may not be a master of story-writing, he may not map out the most sophisticated character arcs, and he may not have the instincts to set taut and rewarding game mechanics at the heart of the experience he creates, but he has an ability to create characters with instant resonance — and, if you doubt that, you only need to hear ‘Carlson and Peters!’ echo in your memory to convince you. In a videogame world — where those characters will be acting under their creator’s control for so much less time than in other media — this is unusually vital. (Edge 157)

More than that, BG&E creates a living world — not in the GTA sense but in how your actions interact with and change the place in ways that carry weight. Few adventure games take these kinds of risks when so much time has been put into crafting a world that’s just so. Even fewer dare to swap the central mechanism of affecting change from the pistol to the polaroid. These risks make BG&E great, but they also create confusion. Hopefully, all that pre-production research for BG&E2 has sought to better communicate atypical directions rather than blunt them altogether. What does it mean for BG&E to be “more casual”? We’ll see.

Michel Ancel followed BG&E with a muddy mishmash called Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Raving Rabbids, which matched hysterical characters with one-dimensional gameplay. In the former, Ancel was charged with making some else’s world interactive and in the latter he created characters without much of a world. In a lot of ways, then, coming back to BG&E feels like coming home to the place where so many of his strengths lie. After a few years of creative and monetary missteps, though, does Ancel still have it where it counts? If the fabulous trailer released today is any indication, he has indeed lovingly taken Jade & co to the next level. We want to believe.

Don’t miss the BG&E2 trailer. We last wrote about BG&E in The Sounds of Great Game Places.

Hanoi’s Hidden Graffiti

Some have argued that the street art scene in Vietnam is lacking — consisting largely of half-drawn scrawls and stenciled phone numbers promising everything from backyard bike repair to the hair cut of your dreams (for example). But for those who luck into it, there’s at least one place where all that changes.

Hidden in Hanoi’s super narrow back alleys is a special spot that features some beautiful work, flanked by great street food, homes packed on top of one another, and a truly lovely art gallery. Have a look.

I don’t know the artists (do you? drop a comment) and I make no claim they’re all Vietnamese, but it is nice to see this level of artistic expression on the streets of a beautiful country that has suffered so much. One might imagine that the communist rulers would frown on this combination of lawbreaking and artistic expression, particularly in the capital city. My only thought there is that artists stick together and protect each other. Hence the proximity to Mai Gallery.

I’ll have more on Mai’s and the whole gallery scene in Hanoi soon (suffice to say the best galleries there rival Chelsea’s). The city is booming in ways that it wasn’t just 5 years ago (iPhones are everywhere, people seem happier) but there’s a long way to go (the jobless rate remains high). Still, if the emerging art scene is anything to go by, Hanoi’s future is bright indeed.

See more shots from my visit to Hanoi’s graffiti row on flickr. Thanks to NYT for the pointer and to Jake for the conversation.

Update: Lunar, one of the artists involved, emailed more details on the project:

we were in hanoi in 2007 thanks to hope box project organized by dutch artist rienke enghardt. the artists who participated on the wall across mai gallery (there was works of hope box artists exhibited in it at the same time) were: angel (serbia), lunar (croatia), zorrox and few of his friends (hanoi), the london police (amsterdam) and def p (amsterdam). this is the wall with light yellow background starting with tigers and ending with london police lad characters. on the left site is unfinished piece by angel and me and i also spotted a piece from year earlier, i think it’s a guy from germany who writes zooloo if i’m not mistaken.

See more of Lunar’s work at

First Person Art

This week had us gawking at art and photography that transports — to places magical, funny, troubling.

First Person Soccer – super visceral ad by Guy Ritchie (Mr. Madonna, Lock Stock) makes you the soccer star

First Person Parkour – graphically beautiful game puts you in the head (and in control) of a free running master (find out how it works at Edge)

First/Third Splitscreen – Radiohead goes activist with a video that thoughtfully compares a kid’s life in the first and third world. Kudos to MTV Exit

Subway Culture Jam – mystery editing of NYC subway ads results in fall down hilarity

Massive Moving Wall – Beijing’s GreenPix gets in your face with is a huge, gorgeous media wall that has zero carbon footprint

Where the Mekong Die – Suthep Kritsanavarin captures jaw dropping scenery and puts you in the shoes of fishermen along the Mekong in Thailand

Web 3.0: Social Software in the 3rd World

What is Web 3.0? After the social software revolution ushered in by web 2.0’s architectures of participation, we’re all eager to think ahead to the next mind bending advance. But while many of the new web manifestos talk about the next step for web technology, the target market for those technologies is equally important. I believe the third generation web will be about finding ways to make social software relevant to those who have benefitted little from it to date: web 3.0 is social software in the 3rd world.

But here’s the thing: the next social software revolution has already begun — spurred by the massive uptake of mobile phones in developing nations. 68% of mobile phone subscribers anywhere are in the developing world. In Africa, mobile subscribers have jumped from 10 million to 200 million in the last four years. The growth is stunning. And it’s accelerating.

Why the explosive growth? One reason is sheer need. Africa has 12% of the world’s population but only 2% of the global landline network. Building wired infrastructure is far more expensive than wireless alternatives. But that’s just the beginning. The recent IBM Global Innovation Outlook put it this way:

African use of mobile phones has been far more innovative than in Europe, largely because meeting the specific needs of Africa requires innovation.

And the cellphone is empowering because it provides what Jan Chipchase calls a “fixed identity point,” that is, for people displaced by war, floods, drought, or faltering economies, having a way to always be in touch is essential for both maintaining community and for doing business.

Economists say this will be huge. As a recent New York Times article put it, mobile communications enables the “just in time” business. In the 1930’s, Toyota radically revamped how its supply chain worked. No longer did it stock parts, instead encouraging assembly plants to order from the factory only when parts were needed. The company became decentralized, incremental. Waste was reduced, efficiency increased, defects were corrected more quickly — and profits rose. Economists believe that the cellphone can enable this same kind of radical shift in developing nations, largely because they don’t have the technological baggage we do.

Some examples:

  • When Indian fishermen got cellphones, they started calling around to prospective buyers before reaching shore. The ability to negotiate at a distance increased profits by 8% and reduced consumer costs by 4%.
  • SMS is used in Kenya to allow anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer, STDs and more. Answers come back quickly from health professionals at no charge.
  • A live-in housekeeper in China who was essentially an indentured servant got a cellphone and suddenly a whole new set of customers were able to reach her and book her services, allowing her to grow her business.

Of course difficult questions remain. How do you design for people who are illiterate, making $4 a day, and with no access to electricity? Design for the Other 90% provides important answers, repeatedly demonstrating that these challenges can be overcome when folks get creative — and at a profit, too. Paul Polak puts it this way:

Thinking of poor people as customers, instead of recipients of charity, radically changes the design process.

But here’s the central point: little attention has been paid to the role social software can play. And that seems strange since these little connected devices are in so many pockets. It’s a huge opportunity, especially since many of the approaches used in the west can’t be applied, at least not directly. For instance:

In Cameroon, bankers complain of loan delinquency rates as high as 50 percent. But tontine payments are taken so seriously that borrowers faced with delinquency have been known to commit suicide. (nyt)

How, then, do you design to support informal economies in places where the formal economy isn’t as important? What features can help communities that are widely dispersed by war maintain their bonds? What role can social software play in helping steward social change and stability? These are the big questions. And that’s why there’s no better place to test the true promise of social software than in the developing world. Confronting these challenges requires a radical rethink of what social software means. Web 3.0: social software in the 3rd world.

Jan Chipchase holds design studios in poor communities, asking participants to design their perfect phone — with all sorts of revealing results: a landmine detector, GPS to help orient prayers towards Mecca, the ability to monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. But perhaps the most telling was just two words: “peace button.”

While the idea of a button that instantly invokes peace might seem ridiculous, the power of mobile phones to affect social change is quite evident: be it energizing protests or spreading divisiveness.

If the third world is already doing amazing things with basic mobile functionality (texting, voice), imagine what they will do when the real dreamers of social software apply themselves in this new venue. I don’t know what that future would look like but, with so much of Earth’s population still unaccounted for in current designs, it’s an opportunity that will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

images via ibm and nyt

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