Saturday, December 31, 2005

Home again, home again, jiggety jig!

Or, rather, home for the first time.

It's not as nice as Seattle, but I have high hopes for the people here. And, hey, if I really can't stand it, I'm not committed for a very long time.

You would laugh if I told you what I had to do to get my home computer connected to the internet here. Perhaps you'll laugh harder to know that this particular computer has been disconnected from the internet for so long that it's (A) still using explorer and (B) using a version so old that everything looks freakish. Firefox, here I come!

Unless someone has a better suggestion...

I'll post more, later. Right now, it's dinner time!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Delayed a day.

Ayup. It happens.

Speaking of which, I've been looking through my old notes. I mean really old notes, from grade school and junior high.

It strikes me that I have no talent for art. Hopefully, I have gained enough skill to offset the utter lack of talent I showed. Art has always been a way to enhance my storytelling, rather than something that should stand on its own, and it's always served that purpose okay.

Speaking of art enhancing storytelling, when I don't have a computer I start dabbling in art more intensively. As I haven't had a computer for a week, I've done quite a bit of dabbling, and polished an interesting storytelling technique for comics. But its one of those things that will never go anywhere. Why?

Well, without going into details as to the exact back history of the short comics, the technique uses storytellers. Characters, either in the story or telling the story, become the artist and narrator. You can tell which character is telling it - and what their views are - by the artistic techniques (and the artistic license) shown on the page.

For example, you might have an eight-year-old-boy and a fourteen-year-old-girl telling the story. Maybe it's mostly the fourteen-year-old-girl's show, but the boy occasionally butts in. And the listener - perhaps their mother - occasionally chimes in with guesses and calling lies. Each of them has a different artistic style. Maybe the girl draws with a more manga-ie style, the boy with a simplified Calvin-n-Hobbs style, and the mom with, I dunno, Chinese brushwork. Similarly, the coloration is different and the dialogue is notably tilted towards the way the author talks. The young boy's dialogue bits, whether they are coming out of his mouth or someone else's, are simpler and clearer. The daughter tends to make adults say "blah blah blah" a lot and skips around with Ritalin-kid pacing. The mom tends towards purple prose and sedate pacing, prompting the children to cut back in to speed it up.

This sounds a bit daunting in verbiage, but when done on paper it flows quite nicely. So long as each "voice" is very distinct, it has a very intuitive feel and a clear effect on the story. The tint of each storyteller tends to color the story in a way which makes you think about each piece of the story from more than one angle. It's an interesting experience to write, and theoretically it should be an interesting experience to read.

There are two "unfortunately"s. One, not having a computer, nothing is scanned or ready to be shown. Two, the method requires storytellers with very disparate worldviews. You can use it for similar worldviews - like, say, the family tale above. Or a bullshitting contest involving a frat party. But there is a nagging urge to take it further, and this all but dooms the technique.

You want to see your authors react to another author's injection. The greater the tension between the authors, and the greater the distance between their perspectives, the more powerful the technique is. This leads naturally to the inclusion of dramatically different characters. Like, say, a jungle native and a girl from the future.

This sounds great, right? Acceptable, at least. Except one problem: your signature. You, the author of the authors, are stapling your name to theirs. So if you draw a very different character, people reading will naturally assume it is your worldview, or at least part of it.

So, what happens when you put in a jungle native, who tells the story his way? Well, you get one hell of a nice lense to focus the story through. You also get a bunch of naked people and a tendency towards basic masculine story arcs involving hunting, women, and brinksmanship. How does it look when someone is reading this through their own cultural filter? They come across pages and pages of naked people, crudely or elegantly drawn, it doesn't matter. Their natural assumption? "Oh, he's obsessed with naked people. Moreover, his plots are childish and developmentally stunted." Not, "oh, that story lense requires simple plots and naked people."

I use the "naked people" example because, here in America, they're the biggest attention-getters. They're probably the first issue you'll hit when you start drawing teenage or ancient culture viewpoints.

But it is a mild example. What if you put in a Mongol warrior vis-a-vis Genghis Khan? Suddenly, you've added rapine, murder, and torture to your repetoire. People will read your comic, and they'll be affected, all right. And the next time they see you, they'll think, "he's a sick fuck."

You can water it down. Make an R-rated set of lenses. But that weakens the power of the technique immensely. It is untrue, the psychology is unbelievable, and suddenly you've rendered a lense nothing more than a curiosity, rather than a valuable viewpoint.

Presumably, other people have discovered this technique and its inherent excesses. Some people touch it lightly, like Princess Bride, Hero, Memento, or True Lies. I cannot think of someone who used it to its full extent, however. Why? I'm not sure. Not all artists are worried about people calling them sick fucks. Is there something else wrong with the idea?

Anyway, it does make for an interesting set of comics. I'll try to draw some which are post-worthy.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Keep on truckin'

Tomorrow is the final stage of my move. If my computer has survived, if my apartment situation works out, I should be fully up and running by Sunday.

Unless, of course, I get very distracted for New Years.

Once up and running, everything should start to move. I expect to be selling a product by April, and my daily wisdom will pour forth like manna from the heavens. And, like the usual manna, it will be flat, dry, tasteless, and fragile.

Here's a few ranty tidbits to tide you over: The Wall Street Journal (which I don't usually get, but have access to here) has had a series of "old news no news" articles. Such as today's astounding revelation that Japan's youth are, generally, even less willing to put up with wage slavery than I am. Wow! Stunner! Totally unexpected, ever since it became obvious ten years ago.

They also have a desperate apologist article for the inversion of returns on two year and ten year bonds. Now ten yearors are offering worse returns than two yearors. In the past, this has always led to an "economic slowdown". That's "condescending economist speak" for "this is really gonna suck". However, they're saying that this time, it could be different! Even the guy who's job depends on the economy doing well says the economy will do okay! You can trust him, it's not like he has any bias!

Sort of like saying, "well, the moon has always been solid when we've rammed stuff into it before, but maybe this time, it'll turn out to be an optical illusion! The guys who funded the mis-aimed satellite say so!"

So that article is two for two! Both old news and propaganda. (The upcoming American economic crash/depression has been obvious for at least five years, the only real disagreements are whether it's coming in five years or fifteen. At least now we know it's probably closer to five years than fifteen.)

The really sad part is that the Wall Street Journal is really a pretty respectable paper in comparison to the local papers both here and in Seattle.

Oh well, at least Pennsylvania courts rejected "intelligent design" as a scientific theory. I'd say "score one for our team", but it's not even a score: our goalies just managed to deflect the puck.

A score for our team would be if people realized the simplest definition of science: "Science is vivisecting God and finding he is made of clockwork."

You can quote me on that.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Part Three: Pieces of the Puzzle

This part will teach the basics of using pattern adaptation control to moderate user experience. The first part, explaining what you are controlling, can be found here. The second part, explaining the overview of how these things work, can be found here.

As expected, I'm not pleased with this essay. Please remember that this isn't a carefully-structured, reviewed tutorial. It's just me, typing it up as I go.

The first step in controlling pattern adaptation is knowing what patterns you want to control. I imagine that someday there will be long, standardized lists of patterns earmarked by subculture and audience age. For now, there is no such list, and it is up to you to create a list of the patterns you wish to monitor and utilize.

Each list is pretty much unique. If you're creating a first person shooter, you need one list. If you're creating a shmup, you need another. There are few overlapping patterns. Similarly, you as a creator will find you are more able to fully utilize certain patterns which are more familiar to you. For example, I would be hard-pressed to create those patterns used in a war story. But a writer of war stories might be hard-pressed to create patterns of metaphysical discovery. Our skills and preferences as writers will lead us to headline very different patterns, simply because our skill in implementing these specific patterns is better or worse.

So, to do this next part, you'll want to imagine a game of your own design and make two lists. A ludic list and a narrative list. If you can't think of a preferred genre and story, use the example I'm going to use: a first-person-adventure similar to System Shock or Deus Ex: guns, skills, and stealth in any measure. Using a more restricted game, such as Tetris, would make the lists correspondingly... not "shorter", exactly, but more specialized. It is always possible to split a pattern into several more specific patterns.

For example, the three basic ludic patterns in our example game might be "gunplay", "skills" and "stealth". That's how it'll look on the back cover of the box, at any rate. But those can be more exactly specified and split up. "Stealth", for example, becomes "security system avoidance", "guard patrol avoidance", and "pathing/map abuse". This reflects stable puzzles, unstable puzzles, and optional explorations.

Similarly, if we want to go even deeper, we can deepen "pathing/map abuse" to various kinds of pathing/map abuse, such as jumping puzzles, hidden secrets, dedication-based puzzles, etc.

In Tetris, we could get a list just as long, but it would go into infinitely fine striations with things like "handling the I piece", "handling the S piece", etc. The more fine the striations, the more skill a player needs to notably distinguish himself in that field.

In our games, we'll be using both gross and fine patterns, so keep track of which ones you split up. A pattern can also occasionally be a child of two other patterns. For example, dedication-based puzzles might mate with RPG play and the skill system as well as stealth play. This is probably a sign of clumsy thinking, but it's okay for our needs.

The process is repeated for the plot: the narrative. We are not choosing the plot here, merely patterns which we will use to express the plot. So, for example, we might choose "technophile", "wish fulfillment (young male)", "challenge", "sex appeal (for male players)", etc, etc, etc. Our patterns vary depending on our target audience(s) and our own preferences. These, too, can be split up and even expanded on tangentally - adding different kinds of sex appeal, for example. Now, some of these results are going to seem weird, unattainable, or not the sort of thing you want in the game. For example, sadomasochism or ballroom dances. Keep these patterns! Don't erase them because they are unsuitable or not your specialty.

You don't have to use each pattern in full, you see. Just because you write down "sadomasochism" or "ballroom dancing" doesn't mean you're going to have those scenes in your game. You control the extent to which a pattern manifests. You might choose to have the manifestation for the first max out at people in leather clothes or a room of unused torture equipment. The second could max out as particular clothes or an unused ball room. Nothing even the least suitable author would have a hard time writing into the game. Even if you know nothing about ballroom dancing or sadomasochism, you can write "froofy ballgown" and "buckle-covered leather pants" pretty easily. Even left unfinished, these patterns will serve as good hooks for players on the lookout for that sort of thing. Speaking as someone with quite a bit of experience putting tiny cues in games, they are very rarely missed by people who are sensitive to them. That applies to ludic cues just as easily as narrative cues, although one tends to unbalance the game a little faster than the other.

Now you've got a list of patterns. For this example, five of each would be enough. For a "real" game, you will probably want quite a few more. I'm working with a dozen ludic patterns and two dozen narrative patterns, many of which are children or parents, allowing me to scan for higher skill levels.

The basic idea is that you go fishing with these patterns. You bait your hook with incarnations of a given pattern, then you either measure the player's skill at the pattern or how eagerly they follow up the pattern. Of course, in practice, the bait will very rarely be a single pattern. Not only is it quite difficult to make "pure" bait, but it's also something which you don't want to do for reasons of durability. By "diluting" the pattern, you insure the player never falls fully into its grip: you never want your game to fall fully into just a few patterns. You want the player to constantly be walking a shaky path, because otherwise it's just not as interesting.

The difficulty is, of course, creating the bait. Done expertly, you can even theoretically create a "hurricane" of a particular pattern, although this has not been tested. Implementing the pattern in "hook" form is a pain just for the simple bait, the "hurricane" bait would be quite difficult.

There's two ways to do it that I can think of: "jewelry box" and "clockwork".

"Jewelry box" methodology is an allusion to the "string of pearls" methodology that many games use. With this method, you manually create most of the hooks, allowing them to combine in simplistic fashions. Essentially, instead of a "string of pearls", you have a jewelry box full of a million carefully-cut stones of all kinds, and you string them on as the player shows his preferences for given colors.

This has the advantages of being (A) easy(er) to balance, (B) highly controllable, and (C) generally higher quality and more cohesive. However, it requires quite a bit of work.

For example, we might create all sorts of hooks for our example game. A sword for instant stealth kills. A girl who appeals to certain kinds of sexuality. A weapons depot with explosives stacked all over. A high-tech cyberninja. Each reflects a certain combination of patterns. Ludic, narrative, or both. These pieces then slot into the gameplay at predefined points. Need to introduce a character to save the player? Choose between the cyberninja and the babe using the player's previous choices. Need a new place to fight? Choose between your science lab and your weapons depot. Etc, etc.

The other system, "clockwork", is similar on the surface: you create a bunch of components. But you don't create a backbone to plug these pieces into: you assemble them into pieces on the fly. This is a far more difficult method, because you have to essentially have a system which knows what pacing is and how to build a new pattern.

I suggest choosing "jewelry box", at least for now.

New patterns are patterns your game is going to build that aren't already in the player's minds. In both methods, you need to know these. What these are varies based on your level of control. In most games, a specific play style and/or the plot of the game are going to be new patterns. You may also have specific characters, metaphysical elements, weapons, or just about anything else.

Also, patterns which you've specified as potential hooks can theoretically become new patterns. For example, you may want to always lure the player to thinking the opposite of what he normally thinks, using his preferred patterns to diminish themselves and enhance their opposite. Maybe you want to force gung-ho gunmen to play stealth, or someone who is abusive to appreciate kindness. Just remember, going against a mental pattern is iffy and difficult in the best of situations. Just try to argue against someone's political beliefs: they'll simply clam up, shut you out, and pretend that you're talking nonsense. It's the same with any kind of pattern that has a significant hold on someone's mind.

Using the "jewelry box" method, you build these new patterns as the structure of your game. Functionally, you have a plot progression just like normal. It might read something like "fight bad guy, discover secret, be betrayed, run around in trouble, build strength, attack betrayer". It could also be a branching path - whatever you feel confident with. It introduces the new patterns as an extremely stable, normalized path that doesn't vary much from player to player.

All it does is use the elements the player prefers in order to get him involved in that path.

So, if you want to show the foibles or strengths of corporate structure, you can build a path which will take the player through a plot which shows those foibles or strengths. However, as the player walks down that path, he gets to choose his approaches, his friends, and his techniques. The choices he makes tell you which patterns he prefers, and you can use more extreme choices to get him ever more involved.

This can lead to a shallow-ish experience, depending on how deep your pool of hand-crafted "jewels" is. You always need to cover all your patterns, but how deeply you cover them varies from pattern to pattern and by your patience and craftsmenship.

Using the examples from long ago, if a sadomasochist plays the game and chooses to team up with leather-pants girl, you can't use that hook much more unless you've programmed more extreme examples. You can keep using the girl as a token to keep the player interested, but you'll have a hard time deepening their relationship using those patterns. Indeed, most characters will probably end up having a few preprogrammed "scenes" or "arcs" which are chosen depending on what role they play. Obviously, most games can't take deeper sadomasochist hooks: it would simply not be suitable. And that is a sacrifice you have to make.

A "clockwork" approach, on the other hand, could pair any character with any situation. Instead of needing to carefully program a character which appeals to a particular sexuality, you create a cog that can be plunked into virtually any character that makes them... uh, edgier. Or makes any character have an... edgy... experience. Obviously, this is a very adaptable situation, but it is also quite difficult.

Really, "jewelry box" and "clockwork" are simply to extremes on one axis. It's perfectly possible to make highly adaptable jewelry boxes or carefully structured clockworks.

Last thing to remember: I mentioned it before, but this is critical. All players adapt to the patterns you put in front of them. Before long, they begin to "drill" into the pattern, finding the edges and points of highest complexity. Many of your patterns will not have any complexity, and their edges aren't far away. You need to keep mixing patterns up, trying to avoid getting the same mixture as any point before. The speed of this mixing depends on how fast the player adapts to a given pattern. Thus: "pattern adaptation control".

Next time: a clear example, how to mix and measure a pattern, a bit on "pattern hurricanes", and different player "types".

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Part Two; Squishy Brains

This series on how to use pattern adaptation control begins here.

I'm not incredibly happy with the following essay. There's no punch to it. I may replace it at a later date.

The problem with people is that they are endlessly fuzzy.

To coin a fake Wise Buddhist Saying, "a mind is not to be compared to iron or stone, but to water or fire." You should be deeply aware of this, regardless of whether you plan to use pattern adaptation control or not. People are mushy, squishy, prevaricating sloshings.

Some people are proud that they have a strong dedication to a given idea(l). For example, some people are strongly dedicated to censoring anything anyone might say that might offend someone somewhere. I am proud of my dedication to what I consider to be "good science" - by which I mean science that is honest and brilliant, rather than science which necessarily serves a moral purpose.

But these dedications are like a whirlpool or a tornado: they are formed by the eddies in our lives, and they spin ever-stronger as they cause us to actively persue more eddies of that nature. My dedication to good science would fade if I was tossed in a Shanghai jail or some other place where there are no science-y tidbits to feed on. In similar environments, a censorship advocate would not be so concerned with censorship. But perhaps a humane treatment advocate, such as Gandhi, would flourash in such an environment. It depends on the kind of interest, what it feeds off of, and whether it can feed off of anything present.

This sounds like a rather cold dissection of people, but it truth doesn't much care how happy you feel about it. People act depending largely on the situation, and tend to fall into one of two or three categories in any situation, depending on the "spin" they enter it with. If exposed to a new, unfamiliar situation, I am likely to approach it with scientific curiosity and a sense of skepticism. In the same new situation, a censorship advocate might approach it thinking, "is it good for society?" We may end up acting the same way in the situation, or we may end up dramatically different. But we always act in one of a limited number of ways.

As we become more accustomed to the situation, we'll use more nuanced, efficient interactions. Whereas we might deny or blindly obey the wardens in our prison at the beginning, we'll quickly learn more efficient actions as we grow more familiar with the pattern. As we adapt to the pattern.

That, of course, is the key to pattern adaptation control.

When you've designed something, there will be a few simple "use cases". Your mom might use Word for Windows to type up Christmas letters - type type, print, hand-fold, and mail. That is a basic use case.

You, on the other hand, might import graphics into Word, use some pretty layouts, and have a remarkably artistic printout. That is not a basic use case. That is an advanced use case that very, very few new users would even know is possible, let alone how to use.

By simply measuring how the user interacts with Word, you can determine their level of expertise at various use patterns. Do they use the pull-down lists, the icons, or the keyboard shortcuts? Do they change the default options? Do they monkey around with the scripting language?

Of course, few programs bother to do this because they have no meaningful response. What do you do, say, "wow, you're really good at this?" No, what a waste of time.

So what programs do is they have all the options there, but they headline the basic use cases. That's fine, but it's not enough for me. You see, doing that, you're teaching the same pattern no matter what their preferences and capabilities. Also, you're offering no reward for deep, expert use, so your software will rarely get used to its full potential.

By combining the concept that minds are squishable and programs changeable, we can create a kind of synergy between the patterns in the user's mind and the patterns in the program's use. Whether we're writing an interactive novel, a space shooter, or a spreadsheet, we can create a powerfully helpful, organic interaction specialized to each user. All it takes is a little bit of thought ahead of time, and a program that can modify itself on certain levels.

And a knowledge of mental patterns.

The reason that software doesn't do this now, not even games, is because it is a daunting thought. The recombinatory capabilities are staggering, unpredictable, and theoretical. Game designers therefore assume all players will have the same basic set of mental patterns (skills, culture) and use those basic patterns to hook the player into the pattern of their game. Which mental patterns the game designer assumes players have determines which genre the game falls into.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same basic patterns in the same amounts. Genres lack mass appeal, and even in-genre players have wildly varying opinions. I hated Half Life 2, but liked the Halo games.

Some players can't stand games of luck. Some players will always put all the girls on their team, even if the team stinks. Some players will kill the irritating mascot and leave him dead for the next forty hours of gameplay, even though it makes the game extremely hard.

These variations and vaguaries are a pain in the ass to traditional game designers. "Play it the way it was meant to be played!" This phrase is becoming less common as games become more mainstream, partly because nowadays the player is always right, and partly because nowadays there is never more than one or two very linear ways to play a game.

These linear designers will always be denied mass appeal. It is simply impossible to please all the people with a single offering. My mom will never play No One Lives Forever, even though the writing is something she would enjoy, because the gameplay is something she would not enjoy. She doesn't want to play that game.

An example of a game which offers a little more flexibility is Daggerfall (or, if you prefer, Morrowind). These games allow you to go anywhere and do anything. But they still don't actually offer much in the way of different gameplay - the freedom is illusory. None of the ways of playing the game would appeal to my mom.

The patterns are not adaptive. Instead, a giant pattern is created which you can explore. That's inefficient, to use the mildest possible term.

Better to create a pattern that they explore, and use how they explore it to create the next bit of the pattern.

This sounds a bit like creating your game or plot "automatically". To some extent, it is. But here's the key:

You're not telling your computer to build the game or the plot automatically. You're telling it to get the player to this pattern here using whichever methods the player likes best.

You don't (or, at least, I don't) know of any way to get the computer to automatically detect and synthesize patterns. I can't describe how to build patterns to a computer. All I can do is describe possible patterns and how to pluck them.

For example, Machine City has a plot involving the destruction of the Machine City. It's intended to be an emotional time, as you race around watching the city burn, the people run away, and the buildings crumble. It's a mandatory plot point. You will get there.

But how you get there - and what you see when you do - depends on what kind of player you are. The game uses your preferences to hook you in and warp your perceptions. If you have shown great affection or malice for any particular character, that character plays a prominent role in either causing or highlighting the destruction. The game chooses the destructor in the reverse fashion: whichever faction you haven't had all that much to do with is the one with enough firepower to raze the city (or turn it against itself, etc, etc, etc).

Now, each of these approaches has to be spelled out to some extent. If the monsters attack the city, things go this way and look that way. If the shadows attack the city, something slightly different happens. If you are fond of the city's governor's family, your missions will involve trying to save them. So on, so forth.

But these approaches are also largely combinatory. I don't have to explicitly state "If you like the governor's kids and the city is invaded by monsters and you've shown a preference for high explosives then this happens". Instead, I say, this happens for that situation, that for this, and those for these. The situation is created out of an amalgam: enemies and layouts determined ad hoc rather than from my explicit statements.

The end result is that the core pattern I'm putting into the player's mind is the same: the city is destroyed, how horrible. But the specifics vary because I build off of the most powerful patterns already in their heads. If you like children, you'll find that the destruction of the city contains an unusually sharp "kids in danger" motif. If you like explosives, the city will be exploding as it burns... and the enemies will be resistant to incindiary ammo.

All of this is measured without the player noticing. You don't have to ask, "do you like kids?" Instead, you simply give them the opportunity to interact with kids. If they take it, they like kids. If they don't, they don't.

In this case, the reward for advanement is advancement. That's enough for a game. In the case of a spreadsheet or help file, you would need a very different reward, but the basic idea is the same: people come in with particular preferences. You can measure these preferences by measuring how much they use particular parts of your program and with what skill level. Then, you can evolve your interface and contents specifically to meet their requirements.

The serious problem here is that you can only include patterns you can think of. Without a computer-based language for mental patterns, the computer cannot "discover" new patterns, only measure and utilize old ones. You might be able to get around this by using extensive massively multiplayer preference measurements, but that's not likely to work unless you have tens of thousands of players.

So, for the moment, you'll have to explicitly state what kinds of patterns you want to resonate with... and how those patterns can shape your system.

And I'll explain that in part three. I'll tell you how to put forth a pattern hook, measure the skill and interest of a response, and use that to build further pattern hooks which construct an unrelated pattern of your choice. Expect it soon!

(BTW, although most of my pattern examples are plot, this works just as well for gameplay or even advertisements and sales.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Step One: What's a meme?

I was once asked to clearly explain how I'm using/planning on using what I have occasionally called "memetics". "How can you control gameplay with memetics, exactly?" Today seems like a good day to start explaining that. Think of it as a Christmas present.

First things first, you'll have to learn what I'm actually saying, as opposed to what it sounds like I'm saying. That means learning which version of "memetics" I adhere to.

Of course, I call it "pattern adaptation control", not memetics... but in a sense, PAC can be considered a subset of a certain kind of memetics. Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of memetics, at least in passing: the idea that ideas can propagate and mutate. A kind of memocology.

Memetics is, at this stage, only a way of picturing something we can't properly see. The "field", if you could call it that, can't even agree on exactly what they are studying. And I disagree with just about everyone under the sun, as expected.

Most definitions of "meme" equate to "idea that can propagate" plus some additional stuff depending on who is doing the defining. The problem here is the assumption (sometimes impicit, sometimes explicit) that there is a kind of atomic "idea" format, like "atoms". Something which is a clear-cut chunk of mental real estate, like "guns are dangerous".

Of course, atoms aren't clear-cut or atomic, and neither are genes. So why is everyone assuming there's some kind of magical atomic structure for memes?

The first thing to do, when you are reading me, is to forget that idea. The idea is sillier the more you look at it. We can't store atomic ideas in our brain, even if they exist: we store a pattern of neural linkages. This is a fundamental flaw with 99.99999% of attempts to manufacture AI: the designers get this idea that they can state concepts in a clear-cut fashion and then manipulate them. They can't.

Some people might argue that even if memes aren't clear-cut in our minds, they are clear-cut in our language. That's bull, too. "Guns are dangerous." Like water pistols? Or perhaps like fire, in that even touching them harms you? Obviously, that's not what the phrase is intended to mean, but the language doesn't clearly state that. You'd have to extend the phrase into lawyerville with something like "devices producing high-velocity ballistic projectiles can cause harm because those ballistic projectiles physically damage any material they encounter."

Even that doesn't really do the concept justice, since "dangerous" isn't always synonymous with bad. Policemen have guns, policemen are dangerous - but the police are, in general, a good thing, especially in situations which require them to use those guns.

No, there are no atomic ideas, or at least none which memetics utilizes at the moment. What I mean when I say "meme" is "mental pattern". There's nothing necessarily inherent in the pattern which causes it to replicate itself, although obviously replicating patterns are more widespread than nonreplicating patterns. The very nature of "mental" allows for the re-interpretation, change, and mutation of these patterns.

The thing you need to remember is that "meme" scales. All memes are meme complexes, because there is no such thing as an atomic meme. You can always dig deeper, because every meme is built on top of and intertwined with other memes.

For example, "guns are bad" can be zoomed in on, to discover the inherent ideas of violence, accident, crime, death, and physics. You can zoom back to see that "guns are bad" is part of a much larger pattern - perhaps a holistic pacifist pattern, or the pattern of someone mentally scarred by a horrible childhood accident.

Each of these patterns is complete in and of itself - but when you move your head a bit, turn the gem, you see different facets - each of which is complete in and of itself.

The obvious problem is representing these patterns. "Memes", you could still call them, although they are so far from standard memetic theory that it would be better to call them "dingfangles".

The obvious solution is "language". Language is built over thousands of years specifically to represent these complexes. In doing so, it facilitates their transmission and error-correction. You get drift, like generations of animals, but the wild mutations are suppressed because they (A) can't be clearly expressed and (B) can't be clearly understood.

This is fine for a situation where you want to represent a pattern which already exists. For example, "she has hated guns ever since her brother accidentally shot himself when they were kids." The language is perfect for the situation. You know the pattern exactly.

Often, that's good enough. It's good enough for 90% of game work, for example.

But if you want to represent a pattern which isn't in the linguistic culture, you'll have a much harder time of it. That is why genres and technologies take a generation to be accepted: you have to "flush out" the conflicting language and "flesh out" the new language. Your grandparents probably don't like scifi. Your parents might, but they probably don't like superheroes. These are genres and concepts which took decades to come into being.

Nowadays, I can say "It's a rift in spacetime", and people will have a clue what I'm talking about. The remainder of the pattern will probably involve time travel or distant planets. If I'd said that fifty years ago, people would have looked at me blankly.

This isn't because "rift in spacetime" is an atomic concept. Far from it. "Rift in spacetime" is a particular piece of a peculiar and very idiosynchronous pattern which can be looked at in any direction for a radically different pattern.

If you want to develop a unique pattern, you have to introduce it slowly enough to build the pattern in the mind of the audience. Whether that pattern is gameplay skill or some freaky metaphysical voodoo, you take baby steps until the pattern is secure in their minds, at which point you can turn it and see something new, maybe build off that.

Pattern adaptation control handles the tracking of existing patterns, the building of new patterns, the alteration of patterns, and the changing of viewpoints. That is the core idea, explained as best I can in this language at this moment.

Now, exactly how I do that is actually simpler than you might think, and I'll discuss it next time I have the time to sit at the computer. Probably Monday.

I'll explain how to track play skill, player preference, and player capacity. I'll explain how you can use this to fuel your game or plan your spreadsheet layout or create an interactive help file.

Now that I've built a new little pattern in your minds, I'll turn it and expand on it until it is an integral part of your thought process. Then, whenever you want to communicate your reasoning behind your new methods, you'll have to explain this very idea and build this little pattern in their minds...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Busy busy...

I don't have much time, but here's a thing to think about:

One of the most accepted definitions of "insane" is "doing the same things and expecting a different result".

One of the most accepted practices in advertising is "run the same ad program until you get an improved result".


Monday, December 12, 2005


Internet connection will be spotty for a week or so. As in, I doubt I'll be posting at all in that time.

On the plus side, I'll be spending all that time writing essays, creating Machine City, sleeping, reading, and maybe just a teensy smidge of video-game playing.

So, hey, in case you don't hear from me: don't take me off your feeds! I'll be back, guaranteed. I've just got to, you know... move 2000 miles.

On a happy note...

You know, every year I like Penny Arcade more. They seem to get more subtle and talented each year. But, for some reason, I doubt "the crowd" feels the same way. For example, I consider this comic to be impressively subtle and interesting, but how many 15-year-old geek boys will feel that way?

Hm. I wonder if they made the choice to appeal to a more mature crowd, or whether that's simply the direction they subconsciously go...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Social Networks

Understanding how people socialize is an important thing. Darius understands it from one angle, I take another, and modern science takes a third. The third angle is the one I'd like to chat about today.

Rapper social networks have an interesting quirk. The data shows that, "unlike normal networks", the heavy-hitters don't really know each other personally.

I put "unlike normal networks" in quotes for the following reasons:

A) We have in no way plumbed all the "normal" networks.
B) We don't have comparative data for that particular element.
C) The science is brutally imprecise, thanks to its reliance on humans.
D) Rappers, like all other humans, tend to lie to make themselves look bigger.

Let's concentrate on (D).

When you want to make yourself look bigger in your subculture, what do you do? You mention that you know so-and-so, the famous guy. You worked with Feynman? You shout it out. You hang out with the Wayan brothers? You "casually" drop that into conversation. You pump up your contacts.

Everyone has the urge to do this, and most people follow that urge in one of two ways. They either blow their relationship out of proportion, or they try to have a deeper relationship. For example, a new game developer who talked with Chris Crawford might say, "yeah, I know Chris." Or he might try to become Chris' friend. Either way, he's making himself bigger by making himself close to a top dog.

Rap, however, has a slightly different culture. It has a brutally egotistic, competitive media culture. Once you are getting close to being a top dog, you distance yourself from other top dogs so they don't steal your limelight. I'm speaking out of my buttocks, here, using hearsay. But think about it. Their natural tendency would be to hang out with up-and-coming talents who aren't a threat. And when those talents rise, they'll be a conflict between the vibes of "I tought him everything he knows" and "Oh, I've totally outgrown that guy."

Unfortunately, the essay doesn't specifically state how much upper-level connectivity there is between other social networks - just other music genre networks. If we apply this yardstick to other fields, we can determine other arenas which might have an unusually high or low top-level connectivity. After all, it is important to be able to test this sort of thing - it might be, as the essay says, largely due to geography. Although that makes no sense to me.

We need to find arenas which share the "spotlight" feature. Subcultures in which the top dogs are fighting with each other for the spotlight, rather than each having spotlights of their own.

Perhaps actors have this problem? Well, that's easy enough to find out: do A-list actors of the same range tend to know each other? These have to be actors whose job opportunities would conflict: actors of approximately the same age and range. You couldn't expect job competition between Halle Berry and Tom Cruise, for example. But you might expect job competition between Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie.

Asking them is kind of difficult, not because they're not likely to answer, but because they're likely to put a good face on it. In rap, being an asshat is not considered a bad thing. But if you're an asshat actor, you aren't very well-liked.

Well, how about politicians? Unfortunately, the spotlight is too erratic for me to see what kind of effect it will have, but it seems to be the case that Democrat and Republicans fight antagonistically in the very high and very low levels of politics, but in the middle they don't seem to mind much. That could be a symptom.

Anyway, it's an interesting theory.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Another Comic

Bunny Suicide is probably the weirdest, funniest comic I've seen in the whole of today. It's a quick "read", too, so you've got no excuse.

Probably work safe...

Emotion Motion

(This post was originally intended for the Machine City blog, but it grew enough to post here. It's theory.)

Recently I played two AAA games: "Farcry: Instincts" (FCI) and "Freedom Fighters" (FF). Both were rather fun, but both had the same basic problem: there was no real sense of forward movement. Every level was simply something that had to be done, a delay on a tortuous path with a hazy end goal.

In both cases, I didn't even realize I was approaching the last level until I was at it. (Both were also very easy except when nearly impossible, but that's another story.)

All games need a sense of forward motion. Otherwise, you're just treading water. I bought FF pretty near to when it came out, and I only just finished it. It didn't really grab me. Why? No hooks. You can't grab without hooks. Hooks are made of emotion.

You see, all motion is relative. If you're on the banks of a river, the river is moving. If you're floating on the river, the banks are moving. Similarly, you need to have the player's perspective see things going by, things changing. As with real life, the further away something is, the less impact its movement has. Trees whipping by your car make you feel fast. An endless plain with distant mountains doesn't really make you feel the speed, because the mountains don't feel like they're moving very fast.

Of course, in a game, you measure distance not in physical meters, but in emotional closeness. I'll use the term "jots", for no particular reason. A "jot" is a unit of emotional investment. Any emotion - love, hate, lust, fear, irritation.

Narrative is one things players invest in. Characters get jots. Play is another things players invest in. That new fireball spell aquires some jots because it is so effective. Audiovisual effects get jots, too: the fireball spell gets a few more jots because it has such a cool visual.

All of these things are things which can move by the player, give him a feeling of motion. But the mistake most games make is a simple one: they don't leave things behind. They only gather more things. Things don't pass, they just join up.

Let's look at the ultimate example of not leaving things behind: Katamari Damacy surely doesn't leave anything behind, right? Yet it's fantastically popular!

Actually, KD leaves lots behind. As you grow, you leave everything of your earlier size behind. You can no longer rummage under sofas for thumb tacks: now you roll up entire houses. You have left something behind.

Guitar Hero - you don't leave anything behind, do you? Of course you do: you leave the easy levels behind. You can still play them, but they no longer entertain you, save as fond memories.

Motion is not getting new things: it is getting new things and leaving old things behind.

To see relative motion, you have to see things fall aside. Characters, plot, gameplay, visuals. Anything that players can invest in. And the more jots they've invested, the more motion they will see as those things move and change.

FCI had no such motion, largely because there was no jotting going on. The only characters the player could feel any emotions for were the female "reporter" and the bastard merc. And that really wasn't very much. If FCI had pulled those characters closer to the player, then hunting and helping them could have been a sign of motion. But they were distant mountains: I didn't realize their plot had come until I hit their cliffs. I couldn't see them move.

Freedom Fighters had the opposite problem. The characters were fairly jotty - your brother, Isabella, the whiny guy, the black kid, Tatarin, the propagandist, and the traitor. All were stereotypes, but rather fun ones.

But the only character which moved was the black kid. Helping you in the initial stages, then becoming your direct advisor. That was good. But none of the others moved.

All the Russians didn't move: they just vanished. You didn't leave them behind, you just lost them. What happened to the propagandist after you raided her TV tower? You don't get to talk to her, or choose her fate, or see her deal with the aftereffects. She's just... gone.

Tatarin? Gone without you ever feeling him in person. The traitor? Barely introduced, swapped to evil, then vanished.

Your brother almost did well. But he didn't have many jots, and his demise was also sudden and empty. The reverse-demise of Isabella at the end was fun, but she was turned into a game token, and had no real character bits to show that she was back.

All arguments about the endings of these two games aside, both games needed to more carefully construct their narration. There was no feeling of motion. You need emotion and steady change to pull the player around. You can't get along with just one.

The Machine City, my game, will be making heavy use of this idea. This idea is a corollary of pattern adaptation control specific to narration, but it can, as I mentioned, be used in all areas. To feel forward motion, you need to feel the earlier parts of the game slipping away, being put behind you.

This is, not coincidentally, a major factor in virtually all of the best movies, comics, and books. Think of your favorite ones. I can show you how they left things behind.

Bad movies, games, and books also have these features, but they generally only have one or the other. Both emotion and motion are needed. You can't have only one.

Think about a piece which was technically superb but you didn't much like. Can you see a notable lack of one or the other? Usually, you can.

Pattern adaptation control measures jots, and uses those things to make the player feel motion. It focuses the game on the things the player notices, and makes those things even more noteworthy. The rest is background fluff, although for another player, the situation might be quite the reverse.

A fun way of looking at things, and hopefully helpful to you.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Don't Really Play Games Much Anymore?

Here is an essay by the always-delightful Matt Sakey about how devs don't really play very many games. He points out that many (perhaps most) developers don't play very many games. A large part of this is probably the fact that they have a job, which eats up their available time.

My first thought on reading it was, "hey, you know, I don't really play very many games any more." My second thought was a connection to Einstein and Carla Speed McNeil that I won't go into, because it doesn't really apply to this conversation.

My third thought was, "Wait, are you high? You just finished two AAA titles last weekend, and you spend at least two hours a day playing various casual games. You play tons of games."

At first I thought that maybe I was just playing not as many games as before. But that isn't really true, either. Then I realized what it was: I wasn't playing social games any more, because there's precious little social available at the moment.

When I was in college, the things I considered to be "games" were the things I sat down (or jumped around) with other people to play. Cosmic Encounter (Blind, of course, for quotes like "As the power of chronos, I retroactively win the game two turns ago!"), short LARPs, tabletop RPGs, Apples to Apples, occasional bouts with wargaming...

Computer games - I played about as many then as now, if perhaps for slightly larger blocks of time. But I never really considered them games in my heart.

Is it because they aren't social? Perhaps. More likely, it's because they aren't creative. By which I mean that I cannot create while participating. All of the games I miss most were either highly creative (Apples to Apples, LARPs) or I created them in the first place (as the game master or game designer).

How does this relate to Sakey's article?

Don't play video games.

Or rather, go ahead and play them, but realize that there is a world of other games available to draw on. Can you find a game like Apples to Apples on the computer? Such simplicity and depth - no, it means nothing when you aren't face to face. Can you find a computer game which turns good friends as horrifyingly evil as a game of Diplomacy? I doubt it - I haven't. Can you find a game as beautifully cooperative as the Lord of the Rings board game? Pshaw, you can see a shadow of a shadow of it in that Final Fantasy Chalice game thingie. Can you find a game as stunningly mind-boggling as Nobilis? As entertainingly zany as Kobolds Ate My Baby? As bizarrely tongue-in-cheek as Baron Munchausen?

These games capture an essence of creation which computer games have not yet matched, largely because computer games have slow, narrow, unempathic communication when compared to games in person.

It's not about creation. There are lots of games which let you create. The only ones which are successful are the ones which let you share what you create. The Sims is an excellent example. Not only does it let you interact ("share") with fake people, it also offers a huge community of real people. You are never far from a person while playing with Sims.

People are driven to create in every game - even games which expressly prohibit creation and implicitly crush creativity. Like almost every MMORPG ever. They route around this and create "on the side".

So, yes, by all means play games. But don't forget there is a world of games outside the games you play. Think you're an experienced player? Well, how about limrick-games, drinking games, and dodgeball? Played any recently? How about charades? And, of course, if you haven't played METEOR! or Almost Noble, you haven't lived.

Every time I play a game outside my purview, I gain new insight into a facet of gameplay I wasn't aware of.

Sakey is absolutely right. In fact, I think he's understating the matter.


Here is a post by a man. A man like you or I. A man who loves his games - and leaves them. A Don Juan of games.

Actually, the essay isn't the important bit. It's the comments. They reveal that many people feel the same, and that many people have the same basic idea.

Pattern adaptation is death. When your player knows your pattern, your player has no reason to play. So they stop.

Sure, some players prefer different kinds of patterns. Some players prefer innovative play, other prefer efficient play, others prefer social play, others live through the narrative. And, sure, some players will play to the end of even the most godawful games, but I don't think you want that to be your sole audience.

Therefore, every game uses pattern adaptation control. PAC. They know - semi-instinctively - "this part is kind of boring. Let's punch it up a notch." They can tell based on experience and trial-and-error which parts of the game are 'fun' and which aren't, and how to make things run.

Some people are more in tune with this than others. For example, people who make successful casual games are very in tune with it. They design their games around replayability - a pattern which is never fully mappable. Thus the appeal of Freecell, Spades, and Apples to Apples. Their rules are designed such that the pattern is never the same twice.

My methodology simply makes that explicit. You can logically determine the best ways to make your patterns adapt. After all, having infinite replayability doesn't help a bunch if your game is a forty-hour long RPG... and having an involving storyline is useless in a game of Spades. But knowing when you need which, and where your sticking points are, is priceless.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Secret of Seattle

I've been in this city for two years. Now that I'm just about ready to leave it, I finally figured out the secret to success in Seattle:

Chocolate coins.

I bought some chocolate coins for a boy's birthday, and on the way home I was repeatedly stopped by people who were impressed by my chocolate coins in their shiny gold Kennedy-wrapper.

One lady even said she would "follow me forever". Others just told me how cool I was to buy chocolate coins, and begged me for one (a nice change from begging for real coins, and a much higher quality clientele).

The boy, of course, loved them.

So, there you go. Chocolate coins: the smartest candy money can buy.

Visualizing Quantum Dynamics

It's not often that I throw a book away as worse than useless.

But I did over the weekend. The book was "The Dancing Wu Li Masters", a book on quantum physics for "reasonably bright non-scientists". I read about seventy pages before I could not continue.

The science was good, but his commentary on scientific culture, the nature of science, and how quantum dynamics "applies" to "real life" were all hideous. As just one example, he mixes his quantum metaphores and comes up with "we make the universe by how we look at it".

An idea later popularized by the mockumentary "What the !@#$ do we know" ("!@#$" theirs, not mine), this mis-use of quantum theory, along with similar mis-uses, leads to psychics and self-delusional people believing it is "evidence" that "explains" "psychic" "powers". Gosh, I love quotes.

This way of thinking is a simple mistake that anyone can make - and many people do. When confronted by quantum mechanics, they try to relate it to something they've experienced. Like say, an apple or a basketball game. This leads to a hodgepodge of explanation which is half gibberish and half flat-out wrong. They accept the half-gibberish part because they've been told that quantum physics "can't be visualized". This means they also accept the wrong part. They start thinking that the universe doesn't exist when it isn't observed, can be made in specific ways as you start to observe it, and, if you stretch a bit, can allow for all sorts of neat telepathic and multiple-existance phenomina.

Well, the book is wrong, the movie is wrong, and those people are wrong.

It's a problem with visualization. Since they have never been taught a way to visualize it, they end up just making random assumptions that sound neat. After all, everyone knows quantum physics can't be visualized.

Well, I'll tell you how I visualize it. This may not be something you can use to define new theories of quantum dynamics, but it is something that can prevent you from making the more grotesque errors in scaling and theory.

You can't apply quantum physics to your daily experiences, they say. Sure you can. You just have to look at daily experiences that are a bit further from the norm.

Fortunately, here in the game industry, providing experiences a bit further from the norm is what we do best.

Imagine an RTS. Like, say, Starcraft. As the players play, they uncover more of the map.

Now imagine you are watching the match. But you can't see the players: all you can see is how much of the map they've uncovered. And you can only look once per game.

So, if you look at their uncovered map right at the beginning, you know pretty much exactly where they are. They're in that tiny dot of discovered space. You can't really tell what they're going to do next, but at least you know they're going to do it around there. If you wait until much of the game has gone by, you see that they have discovered much of the map. You can't tell where they are in the area they've discovered, but you can see how their battle strategy is developing and in what direction they are moving.

Of course, Starcraft is more like a nuclear explosion than a careful watching of one particle. After all, the player builds bases and soldiers from the resources in the ground. So, let's ditch the whole "base" idea, and say that each player is only one unit, and the playing field is extremely large and a bit maze-like.

Now when you look at the map, you see a kind of squished spider web. Tendrils run all around, connect up seemingly at random, shoot off, stop, turn, and otherwise make a jumble of discovered terrain.

Where in that map is the player? It's impossible to tell. Players constantly double back, scout around interesting locations, and give up on a particular path to try another direction. Maybe they're in one of the tendrils, but which one? And even if they are, there's no telling exactly where they will be next - they could turn and go off at an angle if there's a lake in the way.

But looked at as a whole, the map of the area they've discovered paints a picture of movement in a particular direction. Some players will wend their way out circularly, others will strike out in a particular direction and keep going that way, and still others will gladly glance off in any direction at anything vaguely interesting.

You can tell how fast the player is going in what direction, but you can't tell exactly where the player is... or where he will be.

On the other hand, if you look at the map after the player has been painting it for only a short while, you see more exactly where he is, and less exactly where he is going. Remember: you can only look at the map once in a long while. So you can't get it once per second and watch it grow: by the time you look again, the fast-moving single player will have changed the known map utterly.

That's the essence of the problem.

Now, let's say that two players meet. Their maps can overlap for an arbitrarily long period of time before they encounter each other, but in this case, let's say they do.

What happens? Depending on the players, they might move away from each other. Or they might barely notice one another. Or they might even hook up, if their attributes are compatible. Like, say, two hydrogens and an oxygen would hook up. Or a long protein strain.

As a platoon, they stay near each other. Protein folding is nothing more than the various units jockying for the best tactical position.

These platoons cut a much wider swath of map and don't move any faster. In fact, they move slower, as team members scout nearby and report back, slowing up the march of the whole platoon. If we look at them on the same scale we were using before, it no longer looks like tendrils, but like blobs and fat pseudopods. So we can scale back. Zoom out.

Hey, zoomed out, the path doesn't appear so tenuous. Sure, it's kind of shaky, but it's easy to see which direction it is going in. Also, because everything is moving slower, the changes in the map between your glances are becoming slightly more maneagable.

Now, lets say those molecules match up with each other and become a group of linked molecules contained by a perimeter. Functionally, an army. Or a bacteria. Whichever.

This new group cuts tremendously large swaths. These things paint a path so wide that it would encompass the whole screen we used to watch a single-player's wanderings. Also, the group dynamics are even more complex than with a multi-player molecule. That means that the path of the whole group is significantly slower than the path of the individual molecules. (Assuming outside reference, of course. Otherwise, motion is meaningless anyway.)

This group is moving slowly enough that the changes to map between our looks are relatively minor. We can clearly see, "oh, they've explored a little bit in that direction since last time. So we know that they are there, and we know where they are going."

As you can see, quantum mechanics does not scale because big things move slow and cut wide paths.

I'm not pretending this visualization is ideal, but it's the best I've heard, and it should show you why you cannot use quantum physics on a large scale. The math simply doesn't work out: the whole reason that you can see location or velocity, but not both, is because of the scale you're working on. Once you start turning loose subatomic particles into atoms, the scale gets larger, slower, and easier to see. Once you start turning atoms into proteins, even more so. Once you turn proteins into cells, even more so.

Of course, throughout this entire visual exercise, I've only covered one element of one theory of quantum physics. You can try to adapt this model to the observer theory, or photon emission, or whatever you like.

It's fun. :)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Animation, Anyone?

One of my minor obsessions is motion. I love things that move, and how they affect the brain.

Therefore, I keep my eye out for exceedingly good examples of animation or motion modeling. It probably weighs my opinion that The Incredibles is the best movie ever more than it should, although since I can find no weakness in any other arena, I don't feel too bad.

It's also a large part of the reason I like No One Lives Forever 2.

The thing is, when you've watched enough movement, it becomes easy to see good and bad animation. This extends in large part to filmography as a whole: awkward cuts and angles, for example. But the actual animation is what I love.

Remember that banner ad for Puzzle Pirates? You probably don't. It had a sword-swinging pirate and two pirates with beer mugs, and the animation was superb. Every time I saw it, I thought, "Damn, they must have spent a fortune!"

That's what I always think when I see stellar animation.

Now, to go across and circle back...

One of the comics I occasionally read is Ctrl+Alt+Del. It's not a spectacular comic, by my book. Some of the comics are hilarious, some are dull, very few have that whip-crack snap you get from exquisite timing.

And the graphics are painfully unpolished, to my eye. That counts a lot for me: graphics don't have to be good, but they have to be polished.

So, back to the point at hand:

I was surprised to run across this.

The animation is... really good!

To say the least, I was a bit floored. How the hell can he be so good at animation but so mediocre at stills? This is one guy, right?

it turns out, no, it's not. The comics are done by him, but the animations are done by a pro studio and have professional voice actors. Apparently, his comics are a hell of a lot more popular than I thought.

I don't think his business model will work out, but I wish him nothing but luck. These episodes look top-notch, from the preview.

The bad news is that I was right: it looked expensive, and it is expensive. I want the ability to produce top-notch animations cheaply. :P

Amazon Implements My Idea!

I don't think they copied it from me, but nonetheless, I had the idea before they released it. I suggested it as a Google thing.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Amazon's new "Artificial Artificial Intelligence" system.

Which acts quite a lot like my idea. Except, of course, that Amazon is using money, where I wanted to use psychology.

My explicit idea was the Google Search Game, but Amazon didn't go that far with their "Mechanical Turk". Still, I'm going to pretend that's a flaw on their part, rather than mine. :D


Games with Class

I'm here to talk about the worst element of massively multiplayer online games: selecting a "class".

Back in the day, there was tabletop role playing. Perhaps you remember it? D&D, Vampire, Rifts, and so forth?

One element that most of these RPGs had in common was a "class and level" system. This is a system virtually every MMORPG has inherited. Let's examine it a bit closer.

Why do tabletops have classes and levels, rather than incrementally increasing skills and stats in miniscule amounts as they are practiced and used? Because tracking that crap is tough!

Yes, the reason that classes and levels were used is because updating your character sheet in eighteen ways every half hour is a pain in the ass. Better to keep track of only two changing numbers (HP and XP) and use them as a kind of "approximation" of your character's growth and death.

You'll notice that the first RPGs had a specific number of classes: just a few more than the intended party size. That's no accident. The approximation of "having a class" is only good if everyone in the party is still unique. Otherwise, it's boring.

However, as time went on, people started demanding uniqueness between games as well as inside any given game. So multi-classing, race/class combinations, and prestige classes came into being. This is D&D terminology, but you see the same thing in most other tabletops: a steady explosion of options, both to start and as you proceed.

If you told the standard D&D geek in the seventies "You went up a level! Choose a feat from this list!" His reply would be, "I get to choose?"

As the tabletop gamers got more and more skilled at tabletop gaming, they required more and more complexity, preferably without added upkeep costs (more choices, less writing).

Complexity - preferably combinatory rather than explicit - is how all games proceed over time. A desire for uniqueness and agency pushes the game ever further towards a feeling of "freeform", even if the game keeps its matrix of rules and stats.

So, why is it MMORPGs have classes and levels?

The maintenance required is what keeps tabletops having levels. I don't want to erase 4.04 and write 4.05 every single time I take a swing with my sword. But a computer game handles that automatically. So why levels?

Classes are useful approximations, so long as your place within the group remains distinct. As your concept "group" expands to include other games and other parties, your concept of "distinct" gets ever more demanding. Experienced tabletop players probably compare their present character to at least twenty other characters, whereas new players typically compare their character to only one or two others.

In a MMORPG, your character is one of twenty thousand you commonly see.

The jump frow "two" to "twenty" is the difference between D&D and AD&D 3rd edition. 3rd edition offers at least a factor of 100 more uniqueness. The jump from "twenty" to "twenty thousand", however, adds functionally no uniqueness over 3rd edition. The typical MMORPG is actually simpler than AD&D 3rd. And way simpler than GURPS, Mage, Nobilis, or any other ruleset with actual quality.

The level grind is simply an attempt to distinguish yourself from the pack. It offers new skills, experiences, and graphics. The last of which is downright silly: why can't I just paint my evil armor-of-doom pink, if I want to look unique?

But the very concept of "classes" is wholly inappropriate. Classes are an approximation tool to make bookkeeping easier for humans. They are limiting your MMORPG, and the only reason they are included is out of inertia.

Levels are simply another approximation tool to make bookkeeping easier. But, again, your computer can handle an almost unlimited amount of bookkeeping. So why are you using levels?

No, both of these concepts belong to the realm of pen and paper. Throw off the shackles of your ancestors! Stand proud and allow your players to be unique!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Assisted Level Generation

Long-winded theory...

In my older attempts to design level creation utilities, I always tried to go as automatic as possible. This ended up requiring me to try to figure out how characters act, synthesize what they say and what they do, and all sorts of other "breakthrough" stuff. Obviously, the final product was much less impressive.

But the idea I had a few posts back, about "inhabited levels", is something within reach.

Perhaps you can't generate convincing characters and sub-plots automatically. But you can generate items automatically.

What if you had a "meta-level script"? When it came time to release the next episode, your meta-script would say "George switches rooms with Janie." In the game, it would switch their claimed domains, but it would also create an automatic "trail" depending on how much information you gave it.

Then the system creates "items" (conversations, records, actual items) which relate to this. What it creates depends on the "flow" of the level and the priority of the information. For example, it could have two people talking in the corridor: "I heard Janie and George switched rooms!" "Really? Why?" "I dunno..." Or, if you want a higher priority, you could get an email asking why they did, or telling you they did. "FYI, captain, I got this room change request and okayed it." Or, if it's a lesser priority, it could be a slip of paper you pull out of a searched cabinet in the back of a room. "ROOM CHANGE REQUEST FORM: BLAH BLAH BLAH."

As stated, there's no context. Although we might be able to make an algorithm to extrapolate the context from earlier info, we're going to avoid that sort of thing. So, it doesn't know why. This lack of emotional anchoring means the only things that can be created are barren, as listed above. A clever algorithm could inject emotion. For example, instead of the conversation above, it could be: "I head Janie and George switched room!" "Damn it, that means I'm living next to George now. He's so whiny!" "... said the pot to the kettle..." This generates emotional context - either fresh or recycled.

If it's a really clever algorithm, Janie can find remnants of George's stay, or visa-versa. Anything from the innocuous to the damning. But this requires a high-level algorithm quite stronger than what I would waste time on at the moment.

But it is probably more suitable to specify a context. Instead of merely saying, "George and Janie switch rooms" you could add, "because Janie wants to be near her boyfriend."

Both George and Jamie have defined parameters which guide what items they can be expressed with. For example, Jamie might be a cheerful xenobiologist, and George a whiny security guard. This means that any text or conversation will be tainted with that, assuming you auto-generate text and conversation.

So, in this context a lot of interesting items could be created. You could have a BBoard rant from George about how he doesn't want to move and yadda yadda yadda. You could have a love letter or conversation between Jamie and her boyfriend talking about how great it is that they are so close together.

At this stage, the algorithm is pretty complex. We've got it generating conversations, for Pete's sake. So let's simplify.

Instead of using auto-generation, use aided manual generation.

Write a conversation, maybe even denote who says which side. But don't specify where, or the timing: let the game engine handle that. That's within it's grasp. Specify a love letter, let the game figure out where to put it. Specify both, and let the game decide which to choose.

The key to this much simpler method is "ownership". People have places they frequent, which they own and share in varying degrees. Understanding that a cabin is private and highly owned, that means that love letters are more likely to be found there. Understanding that corridors are public and not owned, that means that gossip and such are more likely to happen there. Mix this with a dose of "functionality", and you have a level map that can have items plugged in semi-automatically.

"Jay and Steve play ping-pong. Eventually, Jay loses." Obviously, they play ping-pong at the ping-pong table. You don't need to carefully place Jay. You don't need to choose animations or commentary. You could, but there should be a stock of generic phrases to draw on for times when you have not specified anything.

If the level doesn't have a ping-pong table, a smart script will improvise. But a dumb script, like the one I'm thinking about, would simply return a "no ping-pong table" error. (That's error 00x00E050, BTW.)

The "realness" of the script would rise the more contextual-parsing you programmed the script to make. For example, a basic script would be programmed either to never let Steve or Jay to score a point, or to let them occasionally score a point at random, but not keep track of how many points are scored. Both are unrealistic. A more sensitive, adaptive script could let them score points in front of the player, but since the game cannot be "won" until that part of the script runs, it would reduce the chances the more points were scored, making them "better players" as the game went on. It would also alter the commentary to comments suitable for a higher skill level. This would mean that the longer the player watched, the more skilled they would get.

Of course, this skilled algorithm is flirting with death by complexity, because the algorithm would need to remember that Steve and Jay play an awe-inspiring game of ping-pong, if the player watched long enough. Rationalization and internal consistency...

But, even with the stupidest version, wouldn't it be preferable to have the level place all the components on itself, instead of manually generating each foozball table and night lamp?

Maybe I'll whip up a language to specify such things in.


It's been snowing all day here in Seattle.

Yet there's not one patch of white on the ground.

Ah, city life.


Drivers will still crash their cars.

Re-Using Those Levels!

One of the things I've been thinking about is re-using levels. I've been thinking about this not only in terms of The Machine City (my pet game), but also in terms of other genres. Like an RPG, or an FPS.

As Chris Bateman points out, reusing levels is also an excellent way to cut costs. If you're doing episodic content, then you really only have two choices: reuse levels, or generate them randomly. To create more than one or two new levels for an episode would simply take too much time.

Some people like the idea of "user submitted levels", whether that means levels the user makes for himself, or levels the user downloads from a pool of user-made levels. For example, in the favorite of my game designs, "Spider Space", each player designs his or her own space ship.

But there's a sterile feeling to a level which follows your design entirely, and game designers usually know that. There's a disconnect. So the levels are bombarded by game events. In City of Villains, your lair is continuously tested by heroes. In Animal Crossing, your village has a lot of elements which go on, real-time, outside your control.

There's some serious problems with this, though. Many gamers love the feeling of control. Although I often like a hard game, I also often enjoy an easy game, where I simply explore the gamespace. Having my citadel of doom trashed every ten minutes by a hero would just irritate me (although I'm sure that's not how it happens). Even random characters bugging me to do me favors is often irritating, because the favors are things I don't need, and they often screw up my meticulously designed level.

So the question is, can you design a level system with the following parameters:

A) It must serve a large number of play types, including puzzle, combat, team combat, and social play.

B) It must vary significantly from play to play, without requiring extensive re-coding.

C) It must feel like a living space - IE, there must be an emotional connection between the player and the space.

The only way I can see to do this is to create an NPC engine which makes NPCs inhabit a given level "deeply". For example, if you build a ship, your NPC shipmates live on the ship. They have stuff, they leave signs that they exist, and they talk to each other. So, if you were to search the whole level, you would find detailed tidbits about each NPC - hear them talking, uncover their emails, and so forth. The next time, it would have advanced (and, if they realized you'd been messing with their stuff, further protected).

Hrm. Hrm hrm hrm. That could be loads of fun.