Tuesday, February 28, 2006


So, one of the essays I found useful in the Escapist was the one on shmups. Specifically, the link to Torus Trooper.

This game is very nice. Fighting on the inside of a tube feels like the most natural thing in the world. But this game is also very "pure". There's no power-ups, no crashing into walls. There's not even any homing bullets or things that change velocity. The whole game consists of dodging bullets and shooting people, at as high a speed as you can manage.

It's got some interesting dynamics! For example, never play it on the lowest difficulty setting. In all the other modes, the ship moves at just the right speed to avoid waves of bullets in a zen-like fashion. In easy, however, the ship moves wrong, and you actually have to keep track of every bullet. Pain in the ass.

I didn't know there was a charge-shot. I hate the fact that games like this insist on having one. I don't like to use it, because it's primary purpose is to kill bullets, and I don't have a hard time dodging bullets. I had a great time without it: the zen-like maneuvering is what I'm after, screw the specialty weapons.

Anyhow, play it.

You can't cover all the bases, but you can try.

Dissection of a "card game". It's long!

So, I recently ran a game I call "Kung Fu the Card Game the RPG". It's not actually over, yet, but it's far enough along that I'm comfortable writing about it.

Frankly, it's a mess. But my games are always exercizes in controlled chaos. This one simply exceeded the scope I expected of it. Still, there's lessons to be learned from it, both for me and for, presumably, everyone else.

First, a quick description.

KFtCGtRPG is a game which is largely driven by rock paper scissors: there are various action cards, and each action card wins over various other action cards in a straightforward and relatively easy-to-remember way. It also ties with certain action cards.

Statistically, there are twelve normal action cards, each which wins against four, loses to four, and ties to four (including itself). There are also two special cards - item and stance - which lose to everything.

Now, from a statistical standpoint, each card has a 6-4-4 win-loss-tie ratio. But not all cards are played equally, and this is something I was very careful to design in.

Each action has a different result if it wins. Some do damage. Some interrupt your enemy's rhythm. Some increase your own rhythm.

In addition, you can play adjectives on your actions to do other things - wildly varying depending on the adjective. When making a character, you get to buy "schools" of martial arts at various levels, so everybody has wildly varying adjective sets.

Now, if you get through your deck three times, you tie the entire match. And people wanted to win. However, in the early days, they didn't have much in the way of damage-dealing adjectives. So they had to stock up on damage-dealing cards, weighting action selection heavily. So, other people would adapt to this, and weight their deck with the actions that counter the actions the first wave preferred.

In addition, as characters got more powerful, they would likely find they were choosing their actions primarily to win the rock-paper-scissors, rather than to do damage or not. Also, I predicted that the heavy rhythm damage moves would be unpopular to begin with, but popular later, as decks got more rhythm-intensive.

I had planned this, and it worked wonderfully.

I also knew there would be a bunch of special abilities. It is a bad kung-fu movie, so this is pretty much required. I created a unique method of revealing plot which put in a fair negative feedback loop, so the players who shot ahead of the pack would need to go back and pull up the players who didn't.

Those parts didn't work so well.

The negative feedback loop is easy: the only problem with it was that it simply wasn't strong enough. I know how to fix that for the next run, many months from now.

The special abilities didn't work quite as well as I wanted them to. First, there were a few rather critical typos. Still, the game adjusted - such is the joy of rock-paper-scissors. However, more critically, I totally underestimated the lethality of the later decks.

For example, there are two martial arts styles called "Classic" and "Exploding Platypus". They're awkward, clumsy styles (from a gameplay perspective), and although I had a soft spot in my heart for both of them, they were widely considered inferior to more balanced martial arts styles like "Crazy Ivan" and "Raging Kitten".

But, in fact, the first player to win the game did it without understanding an inch of plot. He simply attacked the boss and beat her - without knowing the weaknesses or anything. This boss was someone who regained 10% of their hit points every round, gained rhythm every round, and had a killer deck. But by combining the clumsiness of Classic and Exploding Platypus, he came up with a way to deal enough damage to beat her. It was extremely impressive.

It was then I realized I might have a problem.

Nobody else has beaten the bosses yet (as far as I know), but there are warriors out there who are just as powerful as many of the bosses. As an example, both warriors generally have 7 HP. But there have been single rounds in which 30 damage is dealt to one side (usually accompanied by 16 damage to the other side). The lethality took off from the early game, where two damage was considered damn sweet.

Looking back on it, it seems obvious. The way to fix it is also obvious. (I haven't explained the rules clearly enough for you to know, so take my word for it.) But it didn't occur to me.

I could look ahead and see how the decks were going to change, how the people would operate, but I didn't notice that the players would become so fatal, so fast. Geez, talk about missing the forest for the trees, eh?

However, the game is evidently still fun. I tried to put in something for every kind of player type I could think of: there's a complex, puzzly plot for people who like that sort of thing. There's the card game itself, for people who like that sort of thing. There's pretending to be "The Nekomancer" or "Steve of the North" and shouting move names, for people who like that sort of thing.

However, I was still surprised - stunned, actually - when another kind of play popped into the game. The architect.

The architect is a player who builds. He likes building. He likes creating things which are impressive. I knew he existed, but I didn't incorporate him into the game, or, in fact, care about him at all.

Until people created their cards. Some people created cards which had pictures, many people put on flavor text. These people personalized a game which was, until they came along, about some scraggly text on half a notecard.

I think these decks added greatly to the play of the game.

Now, on another subject, there are several players who joined that didn't care for the game. About 15%, which is about average for me. They got fired up by the concept, but the actual gameplay was a turn-off.

This is the same problem MMORPGs have. The way they solve it is to let people play on any axis. They don't have to fight. If they like creating decks, hook them up with people who need decks, but don't force them to fight.

The problem with that is -win condition-. I'll have to think about it. This game was made specifically as a competitive game. I could make it so that you can participate without trying to win, but some of the players want to do the plot part without doing the combat part, and that doesn't work.

I'll have to think about it, but the point is:

You can't think of everything. But you can try.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Yet Another Good Idea...

An idea from Darius!

His blog just turned one. Mine is, uh, about one, give or take. Although I pity anyone who has been reading from the beginning. I was pretty poor at rough drafting back then.

He has asked his readers - especially those who don't usually comment - to tell him what they like about, and what they want from, his blog.

So, hey I'll post the same question. What do you like? What do you hate? What do you want to see more of?

Honestly, I mostly do this for my own pieces of mind, but a mind is an astonishingly flexible thing. If it turns out that everyone hates foo type of article, I'll avoid writing them. Don't worry about my fragile ego. I'm a pretty durable guy.

So post! Now's your chance to change the world!

And while you're at it, tell me your favorite colors.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


I'd like to take a moment to talk about Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball.

Okay, well, not really. But I would like to talk about that niche.

"What, the 'I wish I were porn' niche?"

No, the "utterly relaxed exploration" niche.

The problem is, there aren't exactly a whole bunch of examples floating around. In fact, one of the two big-name titles I can find in that genre is - you guessed it - XBV. The other is Animal Crossing.

There's a place for games with no real challenges. There's no real challenge to XBV. The whole point of the game is blatantly to collect swimsuits. There are "volleyball tournaments", but if you don't win them, you just have to play for longer. They aren't exactly challenging gameplay, anyhow. There's no "lose and restart".

In Animal Crossing, you get a similar situation. The game is all about exploring the options that the world offers, customizing everything. There's not exactly a whole lot in the way of tense, skill-based play, is there?

Why are there so few games like this, where the whole purpose is to explore the gamespace at your leisure, in any direction you please?

I mean, these games obviously sell poorly. XBV only outsold 99% of the other XBox games, and Animal Crossing sold worse than... uh, Nintendogs, which is a third title I had momentarily forgotten about.

Maybe they cost a lot to produce? I don't think XBV cost much at all, save for modeling 18,000 swimsuits. Nintendogs was probably expensive because it was new hardware, but I doubt Animal Crossing was expensive at all - not compared to, say, a Zelda game.

Thing is, I think these games are the latest descendents of adventure games. I mean Monkey Island-style games. They kind of feel the same to me, with their "no real rush" methodology. You're obviously there for the setting, not for the plot.

Zelda games are the same way, but they have all sorts of pushing and pulling.

Some of you are probably saying, "first he yammers on about gameplay needing goals and challenges and stuff, now he's saying the industry could use more games without goals or challenges?"

Well, these games have rules, patterns, goals, and challenges. They're just... very, very relaxed. The goals are usually presented as aesthetic lures. The challenges are things which don't cause you to sweat, and your grandma could do them if she spent any time at it. They definitely have rules and patterns.

Even if all you're doing is exploring space, one of my latest posts gave some examples as to how you can do that in a number of interesting ways.

Why do we feel that every game must be tense and challenge-driven? Every game must be a test of our skill? We seem to think games need to be like that, but I have lots of fun just exploring a world. And, more importantly, being able to affect that world.

I don't know the answers. All I'm saying is: isn't it a bit odd? That a "genre" sells so well when published, but doesn't get any more popular?

I occasionally want to sit down and just experience a universe. Don't make me play XBV! Please! It's really poor! Give me other games!

Sly Cooper

Darius: hey, re: your space/­time post, what do you think was so fancy about Sly Cooper's handling of space?

me: Have you played it?

Darius: yes
I liked it a lot

me: Did you notice how every move felt natural?
Sly leaps off into space and when he comes down, it's just where you wanted him to?

Darius: I noticed how the control system massively over­com­pensated for me, yes
it bordered on annoying, since i'm used to far less forgiving systems

me: No need for expert aim - it could ready your mind, react to your in­ten­tion.
I thought it was in­cred­ibly nimble.

Darius: once I got it, I thought so too
it reminded me of the new Prince of Persia games, actually

me: It cut GROOVES in the space-­time of the game.

Darius: which had a similar flow to the movement
yes, I see that

me: There were invisible roads which were, non­the­less, perfectly obvious.
It was quite well done.

Darius: that last statement about invisible roads reminds me of Mario 64

me: I actually never played it.

Darius: I only played a little
but Miyamo­to's genius has ALWAYS been in his ability to draw you through space im­pli­citly and in­tu­it­ively

me: BTW, I suggest Sly Cooper to non-hard­core gamers (like the security guard's wife). I've had many satisfied "cus­tomer­s", and nobody who's disliked it.
Yes, Miyamoto does the same thing.
Except Miyamoto says, "jump here!"
Sly Cooper said, "jump to there!"
IE, Miyamoto requires timing, skill, and aim.
He tells you when to jump, guides you to the moment.
Sly Cooper just guides you to the des­tin­a­tion.

Darius: right, right, the more classic control scheme... of course, it was obviously not class, but in fact re­volu­tion­ary when he debuted it
I com­pletely see what you mean about Sly now

me: Huzzah!
Should I post it?

Darius: yes.
actually, you had me convinced as soon as you said "grooves"
that was all I needed. very concise metaphor

More MMORPG stuff.

More on MMORPG's badness:


It pretty much agrees whole-heartedly with Sirlin, and me, and probably Corvus. MMORPGs teach really shitty lessons.

Now, let's look at the lessons Eve Online and SecondLife teach - or used to teach, I haven't played either in quite a while. What I'm trying to do is identify the pieces of gameplay which encourage each type of lesson.

"Lone heroes can’t slay dragons. It takes an army."
This is true of Eve Online, but patently false in SecondLife, which teaches that one person can do just about anything, if they have the time and skill.

This is because Eve allows players to gang into armies, and an army of players is awfully hard for one person to defeat. SL has little opinion on the matter, and most of it's dragon-slaying is constructive, rather than destructive. Hm.

"People are only good at one thing."
Again, largely true in Eve Online, except that there's some actual skills involved on occasion. SecondLife, however, has no such limitation.

This is because Eve seeks to put all players on equal footing the same way other MMORPGs do: by limiting the number of talents you can have. (I am remembering this right, right?) It's called "balanced character progression", and it's not your friend in a massively multiplayer game. SL doesn't strive to make players equal. It gives them an equal starting position, then celebrates their differences.

Does this drive away players? I doubt it, but presumably that's the theory MMORPG designers run on when they decide to force equality. Sorry, chaps, but not all people are equally good at playing all games. Doesn't mean you can't make a contribution. Trying to force equality means that the people who are good at the game can't make a contribution.

You never, ever, ever change jobs. If you want to, you probably need to die.
Related to the "balanced character progression" as above. Eve allows you to switch jobs, but it takes a long time. SL doesn't care, because it doesn't have balanced character progression.

You can be the best in the world at your job. But so can everyone else. And you will all do it exactly the same way.
Eve has some of this - not too terribly much - because it is, like most MMORPGs, still a closed system. There aren't an infinite number of choices as to how to do your job, and there is a statistical max cap on skills. No statistical max cap on being an awesome leader or economist, fortunately.

SL doesn't have this. It's unlikely you're the best, but you can still make significant contributions in any way you please. Uniquely. Why? Because SL doesn't have "balanced character progression", so they can let players bring whatever crap they want into the game. Did you just build a giant mech? Good for you! And on your second day!

Evil is not redeemable; good is not a choice. Your morals are innate.
Bwa ha ha! Yeah, a totally worthless aesthetic choice by Blizzard. No game allowing for significant player content, such as Eve or SL, has this problem.

Killing is the only real way to gain people’s admiration. Well, you can make stuff too, but you won’t earn the same kind of admiration.
A problem of having a play system rigged too tightly to reward killing. Both Eve and SL don't really reward killing, and neither has this problem. In SL, you gain admiration by designing women's clothings or a giant mech.

In fact, there are only two kinds of admiration in the world, and they can be quantified.
Another idiotic choice rigged to balance player progression. All players must be equal! So sayeth Blizzard!

All that hoorah about endangered species is like, a total exaggeration. There’s plenty of everything.
This one is definitely true of both Eve and SL. There's personal shortages, but it's very rare to have a global shortage. Eve does have some limited run space ships, though.

You not only can’t go home again, you probably don’t have one. If you do, it’s mostly to store stuff, not to live in. You never have people over.
This is interesting. In SL, you can have a home and have people over because your home probably contains poseballs and items which can't be found elsewhere. But there is really not a whole lot of sense of personal space in any of the MMORPGs.

I think this is due to a lack of character clues. For example, if your character always leaned back and looked uncomfortable when someone got too close - or even actively shoved the other character away - the player would pick up on that. It would have to be innate to the character, rather than triggered by the player.

These actions could vary depending on how well you knew the other character and how secure you felt. You would feel very secure in your own home.

The idea is fascinating to me.

Staring at someone who is talking the politest thing you can do. Because the only other option is to not look at them at all. Running past or away from people while you are talking to them is also polite.

If you don’t keep up with the Joneses, you will never see them again. In fact, if you don’t keep up with your friends, you will never see them again either.
Again, "balanced character progression" is evil.

There are no children.
There's no children-children in either Eve or SL. In SL, you can have children pretending to be adults, or adults pretending to be children. I don't suppose it's really the same thing.

I'm not sure I consider this to be a solvable problem. Children don't want to play children, and computers can't simulate them. Yet.

Death doesn’t really sting. Nerf, however, is incredibly painful.
"Balanced character progression". Need I say more?

There is always a demand for couriers and assassins.
This one is really interesting. It would, however, take a thousand words to explain. It involves the game's time-space. I'll make a post about it sometime soonish.

Moving frequently is normal, and never going back to your old stomping grounds again is the way of things.
The fact that your old stomping grounds never change is probably the real reason. The gameplay sweeps you out of that area - and returning to it is needlessly irritating from a gameplay perspective.

SL handles this very well. Eve, less so.

There are no such things as social progress or technological advancement. In fact, evil will always be lurking at the edge of the village. On the other hand, it will never invade. There are no governments. Thus there are no laws. Instead, there are laws of physics.
Hee hee. Static world problems. Don't have one, you won't have them.

There are gods, and they are capricious, and have way way more than ten commandments. Nobody knows how many because everyone clicked past them.
Awesome! Also a problem - a serious one - in SL. Less so in Eve, but still latently a problem.

I don't know how to solve it.

Charity is not a virtue; in fact, it’s frequently physically impossible.
This is because of enforced - dare I say it? Okay, enforced "balanced character progression". Are you surprised? Delighted? Irritated that I keep using that phrase?

Not allowed to give charity, because it's an unfair advantage to the recipient.

You should not associate with those of lower social standing than yourself.
This must be particular to WoW. Haven't seen it, can't comment.

You can’t be in two places at once. But places can be in two places at once. Parallel universes are obvious. Walking is stupid. Actually, in general, taking your time is counterproductive.
Hee hee. This is, again, about game space-time. I'll talk about it in a different post.

The most important thing in the world is slaying something that will be back the next day… before anyone else gets to slay it.
Well, this kind of highlights everything that's wrong with MMORPGs. It encapsulates balanced character progression and the problem with static worlds, all in one sentence! Bravo!

You should probably have entrance and résumé requirements to join your circle of friends.
Huge problem in Eve Online, due to the high rate of betrayal. Not so much in SL, since betrayal rarely accomplishes much.

Hunting is the noblest profession. I take that back; hunting is only noble until you’re good enough to switch to murder. Robbing the dead of indigenous cultures is how you make money.
Due to the primary play loop revolving around killing. Not true in either Eve or SL.

There is no such thing as obesity. All women are beautiful and all men are either handsome or darkly mysterious. There is no need for bras. People have sex a lot. Somehow, this means that nobody is beautiful and there is no mystery.
I think I like the idea of having to spend character points on beauty - and/or having to work at it. People who want to be beautiful will have less time/points to spend on being strong, skilled, whatever.

People never touch.
I think it's another problem with a lack of subtle, automated character clues.

Nobody reads.
Your character would have to have an autonomous life to want to read. You will never want him to read, unless there's a reward for it. Which kind of defeats the flavor of this point.

They’ve never heard a brand new song. In fact, inventing is either forbidden or impossible. Sometimes both.
Static world idiocies.

Most people don’t have families.
Everybody wants to pick their families in video games. Players are too unreliable to want one as your mother or son.

Nobody’s really from here, they just live here.
This is a toughie. No clue.

[Skipped a bunch of static world/immersion flaws.]

There is no death; there is simply a failure to show up. Because of this, there is also rarely any mourning.
In Eve, there is mourning. Oh, is there mourning. And rage. Helpless, blind rage.

In SL, it's pretty rare. SL is too idealized for that. Which is kind of a shame. I think the negative emotions are just as necessary.

Here's the biggie, from Sirlin: Time is more important than skill.

In Eve, this is literally true, because skills take a set amount of real-world time to learn. However, more important than your character's skills are your skills as a player - planning routes, working the economy, finding friends. So, while literally true, it is not true in practice.

In SL, this is flat out false.

Is it any surprise that these two MMORPGs are among the only ones I consider playing?


The big problem is "balanced player progression". When you try to let everyone have the same opportunities to advance despite their skill or lack of skill, you end up killing the cream off. You don't get your Einsteins or Elvises. They aren't allowed to be Einsteins and Elvises, because that would be too much of an advantage.

I happen to like people who excel. Moreover, I happen to benefit from them. My world - even my virtual world - is richer because of the fruits of their intellects.

People who aren't geniuses can still have a place. I'm no Elvis, but I have my fun.

From this rule of balance comes a static world. If the world can change, then players can change it. If players can change it, they will change it in their favor.

There are so many design options to get around this. But they require a new kind of MMO, one which wouldn't be made with the budget of a real MMO.

Even SL and Eve are insufficient. They could be more. So much more. They are steps in the right direction - but there's a lot of path to walk.

Sorry this is so rough. Take it as it comes, I suppose, but please forgive any details which came out a bit wrong.

Time and Space... Oooooooo.

This is LONG. It takes up more than its fair share of space and, if you read it, time.

I just wanted to talk a tick about gameplay that most people miss. The innate gameplay involving time and space.

There's a set of restrictive rules and tradeoffs inherent in time and space. Many games simply let this slide without taking advantage of these rules. In the other gameplay loops - such as shooting monsters, earning cash, or building a house - the game tweaks and twists and explores every possibility.

But in the innate gameplay of time and space, few games explore other possibilities. Few games tweak or use it.

I think this is a real shame, because it's such a deeply integral experience. It's the perfect thing to tweak.

I suppose I should explain what the hell I'm talking about.

I'm talking about the act of walking around the game world. About what you see, how you move. The fact that in order to go one place, you have to not go somewhere else. In order to be near something, you have to be further from other things.

Here's some examples of the way this can be tweaked, and the success of these tweakings:

Frogger. Very popular. Pong. Very popular. Why? Because they were the first?

Yes, but their whole game was based around navigating space in a way few people had conceived of until that moment. Space as a set of hard, chunky coordinates - combined with realtime speed? How bizarre! Chunky coordinates, such as chess, always meant turn-based before.

Toejam and Earl. Classic Sega. Very popular in its day. Why? Because it was wonky and goofy? Yes. It also played havok with space and the way you travel across it (time). The whole game was maps of bizarre floating maze-islands, combined with rocket skates, jumping boots, and Icarus wings.

This made for an extremely bizarre game, at least until you got used to it. Movement was the key difficulty. Of course, the game turned out to be painfully repetitive, but that was hardly the idea's fault. After all, a similar idea was aced perfectly with:

Gauntlet. You can see sooooo much further than you can walk. Your relative vision is enormous - you have plenty of time to react. But you don't know, really, which way to go. You're stuck in a maze. A brilliant reversal of the standard:

Racing Game. Any racing game. These things don't let you see very far and make you move exceedingly fast. Spy hunter, for example. Or Gran Turismo. Whatever. This makes navigating space a massive twitch-level challenge. The repetitiveness of the levels made for easy navigation, which is one of the reasons I never much cared for these games. Instead, I liked:

Sonic the Hedgehog. Fast as a racer, but without the simplicity of a racer. You have complex goals and a complex level to do them in. While you could slow down to keep your relative vision high (giving you time to react), much of the game's cool stuff could only be found racing through at top speed.

All of these games. Popular, popular, popular!

How about more recently? Prince of Persia - allows you to do some really fantastic spatial navigation. Brilliant stuff which breaks all the norms in a really coherent way. But if you really want spacial navigation that breaks the norms brilliantly, Sly Cooper is the series for you. Absolutely brilliant, if not quite as popular.

How about Psychonauts? Have you seen some of those levels, twisting and breaking like a superior version of Toejam and Earl?

FarCry: Instincts gives you different ways of perceiving and moving through the levels. The only thing that was brilliant about that game.

Soul Reaver had two different versions of the same world, connected such that moving through one moved you through the other. Fascinating.

All these games - and many others - change the ways you look at and move through levels. They alter the basic relative vision that the player has from the everyday norm.

Even just this little amount of tweaking provides a game with a special sparkle, something that sets it apart from other games. But why tweak a little, when you can tweak a lot?

Nearly all games show space as space. You have an avatar (or, at least, a viewscreen) and you zoom through space at set maximum speeds, able to see a set distance, travelling in set ways.

Why not change the nature of how you travel? How you view "speed"? How you think of "distance". Even change the nature of space itself from being a simple 3D or 2D navigation?

Why not have it so that the faster you go, the further you can see ahead, but the less you can see off to the sides? How about a level where travelling doesn't necessarily move everything in that direction closer: just the thing that you're travelling to. How about a level where the faster you move on one axis, the slower you move on another axis, and visa-versa? How about just a game which lets me fly instead of walk?

It could make for some fascinating games, don't you think?

Here's the thing about the way a player perceives and travels through space in a game (the game's "space-time"): it determines how the player interacts with the rest of the world.

Imagine an MMORPG. Doesn't matter which, they all treat space the same.

You have a certain max speed cap, which is generally agreed to be abominably slow. The world has a certain size, which is generally agreed to be hideously large. There are ways to get from here to there, but they either cost money or take quite a lot of time. Or both. Boats, teleports, whatever.

This leads to an entire division of people whose sole purpose is to run from one end of the universe to the other, moving goods that aren't available at the other end of the universe.

You created this job class by designing your world like that. Is it bad?

Well, no, not really. It is underdone. There's no reason to make it such a boring job. Why not have a minigame of some variety? For example, teleportation can only be done with an accuracy determined by your skill at a puzzle game. Or interstellar travel generally has quite a lot of pirates running around.

But if you can create that job class by designing the basics of your world, you should be able to create others. Right?

How about a universe with no IMs, just an "online" or "offline" icon. You have to be in person to send messages. The other half of this equation is that you let people who aren't carrying any equipment teleport wherever they want.

Suddenly, you've created a class of people who journey all over the universe without any equipment. They carry messages, make maps, and so forth - but they can't take on any monsters.

A secondary class of people - bankers - pop into existence. Their whole purpose is to provide teleporters with local equipment and/or money - obviously, only to the the teleporters who have deposited money before. Probably via physical courier.

Why stop there? Why not make flight a possibility. Requires a jet pack or something. This gives all sorts of weird penalties - maybe you can only fly with a maximum of twenty pounds of inventory or something. What do these people do? They race around couriering gold and valuable baubles. They scout and map more reliably than the teleporters. They have to navigate winds, avoid air monsters, whatever. Make it interesting somehow.

How about a group of people for which gravity is reversed. They live on the underside of the sky - instead of seeing stars, you see the lights of their homes. They fly up on occasion to trade with you - while upside-down.

Make it more interesting: how about people for whom both gravity and matter is reversed? They walk on the atmosphere, breath the earth. Someone's house is, to them, a bizarre pit-like structure. This creates a weird tension where people from opposite sides of the surface are vying for land rights - or "air rights".

How about a group of people who can see through other people's eyes? Or see heat instead of light? Or life instead of either?

You can create so many dynamics, just by messing with how people perceive and move through the space you have created. Why limit yourself to eighteen variants on "kill monsters" and four variants on "make crap"?

We haven't even touched different ways of viewing time. How about someone who sees motion vectors? How about a one-player game where everything happens backwards in time?

Space itself doesn't have to be linear or 3D... there's so many options. The world does not have to be the way games keep portraying it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


I think I've figured out an example to show what I'm trying to say about gameplay not being a story:

Take a game. Strip out all the story elements, all the aesthetic tidbits. Everything with flavor.

Let's take, for example, Tetris. Tetris is pretty close to being without a story. The only thing we'd have to take out is the sound effects and the music. So let's do that. Imagine playing a muted "Tetris".

Now, here's the hard bit. Instead of "blocks", you're simply moving and dropping "shapes". These shapes have a distinct shape, but no distinct visual appearance. I don't mean they're flat white, or just an outline: those are visual appearances. I mean, they're just shapes.

What you are left with is gameplay.

You're stacking shapes in a way which will make them vanish.

Now, as you're playing it, you might be thinking, "ack! Getting too close to the top!" or "Damn, I didn't want to stick that there."

Those are the only "stories" gameplay contains. And those aren't stories. They're a linguistic spasm in response to a perceived reward or penalty. The only reason they exist is to hone our skill at dropping shapes into the right spot. They do not exist as stories, they do not have any aesthetic value. They are simply blurbs which vanish as quickly as they arrive.

You can build a story out of these. It's easy: "Man, I was so close to losing, but I pulled it off in the end."

But that is idealization after the fact. While you're playing, all you're doing is pattern management. Idealizing something afterwards is wholly besides the point. It has nothing to do with the gameplay, any more than telling a story about how you hit a tree with a stick has anything to do with the act of hitting a tree with a stick.

Now, if you're insisting that the little blurbs of "oh, that's not right" or "a little to the right" are "stories", then I'm taking umbrage at your desecration of the English language. If those are stories, then literally everything is a story, including this very essay. This very sentence, standing alone.

You're probably right: those little blurbs have something to do with stories. But I think it comes from the other direction. I think stories are an attempt to get people to feel those blurbs, rather than visa-versa. And those blurbs - those are just artefacts. They're just signs of the underlying pattern recognition process. I don't think "a little to the left", I simply know that I want it a little further to the left.

If you want to say that the underlying pattern recognition process is somehow based around "stories", please don't use the word "story"! Stories are accounts of happenings. "A little to the left" isn't an account or a happening! It's a blurb that tells you you've screwed up a bit. It's a memo on the sticky paper of your brain. It's gone as fast as it comes, and it's simply... not... a... story.

Please, am I making my opinion clear? I didn't realize it was going to be so hard to explain.

Addendum: Stories are fantastically awesome. They touch the player. They drive a game. They drive gameplay. But that doesn't make gameplay into stories.

Under pressure

There's something important to mention about guiding players.

I'm very good about guiding players, at least in person. This has made it very clear that guiding players not in person is significantly more difficult.

For example, players will naturally gravitate towards points of densest simulation, starting with the kinds of simulation they're most interested in. In an in-person game, the GM makes this shit up as he needs it. The player says, "I want to get past the guards by pretending to be a hallucination". Good, fine, run with it. The player loves that kind of stuff, win or lose, because it's a very flexible point of simulation.

On a computer - or just not in person - this sort of encounter is dictated by a hard set of rules which probably doesn't allow for that kind of flexibility. The player, disappointed, turns to other areas of high simulation.

Recently, this has been in the area of personal fashion. So many games allow you to dress your character. This is because it is easy and automatically balanced, while simultaneously allowing the player into a high-density simulation. Good stuff, but it doesn't mean that players like to dress their characters. It means that players like areas of dense simulation.

(Certainly players like dressing their characters. I do, at least. But it's just one of the zillions of interesting things I could be doing.)

Of course, when contained and constrained like in a computer game, players will run amok. They'll push every simulation boundary. The simulation boundaries may be quite strong, so the only place the players can always push is in their interaction with other players.

Pushing that envelope means being a total biter.

Most people who aren't me are nice people in person, on a day-to-day basis. Pushing that simulation means being a not-nice person. It could also mean getting what you want without going through the slow bits getting there, but if you're interacting with real people, that can't be done. So it's jerkface time.

Look at a few examples. Like most MMORPGs on the market: not much in the way of flexible simulation. Pretty poor, in fact. Customize your character in a way which takes all of two minutes to master. Customize your look in a way which may take ten. Sure, the actual act of getting the things you want may take years, but deciding what is better takes thirty seconds.

Other than that? Player interaction. It's the only detailed, highly varied simulation.

Compare with SecondLife (always a fun comparison). Detailed simulations: clothes, vehicles, architecture, games, programming, art, economy, parties, sex. Player interaction? You bet, but it's used mostly as a way to push the edges in other simulations. The people on SecondLife are, by and large, very nice people. This is because they have other realms to explore!

How do you arrange for this in a multiplayer game? How can you create something which is a dense enough simulation to entertain? That sounds hard!

In fact, it's impossible. You cannot create a dense enough simulation to permanently entertain a player.

What you do is you hook the players together in such a way that they create their own simulations in the sparking gap between them. For example, choosing your costume is fun because, in your mind, you have a deep set of preferences about such things. The real joy comes in when someone goes: "Nice costume! Hey, could you make something for me, too?"

That moment is an intense moment for the budding artist. Suddenly, there's a whole new simulation: providing clothes for other people. Pushing that simulation will entertain the player for the forseeable future.

Your job is to provide that connection, so that players can create their own simulations. You give them tools, they use those tools to fill the space between players. Content creation.

This also ties back into my recent posts on gameplay vs story. These tools are not, on their own, gameplay. They are tools. However, since they are wedged deeply into a game world, they are tools specifically to serve the game and hence are made into gameplay. They are what some people might call "story tools". I would call them "idealized gameplay" - something which allows players to introduce new and unique creations into the gamespace.

This method is a great way to keep players from being total biters. It is also a fabulous way to extend the life of your game. Done correctly, it doesn't even have to be all that risky or full of porn.

(Apologies if you saw the first draft of this essay, I accidentally hit control-S. Honestly, why is that there? The number of accidental publishings must exceed the number of people who are really glad they can push control-S rather than click on the button...)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Heh, spamming the blog tonight.

If you haven't, read Sirlin's WoW diatribe. Psychic readers will know that I keep my eye on Sirlin's blog, because when he does post, it's pretty good. Well, this is a finished Gamasutra article, and it's a head above his normal stuff. It is, in fact, a head above literally every other article I've read recently.

He, me, and Raph all agree on one thing: the underlying pattern of gameplay is what the game's crunchy nuget is. The story/art/etc is important, but the gameplay has a ton of power. In fact, a good story/art/etc can be thought of simply as being a gameplay multiplier.

The patterns you learn from a game are not limited to "zombies weak vs fire" and "72% throttle on turns". It includes basic methodology for interacting with the world. Obviously, this is most notable in games you play a metric shit-tonne. For me, I learned mostly from a combination of RPGs and adventure games. This has definitely had a massive influence on my life.

Sirlin talks about WoW, and the fact that it is subtly teaching its players to be lazy, whiny asshats. I haven't played WoW, so I can't say whether that is true. However, I can say that MMO games which prize skill - such as SecondLife and Eve Online - are the only ones which (A) hold any attraction to me and (B) have a player base worth interacting with.

Coincidence? I think not!

His other points are also extremely - EXTREMELY - good. This is probably the best essay I've read in six months. It just agrees with me that much. Err, I mean, is that good.

Point six bears special attention:

You cannot shape your players' actions with the hammer of regulations. You need to craft your game's internal logic to shape your players' actions. Seriously. I do it with every game I run. It's really not that hard, once you know how to do it and what you're aiming for.

Maybe I should write about that in more detail?

Not a story!

Patrick says:

"in any form of interactive entertainment you've got the system (rules) and resulting discourses (which can be remembered as stories)."

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Play a game.

As you learn how to shoot zombies, are you "telling yourself a story" or "remembering a story"? As you zoom through a race course, are you "discoursing"? No. You're using a much deeper part of your brain - one which doesn't use language or, in fact, linguistic idealization. It is simply, and deeply, about pattern analysis.

Can you make a game which is about telling stories? Sure - Baron Munchausen is such a game. Can you make a game which has unreliable rules? Sure - Lemma is such a game.

But there is a fundamental difference between experiencing a story - even an interactive one - and experiencing a game. The story starts and stays idealized and rule-less. More accurately, the rules are a mish-mash of whatever rules the author(s) have in their brains, and fade in and out as mood demands. It is not about manipulating a pattern using rules so much as manipulating a tide of vague pattern-like preferences using a lack of rules. That doesn't make it inferior, but it does make it different from a game.

A game has a concrete set of rules and the player's jollies come from manipulating them. It's a wholly different method of pattern analysis. It's non-linguistic, non-memetic, non-aesthetic. Even if it is represented by language, aesthetics, or memes, the actual pattern recognition - what to do when - is not.

For example, "I can make Suzie fall in love with Jack" is a story, but the actual knowledge of how that can be accomplished - and the fact that it can be accomplished - is not a story. The story, in this particular case, results from having learned the rules of the engine... a process and knowledge which is not a story, although the actual act of learning may be considered one.

Without patterns of rules governing your progression you allow the player to do anything. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is now officially a tool, enabling the user to make whatever he wishes within the capabilities of the tool.

A TimeSplitter's gameplay session isn't "remembered" as a "story". It's "remembered" at a deep level, in terms of how to move, how to shoot, what weapons work against which enemies, the layout of the level. These are often not even "conscious" memories, certainly not "stories".

Sure, you may remember gameplay fragments which you could stretch the definition of "story" to cover, like "damn it, those invisible guys are so irritatingly difficult!" or "I just killed two zombies with the head of another zombie!" But these are exceptions.

What many people - evidently including Patrick - are arguing is that these exceptions are inherently better and more entertaining than the rest of the game, so the whole game ought to be made of them. This is, unfortunately, both wrong and impossible.

It's impossible because "cool" is always cool relative to something. If every throw of a zombie head kills two zombies, it's only cool when it kills four zombies.

It's also wrong, for much the same reason: in order for a player to manipulate the pattern, there needs to be a great deal of that pattern in all sorts of states, so he can learn. The player learns to shoot. Then, instead of simply wanting to hit, he wants to get all head-shots. Then, instead of wanting simply head-shots, he wants to get entirely wall-bounce head-shots. The progression towards this goal is the fun of the game. Simply skipping to the wall-bounce head-shots defeats the purpose.

It doesn't defeat the purpose in a story sense. It could be an awesome story moment. But it defeats the purpose in a gameplay sense. If every shot miraculously kills everything in this absurd way, there's no gameplay in that. Unless you count watching them explode in various ways as "gameplay".

A story world is a questionable situation, because nobody's really made one. How much is it a story creation tool? How much is it a game? Does it have concrete rules, or does it let you go and do whatever you want?

Obviously, there's a messy situation in the middle, where it's a game until the player decides he wants to override it or ignore the rules. However, at a core level, the distinction remains: it is a game so long as the rules are followed and the pattern manipulated according to them.

That is the difference! I hope I'm being clear, here: a story is an idealized example. The joy of a game is in the concrete. It's on a wholly different level.

Cor Tech...

I always wondered how alternate reality games such as ilovebees get started. Now I know.

It's a shame this game's puzzles are so... primitive. Rot 3? First-character-of-a-line "hidden messages"? Tabbable link puzzles?

I do like alternate reality games, but if I can make serious progress in five minutes, they're simply too easy. The individual "color puzzles" might hold something interesting, but chances are poor. I'll keep an eye on it, though: at the very least, it will be interesting to watch the progression (or stillbirth) of an alternate reality game. :)

Stories vs. Gameplay

Lots of people - perhaps the majority of would-be game designers - think that gameplay is (or should be) reduced down to "telling a story" in the player's mind. This is seen as some kind of way to reconcile the "ludic" and "narrative" camps. Unfortunately, it's wrong.

Before you get me wrong: games can and usually do have stories. These stories add a lot to the game. They can even control the gameplay. But they are not, in and of themselves, gameplay. Gameplay is the stuff that happens between cutscenes, remember?

Now, gameplay and story. Story is an idealized example in an idealized world. Gameplay is a concrete example in a concrete world.

In a story, the full rules are never spelled out or even internally represented. The story itself is not governed by strict metaphysics of progression or content. This is because we want to be able to say things like, "she killed the dragon" without mentioning the eighty thousand tons of dragon shit over in the corner. We want to skip the bad stuff in favor of the good stuff. Hence, idealized.

In gameplay, the experience is governed by concrete rules which, even if not explicitly explained, are implicitly ingrained. IE, you cannot simply make a grenade go winging off into the sky and blow up the sun - unless the game's rules specifically allow for it.

You can still get some impressive stuff from gameplay. But you also get stuck with the eighty thousands tons of dragon shit. For every moment where you kill two zombies by throwing another zombie's head at them, there are a hundred moments where you are simply shotgunning yet another zombie.

Some designers seek to minimize this. They want every moment to be new and unique. They want to write a story that the player plays through.

That's not a game.

These designers totally misunderstand the nature of "gameplay". Gameplay is when you're given a set of rules and allowed to navigate them. There are inherent rewards and punishments as you navigate, and the power of gameplay lies in the way a player seeks to do his best.

Sure, TimeSplitters 2 had roughly a zillion zombies in it. Hell, it had three challenges which were nothing more than shooting and/or punching as many zombies as possible. As a story, it would be quite dull. You'd edit it all out and turn it into an action-packed thirty-second fight scene which plays nothing like the game ever did.

But the game is fun. It's entertaining. It's stressful. That's because the player is navigating the rules to the best of his or her ability - not simply making up or listening to an idealized version.

The strength of gameplay lies in that territory. It's not about making a story. If it is about making a story, you've made a tool, not a game. Nothing wrong with that. The Sims was part game, part tool.

But in order to get the game, you've got to let the player make concrete examples in a concrete world. You've got to give them the rules and let them dance with those rules. That's what a game is: dancing rules. Those rules stand on their own, and are not about stories.

In fact, the deeper you go, the more it appears stories are about them.

Monday, February 20, 2006

TimeSplitters 2

I know it's not a recent game, but I only just got to play it. So I'm going to review it a bit.

This isn't a review-review. It's a dissection. However, it isn't a carefully constructed dissection - it's a quick and messy job with a hacksaw.

TimeSplitters 2 is a first-person shooter with some pretty serious limitations - such as the utter lack of ability to interact with NPCs. Also, it's an XBox game, so the control scheme is a bit unnatural.

The basic story mode involves a number of levels which are all functionally independent short stories. Since the overarching plot involves someone who travels through time to find crystals, all the stories are technically seen through "his" eyes and tied together by a final few seconds of crystal-hunting.

This is a brilliant idea. There's enough of a link between the levels to serve as a perfect wind-down: at the end of each level, you grab the crystal and lightning-headed mafioso pop in to harass you until you jump through the final portal. This is an ending – something which many levels in many games lack, especially FPS. In many games, you simply pass through a door and on to the next level with barely enough time to register that you finished a level.

However, the rest of the level is unique – and that's what makes TimeSplitters unique. You become someone on the scene who has a job to do, and just who that person is varies from level to level, no repeats. Are you the Indiana-Jones-style adventurer? The spaceman? The private eye? The weird thief girl from Notre Dame? A robot?

Each level (and, to a lesser extent, each character) has its own taste. For example, the private eye gets silenced pistols, hunting rifles, and tommyguns. The archaeologist gets a pistol and a crossbow. The spaceman gets a bunch of futury weapons. The Notre Dame dame gets shotguns. Lots and lots of shotguns.

The minigames also change from level to level. Giant turrets for our spaceman. Security systems that the robot can interface with. There's cameras for everyone after 1960. There's weird jungle puzzles for our archaeologist.

This gives the game an incredibly diverse feel. I really enjoyed that! The gameplay was largely excellent.

There were some downsides.

Perhaps the biggest one was difficulty in building up any narrative force. Yeah, I have a weak spot for the Notre Dame setting. Probably the music. But once we finish with it, we never see our masked thief again. This is definitely a weak point to anyone who really cares about the story of a game – which I do.

The other big problem was the radical differences in difficulty and some rather unhelpfully vague goals.

Why were Robot Factory and that one with the awesome spy guy so hard? They were roughly TWICE as hard as the other levels. That's pretty weird. Also, why were some levels almost impossible to figure out how to get through – like the stranded spaceman level? Others, however, were laughably straightforward.

This sort of highly uneven level design doesn't happen very often in games with a coherent and consecutive plot.

Also, TimeSplitters took the idea of “difficulty levels” very seriously. I'm good enough to win some platinum awards in arcade mode, but I'm not good enough to beat it on “hard”. On the other hand, I can almost beat it just using my feet on “easy”. Maaaaybe a bit too much differentiation.

Despite the very interesting story mode, the game really shines in its extras. The extras allow you to go through a huge number of added simple levels, designed with verve. Some of this extra content is EXCESSIVELY DIFFICULT for me. Although I can win golds and platinums in most of the contests, I can't even beat other ones. I couldn't even get to the highest arcade league, because I can't beat the handy-man level in the middle arcade league... despite getting a gold and a platinum on the two earlier levels on that subset.

The idea of extras is profoundly awesome, as I mentioned. While doing these levels, you can earn new characters, new levels, new hats. This is cool. The problem is: you can really only use your extra unlocked content in multiplayer contests.

Yeah, I earned Gretel Mark II, but the only place I can play her is in a death match. I'm not a big fan of death matches using XBox controllers. Not awesome.

Since I have such a profoundly hard time with some of the challenges, my suggestion would have been to put in a selection of extras, but make only one available by default. As you unlock characters and other extras, you can choose them in any given challenge. Can't beat the handymen? Unlock the “Handyman Can” extra, which equips you with dual tommies from the start.

Who cares about “balance” - these are the extras, they're supposed to be fun.

Still, despite my whining, the extras are a beautiful touch.

The last piece of the game is the map creation system. This uses a simple – and I mean SIMPLE – tile placement system to lay out the map and place people. Even in “advanced” mode, it's pretty brutally limited.

One bizarre choice was having “red connectors” and “green connectors” which were incompatible. Kind of weird and irritating. Another irritating thing was that they forced you to have ceilings, so no useful room can be more than two stories high. Lastly, it occasionally causes the XBox to crash when loading up the preview.

However, I've snuck a look at the next game in the series, and its map editor has fixed these problems. I'm going to buy it – probably tomorrow.

There are a few other details: the music is exquisite. The fact that there's no such thing as NPC interaction is irritating, especially since the character models are so awesome. A lot of people really hate the sci-fi handgun, but I loved it.

End result:

All games use varying a pattern of play to keep the player interested. Usually, this is through a steady gain of power over the course of the game.

TimeSplitters 2 uses a “bunch of short stories” method to radically increase the amount of variation on the basic pattern of play. It successfully makes you grin with glee as you pick up a new weapon or solve a new puzzle. I think this is most of its coolness. This does have drawbacks, but it's quite a good game.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Play Loops

This post crosses from computer games to tabletops and back again.

Let's talk about how a game latches on to the mind of the player.

Last post, I explained how I think the thing which sets games apart is a weighted reward/penalty feedback loop. Example: in an FPS, the feedback loop would be the running around shooting people. The weighted reward/penalty would be health damage - both yours and theirs.

To make it a little shorter to type, I'll call these "play loops".

Here's the thing: in order for a play loop to catch a player and be fascinating, the player has to appreciate the rewards and penalties it gives him. I don't much like racing games, largely because I don't appreciate their rewards - simply being a little faster or a little slower doesn't mean much to me.

There's nothing wrong with racing games. It's simply that the play loop doesn't catch me.

There's two basic ways of getting a player to appreciate a play loop, and games commonly use both. The first is "immersion", the second is "support loops".

Using graphics, story, conversation, music, and so forth, a game designer can make the player fascinated by the world the play loop exists in. The linear progression of nearly all stories in nearly all games is a method of drawing the player into the world of the game.

What this does isn't the same as it does in the movies. Rather, it is the same, but it is applied differently: once the player is immersed in the game world, the rewards and penalties relative to that world have a much deeper hook into his mind. To give a tiny example from one corner of this broad idea, if you want to know what's going to happen next, you want to win. Suddenly, the feedback matters.

Now, it's actually a bit... off. In certain quantities, the wish to advance the game wholly replaces the wish to play the game. This happens more frequently than most developers are comfortable with. Players say, "Damn it, can't I just skip this level?"

Yow! That's bad! They wish you were a movie!

Occasionally the reason for this is having a pretty poor feedback loop - the game is too simple or buggy. However, most of the time, it's for a more subtle reason:

The play loop's rewards (health, items, levels) have been replaced in your mind with the story's rewards. The story has only one type of response: advance or not advance. This is not strong enough to support a play loop - it turns the game from a weighted reward/penalty feedback loop into a simple feedback loop. Unacceptable.

By understanding that what drives a game is a play loop instead of a simple feedback loop, you can make your immersions come in distinct reward magnitudes, just like a full play loop's.

One example of this is TimeSplitters 2: each time you beat a challenge, you get a few rewards. But the rewards you get are based on how well you beat the challenge. It's not simply "kill these zombies successfully and get a new hat", it's "kill 30 zombies, get a new hat. Kill 40 zombies, get a new hat and a new level. Kill 50 zombies, get a hat, level, and new character!" This is on top of the subtle but important feedback of bronze, silver, gold and platinum trophies - clearly displayed as a sign of the magnitude of your victory.

Actually, I'm a little irritated at the system, because I really suck at some types of challenges. Like picking up smegging bananas. I hate racing games.

It might have been a good idea to offer alternate challenges or something. It might have also been a good idea to display what you could win at each level of victory, but that's besides the point. The real point is clear: they offer rewards in which the magnitude of your victory matters. This means that the play loop remains a play loop. The reward has shifted somewhat, but still exists as a complex reward instead of just win/lose.

That is a support loop. It's another feedback loop, often a very simple one, which interacts with the main loop to increase the complexity and longevity of the main loop. This is very common. Nearly all non-casual games contain at least two support loops, if you can even distinguish which ones are support and which one is main.

I could analyze other games - or more deeply analyze TimeSplitters 2. Like all complex systems, it deserves more than I give it here. But that would be even more boring than this essay already is, so let's move quickly on:

When you create a game - no matter what type, it's important to offer this complex reward. The game cannot simply progress, because that means they'll either lose interest in the play loop or lose interest in the progression. Either way, it's totally inefficient.

So, for example, a tabletop RPG. The "main loop" is the incomprehensible morass of rules used for fighting, supported by numerous support loops for traps, treasure, religion, leveling, and everything else under the sun. (Most tabletop RPGs have at least 8 support loops.)

The basic idea of most tabletops is that they include all that crap because it means that a clueless GM can simply plug it in and let it chug. The players will theoretically latch on to these support loops and drive themselves to accomplish whatever goals are made likely.

The thing is, this is unreliable and inefficient.

Most GMs have a problem "controlling" their players. I hesitate to call it "control": a better word would be "guiding". Their players don't bother to follow the GM's nicely laid-out plot.

I don't have that problem. The reason is simple: I don't use all the default support loops. I create my own loops which follow the rules I laid out above.

Default support loops offer brutally generic feedback. Many players will have them memorized. Their rewards are too powerful while simultaneously being too simple. How many times have you heard a player say something like, "I want to get to level six!"

They've replaced the main play loop's rewards and penalties - consisting mostly of HP finagling and some resource management - with a simple "treadmill through to level six". That's bad.

Your support loops should be the guiding light of the game. To do that, you need to make other support loops subordinate to it. In my opinion, this means ditching all the crap that comes in the giant rules tome. You don't need their leveling, their item lists. You certainly don't need their whole world! Even if you're not able to think up a world on your own, cut away all (and I mean all) the pieces of the world you aren't using. Just don't mention them.

Then you bring in your own support loops. These loops react to how well or how poorly your players do. Don't hook your support loop onto the back of some other support loop, either: make it the dominant loop. It touches and reshapes all the other support loops. Rewards and penalties should hit every other support loop in addition to itself: weapons, experience, information, allies, or anything else you can think of.

If the players seem to be thinking too much about one of the less important play loops, such as levels, spin the other play loops. Give them jack shit for XP: instead reward them with information. Or allies. Or items. Or glory. It shouldn't take much before the player gets interested in one of the more active loops - that's how a player's mind works.

Honestly, I can't say this will work for you - or anyone else. But it seems to work for me, and I believe it is the fundamental "gameness" of a game.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Models for Games?

Raph covers Will Wright's speech at a conference. I love the subtext to Will Wright's speeches: if you haven't noticed, he more or less skips anything he knows inside and out. He'll go into great detail on a lot of interesting things, but as soon as he comes to a concept he's already applied on a mass scale, he just says a few quick sentences. I like that: it says he's doing this as much for himself as for anyone else.

Anyhow, I think that having different ways of looking at game design is very beneficial. However, in the end, looking at games in terms of cinema, car racing, biology, or stage magic is going to be replaced with looking at games as games. After all, cinema was first looked at as photography or thrill rides. It wasn't until the idea of cinematic timing came in and turned cinema into its own art.

Looking at games in terms of other types of systems is fine. But, in the end, games are games. They have a unique methodology. And the true challenge is not to figure out what they are most like, but what piece of them is unlike anything else. Then, master that piece.

The problem with that is that we're calling lots of things "games". Real-world car racing is a game. Gambling on yak fights is a game. Seeing how long you can hop on one leg is a game.

Similarly, I make quite a lot of games. 95% of them are not computer games! They are role-playing games, or card games, or board games, or anything else under the sun. Do all of these "games" have one, connecting thing which isn't shared in other systems?

Originally, I wrote a long essay about the various things that it could be, but that took up a lot of space. Let me spill it for you: it isn't interactivity. It isn't "fun". It isn't complex systems. It's weighted feedback loops.

All games, from the stock market to yak racing to poker all have feedback loops. But more than that, these are loops with high-grain rewards. You can win or lose in a wide variety of intensities. "Oh, man, Wonder Yak lost by just a spittle's length! I was so close!"

The stock market, by this definition, is a game. You can win or lose in a wide variety of ways and intensities.

But it's only a game if you're playing on those rewards. Many people who have been playing the market for a long time start to get jaded. They set other rewards, such as "continue making at least 12%". The feedback is no longer "won by 11.3%" or "lost by 2.9%", it's now often reduced to "won" or "lost". That's not enough granularity. That feedback is too simple.

Similarly, driving is a complex feedback loop, but there's no real granularity. There's any number of "lose" intensities, from "you made that guy honk" to "you crashed into a yak-racing arena". However, there's no "win" intensities. If you do "good enough", you do good enough. Not enough feedback!

At the heart of every good game is a beautifully reactive reward system stapled to a feedback loop. First person shooters are excessively good at this, with a multi-axis set of reward/penalties. Like health. Yeah, you can run out of health and lose. But more often, taking a hit of any kind lowers your health only somewhat. You can use that as a measure of your success so far.

All good games have these kinds of clear, high-grain feedback.

They don't need "goals". They don't even need to make sense. The things that set games apart from every other kind of system is that weighted feedback loop.

And I'll tell you more about it sometime soon. Or, at least, what I think about it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What is an arcade?

The Game Dev Club at WPI is thinking about starting a project to put an "arcade-game-like device" in at WPI. It's all just fuzzy notions at the moment, but I thought the idea was fascinating, because despite its simplicity, the social ramifications you're aiming for are staggeringly complex and strikingly delicate.

My, how pretentious am I tonight? Sorry, I'm in an academic mood...

The basic idea of an arcade is not to have games for people to play. It's to have games for people to revolve around while they socialize and spend time together. This is why nearly all arcades also have food joints and often pool tables. They're really about socializing. With a time tax.

The idea of an arcade is to immerse everyone in a world where they have an excuse to hang out.

Therefore, "an arcade machine" is worthless. Two arcade machines, on the other hand, is valuable. You see, there's a certain minimum of people you need to catalyze (fun word! Use it in the next four hours for bonus points!) "socializing". And that number is extremely specific: five.

Five. It takes five people, no less, to turn a tight-knit group of friends hanging out into a social event. Five gives it not only the level of conversational churn it needs, but also the slack it needs to live through temporary disruptions such as "going to the bathroom" and "getting a bite to eat". Also, five people has strong gravity, especially at a college. If you have five people, you have a robust group. So you need to aim at gathering groups of five or more people. Meaning two arcade machines. Four players.

More than two would be aiming too high, as many arcades have discovered to their changrin. If you have too many machines for too low a population, you end up with a very low population distribution. No groups of five. If you were going to get a lot of people coming through, you could support three, five, fifteen arcade cabinets. But WPI won't see that kind of joy.

The purpose of the arcade games is to give people a reason to be together, and placing too many of them at the gathering point simply gives them a reason to stay apart. Any social gathering should have at least one idling player! Not all people should be playing at all times. Hence "social".

Of course, "real" arcades have a big problem in that their game cabinets are almost always a single game. One game is rarely fascinating enough to hold people's attention for weeks, unless it is about horse racing or golf. So arcades get lots of games and constantly buy new ones. When they do, they simply stick the old games in the back. In honesty, they'd probably be better off mothballing them altogether and running with between ten and thirty systems (depending on the number of clients they have). They could then unmothball the old systems for "retro night" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Thursday".

The GDC at WPI has the advantage that its machines will be general-purpose consoles, able to play multiple games. This means it doesn't have to constantly buy new machines: it can simply change the game selection. In fact, it could have a headliner game or two, and then a random game from the backlist chosen each day. "Hey, look, today it's joust!" Talk about a reason to come back every day! So long as you have at least twenty games, that's gonna keep people coming back!

Of course, your game selection is critical. Not only in terms of how many games you have, but also in terms of what your primary games play like.

First, as to number: you don't want too many games. Or, if you do have too many games, you want a "random select" option. The way I would do it was explained above, but the basic idea is that you don't want the players to have more than seven choices as to games they will play.

But people get tired of playing the same game over and over, especially when there's nothing to bring them back. Animal Crossing knew this, and so should the GDC. Therefore, the console should change what's available every day. This does require a rather big backlog of games, but they can be shitty old games run on an emulator. Joust. Ms Pac Man. Altered Beast. Or their readily available public clones, if the legality doesn't work out.

Now, which games you choose as your primaries is also a hard question. There are two things that bring people back to your game: to master it and to keep up with it. For the first kind, the game is required to be competitive multiplayer. Like Street Fighter or a racing game. For the second kind, the game is required to change as time passes, and keep track of each player's data over time, giving them a reason to come back. There's an excellent horse racing game which does both of these: it's competitive and it changes over time.

The ideal game for the second kind of player would be something like Animal Crossing, where you live in a "super neighborhood" with everyone else who plays the game. Of course, given the resources of the GDC, it's more likely they won't be able to find a suitable "changing over time" game. But they can certainly find a suitable "competitive w/ high score table" game, and the arcade's selection can, itself, change over time.

Money is a sticky issue. Money really does an exquisite job of making players hang around the machines without playing them. Despite its self-centered origins, charging cash extends the longevity of a game - and an arcade - immensely. This is why I think "time cards" are a liability to an arcade. Charging by the hour sounds like a great idea - simplifies everything. Except it destroys the social aspect of the poor expert standing around making comments and begging a quarter.

It doesn't have to be much money, or even real money, but if the WPI arcade games don't charge, say, a quarter... they're not going to last long. Someone will play them into oblivion and then leave them behind forever.

A game which changes over time - like, say, Animal Crossing - could be free. Because you can't "play it all out" in one or two sittings. But games like Street Fighter or Zombie House need to charge money. They need people to have a reason to stop, and they need people to notice other people playing their favorite game that they would only play if they had more cash.

WPI currently has two vastly underused arcade cabinets in one of its social areas. However, the games are not competitive and do not change over time. Unsurprisingly, neither is very popular.

It's a complex problem, and has some sticky ramifications. Can you get away with charging a quarter as the Game Dev Club of WPI? Or are there rules requiring it to be free? If you do charge money, you have to buy a mechanical system for registering quarters and keeping them safe from the many eager lockpickers.

It would be a fun IQP. Wow, I would have loved that project, back when I was in college.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Community Gaming...

Recently, Raph Koster has been talking a lot about the "shift to multiplayer". His most recent article about that is here. Usually, I'd just stick my commentary in his comments section, but his blog's popularity has at last caught up to his actual popularity, so his comments section is officially too crowded for a post of this length.

Raph is right about this. There's a lot of different kinds of multiplayer, and the basic truth is that games are going to involve a lot more people. Sure, they'll always be a sluggish niche in the back for people who like to play alone, but even those people will find they have a community around their game, whether it is FFXIX or Solitaire of the Future.

We're not talking about being forced to participate, here. We're simply talking about the capability. It's going to become universal. Why?

Free content.

Now, some people don't consider forum chatter "content". I do. If it takes your player's time up and interests them, it is content - at least, for somebody. Whether you're Morrowind or World of Warcraft, the main thing your community does is create content!

Having a community linked to the game is saying, "My artists spent eight hundred hours to make eighty hours of content by creating levels five through nine. My programmers spent eighty hours making eight hundred hours of content by letting all our fans talk to each other." Which is more efficient? A 10-1 ratio, or a 1-10 ratio?

Of course, I'm just making the numbers up, here. They are really much more in favor of player content and communities, since creating an eighty hour game in eight hundred hours is not likely. Seriously, communities - or player content of any kind - is dramatically more efficient and versatile than developer content!

People are starting to pick up on this, including Raph. He gives his vision of the future. I don't think it's strong enough. Take everything he says, and give it a twist to take it two steps forward and a step to the side.

For example, "store retailers in trouble" is a dramatic understatement. Oh, wow, is it an understatement. The early adopters have already abandoned store retailers for anything other than used games and games they've got to have right now. Look at a retailer's selling cycle: game comes out. It gets bought for a week. After that, nobody else buys it much (and it's getting worse). Do you really think that everyone who wanted the game got it in that first week? Isn't it slightly more likely that they're just stealing it?

Aside from the GameCube, even the console games are frequently stolen! With computer games, it's even worse.

MMORPGs are great because even if they are stolen, the thief still has to pay the monthly fee. The same with STEAM, for all its other faults. These are the systems of the future. And these systems write out store distribution altogether (or will, in a few years).

Another example, "playing single player games in multiplayer space" is also true, and also a misstatement. Because those single-player games are going to be, by and large, made by people in the multiplayer game. They might be devs, or paid level designers... but they're also probably volunteers and fans. The "game" you "buy" from the "developers" is really a multiplayer world you lease from tool programmers. Inside that game, you'll probably find games you have to buy from developers.

I could go on for pages... I have gone on for pages. Anyhow: yeah, multiplayer. It's gonna be everywhere. Haven't you noticed that it's more fun to play a game when you and your friends can chat about it?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Rocket Propelled Grenades. Or something.

Self-absorbed discussion on RPGs...

I was looking over my host of ROMs for the various consoles I've owned over the years. Ticking off my fingers at games I loved and games I hated. And I got confused: Why is it that I hate half the RPGs that everyone likes, and like half the RPGs everyone hates? What am I judging that's so independent of what everyone else is looking for?

For example, I love Warriors of the Eternal Sun. It's a D&D game. Pretty crappy. But I love it. I hate the Eye of the Beholder games, which most people liked back in the day. Yet I love the Buck Rogers game, which uses almost exactly the same system!

Similarly, I loved Daggerfall and Battlespire, but hated Morrowind. (Although it should be noted that I cheated like a mofo through Daggerfall. I think everyone did.) I loved FFVIJ, but hated FFVII.

I thought, "is it just a dislike of first-person RPGs? No, I liked Daggerfall, and Ultima Underworld, and so forth... Do I only like party-based RPGs? No, I liked Daggerfall and hated Eye of the Beholder..."

Then I realized what it was:

I was looking for a relaxed game. When I play an RPG, I'm looking to be the only active person in the game. I want to know what to expect when I do something. I want a toy, a relaxed puzzle. You don't try to solve a jigsaw while someone counts down loudly in your ear. And I don't like RPGs that force things on me.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mind a challenge. So long as I know what the challenge is before I step in it.

All the RPGs I like have long, luxurious lead-up times for any given problem. This usually means a map with very few hidden traps on it and a long range of player vision. In its most basic form, this is easiest to accomplish with a bird's-eye view: seeing a long distance, only engaging when I want to engage. Another way to do it is to have only a small view range (like first person mode), but have really slow monsters and nonclaustrophobic level layouts.

I think the reason I have this definite preference is because I'm also a tension junkie. Used to the nature of tension, I have a distinct distaste for anything that pops up without building it. Look at all my favorite non-RPGs (and sort-of-RPGs): System Shock, for example. You are rarely taken by total surprise: you'll always hear the monkeys before they get you.

So what is it about RPGs where they think they can just wham-bam you, no thought to building tension or stress?

I think it's a leftover from "random encounter" syndrome. In a tabletop, it's harder to build stress, because your players have a bunch of options they'll use. They'll buff each other. They'll set a trap. They'll do all sorts of clever things. And your poor monster is toasty. So it's RPG tradition to simply drop monsters on you without any warning at all.

The RPGs I don't like? Universally do this. And there's no reason for it: building tension is fifty times more powerful than simply dropping a monster on you.

Yay. I like figuring things out. Now, to bed!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Oh, and if you haven't...

If you haven't seen these pics of Mexico City, you should. Wow.

Intuitive Physics Modeling

Yeah, I had something else for my discerning readers, but I'm afraid I lost track of it. So, for my less-discerning readers, here's something that's on my mind in rather a small way:

Intuitive physics modeling.

When I was younger, I loved 3D artwork. To be honest, I still love it, but I no longer use it. Ever. Why? Because I can draw a dozen pictures as fast as I can create one 3D model of the same complexity. And the pictures bend, flow, and leap in ways that 3D models don't. Of course, in theory I could use the 3D model for a million pictures once I finish it - thus the attraction.

These days, you can get software to do some animating for you. You move your little 3D buddy around, and it extrapolates all the little motions inbetween. Of course, if you want your hair and/or clothes to wave, that requires more expensive software.

But it's so cool! You get a level of awesomeness you could never get from cell art, because they can take any animation they please, from any angle! You can even incorporate live changes to the animations, such as (primitive) flowing clothes and hair, or the ever-popular "bouncing boobs".

There's just a one problem with 3D animation: ever try to get a 3D character to take off his sock? How about playing tug-of-war with his dog and a bit of rope? You ever try to get a 3D character to bend and flow? Fit a specific composition?

These are things a 2D artist can do in a hundredth the time a 3D artist can for a single still frame, and a 2D artist can still do it just as fast for manual animation as a 3D artist can, with arguably more poignant results!

But... 3D art! Awesome! Able to move camera around! Able to animate on the fly! Need 3D art!

The thing is, I've hit this particular barrier at least half a dozen times, trying to figure out a decent way to do 3D art that didn't take all year. I'll say, up front, I don't know of any way to do what I'm about to talk about. But it seems to me that it should be possible!

There are two things to think about if you want to make 3D art that can take its socks off. The first option is representational collisions, and the second option is sprite-fu.

Representational collisions are an idea I came up with a few years back. I'm sure it's not unique, but here it is: I built a system which didn't represent the 3D model as a bunch of vertexes. It represented the 3D model as a bunch of oval shapes of various proportions.

Then, collision detection was fairly simple: instead of determining whether a vertex had passed through a solid plane, you determined whether one ovoid object had collided with another ovoid object. Although the math is somewhat more complex, it requires fewer iterations and less checking. Anyhow, it ran fast enough for me, but I wasn't trying for real-time.

Collisions in this manner are more useful than collisions from standard detection systems. You know how the collision works, you know where the mass is, and you can even deform the ovoids! I never got the deformation to work well, but I got them to flatten on the colliding side.

You can then synthesize a mesh - either temporary or semipermanent - from the ovoid structure. Using some basic heuristics, you wrap the ovoids and blur their edges together, to avoid the sharp "oval sticking out of oval" you get without the blurring. This produces a very nice, organic feel.

I also introduced cloth into the project. I never reached the phase of "shirt", but I could do "sheet". I had some serious problems getting the sheet to collide with other sheets, but it collided with the ovoids pretty well.

I think someone who knew what they were doing could create a way of representing a model which didn't rely on a "mesh". Meshes should be end products, not internal math. So long as we stick with the idea of a "mesh", we're going to have some rather serious issues with getting it to interact with other things right. I don't know what the best way is - probably not my way, I'm sure - but there should be one, don't you think?

The thing is, most 3D animation programs are obsessed with exact locations. This makes sense, because from moment to moment, the exact location is critical to keeping continuity. But why not experiment with something that makes up the exact mesh on the spot, knowing what the situation is?

Here we're segueing into the other idea I had: sprite-fu.

If your guy is taking off his sock and you want a picture of it - not an animation, just a picture - why can't the 3D program just call up it's "this is what this kind of thing sometimes looks like" programs and invent how the sock will look?

While we're at it, what are we using 3D for, anyway? Two reasons: 3D locations and ease of animation. Sprites are a bit ugly to use in a 3D-world game - like Doom - so 3D works better there. Sprites also have to be hand-animated for every situation - and re-animated for each character. So 3D works better there, too, once you get over the initial expense. 3D also zooms in and out a bit better than old-style spritework.

But ask yourself: can we use sprites for these things? A new kind of meta-sprite? An algorithm which draws a sprite on the fly?

"Hey, I saw something like that, once. Computers really suck at making up drawings."

Computers really suck at making up high-definition 3D images of people, too. But they're doing it. In such computationally intensive ways, it makes me cringe. In order to do a facial animation, the computer needs to know every point on the face, how to draw the points up and around, and exactly what strings to pull.

It seems to me that you could create something of that nature using 2D art, approximating the same data 3D art uses, but in a more forgiving way.

For example, what about taking a blunt 3D doll shape? Put it into the scene and let the 2D renderer jump on top of the simplistic, 20-poly doll, using it as anchors to build detailed face, clothing, hair...

Can it be done? Why not? It seems easy enough, doesn't it? A set of heuristics as to how things move and hang on the 3D model? Eyes here, draw like this, angle changes do that? Shirts drawn with wrinkles from armpit - something like that?

Slightly more advanced: wouldn't it be easier to make this system interact with clothing easier than the more cemented 3D system? Clothes stretch, bunch, and flow using a set of curves and lines which are part of the program's heuristics. You don't even need to represent them in the 3D part of the system, save to remember that they are there to interfere with the dolls.

It seems to me that this should be quite possible. I don't know why it hasn't even been experimented with. It would give you all the flexibility of 3D with all the liveliness of 2D, if done right. Right?

It's complex, sure. But not as complex as freaking Poser 5.0.

Blogs that are Ads?

Today, I have two things for the discerning reader. I think I'm going to talk about BzzAgent first. That's a company that brought in a blogger to sit in their office and make posts about their day-to-day life. I was reading through it, and it set off my bullshit-o-meter. That made me a bit curious, because it was written in such a friendly and personal way. So I looked into it. Why did it make me go "bleah"?

Does it set off your "I'm a corporate puppet" sensors?

The funny thing is, it's not corporate-feeling on the surface. I'm pretty sure that Butman (what a great name) isn't sitting in a board room getting his posts dictated and neutered by a group of old white guys. Despite this, it still feels like corporate sleaze to me. Would you like to know why?

Because it orbits the company without actually looking at it in any meaningful way.

It's like a fan of Gaiman starting up a blog which goes something like, "Today he had a bagel for breakfast. I wondered why he didn't have to speak to the cashier, only to realize that it was his usual - the communication long established from dozens or even hundreds of visits to that very bagel shop. The sense of history nearly overwhelmed me." (This is made worse because, to finish the analogy, the blogger has to be on Gaiman's payroll. I'm hoping, of course, that Gaiman wouldn't ever be so stupid.)

It's possible, perhaps even likely, that I'm over-sensitive on this matter. But if you read his posts, the language is carefully chosen to try and make you like the company - to make the company into a living organism. However, he doesn't talk about what the company is actually doing. He doesn't talk about the actual people working for the company. He doesn't talk about specifics.

For example:

"During a discussion this afternoon, a member of the team called it, “my game”. This type of response isn’t to be unexpected - a new idea like this causes a lot of fear and frustration and with so much other - seemingly more important - things to worry about every day, this only elevates and heightens personal attacks."

Please note the corporate flavor. No names. Nothing aggressive. A very passive, cover-my-ass, we're all good here response... combined with an undercurrent of contempt for the nameless little shmuck who doesn't understand the importance of my critical undertaking. It's the kind of response a human doesn't make unless he's serving a master. If you were trying to be honest and open about it, what would you say? I know what I would say: nothing. It's not worth putting on the blog. If forced, I might say:

"When we were talking about this blog, Joe called it 'my game'. I expected that, because a blog isn't related to their core duties - I'm just an added bit of chaos to the office environment."

No hiding who did it, no hiding your pretentions behind corporate speak (in fact, best not to have any pretentions at all, if you can manage it). No soft, wishy-washy anonymous language.

Even the less corporate-tasting posts, they always revolve around him. Whoa, bad choice. You aren't part of the company. You aren't doing anything useful. You're just watching. Don't talk about how YOU know this and YOU know that. Talk about how JOE does this and SUE does that.

Even if he did take the focus off himself, he would still be crippled by his "offend nobody" directive. I'm sure he got one, implicitly if nothing else. He carefully assigns only virtues to names. Problems stay anonymous, if they are mentioned at all. Well, how nice. And how biased and inhuman.

Can you trust a blog which is functionally a very cunning company advertisement? It might be interesting to see how the company grows, but done as softly and egocentrically as it is, I doubt it'll ever make me like the company.

Someday, he'll eventually start bringing in other people to talk about how the company functions. At least, I'll assume so, since he is obviously not an insider and probably has little knowledge of office management.

At that time the blog might gain some substance that doesn't taste quite so corporate. Alternately, he could carefully neuter it so it portrays the company in the "best possible light", IE the most unbelievable and fake light he can find.

I'm probably judging him too harshly. As I said, my "bullshit-o-meter" is a bit oversensitive. But I think the people who pointed out this link with glowing praise were simply too kind. I think it's a corporate ploy written by someone too self-absorbed to know how to do a documentary.

My suggestion for that kind of blog? Write it in terms of the other people there. Portray Joe as he really is, both good and bad points. Sue, too. Nobody is perfect, and the neutered portrayals are absurd and distancing. You want your audience to come right into the meat of the matter - that's where the heart is.

Unfortunately, the "offend nobody" dictum probably makes it impossible to say something like "Andrew is a brilliant ad man, but has trouble getting along with the editing staff because he's poor with the layout software".

That's why I don't think "corporate blogging" will ever really work out. It can't be trusted.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Marketing tip...

Note to marketers: the pitches your phone system gives while a caller is "on hold" need to be more carefully thought out.

For example, a customer calling because their internet service is screwed up doesn't need to hear a pitch about the solution they already bought. It's like someone grabbing your hand and hitting you with it while saying, "why are you hitting yourself? Huh? Why are you hitting yourself?"

You have to think about who is going to be listening to your pitch and what mood they are going to be in. It doesn't make sense to advertise something they (A) already bought and (B) are busy being dissatisfied with.

That means you, Charter.

On the other hand, the guy you sent out did a good job. On the other other hand, the workman you sent over to hook up the house next door disconnected me when he did it, so... well, at least you aren't charging me for the servicing.