Tuesday, March 08, 2005

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THE TRAGICS OF TRINGO

Kermitt_quirk

An in-world game developer creates a phenomenon, garners enormous financial success... and alters the culture of an entire society, in the process.

So I spent the last year or so predicting to anyone one who'd listen the imminent arrival of the Counter-Strike of Second Life, and when it finally gets here, I'm slow on the uptake. 

In the 90's, a kid working out of his parents' basement used the level-editing tools of Half-Life to create the Counter-Strike mod.  It got so popular, people began buying the original Half-Life, just because you needed to install it, to play the kid's game. It got so popular, in fact, it had a broad impact on multiplayer gaming and the game industry's attitude toward modding.

In a similar way, my prediction went, a Resident would one day create a game that's so addictive and popular, people will end up logging into Second Life just to play it. That will be the tipping point when things change-- for the Second Life community, and the way it was perceived by people outside it.

Trouble for me was, all along I had been expecting that game to resemble something like, well, Counter-Strike-- a multiplayer FPS like U:SL, for example.  My own bias as a gamer had blinded me to the realization that the Counter-Strike of Second Life was really this simple, innocuous looking, casual game which involved nothing more spectacular than a bunch of people sitting around poking at two dimensional boards.

Oh, I'd noticed its arrival, and mentioned it back in January, in my profile of club culture doyenne Jenna Fairplay -- but that was just in passing. By the time realization finally hit me full, it had already pushed past that tipping point; in here, and in the world outside.

So it was last week that I met Kermitt Quirk for the first time, outside his home near the Tringo board which he used to host himself (though he's been too busy to do that lately). Since he's based in Australia (while originally from New Zealand), arranging an interview conducted via a 18 hour time difference was a challenge in itself. But despite our distance, the quality of his connection is just fine.

"I just got a new graphics card yesterday," he tells me. "Second Life runs smooth as silk now."

"Bought it with your Tringo earnings?"

"Pretty much, yeah," he replies. "Not actually from Second Life money cashed in, though. I haven't done that yet. I'm gonna just keep it in there as a nest egg, I think."

But Kermitt Quirk's fiscal success isn't a topic for this entry-- by now, that's already become an item for the mainstream press to report. This is the story behind its creation, and just as important, the way its unprecedented popularity has impacted Second Life society-- for better (as many believe), or-- as some strenuously argue-- for worse.

Hl_and_kermitt_play

TRINGO: THE GAMEPLAY

Disarmingly simple, Tringo consists of a display board, to track scores and pieces in play, and game cards, for the individual players. After they place their bets in a winner-take-all pot, they compete with each other to fit their pieces together onto their cards.

"Basically," says Kermitt, playing me in a demonstration round, "as the pieces show up you need to click your card for where you want to place them... The idea is to make solid blocks of 2x2, 2x3 or 3x3, then the scores are 5, 10, 15 points, respectively. You get 10 seconds for each piece, and lose 7 points if you fail to place one in time. The best technique seems to be to try and go for as many 2x3s as you can, and avoid the 2x2s if you can afford to-- or 3x2s, of course."

Heedless, I end up slapping pieces down in a way where it quickly becomes impossible to form a full row. 

"Ack, boxed myself out!"

"As you can see," Kermitt says, grinning, "you'll get blocked if you ain't careful." And reassuringly, "Most people seem to pick it up after one or two games."

TRINGO:  THE CODING

"I'm more of a business programmer really," says Kermitt. (He writes in-house applications for the Australian arm of a large American manufacturer.) "Making games is just a hobby, and I really never thought I could compete with the stuff that's out nowdays. That's where I like Second Life, 'cause I never really got into programming 3D stuff, and SL already does all that stuff for me."

I ask him how he scripted the puzzle pieces to randomly display and then calculate when players have selected the correct one, and then factor that into the current score.

"It all comes down to bitpattern maths," Quirk explains. "A lotta people use strings to represent the map of squares, but the string and list functions are relatively slow. With a bitpattern, it means I can store the entire 5x5 card grid in one integer. Then it's just a matter of using bitpattern operators like AND, OR and the left/right shifts to merge bitpatterns or test for matches, etc. I have [fellow Resident] David Guillaume to thank for a lotta that. I sorta new this stuff, but he made it heaps clearer and taught me a lotta tricks I wasn't aware of...

"And that's the secret to why Tringo is so fast even in a slow sim. The lines of code it needs to run though are heaps less than if you used strings and lists. Like a test to see if you can place a particular piece on the card is basically one line. Of course," he adds, "when 20-30 people turn up for an event with all their attachments and such the sim still tends to suffer, unfortunately."

TRINGO: THE ECONOMIC MODEL

Quirk developed Tringo over last Christmas, and put a copyright to it (in the release notes, "Kermitt Quirk" is named as the rights holder), just before New Year's. He sensed he had a phenomenon on his hands before the official release.

"I ran it as a Beta for a few days. That was in the Barnyard run by Omar Drago. And even then the word seemed to spread really quick. After I released it for sale, it just went nuts, with people buying it over the first couple of weeks... I broke the one million [Linden] dollar profit mark just a couple of days ago."

At L$15,000 a copy, as of last week he's so far sold 69, primarily to Residents who want to make money hosting Tringo matches. 

"And all it took was a couple of weeks during my holidays," he says, "and a bit of customer support." (About five hours weekly, by his estimate, helping Tringo owners with technical glitches.)

"Which is," I calculate, in current US$/L$ exchange rates, "about $60 each!"

"Actually more for me, 'cause then you need to convert that to Aussie dollars." That's to say, the currently weak American dollar on the international market means more purchasing power for non-US Residents, when they convert from Linden Dollars to US dollars and then to their own currency.

"Well, [the Australian dollar's] actually been dropping recently," he amends. "Another of the reasons I haven't tried to cash it in yet."

TRINGO: THE SOCIAL CATALYST-- AND THE CONTROVERSY

"So why do you think Tringo became so big in here?" I ask its creator.

"Mainly I think because the concept is so simple that people can pick it up real quick and be winning after even only two or three games," Quirk tells me. "The way I see it is that you could play a lotta games that are in SL anywhere, if you wanna play them alone. I think it's much better to get people together in groups so they can chat while they play."

An indication of its success is not just found in the number of Tringo-related events (which on some days make up more than 25% of total events), but in the vertiable subculture of Tringo groups Residents have started up. There are at least 21 of them now, with names like Tringo Busters, Tringo Sluts, and Tringo Zombies. In essence, they're analagous to gamer clans and informal leagues, started up by enthusiasts of the game. (Somewhat related to this, Kermitt is trying to collect screenshots of Tringo as it's played in the dozens of locations and environments throughout the world. "Might put the word out for people to send photos to me," he asks me, "'cause I'll miss most of them with the time difference.")

Unsurprisingly, success means a level of in-world fame for Kermitt Quirk.

"I dunno if I'd call them fans," says Quirk. "I don't get packs of people running after me or anything. But if I turn up to Tringo games people seem very amazed to actually meet 'the creator'. But then," he adds, grinning, "they start cursing me when the right pieces don't come out for them."

Just as unsurprisingly, Tringo has its share of Resident detractors, who believe the game has come to overwhelm their society. 

In a testament to its influence, Jinny Fonzarelli, a British Philosophy/Theology student and Resident who runs Thinkers, a group devoted to discussing political and metaphysical topics, now plans to dedicate an upcoming debate to "The Tringoization of Society". Which would be, if you like, a cultural debate held within a game about the mini-game that's beginning to impact the community of the larger game.

"It ain't really Tringo I object to," Fonzarellis tells me. "It's the fact that it's everywhere, all the time. Games are meant to be an escape, not where you live. Between Tringo and pointless contests, I know many people feel their Second Life has been immensely devalued."

Eboni Khan (a Resident I'll be profiling in a future entry) helps run the opulent Beverly Hills resort simulator, and regrets her experience with the game.

"I brought Tringo here," says Eboni, "which I now hate. People just leech off Tringo, and they seem so addicted... and people come, just play Tringo, suck out money, and don't even look around the sim. Sim owners have Tringo to attract people to the sims [but] Tringo players rarely look at the sims. They just go from game to game. If their friends IM them that there are big pots at the next place, they leave. And they don't chat, because they are too into the game. So it's not even social, which I don't like."

I bring these objections up with the game's inventor.

"That's a tricky one," Quirk acknowledges. "I have had a few people ask me if I was going to remove it from sale, because I was flooding the market... that may be fair for them, but what about other people that wanted to buy it and couldn't afford it [when it was on sale]? And when it comes down to it," he continues, "if people really didn't want, it they wouldn't support it."

As for it hurting socialization, he says, "[T]hat depends how seriously you take it, I suppose. From my experience with Tringo events it just isn't like that. There's always someone chatting even if they end up missing pieces because of it. You could argue that a [in-world] club is more sociable, but then people are just away from keyboard all the time [at clubs], so isn't that just as bad? At least Tringo keeps people active in world."

Ice_dragon_tringo_players

You can pretty much find a game of Tringo in Second Life at any hour. Even at 3AM, which is when I found a match going strong at Jvizzle Jacques' Ice Dragon Resorts, currently the world's most popular site, located in the winter simulator of Eaton. On what used to be a hill of driven snow now stands Jacques' raucous mini-mall of stores, floating billboard cubes, a ceaselessly blaring stream of pop music-- and at the center of it all, the Tringo game room, done up in chrome and flashing colored lights.

When I arrive, the players (including a leggy brunette supermodel, a humanoid lizard, and a punk rock demon) are waiting on game host Ezri Martin to start a new round, but she's momentarily away from the keyboard.

"SORRY," she says after a brief delay.  "JUST ATTENDING TO MY DAUGHTER." 

And after taking bets to the winner's pot, another round begins.

For the most part, this is an international crowd of players, with a few in Australia and least one in France. ("Midday," the Frenchwoman shouts. "WOOOHOOO!")

"Late night international tragics!" Magenta Eldritch adds from the bleachers.

Ice_dragon_tringo_pot_grows

"GREAT HEADLINE FOR YOU THERE, HAMLET," says Ezri. As it turns out, she's talking in ALL CAPS not to shout, but according to house policy. At the Ice Dragon Resorts, Tringo hosts must always speak in caps, to distinguish themselves from their players.

"IN AUSTRALIA," Ms. Martini continues, "WHEN SOMEONE IS ADDICTED TO A SPORT OR PASSTIME, THEY ARE REFERRED TO AS A 'TRAGIC'. E.G., A CRICKET TRAGIC, A FOOTBALL TRAGIC. AND NOW-- A TRINGO TRAGIC!"

Meanwhile, the time for this round is winding down, and players are counting their scores.

"Crushed me like a bug," groans Magenta.

"Sometimes you are the bug, sometimes the windshield!" offers Evan Yaffle, philosophically.

"AND SOMETIMES," Ezri Martini calls from the back, "THE WINDSCREEN WIPER."

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