Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Bit More on Memetics

Much of the studies of memetics going on today talk about the "propogation of ideas". To some extent, that is even what the word "meme" is thought to mean.

My interest is only marginally in the propagation of an idea. What I want to figure out is the way memes cause other memes.

There's lots of examples of what I'm talking about. One could be that if you comment that "religions are stupid", then religious people will get irritated. Either this or their subsequent defense of their religion will actually make them more dedicated to their religion. (Although it can also undermine their faith while their dedication increases - it's a complex issue related to an attempt to maintain control. It's not specific to religion.) So, an antagonistic idea strengthened its enemy.

More what I'm looking for, however, is how one meme requires or causes another. For example, if you are infected by the ideal of science, you will slowly but surely begin to be infected by related ideals. I don't know for certain whether this stems from culture or a fundamental concept, but either way it is related to or reflected by culture.

Someone who believes is the ideal of science will come to believe that anything - and everything - can be solved by application of this system of thought. If not now, then when enough data has been gathered. Other philosophies are similar: if you extract the core idea, it is often the case that the other bits of the philosophy will arise on their own, with only moderate cultural differences.

Religions usually have very similar cultural bits built into them, whether they are Shinto or Catholicism. Their exact implementation varies, but at their core they all develop the same "respect and hard work" side-effects. This is because they share the same fundamental purpose, and those ideals serve that purpose. They are corollaries, in the same way that scientific thought requires you to believe that science can be applied to anything, if technology has advanced enough to get the data needed.

Of course, not all religious people follow the core ideal of religion, and not all the scientists follow the core idea of science. The culture of these concepts grows very complex, in no small part because the corollaries strike many people as the important ideas, and those are the ideals they follow, rather than the original theme. This results in or from a culture of factionalism within every meme complex.

I wonder what the best way is to nail people to the central idea, rather than the corollaries? That way, you could measure corollaries and see whether they are cultural or fundamental.

Well, I know what my fundamental philosophy is: Olology. Maybe some day I'll post it. :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Heroic Memes?

I would say that, if pressed, most people would admit to having a few heroes. Some of those heroes are fictional, some of them are (mostly) factual.

A lot of people idolize Gandhi, for example. Others prefer Captain Kirk. My personal real-world heroes are all scientists or mathematicians, most notably Einstein and Feynman, not necessarily in that order. Oh, and Mr. T. Who is making a comeback!

The funny thing is, no matter who you choose, 99% of the other people in the world, once it is explained who your heroes are, will agree that they are worth respecting. Even if your heroes are bizarre antiheroes. Even if you idolize Coyote or the Marquis de Sade, once you explain why, people will nod and say, "you've got a point. That's worth respecting."

That got me thinking: what is the fundamental thing about these people?

After a bit of thought, it was head-slappingly obvious. In its purest form, you aren't idolizing the person, you're idolizing the idea(l)s that person represents. If you idolize Gandhi, you're probably idolizing the idea of passive resistance, or of standing up to superior forces without stooping to war or murder. If you idealize Captain Kirk, you're probably idolizing the idea of exploration and comraderie.

Other ideas get tied up in these because the hero is who he is. Often, these other ideas are closely related. Gandhi's soft-spoken dialogues, his humble clothes - these are descendents of his cohesive passive resistance. (An interesting subject all on its own, actually... many hypotheses of memetics can be derived from Gandhi.) Kirk's legendary "green-skinned bims" and indomitable willpower also descended from his ideals.

Others become so inextricably linked that you associate them with each other, even when there is little evidence they are connected. Einstein and Feynman's good humors are examples: we no longer think that a scientist has to be dour and somber. Why we thought that in the first place was another set of concepts which were linked without actually being causal.

But all heroes have something in common. A self-propagating meta-meme.

Each hero urges you to "think like I do". Once you start to, those heroes become even more applicable to you. But more than that, their way of thinking offers an advantage (psychological, social, or mathematical) over the "normal" ways of thinking. (This is a balance thing: if everyone was like Feynman, then being a somber scientist would be noteworthy and effective.)

The key isn't that you follow in their footsteps. They key is that they followed in their footsteps. Every hero, fictional or real, is largely the embodiment of an idealized philosophy, tinted with their personal nature. They are professional Gandhis, Feynmans, and Kirks. And the more people appreciate their Gandhism, Feynmanness, and Kirkishness, the more Gandhic, Feynmannish, and Kirky they become.

It's a perpetuating memetic loop. A black hole of heroism!

But, by its very nature, it can't last. Once the person dies, once the stories stop being made anew, they stop exerting their influence. Some quirk of memetics makes it all but impossible for someone emulating their hero to be heroic in the same way. They still benefit from their hero-induced philosophy, but they are not a black hole. They cannot "replace" Gandhi, or Mr. T. (Fortunately, since he's not dead, Mr. T won't need replacing in the near future.)

This might be psychological, or it might be lynchpin-related, but this isn't the place to discuss that.

Also, the stories about those heroes generally grow less and less relevant as culture moves on. That's why it would be bizarre to idolize Coyote. Culturally, he's not in-synch. The number of people idolizing Einstein grows fewer each year, and the number of people idolizing Newton is nearly zero. They don't mesh as well with culture as they did during their life, because they aren't alive to adapt themselves to modern culture.

But the underlying approach they had. Is that an approach which is only valid in their culture? Or is the underlying premise valid in every culture, a kind of basic law of "useful philosophy"? If the latter, these laws could be identified and listed. If the former, you would need to design a method of determining what kinds of approaches would be most likely to be highly successful in a given culture.

A heady task... and a really awesome idea for a science-fiction story.

Anyhow, these self-perpetuating "black holes" of heroism are an interesting topic to study. Who are your heroes? Do you think they had a "black hole" around them, a gravity field which made them ever more them as time passed?

Expectation and PAC

I wanted to write this essay yesterday, but I decided I had swamped the blog enough. That's good, because some of the commentary has made me refine the concept slightly.

Players get bored with the same challenges. That's pattern adaptation control's (PAC's) purpose; although in truth it is about finding the most efficient method of keeping players intrigued rather than simply "not bored".

The majority of my writings on PAC focus on changing the game level to create variations in the pattern of experience. For example, to keep your players interested, you offer a variety of challenges. Every level has a different architecture and decoration - but within the "overall pattern" of the game.

One of the things which is usually left out is expectation. Not because I don't know about it, but because it's a somewhat more advanced concept.

When a player is feeling eager and pulled forward, he is at his most interested. The most important factor isn't what the player is doing right now so much as what the player will be doing. However, this is also somewhat inaccurate, because what the player is doing now could be what he once will have been being doing. IE, this moment could be the moment he was looking forward to a little while ago. This lends it a kind of apotheietical power, to make up a word in addition to a grammar.

Think of a player's game experience as a squiggly line on a graph. One axis of the graph is time, the other is player interest. The line squiggles it's way across time, going up and down on interest.

Now, if you were to think about the really cool play moments - the moments when the level explodes, the boss fight, the jumping-off-a-building. These moments are only cool for one reason: they've been built up. Or will have been built up, if they are built up after the fact. (In this case, time can be considered to run in either direction.)

So, what you see is these blots on the graph representing these awesome play moments. Usually, the squiggly line spikes at and either just before or just after these moments, steadily tapering down in that direction. Like this:

Depending on whether you build up the event before or after it happens. You can do both, I suppose, but that doesn't make my purpose clear.

Looking back, I see my purpose hasn't been made clear, yet.

The pattern of experience isn't what we're manipulating here. We're not changing the game at all. What we're doing is telling the player about things to come (or building up things that have already happened), such that their interest in our game is peaked. Even if they're playing through part of the game they don't really care for, they'll continue on because they know what lies ahead - or what impressed them earlier.

This is why you'll play through that level you hate in that game you love - to a point. If the level is worse than the memories/foreshadowing is good, you'll ditch the game.

So, when you're designing a game's plot, you'll want to think about how you can inject the future and the past into the present.

A simple way to do this would be to put up signs pointing the way your next level and your previous level. For example, walking into an intersection that's labeled with arrows pointing "Science Lab" and "Armory". These are meaningful labels which give the player something to look forward to.

More usefully, clawmarks could be scoured on the side of the corridor saying something dire, like "I can feel it changing!" or simply "Mine. Stay out." This gives a much richer impression of what's ahead - spatially and chronologically - than a simple sign. The player feels a thrill of apprehension.

There are a million ways to do this. Overhearing guards talking. Finding a mutilated corpse. Reading a love letter. Seeing a new color of paint on the walls. It's simply foreshadowing. Building expectation, often only semi-consciously.

Except it runs backwards, too.

Some sudden events are merely to break up the pattern of play. For example, a little ambush to keep the player on his toes. There's nothing "behind" it. Right?

Wrong. Sure, you can have that isolated ambush. But it's much better - and not very hard - to write it into the story. In the simplest version, it can be used as a kind of foreshadowing: run into the zombies, you know there are zombies ahead.

But it can be rigged such that you "build expectation" backwards in time. You have an experience, and then learn why it happened and what its significance was. This is pretty common. In "Castlevania, Symphony of the Night", you start with a lot of powers and - bam - all your items and levels are sucked away. The rest of the game is spent recovering from it and learning why it happened. The first makes the event "ludologically" important, the second "narratively" important. Both are simply building expectation in reverse.

Imagine playing the game backwards. You start off with all this awesome shit and gradually lose it over time. Bosses alude to your past (future) as that time when you were badass. So you know this losing of weapons is only temporary, and sure enough, Death comes along and gives you some of the best equipment available just when you've lost your last, crummiest equipment. Functionally, it's the same as foreshadowing moving forwards, except it goes backwards.

It sounds arbitrary, as if it would be better covered under a different subject. But it's the exact same method, simply reversed in time. To a large extent, psychologically, people operate independently of the flow of real time.

I think it's interesting, and an important point. So, when you think about your design, think: "Where is the player? Where is he going? Where has he been?"

Because you don't leave the first part of your game behind. You build on it. Use it as foreshadowing and "echo" backwards to build it up. Like sloshing in a bathtub, these foreshadowing ripples forward and backwards in the game build on each other. Sploosh!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Flow channel and adaptive difficulty

In response to this post.

I've been thinking a lot about the same kinds of things, and I've come up with a few ideas that touch upon this:

First, some game designers want their game to be "hard" or "easy" - and this is a choice I can respect, although I would question its effect on sales.

Second, there's more than one kind of "difficulty", as Corvus pointed out. Adjusting on all these levels independently may very well be possible, but it requires an unusually deft algorithm.

I thought about how to determine the ideal difficulty. My first thought was:

A simple way to do this initially, without alienating them, is to have a tutorial which has several different "paths" they can take. This could be used not only to measure their play preferences (they chose the "exploration" path rather than the "stealth" path) but also their memetic preferences (they really like the rocket launcher, or being a psychic).

However, I decided that wasn't going to be very accurate. There is one sure way to tell that a player is or is not enjoying a game:

How long they play for.

Sure, some players will play in eight hour blocks and others play an hour a week. However, everybody will tend to make time to play a great game and let a weak game slide.

What you do is: over time, you slide the difficulty bar up. And up, and up, and up. After a few hours, they'll reach a point they "can't beat" (or don't care to try to beat) and quit playing.

But most people will come back and try again. I would say nearly all of them. And you are now aware of their limits - the "upper bound" of their "flow channel". After that, your primary goal is to find the optimum flow, which is done by moseying slowly towards that line, and being pushed down each time they quit. Over several sessions, you decrease the difficulty increase and bracket some place where they are having fun.

It's a noisy signal, unfortunately: they may quit to eat dinner, not because it's too hard. But noise just decreases the efficiency of the algorithm - it doesn't invalidate it.

At first glance, this would seem to tend towards "hard". But not really: people who want to explore will be naturally turned off by the rather high-seeming difficulty, and shut off the machine. This will bring the difficulty down, and the rise will be slower this session.

It's got some lumpy parts, but I think it's possible to measure what kind of challenge a player likes by simply measuring when they stop playing, and taking into account that sometimes they'll stop playing for non-game-related reasons.

On Creativity

So, people like to pretend they're creative. What is creativity? Complex question. But one thing is for sure: necessity really is the mother of invention. If you can't pick the obvious first choices, you have to invent new choices.

As a matter of fact, this is largely why theoretical physics has "stars" which advance it so dramatically. The vast majority of the scientists choose the obvious choice of existing methods and try to enhance them. Some scientists stop themselves from choosing the obvious choice and try to figure out another method. A few of these scientists succeed and change the face of their science.

In a dramatically less important example, I am kinda creative. No creative genius, but more creative than your average hairless monkey. And my favorite excersize is figuring out alternative "paths" to the same basic functionality.

For example, in the world of Machine City, there is no electricity. The laws of physics are just a tiny bit different. There is no lightning, no static electricity, no induction.

There are two things to be creative about, here. One is "what happens instead"? It would be fun but meaningless to bluff on this matter. As that is a very complex question which nobody who isn't a cunning quantum theorist could answer, I'll go in the other direction:

"How does society get around this?"

Electricity is excessively useful. It's probably the most useful of science's many discoveries and implementations. Something which can be generated a hundred miles away and piped to every room in every house in every city? Then it can run lights, air conditioners, security systems, televisions... moreover, even the basic idea of the telegraph operates on electricity! What kind of communication will you have?

Take electricity away. No electric lights. No television. No phones. It's like living in the midieval ages. Except that the first-world countries of the Machine City world need to function like something between the 1890s and 1930s.

For lights, I chicken out. There is a set of chemical compounds which, when mixed, glow brightly and at low heat for many hours. In addition, there's a "spinnable", which is a long tube filled with a substance which glows when agitated. Spinnables are spun to get them to glow, or shaken when used in flashlights. They are noisier, but require vastly less maintenance. The most modern spinnables are called "whisper lights" because they produce almost no noise save the gentle "shush" of the particulate matter circulating inside them.

But for everything else...

I want everything. Computers. Quick communication. Security systems.

And I have to use mechanical power to get it.

Where would you start? Think about it for a second, before I tell you what I did.


Here's what I did.

One of the things which enables the modern world is centralized provision of water and electricity. When indoor plumbing is simply a matter of tapping a watermain, you're more likely to have indoor plumbing than if you'll need to build a pump yourself.

So, I needed centralized mechanical power.

Unfortunately, mechanical power doesn't transmit quite as losslessly as electricity. There are, however, more and less lossy ways of transmitting it. The least lossy and least maintenance-heavy way is using water pressure, then having a mechanical converter for the building which pulls belts that distribute power over the rest of the building. Or even one converter for each floor. These are usually provided free by the water company so they can charge hefty monthly fees for water pressure usage.

Now, most of you have played video games in which you've moved through air ducts. Good stuff, right? Some of you have probably played video games where you move through empty water pipes. Sewers, for example.

With the amount of water inertia required to generate enough power to run machines and pneumatic message tubes, buildings aren't going to have those tiny water pipes you're familiar with. A measly six inch pipe? No way. They're going to have big honking pipes. Large enough to enter, should you figure out a way not to get turned into puree by the turbine.

In addition, the belts which distribute the power locally will need to run through a crawlspace that can be accessed to repair the ever-wearing belts and wheels. The noise in these crawlspaces would be tremendous, and often these crawlspaces would have exposed rapidly-whooshing belts. And we're not talking little car-engine belts, nuh-uh. We're talking two foot wide steel mesh belts, and wheels with hooks all over them.

As you can see, I've created a building with a whole new feel to its innards. In addition to the normal hallways and air ducts, I've created belt-fan crawlspaces and big honking water pipes (which may have their own sizeable crawlspaces). Also, the huge machines will be paths in and of themselves, with walkways and catwalks to access any part that needs repairing or tweaking.

Managing this power is a bit wonky, if we look deep. For example, what do they have instead of wall plugs? They still have wall-plugs (actually, floor-and-roof plugs), but plugs that are half a foot across and have teeth. You plug something in, pull a switch, and the assembly rotates, driving your machine. Very noisy.

There's a mechanical contrivance which limits how much power your converter takes, essentially a gear shifter. Similarly, your turbines can tell how much torque they need to generate and can automatically pull that much energy from the city's water pipes.

In turn, measuring the pressure of the water in the tubes can show you how much energy is being taken from the water, and how hard your pumping station pumps can be altered to fit how much energy is currently being used. This isn't an instantaneous reaction, so it isn't uncommon for buildings with large power requirements to have an hour of "brownout" where everything is spun too slowly, until the pumping station picks up the slack.

Similarly, you can't instantly accelerate a belt or shaft to full spin, and the larger the power requirements, the longer it takes to spin up. This means that those big machines may take many seconds or even minutes to spin up to speed.

What we end up with is a bizarrely flavored world. Flipping on a light causes the lights to slowly spin up, dim at first and growing brighter. Or it causes a mechanical device to intermix two chemicals in a spray of wobbly light until the reaction stabalizes.

Turning on a computer is a process involves minutes in which it runs at partial speed. Unlike an electrical computer, mechanical computers run as fast as their spinning belts let them (until their little cogs snap under the pressure, of course). More power, more computation. A very "she cannae' take much more, Cap'n" situation.

Security doors can slam down quite fast, but raising them takes time. Security locks which read punchcards don't require much energy, so they'll go nice and fast - but since it's kind of expensive to hook them into the power supply, they may very well be hand-crank powered!

Unique noises, lights, and architecture are an obvious result. Unique dangers, too. With this many moving parts, moving so quickly and so heavily, damage to buildings is fairly common. Fun!

And through it all, a variety of alternate pathways to navigate the building by.

The computers I've designed are an essay all their own. Fun!

Of course, Machine City will see little of this. It's a shmup. But the detail work will show in the backgrounds. :)

Spread your play types

Game design theory essay...

I did a lot of thinking about level design over the weekend. For most of it, I stuck to shmup levels - my thoughts centered around Machine City - but I kept coming back to level design "in general", which to me means applying the same principals to a variety of genres.

That's the problem with being a theorist. You always want to generalize.

Anyhow, one of the things that I wanted to clarify is play types. I'll also clarify player vision some more at some point, in another essay.

Most games play either fast or slow. Most of the time, a fast game will eat levels for breakfast, pound through acres of map. Most of the time, a slow game will use the same map and criss-cross over it a half-dozen times. There are exceptions, and this simplified level design philosophy is really only true of one-player and co-op games.

Either way, one of the things you need to do is to keep the player from getting bored of the pattern of gameplay. Some games do this well, some games bore the player to tears. This is more than just offering them play they don't much like: it's offering them too much of a given kind of play.

An example of each can be found in the game No One Lives Forever 2. If you haven't played this game, go buy it. It is my second favorite first-person game, period, and I haven't seen any game which matches it for flawless quality on every level. Save level design, which was occasionally quite good and occasionally quite bad.

Much of this game is slow play. You're playing a spy, after all. A good example of slow play being used well is the undersea base. You play through the whole base. It gives a sense of large size and scale, despite the fact that it is a rather small level. It goes on a little long, actually, but not too badly thanks to the ever-increasing variety of encounters.

Then, after a boss fight, you get to revisit the station, seeing it from a radically different viewpoint trying to escape it as it floods.

This is something similar to what Doom III tried to do: show you the base "before" and "after". "After" is inherently more interesting for various reasons, so it is natural to try to stretch it out a bit. The undersea base doesn't, but I wouldn't have minded a bit more level on the escape.

Anyhow, on the other side of the spectrum is India, the city. A large, open level in which you can't kill anyone. All you do is run back and forth on errands, dodging cops. On the third playthrough, you can blitz all the India city levels, but it's a protracted and rather painful experience the first time through.

Later on, you revisit India city. To do what? Run errands and not kill anyone. Wow, and this time the errands are even more inane, featuring running back and forth for water while being shot at. Across the same paths. Over and over. To save people who are too stupid to climb through the giant, open window two feet from them. There are a few moments in which HARM's doomed Indian soldiers attack you, but these are bizarre episodes which aren't really explained: why are they attacking you instead of trying to escape their demise? Although a nice attempt to keep the level from being "turn off the computer" bad, they break suspension.

On the surface, these two levels appear very similar. You run through a lot of corridors in each, can approach them both by stealth, have an intermission (boss fight in one, several levels in another), then work through the "ruined" version.

But a play type analysis shows a very different set of levels. Both levels initially play "slowly", although one is a "conquest"-style play and the other is a "foxhunt"-style play. One is voluntary slow play, the other is involuntary. As you go through the undersea base, you choose to go slowly, killing the threats and making that part of the base safe for you. In India, you are forced to go slow because you need to time your movements to keep you alive. I believe this kind of "foxhunt" play to be distinctly inferior, since it is nonadaptive and submits the player to the same challenges repeatedly.

On the last visit to these levels, things are distinctly different. The undersea base speeds up to a moderately fast game where India slows down even further. India remains "foxhunt" play, but the undersea base becomes "shockwave" play: you blast through each part of the level and leave nothing you ever bother to revisit.

My dislike of "hunted" play aside, using the same gameplay every time you hit a level, you might as well be playing the same level. Shake it up!

As a basic rule, the human brain only stays interested in something for about 20 minutes. Some people can go for vastly longer, but few go for shorter. This means that you need to change modes of play ("patterns") no less often than once every twenty minutes. You don't have to change it for long, but you need to change it. And in order to get maximum use out of a level design, you can get an entirely new experience out of a map by hitting it with a different style of play.

"Twenty minutes?" you say, "that's a long time to be sneaking around without a gunfight. It seems to me that most games interrupt with a new style of play every two minutes!" Yes, for two reasons:

1) Resetting the clock insures maximum attention.

2) Many players have an exceedingly slow first play-through. You can beat XIII in 130 minutes? Sure, but the first time it took you thirteen hours.

So level designers do - and should - err on the side of short attention spans.

To give you an idea of some of the basic kinds of play, here is an incomplete list. Feel free to suggest things I've missed:

Foxhunt: moderate to slow play speed

Explanation: Level is littered with invulnerable threats that have few successful approach vectors; player speed is therefore slowed to allow for higher relative vision.

In English: Effectively a puzzle level, foxhunt emphasizes careful watching and considered movements on pain of death. The slower the play style, the more careful you have to be not to exceed your 20-minute maximum play length.

Conquest: slow play speed

Explanation: Player earns ownership of level.

In English: The player destroys enemy presence in a level so that he owns it. Although this is, in itself, probably medium-speed play, the ownership of the level then encourages the player to carefully search every room. Depending on the player's level-affecting capabilities, they may slow the game even further by destroying parts of the level or by building new structures.

As with foxhunt, care must be used to insure that a player doesn't go more than 20 minutes without a play style change.

Hunted: fast play speed

Explanation: Player vision limits are enforced by forcing player movement. Play speed is therefore accelerated.

In English: Effectively a timed level. Rising water, a rampaging demon, and other active forces push the player to keep moving or lose the game. This play style can also result from moving levels. For example, conveyor belts.

Please note, "hunted" and "hunter" levels are functionally the same. Whether the player is forced to move along by a wall of fire or whether he has to constantly chase a monkey, the core idea is that there is a time-sensitive thing pushing the player to constantly move forward.

Shockwave: moderate to fast play speed

Explanation: Player's only goal is to get through the level

In English: This can be very similar to conquest, but the design is such that there is no way to slow down and appreciate your hard-earned territory. Perhaps there is a constant stream of soldiers, or perhaps there is simply nothing worth appreciating.

Often, "shockwave" is almost indistinguishable from "hunted". The difference is that when you are hunted, something is actively pushing you. Shockwave may send streams of soldiers, but your skill could be enough to hold them off forever. Shockwave may slam doors shut, but only after you use them - not as a possible loss condition.


These four types arise from basic elements of play, which I imagine I'll cover sometime. I don't think it's a full list, but each of those has a very different approach, both for play and design.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Weekend Most Fowl

I'm having a Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow!

This is rather unusual for me. My usual Thanksgiving dinner consists of trying to find some place that's open, failing, and wishing I had remembered to shop for groceries.

Just thought I'd break the parade of pent-up pedagogy with a post proffering paltry poultry.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Gravitic Memetics

I thought up a huge theoretical framework for considering memetics as celestial bodies, with gravity and spin and light-speed and all that jazz. I even worked out a little bit of half-advanced waves/particles, but I decided that really wasn't going to help me any.

In the end, however, there were few things that really popped up as a useful:

Some things are big - black holes and stars with considerable "memetic gravity". For example, you might consider BoingBoing, health care, or your office as having a truly impressive gravity field (each person builds their own "star map"). Some things are more moderately sized. This site, for example, has noticeable gravity - perhaps comparable to one of Saturn's smaller moons. However, similar to a comet, few visitors get close enough to get slowed by the gravity, let alone pulled into an orbit.

Other things - the most common type of things - are really tiny. Dust, asteroids. Ads, for example. Their purpose is to tug on a user until his vector is headed in a direction more to your liking. They utilize high proximity and careful spin to maximize their gravitic pull. Actually HITTING a user dead-on is nearly impossible, so it's best to think in terms of gravity, rather than physical impacts.

Of course, celestial bodies both big and small don't pull in one direction. So if the user comes in from a direction you didn't expect, you can easily end up slingshotting them the wrong way. Fortunately, most users are orbiting in the plane of a larger celestial body when they encounter your little celestial bodies, so you know roughly their vector.

But if you guess wrong, you can do worse than have no effect: you can push them away. Throw them somewhere further from you. Like if you advertised Windows on SourceForge. Like if you put up any Republican-type posters anywhere in Seattle. These things do pass very close to the passerby - but the vector of the passerby is wrong, and the slingshot hurls them away from you.

Anyhow, the key to this kind of thinking is to think in terms of orbits. Your ads will be placed in orbit around the same things the users are orbiting, and your job is to pull them away. You need to have a very similar orbit, a lot of spin, and a carefully placed storm of ads.

You need to be delicate. Place it wrong and you'll end up flinging the audience deeper into the heart of the system, or out into the depths of space - certainly not at you.

Of course, without the conceptual framework identifying memetic orbits, orbital patterns, and measurement of the audience's relative distances, you can't really usefully use this. Plus, each such "orbital framework" is built in the mind of each user, so you're operating at one step removed...

But the idea that you can think of ads as tiny gravity wells placed in the orbital path of users might be helpful when you think of marketing.

Chapter Four

I've posted Chapter Four of my tutorial on vector math. You can find the earlier chapters here.

The latest chapter has more math, but I've tried to go slow and clearly explain. Let me know what you think, if you think. :)

Google Analytics


It finally kicked in for me. It is awesome, even though it highlights the fact that I'm three inches tall.

It also shows me that I have the most hits over the weekend, even though my weekends contain no postings, and fewest hits at the beginning of the week, even though the beginning of the week is when I have the most postings.

Hm. Weekends are probably just really popular. Once I'm on my own, I'll start weighing in on weekends.

Oh, and most of my hits come from google searches, but apparently no particular Google searches, since there's no popular ones leading to me. Next in line are people from grand text auto, presumably having read Patrick's advertisement of my Movies review.

And MOST of my visitors use FireFox. Huzzah for you! On the other hand, NONE of my visitors use Linux. 95.84% of them use Windows. I guess that's to be expected: Linux isn't hugely game-friendly.

My god! This is a wealth of information. Most screen resolutions are 1024x768 or 1280x1024, with all others a very distant last place. And I got a small but significant number of visitors using 16-bit color instead of 32-bit color. Most of my audience is registered as English-American, has Java enabled, and has Flash. The majority have Cable/DSL, with a significant chunk still using dialup.

On the negative side, it doesn't seem to count feeds. Hm.... I bet if I embedded the javascript in the feed... but that doesn't work, does it? I'm not in the header. Oh well, it doesn't matter, blogspot doesn't allow "script" tags.

On the positive side, my average view time is over seven minutes! This is a brutally weighted length, however. The vast majority of my visits are over in less than ten seconds - sob! - but a significant chunk stayed more than ten minutes. Did they just forget, and leave the page open?

Anyhow, go sign up for Google Analytics. At the very least, it will let you feel the depth of your unpopularity!

EDIT: People found me through some very strange searches. "Smegging" is my favorite, for sheer classiness. But things like "Cringely Google", "Anti-stealth 2005", "anakin armpit hair clone wars", "i will survive sang by aliens" (ha, that one actually makes sense!), and "pictures of deer taking a crap".

Bizarre... what could these people have been looking for? Whatever it was, now I'm TWICE as likely to get pinged by people searching for pictures of deer taking craps.

EDIT the SECOND: My god, I'm the second result for 'anakin "armpit hair" "clone wars"'. This because one of my month-archives has a post talking about armpit hair, and another post about clone wars. I would have wondered about my sanity if they'd been in one post.

I don't think I'll do the Googling for "pictures of deer taking a crap"...

Monday, November 21, 2005


Music geekery follows...

As I mentioned a long while back, I'm looking into music composition. My equipment is severely limited, but my studies are not.

One thing I've found in my studies is that I have picked up an unnatural ability to hear synthetic instruments. I suppose this probably came from my sonogram studies. They've started to really grate on my ear.

I don't mean "bweep baweep bweep" instruments. I don't even mean midi- or tracking-fed instrumentation. I mean I can hear filters, compressions, limiters, and the very best synthetic orchestras. I've recently deleted songs I've always had on my playlist, just because they've started grating on my ear.

Synthetic orchestration - especially simplistic versions like midi or tracking, are the most grating. I've turned myself into an elitist!

This is really bad news, since the only capabilities I have are midi. I don't own any physical instruments other than a (primitive) midi keyboard and similar computer software (it should be noted that I canot actually connect the keyboard to the computer...). I'm writing primitive songs, now, but I know that I will never be happy with anything I write, because it'll be in midi. This is especially bad because I'll eventually need music for Machine City and consecutive games.

On the other hand, I know what the problem is with these fake instruments. It's their attacks and sustains. They're unnaturally sharp and flat - not the notes, the envelopes. The computer program doesn't distinguish between a G placed in the middle of a rising sequence or at the beginning of a triumphant reveal. It hits both with the exact same authority.

The author can try to deal with this. It's possible, with great effort, to deal with some of it. You can put in volume changes, accents, and so forth. But it takes time, and there are no fine controls. If there were, it would take even more time!

That got me thinking. Why not make a program with "musicians" in it. You can assign a musician to an instrument, and teach them how you want them to play. You can carry these musicians from composition to composition, even sharing them over the internet. You can train them to play the horn with a certain level of attack and vibrato depending on what kind of sequence is being played at that moment.

Your controls would be largely limited to marking the music with emotional notation that guides the musicians. There's already denotation for sheet music, but this is not enough: we need more explicit terminology, such as "fiery".

If your pattern recognition was good enough, you could leave off with the labels and just instruct the musicians directly. They would work out what kinds of situations called for which kinds of performance, backed and instructed by you.

Or - here's an awesome idea - use the Nintendo Revolution controller to play as a conductor. Ha! That would make my YEAR.

I think there's already a program with this kind of capabilities out there. I've heard a couple of orchestral pieces which must be synthesized, but they're really good, instrumentally. They must simulate the actual instrument, which would probably do the trick nicely. They're still flawed, but they may actually be just badly mastered, mediocre-played real instruments. However, their sustains are still unnatural, so I doubt it...

Anyhow, just musing on the matter.

Machine City Engine Demo


Just an engine demo, but it's something to show. :)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Just Another Day at Google...

You may have noticed that I keep an eye on Google. It's like watching a hurricane that just hit a razor blade factory and is heading for your worst enemy. Awe inspiring, but where will it go then?

Here is just one report. There are others. This is the only one I've seen detailing portable supersystems, but they all comment on Google's fiber fixation.

Google is pretty clearly setting its sights on setting up its own "backbone". Oh, it may not - and probably won't be - a competitor against the current internet backbones. They probably have some other, clever use in mind.

But Google will have an unmoderated, private alternet when its done.

What will they use it for? Does it matter? Even if Google's alternet is a hideous beast of evil, it serves a very important and noble purpose:

If it's been done once, it can be done again.

If a private, non-industry corporation can lay down a zillion miles of fiber and create a nation-wide alternet, why can't we?

Too expensive? Too big? Too much? That's what they said about creating operating systems. Yet there are dozens of free, open-source operating systems.

And, eventually, dozens of free, "open-source" global networks.

Sure they'll be weird and glitchy. But they'll be ours. :)

Rise (and Fall?) of the Internet

There's a lot of laws going around to control the internet. China is probably the world leader in trying to control the internet, but here in the USA we try our hardest, too. With censoring and bizarre rituals of accountability, we are definitely heading towards a time when the pipe providers are also content providers. IE "the end of the internet", for tolerably obvious reasons.

This is supported by a host of money-powered laws. When one law is struck down, it's less than a year before another, nearly identical law manages to make it a bit further. Each time, money pushes its viewpoint a little deeper, presses a little harder. America: We put the "awful" in "lawful".

Some people are downright doomsdayish about the whole affair, such as this guy. It's hosted on, so you can expect a level of geek paranoia. Should you dismiss this sort of thing?

Not at all. His first two sections are right. The internet is in pretty deep trouble. His third section, however, is entirely incorrect.

It's not a matter of rephrasing things, or of fighting laws, or of our rights to speak, or any of that. This is what happens when things get popular. They get conquered by wealthy corporations, fattened, and then slaughtered. The internet will die, someday. You cannot change that, you cannot prevent that. It is as inevitable as eating. Money always wins, has always won, will always win.

But saying that the internet will die is not the same as saying communication will die. Geeks and hackers of all ages and types are rapidly learning that the cracks where money cannot see run deep, and in those shadowed depths the data runs wild. You can get anything down there, from the illegal to the immoral and all the way back again.

Law will hammer down on us, the same way it hammers down on all our inventions and breakthroughs. And, as before, we'll retreat to those cracks, until the rush of our wild data wears the cracks into rivers. Then, money will come and turn those rivers into bogs, and we'll find new cracks to inhabit. That's the way it's always been.

But this time, there's a difference.

If the internet becomes unusuable (an unlikely worst-case scenario), what do geeks do? Well, I'll tell you what I could do, and I don't count myself as even in the top 1% of geeks:

I would find it remarkably easy to convert over to peer networking. Short-range connectivity within a city can be maintained using WiFi or equivalent. It's cheaper than you might think. Long range connectivity can be made using any number of technologies. Even if all the data channels, such as cell phone calls and internet pipes, are closely monitored and restricted, you can still use older techniques updated with new compression algorithms. What kind of bandwidth do you think you can get off of a hidden multi-frequency HAM radio transmission?

Sure, our speeds would suffer. But geeks don't actually care about speed. People think we do. Even geeks think we do. But what we really care about is having more data than anyone else. On this internet, that means speed. On a peer network, that would be connection knowledge, trust registries, and darknet access points.

And that's absolutely worst case.

Geeks cannot be stopped. There are too many of us connected, now, and we'll never go back to being unconnected. Any attempt to disconnect the mass intelligence we've become will be routed around with astonishing speed and creativity.

So, yes, the internet is now bloating. Someday, it will begin to die. But by the time it is wheezing its last, we'll have a powerful, unregulated new method of staying connected. Then, it too will bloat and die.

And we'll get another one. Money can chase us, money can even eat a few of us. But there are too many geeks to stop, communicating too efficiently to track.

Simply put, for once in the history of mankind, there are more geeks than money.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Too Many Brilliant People...

Not enough conversation!

Okay, so they probably talk with each other all the time, but they leave me out of the loop.

Here are the articles of Paul Graham, author of a fun book called "Hackers and Painters". I suggest you read it. I got it for free, because Fry's had this rebate for the price of the book, but I would gladly pay full price. I didn't even know he had a significant web presence until yesterday. Anyhow, he's brilliant, if a little scatterbrained at times.

There's dozens of these kinds of pages that I stumble across. Brilliant people with a huge library of brilliant writings. It's impossible to tell whether people have visited their site, whether anyone else has read the articles. And it's impossible to discuss them. Of course, if it isn't impossible to discuss them, it still ends up being impossible to discuss them, simply because there will be ten thousand comments and you'll be pissing in the ocean.

Does Paul Graham know about, say, Freakonomics? Do they know about him? Their methodologies are like two sides of the same coin, and we won't discuss who is the tail. I would think they would get along splendidly.

But they probably barely even know that the other exists.

This is just one example out of ten thousand. I'm sure that these people are pretty happy living their lives as they are: they're all quite successful, and I'm sure they have little free time on their hands.

The thing is, it's also true of "the underground": people like me. A chunk of enforced free time, the will and capability to discuss theory of virtually any kind. All the pages I find that impress me are successful - obviously, you'll tend to find pages of successful people rather than unknowns, and that's a good thing, usually. But they aren't the kind of people to sit down with an unknown and shoot the breeze.

Now, my instinct is to either find or found a forum which allows you to discuss any kind of theory at any level. The problem with such a forum is that leeches show up. People who aren't very intelligent, but think they are. People who step into discussions which are way, way above their level of comprehension, slowing it to a halt as tutoring is performed.

That, of course, is ignoring the inherent problem of "swamping".

Clearly, no "normal" forum could manage this. But perhaps one could be designed with these constraints in mind...

Hm. Then you'd have to figure out a way to populate it heavily enough to keep conversations going...

It would be quite a task. An interesting idea, though.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A thousand specialties, now half off!

I mentioned that I think darknets, alternets, and virtual worlds are going to take off. I'd like to do two things: expand on what that means, and talk about how the legal system is going to explode. The second is, unfortunately, a fifty-page essay in the making. So I'll concentrate on the first.

What does it mean, this explosion of alternate communication substrates?

It means we're going to have a thousand different ways of expressing ourselves, and a thousand different widths and breadths of data density.

For example, a darknet whose architecture is built around trading large files anonymously will have a very different use and UI than a virtual world built around propagating social space. Both will have their niche in the data-centered world of tomorrow, but generally they make poor substitutes for one another.

This is going to become a clearer and clearer division as darknets and virtual worlds hook into each other, in an every-changing froth of live data. A service worth subscribing to will be the continual upgrades to the meta-architecture, allowing your particular instance of a particular darknet or virtual world to hook up to another, ever-changing darknet or virtual world. Using the net itself will be free: you pay for information on how to connect with the places you want to connect to.

You won't be an expert in "C++". You'll be an expert in "TrawlCrawler File Space". You won't be an expert in "Microsoft Office". You'll be an expert in "BrightCanvas Virtworld". Your expertise will be in how to build, share, and mine data in that virtual world, and it'll be fully as specialized as the difference between C++ and MS Office.

At least, that's what I think.

Reading Your Mind!

Here is an interesting site.

One of the things I'm pretty good at is measuring interest. As in, it's the foundation of just about all my skills save programming itself.

All humans have a knack for "reading" other humans. Some people don't excersize that knack, and others have unusual skill. But when we look at someone, chat with someone, or watch someone, we learn a lot about them.

There's a meme going around that it's "bad to judge by appearances" - it's a twisted mutant offspring of the "equal rights" meme. That's bullshit. You can, do, and should judge people by what you see, hear, and smell. Sure, you shouldn't assume a black person has whatever qualities you might assign black people, but if you see those qualities, then that person has those qualities, whether he is black, white, or heliotrope.

I'm rather adamant about this, because I'm really good at it, and each year I realize I'm twice as good as I was the year before. I catch a lot of flak from people, largely because I'm totally tactless. However, I can't ever remember being wrong about someone's personality. This is what leads to my harsh dismissals, my arrogance: I can tell what you are like, what you are interested in, and where you are in your life. More importantly, I can tell whether or not you'll ever get anywhere.

Is it "private data" that I am collecting? If I can clearly tell someone is having a rough time at home, or that someone is gay, or that someone is a clear credit risk, am I "stealing" this information?

Of course not. It's publically available information. I just happen to pay more attention than others.

Similarly, AttentionTrust's assumption that your attention is "private information" is total bunk.

Of course you should have access to that information. But you do. You're making all the choices. While you do these actions in public, whoever you are with (say, Google, or perhaps whoever's page you are surfing) can also see these actions. And, if they want, they can tell anyone they want, the same way I could say, "boy, Joe looks like he's in a bad mood today" or "did you notice Sue likes horses?"

I am not required to tell you that I know you're having a bad day, or that I figured out you like horses. And neither is Google or anyone else. In fact, many people make very good money by telling you what they figured out about you. Or pretending to.

Providing you with a method of tracking your own attention is great, but the idea that people are somehow doing something immoral by noticing what you do in their front yard is bogus.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I'm seeing a swelling of alternets. Programs that circumvent standard internet protocols and create a network of computers using a more egalitarian methodology. Them's big words meaning: "computers are starting to talk to each other directly."

It seems to be getting steadily more popular. Some are built on top of the internet, some are built to avoid internet architecture entirely. All of them are unregulated and anarchist.

So, ask yourself: is it a fad, a blip? Or is it the pre-early-adopter phase of a Big Thing?

The roots of these systems can be tracked back easily to the early days, joyous days of modem-powered BBS and dollar-a-minute pre-internet connectivity. As the internet rose in power, geeks followed it and followed a similar rise in power. Geeks are early adopters, and they flourish when there is pioneering work to do.

The rebellion against the internet didn't start until it became painfully clear that the internet was no longer in early adopter phase. No longer was it a geek plaything. Mapped by Google, legislated by the government, it became Just Another Mainstream Thing. Never was this more clear than when P2P systems began to be held responsible for the data they transmitted.

Ever since the death of Napster, these shadowy alternative internets have started to show up, as geeks begin to seek a way to continue to own and pioneer the field of information technology (communication being the most important of geek traditions). P2P networks such as BitTorrent and Emule are primitive examples of these alternets - geeks seeking to swap information without moderation by The Man.

As with early BBS systems, these P2P networks have primitive capabilities. However, just as the internet grew up, these alternets are growing up. These days, it doesn't take much hunting to find a fledgling alternet which is virtually identical in capabilities to the internet (even using the same browser) except for one small detail:

They are anonymous and untrackable, powered by the people browsing them rather than by huge central systems.

They are built out of WiFi, out of known-friendly contact lists, out of parasites on the fat pipes. They are an techno-anarchist's dream.

It feels like hacking, again. For however long hackers can maintain control.

Of course, that includes all the parts of hacking that the mainstream hates: finicky connections, obscure functionality, and elitism. But that comes with the territory, and if you belong there, you get along great in that kind of environment.

Are these alternets, these darknets - are they growing, or just a fad?

They're growing. Geeks naturally hate corporation-and-government owned pipes. We are not corporations or governments, and they don't much like us: we're unreliable assholes who continually punch holes in their propaganda. The internet is becoming ever more a corporate-and-government owned place. Our searches are mandated by unfeeling engines powered by money. Our experiences are governed by software which both tracks us and falls prey to anyone with an agenda.

Geeks will always be the first to abandon a calcifying ship. This has always been true. Geeks jump-started every major means of communication ever made... then abandoned it as everyone else got on board. Even newspapers!

You can be sure that these darknets will become a daily part of geek life in ten years. And ten years after that, everyone will be using them, and geeks will move on to something else.

Because we are neophiles, and we don't like being told what we can and can't do. This is the way we have always been.

Now notice: the vast majority of technological innovation comes from people who hate being told what to do. People who would be anarchists if they could figure out a way to do it without being punched in the nose by someone bigger than them. People who will stare at you blankly when you ask, "why are you programming that?" Geeks move society forward.

And the way we do that is by turning our chosen field into a huge number of different versions. Then we pick and choose the best, which steadily grows until it becomes a (usually corrupt) monopoly. 2% of us are fantastically wealthy, having chosen properly, and the other 98% dive into a new field, cause a new mess, and try again.

One of the new fields is P2P networking. It's not a fad, it's a field which is about to reach early adopter phase. It's hard to see at the moment, but as geeks move on to embrace alternets, the internet will fall deeper into the clutches of governments and corporations. Their frenzied attempts to maintain control over yesterday's distribution channels will cause darknets, alternets, and virtual worlds to become ever more popular.

You can see it in history. Books become movies. Movies become games. Brick & concrete stores become on-line stores. And each time, the giants scrambled keep their methods intact and to suppress and cripple the new methods. And each time, they failed.

Keep your eye on the bouncing ball, ladies and gentlemen. It's about to go into trust-based peer networking.

The Movies

The Movies

An in-depth critique

By Craig Perko

The Story

My experience with The Movies did not start off well. I brought home the case to find it contained 3 CDs rather than a single DVD. Why? Who knows. More importantly, the third CD was defective. So I got - for once - to read the instruction manual.

It tasted like corporate. Bleah. The whole thing vaguely talked down to you the whole time - and it had ads in it.

The next day I fetched a replacement third CD and returned home. At which point I entered the 25-digit gibberish that they call an activation code. I am happy to report it did not require me to register on-line, which is good, since I can't do that. I am sad to report, however, that the installer was at least as corporate-tasting as the manual, treating their installation code as if it were a precious gift they were deigning to give me.

Anyhow, it worked after that, but I was worried worried about the game at this point. The whole experience smelled like funk, and not the good kind.

The Gameplay

The gameplay of The Movies is bad.

Let me rephrase:

If you're a huge fan of The Sims, you're going to feel right at home. Using an engine ENTIRELY cloned from The Sims 2, you get to feel the joy of micromanaging an estate roughly the size of Virginia. Make sure to tell your stars what to do at all times, every hour of the day, because otherwise they don't tend to their basic needs! Oh, how much fun!

Playing the game feels like fighting your way through thick fog while wearing shackles. There's too many oblique elements. Too many things that aren't connected to the central play of the game. Which, it should be noted, is why I didn't like The Sims. If the game is about layout, then let me concentrate on that. If the game is about filming movies, let me concentrate on that.

Otherwise, you end up with movies like this. 1 meg. It's WMV, because that's all they allow you to export. It's my highest-grossing movie to date. Optimizations include: using whatever sets are rated the most interesting, even if they don't make any sense; using whoever isn't stressed at the moment; using a minimum of scenes to achieve maximum script quality, even if that means they don't make sense; doing no meaningful postproduction at all, because it takes time and doesn't contribute much.

Alas, Lionhead evidently did not feel the urge to include an assistant to handle the parts of the game you don't want to bother with, so this kind of "come on already!" feeling is pretty much continuous. Like when movies stop earning, they make you manually move them to archive instead of moving them automatically, even though there's nothing else meaningful to do with them. Like moving movies from "ready to shoot" to "shooting". Like sprucing up the terrain. Like putting scientists to work when a new field is uncovered, instead of having them continue to laze around and do nothing.

Apparently, there is a more forgiving "sandbox" mode. Unfortunately, it does not give you complete access. You have to "play through" their shitty game first.

It's not even a hard game. It's just a shitty game. I have more than three million dollars: that means my "wealthy" rating cannot get any higher. I could afford to sit on my ass and simply wait for the year 2000 to come, fifty years from now. Or I could, if I had an assistant to handle the stupid little details. Anyway, time moves so slowly that there is no way to "skip" the empty decades.


The Movies, Overview

Let's talk a little about the movies.

As is becoming the standard for Lionhead games, the ideas have much promise and the execution is depressingly poor. They do not allow for custom content: you are stuck with the sets, monsters, scenes, props, and costumes they provide. They do allow you to recombine the various elements of some of these: you can add props to scenes, and put hats on people. But that's a poor substitute.

The scene creation is a burden the likes of which a man should never have to experience. First, it should be made clear: the engine has not the foggiest. About anything. It doesn't assume you want the next two seconds of the scene to be in the same place as the first two seconds. It doesn't assume you might want to continue with something related to the first two seconds. Every time, it makes you select which set to use from the master list, then allows you to select a scene fragment from that master list.

Unfortunately, selecting a scene fragment is like pulling splinters from under your fingernails. The list of fragments is at least a hundred long, but they are only displayed six at a time. You can "filter" and search, which would be helpful if they had an actual range of scenes, but they don't. So, more often than not, searching gives you half a dozen worthless results and nothing useful.

For example, they have eight different "read book" scenes, the only difference is, as far as I can tell, what expression the reader uses. On the other hand, they have "enter with rifle", but not "enter with shotgun". They have "fire shotgun", but not "fire rifle". You can "replace" props, but that doesn't mean "replace them with something different", it means "replace them with another version of the exact same prop". You cannot replace a rifle with a shotgun, but there are fifty other kinds of rifle you can replace it with.

The scenes often have a little flexibility, but that flexibility is painfully limited. Usually, it consists of how active you want the scene to be or how long you want it to run.

Now let's start ranting.


Set design in this game is painfully uninspired, consisting solely of the basics. That would be fine if you could design your own sets or import sets. However, you can't. Moreover, in 99% of the scenes, you aren't allowed to change the camera angle, meaning that you can't have, for example, two scenes of people talking on a starship bridge. Both will look identical.

Now, I know for a fact that many big-budget movies manufacture their own sets, or at least heavily modify existing sets. Why can't we?

Here's an idea: a "build set" button which, instead of just giving you a list of listless sets, allows you to build a custom set. You choose an architecture, then the various graphics for the elements. So you could have a "living room" architecture, but use "Space 2001" graphics, resulting in a living room of the future! Decorations could be placed then, instead of having to carefully re-dress the set exactly the same every time you want to visit it in a particular movie.

You could even - get this - you could even let the player control the camera! I know, it's a wild idea which has never been done before, except in every 3D game in history. However, this amazing new technology could have been utilized by Lionhead. I think they might know how.


As I mentioned, building a scene is a lot like a root canal, except without the drilling sound. There are so many ways this could have been done better, it boggles the mind!

For example, why does the engine have no concept of "what might come next"? Obviously, you want to be able to override the engine's guesses, but the engine doesn't even have any. If Duke enters with a shotgun, you would think the next scene fragment would consist of him doing something shotgun related, someone reacting to his shotgun, or at the very least he would still be carrying the shotgun.

The scenes are obviously inadequate to the purposes of filming a coherent movie. This would be fine if it allowed you to customise and import scenes, but it doesn't. Why not? Presumably because Lionhead doesn't want any sex in their movies, and they know that's the first thing put in any customisable game.

Take the fucking plunge, you cowards. Boy, it sure would be nice to be able to make the characters talk, then turn away from each other. But it's not possible, because you don't allow me to edit their skeletal animations in even the weakest way. It sure would be nice to make them hesitate when my script wants them to hesitate, but, again, not possible!

This is entirely without mentioning the idiotic way you pick scenes. Here's an idea: use text entry. This amazing new technology is hard to find, it's true, but is the cutting edge for allowing for a wide range of actions. For example, if the user types "Duke enters with a shotgun", the game engine can easily parse out what characters are doing what with what props. After that, graphical manipulation can allow you to bring Duke in from a different angle, change his shotgun, or even make him look suspicious. Although you also could simply write "... looking suspicious".

Sure, it would have inaccuracies. But the inaccuracies would be about one one-millionth the idiocy of these pre-recorded scene fragments.


The costume UI is cloned from Playboy: the Mansion. Consisting of a number of sliders which allow you to "modify" the costume, it allows for some variation in color schemes and hats.

However, you cannot import custom graphics for your costumes, you cannot do nude scenes, and the costume system is schizophrenic. Oh, and facial hair is all wax paint, so you can't go ZZTop.

Nude scenes wouldn't be so terrifically irritating if they didn't have so many scene fragments which are intended for nude scenes. If your characters ever take a bath or a shower or go to bed or make out, they have to wear swimsuits or underwear. By egregious oversight, you cannot make these costumes flesh-colored.

Come on, even TV has nude scenes, with blankets pulled over the naughty bits or clever camera angles. Lionhead didn't even bother giving us that.

Custom costumes are a requirement. I presume Lionhead doesn't allow them because they fear (A) copyright infringement and (B) nudity. Take the plunge. If you design your game with those problems in mind (like, say, SecondLife) then you won't have any problems and you will have an ecstatic user base.

However, even with their limitations, they did a shitty job. For example, you cannot rip costumes. You cannot get them muddy or wet. You cannot do a scene where a costume change is actively taking place. You cannot wear clothing of the wrong size, or wear a coat over a bikini.

As I mentioned, costumes are also schizophrenic. If you have chosen no particular "fundamental" costume, the computer will assign you a costume based on what set you're on and what scene you're using. Fine. Great.

Except those costumes are really cool and you can't choose them. So you can only have the super-costumes in that one scene. I'm not kidding!

In addition, technology levels are thoroughly screwed up. For example, I don't have latex masks as part of my ensemble normally, but if I choose a bandaged outfit, I do. Only for bandaged outfits! So all my monsters are bandaged!

Of course, when it assigns you a costume, it totally ignores what kind of technology you have. Here is a movie where I'll show you what I mean. 1.7 megs, WMV.

This movie was made in the 40s. All of the costumes except the werewolf costume were assigned by the computer. I don't have access to any of the other monster costumes! Which means I can't fucking use them in my movie.

Moreover, I've had CG monsters from MOCAP, Gollum-style. In the 40s! Obviously, I don't have access to that monster for any other part of the movie.

Also, as a side note, there's no children. You can't put children in your movies. Let alone new and interesting monsters. There aren't even any not-played-by-a-human monsters. No space leeches, no insect swarms, no snakes.


"Feelings, nothing at all like... feelings. Woh-woh-woh."

For a game where portraying emotion is one of the core requirements, it's bizarre that these puppets can't portray emotion. For example, during one of the bath scenes, it gives you the option to select what emotion they are feeling during their bath: happy, sad, scared, etc.

Selecting this emotion slams a rictus death mask on their face which parodies that emotion. That's all. You select happy, he puts on the Joker's grin and it stays there, never wavering, for the entire 10 second scene.

That's not emotion! Come on, what were you guys thinking?

Aside from the fact that it should also have an intensity slider, it should animate their emotions. People don't grin like wooden statues. They make break into a grin, but other expressions cross their face.

When I tell him to "bathe happily", he should smile, grin briefly, pause for a body language moment, look at the ceiling contently, maybe hum or laugh. If I tell him to "bathe angrily", he should scowl, rub fiercely at his limbs while he washes, stare at the water and shoot glances to the side, frown, and so forth. At no point should his face be still! And the animation should not just be his face - his body language needs to change.

(Here's a question: why the hell can't I just click on an actor's face and command him to show a specific emotion?)

The animations in general are very poor. Perhaps their engine doesn't allow you to combine animations with overlapping skeletal commands. It should. Their whole engine should be built around that.

My instinct is that a scene should be nothing more than a list of meta-animations. Meta-animations can be weighted with various emotions, which changes their exact execution. Although this would require "animation on the fly", I think computers these days can handle it.

Then a player could add and subtract meta-animations to customize the scenes. Even export and import custom scenes!

Final Score

Lionhead fumbles again. This game isn't terrible, but it's not something to be proud of.

Unlike The Sims, there's no humanity to the characters in this game. That means that you aren't likely to be entertained by the act of micromanaging them. :P

Google Analytics

I'm going to put some Google Analytics up, see how they run.

Google is, I think, quite brilliant. Assuming it ever works (it isn't operational yet), this creates wealth for both sides.

See, you get to see who visits your site, how to enhance your traffic, and all that stuff - using an advanced yet tolerably simple tool! In exchange, Google gets the exact same information, allowing them to know exactly how much you are worth, how you should be weighed, and how much they should expect in terms of ad response!

Only a search-engine titan could perform this kind of maneuver. It's actually kind of scary to see a mammoth company dancing like a clever start-up. Yow!

Friday, November 11, 2005

More Friday than I Care for...

Of course, since I posted about how glad I was that it was Friday, I am now required to work many hours of overtime before I can go home.



Man am I glad it's Friday. Winter is always tough for me.


Thursday, November 10, 2005


Because I have a terminal case of "geek", I am a big fan of superheroes.

If you're rating superheroes (which you have to do, if you're making a game about it), your natural instinct is to do things like "strength: 7" "class 3 flight" "fireball, statistics as follows:"

This is more or less thoroughly useless as ratings go. Last night while falling asleep, I thought of a much better way to rate them. Of course, when I woke up the next morning, I realized it was bunk. But from that bunk, I figured out how to rate them.

There are really only two "useful" superhero games out at the moment. City of Whatever and Freedom Force. City of Whatever is carefully balanced, meaning "neutered". All the heroes are neutralized into the same "category". Here's three examples:

A) You can beat up lava monsters with your bare hands.
B) You can't kill dozens of enemies at once with your fire power, don't ask why.
C) You use the same attacks on a 90 foot tall monster as on a 9 inch tall toy.

There are some small differences between characters. For example, some people can fly, others jump. Some people's moves have a higher hit rate. Some people's moves stun. Some people don't have offensive moves at all. The latter is the only real difference to be found between the characters.

Freedom Force is better because it doesn't need to be balanced, but it's painfully UNbalanced. The costs of all the various skills don't change based on your other capabilities, even though their effectiveness certainly does!

For example, the "punch you in the face" move does much more damage for strong characters, but is worth the same number of points regardless of your strength. Ranged attacks cost the same amount no matter whether you're a fast flier or a slow, lumbering ox.

You could say, "that's why you pick synergistic attacks". But the points are supposed to rate the total strength of your hero, so that's inaccurate. Moreover, if your character has a bunch of unrelated attacks, they don't cost any more. Make a character with fire, radiation, and stun attacks, and virtually every enemy in the game is critically weak to you. Despite the fact that those attacks really don't have much to do with each other and turn you into a killing machine, your rating doesn't reflect your real power.

Vector math to the rescue!

By using vector math, it's very easy to see which powers and combinations of powers have which strengths. At least for direct powers: indirect powers (such as buffs) are very rare in the superhero genre. As far as I know, they are really only found in City of Whatever.

It's pretty easy to rate a superhero by their vectors. Functionally, it's very similar to stats, except you choose useful stats.

For example, you could rate Wolverine:
Movement: 5m/s land (enhanced climb)
Melee: 2m reach, 0.2s speed, linear effect, X blade damage.
Defense: Extremely durable, regenerates X % or dmg per second.

Then you could rate, say, Cyclops:
Movement: 3m/s land
Ranged: 5m/s linear effect, 0.3s speed, X kinetic damage.
Melee: 2m reach, 0.3s speed, linear effect, X kinetic damage.

This, of course, doesn't take into account skill at melee combat. Whether you want to allow for melee combat skill, or simply enhance the stats inch by inch, depends on your game design.

But from these stats, you can determine who would win in combat. Given Wolverine's greater land speed and ability to dodge Cyclops' ranged attacks while at range, Wolverine isn't vulnerable to long-range damage. If you gave Cyclops a cone-effect gaze rather than a linear gaze, it might be a bit tighter, but we didn't do that. If the characters are under player control, Wolverine's player would need to be pretty good to dodge, given the speeds involved.

Assuming Wolverine gets in to close range, it's a fair bet that Cyclops won't use melee attacks unless there are rules for interfering with melee attacks using melee attacks. His gaze is just as fast and far more effective.

Then it would come down to the math. In 0.3 seconds, Wolverine can move ~2 meters (or equivalent in turning, ducking, etc). However, Wolvie's reaction speed isn't instantaneous. If it takes him 0.1s to react, he can only move 1 meter before Cyclops blasts. At close range, the time it takes for the blast to reach Wolverine is pretty much zero. Given that Cyclops can continue to aim even as his timer counts down, it becomes obvious that Wolverine is in deep trouble unless your dodging protocols are quite forgiving.

However, Wolverine's own attack takes 0.2 seconds and has a 2 meter range. That means that if he's within two meters, he can interrupt Cyclops' assault with his fist, assuming a <0.1s reaction time. Otherwise, he's in a lot of trouble and would have to play a game of hide-and-seek to get close enough.

By simple calculation, you can determine the circumstances in which each would have the advantage, down to the millisecond of timing needed. Of course, this is hardly a complete system. Cyclops' beam hasn't been given any limitation, so he could theoretically just keep blasting. This could be solved either by making his beam blind him or by giving him an overheat/recycle condition. In addition, Wolverine's feral movement type may give him dodge advantages such as side-dashes and pounces. And, of course, I haven't pointed out any minimum effective ranges.

This calculation is pretty complex, but it's the sort of calculation computers can do without difficulty. You'll want to come up with categories that the players can grok. For example, Wolvie would be a "blitzer" and Cyclops would be "ranged". You could make the distinction between ranged attackers who are good against blitzers and those that are bad against blitzers. For example, Jean Grey is very good against blitzers because she can just grab them and hurl them around. Green Arrow is bad against blitzers, because they are usually fast enough to dodge (or catch!) his arrows.

The level of automation in the fight is up to you. Most games have an auto-dodge, but don't show the character dodging. Which is kind of stupid, really. And very few games allow your superhero to get tossed around in that good old Marvel way. You might even make melee combat mostly automated once you've closed.

But the point is: you can calculate what kinds of characters your hero will be best against, and from that determine point value.

Yeah, okay, it's geeky.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Best Christmas Music

I've found the best Christmas song I've heard since "Christmas at Ground Zero". This song was sung in 1962. Oh, how times change, eh?

You're looking for "Merry Christmas, you Suckers". :D

The Bing Crosby song is also bizarre...

So, get into the Christmas Spirit, you suckers!

What's in a Tagline?

A lot of new writers and designers come up with "plots" that sound like something that was old in the sixties. This isn't really their fault: it's the way they've distilled the plot. They've lost - or never had - a hook. A hook is very simple, but not very easy.

There is a continuous drone of these kinds of plots to the IGDA forums. "This guy tracks down the four elemental amulets". Bleah. Occasionally you get one with a little promise, such as "this girl comes back from the dead to prevent her mother's murder". Properly executed, that example could be a solid game or movie. High-tension and disturbing. Even though it lacks punch, it has an underlying hook.

What's the difference? "Cliche"? Not really. Here, let's review a few other summaries.

"Most humans live in a virtual world controlled by machines. One of the humans which wakes is the only one with the ability to control that virtual world." It's the plot from The Matrix, of course. Personally, I hate any plot which relies on "the one" technique, but it is undeniable that there is a hook there. Reading it makes you say, "hm. That could be cool."

Here's another good one: "In a cyberpunk future, a man hunts androids which look exactly like humans." That doesn't exactly catch you these days - it was a genre-maker, so it sounds cliche. But back then, the idea of how technology that looked like a man would act was intensely new and interesting. Moreover, as with The Matrix, the execution was very good.

Good movies and bad movies, good games and bad games, they all have this "hook". Something which says, "hey, this is an odd and interesting situation". Whether it's a romance movie or Doom. That's because NOTHING can get made until you have hooks! Otherwise, it catched nobody's attention and nobody cares.

Hooks are based in the cultures of today. One of the major reasons Doom III failed was because it's hook was from the eighties:

"A lone marine in a space colony has to fight off hordes of monsters." In the eighties, that would have been cool, like Blade Runner's summary was cool back then. But these days, we know marines, we know space colonies, and we know monsters.

I'm not exactly a supreme pro at this, but I've become quite good at hooks with my multitude of GMing. Most of my hooks are more like The Matrix: I have a tendency to explore how reality functions, rather than how one person fits into that reality.

For example, "In a universe of infinite universes, whole realities are collapsing and calcifying. As lords of chaos and potentiality, you (the players) are on the forefront."

Or, if you want something more mundane: "In a cyberpunk future, something has broken in from beyond reality as humans conceive of it. The city of (whichever city it was) has been consumed by these intruders from the unknowable, and the only ones who have any hope of stopping it before it spreads are also intruders from the unknowable: you."

The most mundane I've ever done: "1986, The City. A meteor has struck, instilling dozens of people across The City with supernatural powers. Ordinary folk, such as Mr. T, Bruce Lee, and Dracula have gained special abilities! Play your favorite eighties-movie character in this 4 hour LARP!"

Unfortunately, I don't really get much more mundane than that. These hooks appeal to a specific audience. They are all "kinetic" hooks. Not all hooks need to have the "KA-BAM! IT CHANGED!" feeling, but most of mine tend to.

Anyhow, as far as I can tell, there's three elements to a successful "hook" - and a successful hook will drive you and your story.

A) Where am I?
B) Who am I?
C) Why do I care?

Every interesting game or story has an interesting setting. Even most BAD games have an interesting setting. A setting sets the whole tone of the game, and can be described in one sentence - less if it's a classic ("cyberpunk future"), but hopefully not more. This isn't the event, it's just where the event takes place.

Similarly, most games and stories have interesting characters for the audience to step into. This is really where I shine, I think. My settings are often too bizarre or a little trite, but my characters are always nicely weird and interesting. If you don't have someone interesting for the player to "look through", what's the point of playing?

It can be argued that "why do I care" is the most important. I disagree, to some extent: in a book or movie, perhaps, but even then I have doubts. In a game, just being that interesting person in that interesting place is often enough. Anyone who likes GTAIII can tell you that.

However, you still need a "why do I care" to punch plot elements into high gear. You don't need to explicitly state it to the public if it's patently obvious, but you should always state it to yourself.

With that in mind:

The Matrix:
A) Today as a virtual world and a post-apocalyptic future.
B) The only human who can control the virtual world.
C) To free the human race from their virtual world. (Implicit)

Blade Runner:
A) A cyberpunk future.
B) A classic noir detective.
C) To hunt down androids that look just like humans.

Obviously, this is hardly the only thing you need to do. But I find it drives the development of the story in my mind. I imagine it could prove useful to you, planning your games or stories. If you find that any one element is too boring, punch it up a notch.

For example, The Machine City (my game in development):

Machine City (Early Version):
A) Steampunk in the monster at the center of the earth!
B) A plucky pilot and her team of mad scientists.
C) Errr. They shoot stuff and discover stuff. (NOT implicit...)

Okay, "where" and "who" are passable, although "who" is a bit iffy due to mushy definition. However, there's no "punch" to the plot, because there is nothing to get the characters MOVING.

Sometimes, you can be dazzled by one or two elements of this threesome, and totally miss the third. Keeping this in mind can help you to ground yourself and make your plot the best it can be.

That said, I'm still gnawing at (C). Not entirely sure what the best approach is, although I know the basics. If I had a clear one-line hook, I wouldn't be mumbling and grumping, I'd be moving forward.


Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute is the brain of the anti-science movement, if you can call such idiocy a "brain". It supplies money and organization to the various pro-creationist movements. Their beliefs and behavior are astoundingly self-destructive, and they have targeted a science (evolution) whose only major benefits have been in the medical industry. Unlike virtually every other branch of science, evolution has only produced things which save lives. That's what they are fighting, in case you aren't up to speed. They, and stem-cell/genetic alarmists, are actively dooming people to lingering deaths. Deaths which could be prevented. People who could be cured, fed, and healed will die. Hundreds of thousands.

They are the worst kind of being. They are either liars or delusional, and they sway the nation against some of the purest, most noble works of science. For no reason other than their own insanity or gluttony for power.

And they are three blocks from me.

Bleagh. I think I'm going to be sick.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Will Who?

I was just thinking of internet anonymity.

In my "real" life, I'm fairly well respected. I mean, sure, people think I'm an arrogant asshole - but they think I'm an arrogant asshole who's usually got something interesting and often entertaining to say.

So, when I talk with people I know, I know where I stand. I know that my commentary is heard, if not necessarily agreed with. Because most of my daily interactions are with people I know, my real-life conversations are on rather comforting footing.

I was thinking about the internet version of this.

Will Wright is a god to most gamers. If Will Wright posted to a game development forum, there would be two responses, repeated a zillion times: "Ohmygod it's Will Wright eeeeeee!" and "You can't be Will Wright, stop pretending!" Then everyone would be totally intrigued by what he was typing, although the "respected" people of the forum would pretend to treat him as if he weren't their hero and was just another fellow worthy of respect, in vague hope of getting him into a conversation which would prove they are worthy, and while trying to avoid gross grammatical errors such as clumsy run-on sentences like this one.

But if Will Wright posted to, say, a forum on how to manage your 401k plan, people would simply treat him like any newb: judge him on the content of his post.

Obviously, this is the same in real life. If I walked into a bar and started talking, people would judge me by what I was saying (and whether they were in any mood to listen). But that doesn't happen very often to most people. We rarely have to deal meaningfully with people who don't know who we are. Even when we're dealing with strangers, we've got an angle: they're asking us for help, or we're asking them for help, usually. We know roughly what position is occupied at any given time, even if it is occupied by a total stranger.

If we do go into a bar, we go in with friends. We bring our connections with us, we bring our respect structures with us.

So, in life, it's pretty uncommon for someone to enter a situation in which they are totally unknown and new.

Why is it so common on-line?

Every forum we go to, unless we're mega-names, is starting over as total newbs. It's uncommon to carry your "friends" with you, and when you do, it feels like you're using alternate accounts to beef up your rep.

I wonder how that feels, if you've got screaming hordes of fanboys. Would you relish the chance to be anonymous, or would you simply not bother with the on-line world at all? Would you post to a forum as "Mr. Wrong" until someone finally caught on that you were "Mr. Wright" - then abruptly stop posting?

How does it affect his ego, when he posts to game forums as a god, but anywhere else he posts he's seen as a nobody?


(Will Wright was chosen at random. I am not referencing anything he has actually done, as far as I know.)

Drifting Towards Mother

Here's a simple question:

When did it become popular to call "Earthbound" by its Japanese title, "Mother"?

I've never heard anyone call it "Mother" seriously before, but ever since the next of the series was spotlighted, nobody calls it "Earthbound". It's "Mother".

My preference is "Earthbound". Not only is it a really solid-sounding name that's fun to say, it doesn't make me think: "RETRIEVE XENOMORPH SPECIMEN. CREW EXPENDABLE."


That said, I'm really jazzed about Mother 3.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Mad for Madden?

I spoke with one of this building's security guards today.

He plays an occasional game, but the complexity and skill requirements of many of today's games are far beyond him, and he certainly doesn't have the time to get up to speed.

This is, of course, a known problem that lots of designers are lamenting. "We want more games like Katamari Damacy, where even a game-illiterate person can just pick up and play!"

Here's the fun twist, though:

He can't play sports games because they are too complex.

He's totally pumped up about this one game in particular - I believe it was the most recent Madden - which essentially has someone guiding you in some form of a "tutorial" mode if needed. The learning curve flattened out, and he loves it! He loves it enough to go without sleep to play it for the entire night. He says it's the first 'recent' sports title he's been able to play without feeling lost.

Funny. I never ever thought that sports games had the same kind of super-skill requirements other genres have. It makes sense once it's said, but I always kind of assumed the games were largely very simple, aside from the statistics and roster selection, which I viewed as optional.

Well well. The little things you learn.


So, the riots in France finally made the front pages today, as tiny blurbs underneath the "big news" of a tornado. Here is a quick overview for the unfamiliar.

It's a touchy subject, and I'm not a leading expert. The surface data is simple: the rioters are primarily north African Muslims who live in shantytowns. People seem to be of the opinion that the riots are caused due to either:

A) The fact that most Muslim immigrants remain largely un-integrated into French society or

B) Muslim people follow a violent religion.

(B) is obviously untenable. Similar riots have occurred for various Christian religions. Even pagan religions have had such riots, back in the depths of time.

This isn't because a given religion is more or less violent, these days. It's just that religion is such a good dividing line. Because it is so clear, it is used to define "us" vs "them" - often interchangeably with someone's native location. For example, "all Irish are Catholic" or "everyone from the middle east is Muslim".

(A) is sort-of the problem, in the same way that "a sinus headache" is the "problem" when you have the flu. Of course, the real problem is that you have the flu, which causes all sorts of other problems most people call "symptoms" rather than "problems".

In my opinion, the non-integration wasn't a "problem", it was a "symptom". Like a sinus headache, it has made much of France extremely irritable. It could be considered the police's fault, or argued to be the poor's fault, but our interest is in solving it, not placing blame. The real question is: what caused that non-integration?

The answer, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is economics.

France's economy isn't good. While it is the fifth-largest, it is suffering horribly. It has a huge excess of foreign direct investments (other countries controlling French assets). It has the GDP per capita of a nation half its economic "size". It has a shockingly high unemployment rate.

Abot 10% of the "active" population is without a job, which is quite high for a "stable" nation. In addition, students prolong their studies to delay their entry into the work force, which makes that figure lower than it really is: it doesn't include students as "unemployed".

Their production is very good, which makes the nation look well off. But that wealth never reaches the population, because too many of them aren't working.

When this kind of economic pain occurs, the population starts segmenting. When there's a strong, golden economy, there's a lot of progress made towards integrating foreigners and minorities. Look at the eighties and nineties, in which the US economy did well and minority culture became mainstream culture.

Contrast this with the Irish in both America and the UK. Well into the nineteen century they were considered an inferior, violent race with a vile religion. Oh, how things change! However, as the industrial-revolution driven economy ramped up to speed, they became accepted. (Some people argue it was simply that the "inferior and violent" tag was passed on to the black. Perhaps, but the timing is iffy.)

When things start going badly, people start closing in. It's not just blaming other people for your misfortune: it's also not letting "strangers" in on your successes.

This creates an environment in which the poor stay poor. I can think of no better way to insure unrest.

Why does France's economy suck so hard?

Look into it. It's only a Google search away. That's not my beef with this post. My beef is:

A happy economy means a happy country. So, please, politicians, stop making my economy cry!