Friday, April 29, 2005

Pattern Challenges, First Thoughts

If I can make the assumption that all gameplay is based on pattern recognition challenges, it's pretty easy to start pulling together the pieces and participate in the pattern recognition challenge of recognizing pattern recognition challenges.

The thing to remember about these challenges is that they're all about the player's PERCEPTION. If you're thinking in the MDA framework, we're talking about aesthetics. The only thing that matters is what the player experiences - what patterns the player sees. If the patterns you're using can't be portrayed, the player will see only noise. That's not necessarily bad - patterns can have noise and randomness (at which point the player's interactions involve minimizing losses from it) - but it needs to be remembered.

The whole of the challenge is from the player PERCEIVING the dynamics, DEDUCING the pattern, and ADJUSTING his actions to TAKE ADVANTAGE of it. These four bits are the whole of gameplay. EVERYTHING (that isn't pointless) in EVERY game can be reduced down to these four components, or this theory is wrong. So, hey, knock it down if you can. I love that sort of thing.

So what's the difference between the MDA framework and this one? Well, in theory, this one is more inclusive and actually has a logical method of utilization. The MDA framework, for all its ivory tower beauty, is only marginally helpful when it comes to designing games. It's pretty darn handy for dissecting them, though.

Even things which at first do NOT appear to be connected to this pattern recognition challenge system ARE. All that eye candy? It's there to assist one of the three things - the perception of the dynamics, the deduction of the pattern, and the methodology of the taking advantage.

For example, in racing games you generally see cars and have a specific style of forward-facing viewpoint. This is to point you directly towards the dynamics. It's going to be a racing game. You know how racing games work. You know most of the dynamics. This means that the player has a head start on deducing the pattern (which is largely how the car and the track interact over time).

You see a game including knights and dragons? It points to the fact that at least one of the game's patterns involves the dynamics of a fantasy society. We immediately think of things like kings and wizards and ancient ruins. Again, this is a direct link into the pattern we can expect.

How about character design? Well, aside from the fact that a design can tell us what to expect from a character, it also often associates a character with a particular emotion. For example, classically princesses, animals, and children were used to build empathy. This is related strongly to the player's methodology of TAKING ADVANTAGE of the pattern - they get the player to try to manipulate the pattern to benefit the characters they have empathy with.

You have to establish what the player WANTS to get from the gameplay. Aesthetics is certainly a way to do this. As is the gameplay itself - the METHOD and HISTORY of interactions with the pattern. That's something for a slightly later time.

As you might be able to tell, it's not just what is classically considered 'gameplay' that this covers. The game itself is a giant system for OFFERING A PATTERN RECOGNITION CHALLENGE. The pattern is important, obviously. But many game designers seem to miss the fact that the RECOGNITION and the CHALLENGE are just as important.

In the upcoming week, I hope to explain specifically how to create pattern recognition challenges from a viewpoint that is actually helpful to a designer. We'll see.

Workers Disunite!

I like this.

I'll be posting on pattern challenges later today.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Bzzt! Does not compute.

I spent the last TWO DAYS trying to figure out why the software I'm writing had gone all cracky. Access times went from less than a quarter second to half a minute.

I was picking through my code - what was it? The code was tight as a drum. It couldn't possibly be the code. Maybe one of the external functions I was using was taking up dramatically more time than I thought? Well, not that one... or that one...

I finally figured out the problem: I was running 'arp' and it never occurred to me that Linux would HANG on arp for thirty seconds. Turns out I had an amorous Windows server frantically trying to back up my Linux box. Since it's the only Linux box on the network, neither knew how to handle the situation. Furthermore, for reasons unknown to me, the Windows box REFUSED to respond to pings while trying to back up the system.

Worse, if I rebooted, it just reconnected. Until IT gets around to fixing the problem, I just cut that segment out completely. I'll live, although it creates a security hole. In a system specifically (and at request) created to be as secure as tissue paper. I'm not worried.

Now the code runs lightning fast again. Ah, code looks real tight after the fourth rewrite.

If you've gotten this far, you really need something more interesting to read. Honestly. Listening to me mutter about work-related projects ranks right up there with playing solitaire.

Rummaging and Foraging

In my wanderings through the webs I have come across several blogs and sites which I feel need to be shared.

This site is an awesome concept.

Here is a blog I signed up for. It and its related pages contain links to the most important scientific breakthroughs known to man. It also contains the poem:

The rain in Spain is bound to contain

I signed up for a couple of blogs. They cover the memes I like. Because I'm horrifyingly lazy, I won't provide links, but if you look for clef at cephiro dot com on bloglines, they're all public. Some highlights include:

The Thinking Writer and the Badger Blog, as writing blogs. Adaptive Path Essays and Grammar.police as a tiny taste of my information addiction.

On the Psychology Behind Games

There is a Gamasutra article about the psychology behind games. For those of you that read this sort of stuff fairly regularly, you won't find anything astounding here. It does offer some nice insights, but nothing that you can't find elsewhere (and, mostly likely, have already found elsewhere).

It always strikes me when they list their 'types of play' or 'needs' or anything else they feel like enumerating, they're ALWAYS simply listing 'pattern recognition challenges on THIS level' or 'pattern recognition challenges on THAT level'.

For example, this article has four kinds of play: competition (overcoming challenges), chance (minimizing chance and guessing results), vertigo (seeing the world in a new and unusual way), and make-believe (seeing a new and unusual world). All four of those kinds of play are simply pattern recognition challenges.

The other things they talk about - positive and negative rewards or difficulty levels, for example - are just ways of setting up the challenge. You can't succeed if there is nothing to succeed AT, or if it's too hard.

It strikes me that far too few people actually LOOK at what they are saying. Now, I'm a huge geek, so I like unified theories. And the unified theory of play seems to always boil down to OFFERING PATTERN RECOGNITION CHALLENGES. Play is simply an opportunity to INTERACT with a pattern. In what ways the pattern acts makes the different kinds of games - some of these challenges are fast and simple, some are slow and complex. Some are social, some are physical, some are mental, some are rotational. Some are based on real-life patterns, some establish a pattern in-game from scratch, some are a combination.

WHY people INSIST on categorizing this into different 'kinds of play' never made much sense to me. At first I thought that it was for ease of use. You know, "if you're making a game, think about these kinds of pattern challenges". It seemed helpful. But their lists are always incomplete, because there's a trillion kinds of pattern challenges. And once I got past these 'tutorial' methods, I expected to find them saying, "okay, that was just to get you started. What play REALLY is is pattern challenges, and those are just some common kinds. So how you really design these things is..."

But they never do. Not anywhere. Is it just fundamentally understood? Or fundamentally MISunderstood?

It gets mentioned in this article. He mentions how games are all about interacting with patterns. Yaaaaay!

So why doesn't he DO anything with that? He just MENTIONS it and then starts BABBLING this outdated rhetoric about how games are escapism. Yes, he does it very nicely. He brings up a lot of solid commentary. But it's like having the keys to the car and commenting for hours on how they feel in your hand. DRIVE, damn it!

Maybe I'm missing some fundamental key as to why people never take this tack. So I'm gonna take it. In the near future, I'll start posting musings on OFFERING PATTERN RECOGNITION CHALLENGES. Keep your eye on me!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I didn't sleep very well last night.

You see, I sleep like a freaking baby. I love sleeping. I go to bed, I sleep, I wake up shortly before my alarm goes off, and hey, I'm good. Since early college life, I have never suffered much from insomnia. Hell, I can sleep sprawled halfway off the bed.

It's amazing that the primary thing that keeps me from sleeping - as in, the ONLY thing which has kept me from sleeping over the past five years - is DRUNKEN JOCKS.

So, hey, this is a hearty FUCK YOU to anyone who goes out hooting and howling at midnight because you got a stiffy watching a ball bounce around a big empty arena.

If you are drunken and making noise for any other reason (such as the guy who honks his horn for hours at 3AM), you are not subject to that particular fuck you, so you get your own: fuck you, too.

I'm a bit bitter. It just amazes me that this ONE FACTION is responsible for an entire segment of modern inconvenience. I've known a lot of drinkers, but very few of them are nearly as aggressively irritating as JOCKS. And I've known a lot of jocks, but very few of them are irritating at all unless they're DRUNKEN.

It's like if you mixed chocolate and peanut butter and got urine.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Generic Post

This is a generic post.

Here is a link that is cool, because John Cleese is one of my faves:

I was walking yesterday when a corner zealot attacked me with a pamphlet:


Me: (Pause) "Well, I believe that an intangible force guides all religious people."


Mocking people is most satisfying when they don't even realize they're being mocked.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Addendum to Action Expanded

Hmm, I wasn't perfectly clear. I don't want to leave this unanswered.

Of course my pants have positive threat.

No, really, what I wanted to say is that empathic threat association exists in all forms of media. You like Darth Vader because he kicks the llama's ass.

But games can convey that EXQUISITELY using live gameplay, instead of just showing it. Darth kicks ass because someone WROTE him kicking ass. If you're playing a Star Wars Dark Side game, Darth kicks ass because YOU'RE MAKING HIM KICK ASS. You KNOW what the median power level is, and you KNOW HOW MUCH POWER he has by seeing him plow through it.

Hmmm. Maybe you could do this just as effectively in other media. But it is so well suited for games, either way.


Darth's pants have positive threat, too. The Force is with his pants.

Action Expanded

Earlier, I made a post about action. Today, I'm going to post about DRAMA IN GAMES.

Really, action is simply a type of drama.

Now, there's a lot of kinds of drama in modern (and not-so-modern) media. Non-interactive media has done a million different codifications of 'DRAMA'. You can MAJOR in it. They have a million explanations and approaches. Hell, the games industry has STOLEN these basics and the idea of a 'cut scene' and imported both the styles and complexities of this other genre.

But there is a type of drama which is directly part of games.

Ask any sports fan. As anyone who plays poker, or chess. Games have a drama all their own.

Most people aknowledge that while simultaneously not grokking it. The drama of a game isn't that someone wins and someone loses. It's that something IMPORTANT to you ACTS.

It is rare for someone to cheer for a team from some place they've never been. It's uncommon for people to care who wins or who loses in a poker game where nothing is at stake.

Drama is one big ACTION SCENE.

Like an action scene, we only CARE about drama when we CARE about the people involved. When we have a vested interest. And, the other half of the equation: the THREAT which pushes the people we care about to their limits.

Gameplay-based-drama is a sideways look at this.

Sure, a player will probably 'like' or 'dislike' a character somewhat based on their appearance and personality. I have a fondness for cute female characters and a hatred of idiotic 'mascot' characters. But most of the time, a player is thinking about the characters (and weapons, and places, and monsters) as bundles of play modifiers.

And play modifiers are relative.

During a game, you have a healer named 'Luna'. Both of the following phrases are the sort you could realistically expect to think: "Oh, this fight's gonna be tough. I'll need my healer, call in Luna." Or, alternately, "Nobody ever really dies, so it's better to have another warrior, rather than a weak healer."

Same function, same bundle of play modifiers, but in the first situation, Luna is a favorite character. In the second situation, she isn't. Why? THREAT. In the first situation, Luna is a THREAT. For your side, against the enemy. In the second situation, Luna is not only not a threat, she's a weakness because she takes up a slot that a more powerful character could have filled.

You have to establish POSITIVE THREAT in gameplay drama, rather than 'empathy'. You can certainly use both, but only the positive threat is native to gameplay.

This is very different from 'cinema' drama. In another media, you build your characters through association and empathy. Once you care about them, threats against them matter to you, and drama is born. In a game, you SHOULD use the same methods... but the game has that more native form of 'empathy' which you should use.

In short, gameplay is nothing more or less than tokens with certain powers acting in certain ways. If a token is MORE useful to the player, he will PRIZE it more. It will be valuable. And threatening it or changing will be dramatic. IF the threat is PROVEN, of course, as mentioned.

Sound rather... inhumane? Maybe. Think of high-stakes gamblers. Plenty of them don't give a damn about people having a hard time... but the game matters. Their drama is in their game, even though they'd yawn and fall asleep when confronted with the life story of a beggar.

You don't have to make a game about saving the world.

Using the correct dramatic tenets, you COULD make a game about washing your pants.

So long as your pants have POSITIVE THREAT.

New Blog

I've created a new blog specifically for my personal pet project. I won't be rambling about it here any more. I'll be rambling about it somewhere else. I have entirely too many other things to ramble about on this blog.

Inky Fingers

So, over the last weekend I drew a lot. I participated in 24-hour comic day, then went home, took a nap, and continued to draw until bedtime on Sunday.

I don't HAVE my comic - I left it at Rain City Comics, because they'll scan it and send it in - but they promised to send me a copy. I'll put it on my site so long as everyone remembers it was a 24-hour comic. That is to say, NOT A MASTERPIECE. It's called 'Parking on Mars', and was 'inspired' by the random name generator they have on the 24-hour comic site. It's about a woman's effort to find parking and escape from criminals with a fondness for hostages. It would be rated "Teen" if you had a comic shop stupid enough to rate and host it.

So, I started by writing a few words about each page, to make sure I had exactly 24 pages. Then I drew pages that were halfway between storyboards and pencilwork. Then I went and inked them all. I'm so spoiled - I don't like paper inking any more. It's crude and difficult. And it's impossible to fill in black areas with the pens I had, so there's this incredibly nasty HATCHING that I used to make areas 'black'. :P

Now, my 'mistake', if it can be said to be one under the constraints, is that I did not STORYBOARD or SCRIPT. I jumped straight into the mess. While I knew roughly how much content each page could hold, I dramatically underestimated the number of beats my blurbs contained. This meant that the story progressed like an 8-year-old with ADD. And I couldn't FIX it, because I had a 24-page limit and a strict time limit.

I think I'll whip up more 24-page comics, under a slightly more leisurely time frame, to solidify pacing in my mind.

As to the actual event, it was nice and cozy. Rain City Comics is a tiny little comic shop, and there was a card table CRAMMED into the only space they could fit it. Me and one other comic artist sat at the table and chugged away. He brought a lot of neat pens, like a silver pen which actually wrote over black opaquely. And a host of expensive markers for making three-quarters of his page black.

He prefers 'cartoony cartoons' - the simpler, the better. There's something to be said for that, to be sure. Due to time constraints, my comic was also pretty simple... but nothing like the starkness of his. I didn't get to see his comic finished - I finished four hours early and went home.

Anyhow, the POINT is the Rain City Comics had a HALF OFF day. The whole time we were there, 9AM-9AM, EVERYTHING in the store (except new issues) was HALF OFF.

Got me some comics...

Friday, April 22, 2005


The to-market advantage is live and well in information economies. When I say people value their time, I also mean they want to have relevant information delivered TO them FAST. Preferably before anyone else.

This means that continuous output is always necessary. As mentioned earlier, this is especially true when speaking of MEMETIC 'economies'. :)

Computation Makes the Internet Go Around

Obviously, I'm feeling my oats today. This is... another big blue-sky post. I weep for you, dear reader, and your exposure to my unrefined flood of thoughts.

This post ties two things together. Two things which have always been inextricably tied, yet nobody seems to realize it. INFORMATION ECONOMIES and THE INTERNET. Yeah, yeah, they're connected. Not in the way you might think, unless you're an expert.

Information economies are all about FINDING, MAKING, and SELLING information. Whether the information is a movie, a stock quote, an opinion of stock quotes, or an algorithm for monkey mating. Anything goes. Now, here's the thing. In our current system, it is VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE to share information with a 'few' people. Once you start sharing with more than a dozen or so, if the information is at all interesting, it rapidly reaches every corner of the globe. It's impossible to stop... and very difficult to get money for.

So, what people prize is not INFORMATION. They only prize information when it is RARE, available, and they NEED it. Which is not very often, really. What people prize is TIME. Their time. They want the information NOW. They want it summarized, accurate, and correctly targetted.

The 'money' on the internet is in PROVIDING information, especially personalized information. Download sites and games are an exceptional example of this, but webzines and so forth are also key players. And blogs? Yes, blogs are key players.

A while back, Darius and I touched on an idea for a game on the 'Google OS', IE a game which was contained 'within' Google. My idea was related to this. People who do searches are irritated by the stupid links and useless data. Google covers, what, 1/3 the internet... which irritates half the people who search and need more data, and pisses off the rest as they are deluged with transient forum posts and pornographic ads.

The DRAW of Google (and other search engines) is that they are PROVIDING information. Customized and fast. But they have some pretty serious flaws, all of which boil down to the fact that Google isn't really very smart, on its own. They've made some strides to get around this but, face it, the very premise is flawed.

The only thing at present that can MEANINGFULLY sort and offer relevant data IS A HUMAN BRAIN. This is what the 'blogosphere' does. It is a GIANT BRAIN. I'm sure you've heard the analogy before. Each blog is like a synapse, and data shoots back and forth, being refined and communicated until it reaches a 'stable' point. Unimportant or uninteresting data is fired and forgotten. Important, interesting data SIZZLES with activity as blog after blog comments on it and picks it up.

Each blog offers REVELEVANT, SORTED data. However, it offers RANDOM relevant, sorted data. If you're searching for a particular fact, such as how many moons Saturn has, it's unlikely that reading blogs will get you that answer. Blogs are good for...

Blogs are good for the only thing worth a damn. Fast, organized, important information. They are not limited by the invisible walls of the internet. They are not swayed much by advertising needs. They are an open source BRAIN.

It would be VERY interesting, I think, to create a program which eats an RSS feed from every blog it could find, then creates a blogger's blog. It would offer summaries (in the form of links to blog entries) of the 'important' things. The things that spark and sizzle.

But, realistically, the only way this could happen is by using THE SAME TECHNIQUE AS THE BLOGS. You get people to TALK ABOUT BLOGS.

If you're familiar with the idea, there are a few kinds of people. Two of those kinds are Mavens and Connectors. Right now, they're intermingling in Blog space, a kind of super-concentrated fast-as-hell version of what they do in real life. The connectors are the ones on which fall the onerous responsibility of sorting the wheat from the chaff and creating the 'output' of this bloggy brain.

Because, as far as I can tell, right now we're outputting CRAP.

THIS is where the Google game comes in. Somehow, using fairy powder, Google creates a game which offers an ORGANIZED playground for mavens and connectors.

If they care, I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS, I think. I certainly have a good idea of how to start. It's really a beautiful idea, but it would be a bit bandwidth-expensive.

I Have the Power! Blog-Man!

This post is a bit strange and kinda long, but it goes somewhere relatively important and interesting. It's not some random meandering.

Memetics is a passion of mine, which is, in fact, a little bit strange.

You see, you and me and that insane guy mumbling on the corner, we all have memes running around in our head. Patterns in our mind which are created through our interactions with the world. These patterns, in turn, affect our actions and, in many cases, cause us to take actions which synthesize the patterns in other people's heads.

Make no mistake, memes are more powerful than people give them credit for. They have defense mechanisms, reproduction, hibernation, optimization, and dozens more lifelike attributes which most people do not suspect.

But one thing memes are bad at is existing in a void. When a meme exists on its own, without 'proving' itself valuable (either socially, mentally, or physically), it decays and the mind seeks to replace it. For example, many young girls have a borderline obsession with a particular cute thing. Horses are common, as are cats. They 'outgrow' these obsessions. Why? Because their life moves away from such things and into other circles. Those memes no longer contain any potential benefits. Now it's time to worry about boys and armpit hair.

This is why my obsession with memetics is totally incomprehensible at first glance. It offers me no advantages, and I certainly do not see it every day (or, in fact, EVER), so it is not even a social pressure (like, say, politics). In theory, it should dwindle away and be replaced with a more healthy obsession, like AJAX. Most of my interests go that path - they swell, then diminish as further mastery (or even interest) proves to hold no advantages.

But memetics somehow got deeply rooted into my mind. Some broken circuit is sitting there flashing a 'ooh, neat!' signal every time memetics comes up.

And thus this post: The Power of Blogs.

You see, most of my interests have gone the way of the Pope - dictatorial at first, then getting old and dying, only to be replaced with a new one. The reason, as I mentioned, is that there is no social, physical, or mental value to them in my life.

Blogs fix that.

Blogs, ESPECIALLY feeds, wire you straight into a social group. A group which, if not ACTUALLY benefitting from their interests, at leasts FEELS like they are. And every day (or hour, or minute) you get NEW DATA. Feed the meme.

Now, I've had an idea for a long time: Artificial Gatekeeper Memes. People who want something, such as space travel or losing weight, tend to get interested, then watch the meme disintigrate without any environmental support. My greedy little interest was to make some kind of program, or action, or something which would SIMULATE an environment. If you spent, say, 20 minutes a day doing this activity, the meme would be reinforced and live on, influencing your viewpoint and your actions.

I thought of dozens of ways. But they all came back to the problem that it was nearly impossible to maintain interest. If you had a game, how long could you play it before the game got boring? If you had a slideshow, or music, how long before you got sick of seeing the same things over and over again?


This is important! In case you haven't figured it out yet, a good blog offers a stable supply of A PARTICULAR MEME, polluted with other memes that the author likes. This is a freaking GOLD MINE of memetic stability. You want to maintain your interest in commercial space flight? Sign up for a dozen space flight blogs. Each day, you'll get a few insightful comments that peak your interest, and you'll feel that there's both a social and mental advantage to the meme. You'll keep it. It will grow.

Sound like nonsense? TRY it. Think of something you're a little interested in. Like, say, space flight. Find some blogs on the subject. Good blogs, not shitty 'once a month' or 'I don't know what I'm talking about' blogs. Add them to your RSS feed. You need to get at least one comment a day.

This should work for ANYTHING. The only limit is the perceived quality of the blogs. If the blogs you sign up for don't peak your interest - if they're boring or stupid - you may take the exact opposite approach and lose the meme quicker due to uselessness. So only sign up for blogs that write well enough to keep your interest.

IE, don't sign up for this one. :D

But this is a NEW, FREE way to use an existing resource to CHANGE yourself. You want to be interested in international politics? Sign up, read at least one interesting thing a day, and you WILL be. You'll be smarter, too.

From now on, I'll start posting links to blogs I am reading. Practice what I preach.

Today I signed up for and Both economic blogs, the latter by TWO of the... THE most influential economists of this age.

I also signed up for Very cool.

Maybe I should submit this to it. :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sssso tired...

So, I know the MOST irritating noise that is legal to make at 3AM. Car horns.

I live on the SEVENTH FLOOR. My windows are closed. And yet when a yahoo starts honking, it WAKES ME UP. It actually DROWNS OUT my music. .|..

He continued honking for about half an hour. When he stopped, I was so curious I crawled painfully to the window to look out. Lo and behold, the police had come and were scolding him. He didn't honk any more.

What kind of ENDURANCE such a man must have, the MENTAL FORTITUDE and ZEN-LIKE CONCENTRATION to continually honk his horn in new and interesting patterns for half an hour?

I challenge you to come up with another, legal noise that is worse.

I know one. Darius knows it, too. But this was TERRIBLE.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

That Game

I'm sure that all of my screaming hordes are currently obsessing over the nebulous "game design" I've been trying to nail down. I have not forgotten you! How could I, when your imaginary cheering fills every waking moment?

No, I've been carefully THINKING. In addition to playing spades and spades of games. But thinking, too.

You see, I want to make the game both GOOD and EASY TO PROGRAM, relatively speaking. I know a LOT about game design theory. And I have lots and lots of good ideas. The problem is what to include and what to expunge.

One thing I know I want is to support varied kinds of play. This is obvious - most PWG do this. You want to fight baddies? Okay. You want to be a tailor? Okay. Or, hey, let's even break baddy-fighting up: you want to be a tank, a buffer, a summoner, what?

The problem was how to do this cheaply. Also, dealing with the fact that my players can have several characters operational AT THE SAME TIME, it needed to be done with a massive number of vectors of approach. So that any given 'party' (even if they aren't acting in concert) wouldn't be the 'best', save for in specific circumstances.

In a classic game, if you had, say, a team of four, then you were all set. You don't need anybody else's help, because you've got just about all the tactical bases covered. So I need a huge range of character types and specialties, each of which provides an interesting vector to a particular play type.

Unfortunately, the first thoughts are ones of staggering complexity. I can't do that kind of complexity. But EMERGENCE is your FRIEND, and so I've been cogitating as to how to make relatively simple character creation rules that provide for a WIDE range of characters with a wide range of powers.

Similarly, I've been trying to nail down the universe's 'algorithms' such that they are easy to program... and easy to point out as particular play elements.

It's not easy. Right now I've come up with seven different play styles I want to put in the game, and I'm thinking about approaches, and how to put this sort of stuff into a character generation system AND allow them to level up over time...

Funny thing. I can get it to work GREAT if I TOTALLY DISALLOW levelling up. There's a nice fast way to STAB YOURSELF IN THE FOOT.

So, going is slow. Especially seeing as how I'm limping through Half Life 2 at the same time. :P

But thanks for your concern. I promise I'll hammer it out sometime soon, or at least whine about why I couldn't.

Half Life Two

Settle down, settle down. It's nap time. I'll tell you a story.

This is a story of adventure, romance, and danger! It's a story about Half Life 2!

Half Life 2 uses an AMAZING new invention called 'STEAM', which stands for 'Security Through Evil Anal Monkeys'. You see, STEAM is a magical tool which, by magic, translates money into the developer's pockets. This is a good and kind WHITE magic, using the internet to solve all our problems. However, the internet is the darkest of black magic, and the spell was befouled.

They insisted the original spell survived unscathed, that you could play without this 'internet'. This turned out to be true. You could play off line. IF YOU WERE ON LINE. This was genius, much like punching someone's face with their own hand and asking why they are hitting themselves.

So, my actual legal purchase did not work. I tried illegal cracks. But even they required internet activation. The curse was complete: no trace of the shining, golden spell they intended to cast remained. All was darkness.

Then, I found a NEW magic spell. I do not know who cast it, or for what reasons, but a million blessings upon them, for now, by magic, I could PLAY WHILE OFF LINE.

And so I played. And it was good. Well, except for the twenty-second load times every minute and a half. And the arbitrary puzzles. It's like freaking Adventure.

But, hey, it's purty. And the setting seems interesting. Eventually, maybe I'll get to see something besides train yards and sewer pipes. Maybe some place with, I dunno, people. Or interesting things to look at. Some place where the primary manufacturing industry doesn't specialize in exploding barrels.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Unusual Sorting Algorithms

This is a fun little toy. Go take a look, if you haven't seen it yet.

The game is a simple example of one of my FAVORITE phenomina: emergent systems. The rules of the game are simple: Square tiles on a grid. Two adjacent edges on each tile are 'active', two are 'passive'. When an active edge from one tile touches an active edge on another tile, the touched tile rotates ninety degrees clockwise. The currently rotating tile is not affected. The game starts when you rotate one tile.

Now that I've played it for twenty minutes, I can reliably get scores of 300+. But what interests me is not the scoring, but the mechanism and result.

In the beginning, the grid is awash with ropey tendrils and runic shapes. After a good run, the grid will have an almost crystalline orientation, with large tracts of tiles all facing the same way. None of the tiles that were involved with the mixing are left connected to the ropey tendrils for obvious reasons - a connection forces them to move.

It's a SORTING algorithm, you see. It's an odd one, to be sure, and it doesn't seem to really produce anything meaningfull, but it takes a garbled mess and translates it into areas of orientation. It does this through a series of 'callbacks', I find. One tile affecting another tile, which affects another - that's what you start off thinking. But in truth the real power behind the throne is when one tile calls another... and the rotation brings the OTHER active edge into play, making the ORIGINAL tile move again. This and a heady dose of double-activation means that the sorting routine continues long after you might think it would stop - getting over 1000 rotations is relatively easy.

Watching the process is like watching a game of life: 'clusters' of tiles 'live' by rotating. In rotating, they rotate their neighbors who, more often than not, end up rotating them again, often after several generations. The vast points that are made happen when a 'living' field is organised, then touches an unliving section, which 'bounces' the life back into the organised field, where it orients the field universally in a different direction.

The 'bounceback' feature - the fact that the edges have to be adjacent - seems to kill any chance of an eternal loop. Instead, what we end up with is a neatly sorted playing field. I'm going to look into it some more, as an interesting emergent rule set. I think I'll start collecting them.

I'm really curious about permutations of this rule. What if you had THREE active edges? What if every other tile rotated in the opposite direction? What if the tiles were triangular? What if and active edge has to touch an UNACTIVE edge to make the tile spin, rather than an active one?

Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe I'll program it.

Addendum: I notice that they seem to orient themselves in regard to the nearest global corner, which makes sense - they orient such that there is no possibility of a bounceback. Which makes sense, they "fall to the lowest energy state", as it were.

Multiple sortings brings them closer and closer to this state.

Addendum Addendum: It also makes it VERY easy to spot 'walls' where the cogitation does not reach. In a game, a map could be created this way. :D

Are they Liberal, or Stupid?

I was wandering Seattle yesterday - Seattle, known for being one of the most bleeding-heart liberal cities IN THE WORLD. I stumbled across a nice WWII memorial. People's names inscribed on dark stone, occasional quotes from people who... well, didn't fight in the war. Nice.

Surrounding these stones was a six-inch-wide moat of running water. Underneath the inch or so of water were tiles, each clearly labeled 'RESENT'.

Whoa! Resent? Them's AWFULLY strong sentiments.

Further examination, however, showed that some of the stones said 'ESENT' or simply 'SENT'. VERY close examination revealed that, by some quirk of running water, letters had been filled in with a dark gunk, starting with the first letter, rendering them pretty much invisible. Originally, the word had been 'PRESENT'.

Now, I have no idea what 'PRESENT' is supposed to represent, but I suppose it's less offensive than 'RESENT'. Still, I think I gained a momentary respect for Seattle - I may think they're IDIOTS, but with a divisive war memorial, at least they're being honest and forthright. Now, instead of being honest, forthright idiots, they're just idiots. How unfortunate.

(As an aside, I'm not a republican, and I'm not a democrat. Unfortunately, both sides are painfully stupid.)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Action! Woo-ha!

I am a big geek, and I know it. One thing we big geeks like is COOL ACTION SEQUENCES. These are a totally misunderstood phenomina by the general masses. In fact, these are often misunderstood by directors, cartoonists, storyboarders, etc.

An action sequence isn't just how cool it looks. Sure, aesthetics are important. But the real importance is (ah, me, another theory) "Threat". It's obvious, when you think about it. An action sequence is as cool as the amount of danger and force involved. Think about all the cool sequences you've seen. Cars spinning wildly, partially out of control, slamming into other cars, exploding. Jedi hurling things around the room, cutting things in pieces. Wading hip-deep in Agents, knocking them away, crushing them down, hurling them aside. Performing incredibly fast and skilled martial arts, always one step ahead of the other men with weapons.

If there's no feeling of threat, there's no feeling AT ALL. Threat is the ONLY thing that matters in a fight - threats and dealing with them. There are a nearly infinite number of ways to put threat into a fight or action sequence, but the IMPORTANT thing to remember is that THE AUDIENCE HAS TO KNOW IT'S THREATENING. (And, by the way, the audience will automatically empathize with the threatened.)

When you're dealing with humans, cars, or other common stuff, that's usually pretty easy. The audience has a baseline. They know roughly what a human or a car can take and is capable of, so if someone suddenly whips out a crowbar or a gun, there is a DEFINITE threat. A way to inject this into EVERY fight is to make EVERYTHING have a MASS, even lasers. Everything SLAMS around, flexes, rebounds, dents, blasts, has a hard time stopping. The audience can feel the threat inherent in a heavy, fast-moving object.

The problem is when you reach the bizarre stuff. Star Wars and Star Trek are prime, obvious examples of these kinds of fights. The audience has NO IDEA how much or how little threat a given thing is. Is a blaster threatening? A phaser? How durable is a cruiser?

The way they resolve this is by setting up a THREAT BASELINE. Which they do by showing the full effect of a threat. They show the photon torpedo HORRIBLY MAIMING a ship (often the main ship, before its shields go up). Suddenly, we know how much of a threat a photon torpedo is. They show a blaster being used against someone, and that someone dying. Suddenly, a blaster is a threat. A light saber cuts off someone's hand. Suddenly, the lightning-fast fighting is a HUGE threat, because we know how much damage those things can do.

You have to ESTABLISH THREAT in your action sequences. If your source of threat is a bit odd, like laser weapons or giant squid, you have to establish them as a clear danger before you can start using them in an action sequence.

The other misunderstood thing about action sequences is that they aren't just pyrokinetic displays to tweak my testosterone. An action sequence, whether a fight or a chase or a series of banking transactions, is nothing more or less than a chance to explore and revel in a character (even if that character is a giant starship). A good action sequence isn't just wham-blam-thank-you-maam!

Take a look at classic action scenes. Most of them involve reversals, tight spots, and persevering when injured. These things serve to both explore a character - by showing us how he acts under pressure - and revel in a character - by showing us what he is capable of. They're the same basic character-driven font of joy, and NO action sequence should be without them.

I would think this to be obvious. I don't know why so many people SCREW IT UP.

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Ah, now I'll post a more geeky thing than yesterday. How can I post something MORE geeky than an essay on designing games? By posting a review of a Star Wars cartoon. Wheee.

Yesterday, I got my hands on a movie cartoon thing called "Star Wars: Clone Wars", which is evidently a legal, franchise-endorsed set of short stories based during the Clone Wars. It is done by the Samurai Jack people. I'm not sure that Jedi Jack was a good choice for representing the Star Wars universe, but since I can't imagine any other affordable representation being any better, I won't hold it against them.

It was an hour's worth of EXTREMELY short stories, on the order of three minutes each, for most of them.

What did I think? I wasn't impressed.

I should say, I wasn't DEPRESSED, either. It was... okay. Some really good moments, a lot of boring ones. If I was thirteen, it probably would have rocked. It was definitely worth seeing as a STUDY of storytelling.

These guys decided that FIGHTING was the way to go. Having listened to the commentary, it sounds like they decided that the cool fights were the 'core' of Star Wars. Furthermore, since they were doing a WAR STORIES collection, it was an obvious choice.

And I'll admit, there were a few cool combat scenes. But combat is NOT what makes Star Wars cool. What makes Star Wars "Star Wars" is reveling in the existence of a mysterious and grand new universe. You know what the cool parts were in these cartoons?

The Jedi master and newborn Jedi Knight straining to hold up falling rocks, suspending debris and crystals in mid-air around them (VERY nice shot). That was freaking cool. The Storm troopers communicating by hand-signals, infiltrating an enemy base. That was awesome. The sight of a fleet of heavy cruisers LANDING in an OCEAN. That was cool, especially when one got blasted apart later.

There were a lot of cool things but, you know what? The fights were only a part of it. In fact, many of the fights were BAD, because despite many years of Samurai Jack, they evidently still haven't discovered some of the weaknesses of cartoon fighting - so the fights often ended up painfully cartoony. Other fights were just boring, because we didn't care about what was going on. If they had more set-up, or more cool things that weren't fights, it would have been far better. Because it's not the fight that's cool. It's what the fight is THREATENING that is cool. Maybe I'll talk about that later.

Well done: The voice acting was excellent, save for Anakin, who couldn't voice-act his way into an infomercial. C3-PO was voiced by the ORIGINAL C3-PO, which explains why he sounds a little bit off, but still very good. Although the voice acting was good, I wouldn't say the dialogue was good. :P

Poorly done: Lances. I don't know why they even made it to storyboard, let alone actual final product, but the jousting was just a poor idea, okay?

Weirdly done: The seismic tank, consisting of a huge piston which rams the desert hard enough to create a shockwave of sand. An INCREDIBLY lame idea, but spawning some of the coolest fight scenes in the whole series, so it paid off.

Final rating: Better than the new movies, but worse than a solid episode of Samurai Jack.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Theory!

Because I know you've all been waiting for it, this explains the whys and hows behind making a game about vector analysis. IE almost any twitch game ever released. Please note: you CAN CERTAINLY mate these kinds of games with puzzle games, strategic games, stories - but those are a different kind of play, not covered in this session.

The mind of your player is doing ONE THING when he plays your game (aside from audiovisual interpretation and controller manipulation): it is predicting WHERE and WHEN things will be. That's the POINT of these kinds of games.

Generally (99.999998% of the time) these games have some kind of Avatar. Some single object which embodies the player's interests. Whether that's a space ship, a race car, a marble, a frog, or whatnot, the purpose of these avatars is to give the player a STARTING point for vector analysis: a FOCAL POINT. He knows, automatically, that the vectors that concern him are the ones radiating towards the avatar.

Some games do NOT do this. For example, DDR and Chu Chu Rocket. One has no avatar, the other has an invulnerable avatar. However, neither of these games lies within the domain of this theory, so they should definitely be taken with a grain of salt.

The universe revolves around the avatar. The vast majority of the player's actions radiate from the avatar. Moving the avatar, for example. Or shooting your gun. Everything the player will EVER THING ABOUT, kinetically speaking, will always revolve around WHERE the avatar is and WHAT it can do/is doing.

The SIMPLEST form of play is simple AVATAR MOVEMENT. This sort of game revolves around moving the avatar (sometimes, even merely telling the avatar when to jump). There are targets. Some targets you want to hit, some you want to miss, some you REALLY want to hit, etc. There are CONTROLLED VECTORS, usually involving the avatar being moved by the player. Then there are often (but not always) UNCONTROLLED VECTORS, which is essentially the target areas moving relative to you and each other in a way the player has to deal with.

You can try to make an interesting game out of just this simple kind of analysis, and numerous car racing games prove that it isn't as boring as it might sound. The key? DELAY and WASHY ACCELERATION. In a car racing game, your car attempts to adjust to various play zone irregularities, such as traffic or a curve. The reason it is fun is because the vectors you can pull out of your ass to respond are NOT simple 'twitch and move' vectors! They only mildly change your vector, usually with a wish-washy feeling and often only after a fairly significant delay. This makes the computations quite a lot harder and, hence, more interesting.

However, there is a limit to how many complex vectors the mind can handle. Putting washy steering into a shmup often totally overloads a player and leaves them screaming, in need of a new controller. Some of the hardest shmups I've played - and I've played a lot of shmups - have just a small 'begin turn' and 'end turn' animation which add a burr to your vectors so you have to start and end them just a tiny bit earlier than you thought. A very powerful tool, and we'll come back to it.

Most games of this type contain shooting. Shooting is a VERY POWERFUL TOOL. Insanely powerful. First, shooting makes the player perform THREE VECTOR CALCULATIONS AT ONCE: Where the bullet will be, where the target will be, and where the ship has to be in order to make the shot. These calculations are usually made very positive, in that if you screw up, you really don't suffer much. A few games are royal bastards and make it so that if you let a bullet through to something that is NOT your avatar - such as the bottom of the screen - you suffer. That's your decision, but I would suggest making it so that the only thing that the player cares about is the avatar.

Second, they make some (or all) of the DANGER zones into TARGETS, meaning that instead of simply AVOIDING the danger zones, your duty is to SHOOT them. They serve multiple purposes. This is a rather important topic, but for now it should be vaguely obvious that anything in your game which only serves one purpose probably isn't doing enough.

However, more than just vector calculations, bullets offer you a FEEDBACK LOOP. Kill a bad guy, the world is a safer place. One more person who's NOT SHOOTING AT YOU and NOT DESCENDING TOWARDS YOU. This feedback loop makes the game interesting on a strategic level, rather than on a strictly vectored level. Threat assessment is, however, a different topic... and usually players who are busy doing vector calculous are pretty bad threat assessors. Just keep that in mind.

You'll notice that very few enemies in these games shoot, and most that DO shoot DON'T move much, and shoot in regular patterns. Why is that? Because you're thinking of these enemies as DANGER ZONES - unsafe locations to be avoided or destroyed. When it suddenly BREAKS into SEVERAl danger zones, you're flummoxxed. That really wasn't in the charts. It was supposed to move like so.

Asteroids used this cheerfully by making the asteroids break WHEN YOU SHOT THEM, making each shot a joyful experience in DOUBLING YOUR DANGER SPOTS. This kind of clever use of danger zones is perfect. It reacts directly to player input to do something strange yet predictable. I could write a book soley on that kind of thing - you can make a perfectly good game without clever target manipulation... but that sort of manipulation helps.

Okay, so that's the idea, right? How can you apply this crap? I'll tell you... now.

Your game, if it is in this genre, is a mess of safe zones, danger zones, and target zones, often serving more than one purpose. The primary joy of these games is VECTOR CALCULATION - moving to interact with these zones, jockying for firing position, etc.

So what you have to do is introduce the right AMOUNT and TYPE of vectors. Your primary decision is obviously "how hard do I want this game to be?" After deciding that, it's a matter of making a few basic gameplay choices.

Every vector takes a certain amount of player calculation. For these purposes, SLOW vectors take LESS calculation, whereas FAST vectors take MORE calculation (or, more accurately, they reduce relative vision, requiring FASTER calculation). STEADY vectors, such as most bullets, take less calculation, but ACCELERATING vectors, such as falling apples or turning starships, take MORE calculation (and should probably have a predictable method of acceleration).

The avatar vectors are also critically important, because these vectors are essentially MULTIPLIERS, affecting the computative 'cost' of the other vectors. Every microsecond of DELAY on the player vectors makes ALL the other vectors take more calculation. The more WASHY the controls, the more difficult all the calculations - for example, if you're using turning controls rather than left/right buttons, or if you continue moving in a direction you're no longer pressing. Lastly, the SIZE of the avatar matters - smaller the avatar, easier the game.

Now, the most important part is how slow or fast the avatar vectors make the avatar move, but this is tricky. First, the speed is RELATIVE to the speed AND SIZE of the other targets. If you move faster than they do, dodging will be easier. If you move slower, dodging will be hard see Relative Vision for more info). Having said that, players can only react and adjust so fast, and if it is physically too fast, the players will have a hard time controlling the ship. In addition, speed MAY rather radically upset the effect of the other contributers, such as delay and washiness.

Any attack vectors you put in are ALSO critically important because they make the AVATAR VECTORS harder (hence making ALL vectors harder). After all, MANEUVERING into position to make a shot is usually the critical part of taking a shot. The SLOWER the shot, the more difficult it is to line up a decent one. The faster, the easier. A shot which TRACKS is obvious MUCH easier. A shot which ACCELERATES is more difficult, because the vector is harder to compute. A shot which TURNS is the same way, but probably even WORSE due to the way most enemies tend to move down towards the avatar. Shots with a SMALL area of effect are harder to use than ones with a LARGE area of effect. Shots with a LONG reload time are a bitch.

As you can see, these principles can, if properly used, allow you to balance your game to any difficulty level. Also - joys of joys - you can start to balance your weapon loadouts and/or ship specs. Obviously, they'll need to be tweaked over play testing, but you know what to look for.

For example, it has long been the fashion to have a big, tough spaceship and a small, fast spaceship. But that big, tough spaceship has one positive attribute (tough) and one NEGATIVE attribute (big). Big isn't good. It's BAD. Whereas the smaller spacecraft is smaller and more nimble - two attributes that make the game EASIER. This means that, in order to balance these, the bigger ship is going to need to be QUITE A BIT tougher, and expert players will probably STILL choose the fast ship, because 'fast' is a vector skill, whereas 'tough' isn't.

Weapon loadouts often contain a LASER and a MACHINE GUN. Compare and contrast: the laser moves across the screen INSTANTLY. The machine gun has is fast, but not instant. In this area, the machine gun is at a disadvantage. In addition, the laser is also usually WIDER, making it easier to use and often more effective. Furthermore, the laser often PENETRATES TARGETS and continues on, making it EVEN MORE EFFECTIVE. If you wanted your laser and your machine gun to have equal power, you would have to REALLY boost the machine gun relative to the laser. Maybe the laser's reload takes all night, whereas the machine gun has a nice, peppy reload. That would probably do it. Maybe the machine gun does more damage, although I would REALLY hesitate to do that, since these sorts of games usually stay away from damage gradients. Maybe there's a limited number of laser shots. Maybe half the enemies are immune to lasers. Anything to decrease its effectiveness.

From here you can go on to make a full compliment of balancable weapons. You have a curving weapon? Make it a fast reload, or make it fire several curving shots. A wave gun? Make it slow-travelling. A missile? Make it accelerate.

Remember, every player is going to be better at a particular facet of calculation. Some players will excel at controlling washy systems. Others will excel at making THOUSANDS of simple vector calculations. Others may be ASTOUNDING at predicting very complex vectors. This is what will lead a player to choose a given game, and a given play style within that game.

Now, there are a few last things that need to be said. First: it is a common practice to combine these sorts of games with other games, such as a strategic 'choose your weapon' game or a prolonged 'tweak your car' game. That's a fine approach, but the core of the game will ALWAYS be vector analysis, and that should be considered first.

Second: the PATTERN of targets (good, bad, and ugly) is important. The more CLEARLY PATTERNED your vectors are, the easier they are to deal with. For example, fifteen ships moving in the exact same oscillating pattern are not going to be as difficult as fifteen ships moving in DIFFERENT oscillating patterns. Similarly, waves and streaks of bullets are easier to deal with than random splatters of bullets.

Third: RELATIVE VISION is of CRITICAL IMPORTANCE. Two ships are not twice as hard as one ship. Depending on how close they are to hurting you, how fast they are moving, how large your board is, two ships might not be any more dangerous than one ship... or it might be fifty times as dangerous. You can read up on that on my site.

Right, then!

Well, this room has a good echo, so I suppose that will do for conversation. ;)

Post broken in two for purposes of defining the scope of the theory and the theory itself.

This theory (which I have not yet explicitly tested, but plan to when I get, oh, eight weeks of free time) involves ONLY kinematic games - games where motion on the screen is the primary game mechanic. Things like shmups, or frogger, or Llamasoft games. Games such as DDR and Frequency may fall into this frequency - but they have such a nonvisual component, so I'm not yet decided on how that will affect things.

The 'practical theory' is still in early form, but I suspect that won't matter, since I'm not exactly performing in front of a full house. It doesn't much care about the grand global scale of things, it is specifically about IMPLEMENTATION. Specifically, WHICH things contribute to this kind of fun and HOW.

Here is a detailed dissection of the type of play I'm talking about:

You've heard a lot of ideas on gameplay and fun. My favorite, which has been independently discovered by at least two people, is that gameplay is a pattern, and your mind's interest in it is in trying to comprehend and 'master' the pattern. This may or may not be true, but either way, it isn't exactly HELPFUL when it comes to consider "how is my game PLAYED".

What IS helpful is realizing what PARTS of the brain you're using for this kind of a game. The part of the brain getting the most workout is the PHYSICAL PREDICTION part - the part that figures out where things are going, what vector to take to intercept them, and so on. Knowing this gives us several examples of 'the way things are':

Most such games have primarily 'one hit, one kill' feelings. Situations which require multiple hits are relatively rare, usually less than 10% of a given set of enemies. This is because there's nothing interesting about REPEATEDLY performing the SAME vector analysis... ah, but if anyone is reading this, they're probably thinking 'bosses take lots of hits!'

These games have a fluctuating set of patterns, usually containing several mobile safe or danger zones plus several mobile target zones. A boss isn't the same calculation over and over: the safe zones are continuously changing, trying to kill you and simultaneously ruin your shot. You're not shooting the boss: you're maneuvering into a position where you can shoot the boss. And maneuvering is definitely vector analysis.

Now, not all of this kind of game have danger points, but they all have targets. Some of these games are nothing but a progression of targets. That's fine, if you KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT FUN. After all, dangerous zones are merely targets in reverse.

Okay, that's the basics of HOW these games work. They consist entirely of vector analysis challenges. Bullets, enemies, moving, attacking. Some games contain an extremely rarified set of these, such as Frequency. Some games contain the full horror, such as any shmup ever released.

But they are ALL about vector analysis. "How long will it take for the arrow to reach the top of the screen" is the same analysis as "how can I dodge that bullet".

So, in my next post I'll talk about the actual theory, which theoretically explains the BEST way to create these vector analysi. Analysises. How to put your game together so it doesn't suck.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Zone of Play

One thing I've been gnawing on for a few years now is how to dissect play - the subtle things that make a game fun or not fun. I've come up with a lot of different theories - and interacting theories, and all sorts of interesting blue-sky stuff that nobody cares about.

The reason I'm bringing it up is because of the Orisinal games that are being pimped through the various blogs I occasionally scan. I've gone and played them, just for kicks - took me about an hour to play all of them. Got first place on the balloon game, didn't bother to save it - only sheer willpower got me through.

Some of these games are fun. Some of those games are PAINFULLY DULL. And, the funny thing is, people seem to be pretty much agreed with me as to which ones are fun and which ones aren't. That indicates - VERY CLEARLY - that there is a basis for FUN.

Now, I know that FUN is a taboo word these days, so perhaps I should say something else, something more specific, like 'kinaestethic pattern enjoyment' or some crap. But the point is, when it comes to click-and-flick games, there are definite tendencies for certain things to be fun and certain things to NOT be fun - and these are not nearly as subjective as people like to think.

For example: did ANYONE enjoy the spider-mashing Orisinal game? I didn't. I don't see why anyone would. It's painful.

Each of his games uses one of about three basics style of play mechanics, varying only in the specifics of the implementation. So why are some fun and some incredibly, painfully dull?

Hee hee.

In the absurd long shot that someone might comment, I'll post MY theories on the matter some other day - tomorrow or Friday, perhaps.

Green and Purple!

TerraNova had an article on 'designeritis' - the theory that how you experience something changes the more you know about how that something was designed. My problem isn't with designeritis, it's with wearing different hats. Not even different hats: different colors of the same hat.

I've been drawing cartoons daily for several months now, as an excersize both to hone my artistic skills and my comedic skills. Also, I've been writing scripts - none humorous, yet - for about a year pretty seriously. I haven't written anything but scripts and comics and these kinds of essays.

I read quite a lot, back in the old days, but recently it's all been comic books and science books. I very recently started reading STORIES again. And you know what I'd found?

I can't read them!

I kept thinking things like "hmm, that's never going to fly with the director" and "no, no, he can't show that with images, so it's going to have to be re-done". I've gotten so stuck in a 'comic/movie' mindset that phrases like "He'd been addicted since high school" strike me as absolutely horrible writing, because it can't be shown on a movie screen as stated.

It's made it almost impossible to read ANY kind of story. I wonder if anyone else has this kind of problem - you specialize so much in a particular sub-field that all the other sub-fields are painful?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Gameplay and YOU!

One of the most important decisions you can make about a game is your target audience. This defines tons of things - how much sexy stuff you put in, what kind of violence you put in, whether the music is rap or accordian polka.

It would seem to me to be important to take this into consideration when actually designing your game play.

Sure, there's a little of this, but it's usually of the type like "RTS is popular, do more RTS!"

What I'm talking about isn't genre. It's PLAY DYNAMIC. You can say "RTS" or "FPS", but there's many, many kinds of play dynamics you can stuff into those shells. Just compare Unreal Tournament to System Shock.

And I think it's pretty clear that certain people prefer certain kinds of games.

Now, demographic is usually split by age, gender, and often by socioeconomic status - "We're aiming at inner city males, age 14-20". Play may or may not be split the same way, but it can certainly be studied in the same way.

It's my contention that a player's style preference is based on their daily life. I know that my play preference changes DRAMATICALLY when I get a full-time job. I go from playing RPGs to playing easy action games.

I think this could be expanded on with a pretty significant study. Perhaps people in cubical jobs tend to prefer lots of easy challenges rather than one long challenge, or perhaps they just don't care to spend the time on it because they don't have much time to spend. Perhaps people in college tend towards the severe edges: long, complex games or fast, competitive party games.

If this sort of thing is the case, and it can be nailed down, then you can specifically tailor your game to SPECIALIZE in a SPECIFIC KIND OF PLAY. For example, using the above generalisms, an FPS like Halo would be preferred by cubical monkeys (simple, straightforward, not incredibly challenging) whereas one like System Shock (extremely complex and time consuming) or Unreal (fast, challenging) would be more popular among college students.

Tailoring your game to the market would insure a product that your audience will feel more 'association' with.

Of course, I'm a big geek, so I've taken it a step further. Persistant world games (MMORPGs) are big and getting bigger. They usually feature a dozen different 'classes' you can play, each of which has a distinct play style.

By matching up the play style to the amount of free time (and what they usually spend their free time on), you can draw SPECIFIC age and preference groups into playing SPECIFIC sub-games in your MMORPG. Want to keep the 1337 freaks from your precious socializers? Make one of the classes fast and competitive, another complex and absurdly time consuming, and make those two classes usefully pair with each other. You'll have your high schoolers and your bored college students pooled into one 'part' of the game, simply because that's the part they'll appreciate more - allowing the people who want to do economics or role play or whatever to be ISOLATED from the people that irritate them.

You can easily take this further. You can include the varied content into each specific class. Make the two aforementioned 1337 classes the comedically hot and/or dangerous classes in appearance. Make their quests straight power trips. Associate them with things that category of person tends to associate with - beer, for example.

Similarly, you can assign the "cubical monkey" and "bored teenage girl" associated classes their own specific content - whatever you choose those things to be. Maybe the "bored teenage girl" class is associated with cute guys, colorful graphics, and other horribly stereotypical things. So long as you don't overdo it.

This would essentially GUIDE people with SPECIFIC PREFERENCES to their FAVORITE play zone. No fussing, no fiddling, no dropping because it's freaking boring or too easy. So long as you use some form of creative content, to keep those classes from 'maxxing out' and getting bored.

I don't know if it would work, and it'd need to be researched before we could even be sure what play styles appeal to whom... but I really like the idea. Especially the pairing up play styles that contain player types that will likely get along.

Monday, April 11, 2005


I am officially having a REALLY SHITTY DAY.

Building Bloqs

This one's a bit odd. This is the sort of thing you think of if you're me. It's about sexual equality. By which I mean gender equality, except that 'gender' isn't what humans have - we have sex.

In actuality, this post is about Desperate Housewives.

I've never seen the show. However, the female stars are: Teri Hatcher (40), Felicity Huffman (42), Marcia Cross (42), Eva Longoria (30), and Nicolette Sheridan (41).

Many people - especially people concerned with "women's rights" - seem to dislike the show. I have no idea what the content of the show is, and I'd probably hate it just because I can't stand sitcoms. But these people don't hate sitcoms - they hate the fact that it "makes sex objects out of women". Women who, by screenshots, look absolutely fabulous.

At the age of 40.

In my opinion, I can't think of a BETTER thing for women's rights. Think about it. Using ZERO laws, ZERO demonstrations, and MAKING MONEY, this show is taking a very important first step towards making it OKAY for women TO BE OLD.

Sure, the women look incredible - but you've got to expect that on TV. The point is still that they are not spring chickens, and there are plenty of men - both young and old, as far as I can tell by blogs and commentary - drooling over them.

Maybe this is more a sign we can, using advanced technology, slow down or even turn back the clock. Maybe it's a first step towards accepting how people look as they grow older. Either way, if it is a success and clones hit the market, there could easily be a whole paradigm shift away from the "perky eighteen year old" obsession western culture seems to have mastered. That would, in my opinion, serve two very noble purposes:

1) It would mean that men wouldn't be constantly obsessed over stupid young girls, giving women a good chance to stand on equal ground as almost-thirties and almost-fourties and almost-fifty year olds.

2) It would mean that there would be more perky eighteen year olds for me.

Friday, April 08, 2005

More Learning

Great. Now I've started THINKING about it, and feeling like I have to put more down about it. Go ahead and skip this one, it's just talking about the crossover between memes and games.

A meme, whether it is Darth Vader in a Tutu (I love that example) or Intelligent Creation exists solely in the minds of humans. Memes spread by anchoring themselves in the mind of a human who wasn't, until then, infected.

Saying we don't know how they do this is not quite correct. Given than virtually every theory has been postulated, I guess one of them is probably correct. One thing we do know, however, is that a meme tends to be MORE successful if it offers advantages.

Many memes offer only social advantages. For example, geeking out over Star Wars arguably has no 'real' value, but it establishes you as part of a fairly powerful phenominon.

Many memes, however, are accepted because of their ability to 'explain' how the universe 'works' - they give you the straightforward advantage of knowing what is going to happen in a given situation. Unfortunately, the human mind is not known for its rigorous testing. But that said, it does tend to weight memes on how well they perform. Of course, many of these explanation memes are really social memes... but the idea is the same: they offer an advantage.

When a meme is presented to you, you usually judge its usefulness - predict its performance. For example, when a teacher teaches you economics, you tend to judge the underlying principles by (A) if you think they work and (B) if you think they'll help you. Such a dry meme rarely if ever is considered for its SOCIAL value.

Now, lets put this in a game. A game can be made to do ANYTHING. I can simulate that things get more valuable with less scarcity. Obviously, this meme wouldn't make it past the various gatekeeper memes - it's too outrageously stupid. Until you start to think about it. No, I think I COULD make a game that does that 'realistically'. But anyhow...

How about a game that uses logical purchasing? It's unlikely that anyone who hasn't studied economics will be able to tell that logical purchasing is downright wrong. We're playing this game... and the meme is proving EXTREMELY useful. I mean, it runs the game. Furthermore, if it's a GOOD game, there's a SOCIAL element to its value - although I would be hard-pressed to make this particular example socially useful.

I've seen people swayed by 'data'. The soft and flat-out WRONG data of any science influenced by politics, for example. Like the idea that second-hand smoke mysteriously DOESN'T cause harm to you. Studies don't show it does, so it doesn't! Like recycling paper being GOOD for the environment, because bleaches, acids, and coagulents are far better for the environment than cutting down trees you've grown specifically for the purpose. There are a million examples. Dihydrogen Monoxide is found in cancers and in acid rain. We need to ban it.

In games, you get that data in CRACK form. It's injected directly under your skin. GAMES SPREAD MEMES.

Don't believe me? Just look at the memes they spread through people who AREN'T EVEN PLAYING THEM. Sure, these are over-reacting gatekeeper memes trying to shut games down, but they're reacting to the power games have.

Look how much power to move memes MOVIES have. Games can do everything movies can, plus provide the interactivity which lets you fully grok how the meme 'works'.

Games have all this power to spread memes, but they are largely ignored because the memes they are spreading aren't usually snide quotes. They're procedures. Ways of life. And, yes, I know they're iconic, and I'm not suggesting that there is any kind of direct transfer. But games have been teaching us IMpatience and direct action since I've been a kid. Those are, perhaps, my two most notable attributes, and I share them with ALMOST EVERY GAMER, whether they are ten or forty.

Now imagine the power games will have when they are given to students by The Government and The Scientists, and told that these games are True.


Everyone who is serious about games gets into thinking about using games for learning at some point. For me, I think games are an excellent way to teach (although, of course, not as cost-efficient as people seem to think).

In fact, I think games are TOO good at teaching.

I mumbled at Darius earlier today about it, but I realized that my reasoning was a little... off-center from the topic. I'm not against creating educational games.

I'm against TEACHERS creating educational games.

Considering I've respected a grand total of maybe ten teachers I've EVER MET. Out of literally hundreds, including many college professors. And even those teachers I respect, I don't trust to use memetics responsibly.

And, being obsessed with memetics even when it doesn't seem like it, I don't want to give teachers any effective tools for spreading their idiot memes through my precious, unspoiled future population. They do 'good' enough as it is. :)

So, that's what I was thinking, Darius. Trying to avoid giving the idiot memes a better launching pad. Not that I can stop them.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Economics for Blonds

I've been trying to design the economy for a specific theoretical not-so-massively multiplayer game - something to the tune of <5k players. It's actually quite difficult. If you don't want to read my thoughts, please skip to the last paragraph.

Difficult, yes. Not the faucets and drains - I won't claim those are easy, but they are, at least, straightforward and easy to put preliminaries in place. Adjustment during testing is critical for those, but they are well understood by me.

No, my difficulty is with the marketplace.

Games have a lot of different kinds of ways to handle this. It's not just what role NPCs play, or whether a player has to be on-line to hawk his goods. It goes deeper: what is the actual structure of the market?

Most games use geographical market location(s), such as auction houses or merchant districts. Some use a kind of world-spanning market communications array, allowing people from anywhere to market anything.

The first option is good in that locations are great. If you're selling something in a location, the thing is right there, the thing can be inspected, and, moreover, it causes interplayer interactions - and being social is good.

The second option, however, offers an ease and 'on-line shopping' type of slickness. Even the newest of newbies can sign on, find something to buy, and buy it. Sure, it might have to be shipped from location to location, but basically, it's point and buy. This also allows all people equal access to the market. You put it up, it gets put up with everyone else's stuff. Also, it is really easy to continue to sell stuff while you're off line. The downsides are, of course, the complexity of shipping and the lack of a social area. In addition, if the market takes off, you can end up swamping it and requiring all sorts of refinements and filters to get anything useful out of it.

My theoretical game is small user base, which suggests that a (mostly) universal market might be the way to go. But I'm looking for more info. I'm very happy for advice and/or links on the matter. Remember: being obsessed with emergent games, this theoretical game contains highly diverse (often unique) player content.

The Fine Wine of Game Design

I love game design. And so do these guys. They look new. Consider me a fan, even if not 100% in agreement at all times.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Yesterday, I bought The Incredibles DVD. May I offer heartfelt applause to Pixar? Yes, I may. Okay, that's enough applause.

But the distribution companies need to get over this strange obsession they have with packaging. I'm not sure if it turns them on or what, but I bought The Incredibles and brought it home.

At which point I proceeded to remove the nice box/cover thing. Damn, it was on there tight.

At which point I spent a minute and a half removing the outer plastic shrink-wrap.

At which point I spent three and a half minutes removing the MULTIPLE side-closing pieces of 'security' tape.

At which point I put my DVD in and got to watch an FBI warning telling me I shouldn't pirate movies!

It's not actually the WORST I've ever seen it. Once I bought a box set, and the box and EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL DVD was carefully shrink-wrapped and security-tape sealed.

I'm a little curious as to the reasons for this. It kind of boggles my mind. How the hell could I have gotten the DVD out of the case through a box, cellophane, and tape, all without them noticing? Are they MORE likely to notice if I take an extra two minutes on top of the first two minutes? I would think they would STILL not be paying any attention.

And if the main problem is shoplifting - ha ha - then why the hell do they have these long-winded mandatory (and often in French, too, because French people make up 48% of the world population) "don't copy this DVD or we'll find out in our magic 8-ball and put you in our subterrainian mole-man prison!"?

Given that copied movies usually leave off the FBI warning anyway... and copying a DVD is a hell of a lot easier than STEALING one...

Well, I'm flummoxed.

But, damn, Pixar. You did good.

Re: Player Vision in Respect to Multiple Players

Darius sort-of asked me if I'd given any thought as to player vision and how it affects multi-player games. The answer is: of course I have. But not in a long-term way - all my MP thinking has revolved around level design and how to prevent players from acheiving TOO MUCH of an advantage via player vision. IE how to stop excessive sniping.

What he is thinking of is how to get multiple players to each feel like 'the hero' - which is an extremely valid way of looking at player vision. Player vision isn't just tactical combat stuff - it also involves other game loops, such as social, economic, and plotty game loops.

One of the problems in 'extended-grain' player vision like this is that players can and will share information (or even straight-up screenshots) outside of game. If no communication is possible outside the game, you could easily make a MMORPG in which the Dungeons of Throggart are interesting to every player who goes through. However, the first person that goes through immediately goes and shares all of the puzzles and plot points on-line. That's why so many MMORPGs focus entirely on combat - combat isn't really made 'duller' by knowing the exactly what is coming.

So, you can't expect a static plot to be anything other than open to all player vision simultaneously. But you CAN do more than just sit around whining. How? SOCIAL/ECONOMIC PLAYER VISION, or RELATIVE EXPOSURE.

By controlling who a given player can talk to and what in-game information he can gather, you significantly change the dynamic of the game. I'm not talking about "oh, he's on the other continent, so you can't IM him." I'm talking about "variable obscurity", exposing them only as much as you want to, depending on their choices and power level.

What you do is give the players an environment where you have to know a location exists before you can visit it. Then you allow players to 'stumble across' locations - both new and in use - at random. They can sell these locations to others, or hide there and build an army, or whatever. Essentially, you're giving your players the ability to change the world AND REMAIN HIDDEN (if they want). Imagine a space game where the 'hyperspace coordinates' of any given star are impossible to guess and have to be punched in exactly.

This restricted outside access allows a player to be a much or as little involved with the world as a whole as he wants. You could make it so that multiple players could network all their locations together and create their own 'separate game', isolated from everyone else. You could even make it so that people who 'had' the location could not 'sell' that location - only an original discoverer can 'spread the knowledge', thus preventing a sudden 'outing'.

The key is that this is NOT an invulnerable barrier. Sometimes, a location gets 'close' or 'thin', and explorers tend to find it on occasion (at which point they have - and can spread - the location). An owner can tell when his system is wearing 'thin' - he's probably given a week's notice - so he can prepare his systems to deal with the matter as he sees fit. This adds an inevitability to the system that will always end up 'mixing up' the isolationists to keep them striving and interested.

This game would feel like a strange kind of secret war, with players vying for locations that many players don't know exist.

The problem is the high data cost of these systems, since chances are high there will be more systems than players. However, if you take a page from Will Wright's book, a bit of algorithmic generation can go a long way towards making a system data-affordable.

There are other ways to do this, of course. What I speak of is a locational isolation system. There are a LOT of other ways to implement this fundamental idea. The point is that, in order for people to think they are important/powerful, they have to be able to change the universe. Changing the universe is NOT something that can happen in a normal MMORPG. Even if the universe is not static, there's simply too many people.

However, if you make the 'universe' scale to the person - grow as he grows - then you can easily make the MMORPG endlessly engaging.

Wheee! Feel free to comment.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

More memework.

Darren said:
I'm curious when you quote skepticism as a meme. Skepticism often seems like a certain state of mind, or rather a filter on how one sees the world. Alternatively, you could see skepticism as a rhetorical framework of some sort.
From my observations, it seems to be a bit of both.

The reason I'm curious here is that I often wonder why it is that skepticism seems to be so appealing to many of my peers at WPI.
At the very least, I'm sure that other viewpoints and the emotional backgrounds of my peers has something to do with it.
Does memetrics ever consider such perspectives? Is that what is sometimes meant by people being "more susceptible to the meme" or however you say that?

Because I'm so incredibly knowledgeable on the subject, I'll inform you! And I'll use small words, because I think the longest one I know is 'knowledgeable'.

Memetics is at about the same stage as game design theory - that is, nobody can even really agree on what a meme is. To me, skepticism is a meme - it is a pattern which propagates from mind to mind. After all, my dad's a skeptic, I'm a skeptic, and I'll be damn sure to make my children skeptics. It's also the only clear example I can think of that gets stronger by destroying other memes.

The terms 'rhetorical framework', 'state of mind', and even 'filter on how one sees the world' all mean just about the same thing in meme-land. They all state, "there is a meme controlling what other memes you consider". Perhaps it would be easiest to call those three terms you used synonyms of a phrase I'll coin this very instant: "gatekeeper meme".

Skepticism, being a meme, is spread through normal memetic vectors. Shit. I used too many big words. Essentially, our friend skepti spreads by making itself appealing to the environment it wants into - our minds. However, skepticism's appeal is rather more limited than some other memes, such as Darth Vader in a tutu, because it is a dramatic overhaul to your mental framework. It's a gatekeeper meme, and it competes with other gatekeeper memes - it's competing with the thing that controls what memes get to compete. Rather a disadvantage.

Therefore, I don't know very many (if any) people who 'pick up' skepticism late in life. Usually, by the time they hit their teens, their gatekeeper memes are firmly in place (and, believe me, gatekeeper memes know how to defend themselves). So skepticism seems to spread in very early life, either through indoctrin... indoc... indoctrinnalination... being told about it or through synthesizing it to avoid the unhelpful ideas it protects against.

Memetics, as I mentioned, is very young. Although what I just spouted is Largely Based on Published Works, it is also very much my own creation, and may very well cover parts of memetics that have only been lightly touched upon in the past.

BTW - "memetics" seems to stand for "the study of memes", whereas "memetrics" would stand for "measurement of memes" which, as cool as it would be, we haven't really figured out how to do yet.

Monday, April 04, 2005


I ain't got no scanner, my tablet is getting unpredictable and ratty, and the hard drive with my beloved art programs is now playing mumblety-peg with its magnetic disks.

So, behold the magic of MS Paint! From my cube! With a mouse!

Wow, I can see why people blog so much. The crushing boredom! Allow me to enthrall you with tales of how incredibly bored I am! Or maybe you could, I don't know, attach alligator clips to yourself and run around saying "augh! They've got me! Run for your lives!" before going into a 'death roll' on your boss' nice carpeted office.

As a side note, is strangely greedy. It keeps redirecting my image HTML to ''.


Friday, April 01, 2005


Anyone who's done much game design knows that game balance is a real pain. The more factors that are involved, the more difficult it is to balance.

Having accidentally resurrected an interesting game idea a few days back, I was thinking about this. I've learned so much about game design in the past two years that the old design seems like cave paintings. I spent a few hours updating it, this game of turn-based grand strategy and space-age combat, and did a bunch of tweaking and creation of play fields and all sorts of stuff that makes it exciting to consider, as opposed to 'just another tactical game'.

But I've run into a problem: the actual GAME BALANCING has grown SO incredibly complex it isn't even remotely CONCEIVABLE. It's totally MIND-BOGGLING. In the previous version of a game, it was essentially 'build troops, move troops to destination, fight'. In that sort of situation, it's fairly easy to determine the effectiveness of a space ship. It deals such a damage at such a range such a percentage of the time. It has a certain amount of ammo, certain armor, certain speed, and a certain difficulty to hit.

Now, however, it's dramatically more difficult because of the introduction of strategic play. That unit - it's weak, but stealthy. It tends not to show up on scanners. But that depends on what scanners the enemy has, now doesn't it? How good is stealthy, then? How close can you get while you're being 'stealthy'?

That unit, it's a carrier. Okay, so what's the balance for a carrier? How fast can it launch other starships? How much space does that take up? Well, hell, this means that a carrier can have the interstellar drives, so the fighters don't have to. That totally messes up the balance of the fighters, since now they have a bunch of space they can stick more guns in.

Given this plus my natural predeliction towards HIGHLY EMERGENT gameplay, it is mentally impossible to try to get this to be balanced ahead of time. Obviously, it's intended to be a computer game - so what I really need is a kind of alpha test...

Then a happy thought hit me. I'm used to worrying about 'dominant strategies'. A player finds out 'the best' way to do things. But that's not a problem in this game. Every gameplay facet is opposed by an enemy with access to a countermeasure.

Stealth? The enemy might be forced to have scanner units. If they skimp, they'll be vulnerable to stealth. If they splurge, even people who are stealth masters will be detected at some point. If stealth is too powerful, players would adjust by investing in anti-stealth units.

More powerful fighters? Well, duh, I'll do the same, and we're even again. We might be more fighter-centric due to their increase in strength relative to, say, frigates, but the balance of power is not upset.

So long as I make sure there are counter-plays available, the game will - to some extent - balance itself. I'll have to make sure the counter-plays are feasible, and I'll have to make sure that you can't get CRUSHED INSTANTLY by a play you aren't prepared for... but I won't have to try to carefully squeek everything into the same exact effectiveness.

I hope.