Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who Wants to be a Superhero?

I'm very interested in reality TV contests. I don't really like watching them so much as studying them: there really is nothing like a full-immersion situation to really get the game pumping.

Not only do the rules get a brutal work-out, but you can see the players shifting as they play - growing to like or hate each other, growing more clever or conniving, even sometimes undergoing a personality shift.

I've never really seen one like Who Wants to be a Superhero - and I wouldn't have seen it at all if it hadn't happened to be playing on the one week I really watch any TV.

For those of you who don't know, the show is about people in superhero costumes who compete in classic elimination style to be the "next big superhero". It's a first-time game, so the rules and environment are rather rough, but it has some really interesting features.

The basic rules are pretty much the same as you might see on, say, American Idol. A judge (Stan Lee) presents challenges and then kicks someone off the team. Often, the challenge is a "sneaky" (IE, wholly transparent) attempt to get the superheroes to show off some characteristic, and the importance of actually completing the task is very secondary.

The huge difference between it and other reality shows is a new kind of insanity. The system is seeded so that the least heroic people are offed early. While not entirely perfect, it does do a pretty fine job of kicking the less-than-heroic people off. Moreover, heroic traits are rewarded and forced to the forefront - quite the reverse of most other games.

Which means that what you are left with is four or five people who really do have heroic traits, bound tightly together into a supportive team. Which you then knock off one by one.

In other reality shows, you might see tears. But it's pretty much unique to this show that there are waterworks from every eye in every late episode. Let alone the nearly universal attempts to prop up the other heroes and even sabotage yourself.

It's a bizarre show. I'm not sure why they decided to go with a single superhero rather than a team: a team has more sales value and would last longer without running dry. Also, some of the people who demonstrated the most heroic nature simply had idiotic character ideas, and I'm pretty sure that sabotaged them: Monkey Girl had an absurd level of determination, but she could never really merge with the pack because her character was just too irritating and stupid.

Another bizzarity was that, instead of going with a storyline, they chose to use challenges. Often very strange challenges, like hugging an inmate. (Dude, even if that inmate was a plant, Feedback deserves major props.) I would think it would be more natural to do it with more comic-booky conflicts.

I have to admit, when it got down to four, I expected them to stage a take-over: the "Dark Whosis" takes over the show from Stan Lee and the heroes are expected to work together to get it back. They didn't, and I'm not sure why.

So, the whole thing got me thinking. It should be possible to polish this basic idea...

Imagine that you have several teams of superheroes - from four to seven heroes. At the end of each season, you transfer the fourth superhero and drop five and up, if they exist. Every season starts with four superheroes per team, and you add one newbie. You can also add a team (or two, in the first season) of newbies if you're low on teams.

Over the course of a season (which, this not being specifically a TV show, could be a full year or half a year or a month, depending on how intense the experience is), teams are expected to complete challenges. But the challenges are mostly team-specific, created to showcase the capabilities and personalities of the team. Sometimes, challenges have a person limit - two or three people only, for that personal touch. Sometimes, challenges have to be met by specific people. Sometimes, you might choose to go to another team for help with a challenge.

Teams are allowed to trade heroes to one another. "I'll trade you Jimmy Fast for Rex Delux and Delicia..." But they are never allowed to be below four heroes.

At no point do the heroes get to "vote" as to who they want to be ranked fourth and fifth-plus on their team. That is decided by a panel of expert judges. Say, fifteen-year-olds with coke-bottle glasses and acne. They can, of course, attempt to trade heroes.

In later seasons, a whole terrible team could be disbanded and replaced with newbies who would need to "redeem the name".

The challenge would be to keep it fresh for more than three seasons. Some of that would be in twists, of course - things like a hero turning bad or dying. No doubt the actors would get sick of the whole thing and beg to get killed off after a few seasons.

But twists alone cannot keep an audience, and I'm not sure there's enough real meat - it might get old and trite too quickly. One big way to help prevent that is to let the audience vote on rankings - both in-team and intra-team. But that won't help the actors from getting jaded and the newbies from being twinks...

Anyhow, if you read this far, you are a winner! Give me your ideas, counter-examples, and super-hero power. Comment!

Scales and chords

Have you ever wondered what's up with musical scales? What are they? Why are they like they are? Musicians seem to think they're cool, but they can't seem to clearly explain why.

Here's an explanation, because I had the same question.

If you look at a keyboard, you're seeing a scale. Plain ol' basic major key C. Whee. The reason it's so hard to understand different keys and scales is because the keyboard is hardwired for that one key, and screw everyone else.

In truth, there's twelve notes in our musical meanderings. The thirteenth note is really just the first note again, except twice as high. Now, from any given note, there is a major chord.

This is your keyboard, starting at C:


(Dashes are those black keys.)

Now, the ways of getting a major chord are simple. The pattern is four, three, five.

Starting from C, count four steps (steps include both black and white keys), then three steps, then five steps. You end up with your fingers on white keys: C, skip the next white key, E, skip the next white key, G, skip two white keys, back to C.

There are other major chords that include C - you can get those by counting three, five, four or five, four, three. Those aren't C chords, however - they're other chords that include C. If you think about it, you'll see you're actually counting four, three, five from some other note.

There's another note that sounds pretty good with C: F. Another white key. That's one of the ones where it's two white keys in a row. Now you know why: because F sounds good with C. At least, that's what I think.

So, what's up with the other break? I dunno. I think it's so that C is easy to find - I don't see any particular reason it's two black keys and then three, rather than three black keys and then two.

ANYHOW, that layout is only really good for C. When you try a D major chord, you get ugly black keys in on it. Fingers want to automatically scale up major chords by simply moving to the right. But they can't, because the keyboard has decided to make your life easier in a single key.

Sure, there's some good reasons for doing scales in this two-two-one-two-two-two-one way. Not least, it gives us a neato pattern that our minds have become used to, allowing us to write subtle nuances into our songs. Like, say, minor keys. Which aren't 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. They're 2-1-2-2-1-2-2... a VERY subtle difference, as you'll see if you count out the A minor scale on a keyboard.

But it does mean that beginners just don't understand scales.

On a guitar, things are different. Instead of having white keys, you have strings and frets. While the frets are marked, they're not bigger or smaller based on some arbitrary scale. So you are essentially left to find your own scales. And your own chords.

See, the guitar is usually tuned 5-5-5-4-5 steps between each string. (Starting from bass.)

As you might remember, the progression for a chord is 4-3-5. Two notes 5 apart and two notes 4 apart always sound good with each other, so any two consecutive guitar strings will sound good strummed simultaneously.

To get a chord, you just have to change the progression between the strings by putting your fingers on frets. By putting a finger on the second fret of the second most bass string, you change the progression to 7-3-5-4-5. By pressing on the third fret of the bassest string, you change the progression to 4-3-5-4-5. By putting your finger on the third fret of the wee little string, the progression becomes 4-3-5-4-8. (8 being 3 + 5: we're skipping a note).

Poof! A chord. In fact, it's almost two octaves of that chord - we could leave off our pinky finger and strum only the first five strings, and we would still have a perfectly viable chord.

If our tuning had been 5-5-5-5-5 instead of 5-5-5-4-5, we would have needed a whole lot more fingers: work it out yourself. Therefore, 5-5-5-4-5. There are other tunings, usually built for making fingerings easier in certain progressions... you can probably see why that's possible and important now.

You can build any number of chords like this (major, minor, whatever). Unlike a piano, you can go up keys simply by sliding your fingers up a fret. (And, you know, fretting all the strings that were open a second ago. Drawback, but still quite clear.)

Now you hopefully know a little bit more about why scales are the way they are, what sacrifices pianos make to be easy to play, and why guitars are cool but a bit unfriendly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Games Supermarkets Play

I went to a supermarket yesterday. Near the register, there was a big sign: "new triple coupon rules:" and it went on for about a page.

That's inefficient, don't you think? If you use some basic principles of game design, you won't have to put weasel limits on your offer.

There are three elements of game design which maybe could be used for coupon games. First: controlling what coupon offers to make in order to keep the twinking controllable. The reason there are so many restrictions on triple coupons is simple: the supermarket can't afford to give things away for free, so it limits coupons in a million ways. It would be smarter to issue more intelligently designed coupons.

Second: persistant world. Some places already do similar things, of course - like remembering what you've purchased and giving you offers and rewards based on how much of what kind of things you've bought. But that's pretty minor: by utilizing gambling and "random" rewards, you could probably addict hundreds of homemakers to buying stuff and hoping for interesting rewards. You could even have "sales" where it's not the price which goes down, but the reward potential which goes up!

Similarly, coupons could be affected by your "status", giving better percentages the more you buy. (Actually, it would be a U-shaped curve: in the beginning, lots of rewards are needed as well.)

I don't know the best way to do it, but stats are always fun. Maybe you have a "gourmet" stat, and a "bargain hunter" stat, etc. You raise the stats by buying stuff. Obviously, company accounts need another algorithm.

You'll still suffer mudflation, but seasonal sales where someone can spend their stats, permanently, for good deals... that will push people back down, allowing them to work back up towards the reward asymptote instead of simply sitting on it.

Third: socialization. Right now, supermarkets don't have a way to get your friends to buy from them. They could come up with a way. Maybe coupons come in pairs, and if some other card-wielder uses the second in the pair, they get a bigger discount. Or when the second is used by some other card-wielder, you gain points in a stat. The more times that second card-wielder has used your other coupon, the less effect it has. You'll need some method to limit people simply signing up for new cards over and over...

It could just be as easy as putting a "who referred you" on the card sign-up. Then you could do it pyramid-scheme style: when that new person gains stats, the referrer gains a fraction thereof. Or gets coupons, if you're afraid of that potential. This keeps people from benefitting from signing up for new cards over and over.

All the world's a game, eh?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Goin' Away

Originally, I was going to reply to Tide's comment on the last post with a comment. However, something seems to be wrong with the comment system at the moment, so I'll reply with a post.

First, though: I'm gonna be gone for three weeks. Expect few to no updates in that time.

Okay, now the comment:

Tide says that the dude who scammed 700 billion ISK could sell it using lots of alts to get the "full value" of the money - something like $116,000 if you simply multiply current price by the amount sold.

Unfortunately, that's simply not true. No matter how many alts you use, no matter what the size of the chunks you sell, you simply cannot put that much on the market without crashing it. It's like saying, "new homes sell for $400,000. If we sell a billion new homes, we can make four hundred trillion dollars!!!!!!"

No, you'll crash the new-house market. No matter how many different salespeople you use. The same will happen with that much ISK.

Because you have a near-monopoly, you could restrict yourself to selling at just a bit below market prices, but then you'll only sell, say, a few million ISK per week. And you'll still be hurting the market: you just won't be crashing it. Every week, your competitors would lower their prices to match yours, and you continue to lower your prices to stay ahead... and in the end, the market still crashes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Massive Sales

Slashdot says stuff about the Eve Online scam. The author also says:

"700 Billion ISK, which might raise some $119,000 USD if sold on Ebay"

Please remember, folks, these aren't boundless economies. If you sold 700 billion ISK on ebay, or even 7 billion ISK, the price of ISK would drop and the game-side economy would suffer inflation.

700 billion ISK is not a saleable number. It's like trying to sell all of Japan.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


I went to the Boston Post-Mortem today. Didn't learn much about games, but it tickled me to hear a valley-girl accent say: "Yeah, so, I've like, got this parser... it, like reads in my script files..."

Heh... :)

Still gave me a headache, though. The meeting, not the girl.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Wolfpack Memetics

A few years back (younger and more pretentious), I came up with a technique I call "wolfpack memetics". Since a few people have asked me for more detail, this will tell you what it is and how it might help your designs.

The idea is to include things (usually characters) of a wide variety. Basically, everyone is bound to like somebody, no matter what their preferences are.

Obvious examples can be found in any series which has more than four characters in it. Naruto, for example: I find it to be a worthless anime, but it does have several characters in it I like anyway. Shikamaru is my favorite. If you've seen it, I'm sure you saw some characters that appealed to you. They probably aren't the same ones.

In an interactive medium (games), this can be especially powerful if you let your players choose which characters they want to interact with. Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and other American RPGs with parties tend to be extremely good at this, with complex NPCs you can choose to ignore or get to know better.

Japanese RPGs tend to be much worse at it, with mandatory character use. Your favorite character may only play a bit role, or you may be forced to take on a character you despise enough to make you instantly quit playing the franchise (coughQuinacough).

On some level, the idea is to create an ecology of characters. No matter what the audience's niche, they'll find something in their food chain to chew on. But you don't want to crash your ecosystem with characters that tip the whole game into unbalance.

I called it "wolfpack" because of the nature of a wolf pack. On a per-wolf basis, a pack of wolves actually brings down less meat than a lone wolf. However, each wolf gets to eat more meat for less effort, because the wolf pack has more efficient hunting habits and can keep scavengers and large predators at bay until the whole pack is done chowing down.

By forming a "wolfpack" of characters, you won't bring in significantly more audience. But you will "eat" the audience more effectively, because you're coming at them from every direction.

Of course, there are problems with this. Your alpha dogs have to be liked by pretty much the whole audience, or the wolfpack won't even be in the right area to go hunting audience. Your lesser dogs can't unbalance the pack, and they can't be so mangy and disease-ridden that the prey smells them and runs away (coughQuinacough).

The fewer "wolves" you have, the more careful you need to be about triangulating them, and positioning them to corral your prey. That's why a series with four or five characters has a strange, frantic feel: the wolves are desperately sprinting into position to cover and chase the audience.

Character interactions seem more normal with eight or nine, because there are enough wolves to cover the terrain and trade off chasing duties.

Anyhow, if I developed this theory today, I'd probably call it something slightly less pretentious. But it's an old theory.

Actually, it's so old that it's been completely replaced and is now a corollary of another theory. But that theory takes a long time to explain...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Massively Multi Non-Player Games

A friend of mine is starting up a game with over a thousand NPCs - the players play commanders on some ships, and every one of their crew has a character sheet. I'm going to start up a game which is similar only in that it has hundreds of NPCs.

"Why? What possible use can hundreds of NPCs have? How can they all be made interesting in the slightest? You're just using them as tokens when you have that many!"

Actually, the idea is something of the opposite. The idea is that you have all of these tokens, and then you humanize them. It gives the players an emotional connection to the gun crew if the gunnery captain has an interesting personality.

My would-be game, called "Inhabitants", takes place on a distant world when your sleeper colony ship crashes down on a marginally habitable planet. The players are the first people awakened, and they have to figure out how to survive. They can wake other people up, but they only have so much food production, so they have to be careful who they wake up.

They're given the dossiers of people still in cold sleep (chunked together into batches of dozen in a "room" to keep it from getting exhausting) and have to make decisions as to exploration, construction, training, missions... it's part RPG, part world-building game, part strategy game.

The large number of random characters allows the players to choose characters they want - with the skill set they want and the personality they want. Of course, dossiers aren't famous for accuracy...

Once awake, these characters are living, breathing characters instead of tokens.

(I could even do a "rotating character select", where any player can trade their current character up for a character still in cold sleep... that would be a challenge to their RP skills. I'm thinking of having two classes of player - stable and walk-on...)

Of course, the game world (in this case, a literal planet) is also highly complex and interesting - it's not simply a bunch of guys wandering around trying to survive.

Anyway, this same basic need is found in many games. Computer RPGs that want to fill a village, tabletops where you have to whip up a squad of soldiers and don't want another pack of faceless goons...

How can you do it?

Well, one way is to simply to roll up random characters. "He has, um, five skill points in kung-fu and three in cooking... and he's ambidextrous!"

The problem with this is that it's essentially pebbles. It's a mess. There's nothing to grab hold of, either for a would-be GM or a player reading a dossier.

So what you do instead is use (or build) "stereotypes". Then you specify the character's interesting points in terms of breaks in the stereotype.

For example, a guy with fighting and pickpocketing skill. Not incredibly interesting. But make him "Lieutenant Colonel Jackson, commander of the 58th Mechanized Infantry", and suddenly he's interesting. A high-ranking military official with pickpocket? That's meat - you can use that to bring up interesting plot elements featuring that character, or to catch the player's attention with a footnote in their dossier.

The trick is to choose your templates wisely. In both my game and my friend's game, everyone is going to be military. That's useful because the military features a fairly rigid tree structure of positions and ranks - it's pretty easy to plunk someone down and "walk" them along automatically. Breaks and glitches in their progression are very interesting because the framework is very transparent.

If you choose a less organized set of templates - for example, the general population - you'll have a harder time simply because there's more templates and they aren't usually clearly connected. Breaks in the progression are the norm, rather than the exception.

Either way, the whole point is that anyone who starts reading the character sheet or dossier goes, "48-year-old white guy, gunnery captain, okay, I have an idea of who that kind of person is. Wait, 'fashion sense' and music skill at 8? That's interesting... Now I have a really clear picture of who this person is."

It's a basic trick, but I thought I'd share it. :)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Falling for the Wrong Guy

If you've ever run a tabletop game, you've almost certainly noticed something strange: the players seem to like NPCs nobody expected them to. They like the wrong NPCs.

For example, they attach themselves to an NPC so minor you didn't even give them stats. Or they won't much care for that evil boss you've created. Or they'll decide to help the wrong side of the battle because "they're cooler".

Actually, this is easily predicted when you get the knack, and can even be used against the players. Instead of using the blunt stick of plot and misrepresentation, you can use the velvet glove of key building to do just about anything. And, five sessions later, the players will love or hate a character they should hate or love instead.

The thing is that in a movie or computer game, you represent your characters using audio and video cues. These connect to the audience forcefully, and are the primary trigger for their early emotional responses.

In a tabletop, that doesn't happen. Even if you have pictures of them, the pictures are not in the forefront of their mind. There's no animation, no gestures, and the voice sounds an awful lot like yours. Plus, usually, tabletop NPCs are less carefully written than their computer game and movie counterparts.

So, using audiovisual methods is iffy in tabletops. In order to use it, you have to come on really, really strong. Naming a character "Buttnutt", for example, or having one of the NPCs be a mostly naked attractive person of the preferred sex. Too many people named things like "Buttnutt" or too many mostly-naked attractive women, and even this fails because the NPC no longer stands out.

It's somewhat uncommon to walk that line, and that's why it's often a bit surprising as to who the players like or dislike. If you look, the NPC they turn out to like is the NPC with the most unique name, representation, or introduction - not because it emotionally appeals to them, but because it's the only thing that sticks out of the audiovisually unimpressive mud.

After that first "oh, cool character" moment, though, it's very hard to get the players to further like or dislike a character. That's because all the cues they normally use are dimmed - no audio, no video, no animation, no crying people.

You can try to boost these by painstakingly mimicking voices and writing detailed background bits. But that's kind of inefficient.

Instead, how about representing them in terms of something that the players always have undimmed in the forefront of their minds: their character's capabilities. For most players, we're talking tactical and statistical capabilities, but some players also think in terms of social or plot capabilities.

Put bluntly, if a character helps a player, the player will feel more strongly about the character. "More strongly", not "better" - if the player dislikes the character, he'll probably feel more distrust, rather than start to like him.

The reverse also increases emotion, but rarely upwards.

There's lots of kinds of "help". Going along with a player's plan, rescuing the player in a moment of real trouble (preferably trouble they created rather than you created), upgrading the players capabilities, introducing the player to new quest opportunities... there's an unlimited number of these kinds of things.

However, perhaps the most important thing is uniqueness. At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, players notice only the things that stick out in their mind. If you want to distinguish characters at all, have them do something relatively unique. A guard that pickpockets is unique. A mechanic with gremlins is unique. A gunnery sargeant who parachutes in on any given mission is unique.

Repeatedly using the same unique element for a particular character turns that character from a character key into another kind of key... but that's more advanced. There's also the element of character growth... also advanced... such a big topic! :P

Friday, August 18, 2006


A giant geek friend of mine read my first half of a rough draft of my key booklet. He pointed out a seeming contradiction:

The point of the system (at the most basic level) is to use emotional tension to make the audience invest in a key, then use the key to build emotional tension so you can, you know, use it to get the audience to further invest in a key.

Later, however, I point out that the more the audience is invested in a given key, the more difficult it is to further invest.

The thing is, the returns are quite good for a fairly long time. You're unlikely to "top off" a character even over the course of an entire movie. Concerns for "topping off" are really important only to series, campaigns, and long computer games.

In shorter works, "topping off" isn't really a concern, and the reasons to use multiple character keys is to give breadth of potential situations, rather than avoid inefficient investments.

He also asked for me to put in some theoretical mathy bits. After pointing out that every calculation would be multiplied by the sum over time of two unknown variables, he still wanted it. So I'll probably put in fun mathy bits.

Potayto, potahto.

These days, there's a lot of chatter about multiplayer games which have multiple front ends. We've talked about it, you've talked about it, they've talked about it. Here's some fun details you may have missed in the oompa-loompa vibe.

If you have front ends with different difficulty levels / gameplay capabilities, it is unbalanced. If it isn't, people will naturally tend towards the clearest representation.

Meaning that if your tennis game is the same difficulty and plays the same way as your pong game, people will start to tend towards pong. Why? Because it's crisper, cleaner, and more efficient. IE, somewhat easier. That is important to more advanced players - more important than the graphics, which we've already relegated to background noise.

If your tennis game and your pong game are different difficulties, players will tend towards the easier game, just as before. Chances are, this will be your pong game, rather than your tennis game. The magical hallucination that weak players will choose the easy game and hardcore players will choose the hard game is bunk.

Oh, this will also cause your game to lose "depth", meaning that hardcore players will get bored of it quicker. No, they won't simply switch over to the harder game when they "master" the easy game. They'll probably try it, but finding it is simply a less efficient version of the first game, they won't care.

There are two ways around this "players tend to choose the advantageous way" problem.

The first is rewards. If the harder game has mightier rewards, players will gladly play it. For example, unlockable costumes or being a subcomponent of another, "wider" game, or playing for real money. The difficulty here is in choosing a reward which (A) won't run out and (B) won't have players bitterly complaining about unfair advantages and easy-game players spamming the grid to uselessness.

The other method is automatic scaling. If Anne wins at least 50% of her games and plays at least ten games, she is automatically upgraded to the more complex game, or at least locked from the easy game.

This is flatly a bad idea. First, Anne might really like the easy version and have no urge to change modes. Second, if you're going to do that, it would be easier to simply have ONE game with a handicap system. That's better because it also adapts to player's relative strengths, rather than relating a player's strength to some "global pool".

Now, I'm not saying that having multiple faces to suit players with different capabilities (both hardware and skill) is a bad thing. I'm saying that it's a bit more complex than the impression you might be getting.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mush! Faster!

There's a lot of advice out there as to how to do the things you want to do better. I have decided that my purpose will be to teach you how to do things faster.

Instead of drawing one great picture, draw three mediocre ones. Instead of programming the next blockbuster game, make three tiny ones. Instead of writing a book, write three short stories.

Here's five reasons to do it my way:

1) Practice makes perfect, and you'll be getting more of it.

2) Diversity: you can try three times as many approaches and choose the best elements of each.

3) Attention span: it's easy to get bored on a project that takes weeks. Not so much if it takes only days or hours or minutes.

4) Internet and classroom audiences are easier to keep using lots of small chunks rather than a few large chunks.

5) Gives you more time to do other things with your life.

Bonus sixth, if you don't like the "mediocre":

6) It's much easier to polish a small, focused work than a big, rambling one.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Back to Theory!

Okay, as an example of some slightly less explosive essays, here's the first half of the first draft of a booklet I was writing about keys. It's lighthearted, but still not a real light read. :P

If you ever wanted to know more about my key theory - are you MAD? - this is your chance!


A Simpler Argument

Okay, all the complexity of arguing got you down? Don't want to have to become an expert in evolution to argue that the filthy unbelievers are wrong?

Here's an easier, simpler argument.

You have to bet on a basketball game between serious, young Michael Jordan and an asthmatic, obese old man. Who do you bet on?

Wait, lets make that easier. According to records, Jordan has already fought this guy in a dozen games. He won every one of them. According to the score sheets, they were complete shut-outs. Jordan does occasionally miss a shot, but he always lands them in the end.

Who do you bet on?

Let's look at the game record to date.

Religion says: Sun orbits earth.
Science says: Earth orbits sun.
Result: Science wins

Religion says: Earth is flat, or maybe on back of turtle.
Science says: Earth is round and not on anything's back.
Result: Science wins

Religion says: Leave out saucers of milk and the fey folk will help your crops.
Science says: Rotate your crops, leave some land fallow.
Result: Science wins

Religion says: Spoiled meat spontaneously grows maggots.
Science says: Flies lay eggs in spoiled meat, which causes maggots.
Result: Science wins.

Religion says: Mutations are god's displeasure/sign of royalty.
Science says: Stop marrying your sister, dumbshit.
Result: Science (common sense?) wins

Religion says: Minor keys are the devil's music.
Science says: Minor keys are a certain clever combination of waveforms.
Result: Science wins

Religion says: If you pay us, you will be absolved of sin.
Science says: If you pay us, you will be absolved of cancer.
Result: Definitely science.

Religion says: Diseases are the result of "demons" or karma.
Science says: Germs, bacteria, virii, um... bodily fluid imbalance?
Result: Science wins eventually

Religion says: Madness is a sign of divinity.
Science says: Madness is a sign of madness.
Result: Aliens anal-probe millions, the government uses mind control lasers.
Result: That means science won, in case you were wondering.

Religion says: God created all the living things on earth.
Science says: Evolution.
Result: ...

Why would science suddenly start being WRONG? True, science doesn't always have the right answer at the moment. But the right answer has NEVER turned out to be the one religion supposed, and is always discovered by science at a somewhat later date.

Michael Jordan doesn't sink every shot, either. But Michael Jordan will win the game against a fat asthmatic - a missed shot isn't a sign he's going to lose. It's a sign that he's not infallible.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I have tons of essays in the wings. Most are unfinished, and the rest would get me lynched. Even more than this one might.

This is an essay on evolution. Most of my readers are probably up to snuff on the process, but I am continually surprised by the number of otherwise intelligent people who seem to think evolution is "science religion" or flat-out "bunk".

The process of evolution (and I say "process" rather than "theory" because people aren't very bright sometimes) is simple: any group of things that replicate will tend to be dominated by the things that replicate most.

That's all it is, people. If you have a garden, and you don't weed it, then the garden will be dominated by weeds. Why? Because the weeds replicate more than the rest of the plants. They reproduce faster, in greater numbers, and survive better (so they can reproduce again in a week or two).

Normally, when we talk about the process of evolution, we apply it to species. A species adapts over time because some members of the species reproduce more than others, and the genetic characteristics of those members become more and more common until they are the norm.

However, the theory can be applied to literally any group of reproducers. As examples: art, books, creationists, derringers, evangelists, features (in software or elsewhere), glassblowing, honor, ignorance, jackets, killings, labels, mold, nations, and so on and so forth.

"Mutation" can have a role, but probably less than you think. Usually, simply the variations between the members of the group are enough.

Evolution is as much an unarguable part of reality as gravity and stupidity. Things which reproduce better become more common.

Please notice, this has no value judgements, no mysticism, no guesses. This is not a morality, a religion, or a hypothesis. It is simply the way things are.

Reproducing better doesn't make something "better" - a shrew reproduces very well, but it isn't getting a lot of spaceflight done. It is not really "superior" to "older models" such as cockroaches - it is more complex, but complexity has nothing to do with evolution, except if it helps reproducers reproduce.

There is no encouragement to "just take it on faith". Evolution can and should be carefully studied. You learn a lot that way. And you learn that evolution is not a guess, or a hodgepodge. Unlike virtually everything outside of science, scientific theories (including evolution) get stronger the more they are questioned, rather than weaker.

There is no mention of how life started. We can guess: if a molecule hooked together in such a way that it chemically replicated itself, then it becomes a replicator and therefore subject to the process of evolution. The chances of this happening are low, but the timespan is extremely long: a 0.000001% chance becomes a certainty if tried ten quadrillion times.

But that isn't part of the fundamental theory of evolution. It's what I think is most likely, and many-to-most scientists agree with me. But it isn't part of the fundamental theory of evolution.

What is part of the fundamental theory of evolution is:

Creationists using school boards to peddle their poisons
Diseases becoming immune to medicines
Eugenics (both the theory AND the the way the theory is treated)
Indians (and how they live)
Jerks (type and number)
Killers (methods and opportunities)

So on and so forth forever and ever.

There is literally no evidence against evolution. There is some missing evidence for certain very specific applications of evolution - missing not because the application is wrong, but because we can't see back in time. 1 ? 3 ? 5 6 7 8 9 10: the question marks aren't "proof" that the sequence isn't simply consecutive numbers. They're simply missing evidence.

All the evidence - and more comes in every week on every subject - is 100% agreed with the basic tenets of evolution.

Simply put: disbelieving evolution is about as intelligent as disbelieving gravity.

This essay has been brought to you by the letter "argh". The alphabet, by the way, is more proof of the process of evolution. :)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Long Words of TerraNova

Hi! Today I'm going to talk about this post. Someone went and wrote a paper.

Because I know that not everyone (IE, nobody anywhere ever) likes to read papers written in acadspeak, I've writting a translation in English. You can find it here. Technically, I'm not following his requests. Consider it a parody.

The short, short, short version is this:

He first says that games aren't always without consequences. Obvious, but I guess he felt the need to start slow.

Then he says that defining a game by its rules is idiotic. This might sound a little wonky, but really, it's utterly fabulous. It is an awesome, awesome, awesome insight.

Then he starts talking philosophy, which is completely worthless. He keeps after it with a tenacity that almost, but not quite, zeroes out his positive balance from the rule insight.

The rules thing? Yeah. I'm going to talk about that some more. That's really great stuff. Just awesome. But not today.

Star Wars Life

I played Star Wars Life yesterday. It's a game inspired by the game "Life". Not the Cells-that-Breed Life, but the Need-More-Little-Pink-Tokens Life.

I understand that it's supposed to be a half-hour game, but it is painfully badly designed. Lemme sum up. No, there is too little. Lemme explain.

In SWL, you play a Jedi's life. The tokens are of all the really unappealing Jedi, except Obi-Wan. That is Obi-Wan, right? I'm only marginally up to date on the latest "movies".

You parade around a board by rolling a d10 and moving that many spaces. Technically, you're supposed to spin the spinner, but it's so badly designed that (A) it doesn't feel good to spin and (B) since it is arranged 1-10 in order, it's easy to land in the 8-10 range every time you spin it.

There are more choices than in the standard game of life, which is good, because the standard game of life is really, painfully low on choices. A lot like Chutes and Ladders, really. But not SWL!

First, there are four skills. A lot of tiles and challenges let you pick up more of a skill of your choice. Challenges are fairly common, ranging from lessons to missions to directly challenging another player. You roll a d10, add the relevant skill, and hope for a number higher than the difficulty level. If you win, you gain more skills. If you lose, you frequently lose skills.

That's the first problem. Do you see it?

Yeah, a big-ass positive feedback loop. The more skills you have, the more skills you can get. The less skills you have, the more unlikely you are to get more skills. This leads to an absurd stretching, and if you're one of those in last place, it's not even worth playing to the end, because you can't possibly accomplish anything worthwhile.

Another problem is that the skill distribution is poor, but that's minor and forgivable. The evil feedback loop is not.

Continuing on, there's a lot of cool stuff. You get a mentor (wow! Look at that list of third-rate mentors!) and a light saber as the game progresses. This gives the game a delightful "chunkyness". There are some minor issues with balance - not all light sabers and mentors are equal, but they appear to be at first. These issues are minor. The chunkyness is great.

The big "draw" is that the board is criss-crossed with "dark side" paths, which are shorter than their parallel "light side" paths - sometimes much shorter. Usually, they are also cooler - many dark side tiles give you three skills or let you steal two. Every tile you stop on gives you a dark side point, and most of the paths have a mandatory stop, so you're guaranteed to gain skills and a dark side point.

The problem is that they aren't more powerful. In fact, they're less powerful, because at the end you lose your mentor. While you blaze through, the rest of the characters are sauntering along collecting slightly more skill points.

This wouldn't be bad if the reward for being the first Sith was big enough to make up for it. But, no - the reward for being the first Sith is about as much as the reward for being the second Jedi. I guess the dark side paths are intended to be shortcuts for Jedi who are racing to the Jedi end gate and are willing to lose a few skills due to dark side contamination. Which is, you know, precisely the wrong lesson.

At the end of the game, the best Sith fights the best Jedi. But get this: the Sith has to win all three contests, or he loses the game.

The Jedi has more skill points. As far as I can tell, the odds are something around 100:1 in the Jedi's favor. That's not exaggeration. That's about right.

Now, there are all kinds of things you can say to try to redeem the game. "It's teaching that the dark side is bad!" "It's just a fun half hour!"

The game is badly designed. A badly designed multi-million dollar board game.

It does not include any team work. It does not include any drama. It is a race, even though Star Wars is not. It is fluff, and badly designed fluff.

So, I'm gonna redesign it.

A parody, of course. That's still legal, over here.

I have some ideas. :D

Have any of you played it? Any of you have ideas?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Just Say "No!" to Thinking

There's a fad this month of mocking game theorists, or at least calling them useless. "They talk in incomprehensible jargon!" "They don't contribute anything!" "Name one time theory has been key to a good game!"

Piss off. A lot of academics and theorists are idiots who can't tie their shoes without explaining it in terms of orthogonal interleaving. There are a lot of game developers who have the same problem. It's not exactly unique.

Certainly, theorists have never been useful in game design. It's not like the theory of "game balance" ever added anything to games. Certainly, the ideas of "character advancement" and "branching plots/dialogue" never appear in games. Don't forget that utterly non-existant "reward cycle" never perfected by nonexistant games like WoW and Disgaea.

Oh, right, one or two games might have used the idea of "feedback loops", and maybe a couple might be distantly related to the idea of "agency". Certainly nobody ever makes a game which includes "minigames" or "difficulty levels".

These are all things which were invented by intellectuals. People who thought to themselves, "how can I make this game better?" Then they look back and think, "hey, that bit looks cool. I bet if I tweak it and incorporate it more profoundly, it'll be great!" Or they look forward and think, "I bet if I put in a thingie that does this, people will enjoy the game more!"

Sure, a lot of the talk is in incomprehensible "geekspeak". A lot of it is flat-out worthless. But that stuff isn't intended for you. It's for us. It's us "showing our work". It'll never be used, because it's transition stuff. When you want to determine where a projectile will land, you use a formula provided by a geek. You don't derive that formula from the laws of gravity and motion. But someone had to.

When you read someone talking about "rhizomatic bliggety bloogs", you're seeing their chickenscratches. It's roughly like if you were making your game, and someone came in and saw your 10% engine, with it's colored block characters, lack of FX, and screwed-up gameplay. It's easy to think that the end game will be stupid when you see that.

What would you say to an ass who came in and flatly insulted your primitive prototype?

Oooh. I know this one!

"Fuck you!"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Open Games

A fond dream of many gamers is the crossover game. That's one of the reasons SNK lasted as long as it did. Its one of the reasons Kingdom Hearts sold gangbusters. Its one of the reasons people write bad fanfiction (and good fanfiction, too).

A fond dream of some of the slightly more inspired gamers is a massive "cross pollination" of games, where you can link games (or game data) to other games regardless of the original source.

For example, you could have two people with two DS. One is playing Metroid, the other is playing Ouendan. Samus' actions reflect in the play of Ouendan, and the performance of the cheerleaders affect Samus' gameplay. It could be supportive - Samus gains bonuses if cheered on well - or antagonistic - the enemies become faster and more numerous if cheered on.

The basic idea being that, in an insane and perfect world, any number of games could be combined into a bizarre meta-verse. Save your character from Final Fantasy Online, port him over to a table tennis game. Or Phoenix Wright. Or whatever.

Of course, the idea is silly. The overhead would be enormous, if it were even possible at all.

XML was based on the same idea, except without any of the awesomeness. "Format-free content": interpret it in whatever way makes you happy.

This is the same idea, except that every game would need an interpreter, and that would be a rather complex piece of machinery. Add on balancing systems and content restrictions, you end up with something as complex as, say, every piece of software on your computer combined.

But... if there was a baseline...

Something which manages content. And by "content" I include gameplay and levels and scripts and so on. A piece of brilliant middleware which helps you build a game - you supply the engine, you connect it to the middleware. Then you build the content, and the middleware plugs it into the engine.

Or, you know, you just plug in random crap from existing games.

No, of course it wouldn't work. Our data processing capabilities simply aren't that good.

But wuddinitbecool?


I learned a checkers variant from the Mexican family across the street today. I don't remember what the name of the game was, though, because I couldn't remember a Spanish word if it bit me on the punta. If that meant something, it was an accident.

Anyhow, the two rules changes are quite simple. 1) The king moves like a bishop. He can capture again after making a capture, just like in normal checkers, but he can move (and capture) across great distance.

2) Forced captures. If you do not capture a piece when you have the opportunity, you lose the piece.

Rule two solves all the issues with checkers. The bishop rule keeps the game from getting slow in the endgame, but also simplifies it. I don't think it adds a whole lot, but I could be wrong.

The forced capture rule changes checkers from being brutally simplistic to being brutally complex. Suddenly, virtually every move forces another move, and you have to read five moves ahead instead of three.

Checkers is saved!

Okay, whatever. What you can take home from this demonstration is simple:

You don't need complex rules (or even a complex system) to make a game deep. If you make one move affect other moves intuitively, it makes the game deeper. If your game isn't deep enough, subtly change the rule set to futher entangle the moves.

For the capture, the only thing that changed was the rule for capture. It used to say:

You may capture any adjacent enemy piece with one of your pieces by "jumping" to the empty spot diagonally across it, if that is a direction you could usually move. You may string jumps together and capture multiple enemy pieces in this manner.

Now it says:

You must capture... You must string jumps... if you do not jump when you have the opportunity, that piece is removed from play.

Such small changes change the face of the game. They can change the face of your game, too.

Fun variant: Instead of kinging the piece you reach the end of the table with, you may king any of your pieces. Only non-kings can trigger a kingening.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Only a Game does a rather in-depth analysis of XP systems from one end: how much XP to a level. I don't really much care for that approach, so I'm going to give my version:

Advancement: What are my options, as a GM?

So, you've got this great idea for a game, and you're trying to figure out the best way for players to advance their characters. Do you want to use levels? Skill points? What kind of things give XP, and how much? There's more choices than you might think, and they have a dramatic effect on a game!

There are a few basic building blocks of any advancement system.

The first building block is your choice between threshold, spent, and acquired advancements.

Advancements include XP, sure, but it also includes upgrades such as new armor, an army, and a guy in congress who likes you. It's important to remember these alternative methods, to keep things fresh.

Okay, a "threshold" advancement is usually a level. It's something which is automagically gained over time. You know it's coming, you might even know exactly when, and you are not likely to be able to change the outcome.

"You get 1000 xp!" is a lead-in to gaining a level in whatever class you are. You know you're aiming to gain a level. You probably even know when you'll gain the level. You are unlikely to try to spend your XP on, say, buying a monkey.

Also, any system where you improve a skill by using it is like this, if that improvement is based on points. For example, if you shoot a gun fifty times and gain a point of gun shootery, it's a threshold advancement.

This has the advantage of being very low-focus (although the paperwork can get irritating). It also usually has the advantage of being high-anticipation, but that's not due to it's nature. I'll explain that later.

Low-focus is good: it allows players to stay in the moment, instead of being distracted by the guts of the game system. But there are other options which may suit your game better.

"Spent" advancements are points which you gain, similar to threshold advancement points, but instead of being automatically assigned to a specific upgrade, you get to choose among a bevy of upgrades.

Money is like this: with your 10,000 GP, will you buy a castle, a space ship, or a pricey hooker? Skill points are also like this: you gain 12 skill points, and you can spend them on increasing your gun shootery to 4, or your computer geekery to 5.

These systems are typically high-focus - players have to think about what they want. This gets them more involved in the guts of the game. Many players like this.

"Acquired" advancement is when the players are given things without a point value. They may have a choice, or may not.

A player finding a +3 whoopie cushion of slaughtering is an acquired advancement. They didn't purchase it, they didn't earn their way towards it knowing it was coming. It was something given to them, perhaps as a result of some work. They may have even chosen it, but the "choice" didn't involve weighing numbers, it was something like "would you like this whoopie cushion, or the left buttock of Shiva?"

It can also be "you are now more skilled at using the crossbow" or "congrats, you now have the advantage 'breathes vaccuum'."

This is zero-focus. It draws absolutely NO attention to the guts of the game, and is useful for games which are more dramatic and freeform. However, you have to be careful or it will be zero-anticipation: players have to know what to expect in order to anticipate it, and a GM who just gives them random crap at random times isn't doing it right.

All advancement systems are built on those three options. Most games have several advancement systems which use different methods of allocation.

The second half of the system is "progression".

Usually, when a skill goes from 1 to 2, that's a much more important increase than when a skill goes from 8 to 9. Yet getting from 8 to 9 often costs many times more. This can result in a diversification of skills, rather than concentration, but usually what it means is that you have to give out a whole lot more XP.

There are alternatives. One of the most popular is a "faux exponential curve". 1-2 is a big change, sure, but 8-9 is also a massive change. Because it's not just how many dice you roll: it's some kind of new ability written into the book. At level 8 you have "burn down cities" and at level 9 you have "turn planets into swiss cheese". The difference is, relatively speaking, just as big as 1-2.

The downside is that this requires you to have designed specific powers for each new level...

Another alternative is to have a linear cost - going from 1-2 costs just as much as 8-9. Then you can keep giving out dribs of XP for the whole game, and the smaller relative rewards won't get to be absurdly expensive.

Another alternative is to have "flat" skills. Instead of having a number which goes very high, the maximum is quite low. Say, five. When you max it out, you can't get any more, and have to spend elsewhere (often on a more specific sub-skill). This works but, again, requires a lot of written-up skills.

Methods which don't revolve around skills are actually easier and often more fun. You can give out items, instead. Items often have a decay rate - they run out of ammo, or they get burned away, or they are only useful on the plane of fire. This means that you can keep players from increasing their power much at all by making them spend their items to stay alive.

Many games which use money to buy items have a million variants of the same weapon. "Pistol" comes in 900 variants, all of which are minutely different. This isn't a real great idea unless you're using ammo differences to keep the players micromanaging.

Methods of advancement which don't offer a permanent advantage are, in fact, one of the best ways to go. Skills and HP aren't the only things around.

The problem with these "temporary advancements" is that they require a lot of paperwork. In a one-shot, it's not really a problem: just use chits. But in a long-lasting campaign, it puts the "pain" in "cam...g."

The longer the "lead-up" time, the more anticipation the players feel. In short, the longer it takes to get that advancement they're aiming for, the more they'll want it.

If you give out rewards too lavishly, they mean nothing. Be stingy.

Anyway, I've started to ramble. Here's the summary:

The first building block is your choice between threshold, spent, and acquired advancements.

The second building block is whether you use a system of exponential XP, faux exponential curve, linear cost, "flat" skills, or temporary advancements.

Every game should have at least two of these systems. A list of weapons is a spent, exponential XP system (a sword+1 costs, like, a zillion times more than a standard sword). Convincing the politicians in the king's court to like you is an acquired faux exponential curve system.

Don't be too lavish: be stingy. Make them have to save up and work for it.

Think hard, plan ahead. :)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Will Casual Games Dominate teh Market!!!?!?!?!!

Okay, this sort of comment produces a stabbing pain into my eyes. Even though it's usually written with correct grammar and only one character of punctuation, it feels like a fifteen year old has totally failed to understand a basic fact of how the world works.

In Ye Old Times, when video gaming was just a cute young thing that wasn't quite old enough to legally to take home, casual games dominated the market.

Yeah and verily, it was so. Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids, even Street Fighter Two Turbo Alpha Final Two Power-Up Super Universe Edition... all are casual games. Well, as casual as spades, bridge, and crosswords.

As time went on, our little gaming industry began to mature, and her tastes got more complex. RPGs and adventure games were invented, partially due to our sudden success in taking her home with us, partially because they were simply more rarified delights - fish eggs and moldy cheese that only a gourmet would like.

Even "casual" games became less casual. Hell, a first person shooter takes twenty or thirty hours to complete these days.


Now she has a daughter.

There is a new girl on the block, introducing herself to people the old girl never even met! She's just a kid - still speaks in a squeeky voice about unicorns - but someday, she'll grow up. And her tastes will mature. And the things which are "casual" today will grow to be quite complex as the new market matures.

"Will teh casual gamez take oevr?!?!?!!?!"

Yeah. Duh. It's a new market: there's no experience there to build complexity off of.

But in ten years...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Time Passing...

So, not much happening since my huge posts earlier this week.

That's because it's hot.

When it's hot, I can't think. But I can learn new programming languages, program, and draw sprites.

Over the past two weeks or so, I've created several never-to-be-completed text games, the beginnings of a bizarre rhythm game, and am marching steadily forward on my Ogre-Battle-Inspired game.

You know you've always wanted to play a sunburned witch named "Aardvark"...

Or a zombie... in a top hat! He kinda looks like Abe Lincoln...


Here's a battle screen. Sort of. With no special effects, and a cribbed background.

The names are all untweaked and unchosen: I picked the first ten characters. There sure are a lot of Aardvarks. And a ghost named "Fudge Eater".

Something about the screen capture makes it look a little more... pixelly than it looks live. Well, it hardly matters.

I've got the framework for just about everything in place. It's not a small project, but it's got a lot of momentum. It's closer to done than it looks, which is not saying a whole lot. :)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Long posts

Okay, okay, so I made too many long posts. Here's a reprieve:

It's too hot.