s17e03: Personality; A Rule about Designing Games
0.0 Context Setting
It’s Wednesday, 10 January, 2024 in Portland, Oregon where it is still supposed to be cold and snowing over the weekend.
Jurassic Park is still a great film! And phoooey deep appreciative exhale Poor Things.
1.0 Some Things That Caught My Attention
Apart from the normal things like wi-fi and cellular connectivity, a camera (that rotates to be front or back-facing), and a touchscreen it also has two unusual aspects: it is red, and it has a jog wheel/button, as if it were some sort of modernized Sony Clié3, 4.
It was also designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering, who if you’re lucky you can totally pay to design your thing for you5, and which I’ve mentally stuck in my “exceeded the heights of IDEO’s industrial/product-design awareness as well as showing itself to be singularly idiosyncratic and opinionated6” file. (This isn’t the first time the founder of Rabbit has worked with Teenage Engineering - their last collaboration was the, uh, H7).
The R1 is a little device that “does things” using something called a Large Action Model, implying it uses handwaves the kind of approaches large language models use.
By “doing things” for you, the R1 acts a bit like an agent (yeah, they’re coming back, kind of!) and conveys action using a little expressive animated line-art Rabbit. You can (to the extent that this is demoware) connect it to services like Spotify and “buy things”, which has always been an ambition of agents, and one that in the original Echo/Alexa’s case turned out to not actually be that useful, because in general people like to see and know what it is they’re buying before they pay for it8.
Run Rabbit, run
OK here’s an aside: there’s no clear information on how Rabbit will do these things for you other than this bit from The Verge:
“Rather than build a bunch of APIs and try to convince developers to support the R1, though, Rabbit trained its model on how to use existing apps for itself. The large action model, or LAM, was trained by humans interacting with apps like Spotify and Uber, essentially showing the model how they work. The LAM learned what a Settings icon looked like, how to know when an order was confirmed, and where the search menus are. All that, Lyu says, can be applied to any app anywhere.”
A couple of things that caught my attention:
One: this is a bit like robotic process automation9, a thing that’s also used to improve otherwise inflexible legacy enterprise software
Two: Oh boy does this open up a rat’s nest of a red queen’s race. In today’s post zero-interest rate world where suddenly businesses need to make money, walled gardens are “so back”. Sure, you can’t rely on APIs because a) they’re going to cost you money, and b) if they’re free, you never know if you’re going to be rug-pulled. So you reverse-engineer how a human would use these apps and, if I’m guessing right, fake being a human and, well, clicks and shit. Companies don’t tend to like this! They will try and stop you! Your best bet is a formal, contractual relationship.
One reason why companies don’t like this is that they don’t like being subjected to scale that they can’t control or direct. I mean, they like being in control in the first place. But suddenly there’s an automated service that’s capable of scraping their content? Not good! Who knows what it might do!
I am not sure how this will work, in practice, or how reliable it will be. There are no assurances, I think, that Rabbit’s agent-like capabilities will be stable over time because it’s likely they’ll be in an adversarial relationship with services, much like Apple turned around and stopped iMessage working with Beeper.
OK, the bit about personality
Anyway, my other point. I saw a bunch of people jump on the R1 and proclaim that they’d already hit the pre-order button. Right now, I’m not in a phase of my life where I can drop $200 on a pre-order for something like this, and I credit these people with the intelligence to understand that all they’ve seen so far is a demo. So why the excitement?
- It’s red
- It looks different
- It has (wait for it), a cute animated rabbit
- It works differently (a jog wheel! How novel!)
In short, it’s got personality.
I compare it to stuff like Apple’s putting out right now, where ever since the M1 iMac I’ve been dying for its other computers to, you know, come in colours?
I’m not going to write about the great retreat from skeuomorphism and not even that much about the charge into flat design, but I will say that I think the clear philosophy behind Apple’s industrial design since the iPhone and iPad has been “fade into the background and be the container for the function”, which means: be boring. This has been exacerbated by the push for software that also looks boring and utilitarian, but my point with the R1 is that you can have personality and be utilitarian.
Seriously, I can’t overstate how much I think people are so into the Rabbit just because it’s red.
There’s a bunch about “this is what Siri was supposed to be” and, you know, people aren’t wrong. We’ve been trying to get computers to do this stuff since, well, I mentioned agents, which date back to 197710, and you will all totally autocomplete me mentioning Apple’s Knowledge Navigator11. But I maintain that the main reason why we don’t have interoperable systems like this is: a) there’s no requirement that systems be interoperable, and b) the general economic model and corporate philosophy behind commerce on the internet has been “take it all”
We are living, it often feels, in a crapsack world. I make jokes about the jackpot12 (holy shit, Penguin now labels these as The Jackpot Trilogy Series? How’s that for an endorsement of how shit things are going?), everyone knows what I mean if I say this is fine fire dog (I even have a this is fine dog plushie set?). And even still the majority of our devices are designed to fade into the background and just be frames and there’s no joy? Not even in consumerism? I can’t even buy something that’s bright and cheery while the human-occupied world literally burns/floods/gets blown down/succumbs to zoonotic disease?
(This is demonstrably wrong; if I lived in China a few years ago, I could totally buy the H smart speaker.)
I may be overegging it a bit, but at least give me products that... have a feeling that life is worth living? With some personality? Personality still seems to be niche. Apple’s design approach feels overbearing and now suffocating.
Teenage Engineering is making stuff with personality (although I guess I personally discount their synthesizers?). Who else is making stuff with personality?
1.2 A rule about designing games
Tl;dr: Players should be having more fun than designers.
First, we’ve started playing D&D in our house, and a few months ago eldest DM’d his first game. It was great! One thing came up, which was I reminded them that the job of a DM is, amongst other things to make sure the players have fun. Not to tell their own story, or to be, say, a capricious god.
Second, I saw this echoed in Jimmy Maher’s history of Jordan Mechner’s Last Express13. Mechner, as a reminder, was the designer of Prince of Persia14. Part of what Mechner wanted to do in The Last Express was, well, make a super technically interesting game with lots of interesting mechanics about it. I’ll excerpt Maher here:
I fear that Smoking Car may have violated one of Sid Meier’s principles of game design: that it’s the player who should be the one having the fun, not the programmer or designer.13
(This rule also came up in Sid Meier’s Covert Action15, a game that I love from my childhood, even though it’s flawed:
A designer should always ask, Meier tells us, who is really having the fun in a game — the designer/programmer/computer or the player? The procedurally generated cases may have been an intriguing problem for Sid Meier the designer, but they don’t serve the player anywhere near as well as hand-crafted cases might have done.15
Anyway, this principle came up in conversation today, and I qualified it by adding “well, unless I guess you’re making a game to make a statement?” but I maintain that I still personally dislike the 2007 videogame Limbo16, where the designer’s explicit intent was for the game to be hard, not fun. Seventeen(!) years later, I’ve perhaps softened a bit given that over the last few years a genre of games has arisen where they are designed to be hard (e.g. Elden Ring and others), but crucially not too hard. Anyway, there still needs to be a balance between overly frustrating.
Phew. How are you doing? At least this one was shorter! I have realized that I don’t have to write about everything that has caught my attention.
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Let my boss pay!
The Rabbit R1 is an AI-powered gadget that can use your apps for you - The Verge (archive.is), David Pierce, The Verge, 9 January, 2024 ↩
SonyClie.org (archive.is) (which also had a rotating camera. I miss Sony’s design. And also naming: “creativity, lifestyle, innovation, emotion”?! And “communication, link, information and entertainment”?!) ↩
Thank you to Mark Hurrell who pointed this out (“I see where you’re coming from but I think TE’s work is more opinionated and singular than IDEO’s ever was. much more like one of the big mid century european studios”) when I said I thought Teenage Engineering were essentially the new IDEO but when IDEO was good ↩
I mean, people didn’t use Echo/Alexa to buy stuff when it came out, and I imagine the problem is even worse now that Amazon is stuffed full of rebadged/OEM stuff from China and there aren’t really any good signals or reassurances about quality. Buying from Amazon is kind of a crapshoot even if you can see what it is you’re buying. ↩