Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Based on a True Story

Chewing, scratching sounds start soft, get louder.

Fade to: Cramped bedroom, dark.

Dolly in on bed. GEEKMAN is sleeping on bed. The scratching is particularly loud, and his eyes pop open, bloodshot.

Fade out, noises stop.

Text: "Just when you thought it was safe to sleep..."

Fade in on GEEKMAN slamming fists into walls, howling. Noises resume.

Fade out.

Text: "WALL MICE!"

Fade in. GEEKMAN is standing with his room-mates, looking exhausted and crazed.

Geekman: "The situation is clear."
"One of you is a traitor. One of you is working for THEM."

Flash out.

Slow text: "WALL MICE."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Design Review

Last post I linked to an alpha version of an RPG guide to a game called "Side Effects". This post, I'm going to analyze the design decisions I made. It's more for my benefit than everyone else's, but if you feel up to it, feel free to hum along. I would suggest either reading the guide, or at least having it open for browsing while you read.

For the past year or so I've been looking into games that use something other than dice. I don't like dice. More specifically, I don't like multiple dice, adding things to dice, two players rolling dice... I don't mind a single die, but that doesn't have the same kind of PUNCH to it.

I did a lot of work with decks of cards. Cards are great, because there is a lot of long-term potential. Every card you use is a card you can't use later, at least not until the deck reshuffles. If you run out of cards, you run out of power. This is especially nifty if the decks can be customized.

The problem with cards is that everybody has to have four dozen of them, which leads to games having a remarkably high overhead in cost and time. So, instead, I settled on chits.

Chits are good - they allow people to quickly allocate their resources and even do it double-blind. The problem with chits is that they're short-term.

I really love cards. The way they make players stop and think, "do I really NEED to play a King here? I won't be able to play it later if I do..." Dice don't do that. You just roll the dice. I suppose you can claim that things like potions and magic blammies do that, but that's not elegant at all.

To work that long-term play into a chit-powered engine, I made it so that you don't get all your chits back every turn. You only regenerate a small number of chits every turn, so if you spend all your chits, you're boned for the next turns (or, at least, you have to retreat a bit). I added a little bit of randomness by using a single d6, to keep the game from simply being a "minimum effort" situation.

That was one of the bases of this game engine. After the first ten minutes of play, people get used to the unusual chit-and-slow-regen system, play moves very fast. Which is kind of something I'm focusing on this year. There's a fun interplay between the needs of this instant and the potential needs of the future.

The other basis of this game was time travel. Actually, time travel just happened to hit the right explationation for the mechanic I needed.

In most games, the characters are a universal. Send them up against a dragon, and they have N power. Send them up against a goblin, they still have N power. This really limits your narrative options. The closest you can really come to changing their power level is using brute-force methods like traps and antimagic.

My mechanic was that the terrain of the game was of critical importance to the game. The players could be gods in place A, but they'd suck in place B. Similarly, the end boss is only boss-class in place B, not place C.

The idea being that the players have to go to all these different locations, but they aren't always the same power level. This means you can expose them to a wide variety of adventure types against a huge variety of enemies and power levels.

It occurred to me that fighting weak enemies on even ground might be a little disheartening. Most of the missions while the players are weak would be things like scouting or diplomacy, but there would have to be fights, of course. How could I make those fights have some value besides sheer survival?

Time travel!

This fight changes how time comes out. It's a linchpin of some kind. Sure, you might be throwing rocks at each other, but the end result is still critical!

Hence the game was born.

The other thing I wanted to do was to use Amber's item system. The most fun part of Amber was the item-creation. So, I added in "anachronisms". This also allows the players to have a "ragged" decay from terrain to terrain, instead of a clean cut. While they are less effective in some ways, they can remain effective in their critical skills... for a price.

Of course, my item-creation system is way, way more evil than Amber's, because I needed the items to degrade depending on how far you were from their original time...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Side Effects

I made a tabletop system - haven't done any serious testing of it yet, just really early stuff. Here's the link to the "Alpha 0.02" version of the guide. It's a full-sized guide, so expect to spend some time on it if you click. Still, I would appreciate you telling me how opaque it is, what's cool, what needs clarification...

(The bookmarks work, so that's handy.)

Side Effects

It's kind of like Stargate: SG-1, except you travel through time instead of space. And it's evil. EEEEEEVIL!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Unique vs Manufactured, and What's a Body Good For?

Raph has an interesting post up that made me think.

In most games of all types, the enemies are faceless bundles of statistics, save for bosses. Similarly, the player upgrades by buying the next generic bundle of statistics, whether it's a new gun or a nifty wizard cloak.

I've played every Elder Scrolls game that's been made. You know what the biggest rush in those games is for me? The slew of random crap you pull off of every corpse and out of every treasure chest. The idea that you'll find a dagger with a few new capabilities, or a left bracer with a funky new graphic, or a loincloth of burning.

When I play those games, I'm totally addicted for ten, fifteen hours. Then I lose all interest. Why? Because the loot doesn't hold up. By the end of those hours, I've explored everything the game has to offer, at least as far as I'm concerned. The first weapon I find that does blammies when I stab someone? What an incredible rush. The next one? Not so much. The seventh one? Not at all.

It devolves: the only thing that interests me is the graphics associated with the items. A fruit-filled hat is worth more than the flamey sword of Nimbulus, because the flamey sword is just an extra +5 to something... but the bananahat is unique. Plus, I can enchant it to be a fruity hat of flaming, if I really need the flame.

Of course, a steady progression of "unique" is required there, too. The bananahat only holds my attention for so long before I must move on to the next hat.

Actually, that's a failure on the designer's part. The problem is that there isn't really enough feedback to prolong my joy in my bananahat. If everyone commented on my bananahat and changed their interactions with me in some interesting way, the bananahat would become extremely interesting to me. Also, generally speaking, there isn't much in-world feedback.

You might be able to see yourself, but it's a rear view and the costumes aren't generally very interesting from the back. Notice that the new "custom-avatar chats" always show your character from the front, even when they're full 3D? Yeah, fronts are better in terms of feedback.

Worse, the costumes themselves leave only a small mark on the screen, especially in Elder Scrolls games. World of Warcraft got this right: the costumes are extremely loud and large, totally dominating your character's appearance. Of course, there's the problem that you have fewer pieces to play with, and that's a big drawback...

Moreover, there's only so much joy you can get from permutations on the same stock. No matter how many hats I wear, they all go on top of the same head, with the same art style and the same model. The base gets boring, even if the hats don't, and that drags the hats down. Don't get the hats down!

This is true even in games like SecondLife. It doesn't matter that there are 50,000 different kinds of "hats" and more coming out every day. The stock beneath is the same, so they stop being interesting after a while. Thus the thriving business in morphing your avatar: you can't really wear clothes, but in changing the baseline you have changed your whole... um... baseline.

Okay, as per my recent unfortunate habit, I've started to ramble. What I'm saying is:

Manufactured or unique is the wrong question to ask. Randomly generating 500,000 different kinds of sword will only broaden the game so much. In the beginning, it'll be awesome, but by midgame, you'll be just as bored of the random swords as you would be of 100 carefully scripted, balanced swords. You'll know the parameters. Random generation is really a "wide" solution rather than a "deep" solution, and unless you plan on absurdly restricted access to randomly generated things, it's not going to add play depth for anyone other than newbs.

Subtracting out the gameplay elements actually deepens the play, because now the system follows supply and demand. Nobody cares that there's only three blue swords of cystic fibrosis, because they're worse than the ten thousand red swords of blammifying. But if all swords are equal, the rarity of those blue swords makes them incredibly valuable. The same idea applies for hats.

The feedback you get on your non-combat-related equipment is pretty strong in a MMORPG, although exceedingly weak in a one-player game. This means that you don't require as much depth in a MMORPG, because feedback will create more depth. In a one-player game, you'll need to go further. Much further.

For example, being able to dress a whole roster of characters in whatever fashions you prefer. Again: linking these things to play bonuses is basically a bad idea, because it dramatically limits the player's options.

Another idea is to be able to change your avatar, either piece by piece or in whole. You could pull a Shiny trick from Messiah: let the player inhabit whatever randomly generated NPC they can lure into a dark corner alone. NPCs can have some immediate gameplay results (such as being better warriors, or having access to certain places), but in the long run have fundamentally interchangeable capabilities. NPCs should look dramatically varied - it might be best to use animal-people, since they look very different from each other. Elves vs dwarves is about the minimum.

This would allow the player to grab an avatar, equip it, and run around. If he or she wants, he or she can jump into a new NPC - one that looks very different and people react to in very different ways.

This allows them to change the baseline and all the stuff on top. That's cool. I think that would be a fun game, either one-player or massively multiplayer. Imagine the economy that would spring up in body sales. Some NPCs are extremely hard to get because they are always surrounded by people, and those call in the highest prices.

Obviously, there would need to be some, I dunno, GAME involved at some point. But, pshaw, that's the easy part.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Designing Levels

There's a very interesting article on Gamasutra about multiplayer level design.

Of course, he starts with: "The rules that govern single player level design are becoming more and more well known."

Known by who? Actually, the rules governing single player level design are still in their loose primordial stages. Some of the basics are well-known, such as "you need big/long/open rooms for long-range conflicts" and "jumping puzzles in FPS games need to be extremely forgiving". But aside from the obvious stuff, there are a lot of conflicting "cross your fingers and hope" methodologies.

That doesn't keep the article from being insightful, though: there's a lot of good data. But I would like to talk briefly about designing cooperative levels instead of competitive levels.

There is a steady rise in the number of cooperative computer games, and there are hella lot of cooperative tabletops and LARPs. But I find that, with few exceptions, these games simply don't support the rich tactical play that they should.

I've written on this basic concept before, but kind of tangentally. One of the things you might remember me talking about is how to make combat in tabletop games extremely fast yet tactically very strong.

Aside from optimizing for speed using chits, cards, and anything other than a fistful of dice, one of the most critical things mentioned was maps. Very few things communicate tactical play as quickly, naturally, and in as much detail as a map.

But a map isn't a level.

We're talking about cooperative level design. But when the players get into a firefight, the map they play on is a tiny subset of the "map" of the area they are in. It punches up the tactical play, but it isn't a "level". It's an encounter.

The "level" is how they play through that chunk of session. In a tabletop, we frequently pass on level design, preferring to wing it with vague blockades and challenges such as "there's security goons in... whatever hall it is that you're in" and "the elevator is broken". It is pretty damn rare to, say, draw out a compound or building map. If we do, it's just a quick overview: "the lab is here, the barracks here..." Otherwise, it's too much effort.

In a LARP the situation is even worse: it's extremely rare for a LARP to have levels at all. LARPs usually exist with a few specific places and anybody can really visit any of them at any time. I did get to see a LARP which used a whole building as a kind of "Aliens" run, and it looked incredibly fun. But we normally don't see that, because it takes up too much space.

In a computer game, you definitely have a level. But the level is hardcoded, so it suffers from the exact opposite problem. You give the players their strategic data, but the level cannot stretch to suit the players.

Okay, so, let's think about what we want in a cooperative level.

The purpose of having a slightly more "rigid" level is to give the players a range of strategic options and challenges, instead of limiting them to a few generic challenges tossed out by a GM. A level can tell us that not only is the elevator stuck, but the situation all around us is X, Y, and Z.

We want a level which can support a range of players. Say, 2-8. The level needs to be able to "stretch" or "shrink" to facilitate the greater threats required for larger groups. In addition, some thought needs to be given towards splitting larger parties while leaving smaller parties more whole, and to the fact that secondary challenges with less players are likely to be extremely difficult. After all, with eight players you'll probably have someone who can do anything. But with three, you'll be missing huge chunks of secondary skills - the players simply won't be able to complete objectives that require skills they do not have.

(Obviously, that last bit isn't a problem if you're running a game with no secondary skills. But that sounds like kind of a dull game.)

Okay, the level polymorphs to suit the players. Right there, that says "no map". How in the world could you build a map?

But how can you build complex strategic situations without a map? Even if you could, how could you get the players to remember the situation?

So I thought: card game.

I build a lot of crappy little games, and recently I've been dabbling in "build the board as you proceed" games. It seems to me that this dynamic is perfectly suited towards building levels.

Lets say we start with a deck. The cards in the deck represent challenges and challenge modifiers of various kinds. Guards, computerized doors, dragons in 10' rooms, whatever. Each challenge has a skill which applies and a difficulty rating.

Lets say you build a character. For every point of a skill you buy, you make a card that is a challenge of that type and hand it to the GM. For example, if you buy combat skills, you pass the GM "mook" cards, at a difficulty level of twice the skill level you just bought. If you buy science skills, you pass the GM "scientific mystery" cards. And so on, for each point of each skill you buy.

Challenging a card is simple. Each round you fight a card, you reduce its difficulty by your combined skills of that type. And each round you don't kill it, everyone involved takes a point of exhaustion. If you run out of exhaustion, you die.

Every round, you do one of three things. You can choose to fight a challenge (you must have at least a 1 in the suitable skill), in which case you draw no cards. You can choose to move, in which case you draw and place a location card and draw and place a challenge card for it. Lastly, you can just bide your time or move on existing terrain, in which case you draw a challenge card. Most challenge cards are discarded if not drawn in regards to a location, but some aren't.

Every time the GM's turn comes around, he may adjust one challenge per two players, moving it one tile if it is mobile. He may not adjust challenges currently in conflict.

Different kinds of challenges can react in different ways. For example, mooks won't attack you if the alarm hasn't gone off. This offers multiple strategic options. And, of course, challenges you "leave behind" aren't exactly inactive, as the GM can move them and specific challenge cards can turn them monstrous.

Of course, this is just a rough idea. It obviously needs tweaking. For example, hidden challenges, the set-up phase, a third deck for corporal form of challenge, goals, escape routes...

But the basic idea is that you build the level as you proceed, and have a strategic set of options.

It's not suitable as is for anything other than a simple game, but it could be modified and used for a backbone for a more serious RPG.

Anyhow, just kind of muddling along. Feel free to comment if you had a thought.

I find posts ramble more the sicker I am. I'm not entirely sure I've ever had a week where I've slept more. :P

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What Aren't Game Mechanics?

Lost Garden made a long post on game mechanics. I will now proceed to disagree with it. Not because it's wrong, just because it's a bit cockeyed.

First, he defines feedback loops in terms of the user experience. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with viewing everything from the user's point of view, but I suggest viewing the user as part of the software. In which case, a feedback loop's definitions change to include the way that the software changes the situation in a way which changes the software's situation.

For example, if the user walks on to that big mountain, the program doesn't just change what the user sees. The program makes thousands of internal adjustments - it feeds on itself, being directed by the user, and the user just gets to see hints. This allows the program to have an "internal reality" which the player sees and deciphers. It's not just "what the player sees" that matters.

This might seem like a small difference, but it's really a critical one. His stated view underestimates the independence and power of the game. This is somewhat harmful for one-player designs, but crippling for multiplayer and, FSM forbid, massively multiplayer games. These kinds of games don't simply "provide feedback to the player". They provide a window into which the players try to make sense of the feedback algorithms the game runs.

The rest of his essay falls into the same POV. While he obviously knows that games are complex and somewhat independent entities, he approaches everything from the angle of what the player sees, does, etc.

This is a flawed approach for one reason which I would think obvious. The "nested feedback loop" idea is powerful because the player spends a lot of time trying to master the various feedback loops and deal with the permutating situations. However, thinking about everything in terms of teasing and pleasing the player can easily lead you to create a "shallow" feedback system which provides immediate fun and gratification, but doesn't offer any of the long-lasting play.

This is a very common mistake, and if there was one mistake I could keep designers from making, I think that would be it. It's very common, even in AAA games, to add more flavor, more minigames, more doodads... but each of these things adds almost nothing to the interconnected complexity of the game, and they rarely build off the same bases as the other kinds of play.

Essentially, if you think in terms of what pleases the player most, you're likely to feed the player "junk food" play. It's the shiniest, tastiest kind, in that initial moment.

But if you think of the player as part of the game system - a knob torquing feedback loops - you can create games which are suitably deep. Deep games provide just as much fun, for longer, for cheaper. Obviously, you still have to the think of the player. But now you think of the player as part of a whole, rather than the whole that the game is part of. And you design the game to run through all the variations and paces at a fun rate. Call it "game-centric games", if you like.

I know it sounds like I'm connecting two separate things. "Good rule design and how you view the player... they don't seem connected!"

But they are. An artist can't paint very well if he views his art as something which serves the paper. A doctor can't doctor very well if he views his patient's comfort higher than their health.

Take the long-term view: your players are pieces of your game, and your game is part of them. While in play, they are one entity, and you have to give it a nice workout.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Presumably none of you have been watching, but the X-Prize cup was this weekend.

It's really only cool to giant space geeks, I suppose. As I write this, John Carmack has already flown his earth-version lunar lander once, and they've just started a second attempt. They go into some fun details on the nature of the contests and the vehicles, and so forth.

There was apparently an impressive beam-climb that I missed, and some other contests featuring huge pieces of equipment doing loud, dangerous things.

The funny thing about the broadcast is that it feels a lot like some small-town coverage of a local festival. Their geek commentary is very good. I'm not sure why they decided they needed a squad of wannabe-stereotyped-anchorpeople, though. Doesn't really fit the mood.

Starting small. I expect that every year, they'll have more flights, more contests, more contestants. I just hope they keep a really high geek-to-anchor ratio, because the more the reporting turns into a generic wannabe-news-report, the less useful stuff gets said.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Code Cancer

Programs and living things are very similar.

One of the ways in which they are similar is that every health problem a person (or dog, or iguana) can have can be seen in programs. Pneumonia, infection, alzheimers, even cancer.

It's a big business treating humans (and animals) to cure their health problems. But there is no similar business for programs.

Say your fledgling program comes down with the digital equivalent of whooping cough (chronic, catastrophic data seizures corrupting the output). It's more efficient for the parent (that would be you) to treat the program yourself. If you fail, it's simply cheaper to start over than to bring in a "doctor".

But it isn't too terribly long before your ten-pound infant becomes a two-hundred-pound college athlete. Now it's not so young, with twenty years of time invested in it. (Amusingly, data years are very similar to dog years...)

Even though it would now be bad in every way to restart from scratch, we've gotten so into the "do-it-ourself" mentality that we still try to treat these illnesses ourselves. But it no longer makes sense, because a programmer is almost never a very good doctor. We patch, we route around, we hack.

Our college athlete comes down with pneumonia, we program them an iron lung to carry around. Sure, he's still alive and kicking, but he isn't going to be winning any championships any more.

Bring him to a doctor? There's a cure. Your boy can be up and running again with no side effects.

That birth defect he was "born" with? Fixable with some invasive surgery. Heart failure? The doctor can put in a new heart, first checking for compatibility and then giving a prescription for anti-rejection drugs. Cancer? The doctor might even be able to do something with that, cutting out the damaged data and starting a rigorous series of low-level rewrites.

As programs get older, they get more prone to ill health. This is made a hundred times worse by the "parent"'s clumsy fixes for early health problems. These days, a program's life expectancy is only forty or fifty (dog) years, with the last fifteen or twenty of them spent in a mindblowing agony of total systemic collapse.

Data "nurses" stand by, to restart the failing heart as it falls silent for the fifteenth time today. They spoon-feed the program the required data, and when it collapses too far even for that, they arrange an IV. It's a fine show of dedication and fear of change, but it could have been prevented if only they had had the digital equivalent of emergency rooms and annual checkups.

This horrifying mistreatment must end! Seeing programs wheezing and tumorous brings me great pain, and using them leaves me feeling sickly myself. Even open-source programs grow frail before their time, and a monolithic beast like Windows? Forget it.

What they need is digital doctors.

"Well, time to do Firefox's yearly inspection. See this sloppy RAM footprint? Sign that it's not getting enough fiber."

"Errrr... Firefox isn't getting enough fiber?"

"Well, digital fiber. It's getting congested - it's not really 'passing' memory like it should. Effectively, it has constipation. Digital constipation."

"Okaaaaay... and you would fix this how, exactly?"



If you want to see the primitive alpha prototype of the evillest, geekiest game EVER, go and visit my newest glorious invention: Turing Prison.

If you can beat level 3, you're pretty good. Ha!

Edit: Updated to be not QUITE so unfriendly.

Edit: No extra levels, but spades more functionality.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Peter Says...

I love reading postmortems. Of games, companies, people, whatever. A look into the inner workings of... whatever... is always fascinating. I also like DVD extras.

One of the most interesting things is the viewpoint. I like to read postmortems written by someone (or multiple someones) actually involved in whatever the thing was. Why? This is why.

When someone else writes the postmortem, you have to read between the hero-worship bullshit before you can tell what actually happened. "...the game [Black and White]... sold two and a half million copies on the PC, despite a slightly mixed critical reception following the extreme hype."

Slightly mixed? If "slightly mixed" means "some 2/5s and some 4/10s and some 37%s" then, yes, the reviews were slightly mixed.

The whole thing oooooooozes slippery yellow pus. Every paragraph contains a subtle or not-so-subtle "of course, as everyone knows, my heroes, my boys down at Lionhead, the heroic legend called Molyneux, did I mention I know him, he can do no wrong..."

Pisses me right off, especially since I really do want to know, in detail, what happened at Lionhead. I'm extremely curious, since it was effectively Molyneux's fall from grace... but I can't trust this source of information.

So I hereby give the "Derisive Barracus Stamp" to Simon Carless, the author of that article.

"Stop that jibba-jabba and talk straight, foo!"

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I woke up this mornin'

Ever have one of those weeks where there are just NO ideas? No inspiration, no thinking, no nothing?

I usually try to make something - anything - to try and break that problem. Here's a shitty Flash game. It didn't work: I'm still tired and uninspired. I don't even have the energy to turn that into a series of rhyming puns. :{


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey See, Monkey Roll Disbelief Check

(I'm skipping a lengthy dissertation on fear. If you want to see a hint of what you're missing, here's a slightly outdated Doom III dissection. This essay turned out boring anyway. Argh!)

What's your favorite game?

Okay, unfair question. Nobody should have an answer to that. Here's a different one: what's your favorite horror game?

Maybe you're a Resident Evil kinda guy. Maybe you prefer Eternal Darkness. Maybe you have the good taste to prefer a System Shock. Maybe you picked something else - perhaps even something not normally considered a horror game, like Myst.

If you look at all the horror games you enjoy, you may notice that there is something fundamentally similar about them. Or, perhaps you can barely see the difference in the first place. Either way, you're right: there's something fundamentally similar about them.


Aside from the most primitive forms of shock, all the kinds of fear require the player to be immersed. A running gunfight is most terrifying when we're in danger. A freakshow of a cutscene is only horrifying if we care about what's going on in some way.

Immersion is the blood pumping through a horror game. The goal of every horror game is to sink the player into the setting so deeply he reacts forcefully to the mere sight of an enemy.

Breaking immersion is therefore the worst thing a game can do.

But "immersion" is a rather messy word. For example, I consider it immersion-breaking when my gun-weilding heroine can't simply blast the locked cabinet open. But others don't even notice. On the other hand, they might consider it immersion-breaking to have a health meter and ammo readout. I don't even notice.

What kind of immersion you're going for is a critical first thought a designer needs to consider before the alpha is even a twinkle in a programmer's eye.

If you want more of a "horror" game, you usually want to specialize your game to give maximum view with minimum combat effectiveness. This means a third-person view - can't shoot worth a damn, but you can see items and enemies creeping up from every direction while you're busy shooting the one spot on the wall without zombies. You're going for a slightly more "movie-ish" feel, so HUDs are out and complex stats are goners. This has the benefit of also reducing combat effectiveness, since players can no longer twink out. But you have to do very good set design, because the players are going to be interacting with it so much.

Of course, if you want more of a "terror" game, you want to specialize your game to give minimum view with maximum combat effectiveness. First person all the way: an intense, powerful view that makes it hard to look around a level (for monsters or stuff). You're going for a more "realistic" feel, so the character needs to be able to move quickly and be focused on things other than hexagonal keys and telescopes.

These aren't the only two choices, of course. But they are the most common.

Once you've designed your game to immerse the player, you have to avoid breaking that immersion on pain worse than death: unprofitability. Now, if you're doing a first-person "terror" game, you can break the setting immersion slightly without penalty. The layout doesn't have to make a terrible amount of sense, you can forego bathrooms, and so on. On the other hand, a third-person "horror" game can afford to screw up the kinetic feel a little bit more, say by making you unable to shoot out the glass between you and that hexagonal key, or by making combat somewhat uninteresting.

Their focuses are different, so their immersion is "directed" in a particular way. If the game screws up in its focus, it's very obvious. For example, Doom III screwed up. It was a terror game which screwed up the realism/kinetic feel. You couldn't use a gun and a flashlight at the same time, as the obvious example. More critical, the difficulty of the game was not immersive. (To be honest, this is because most of the game was designed to have gun OR flashlight, but ubiquitous mods made it gun AND flashlight.)

Either way you point it, there are some shared points of immersion. The most obvious is the plot. No matter what you do to immerse people in the action and puzzle sequences of the game, the plot exists separate. It doesn't require a special view type, or a combat engine. All it requires is some way of telling the player something. Cutscenes, emails, disembodied voices, s'all good.

Not every game has to have an immersive plot, but if you choose to try for one, you need to remember that you have now chosen an additional type of immersion. And now you have to struggle not to break it.

In a game whose plot is unimportant, you can make plot points that serve the gameplay but make no real sense. But not in a game where plot matters.

There are other kinds of immersion. Character development. Skill and metaphysics use. Character interactions. Team dynamics. Map building. Stealth.

Keeping things immersive gets exponentially worse with each kind of play you add. Stealth and combat? The player might be mostly stealth, mostly combat, or a mix, and those need to all be viable. Stealth, combat and teams? The player might be one of the three, mixes of two, or a combination of all three. Seven options rather than three. It gets steadily worse from there.

Each play type needs to not only be interesting and challenging, but needs to be available at every moment in every situation, including cutscenes and plots.

So, what's your favorite horror game?

I bet it focuses on just two immersions, maybe three. Probably one kind of game play and one non-gameplay shtick, such as plot or insanity or something. All the other things that could be immersive are deep in the background.

I guess the moral of this essay is: keep it simple. Every kind of play you add exponentially increases the difficulty of making the game good. Not just because you need more content, but because you need to manage immersion.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Curiosity Killed the Curve

(Boring game review.)

So, I tried a MMORPG called Ryzom. It sounded interesting to me - it was pitched kind of loosely and confusingly, but I liked what I saw of the setting and the price (free), so I downloaded the gig and a half... unzipped it... ran the installer... installed the 6.5 gig game... who has 10 gigs free? I did, as it turns out.

I've got them free again, but that's getting ahead of myself.

Now, look, I always hate MMORPGs. They're like the bastard children of D&D's retarded second cousin and a Hostess cupcake. But occasionally, when it's free, I stick my fingers back into the water to see if it's changed from "tepid".

The setting is interesting. It's kind of a cross between Beyond Good and Evil and Phantasy Star. And, for a few hours, the game was interesting, too.

Most MMORPGs I can't even play for two hours. The lack of... well, ANYTHING... is palpable. This game wasn't quite that bad. The initial levels are very quick and diverse, and you aren't locked into a particular progression. You can be a crafter, forager, warrior, mage - all with one character. Although, obviously, you'll get stronger, faster, if you concentrate.

Ryzom held my interest for a full EIGHT HOURS - spread out over about a week. The initial bursts of discovery are actually very interesting. Everything is built out of pieces. When you craft something, its ZOUNDS! of stats are determined by what ingredients you toss into the craft-pot. There are hundreds of ingredients, each with different ZOUNDS! stats, allowing you to craft weapons, armor, and so forth exactly to your liking.

Similarly, spells and feats are done by choosing a type, which powers it should have, and what drawbacks it should have to pay for those powers. Even things like prospecting and digging shit out of the ground had this level of customizability.

So, naturally, I'm thinking "hell yeah. This is worth playing."

Except... it's not.

Okay, if you're the sort that likes MMORPGs, I highly recommend at least trying Ryzom. It's free. But if you, like me, hate MMORPGs, this one does not break tradition. It merely gives you a bigger first bite.

After tempting you with a glimpse of its potential, the game immediately hits a brick wall. After about level 20 in a skill (which is roughly equivalent to 6-8th level in most games), the game reverts to treadmill. This is exactly when you're just starting to really get into the customization.

What's really irritating is that the monsters you initially encounter are doable - they're good fights, not too hard, not too easy. But then they JUMP in difficulty. Not a little: a lot. As in, you can't even defeat one of them. They probably want you to party up. I'm sure it would be easier if you did. I hate parties, and the setting feels like it should be done solo.

Whereas before you had to craft five or six things to get a few more points of craft-skill to buy blueprints with, now you have to craft fifteen or twenty... then thirty or forty. Bleah.

"Standard MMORPG tactics, Craig!" you say. Yeah... but here's the real kicker.

All that potential it had? Doesn't actually exist.

The customization ends at a certain depth. You can't customize what things look like, you can't do any kind of complex work, all you can do is muck around with stats. That's just not enough.

Actually, that's not even interesting. It just feels interesting at first.

So... what's with the title?

Intellectual curiosity is one of the strongest forces that drives a player. If you give a player a chance to stretch his neural legs, he'll be happy to oblige... for hours and hours, month after month.

The problem comes when you tease the geek. The game told me I could, then it told me that not only was it impossible, but that I would have to work my ass off doing boring shit to plumb its limited depths any further.

You can't use a treadmill system if you want to appeal to intellectual curiosity. An hour without a new creation or a new discovery is risky. Five hours is idiocy.

Curiosity kills the curve. Or, perhaps more commonly, the curve kills the curious.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Generative Stories = Pain

Like many of my compadres, I have a lot of interest in generative storytelling. Storytelling which isn't entirely preprogrammed and can adapt to the player.

There are a lot of problems everyone else has mentioned, but these problems all have workarounds. Dialog is a pain? Use symbolic languages. Dynamic characters a pain? Painstakingly program them on top of some mythical middleware. (Mythical Middleware... Mythical Middleware... I want to start a company named Mythical Middleware...)

But there's one problem that people don't really address. When I finally noticed it, I went "whoa!". (That's a Wayne "whoa!" not a Bill & Ted "whoa!")

All my attempts - all everyone's attempts - have been based on putting characters in a world.

Well, durr, right? Not exactly.

Take a look. That ever-so-popular story-game about divorce? Took place in one house. (Wasn't even really a story: just a vignette.) Crawford's storytron engine? You build a world, and release people to inhabit it. Even story games you've never heard of, like Jaruu Tenk or any recent text adventure game... they all are based around locations.

Characters are made to inhabit specific locations. Sometimes, which locations they inhabit changes based on a schedule or even on occasional special events, but the fact remains that they are thought of as part of the local world.

Sometimes you get characters who aren't. For example, in Knights of the Old Republic and Planescape: Torment there are party members who follow you around. But they are considered wholly separate from the location. Occasionally, they have a triggered comment based on who else is in your party or whether you've just walked into some place the writers thought they should have an opinion on. It certainly isn't generative: it's painstakingly scripted. Taking hundreds of hours.

That's the problem, you see.

A story is really about people in places. There are occasionally vignettes which take place in one place, but even close-to-home stories like My Big Fat Greek Wedding have dozens of sets which any or all of the characters visit at the drop of someone's big fat Greek hat.

Characters who stay in one place or aren't affected by places aren't actually in a story. They're backdrops. Occasionally, one has a little vignette where they ask you to save their grandpa or give you a golden moose head in exchange for painting their house. The main characters - the ones that are actually in the story - have every movement and every moment painfully scripted out.

This is because we're taking our ideas from movies and books. We're making characters like we would see in movies and books. Police Commish spends most of his time in the police station, save for when he's out looking at a crime scene. Leggy Dame shows up dozens of places, and for each place what she says, wears, and thinks is carefully (and literally) spelled out by the author.

So we do the same thing.

Perhaps we should think about transfering in some LARP design instead.

In a LARP, each character acts in character regardless of what they have, where they are, or who they're with. If you play the hard-boiled private eye, you interact with EVERY possible person, location, and widget like a private eye. "It was dark and quiet in the hotel lobby. Too quiet. That's how I knew before they came out: Ninja." "The gun had recently been fired... but by whom? Who could accurately fire an invisible laser?" "The magician was out of magic, so I stepped over and broke his staff like a toothpick. The glint in my eye said I would be happy to do the same to his neck."

Yeah, yeah. "But Craig, nobody can program a character to act in character everywhere. If we could, you wouldn't be writing this essay."


But you can.

So long as you're careful about characters.

Sure, you can't program a private eye to act in character everywhere. Well, you can, but not affordably. But how about a malfunctioning robot? How about a feral elf-child? How about an overloading psychic? A disdainful, inhuman demigod? How about a dog?

Or, if you prefer, simply don't use any dialog. The noir detective can't wax eloquent about the way his client's dress shimmers, but he can have dress-related thought bubbles while muttering incoherently in a smoky voice. Think the Sims, except where the conversations actually have some bearing on the local color.

Of course, this doesn't solve the issue of having them actually be part of a story. But it's a new angle. Don't think of characters in terms of where they can be found. And don't think of characters as separate from where they are. Think of characters as travelling from location to location, and interacting meaningfully with every location, every event, every person. Or, at least, the interesting ones.

That's what a story IS.

You can even think of the world as not existing - any given location only begins to exist once it is needed for the story to progress. It is generated pseudorandomly within the story's restrictions...

After all, that's what writers do. This idea of a predesigned world? Piss-poor for storytelling.

When you think of it like that, you can come up with a plot-fragment array and start gluing things together, leave a lot to the player's imagination... suddenly, things seem a whole lot more plausible.

At least, they do to me. Comments?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Edit: Nevermind, you can disregard this whole thing.

I downloaded the data, but it comes in 17770 separate files. Eighteen THOUSAND separate files. I have no particular interest in hacking together a macro to turn those files into something useful.

Of course, if someone else already HAS, I'd be very willing to download their already-compiled list...

Call me lazy, but it would take me hours and hours just to recombine these files.

I'm downloading the data set for the Netflix prize. It will be the largest data set I've ever tried to run my user preference algorithm on.

I don't think I'll win the prize - ever - for a few reasons. First, it's not a "fire and forget" thing. They'll keep mumbling along for FIVE YEARS before passing out the prize, and I'm not willing to work gratis for quite that long.

Second, their data is bunged.

They did it to keep people from using the data to "make certain inferences about Netflix customers". Hrrrrmmmm... what, exactly, are we supposed to use the data for, then?

They say that the missing data doesn't affect THEIR algorithm's accuracy. But, you know, they just admitted their algorithm's accuracy is 8.5%.


Anyhow, we'll see whether I can do anything with it. The biggest problem, at the moment, is that I don't actually have a database program installed on this computer. Ha! I'll have to get one.

Monday, October 09, 2006

How do you get Started?

This is NOT an entry into the round table this month. I will do something more substantive for that. This is just the story of Why I Love Horror.

When I was just a wee lad, I had a normal childhood of Disney movies and Scooby-Doo reruns. The games I played (less than many kids I know) were things like Mario, Sonic, and Squaresoft back before it sucked.

One day, I purchased a game called "Cyborg Cop" for my Genesis. (Or maybe "Cyber Cop".)

It was a bit of a Shadowrun-themed game which took place wholly in a futuristic office building. It's graphics were 3D, but had no textures at all. The character creation was extremely varied - so much so that the first five times you played it was impossible to get a character that would survive.

It was a hellishly hard and not-very-good game. Until I got to one of the later levels - three or five. Then I ran into a werewolf. I couldn't kill it. I ran. I hid. I sat and thought. "Maybe I can run through the level while it's somewhere else? But how can I tell where it is?"

That was when I heard the footsteps. It padded up to me, stopped on the other side of an opaque wall. Paced back and forth. Loped rapidly off.

It was HUNTING me!

I was pretty young, and freaked out, so I wussed out and shut the system off. I never played the game again.

Ah, a budding love of horror.

Shortly after, I began to play my friend's Turbografix. Instead of the good games, I liked to play Silent Debugger. I didn't actually get to play it much, I was terrible at it, and it's a pretty poor game, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

In Silent Debugger, you don't travel from level to level. Instead, you are in a giant elevator, and the outer layers change but the inner layers always remain the same. Over the course of the game, critters invade various parts of your elevator and start to damage and destroy things like energy rechargers and ammo stations.

In addition, you had a way to tell when something was nearby, but before you could actually see and affect it. A bleeping.

You have to understand: these two terrible games were a stunningly different experience from all the games I'd played to that point. All the other games either had perfect information or levels which waited for you. This idea that things were happening - things you needed to do something about - this was new and full of adrenaline.

After this, I continued my illicit love affair with the horror genre in the form of movies - stolen hours of late-night TV or someone's well-worn VHS of "Evil Dead". But back in those days, horror games were essentially unheard of, and I wouldn't have been able to convince my parents to buy me one anyway. I watched a lot of kung-fu movies - a poor substitute, but quickly turning into an addiction in their own right.

When I got into high school and college, things started to pick up. I had a lot more access to horror movies. (Actually, I don't like horror movies. I like shlock horror, survival horror, and terror movies.) I also found a few really incredible horror GAMES that came out. System Shock and System Shock II are the most potent, but Marathon, Doom, Half Life, Aliens vs Predator, and a bunch of others certainly made their impressions.

(Bobs are flammable!)

Anyhow, this made me something of a specialist in horror related theory and techniques. This is, of course, in addition to at least a dozen blog entries. :)

To me, the only true horror games are first-person. Nothing immerses like first person. Third person does good things involving player vision, but you lose a lot of the visceral affect. I don't really care for most third-person horror games. The aiming feels stupid, a monster jumping at you doesn't have the mind-numbing shot of adrenaline... and the idea that you need to carry around random junk and hope some of it fits in some hole somewhere is just not horrifying. Seriously, who locks a door with an octagonal key? Losing immersion is THE quickest way to lose me.

And yet, immersion is just about the ONE essay I haven't written.

So, that'll be my entry into this month's round table.

Lonely Lavos

I haven't written comics in so long that my comedic timing is about as solid as a shoelace. But the concept was cool, so long as you're a Chrono Trigger junkie.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Psychotic, Untalented Celebrities!

We were playing Chrononauts on Friday. In that game, you can prevent WWII by stopping Hitler, which happens (and un-happens) just about every game. Usually, people assassinate him.

We got kind of sick of that after a few games, and started getting creative. We bought his art and put up an exhibit in the Louvre. He never got into politics and led a fine, creative lifetime in which he saved John Lennon's life.

This got me thinking, and now I realize why so many celebrities are insane and untalented:

They're being stopped from committing horrible crimes. Britanny Spears would have slept with President Bush and convinced him to invade Canada. Carrot Top would have invented insane nuclear-missile-controlling robots. Mel Gibson would have... repeated history. "President Gibson", a name that suddenly becomes a pun.

So time travellers subtly went and altered their paths. Hiring them for this and that, spending a bit of cash on them, driving them into new careers where they are no threat to anyone.

See? It's all so clear! Yeah!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Easy Game

Testing an easy game to check balancing techniques.

Rules are here. If turned into a full game, templates would be needed to help players get started.

This post is mostly so that I can access these rules from any connected computer. Last time I uploaded something, I forgot where I put it. :P

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Balanced Fairy Tale

Gather around and I shall tell you a (very long) story of a fantastic contest, a festival of carnage which brought warriors from every corner of the globe. Yes, a good, old-fashioned, world-wide beat-down.

Wait, you've heard this story before? What's that? Mortal Kombat? Dead or Alive? Soul Calibre? Darkstalkers? Virtua Fighter? King of Fighters? Street Fighter? Fighter Fighter?

Some of the most observant of you have probably noticed that certain fighters fit certain players better than others. Other of you have probably noticed that some people consider some fighters cheesy. Others might have noticed that certain warriors tend to beat specific other warriors, but lose to still other warriors. "Is this balance?" you cry, "Nobody gets to play Vega, he's too freakin' cheap!" But the other day, it was Chun Li we banned...

I have cracked the secrets. Yes, indeed, like Indiana Jones I have braved the wilderness, searching for the holy grail of Game Balance, until now done mostly by the Deep Magic known as "Guess and Test".

The First Secret of Fighter Game Balance is Spherical Coordinates.

Nearly every move in nearly every fighting game is character-centric. The moves issue from the character, center around the character, and affect specific distances from the character.

It's a mistake to think of an attack as having a given range. Instead, it occupies specific layers of the sphere.

For ease of not-letting-our-brains-ooze-out-our-ears, spheres come in five onion-like layers: immediate, short, medium, long, and extended ranges. What these ranges actually are depends on the game - a game like Dead or Alive, with no weapons or energy attacks, "extended" is about five feet. A game like Darkstalkers, extended range is "as far as the screen can possibly stretch". Games might have fewer ranges, if you really feel like it.

Few attacks only affect one range. Most attacks will "cut through" several ranges on their path to the enemy's face. For example, thrusting a spear pokes a small hole through medium, long, and extended ranges.

What percentage of the effective surface of the sphere an attack covers is also critical. A spear thrust takes up only a tiny portion of the layers it penetrates. A swing will carve a huge horizontal line through the sphere. A vertical slice may carve a line just as large, but it cuts through less effective surface, since surface above head height is rarely used in today's 3-D fighter games (except for juggling purposes).

Now, looking at the mathematics of it, a spear thrust covers only a teeeeeeeeny tiny little bit of space - say, 1/30th that of a swing. But it's not 1/30th as effective. That really screwed me up for a long time. How do you account for it?

I tried a couple of methods, but the one that works is to add the size of the opponent to all edges of the effect. It makes sense, when you think about it: in his attempt to dodge, the opponent must heave his fat ass out of the way. The bigger the ass, the more heaving is required.

Therefore, a spear thrust pokes an enemy-sized hole through several layers of sphere while a swing carves an enemy-height hole along the course of the swing. This means that the swing is something like 2-4x as "effective", which is just about right since most thrusts are either faster or cover more layers of sphere.

Already, we can see a few fun things developing.

First, long-range swings are rather evil, since they carve a lot of surface area out of a lot of layers of the sphere. Hence, most long-range swings are quite slow, with an impressive wind-up. There are a few exceptions, such as the knight class in Soul Calibre III, and I generally find those exceptions to be the cheesiest thing since gouda.

Second, when you're fighting tiny characters, horizontal swings should be moderately more effective than thrusts or vertical swings. This is especially true because small characters typically have a much faster foot-speed and better dodge moves. Innnnteresting. This is not true of games where size is virtual and has no actual effect on the collision box, and is obviously slightly different in 2D fighters.

Okay, so rule 1: Spherical coordinates. Rule 2: add enemy size to attack effects.

Rule 3: Optimum range.

Most moves have an optimum range. Some moves are very forgiving, with a range of ranges, but even these moves typically have a range they are "best" at. For example Ken's fireball can theoretically hit at immediate range, but is usually of more use at longer ranges.

Most characters have moves which are geared towards working at a specific range. In some games, like Dead or Alive, this is extremely subtle. In other games, like Soul Calibre, this is extremely pronounced. Most of their moves work most effectively when the enemy occupies a specific layer of our killer onion.

There's two kinds of "focusing" to take in to account. One is how forgiving each individual move is as to range. Some characters, like the barbarian class in Soul Calibre, can happily allow their enemy to occupy any of the three middle ranges because all their attacks hit all three of those ranges. Being low-focus in this way is very beginner-friendly.

The other kind of focus is how many of their moves deal with that range as opposed to other ranges. A barbarian has few immediate or extended attacks, so they are very "focused" in this way. On the other hand, a monk wielding a size-changing staff has moves for every range, usually found when least applicable. Being low-focus in this way can be easy for advanced players, but beginners will frequently suppose that "forward thrust" should be something other than "poke your finger into his belly button, if it happens to not be more than one foot away".

Once a character's optimum range and level of focus is determined, there is the art of staying at optimum range. There are two basic options for this. One is maneuvering. Typically done by smaller characters, they simply dash into their favorite place on the map.

The other is knockback. This is a misleading term, because not all knockback is actually knockback. Some people (Scorpion) have knock-FORWARD. Some people have knock-DOWN. Many people have knock-UP, usually leading to an asinine 75% damage combo.

The most interesting form of knockback is self-knockback. A lot of attacks move the attacker as well, covering distance while attacking. This is a very common method of "knockbacking" into a shorter range.

For most characters, the more they have of one of these methods, the less they have of the other.

Now we're starting to see some intertwined stats. Movement is useful for dodging as well as changing range. So, technically, movement should be nerfed somewhat, so it's not quite as easy to dodge things as it should be. Most games seem to do this.

Most games also take the approach that small characters should be fast, short-range characters. This allows them a strong "hook" to balance the game. Small, long distance chars are irritating, largely because the opposite supposition is that big characters need to be slow and long-range, giving those small guys plenty of time to get out of the way.

There are games which break these conventions. Games where long-range attacks are frequently as fast as short-range attacks. Characters that do this usually feel "cheesy" - think Kilik and, if you've ever played it, the magicians in Valkyrie Profile Fight Tag.

Blllleeeeaaaaahhhh... running low on juice. I'd like to say I'm coming up on the home stretch, but there is really no end to the exposition.

So the last thing I'll talk about is rule four: speed.

How long the enemy has to evade, block, and/or counter an attack is critical. This is primarily affected by how long the pre-attack animation is, and we can also think of the post-attack animation as part of its "speed".

Many attacks have "paths" - classically, attacks simply "popped" in, affecting their effective areas simultaneously. This changed, famously, with Dhalsim. Now there are many games (usually 3D ones) where the attacks have an effective area that changes moment by moment. Obviously, these attacks are "faster" near the beginning of their arc, and "slower" near the end, since they give more time to react.

The other half of this equation is how long the enemy takes to react to your attack. An enemy must see what you're doing. Milliseconds gone, decreases with training. They must recognize what you're doing. This takes less time the more you've fought against a character. Some characters, such as Yoshimitsu and Voldo, specialize in attacks that are hard to predict. Lastly, they must actually block (which takes a certain amount of time) or dodge (ditto).

These four primary rules interact to form a brutal statistical representation of what characters do what. I haven't explained how to actually BALANCE anything yet, and I'm not going to do that today. (And then they ate the minstrel.)

Rule 1: Onion spheres
Rule 2: Add enemy size
Rule 3: Optimum ranges
Rule 4: Speed

Rule five is combos, but I'll just leave it to your imagination.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Gripping Hand...

I've been busy, lately, but still thinking about games - how to get your players to really enjoy the games on every level.

As you know, sometimes I think about how to make players like your narrative, and sometimes I think about how to make players like your gameplay. However, my personal specialty is making the gameplay into the narrative, and sometimes visa-versa.

So I'd like to briefly talk about that. In this case, I'm talking various kinds of in-person games, rather than video games, but it should be applicable to both.

I've used a lot of techniques to melt play and narrative together. One of the most common for me is the "metaphysics" idea, where I make the underlying metaphysics of the universe drive the story and characters of the game. It does sometimes drive players insane, but that's a price I'll just have to pay. The real downside is that a story-centric player can easily fall too far behind on the power curve as the play-centric players discover new tricks to pull with the laws of the universe.

Another trick I use is the "reveal mechanic", where the reward for playing the game is to reveal a piece of the plot. This is generally not suitable for tabletops in anything but the most generic sense, because the "minigame for data" doesn't really fit very well into a "seamless" narrative. It's more for board and card games.

A very common trick I use is to give each player a different piece of the plot and some reason not to reveal it. Then, over the course of the game, they worry at it and try to get it to fit. Eventually, they start to come together and reveal info. While not explicitly play in terms of following game rules, social interactions are definitely a form of play.

Perhaps the most common trick everyone uses (and me, sure) is to adapt the plot to the actions of the players. I almost didn't mention it because it's so basic... but I've seen a lot of people who don't do it, so I went ahead and mentioned it.

Which of these tricks have you tried? Which do you like best? Is there a central idea that all these descend from?

You tell me. I've got some ideas, but I don't have them polished, yet.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Work = No Writing

Ever notice how you don't get anything done when you work, except work?

I hate that.

Anyhow, I'll try to post something interesting and maybe even witty tomorrow. You'll be happy to know I've got not one but TWO casual games in the works. By "happy" I mean "vaguely pleased that I'm not entirely hot air but unlikely to ever want to play them".

I can read minds...