Q&A with James Portnow from Extra Credits, CEO of Rainmaker Games, Part One
Alright gang, today we have something special! James Portnow from the Extra Credits team agreed to answer some questions for us, and answer them he did! In fact, the answers were so awesome, this is going to have to be two parts, so come back next week when we dissect James’s brain even more. If you don’t know about Extra Credits, check them out, they do an amazing job examining everything ever to do with games. James himself is also the CEO of Rainmaker Games, a consulting firm that keeps it’s clients games on track and not heading to “wow-this-causes-me-physical-harm-when-I-play-it” town, and he’s had some impressive clients to boot! I met James briefly at PAXEast, and he is a sincerely cool guy, so without further ado, let the inquisition begin!
Q: What’s your biggest issue with the game industry right now? What do you think the industry is doing really well?
A: The biggest issue with “the games industry” is that we still view the AAA industry as “the games industry” when it holds less than 50% market share. And the biggest problem with the AAA industry (and thus “the games industry”) is that we’ve chosen to compete in an ever higher budget, and thus lower risk, category: graphics. If this trend doesn’t stop, the AAA industry will simply end up being a tiny handful of companies releasing half a dozen samey blockbuster titles every year.
As to what we are doing well? We’re breaking down the barriers of what a game is and we’re creating new methods of distribution so that the barrier to making a game is substantially lower than when I started in this industry. This has lead to a phenomenal increase in innovation over the last few years…now if we could just see that innovation trickle up towards the AAA more often we’d really be in good shape.
Q: With “augmented reality” technology just around the corner, what’s your vision for how things like Google Glass might shape the future of gaming? How excited should we be, and how worried?
A: It’ll bring gaming to the ‘real world’ and allow an environment where your game life and your real world life aren’t really separate things. This is exciting but terrifying. It offers incredible new possibilities for design but horrible new prospects for advertisements and subtle, exploitive monetization.
Q: We’re curious about how you distinguish good gamification from bad gamification, and how exactly do we go about drawing that line as gamification ideas continue to pop up!
A: Good gamification goes beyond badges and points. These systems are just a Skinner Box, they focus solely on extrinsic rewards. Good gamificaiton focuses on the intrinsic value of the real world activity it is trying to gamify.
Q: We’ve seen Valve’s “Teach with Portals” program starting up, do you think other big names in the game industry will see value in crossing from making entertainment products, to making games that have a more powerful effect on reality? There is a lot of risk in trying to design games that could have powerful effects, and so many games fall flat because they overestimate their ability, how can we make these games happen successfully?
A: Well, unfortunately a lot of it depends on how profitable the Teach with Portals initiative is, but assuming it’s a success for Valve, then yes, we’ll see other entrants into that category. There is of course a lot of danger here as we can’t have the same level of haphazard disregard that we sometimes show in entertainment games (such as the “the threat of rape will make you want to ‘protect’ Lara Croft” statement recently issued) can’t be show in educational products. To make these successful we really need to cross the gap and extend the olive branch to professional educators, getting them on board and advising us on how to really build out educational content. We know how to entertain, but I think it would be hubris to think that we’re better at educating than people who have years of experience and a deep tradition of thinking about how to do so.
Q: You’ve talked a lot about “gamifying education”, if such a thing could be achieved, what role would teachers play, and what role would game designers play?
A: The teacher would be the DM, the designer would write the module (and any of you who play D&D know how much any DM worth their salt can [does] change, alter, and personalize any module given to be something radically different from the original creation).
Q: Continuing on the education route, for current top tier courses like the APs (Advanced Placement) that teach to a standardized test, how difficult would it be to implement smart gamification that would give students more academic freedom? Could standardized testing and gamification live in harmony?
A: So… I have only one comment on assessment. Right now assessment is binary: you fill out a sheet of paper, you hand it in, and a few weeks later you get it back to find out whether you were right or wrong. This isn’t how the world works. This isn’t a 21st century approach. Today most employers (especially for anything we’d consider a job that provides a ‘middle class’ wage) don’t care if you get things right on the first try, rather they care about how quickly you can come to an excellent solution. Most company’s put higher value on the person who can do something in an hour, having to test and iterate on it a few times in that hour (i.e. being wrong the first time or two) than the guy who can get the same job done in a day and get it right on the first try (this of course comes with the caveate that the person who is iterating is aware that they might be wrong and is checking their work rather than just handing it off to do damage down the chain…but that’s going to be true of decent employee [i.e. the type of people we want our schools to produce]). Games give immediate feedback, they could be an incredible tool in making the transition from binary testing to efficiency testing. Let’s hope we see it.
That wraps up part one of our Q&A with James, huge thanks to him for giving us his time! Next Tuesday the epicness will continue with part two!
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