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Q&A: Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin On Art, Addiction, And Eating Your Game 2

In this wide ranging and whimsical Q&A, Gamasutra talks with Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin, creator of the company's iconic and striking Nom mobile game series, on his art and game-blending motivations, how Nom 2 may have conjured a UFO over Korea

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

April 30, 2008

16 Min Read

Though not entirely well known in the West, Gamevil's Bong Koo Shin has for years been creating some of the most aesthetically and mechanically striking mobile games in the industry. What little recognition this innovative South Korean designer has received in the West recently came with Nom 3 being a finalist in the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game and Innovation in Mobile Game Design. But what started with a simple gameplay device of turning a cell phone in different directions in Nom 1 (video) soon turned to more intergalactic pursuits, as Nom 2 (for which a postmortem is available on Gamasutra) allowed users to transmit messages into the universe via the Ukraine's space telescopes. In addition, Nom 3 (pictured) mused on post-Valentines loneliness with, in Shin's own words, the "sweetness of chocolates and the bitterness of solitude." Gamasutra recently sat down with Shin to discuss the creator's history with blending cell phone gameplay with more creative endeavors. What followed was a wide ranging and whimsical discussion on Shin's motivation for creating his games and the mechanics of blending art and gameplay, and thoughts on exploiting and taking the addictive properties of games to their (il)logical extremes. What was your background before games? Bong Koo Shin: I studied design, and started my career with arcade games. I actually made whole PCBs. So does that mean the board itself, or the games that were made? BKS: Based on the PCBs. So you mean the entirety of sound and graphic design and art? BKS: Right. What games were those? BKS: I've only made domestic games, like puzzle and strategy - all sorts of games, like battles, too. What company? BKS: The name of the company was SemiCom. After I left the company, I started my own business. It was a very unique business. It's similar to those sticker photos, but you can take a picture of yourself, and print it out as an instant tattoo, the kind you put on your skin. That was in the year 2000 -- I ran that for about two years. The reason I closed the business was because I needed special paper, and there weren't many companies who produced that kind of papers. We had some trouble finding a partner, so I quit and joined Gamevil in the year 2002. It was my first time producing a full game, which was Nom 1. What made you decide to go to Gamevil? BKS: After I closed my business, my college friends were all in the game business. I was looking for a mid-sized company that was not famous, so I could have time for my own, like getting away time. I was searching the Internet, and I found a company called Gamevil, and I loved the passion and stuff on their homepage. That's why I chose them. I decided to join Gamevil because Gamevil was looking for a very creative game designer. I liked the phrase "creative designer." Was there any particular reason you chose mobile, or was that just because of the company size and position? Or was mobile a conscious choice? BKS: When I first joined Gamevil in 2002, it was doing both mobile and online games. I was actually trying out for the online games, but our CEO recommended I try mobile development. I found it interesting, so now here I am. So Gamevil doesn't do online? BKS: Not anymore. How do you draw inspiration for the games you design? BKS: I've never played a game to get inspired. I go to department stores and malls, traditional marketplaces, and advanced culture like pop-art. I'm trying to get inspirations from there, not from game playing. Nom does have a few examples of that, like the chocolates. It's kind of a simple game, but it seems like the thought process behind it is not simple. How much consideration do you put into these before you create them? BKS: I don't actually set a time for inspiration and the thinking process. The thinking process itself starts from somewhere else, like my world view -- respect toward the world and everything. I also focus on very detailed stuff in our everyday trivial life. For example, in the case of Nom 2, patterns like you see in the background were very popular in Korea, so I decided to make similar patterns for the game. Inspiration like that is more real-time-based. I get inspired by something, and there it is -- I apply it to the game right away. So it's not like trying to search for inspiration. It's just when the inspiration strikes? BKS: Right. You called Nom 3 the first true art game -- what did you mean by that? BKS: For years I've been trying to combine games and art. Games have a score, something that can be represented with numbers, right? But art itself can't be shown in numbers or a score or anything. So I've been trying to compromise, a buffer zone, maybe, between those two very big, different, opposite categories. For example, in Nom 3, I was trying to put very philosophical issues in that rectangle, such as love...you know, values. Philosophical values. You never know what that rectangle will change into. Nom 3 changes the shape of the background constantly. I think Nom 3 might be a hybrid of art and games. It might look very awkward, very unfamiliar, and very strange, but I'm the creator of those two hybrids, so it looks very adorable, cute, and lovely to me, in the way a father might see it. In fact, there are a lot of other games that people have called art. There have been specific games that are art installations, but also games like, say Okami, or more conceptual games. It's hard to see that on a small screen when there are those two things. It's a very big statement. BKS: Right, it is. Another example is the game Rez, which was Tetsuya Mizuguchi's tribute to Kandinsky. He actually went through the opposite cycle that Kandinsky went through, so that it evolved from more geometric shapes to more realistic shapes. That was the opposite path the art took. BKS: I agree that's a very big statement, that games and art are going together. I'm spending most of my time thinking about it, but I also think it shouldn't be too intentional. It should be natural. It's like putting games and art in one melting pot. It melts together, and what comes out is completely different from either. If you meld the two together too much people won't be able to understand what it is, you know? So it should still exist within a framework that the public can understand, something the public is familiar with. Do people that play Nom 3 understand that it's melding games and art, or do they just think it's a fun game? BKS: I've never said it was an art game. You just did! BKS: Right, but when we were promoting it. When I'm given the chance to explain it more deeply, it's different. I simply hope the audience will understand that the game is very unique and very advanced, but I don't expect them to think catch any similarities to pop-art. Are you trying to make any kind of statement with your games? BKS: In terms of the business, I just hope games themselves gain more respect, in social terms, to the point where they're treated as a form of art. Ultimately, I'm trying to achieve something beyond games, by pushing art and games together. Like I said, I think the games themselves are more like numerical terms. Game have scores, numbers -- I want to try and create something more intangible -- something that does not have fixed form. Maybe in the very far future, there'll be another word or terminology to refer to something I've created. Have you played flOw? BKS: I just know the name. I haven't played it. In that game, there is no score or anything. You are a creature, and you can eat smaller things, and as you eat smaller things, you get bigger. There are red things you can eat that make you go down a level, where things are bigger, or blue things you can eat where you go up and they're smaller. It's based on concepts -- there's no score and no end, really. You just play. BKS: I think for as much as we are inventing new business models, new games or art, I think we could invent some emotions, too -- the feelings you get from playing certain games. You mean, make people have emotions, or invent new emotions? BKS: Invent new emotions, but not emotions you can explain in words, because they've never been experienced it before. Scores would have no meaning at all, because it's more about that new feeling -- a kind of joy from playing the game. If you take the brain images of a game addict and a drug addict, those two brainwaves are very similar. There is a point where you get addicted to a game, and after all, games themselves can be cut down to really simple components -- just some objects, just some sound, just some like colors. It could end up being more like a digital drug -- something used to brainwash someone, by implanting some images and stuff, but it could also be used in positive, constructive ways -- like psychological therapy with games. People are trying psychological therapy with games now. Some people are trying to help people with post-traumatic stress, like soldiers and things like that. It sounds kind of like you're talking about virtual reality-type stuff? BKS: Not really virtual reality. Have you heard of this mind controlling device -- it's a device with some sort of amplifier, and you have to wear special glasses. It gives you repetitive colors -- constantly changing, it kind of controls and soothes your brainwaves. Then, when you hear sounds, you see something visual, amongst the color changes and stuff. It controls your brainwaves. It's all very preliminary stuff, but it's like the infant level of this digital drug. After all, eventually I would say we don't need game characters -- no saving the princess or saving the world or fighting against evil and stuff. That's not related to the core. That's boundary stuff. Just like I said about those addictive points of a game -- I could pull out those very little points, so that if you could hit all those points in at once, it would make someone addicted right away. That's the digital drug that I would expect to see in the future. It seems like it would be very difficult to create something like that, because addictive points in games are dependent on non-addictive points. People get addicted to MMOs because they are grinding, and they want to get a higher level, and they want to get whatever. That's not exactly fun, really. It's just a thing that they feel compelled to do. If you kept the grinding but took it away from the interpersonal relationships, you'd end up with some very abrasive stuff. A lot of the stuff that's addictive is not necessarily completely positive. BKS: I agree that it's kind of tough to make. I use this metaphor -- look at medicine. You take a core of all of these various chemicals and atoms and stuff and put in one little capsule. If you could make a mixture of all those things, in terms of games, in the very far future -- like a long time after this, as if right now what we know as games are just the very beginning of games -- we could expect to see some games that like pills, so we could just swallow the pill to play the game. We're not going to be using the term "play the game," but "eat the game," in a sense. Do you think that you are moving toward that, somehow, with the games that you are making? BKS: Right now, I just have to make popular, commercial games. I can't do all of that right away, but I always try to put some factor or independent variable in the game, that makes it sort of experimental. I'm still analyzing the results of my experiments. What are your results so far? BKS: For example, one of my games only has very simple melodies, but also repetitive rhythms and beats. So I used the BPM from the human heart. When the human body is excited just a little, they're a t a certain BPM -- let's say like twenty. I use that BPM and apply it to the beat of Nom 2, in terms of rhythm. I do the same with the sounds -- use high and low pitches, but repeat it continuously. The reason I have kept the rhythms simple is to get people addicted faster. The capacity of the human brain is very limited, so I need to control the flow of information that flows into the human brain. That's why I tried to simplify everything. Users say that they're playing the game, but they don't know why they're playing. I'm trying to bring out more of the addictive state in users. Have you researched addiction, yourself? BKS: I have done some research on the addictive self, but it's hard to find studies it that aren't based on addiction to drugs or chemicals. I couldn't find enough material to back up my theory. I just added up the ideas. But I think that every industry is doing research on addiction. For example, like the Pringles slogan -- "Once you pop, you can't stop." There could be some secret stuff underneath that. Or maybe it's just a silly ad slogan they made up. It's more something they hope is true, than something they know is true. They're like, "You can't stop. It's so great!" They're just trying to sell it. BKS: Oh, okay. It's similar to what game developers do. If you go to a Korean restaurant and eat spicy food, you have a craving for something sweet. But if you have something sweet, then you get on the other side. You get a craving for spicy. Just like that. This kind of stuff is repeating constantly. I'm using that same mechanism of being addicted to a game by sound and visual stuff. Once you hear the sound, you have this craving for it. Repetition is the core of being addicted. Moving on to something different, how did you get in touch with the Ukrainian space program? BKS: I wanted to try something beyond international, in a way. Something extraterrestrial, in outer space. I thought I'd send out messages to outer space, and if I got a response from them, everyone would say Nom 2 was the first game to interact with outer space creatures! That's how I got with that. After we started sending out the messages to outer space, it was reported that there was a UFO in downtown Seoul. Downtown? BKS: When we sent out the messages, we inserted this kind of map that shows the signal carriers. The message consists of a head and tail. The tail contains content from users, and the head contains the carrier-specific data. The map is the head of the message. I was going to ask how they would know where it was coming from, but they know it's from Seoul. BKS: Gamevil's head of business development went to the Ukraine to talk to the media, and waited two or three days there. After that we were allowed to meet with the Ukrainian space guys. The space center guys had black-and-white mobile phones -- not even color backgrounds -- but they thought the project itself was very interesting, and they were thrilled to help out. And how did you choose the Ukraine, instead of someone else? BKS: We were trying to do it in Seoul, but we couldn't get approval from the government. In the year 2000, there was a promotion from the Ukrainian space camp sending out messages to outer space -- the camp there had the second-largest scope for sending messages to outer space. It was the perfect spot, and there were fewer legal issues about sending out messages. I assume, then, you believe in life on other planets? BKS: Of course I believe in life on other planets. But when I was doing Nom 2, I had the chance to talk to professors and engineers who were working at the space center. They were referring to aliens -- like, life on other planets -- as "they." It wasn't a matter of whether they existed or not. They firmly believed in life on other planets, and they're referring to life on other planets as "those guys over there." They're very certain that they exist. I was very shocked. If you could make a large game now, what would be the theme and idea for it? BKS: You mean, something not mobile? Yeah, not mobile, and not all the way to the addiction games yet. BKS: The title will be like "Yes or No?" I want everybody on Earth to participate in the game. They'd all answer a question yes or no, and if more answered yes, the situation changes to a certain output. So is the game only the questions and the answers, or is there more? BKS: It'd be like a large survey. Let's say that there's a building or something object that everyone on earth knew about. I'd give a survey, like, "Should we explode it?" Then people would answer the question. But since we need participation from all earthlings, I think we'd need to keep it simple. Once they know about this building or the object, the question would say, "Do you want to get rid of it?" If more than a majority of a popular nation wants to eliminate it, we would actually eliminate it. It's more like a science fiction game. For instance, if you gave out the survey for the first time, they'd think it was meaningless. They would carelessly answer the question. But if something's really gone after they answer it -- if they find their answer has some responsibility, and if it actually happens -- people will feel that responsibility, and be reluctant to answer the questions. It seems like you could do it on a much smaller scale now, probably, even on a mobile platform. Not for exploding buildings, but smaller-scale things that don't have to do with making the government mad and stuff. But it seems kind of like a social experiment. BKS: If we could make it happen, we could be in the Guinness Book!

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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