Monday, July 31, 2006

Magic Numbers in LARPs!

This is the second part of this post, and covers LARPs (and MMORPGs) specifically. Read the earlier post first.

LARPs are a more complex situation than either tabletops or CRPGs. They (and MMORPGs) have a weird feature:

Basically, it doesn't matter how many people you have in your LARP. It only really matters how many people a person will interact with - I've been perfectly happy playing 40-person LARPs where I only interact with five or six people. From my point of view, they would have been just as much fun as five or six person LARPs.

So, you're not asking for a total population, you're asking for a level of interaction. Some games will have infrastructures which require a certain population to support specific levels of interactions, though. For example, you can only buy potions from someone if there are enough people making potions that there are potions available to buy.

That's kind of a slightly more advanced topic. Let's try to stick to basics.

The density of these games is kind of an interesting question. You can raise and lower it all you like, but there is going to be a natural tendency for people to inject socialization into the game. But different people prefer different amounts of socialization. Some prefer a lot, some prefer almost none.

What this means is that you want to include long-term density rather than short-term density. Short term density is things like skills and stats and math. Long-term density is things like items, politics, and plot.

If you put in mostly long-term density, then it will merge with role play smoothly - some people will role play more, some people less, but nobody will feel left out. The real difficulty with that is that some people will probably feel they are doing poorly and want to quit. You can solve most of that problem with judicious use of tangental goals, rather than competitive goals.

However, when you get right down to it, these games are real-time. That means the density is going to be chopped down - or bulked up - depending almost entirely on the speed of the game.

Most LARPs and MMORPGs are very slow, so their density is very high. However, in LARPs where the players are almost always pressed for time the density drops down quite low - to the point where even the simplest little bit of complexity seems like a profound plot twist, just because nobody has really had time to think about it. People will actively just drop complex parts of the game because they simply don't have time.

It's simple: speed and density oppose each other. They seek equilibrium. Most LARPs choose to favor density. Nothing wrong with that.

Here's the detail: the interconnectedness of a LARP or MMORPG sets where that equilibrium is. Interconnectedness is how many people a player will be significantly involved with over the course of a session (or, in most LARPs, the whole LARP). Most LARPs run with it being 5-6. MMORPGs seem to run slightly fewer.

The more interconnected a game is, the lower the equilibrium. The less of both speed and density you can have. The less interconnected, the higher the equilibrium. The more of both speed and density you require to maintain interest.

This is because, of course, interconnectivity is a kind of density.

Anyway, here's the basic idea: interconnectivity + density + speed = 1

You probably know how to raise speed. Simpler resolution is the easiest way, but don't forget that forcing players to move at the speed you set is very important. So timed events, forced challenges, revealed data, and other things which force the player to move also increase speed. (They can also increase density and interconnectivity, so be careful.)

If you want to raise density, try to raise long-term density rather than short-term density. Long-term density can be safely ignored by people pressed for time, with a preference for RPing, or without the brains to manage it. Short-term density is forced on everyone, so it's not nearly as adaptive. If you rely heavily on long-term density, you can change the equation from an "=" sign to a ">=" sign.

Raising and lowering interconnectivity is probably the least natural part of the equation. Most games you've designed and/or played probably operated on total interconnectivity. Every character knows and interacts with every other character. It is very rare that there are more than eight of them.

In a LARP and an MMORPG, this is usually impossible. Instead, you have to change how likely a player is to work with or against someone.

In a LARP, this is usually done in the writing. Plot hooks, "you know this guy"s, hunts for widgets someone else has... all of these things and many other basic elements of LARPy plot increase interconnectivity.

In an MMOPRG (and some LARPs) it is done primarily through infrastructure and resources. You need a potion? You have to find someone to sell you a potion.

The problem with this is that it typically leads to very shallow interactions. To force deeper interaction, most MMORPGs essentially force you to form parties. That is a decent way to do it.

The big difference to keep in mind between an MMORPG and a LARP is that a LARP has consistant characters, whereas an MMORPG has unreliable characters. In a LARP, it's unlikely any given character is going to leave and log out. This leads to cliquing (clikking?). People will form into teams and stay in their teams. This will usually lead to "congealing" - everyone ends up in one or two packs, and stomp around the game in unison.

There are a couple of ways to break this up. First, you can use some speed-enhancing tactics to force them to split up the group to acheive two or more simultaneous goals. Second, you can use antisocial, megalomaniacal, and opinionated characters who act as sandpaper and refuse to work with specific other characters.

But congealing isn't necessarily bad. It does tend to radically unbalance the game, and decrease the amount of agency any given player has, but it provides a sense of timing and momentum that no other situation can emulate.

My suggestion? Fragment the groups in the early game, then let them congeal in the late game. It's pretty easy to direct, in the late game, and that's when everything SHOULD be coming to a head.

Heh. This was kind of babbly, sorry. But I hope it was clear.

What is the magic number?

There are magic numbers in game design. You see them all the time. What's the best number of players in a tabletop? Five? Six? Seven? What's the best number of characters in a CRPG? Four? Five? Six? Eight? Fifteen? What's the best length for a game? Two hours? Ten? Twenty? Forty? Nine hundred?

Everybody seems to have an opinion on what the "magic number" is for any given situation. But most people's magic numbers vary from other people's magic numbers.

That isn't really very surprising, as most people's skills, preferences, and situation varies from other people's skills, preferences, and situation.

In truth, there's probably some insanely complex formula which pops out a magic number for any given situation. I don't know it, but fortunately, there's a shortcut. You see, the magic number is intended to make the game the most fun. Humans are generally pretty good indicators of how much fun a game is. Therefore, all you really need to do is get the number close to right and tweak the surrounding situation by watching which way your test subjects squirm.

The core of the idea of a magic number is weighing the speed and density of the complexity. The faster and denser a situation is, the lower the magic number is. Except when it comes to "length of game", since you're functionally dividing by "faster" and things get ooky. I really don't have any suggestions there, except that it's far more common to go too long than not long enough.

("Density of complexity" rather than simply "complexity": Go is a complex game, but the density of the complexity starts off quite low and then goes up... and then drops off again. It's really how much complexity the audience is exposed to at any given moment, rather than the total complexity of the game.)

Here's a couple of approximations you can do:

How big do you want your tabletop party to be? The answer is pretty easy: the faster and more densely complex you want the game to be, the fewer players you need. You can run a game with only two or three players, if you mire the game deeply in role-play and complicated situations.

On the other hand, a tactical gun-and-run using simple combat rules can support up to nine players! It's low-density, so the nine doesn't overcrowd.

Generally, I find I run best with five or six.

How big do you want your CRPG party to be? The thing to look at here is the speed and density of the combat system. The faster the combat, the fewer party members you need. The more statistical micromanagement, the fewer party members you need.

Some games run with only three party members and use an action combat system. Final Fantasy classically uses four party members with a fairly fast combat system and a lot of statistical micromanagement. A strategy RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics will typically have very slow combat system with some statistical management, and go in with eight or so characters. Very complex strategy games use minimal stats and go in with up to twenty characters.

There's really no limit on how far you can stretch it one way or the other: Elder Scrolls games typically go with just one character who has a hell of a lot of stat management. I've played a game where you have literally hundreds of units on the screen at once, but the interface is simplified so that you can control them in various easy ways, lowering the density of the complexity.

When designing your game, start with one aspect. How many characters do you want? Or how fast do you want combat to go? Or how dense is the complexity? From that, work out one more aspect, and the last aspect will be forced.

You can tweak it easily enough during prototyping.

There's lots of other magic numbers that don't look like magic numbers. For example: How many different kinds of equipment should I have? How many cutscenes? How many TACOs?

The rules are always the same basic rules: the faster and more densely complex the play, the smaller the magic number. You might not know what the multiplier is - is a three three? Or maybe it stands for "ten minutes"? But you can figure that stuff out pretty quickly.

The real difficulty comes when you use this basic idea for several aspects of one game, because then they all become interlinked. How many different types of equipment you have affects the density of the combat game. How many TACOs you have affects the speed of the exploration game.


That's when things get fun. :)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shifting Allegiances: Key Failures!

This is based on my key theory. (Technically, there are spoilers. But it's spoiling the first chapter of any given book, so...)

I've been reading the Vorkosigan series recently. It's an interesting series, and because I'm primed on the idea of tying the audience to key characters (or things), I'm coming at it from a slightly different angle than most people would, I think.

The Vorkosigan series is a clear demonstration of how emotional keys work - and fail to work.

The books focus almost entirely on the central character: Miles. He's obviously the emotional focus, and in the first book, he is clearly the key. Every other character exists solely to make us feel more for Miles. He does audacious things, has fun friends, beats challenges with his great big brain, and in general raises hell.

By the end of the first book, we're very attached to Miles.

The next stories are interesting and well-written, but they aren't about the same character, at all. Sure, it's Miles. But it's Miles Vorkosigan, not Miles Naismith, and that's just not good enough. It adds a lot of depth to Naismith to know that he's actually a frightened boy out of his depth underneath - but we're not attached to that frightened boy. We're just using that boy as a hook to latch onto Naismith even more.

Vorkosigan is not a key. He is just a hook, allowing us to attach to a key.

In my opinion, the author makes even more dire mistakes later.

Like Vorkosigan, the Dendarii fleet is not something we've invested in for itself. It only exists in relation to Naismith, the same way Vorkosigan does. The fleet is a hook which lets us attach more "gee, isn't he the greatest" vibe to Naismith.

The fleet is not something we consider an independent entity, any more than we consider Vorkosigan an independent entity. Watching it do things without Naismith is kind of like watching someone's right arm wander off and chat up the nearest girl. It's kind of interesting, but it's both bizarre and somewhat repellent. It turns into a kind of bleak comedy when you really like the person who is chasing after their own arm.

Lois McMaster Bujold (the author) is a master (mistress is more correct, but definitely gives the wrong impression) of focusing the reader's emotions into one central sink. What she doesn't seem to realize is a basic fact: a reader is invested in the thing she wrote. It's not the personality of the character, or even the character himself. It's the character's situation, everything about him, from his dialog to his assistants to his fleet.

Every bit you take away reduces the strength of the connection between the audience and the key. Every hook you used to snatch emotion into him, when removed, loses that much emotion.

Lots of people love this series, and it is very well written. But it takes until Mirror Dance (which is, I believe, the fifth book) for Bujold to develop even any secondary keys. Vorkosigan is the only key in the first four books. He's the only person we feel for. He is our Captain Jack Sparrow, our The Force, our Robin Hood. All of the things that happen are hooked directly to him, pulling us to him.

In Mirror Dance, they drop him to a background character. The first half of the book is spent in screaming agony as hooks are pulled off, scattered around, wasted. Reading it was like pulling teeth. I simply do not care about the other characters. In fact, several of them I have grown to strongly dislike, because they were made into heels to make me like Miles more in earlier books.

The last half of the book is interesting, but it isn't at all a Naismith book. And it ends with Miles diminished.

I don't think that was the right move, but it was fascinating to watch to Bujold's artistry slowly shift gears. In Mirror Dance, she played with using multiple keys - Mark, Thorne, even certain clones were made into more than just hooks. They grew into keys of their own right. Minor ones, but that's fine.

So, what am I going on about, with an arrogant review of a popular book series?

Actually, I'm leading up to diversity.

You can't keep spiralling in the same orbit forever. One person (one key) can only be plumbed for so long before the well runs dry. Miles is an unusually (unnecessarily?) complex character, but five books (four books and a collection of short stories?) is still a very long time, and most of the books are backtracking. I can only imagine that the remaining books will use other keys to try to keep my interest, because Miles is plumbed.

Now, in the process, Miles became an icon - an unforgettable part of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

But then it's over. There's no more Darth Vader: you explored him, he died, end of story. Well, except for the backtracking, which might have been cool if it was written by someone who knew how to write.

That's the point: icons cannot go on to bigger and better things because they have hit the extent of their power. If they get any bigger, they stop being who they were and start being someone else. That's not necessarily bad, but it does split and mush up our key enough that it stops being an icon.

If Miles continued on to conquer the known universe, it would probably still be a fun read. But it wouldn't be about Miles, any more than Mirror Dance was about Miles. It will be about someone Miles has become.

You can avoid this problem by using more than one key.

If you develop multiple unique individuals and get the audience invested in all of them, you can use them in combination and permutation. You have thousands of times more stories with a mere three or four keys rather than solely one.

Perhaps that's what Bujold finally decided, when she sat down to write Mirror Dance. She almost certainly thought Miles was running out of rope - because he was. He had already turned into an icon by the end of the first book, and it was concrete by the end of the third. The only way to continue the series was to put in some other characters we felt emotion about, and in order to do that, Miles had to be shattered.

But you shouldn't have to shatter your mythos to save your mythos: from the very beginning, build in multiple keys. It is a bit harder to manage, but it's sustainable.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Toy Density!

Originally, I was going to write this as a guide to GMs who wanted to improve their games the "Perko Way". But... it's too weird.

The basic thing that most beginning GMs do wrong is pacing. Except that pacing is a term for a linear, passive media, like books. The whole idea of pacing is, I've recently decided, totally wrongheaded for games. Especially tabletops.

Instead, what we want is toy density.

In a tabletop, most players seem to get the most excited when they are offered a situation which can be resolved as they see fit. It's not a puzzle, precisely, although it can be. It's... an opportunity to come up with a clever way to come out on top.

Most bad GMs make their plot situations force the players into certain paths. For example, "You discovered a map of a buried treasure and set out to dig it up!"

Whee? Why not let them decide exactly what they are going to do. Let them figure out the path they want to take. They might decide to hire some lackeys to help them dig, or they might postpone the treasure search until they have more free time, or any number of things.

I find that if you give opportunities and let the players decide how to take them, the players pace themselves. When the players want action, they'll push the opportunity towards action. When they want drama, the situation will turn dramatic. It's really that easy.

The main challenge to overcome is the need to push players. Instead of pushing, pull. I've covered this in basic and somewhat more advanced posts. Once you grok that, you can start to do things the right way.

(Grok is a great word. Some people think it's stupid or meaningless. It really isn't: it simply means "to work with or learn something until it is obviously the only way things work.")

Then you just have to get a bit of practice turning pushing scenes into pulling scenes. Each session should have at least one (preferably two or three) of these "open situations".

The last thing to master is to keep the party from being dominated by one player's skewed pacing sense.

ANYWAY, that's tabletops. Video games are more difficult.

First, there's no mob mentality. In a tabletop, the players will resonate and egg each other on.

Second, the rules are more restrictive. Because of this, players have a more passive experience. "Siezing the initiative" is almost a non-concept in games. Open-ended games (like a space conquest game) don't have distinct opportunities - they have a kind of continuum of semi-opportunities. Without any mob mentality, the natural tendency is to minmax - to abuse the rules in the most efficient way you can find. This is rewarded, while fun risks are punished.

Seems kind of silly, to me.

What if the next game you played didn't let you lose?

No matter what you did, you didn't lose. Each choice simply changed the way you progressed through the game.

It would be much more like a tabletop: it's very rare that a group of players can lose a tabletop, and if that's a danger, it's almost always very obvious. The vast majority of the time, it's a given that you will succeed, so long as you don't piss the GM off by actively being assholes.

It doesn't really matter which interesting approach you take: if it's feasible, it will advance the plot. It may advance it in a weird way, such as the entire party being captured, but it's a given that, so long as you try, you'll win.

One of the big advantages the GM gives is this "no efficiency" clause. If players are inefficient, it doesn't matter! The next situation is going to be adjusted for their current strength, so it hardly matters whether they get 120 xp or 150 xp.

Sure, some players want to be hyperefficient twinks. That's not bad at all: reward them for trying clever things. It rapidly becomes the most efficient path to getting power.

The problem is letting a computer game do this...

I like the idea of including toys which can be combined in various ways. Not simply combined to improve stats, but linked in program-like ways. The player can find and combine these toys to make cool new devices and abilities.

Now, if the game offers missions, the player can bring his toys on these missions. The missions adjust to the effectiveness of the toys, but the player is still allowed to approach in any manner he deems cool.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Star Trader: Socialization

This is absurdly long.

I keep saying that you can't have a story - or a socializing experience - without a game to back it up. I'd like to talk about why, and some potential solutions.

Most games use somewhat emergent rules. They use simple rules, allow the player to choose from a wide variety of similar options, and propagate the situation based on that.

For example, the difference between moving to an overhang or going for the tunnel in a Quake map isn't choosing between two scripted events: it's a mass of choices which leads to you emergently moving towards one or the other. If you aim five degrees off, or leap a second too early, you might not make it. You might end up on a slightly different part of your target. These things change the game state emergently, and exactly where you want to put yourself also varies based on the game situation..

Similarly, where you put your warrior on the battle map is a choice between a bunch of similar options. The best choice emerges out of the surrounding situation: how damaged your warrior is, how important it is for him to attack someone, how far the healer can heal from, whether he needs to block someone... all of these things add together to make an exciting experience where the best option is rarely the same option.

For these kinds of emergent rules, the important things are change and interaction. How many enemies are there? Where? How well equipped are you in comparison? Is your skill high enough? When you act, the situation changes: the enemies are now in a different (but predictably different) situation, maybe one of them is in your sights now.

All good games use this basic method. All the pieces touch, and the pieces change based both on their actions and the actions of those around them.

Now, a social game.

Most attempts at social games use isolated social interactions. You flirt with A, A likes you. You punch B, B hates you. Cut and dry.

Boring as hell.

There's no emergent behavior, no interaction between the pieces, and no change worth mentioning.

This is why so many games which attempt to bring in socializing really do it poorly. For example, Oblivion, king of the misguided attempts to socialize.

The requirement to make this sort of thing "good" is to include more emergent behavior.

This is why I'm always saying that just socializing, or just adaptive drama, is not a good game. In order to make a good game which uses these things, you have to have an emergent ruleset under the hood.

Now, by its nature, an emergent ruleset requires that you have "organic" options - choices which vary smoothly, rather than iron-set choices.

For example, whether you plan on moving someone five spaces to the right and one space up, or four and two... that supports emergent rules. Simply clicking "move" does not. At least, not one-one hundredth as much.

But almost all social games thus far use iron-set choices: "Joke", "Flirt", "Be nice". This is a primitive method that was proved a poor idea with games like Dragon's Lair. When this kind of rule set is applied to non-social games, the game sucks. So... why would it miraculously work for social games?

Now, Santiago Siri has an interface. It consists of a 2D field, and you click somewhere in the field to determine the type of response you make. Instead of "joke" or "flirt", you have "+45 analysis, -30 compassion". Or whatever your axes are today.

This is a good start, but there are a lot of problems with it. First, his back end evidently converts these beautiful numbers over into a standard tree branch navigation system, so you might as well be clicking on dialogue options in the dark. But that's not the fault of the interface.

Second, the interface offers no feedback. You're operating blind. Therefore, you cannot make complex decisions very easily.

A game with a 2D grid shows enemies, houses, your people, and so forth. Without being able to see these things, you cannot make meaningful tactical selections. There's no emergent behavior, because you don't get any feedback so you can't alter your own actions.

Sure, you can give gross feedback in other ways, such as dialogue. But this is very inefficient, to the point where you won't be able to communicate at a "wide enough bandwidth" to allow for emergent behavior.

Okay, enough complaining. What are some solutions?

To make a more emergent system, you need to do three things: let pieces change, make pieces interact, and communicate to the player.

Let pieces change: There's a million ways of doing this. Although it's not being done efficiently, we'll pass on it for a moment and come back later.

Make pieces interact: This is almost never done in a social game. The closest you get is doing guild stuff, so if guild member A likes you, guild member B will also like you. That's not interaction - it's an excuse to make your characters brutally uninteresting.

In most non-social games, interacting is done via actions in the game. The healer looks around, sees his buddies, and positions himself safely to heal.

Social games focus on word interactions rather than actual interactions. So you get "be friendly" and so on as "actions". First, those aren't emergent actions, they're iron-hard actions. That's a bad idea. Second, they don't change the actual game world very much.

To interact, there are a few simple rules. First, pieces have a proximity to each other. Usually, this is a two dimensional map. Occasionally, it is a three dimensional map. It should NEVER be a one-dimensional map or, even worse, arbitrary. That doesn't provide for placing your own pieces on the map and herding enemies in interesting ways. (This map doesn't have to be a physical map.)

Second, pieces have a relationship to each other. A tank knows it should be between the weaklings and the enemies. A weakling is careful to stay out of bow range while still remaining within range to help with his skills. These relationships allow characters to compute how they should move and what actions they should take on the map.

Okay, so, interaction is clear.

Last thing: Telling the player.

Social games REALLY fall short on this. They try to communicate game state via text, or via statistics. Both of these options are pathetic. Most games communicate more by map position and velocity, adding in statistics to provide texture to the map, rather than to be a primary information source.

Sure, games (especially RPGs) use dialogue trees. But those aren't the primary game.

Now, some games (especially RPGs) use a very simplified rule set which essentially abandons "map battles" in favor of a slick, fast battle system.

This is not suitable for a social game for one, obvious reason: a social game is about building, not destroying.

Run into zombie #94942, you're eager to kill it and get it over with. So the battle moves fast. But run into Kate, you'll want to manipulate the situation so as to socialize effectively. And you'll want Kate to be a permanent part of the world - she'll have to crop up again and again. "Fast dispatch" is a term to avoid: you don't want to dismiss your characters quickly. Instead you want to aim for a more strategic style game, which means fewer, longer battles with very detailed, emergent play.


Hopefully, you're getting this. If you got this far, you're very, very durable.

Now, here's the issue at hand:

How do we make a game which is suitably emergent while still being suitably social?

Well, my preference is to include more than simply social stuff. I want my social stuff to affect a real game, and visa-versa.

Let's make it something similar to a real-time strategy. We'll set it in the far future, where humans have become largely solo creatures, expanding to the stars individually and claiming big hunks of rock for themselves, nanobots doing all the work that we previously required groups for. Humans only socialize via on-line VR.

Our map isn't a star map: it's a map of "meta space". You start out with some miniscule amount of resources and can build a building. Then the idea is to trade whatever you're producing (iron? movies? guidance chips? comics?) with other "nearby" people. These people are people in your general social circle, so they're mostly newbs like you.

The trade is mutually beneficial. The idea is that through trade and negotiation, you can convince characters to move their buildings (or build new buildings) closer to your buildings, resulting in a more efficient trade. And, coincidentally, a tighter social relationship.

Of course, you can only build on your "land", and they can only build on theirs. Most land is "neutral zones", where nobody can build. Neutral zones are generally conquered by the people trading across/along them. Changing the boundaries, narrowing the neutral zones, and acquiring more land is a big part of the negotiation part of the game. As you expand, you can choose to take your friends with you, splitting any land you take. Or not, if it's too much trouble.

Your buddies are also talking to everyone near them, as well. You can give anyone any comm code you own, and visa-versa, allowing people to talk to people and set up trades through neutral territory. This will generally establish both of you in that neutral territory, and put you both close to the people between the two of you. It may also extend or cut off trade between people on either side of your expanding domain, which might piss people off.

You can also form pacts - such as marriage, or weird future-human pacts that do other things. These are buildings which must remain connected, and rapidly expand owned land towards each other, seeking an equilibrium between the two.

Wars, alien invasions, and so on are also quite possible. This would give you the kick in the pants you need in order to socialize "efficiently". It would be the threat, marching across the landscape, blowing up buildings and eating land. Or even absorbing people by force.

If you want to save your old friends, you've got to hustle. Infrastructure is expensive and difficult to move, so plan ahead! Or, you can simply bore a hole away from the enemy, trading with new friends, to give yourself time to develop countermeasures.

Anyhow, it isn't specifically "realistic", but it is complex and emergent. Trade will allow you to develop new buildings and new resources, and the characters should be written vibrantly, so you get a real feel for being "close" to people.

The tighter the two of you trade, the more your friend should be around, commenting in various ways. And, of course, close friends are more willing to ask and give help.

How about any of you? Did you understand my explanation? Do you have an idea for a game?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Importance of Names

Names are very important. If you're making a game with specific characters, you need to be very careful to name them something that grabs the player.

But if you're working on something with random characters, names are... an interesting issue.

Many games simply leave random people's names blank, or name them "CLERIC_03", and let you change it. I don't think that's a very good solution.

But the "Big Bank o' Names" isn't so hot, either. Most names are pretty dull, and even the cool ones are unlikely to fit whoever they get assigned to.

So, I like making name generators.

I've tried lots of things. I've got a solid generator for realistic-sounding names for strange cultures, for example, where each culture can have their name dynamics tweaked easily so that things "sound right".

That works okay.

My most recent project is a kind of Ogre Battle clone.

One problem with these kinds of games is that I always want to get closer to the characters doing the fighting. The people you hire in these game are all faceless clones.

One way I decided to break this was by having skin tone, costume, costume color, hair, and hair color vary from character to character. So you can have something slightly more visually distinct than the squads of identical characters you find in all other games like this. (Downside: Extra hairstyles and costumes require more cells of animation. Fortunately, I'm not gonna bother to animate anything at all, so it's moot.)

But another, probably more important method to distinguish characters is by their name. A good name immediately paints a picture in your head. Even without any other social cues, you get a feeling for the personality of the character.

For this game, I made a list of about seventy random words, and I just toss them together.

This works great. It produces a lot of misses (boring or totally nonsensical names), but since the player will have a large number of characters, he'll use the ones with names he likes.

From this I get some really great names, like:

Famous Dandruff
Silk Whiskey
South Wind
Monkey Arrow
Desert Sunset
Man Berry
Dragon Rose
Short Hungry Warrior
(Dozens of one-word names, like "Smoke" and "Rain").

And some really dumb names, like:

Mouse Corn
Spider Young Rider
Singular Jade White Forest
Snake Duck
Timid Dancing Ruby Window
Wind Midnight

I think that's pretty good, for two hours work. :)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I've written hundreds of essays and gotten few comments, so of course it's the really harsh one that brings in the comments.

Which, of course, means I must continue being a dick!

I'm kind of sick of it, so here is my summary of all the things I've tried to say. Feel free to argue or disagree:

Story is not gameplay. If you make a game about creating a story, you have to put an actual game in it with goals and limits, or else you're just making a story creation utility. Of course "goals" and "limits" don't have to be explicit, but they do have to exist. For example, including specific characters is "limits" and "goals" in and of itself.

Story is not computer generated. Computers cannot "wing it". Computers can, however, use the pieces and paths you provide them to give the player an experience customized to his play preferences. The computer can adapt the story you've programmed it with in order to be more appealing.

Story is not story. If you want to overdefine everything, great! Just remember that other people aren't using your definitions. Me, I lump it all together. So, when I say story, I might as well say "drama/narrative/experience".

Thank you, come again.

Monday, July 24, 2006

More Stories!

A bunch more people have posted about stories in games. I have lots of opinions, but I'll limit myself to one response, because I have other things to do today.

Tadhg Kelly seems to have several people replying to him already, but that's because he's refuting to something that doesn't exist and spraying the same refutation on things that do exist by misguided fiat.

In English, his flaw is the same as if he had said: "Because space ships are too difficult for you to build in your back yard, nothing that flies exists!"

The thing he's saying is that generated stories aren't the future of games because they are complicated and fragile, and therefore cannot be generated "cleanly". That's true, as far as it goes. I have no doubt that computer-manufactured stories will suck.

But since when - WHEN - did computers manufacture stories? Nobody honestly thinks they will, unless they are hopelessly naive. Maybe fifty years from now, but not today.

No, games with adaptive or generative stories aren't about building a story. They're about helping the player build a story. Or an experience - whatever you choose to call it, if you're the sort that overdefines everything. The game doesn't pop in with grand ideas of its own invention - the game simply utilizes the tools and pieces provided by the writer/programmer to give the most fluid and interesting experience available.

And there IS a basic algorithm for getting a computer to figure out what things the player is interested in and twisting his arm with them. Just because nobody's AAA game has used it doesn't mean it's impossible: it's simple token substitution.

Lastly, it is entirely possible to use PLAYERS as story writers.

The idea that stories are fragile and complicated and therefore not suitable to games is bunk. Advanced 3D graphics are fragile and complicated, too.

Tadgh is evidently a big fan of "simple rules, complex results". So am I. That in no way precludes stories. It's like saying that having a sister precludes having a brother. A family may, in fact, contain both without problems.

Yeah, pure tactical games are popular among a specific crowd. But the experience of, say, Final Fantasy Tactics is not one of simply moving chits around. You're moving people around, and that adds a lot... without diminishing the gameplay. If anything, it offers exciting new gameplay opportunities as missions unfold directly from the plot's push and directly cascading from successes and failures in previous missions.

I simply cannot conceive of how he has decided "interactive storytelling" means "computer-generated storytelling". "Interactive" has a specific meaning, and "generated in isolation" is not it.

Maybe he's been listening solely to zany 16-year-old IF guys and Chris Crawford?

Story - and characters, and graphics - are extremely powerful tools. Writing them off seems absurd, even when a few people are obviously going over the top with their expectations.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ze Story Snobs, Redux

Lost Garden just posted an extremely long essay on the (over)use of stories in games. I suppose I shouldn't complain about length, as someone who wrote a seventeen page review of a bad movie.

Much of what Danc...

Danc? Hrm. If I have that name wrong, I'll fix it upon request.

Some of what Danc says is, to me, correct. But he's missing some pretty important aspects of what a story gives you, at least in a single player game.

A story really isn't just "another kind of reward". A story establishes a pattern of expectation that allows the player to invest more heavily in the universe. It also allows you to gracefully set mission objectives.

In Gun Shy, I put in a story. The story was... painfully simple. But it allowed me to establish a universe, explain the variations from character to character and level to level, and put in a reasonable progression. Extremely efficiently!

It also allowed me to bind the players to otherwise faceless little characters. Sure, I won't claim you're going to cry for them, but at least you'll feel some faint hint of emotion.

Anyone who thinks I put the story in there because I really wanted to have a good story in the game is sorely mistaken, and it shows that a story is very different from a simple gameplay reward.

A story is a way to efficiently and effectively set up the world, get the player to emotionally invest in it, and vary the gameplay in fun and transparent ways.

Sure, not every game benefits from a story. But even the games which used to not contain stories are starting to realize that a touch of humanity to their systemic manipulations will make some players enjoy the game more. Even word games and TIM games are starting to include stories.

Poor ones, like my Gun Shy story.

Their purpose isn't to reward or corral, although they can be used that way. Their purpose is to pull the player in, to make the game both more interesting and more transparent. Stories make the feedback juicer, the urge to continue stronger, the variation more interesting, and the tension tensionier.

Now, you might be fine without a story. But it's a very, very powerful tool, and I have encountered very few single-player games that would have been better without one.

Multiplayer games?

Totally different story.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Science Propaganda

It's very rare I watch TV news or read a newspaper, but when I do, I have a hard time not breaking into laughter. It's so... transparent.

But, apparently, it works.

So, here's an idea. I'm sure I'm not the first one to think of it, but I like it.

Have a news show - an hour a day, or even a video blog - which uses the same tactics. But it glorifies technological advancement.

That disease breakout story? Horrify them! Then come in with interviews from disease control people which explain how they've handled and contained the disease using advanced simulations and medical testing.

The story of some guy losing his legs in a horrible accident? Interview the doctors and consultants who are helping him get used to his new, high-tech legs.

The space shuttle explodes? That's, like three news shows. Instead of condemning the entire idea of racing to space, you talk about the very low failure rate and all the incredible technologies it has brought us, including that guy's high-tech legs.

Want to inspire fear and terror? Don't inspire mindless fear and terror - end with a call to action. A call to support the technology and methods which will reduce the risks.

Global warming - talk about satellite imaging, give percentages and numbers, and pound the seriousness of the threat. Deep concern. Oh no! Scientists are working literally around the clock to figure out how to fix it, but you can help.

Starvation in Africa? Horrifying. Millions dying. Scientists producing crops that will grow in the most barren soil on earth... only to be denied, at the last minute, by sheer evil.

Cancer? Diabetes? Show the risks. Show the aftereffects. Show people managing to live thanks to technology, and show what technologies the future may hold.

A key is to interview the people involved. The need is to connect a technological service with the human beings who use it to try to help mankind.

Once you've built it up, you can spice it up with "technology misused" - biased scientific reports defrauded. Explotative products. There's plenty of them, but that's hardly specific to science. You get frauds and bastards in every field.

The issue is to keep it "hard science". The idea isn't to promote miracle cures. The idea is to promote a healthy respect for the most powerful thing in our life and its father: science and critical thinking.

It really upsets me how little respect they get.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meditative Games

Sometimes, people make a game for something other than gameplay fun. Some of these, as I've mentioned in the past, are called "games with a message" and suck. That's because they're trying to use the paradigm to get a message across, and like giant companies starting a blog, it doesn't work. The algorithms that let it work are not suitable given their goals and restrictions.

But sometimes you're forced to admit: what we consider gameplay is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of games which provide an experience that is wholly different from any of the "kinds of play" we generally endorse. They require no real skill, they have formless or unimportant goals.

Games like that weird "flying through clouds" game, or that "deer running through a forest game", or even the chronicals of Jaruu Tenk, which is a bit like an adventure game without any of the adventuring. There's also dozens of quirky little flash games that fit the bill.

These games are rare, but they provide an experience totally unlike any other games you can find. Raph's silly flapping thing is an example: with primitive graphics, bad UI, and charming music, it has NO goals or challenges of any kind. But it's still a very relaxing five minutes.

The thing about these games - and the reason they are so rare - is that they die quick. They are very relaxing, very calming, but they offer nothing juicy enough to keep us coming back. We learn everything there is to learn about the game, then move on.

These things are like a painting: you can love a painting. You can buy a painting. But you aren't going to spend a significant amount of your time over weeks or months staring earnestly at a painting. Maybe if you could hang one of these meditative games on a wall...

Normal games are more like books. They take serious time to get through and, a few months or years later, you may even read them again.

The question is... is there some way to produce a hybrid? A very relaxing game which keeps players coming back?

The game must have no real goals, but it must still have rewards that mean something to the player. The game must require no skill, but it must still offer a landscape which varies enough to hold interest.

How can something have meaningful rewards when the player doesn't need skill to get them and can't be rewarded power for getting them?

I'm sure there are many ways. Pipe up if you have any ideas. Here's the one I ran with:

The first, obvious answer is MMORPGs. They've already been nixing the skill requirements from them, replacing it with a time requirement. The same basic solution serves well in this case, too: it is not skill which this meditative game needs, but time.

The rewards and varying landscape are somewhat more difficult to achieve. We could follow in the footsteps of Jaruu Tenk, with a world that evolves over time. But that world is too small: in order to hold my interest, the world would need to be very large, and scripting a large world to change over time is flat-out impossible.

Most of these games have extremely limited worlds. "Small" is a misnomer, since most of them have infinite worlds which simply don't have anything in them. The reason for this is simple: it takes a lot to develop large worlds, and these games are always labors of love.

Some have larger worlds which don't change at all or change in meaningless ways. I think these games hold attention longer, but the difference between five minutes and twenty minutes is not enough to celebrate.

So, the solution I see is a game with a procedurally generated and self-altering world.

The thing is, the world has to be interesting, and it has to change in understandable but interesting ways.

Think of it as Myst, minus the puzzles, plus Pets, minus the feeding. You bomb lazily around this imaginary world, and you find out all sorts of really neat things... and the world changes even as you watch. Generations pass. Civilizations rise and change. New and interesting things happen.

Is it possible?

You would need to have some way of generating culturally significant content in a way which appeared to make sense. You would need to simulate people, but since the player wouldn't be interacting as a person, this would be significantly easier than it would otherwise need to be.

You would need to have some way for the player to interact with the world "vaguely" - such that there was no skill required, preferably not even a conscious UI - but we could lead the world automatically down the paths the player is most interested in.

Procedurally generating a world is insane. You would need to either simulate or pretend to simulate ecologies, cultures, buildings, cities, resource-gathering, technological/magical advance, people at war, people in love, people being born, people growing old, people knowing legends... and let the player meander through it, trailing sparks of interest behind him which take root and make the world change.

How could it all be done?

You would, of course, fake it. Fake ALLLLLLL of it. Even assuming that, it's still insane. And it would have to be done graphically: a text engine would not suit the mood.


Even then, I'm not convinced. The game dynamic itself would need to mutate over time, because once you're sick of the basic method of play, the game goes in the trash. And you get pretty sick of a zero-skill system pretty quick.

For example, if the primary method of play is spatial navigation (and it almost certainly is) your limits and capabilities need to change from day to day. Perhaps one day you play a bird. Later, you play a cat. Then a ghost. A butterfly. All are mobile things, but each provides an interesting new way to navigate the universe.

More powerfully, having your way of looking at the universe change over time would be even better. For example, as a butterfly you can only flap during the day. When night falls, you sleep. As a cat, the exact opposite. If you played a tree, you would see the world evolving, people growing old and having children around you in an impressionist swirl. As a bee, perhaps the world seems frozen in time to you, humans moving impossibly slowly. As a ghost, perhaps you can see the swirl of interpersonal relationships pulling humans towards each other, but be unable to see the physical walls which make up their world.

Is it even possible?


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Gun Shy?

I've had some troubles getting Torque Game Builder to build for me, but it looks like I got lucky. Gun Shy has been released!

Comment there if you want to comment about the game. Comment here if you have meta comments or really, really want a monkey.

Monday, July 17, 2006



Last post, I mentioned "keys".

When a player plays a game, they usually become fond of some aspects of the game, and strongly dislike other aspects. Liking to dislike a given aspect is also common.

Your favorite character, your favorite spell type, your favorite bad guy: these are all things that players tend to feel strongly about.

This is generally much, much clearer in tabletop adventures, because tabletop games grow and change in response to the players. So when the players really like something, the GM tends to make it more important.

For example, in my pseudo-Star-Wars game of long ago, certain people had preferences for certain NPCs. They would treat these NPCs radically differently - even though they were no more or less cool or trustworthy. Which NPC often varied from player to player.

I use these characters to pull players around. If you want a player to get emotional, you make his favorite character get emotional. If you want a player to get worried, you threaten his favorite character.

I quickly learned the power and fragility of this tactic, and it evolved into something I call "key control".

Key Creation

The basic idea of key control is that every moment a player plays a game, he is investing in the game. Key control is the art (or science) of pushing all that investment into one or two things, rather than letting it simply bleed out into the game world at large. Usually characters are the best option, but I've done it with space ships, kingdoms, concepts, prophecies, and even game mechanics. I suggest sticking to characters.

Done correctly, every hour of gameplay strengthens the emotional bond the player has to this key. Every ounce of investment a key has can be used to pull the player deeper into the game which, in turn, creates a more plentiful investment for the next hour.

How do you do it correctly?

It's simple: the key has to have strong, flawed, independent effects, and the key has to evolve in response to the player.

What are "strong" effects? Functionally, the key has to be at least 75% as strong as a player when it comes to affecting the environment. The key has to be useful (or threatening) enough to be noticed.

This doesn't have to be in the same arena as the player's power: if the player is a warrior, you could give him a seer as a key, or a thief. Neither is 75% as strong as a warrior in battle, but the GM arranges the universe such that their powers come in handy in other situations.

Generally, however, you will find that keys which act in the same domain as the player are going to be the most effective at drawing emotional investment. My NPC with the ability to bombard planets from orbit and blow up space ships was most popular with the player who liked shooting naval cannons, whereas my pillar of light NPC was most popular with the pillar of light PC.

Also, there is no maximum power cap: 75% is a minimum, but the key can be a zillion times stronger than the player. However, the further they get from the player's power level, the harder it gets to humanize them.

That's the second part. "Flawed". The keys have to have weaknesses either to be exploited or defended. This weakness can be anything at all. I've used weakness in combat, moral struggles, terminal illnesses, critical judgement failures... the only requirement is that the key's weakness be reliable. It has to be something that the player learns exists and then can learn to deal with. It gets the player involved, allowing him to act with effect.

Oh, the weakness can slowly change. But "slowly" is the operative word. That's going to come up again, later, but for now let's move on to "independence".

The key might be on the player's side (or not), but it has to be independent. Thinking and moving for itself. This keeps the player from taking it for granted - a key is not always 100% available, and often chips in (or against) when not called for, to show independence.

Don't fear making the key change sides, or refuse to do something. A balky key is fine (and a powerful tool). A significanly unreliable or irritating result from a key will make the player invest pure and unbridled hate, and not the good kind.

So don't make the key so independent that the player can't harnass them. The key needs to react to the player somewhat, and their actions should be logically sensical. Independent, not random.

That's the last part. The key has to invest in the player. There has to be feedback: the player does something, the key does something, and that changes the relationship between the two. The key is a changing entity, at least to the player's eyes, and the player has to believe he is shaping its progression.

Oh, and, durrrr... the key has to be around to be invested in. That doesn't mean it has to be with the player, but the player has to be exposed to things which are related to the key. A city the key burned down, if the player knows it was the key, is just as effective as having a key in the player's face, giggling.

Managing Keys

Okay, so that's the basic idea of a key: you create something at least 75% as strong as a player, but with weaknesses. It is an independent creature, but reacts to and remembers the player. It changes over time, slowly. (This is also a good way to insure it remains applicable in the scenario the player is playing.)

You're building a key!

If you try this on a tabletop, it will probably just click. You'll find the player nearly desperate to spend more time with the key, trying to enhance it and strengthen the investment feedback cycle.

You can allow the player to turn the key into a black hole and fall into it, but this usually results in a jaded endgame: the truth of the matter is that a simulation only goes so deep. Eventually, you run out of interesting things for the key to do, because as they get more invested, the feedback cycle demands ever-larger changes. (This also takes up more GM time, often not a good idea.)

What I usually do is keep the players at some distance. Although the keys react, they never get too close. Then you just use multiple keys.

This allows multiple players to invest in the same keys, and what the keys lack in individual power they make up for in dexterity - having three tokens allows you to do some moves that are impossible with only one. Like setting them against each other.

Players are naturally proprietary, so allowing multiple players to heavily invest in a character is asking for trouble. I find this is when it is good to use something that isn't a character, such as a concept or a nation.

This may not be the best way, and some GMs are comfortable running heavy romance plots (which is often what key obsessions try to turn into). It's up to you to moderate investment to a level both you and the players are comfortable with.

Key Application

Okay, so you've got your keys. What are you going to do with them? All this power... let's put it to use to torture and reward our players.

Keys have to be used delicately. Not because the emotional investment is delicate, but because the universe is delicate. If you do something too fast, too hard, the player will disconnect from the universe emotionally, and you'll get none of the benefit you have worked so hard to provide.

You can use a key for nearly anything: a key can pull people into a plot in a thousand different ways. Getting threatened and volunteering are the two most common, but be creative. A key can also be used to jump-start another key.

No matter what you are doing, there are two rules:

1) Careful with the change in control. Control is a drug. Giving the player more control over a key is a reward like stuffing a lab rat with cocaine. Taking control away kicks him in the teeth with withdrawal symptoms.

If you plan on reducing the amount of control a player has over a key, you have to broadcast it way in advance, or it'll be serious trouble. (Also, the control decrease should adapt to the player's actions: it's part of the key, and that's one of the first rules of creating a key.)

Also, allowing too much control will overdose the player, and the key will stop being a key. Remember: independent.

This means that if the player has much control over a character, then kidnapping that character will risk breaking the player's immersion. Much better to kidnap, say, the key's father, and then let the key poke the player into a rescue.

This has the doubly good side effect of keeping the key in effect. If you kidnap a key, you need to go to pains to make sure the player hears all about the key's suffering, preferably with appeals by the key directly to the player. You need the player to know that the key exists and is relying on him.

You may find that you fall into a "give control to create an investment spike, then leech control slowly away over the next few sessions, then give control" pattern. I don't see any reason this is bad - I've used it myself.

2) Keep the Key Present

Keys only pull when the player can feel them directly. Telling him his favorite NPC was kidnapped will only access a tiny portion of the investment. Having his favorite NPC beg him to help over the airwaves will do significantly better.

Don't be afraid to really, really stretch to keep the player feeling the NPC's presence. Use dreams, discarded luggage, footprints, favorite books, other NPCs gossip, pictures/video/audio - anything.

Just keep the key close. Every hour in which a player doesn't hear something directly from or about the key reduces its strength by half for purposes of leading the player.

3) Threatening a Key

One of the two most common methods of using a key is the threat. The other is the poking - a key says, "please, let's do this!" That's straight forward, but the threat is not.

Threatening a key is delicate but extremely effective. You have to follow the two first rules: no vanishing keys, no sudden changing control levels.

This means that you can poison a key, but it should be a poison that slowly weakens them over a long period of time, not one that instantly puts them under. You can knock them down in combat (always fun), but there should be several rounds of desperate struggle, first.

Never just "do something" to a key. Always lead up to it with a tiny version of that thing, or at least the idea that that thing is coming.

The exception is a highly independent key which goes off on his or her own. That's part of the key's unreliability, not something you as the GM are doing just to kick the player into motion. (Okay, it is, but it isn't perceived as such.)

Whew. That's most of it. One laaaaaast thing.

Keys in Computer Games

Keys in tabletops are easy: a GM can adapt a key to any given player or situation without much difficulty.

Keys in a computer game?

There's several problems with that.

First, AI is extremely poor. Poor enough that most players can't bring themselves to believe a character is worth investing in. You can get around this by making it absolutely clear that the characters are just plain idiots. People can love stupid people.

You can also get around it by improving the AI - always a toughie. Or you can give much of the control over to the player. Which should ring warning bells and leads us to:

The second problem is that most games give the players a huge amount of control over the NPCs. While this can work, it makes the players hypersensitive to changes in their control or the effectiveness of the character. Which means you have to be ten times as careful when you are using your keys.

The third problem is that adaptive characters are extremely difficult. The keys need to be a feedback loop, but a game character is hard pressed to smile on command, let alone evolve meaningfully in response to the player's action.

You can get around these issues by using non-characters as your keys - concepts and space ships are very common substitutions and I endorse them.

But people are probably the most powerful keys. Non-character keys are primarily useful for getting several players to all invest in the same thing.

So... it's a trade off. If you decide to use character keys in a video game, be very careful about it.


As a reward for reading this far, here's a cartoon. Textual Harassment liked the starlet, so here's another picture of her. (Although I think he is more fond of full-body shots...)

"And there's our starlet, looking sensual and fierce in her Vera Wang 'Arrow Through the Head'."

"Like a tiger, how lovely."

"Yes, and that arrowhead is made of a single, perfect ruby."

"That's what we've come to expect, of course."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

And now, a bunny.

Okay, no bunny. But no more serious theory today. Instead, cartoons.

I think my version of Lara Croft is much cooler:

A starlet:

(Color version by Textual Harassment)

A miniature girl in a miniature bikini:

Tophat demon!

Game Infrastructure

Okay, so you're thinking about rules. You're designing a game, and you've got all these ideas, and you slap together a ruleset to let you play.


It doesn't matter whether it's a computer game or a tabletop. Rules are not the critical part of game design.

"Say whut?"

Yeah, that's right. How your game handles conflicts and wins and losses is just a paintbrush, not a painting. Different rules will let you paint in different ways, but they are't your game. They aren't even close.

You can't just use your paintbrush to paint a picture. You'll just get a vaguely damp piece of paper. Might want to invest in some paint.

Today, I'm talking about paint.

Game infrastructure isn't about a real-world infrastructure to support your game. It's about your game-world situations and systems. Using these, it barely even matters what your rules are, because you're painting the player experience directly.

Let me give an example.

Set in a dystopian future, you are mankind's last hope! Yeah! This game has guns, and health, and a party, and all sorts of running around cities shooting people and buying upgrades! And stuff!

Those are all simply rules - some even not that much.

The infrastructure goes more like this:

There's a trading system that runs between the towns. Various guilds provide various competing pieces of equipment. By allowing the player to help or hinder guilds (on quests or incidentally) the player can change the prices and even the offered goods from various guilds.

This allows you to control the player's motivations. He likes the Scrabble Gun? He's going to help out the guild that makes it.

This isn't just a standalone piece of the game. It hooks into every other facet - rule or infrastructure - simultaneously. What a guild wants done varies from town to town. Characters who are allied with or part of any given guild may join your team... or oppose you, all depending on how you've treated their guild.

It's not just a rule: it is an overarching structure which allows you to develop any part of the game world in tandem with it, and affect any part of the game world with echoes from another part of the game world.

It connects and supports all the game world. Hence the term "infrastructure".

Generally, a game doesn't need very many pieces of global infrastructure. Otherwise, things start to get really, really tangled up! Imagine if a player is faced with guilds, nobility, magicians, demons, knights, political parties, stupid card games - all at once. Things get convoluted really fast. That might not be terrible for the player if you do it well, but it is inefficient: the gain is significantly less and the work significantly more each time you add another piece of global infrastructure.

Instead, what you want to do is very carefully choose what kind of game your infrastructure should support. Each kind of infrastructure will push a different kind of... spin... on your basic rules and player experience.

For example, competing guilds will tend to produce a fractious situation with the player siding with one side or another. This will insure the player is always disliked by somebody, and it will also tend to get the player heavily invested in his favorite group. Fractious situations always do that.

Any infrastructure built out of multiple competing parts will do that, whether it's guilds or nations or a rebellion or knock-knock jokes. I call this a fractious infrastructure. It is very common.

An infrastructure built out of a single, overwhelming faction has the opposite effect: it unifies the player with the characters, and doesn't promote emotional investment. Usually, unified infrastructure like this is found only in small or good-natured games, where there is really nothing to rebel against. The reason to have this kind of infrastructure is to tightly control the player's progression and focus mostly on the game rules, rather than the progression of the game.

A limited infrastructure is one which the players can use up at any speed, but when it's gone, it's gone. An example of this is gold gathering in Warcraft, or the card-based system I created a few posts ago. This is useful for making for extremely cagey play.

A reactive infrastructure is a bit like a cross between fractious and unified infrastructures. This infrastructure reacts to what you do and propagates that throughout the game world. If you buy swords, swords become more or less common. If you kill peasants, people fear you. If you are known as a slave trader, people try to sell you their daughters.

Reactive infrastructures lead to a heavy-agency situation, where the player has an inordinate amount of control over the world. If that's what you're looking for, go for it!

However, it's not quite that easy if you want to include emotional investment. Most reactive systems are totally passive, and you need active systems to make the player invest. An active reactive system requires a lot of effort.

The key is keys: elements which stay the same and push the player into new situations. Keys gather emotional investment, but must do so carefully to avoid giving the player an undue change in control or irritating them with unwarranted stupidity.

I'll have to discuss keys some day soon. They're very, very, very useful, and their use is remarkably subtle.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I wish I'd written this about keys. But the essay is done, now, so I'm not about to delete it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Zounds! Human Simulation!

First, although it has nothing to do with this post, you should go read this long-ass essay. It says many of the things I've said, and the things it says that I haven't, I agree with.

Second, here's the actual post.

For a long, long, long time, I've wanted to build a "human simulator". I'm sure dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of people want to do the same thing. When you start to build these things, you end up with a couple of different final products, none of which are very good and many of which are socially unacceptable.

Okay. What is the draw. Why does it seem like an interesting thing to build?

And what is the failure?

The draw is that a human simulation will give you a playground game on a whole new level. Humans are naturally fascinating to humans, and emotion is the greatest instant hook. Humans know emotion and, more than that, they reflect it. Put emotion on the screen and, so long as it isn't too much, too fast, the audience will feel it echo. Laughter or tears, it hardly matters: emotion on the screen equals instant immersion.

The failure of this basic idea is from two big problems.

First is the scale failure. It is relatively easy to write a simulation for people in a given situation. I can write a compelling simulation of people on a crashing airplane, or people watching TV, or geeks at a lan party, or people in a hostage situation. All of these things are restricted in scope and scale, and it's pretty easy to come up with passable emotional and social algorithms for the situation.

But that one simulation isn't enough to put in any kind of advanced "carrying complexity". You can't get the player invested in the characters, because he only sees them in one situation, probably for less than half an hour. In order to get emotionally invested in a character, you need to see them in a variety of situations.

What this means is that you can't do anything other than the most primitive emotional games. Games which center around direct agency and wish fulfillment. This is why most of these kinds of games end up sliding rapidly towards worthless: a game about helping people isn't going to be much fun unless you want to help them. IE, are invested in them.

The solution?

Well, one solution would be to make a simulation which can handle a huge number of widely differing situations, allowing characters to grow on you. Obviously, this is extremely difficult. Another solution would be to write cutscenes in, like a normal game, which make you like the characters. Then you can "unleash" them in a social situation. The problem there is one of grain: the cutscenes will portray a dramatically more realistic and responsive character than the simulation.

That's only the first problem. The second problem is game. There's no such thing as an "emotion" game. There's "emotional" games, but not "emotion" games.

So you are forced to - whether you notice or not - add in a game. I've used poker, text adventures, and RPG-style combat engines. The question here is what these subgames offer.

Mostly, it's two things: breadth of options and clear communication.

In something like poker, ruling out tabletalk, you don't have many options. You win, you lose, you bid, you call - things are restricted. Moreover, the communication isn't clear. It's muddy, because you're playing the game. Whether you like or dislike someone doesn't necessarily drive your actions.

In something like a text adventure, you have a huge number of options, and usually they are very, very clear. Help someone, give someone a present, grab someone, hurt someone, talk to someone, give advice to someone, hug someone, steal something from someone. The options are endless, and each is very clear and personal. If you hug someone, it's pretty clearly an emotional thing: most hugs are not intended to win games.

The thing about this is that the more game you put in, the less emotion you can put in. Because the need to do well in the game will screw up the need to emotionally communicate, and emotional communications will tend to serve your advancement in the game.

Okay, so, what the heck am I trying to say?

I'm saying that there are two options if you want to create an adaptive emotional narrative in a game.

The easiest is to make a game, then put in a hint of adaptive emotion. This is actually getting more common - several tactical games allow characters to become friends and give statistical bonuses rewarding you for doing so. A certain volleyball game also does this, as does Playboy: Mansion and others.

The more difficult method of creating an adaptive emotional narrative is to make an open ended "social adventure" game.

This is not exactly an easy thing to do. You need to have a robust social simulator and... okay, this is the thing. And you need an involving plot which reacts to the social situation. Two tall orders!

The social simulator will be interesting initially, but once someone is invested in a character, you need to provide some kind of challenge so they won't get bored with these characters they've grown to like. The easiest way to do that is some kind of plot.

Whether it's a social plot or a "set out on an adventure and kill some monsters" plot hardly matters to me, but the longer your game goes on, the bigger your plots have to be in order to hold the player's attention.

The first time you save the earth, it's cool. The second time? Not so much. You've gotta pace yourself and push past that limit. Save a family, then a city, then a country, then a planet, than a galactic civilization, then the universe!

Okay, this kind of spiral is pretty absurd. It works, but so does drinking bleach to cure the common cold.

There are other options, including rotating scopes and player content investment.

This harkens back to my long-overdue post on global narratives. Long-overdue and... even later. Because this isn't that post, either.

This post is about social simulations, and why they are difficult.

I hope you've learned something from it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Distracted

I occasionally get a comment about how I should turn something into a short story.

Well, let me tell you my story... about short stories.

When I was just a wee lad, I wrote short stories and drew comics. Apparently, my short stories were quite good (for my age bracket). My comics were abysmal. For any age bracket.

As I grew older, I began to become more and more immersed in visual medium. I never directed a movie, but I wrote scripts. And cartoons. And comics. And pictures. All of these things were intended for the audience to watch. My prose skills were turned to essays, essays like this one. Except, you know, even shittier, because I was just a dumb kid.

There is an adage, "show, don't tell". I took that adage to heart. I rarely, if ever, tell anything. In fact, it gets to the point where I have started failing even to show, and have gone straight on to "vaguely imply". This isn't because I don't like telling people things: it's because in a visual medium, you don't have much of a choice. You either show, or you have really crappy writing.

In prose, you get phrases like, "Like all the maidens of the beast, she refused to use starch when washing clothes: the beast was allergic." It's kind of funny, kind of stupid, and actually contains a hell of a lot of exposition and foreshadowing in about two seconds of reading. It's also "told", not "shown". In fact, as written, there's not one single "shown" thing.

Telling rather than showing isn't bad! Instead, "on the nose" is bad, and that is what the adage is referring to. Basic dialog writing says your characters should rarely approach the situation straight on. Characters don't say, "I'm angry about the cat getting thrown into the blender, Dave." Not unless there's something you need to imply with that. Instead, they say, "You threw the cat in the blender, Dave. Did you think I forgot?"

You follow the same rule as your characters, and the story is your dialog. You don't simply describe the story: you describe the elements of the story, and the story itself fills the gaps. You don't say, "He approached the citadel of Shub-Shub, to avenge his father's demise at the hands of Grogar Kobb." You let those truths echo - you introduce those elements and, when he approaches the city, you can say something less... on the nose. Like, "Townsfolk crossed the street and cringed away. By now, his hand was surely a permanent part of the sword hilt. His eyes were disconcertingly bright, set in the dark circles of sleepless nights." See? Twice as pulpy, twice as entertaining, and still delightfully poor writing.

And... that's what happened to me.

No, not the father murdered by an evil warlord thing. The progression from "tell" to "show".

You see, I stopped thinking "prose", and started thinking "visual". Notice that last piece of pulp? Notice how... it would look good on a screen?

I can't think any other way!

The "starch" line is against my nature, because it includes lots of information which can't be picked up by someone watching the scene. It includes analysis, time drift, and intangibles. I automatically don't think like that. I'm the sort of guy who thinks that thought bubbles in a cartoon are kind of "breaking the rules".

So, that's why I don't write short stories. Because I've trained myself to be rigidly visual. And I can't break the habit!

If I could get a scanner, inker, and colorist, I could be convinced to do a comic version of nearly anything...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Robots of a Type

I had a dream about living in the far future at a faraway star. The people are all artificial, but for some reason, there's only about a dozen of them.

I don't mean there are a dozen warm bodies on the planet: I mean there are ten thousand warm bodies, but only a dozen sets of memories.

The memories are all tightly interlocked. In my memories, I remember all of the other eleven people. We have a friendly history together. Every one of my models remembers the exact same things, and all the other models' planted memories fit in so that it is seamless. A dozen people, going through childhood together - but entirely artificial, entirely to seed the artificial society with stable workers.

My role was as an architect, designing the new buildings. In my "childhood", I was good friends with the rowdier of the two construction workers, and it was seeded such that I would have an easy romance with one of the scientist girls. Me - all of me - had the same basic progression. Good friends with the rowdy guy, romance with the scientist girl.

My job took me to the other side of the planet, to a new settlement that needed a carefully designed environment plant due to the earthquake- and natural-gas-heavy terrain. I waved good-bye to my girlfriend, shuttled over, and walked into the temporary HQ.

As busy as I was being irritated by the poor design of the HQ, I was scanning the other inhabitants. Rowdy guys - good friends. Wave, high-five, "build me something with gun turrets!" Old jokes, standard anchors. The scientist girls walk by, pinging me as they pass. Lots of them: the environment is unstable and requires many researchers. Numbers pop up on them as they pass. Stage 5, 12% match. Too far along. Stage 2, 33% match. Not in the mood for doing that again. Stage 1, 8% match. Might be fun to start over... no, she's already got one of me, and it's unnecessary to make her split her time.

But the stage 3, 94% match is definitely the one to choose, and it looks like there's no other architects in her life. She's obviously reached the same conclusion: a wave and a smile promise a good reunion once work's done.

The guys (by which I mean my rowdy friends) treat me a little differently here than they did back where I started, but it's a small enough difference. Like me, the other mes wander through but don't stay long. We simply add a bit of friendly stirring to the rowdy workers' romances with the medic girl.

After a few days, though, things start to get strange. My girlfriend notes that the cultural skew is very high. A few hours later, she notes that the quake activity is interesting for various reasons. I'm more interested about the cultural skew, and bring the subject up again.

She stares at me blankly. She doesn't remember. I look a bit more deeply and realize that she's not actually the same girl. I say nothing.

A week later, I've catalogued it: there are twenty-four of her, doing rapid rotation. No wonder she seemed omnipresent. Every hour, even every half hour, a new one of her is spending time with me.

It's not uncommon for a dual relationship or even triple relationship to form, but it eats more and more time, as well as making your mate seem forgetful (since she only has 1/2-1/3 of her memories at any given time). 24 is higher than anything I've ever heard of.

I investigate. Quietly.

There are a few less of me than of her, but not that many. I meet some of me, and the problem immediately becomes clear: they've fallen in love with the medic. I've fallen in love with the medic, I mean. Or, rather, I'm the just about only one of me that hasn't.

My girlfriend shows up, tries to draw me away. When I take too long, several more of her show up and drag me away.

The next day, I finish the core energy distribution system, and go give it to the rowdy workers to build. And they jump me! And hit me!

It doesn't hurt - there's safeguards against our kind hurting our kind. But it is surprising. Their shouting explains it - I've taken their girl. They're not my friend any more.

No good, since I need them to build stuff.

I return to my girlfriend and we quickly hammer out a solution. The next day, all of them ask all of the rowdy worker guys out. Peace is restored. I have no girlfriend any more.

A year later, the place is complete. An influx of new people comes in. They look around. What do they see? 1% match. 2% match. 1% match. 0% match.

Fights start. Things get muddled.

One day, a few of us are pulled into a flight and shuttled to a space station. Below us, I see the facility I finally finished building explode violently. Cancer: removed.

I look around. The people here: the only reason we were spared is because we didn't have much to do with the culture of the base. No girlfriends, no partygoing. I'm the oldest on the ship by far, at nearly four years old.

My girlfriend - my original girlfriend - is sitting across from me, looking nervous. And shy. I've never seen her look shy. Stage 1. 2% match.

Good enough, I suppose. I wave and smile.

Stage One: Begin!

A rant on the art of offering multiple challenges in one play style. Originally, this rant had a mini-rant about God of War, which I think is hugely over-rated, but I took it out. You're welcome.

There are three common ways of thinking about stages. One is the old way: each stage means a different layout and probably slightly harder enemies. The second is the new way: each stage means a new challenge and probably new abilities. The third is the right way.

There's a growing feeling that when you do game design, you should be careful to keep the content fresh - not let the players get too stagnant in one pattern of play.

To some extent, this is obvious. If you, like me and Raph Koster, think that games are patterns, it is especially obvious. You don't let the player get too bored.

But... it is sooooo easy to apply incorrectly. I'll call this the "jumping around flaw". The primary warning sign of this flaw is when a game starts increasing the number of play options you have. It manifests when the designers decide that you should have to use all of those play options at some point.

Let me give an example.

In an action game, halfway through the game you gain a new blubshot. "Hold A to charge and fire your blubshot".

But you don't need to use blubshot. The enemies die easily enough without it.

An hour later, you are fighting this impossible freaking enemy. The anger in you grows. Why is this enemy so friggin' hard?

You look up a walkthrough. It says, "Use the blubshot and he'll die quick..."

The blubshot? That worthless piece of crap? The situation was designed specifically to make you use that one ability? As a justification for the creeping featurism that made them implement it in the first place?

This irritates me more than most, because I optimize more than most. If I find that something is an inferior strategy, I actually forget it exists. I got stuck in Prince of Persia for eight hours because I forgot their blubshot.

I'm rather extreme about this. I don't even like the super-bombs in shmups. I think they're a cheap cop-out. Ooooh, lookie! I'm all hardcore and shit.

The idea that gameplay is a pattern is definitely true. But great games and deep play come from having a really great play pattern, not a play pattern you continually staple awkward modifications on to hide the fact that it's a shallow dynamic. Every stage is a "new game, same conflict", which is kind of a poor way to do it.

Now, back to stages.

Some of the most fantastically successful games - from Space Invaders to Grand Turismo - don't continually give you new options. They give you new iterations, allowing you to use your skills to fight a new challenge... instead of requiring you to remember some arcane piece of useless information or learn a new skill unrelated to the game's prior play. Starcraft. Street Fighter. The Sims. None of these force you to use specific approaches at specific times - they allow you to use whatever techniques you feel are worth using. These games use the first definition of stage: same game, new conflict.

Some games - mostly the real classic games like "go" - have and use the third definition of stage.

The third definition is a new way of playing the same game because a new situation has emerged. Obvious example: you play differently at the beginning of Civilization than at the end. The crowding and tech advancement creates a new situation emergently.

This isn't a situation where some designer sat down and said, "hyuk, let's make us a level where everything's all jam-packed together!"

Instead, that's how it works. It's not a new level, or a new ability, or even a new challenge. It's the play pattern seen from a different angle.

That's why I use the "nested play loops" theory of design, rather than simply the "pattern" theory of design. The latter doesn't clearly indicate how a game should progress, just that it should. The former clearly indicates such things, and lets you track and plan.

Anyway, this is still a freaking long essay, even without the page-long rant about God of War. Comments welcome.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Control Freak!

Both Jeff and Darius posted a link to a game called Dice Wars. They both like it. Jeff actually posted a rather detailed analysis - probably more detailed than the designer originally conceived. :D

I don't like the game. And the reason is simple: I'm a control freak.

It's not that I want to control everything. Micromanagement pisses me off. I just want to be able to rely on things. I want my success or failure to be more about my skill than whether or not I happen to find a four-leaf clover.

This actually relates to my previous post: I run the kinds of games I like. And I like the kinds of games where a choice you make now will have an effect on the game later.

The CHOICE you make now. Sure, a die roll or a piece of luck can (and even should) factor in. But the choice, for me, is the critical part. I like finding the optimum route, not finding a decent route and crossing my fingers. I like to prove my brain exists for a reason other than feeding change into slot machines.

There's a huge draw to luck, and I'm certainly not immune. I love playing Bang! and other hidden-card games (poker, spades, bridge). These are games in which luck is a critical factor.

But it isn't the dominant factor. The dominant factor is choosing how much to commit to your hand. If you have shitty luck, the game is not to win, but to take a minimum loss. If you have great luck, the game is not to win, but to take a maximum win. And if you overplay, that's your own damn fault, not luck.

A comparison would be if Dice Wars was played in ten-game sets where you could spend chips to gain more dice, and every region you ended with got you more chits. Instead of simply winning or losing based on luck, you would win or lose based on how you played a given lay.

This feeds into stages, actually, which is amusing. That's a complex subject, and there's several different ways to think about "stages". I'll probably post about them some other time. It sounds like at least one person might read it, and I have been thinking about it. (It's rather central to Gun Shy's design. It, by the way, is done save for debugging.)

Anyhow, my basic use for luck is not in determining a win or a loss, but in determining the amplitude or approach to a win or loss. You, the player, should be responsible for the decisions which bring about a win or a loss. The dice shouldn't be able to turn a win into a loss... or a loss into a win.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Why Cards?

Over on Man Bytes Blog, there's a post about dice.

I like dice, but I'm coming to love cards more. This isn't an attempt to convince him to switch from dice to cards, just an attempt to show you some interesting features of cards.

Of lesser interest is the many different ways to interpret cards. A die is simply a flat number. A card, however, is a number, or a face card, or a suit, or a poker hand - anything you want, with a complexity level way higher than dice. Yet it is still just as easy to read and considerably less likely to bounce off the table.

The interesting feature about cards is that they come from a deck. If you're using a standard deck, once you've drawn the queen of hearts, there's no more tart-makin' ladies to be drawn.

My philosophy when it comes to in-game challenges is one of puzzle optimization.

I do not do the "roll to live" game style. Nor do I do the "figure it out or die" game style. Instead, I run with attrition. Even as you gain experience and property, every action, every encounter weakens you.

Damage heals slowly. Mana regenerates slowly. Ammo goes away, and often must be replaced with a completely different kind of weapon. Sure, they also get more powerful as time goes on. The difficulty for the players is in doing the latter faster than they do the former.

Cards are built for this kind of hoobie-jooby. A deck of cards can represent energy, stockpiles, hordes of enemies. When it runs out, it runs out!

The key here is to allow players to mix cards back into their deck in certain situations, so they can choose to stack their deck. For example, they can choose to spend good cards early and stack the deck against themselves, or spend shitty cards early at stack the deck for themselves.

And, of course, allowing them to change which cards are in their deck - often a more valuable option than gaining a new skill.

The end result is that you end up with a tangible stack of character, specially made for an attrition-based game. You end up with methods of play that are much deeper than die-based systems without having many more rules.

Moreover, by allowing players to read cards in different ways by using different types of play, you allow players to stack the deck against themselves, then switch methodologies such that the deck is no longer stacked. IE, they can read for suit instead of number. This further enhances the RP and customization: for example, someone who starts precise and careful, but gets emotional as he gets tired.

That's why I like cards. Every action you take with a deck of cards has a lasting effect, no matter what the outcome of the action. Every player will approach it differently. Every play style is an opportunity to RP.