Wednesday, February 28, 2007

NPCs as a resource

"Hi! I'm the Port Tjrmuth smithy! You - and a quarter of a million other adventurers just like you - will buy most of your weapons and sell most of your cruft right here. Also, just like everyone else, I'll ask you to fetch me some meteorite iron from the Blimjaggie Jungle. Of course, even though I make it sound like like an unexplored nightmare land, when you get there you'll find it a traffic jam of avatars looking for meteorite iron. Actually, some people run up and down the line selling circus peanuts and soda. Oh, don't try to go to some other smith, I'm the only one in this entire ten-million inhabitant city."

Or... how about not?

Imagine this: we've built a MMORPG, and it's in very early beta. Our world on any given server is not a painstakingly crafted map made by us. It is a few small dots on various shorelines - new colonies, villages of a few dozen NPCs. The players in our closed beta start at one of these locations.

The map is randomly generated as necessary - mostly when explored by players. It is generated following stringent rules as to terrain and the challenges in any given region are generated to match player level and party size. It's more complex than it sounds, but definitely doable.

As players go out into the world and get loot and levels, they come back to town to sell their stuff and buy upgrades (or even sell craft goods). Here's where the game gets odd: player A and player B are probably going to find different smiths, different potioneers, etc. Why?

Well, we're generating townspeople pretty much at random. Each time a townsperson has a "full schedule" (enough people buying and selling), he stops being marked and players can't just walk up to him and buy stuff. Someone who is already a customer can introduce other players, though - just no walk-ins. If there are too few marked NPCs for a particular kind of thing, new ones are generated as new arrivals from the mainland. Of course, if a player stays away from an NPC for too long, the NPC has more free time and maybe shows up on the main map again...

These NPCs start as newbies like you. They increase their goods quality as you gain levels, and in the direction of the things you sell to them and buy from them. For example, if you sell Joe five hundred wolf pelts, he'll start selling more wolf-pelt-related items. (Due to socio-economic repercussions, his buy price for wolf pelts has to remain constant even if you're selling him a ridiculous number.)

Also, Joe has quests for you, relating to explored space. The missions are unique - if Joe wants you to buy agates from Donna or find a piece of armor in the marshes of Gorb, you can be sure you're the only character with these quests. The quests have to reflect the level and "traveled-ness" of wherever he's pointing you to, but it's actually pretty straight forward to do that... although populating a "quest pieces list" might be more difficult.

As you go on quests for Joe, he sells stuff to you cheaper and even gets access to unique items. This means you can foster a relationship with Joe that is very interesting from a play standpoint: you can buy Pelts of Wolf Form for half the price that your buddies can. You could even, say, be a middleman. Even if you introduce them to Joe, they don't get the discount, you see.

The town swells with NPCs. You want to be really cool? Maybe the NPCs that live near Joe start wearing wolf-related clothes. Anyhow, the town grows according to rules similar to those of terrain. And quests inside the town take the town terrain into account, of course. And it's a great way to meet new NPCs - maybe non-vendors, but people with quests and rewards all their own.

New cities? Of course. Certain places in the wild are suitable for cities - ancient ruins, fertile valleys, the edges of rivers. A player may try to set up a new village in these places if he discovered them (or bought rights to them), in which case any NPC who favors him enough, along with a smattering of random weak NPCs depending on his level and renown, will set up shop there. A new town is born - one with a player mayor/king.

This fragments both the economy and the resources of the game in intriguing ways. Your personal story and resources are no longer simply variations on everyone else's.

At least, that's your advertising slogan. During your beta you quickly realize that with the data explosion this level of generative content creates, it would be only moderately less effective to actually smash your servers with a hammer.

But... it won't always be that way!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


So, in the various places I read, there's been a recent font of essays on difficulty, restrictions, rails, and lack thereof. People seem to be tending primarily towards one idea: this idea. As usual, Darius can feel the pulse of the community.

Darius is wrong!

That's kind of strong, I suppose. Let me sum it up.

Darius backs the idea that the best games (and other works of art) simply give - they hold nothing back. Because they are such masterpieces, they can give and give without running out.

But that's not right! It's... tangential thinking. It's mistaking correlation for causation. Darius is saying (simplified and paraphrased): Because good games give, giving makes games good. There's a piece missing from the equation.

He gives the example of the gravity gun in Half-Life 2. It comes in early in the game. He gives this as an example of "not being afraid to give". Ngah!

The gravity gun is a tool to improve agency. What they gave was access to a new technique of play: the ability to throw things around. Following the gift of the gravity gun were a slew of directed challenges revolving around it. And I'm not talking about the tutorial section: I'm talking about every opportunity to hurl explosive canisters, or spinning saw blades, or play with boxes.

Similarly, with Braid: the designer gives and gives. Each section grants a fun new meta-ability related to time. He's not simply giving. He's giving a tool, and then forcing the player to use it in order to meet these directed challenges revolving around it.

Now, with Katamari Damacy, Darius argues that unlimited time should be an option from the beginning. I disagree strongly. Do you see the difference between the previous paragraphs and unlimited time in Katamari Damacy?

Yeah, giving the players unlimited time is doing the reverse of what we just talked about. It's about not giving the players a tool, and in fact weakening the directed challenge.

Some challenges need to be weakened - restarting at level one is, in fact, a pain in the ass. (As a side note, Bubble Bobble doesn't do this, at least not as I remember it from NES years. Not only could you continue forever, but I think you got passcodes every 10 levels or so.) But that has nothing to do with giving - it's actually taking, from a game design standpoint.

It's not that good games give. It's that good games give opportunities. The player pursues them, uses them, masters them with some level of difficulty. Then the game offers new opportunities. New challenges.

The gravity gun is only fun because of how it interacts with the game world. The game world is "bumpy" - full of interesting navigational dilemmas - and the gravity gun gives you a way to approach them. The same thing is quintuply true of Braid. The fun time mechanics are only fun because they are tools with which to approach the challenges and opportunities in the game world. (I find challenge and opportunity are, in many ways, the same concept in game design. Choppertunity!)

Moreover, all good games actually introduce new approaches to the game at a fairly slow pace. The more "choppertunities" a tool offers, the earlier in the game it should be granted, because the more play a player will get out of it. Obviously, many tools build off of other tools, and the earlier tools have to be introduced first... but however you do it, the player needs to be given a significant fraction of the challenges related to the tool before he can be considered to have "mastered" it and move on to the next tool. Before you can "give" again.

Something which just gives a statistical boost, such as a plasma cannon over a machine gun, doesn't have very many unique opportunities. It shares nearly all its "navigational capabilities" with the generic machine gun... so giving or taking it is mostly a reward situation rather than an opportunity situation. It doesn't really fall under this theory...

I feel like I'm being incoherent. But I hope I was clear enough.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Okay, I finally get to play FFXII. I like the gameplay, but I have a question:

Who can tell me why every Final Fantasy game has more boring, generic character design than the previous one? What is this trend towards being boring as hell all about? Anyone? Hmm?

The only thing I can think of is that they want to make their one interesting character design stand out more. In FFIX, it was the black mage. Everyone loves the black mage, because he's the only character that actually has an interesting design. In FFXII, Fran is the only character with an interesting design. Strangely, she's also the most popular - often even among women players.

Still, the game is actually written fairly well, and the voice acting is killer, so I suppose it's forgivable.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Storytelling and Multiplayer Social Gaming Gone Horribly Wrong

Or right, I suppose.

In a few weeks, I'll be running a LARP which takes place in its own past. It's basically an amnesia LARP where everybody gets to actually create their histories rather than simply discover them.

I'm building (partially complete) a rule set and world specifically to foster this kind of creation, and it will be extremely interesting to see if it works out. If I can get enough players.

I'll post the rules here once they're more complete.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Like a Professional...

(Boring post)

Deep in the February Freeze-Out, struggling through colds, power outages, and mild seasonal disorder, I have had a grand total of zero progress on virtually every front. But I still feel pretty good.

I've been developing algorithms for social play, as explained in earlier posts, as well as some new feedback loop minutiae. I've discovered vast quantities of stuff that won't work and problems I never knew existed. I think these are mostly my own personal limitations. For example, I can't seem to figure out how to create a "smalltalk simulator" that isn't boring (no emotional investment)... but that might just be the fact that I find smalltalk inherently boring. So, while I have a few ideas about long-term relationship and social gameplay, the moment-to-moment stuff is escaping me. Unfortunately, abstracting makes it feel very strange...

I've also discovered vast amounts of stuff that can work that I never knew existed, across the spectrum. For example, I've come up with a passable system for generating emotional scenes, characters, and plot arcs by doing some new abstractions. Of course, then displaying them with enough verve to matter becomes an issue - it would probably be possible with a few million dollars, although I'm sure new issues would pop up. They always do. :P

Anyhow, it may appear that I'm sleeping, but I have actually been chugging along. A habit I share with many other people is that I'm best at theories and ideas when I'm irritable, tired, and depressed... but, of course, implementation is basically impossible during these times.

So, I suppose I have lots of ideas backlogged for a time when I'm more energetic. Just so you know that they're there.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Multiplayer Emotion

Arrrrgh! This topic is too big!

I wrote an essay on interplayer emotion. It was extremely long. Here's the condensed, condensed, condensed version:

Interplayer emotion is based on shared resources. Depending on the nature of the resources, you get different player emotions. The survival resources most MMORPGs share lead to the more primitive emotions, whereas long-running LARPs frequently share storylines and politics between characters, producing a very different set of emotions.

More factors are how difficult resources are to obtain and keep. The more independent a character can be, the less emotion is likely to rise out of a situation, and the smaller the groups will tend to be. In SecondLife, the basic group size is two people. In Eve Online, it tends to be two digits. That's because in SecondLife, life is easy, and in Eve Online, life is hard. MMORPGs generally let you choose how difficult you want life to be, the only real reason I like treadmills.

Now, if you want to design a game - computer, tabletop, LARP, whatever - keep these things in mind. If you want to lock players together, give their characters some level of shared resources of whatever type is likely to cause the emotions you're looking for. Give players a jointly owned child (another player, ha!) and suddenly you have a remarkably powerful relationship popping into existence out of nothing - even if the players don't like RPing.

Think of it like this: by forcing players to share resources (either cooperatively or competitively) you can produce incentive to RP. You may have to "echo" the resources into other resources - produce a tangible "end result" of working together - but that's no problem.

Think about a MMORPG with this kind of shared resources: you can only have a home if you can find other player(s) to cohabitate with you. You can only have a child if you can find a player to be the other parent, or if a player agrees to play the child. Etc, etc, etc.

Of course, these resources need to be ongoing situations: resources need to be difficult to keep. If they have a "solution", they aren't going to be very interesting. Children always cause trouble. Politics always get you in hot water. Colonies grow and have issues. Romances aren't fire and forget.

How would you design a multiplayer game using these ideas?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Conventional Settings

Howdy folks, this here's Reader Mail Day. Today's message is from Patrick. It says...

Craig said:
> I know the lengths and limitations of contemporary settings, and an
> interesting first generation drama engine cannot be made well inside them.

Patrick: I'd be interested to read a post on the limitations of
contemporary settings sometime. Why wouldn't Facade classify as n
interesting 1st gen engine? Does this mean that Crawford's Balance of
Power 2k is doomed to failure? Would a magical element to the realism
enable the dynamic?

Well, interesting question(s), Patrick! Let's just tackle it bit by bit. Unlike the king of hearts, I have a tendency to start in the middle and then spread in both directions, stopping when I hit the beginning. The mad hatter would be proud.

"Does this mean that Crawford's Balance of Power 2k is doomed to failure?"

I don't know. I was under the impression the original was a political game, is the idea for the new one to do it with social dynamics? If so, then yes, it is doomified! Doooooooomed!

"Why wouldn't Facade classify as n interesting 1st gen engine?"

Facade had two claims to fame. The first was a natural language interpreter. While impressive, it has nothing to do with social gameplay and is not exactly a breakthrough. The second was a method of creating "interesting" progressions using a weighted scene-control engine. This also has nothing to do with social play, instead having a lot to do with pacing and progression.

The engine of Facade had nothing to do with social play. The game itself had social play, yes, because they spent umpteen years painstakingly programming in every possible social progression. Even though many people were impressed, Facade's engine is NOT viable for abstraction to other social games.

Its success is an amazing study in the willingness of players to ignore irritations and bugs for even the slightest hint of real-feeling characters. In that sense, it was a breakthrough. But they accomplished real-feeling characters by writing out hundreds of lines of dialog and injecting them with tangible emotion by getting voice actors. That is not viable for abstraction. It's not even an engine.


Answers 1 and 2 were pretty much "those aren't this". Answers 3 and 4 will be "this is this". I will show my amazing highwire trapeze act and answer them both... at the same time! Dun-dun-daaaa!

"Would a magical element to the realism enable the dynamic?"
"I'd be interested to read a post on the limitations of contemporary settings sometime."

All my various theories and tests on the subject have led me to believe that the problems everyone thinks we're having with social games are simply symptoms. The difficulties in simulating a character and in having meaningful emotion are two commonly cited problems, but that's like saying that people need stronger legs to fly, because they keep breaking their legs when they jump off the freakin' building. If they learn to fly, suddenly the leg-breaking problem solves itself. Wonder of wonders!

I can't say for sure I know the root problem, but my current ridiculous theory is that in order to have a socially meaningful world, the relationship system needs to support three things. I'll skip the first two, as the third is really all you need to know:

3) Continuous feedback. The relationship has to allow for complex, high-grain feedback to respond to the player's socialization and other world events.

A feedback loop is, by its nature, a growing thing. In order for feedback to be interesting, it has to continuously be shaped by and butting up against other factors. Those factors are likely to be both the player's actions and the world. The problem becomes that in order to be interesting for long enough, the feedback system needs to have a highly varied environment to be shaped by. In order to keep from running out even then, the relationship needs to be bumped and shocked into different permutations that present new issues and challenges to the jaded player. Alternately, the player can switch to new people who cycle in new ways.

Now, imagine a likely contemporary setting. An office or a school. You can socialize with the people there. What does the feedback do? You get to be friends with someone, or nab a girlfriend, and then what? That's not a complex feedback system, it's a toggle.

In order to make it last any longer, you have to add actions for the player to take. Now you can have "tiers" in a relationship - you can hold hands, but not kiss. Or kiss, but not make out. Or whatever. Still, you're just climbing a ladder, not socializing.

You have to add complexity in the form of a world to interact with. This offers both footholds to better relationships and challenges to accomplish. Today, she's sick. Will you visit her? It's Christmas, what present do you buy - a stuffed bear, a ring, red lingerie? Today, the police are investigating her in relation to a murder - is she innocent? How do you react when she says, "would you still love me if I was guilty?"

These things are what make a social game interesting, and that's the part that Facade did well with - many of the interactions revolved around some focus that "rubbed" against the relationship feedback cycles, warping them entertainingly.



A conventional (let alone contemporary) setting will not work for games in a first generation social engine of any merit. Why?

Because you need a certain level of social complexity density to keep the feedback loops feeding back. That can mean feedback loops with complex, unique patterns, or it can mean feedback loops that exist in a complex arena, or a blend of options.

Much of the complexity will come from the slight or severe rubbing together of various feedback loops. Therefore, if you reduce the number of characters, you need to radically increase the complexity of both their personal feedback loops and the world itself. That's expensive at best, impossible at worst. So in order to reach "critical complexity", you'll probably need at least eight characters.

If you have conventional characters that blend in well with their worlds - "ordinary" people with some fun quirks - then the world has to have vastly more complexity to allow them to be put in extraordinary situations.

Imagine being set in an office. The office is full of unique characters, but none of the characters are particularly over-the-top. In order to gain the level of complexity density required to make a social game fun, you'd need to have a world that subjected them to freakishly varied conditions - suddenly, your office is involved in murder cases, interstellar wars, etc. Wow, it's not a conventional setting any more, is it? It looks more and more like the X-Files on crack.

Go the other way, and make the office full of interesting, zany characters that have weird and zany gameplay. The office environment could be pretty much standard, but the characters would be doing bizarre things. A ninja is not a typical office worker. It could be made into a zany comedy, but comedy is difficult to guarantee with a semi-automated system.

The third choice is to have relatively normal characters and environment, but carefully script in all the complexity. This is how all contemporary settings do it. The problems with this are profound and, for the most part, obvious.

You could move to more "interesting" times - a fantasy setting provides you with more interesting characters and a more highly varied setting. However, I believe the increase is illusory: I don't think these settings are inherently more complex than modern settings. In fact, it's usually the opposite: the settings are actually simpler than modern settings. They just have more oomph. Oomph isn't a factor. A social game could revolve around five year olds on a playground just as easily as adventurers trying to off the wizard of Oz.

In increasing the complexity of the settings, you need to create a freakish world where the characters are insanely varied, their play is unique and distinct, and the environment has virtually unlimited complexity to rub against.

So forget conventional.

Imagine, instead, a world like Psychonauts, where each person has a whole world in their head. Or how about a space ship with only two dozen survivors, having just crashed on an ancient and forgotten world? How about a world of gods, where all the other characters have dominion over some concept in reality? A world of ancient magic, where each of the characters is some fairy-tale character given form?

And now I've reached the beginning. :)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Posit: Social Game

Using my previous post, here's an interesting potential social game. See if you can come up with a better one:

As a science-fantasy world was annihilated, the village of Arbitrary City was tossed into the infinite winds of space and time. They were joined by one person: Arbitrary Hero. Arbitrary Hero, a powerful Arbitrary Bizarre Job Name, survived because his escape pod crashed in Arbitrary City even as it was tossed into the maelstrom.

Arbitrary Bizarre Job Names are selected for their ability to bring out the hidden Arbitrary Magic Power in everyone. However, this ability has many psychological restrictions and is powered mostly by people facing their fears and/or limitations and overcoming them.

The idea of the game is that the player plays Arbitrary Hero and basically tries to keep the village safe as it kareens through all sorts of unlikely situations - such as landing on Dinosaur World and War-Torn World and Hurricane World and so on and so forth. Each time he has to do some Arbitrary Magic Widget Hunt to dislodge his adopted village from whatever horrifying place it's landed today. And each time, hoping that the next leap... will be the leap home. Or at least to some place that doesn't try to eat their face.

The way he accomplishes this is by building a party out of the villagers. Instead of gaining experience by killing monsters, any given villager will gain power by facing their fears and/or limitations and overcoming them. Of course, the first few times they defeat a monster or something, they're probably overcoming a fear, and will therefore gain power fairly rapidly at the beginning.

But! Even getting a villager who is willing to leave the village and venture into Nightmare World is rather difficult. Let alone getting them to face Generic Demon Boss 13! Yowza!

However, improving villagers, even if they never leave the village with you, is generally very useful - improving the infrastructure of Arbitrary City provides you with better equipment, more defenses, more time, and leverage on other villagers.

The way you get people to face their fears is, of course, the social game. Convincing them to work with you, or tricking them into having to face their fears, or whatever. It's not simply a flat scripted set, though: everyone has lots of fears and limits at widely varied levels, many of which are shared. For example, nearly everyone is scared of being eaten by monsters, and almost nobody can jump fifty feet between tall buildings. Your job is to use any means you can to get them to face whatever fears you can manage to convince them to face.

There is no "done" - there are always more challenges, more limits, more fears. The trick to the gameplay is that whenever you start interacting with someone, they have a "heat" - a level of social attachment they form. Heat fades with time, but if you keep the heat up, you're more effective at convincing them. Other things can cause heat, such as peer pressure and alcohol. While "hot", you get regular feedback from them which clues you in as to where your relationship stands. Commentary and gifts, mostly. Most of the important steps, when taken, result in an actual gameplay-affecting response, focusing on more global gameplay, rather than character stats (since that is rendered useless if the player has a favorite party). Character stats are upped incidentally.

The other trick to the gameplay is that there is no "empty play" - it's impossible to get into a situation with a villager where there is just nothing you can do. At the very least, you could beat the hell out of them. But more commonly, you're allowed to buy, sell, trade, and employ a wide variety of threats, suggestions, compliments, and insults. Every character has interests, wants, likes, dislikes, and so on, and you can leverage these using the social engine. But these are not "scripted events" - or, rather, a few of them are, but there's always a less efficient but still workable method for building a relationship.

Think it'd work?

Social Play Redux

This is mostly to myself, but other folks may be interested, I suppose:

Social play is, at its heart, too simplistic to support a game. Just talking to people and making them your friend or enemy is not exactly riveting. Of course, killing people is also, at its heart, too simplistic to support a game...

A social game could use the same methods to add complexity that a fighting-based game does: long-term goals, resource management, etc. However, to make that fit the "feel" of a social game, the social situation would have to be extremely bizarre, such as a time traveler trying to convince famous artists, designers, kings, and scientists to give him treasures to save the universe from a space monster that eats beautiful things... or something.

What I generally do is try to make a social game a component in a larger game. For example, in an RPG, fighting feels like the primary play type, but the core play loops are actually resource gathering and exploration. It's pretty easy to "tack on" a social game which lets you accomplish things you'd have a much harder time accomplishing by other means. This has the added advantage of making the people seem more like people, if done right.

Of course, nobody has done it right, yet. It's not a lack of ability to socialize. Even Oblivion's painfully bad socializing "game" would be sufficient, if the reward was interesting. Unfortunately, the reward never is. The social gameplay is too shallow. Yay, they like me, that's... um... 10% off my purchase? Whee? Even worse are games such as Fable, where you can actually marry people and it doesn't mean anything.

This is because the integration of the social game is extremely bad. When fighting is integrated into an exploration game, the two are linked in a spiraling feedback loop which lets the player fight things to explore new places, and explore new places to fight things. Even this basic level of interactivity has not been accomplished with social play: if you charm someone, they take a tiny action and that's it.

It's worse than it sounds. There have been attempts to mate socializing with exploration (and other play types), but as it turns out, these fail hideously. The reason is simple: socializing is not fire-and-forget, but all current games are designed around the fire-and-forget play method. If you make friends with someone, you get a bonus! And then you never have any reason to ever see them again. That's not socializing!

A few games try to add a level of social complexity. For example, Radiata Stories. (I had forgotten the name, but searching for "RPG PS2 kick" found it, for reasons which are fun to explain.)

Radiata Stories basically orbits a particular town - a fairly sizeable town with about a hundred unique characters in it. There are also unique characters in various other places you visit. Although the illusion rapidly wears thin, in the beginning the world feels extremely rich - every single person you meet is actually new, interesting, and unique. Even the random thugs are unique. And they all wander town in meaningful ways.

There are two things that really set Radiata Stories apart when it comes to socialization, though. In addition to the normal "welcome-to-Corneria"-style conversation, you can kick them. You can kick anything. Your primary action is a kick. How people react to your kick varies widely from person to person, but the important part is that it's not some boring, repetitive statement that has no impact on play - the response is tied in with various kinds of play. Usually, kicking them a few times leads to combat with them - no matter who they are. A high level wizard. An old lady. A five year old boy. The combat is silly and nobody actually dies, and it adds a huge amount of potential to the game.

The other thing Radiata Stories does is it, like Suikoden, lets you get basically everyone on your team. Unlike Suikoden, the world feels much more full of characters you can get. In Suikoden, you might get one or two people per city, and there are dozens of cities. In Radiata Stories, you can get literally everyone in the whole city. It makes the world feel deeply real, since there's no "nameless, faceless dudes" that don't do anything useful except say "welcome to Corneria".

However, Radiata Stories still doesn't have the level of social gameplay I want. It's still obviously scripted, the interactions are still very shallow, the characters are static, and so on and so forth.

There are games where you can try your hand at socially manipulating characters, and I think these are an interesting set of games to learn from. The most obvious is the Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball series. Treating your partner well (and fulfilling her volleyball expectations) not only increases her statistics on the field, but also allows you to circumvent her likes and dislikes when it comes to TACO collection. IE, you can only get the prude to wear a string bikini if you've socialized your way to the moon, and you can't get the goth to wear a Hello Kitty one-piece unless you've done just as much with her.

As silly as the actual goals are, it's important to note that there is no feeling of "upper limit" on these socializations: because you are constantly putting pressure on the relationship and getting detailed feedback in the form of gifts and commentary, you can see the relationship wobble and grow. That's important: I don't think it's possible to have a good socializing game unless every significant relationship requires continuous feedback and, furthermore, the relationship can always be pushed. Don't think of a relationship as a combat, think of it as your weapon slot: you're always looking for some fun thing to equip together. A new sword isn't a new friend: it's a slightly different phase in your old relationship.

The idea that NPCs need to be able to interact with each other, forming rudimentary plans and relationships, is a good one. But it is not what I would focus on for a first-generation social game, since it adds huge amounts of complexity. Instead, I would focus on creating detailed, continuous feedback for relationships that follow complex rules.

The most difficult part is actually the other half of the game. You have to get a set of values strong enough to (A) keep the player interested and (B) allow for unique characters that have unique interests. In order to do that, you need a lot of stuff stacked on top of the basic idea of social play - not only complex socialization rules and reactions, but also a world where interesting stuff happens.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Simulating Characters

Every time I think of how to simulate characters in a video game, I think of Oblivion. Oblivion's beautifully detailed (if slightly repetitive), personality-filled faces... and their doomed attempt to turn those models into people.

Leaving aside the extra-doomed with a side order of king-sized doom-fries "social game" they implemented, the game was no better at implementing interesting characters than, say, early text adventures. There's not exactly plentiful examples of how to do it better, either.

The alternative is something like The Sims, which simulates a character based on urges and a personality matrix. I don't think this is a bad idea at all, but I think that it's not really very interesting. Most of the interest in The Sims is due to the meta-content that the player either invents or brings into the game with her.

What would make simulating a character more interesting?

Well, that's a tough question, but something I'd like to try is to have characters try. Try what? Anything. Focus on something.

A character is more than just a set of personality sliders and an appearance. It's even more than stats and equipment. A character has focus - even characters whose shtick is being unfocused focus on something - they just perform very badly.

Virtually every character worth remembering tries. In more heroic situations, they try to win, try to defeat the bad guy, try to rescue the princess - they try to be a hero. In other situations, you have characters who try to learn how to bake a pie, or try to find the perfect love, or try to invent a cure for cancer... or anything else. But they try.

The first thing that's interesting about trying is that it gives the characters something to do when they're not "on-screen". Someone who wants to learn to bake a pie will pop in occasionally with a new pie to torture the player character with, and can be found in pie-related locations.

The second thing about trying that sets it apart from what characters currently do is that someone who is trying something will eagerly assimilate anything that might help them. For example, if someone is trying to learn to bake and you bring them a cook book, it's easy for the program to do a quick check, see that the cook book matters, and have the character get excited. Similarly, you could most likely find them hanging out in a kitchen or buying flour or so on - you can plan their whole day, on the fly, based only around the idea that they want to bake a freakin' pie.

And during times of unusual stress or situations, you could assign a new goal. Usually, she wants to bake a pie. But today she's been kidnapped by aliens. It would be very funny if she went on being concerned mostly about pies ("Ow! Watch where you stick that! Hey, do you have any high-tech pie-making devices I could have?") but it would also be quite easy to assign her escape-related goals. Similarly, you could have the player assign new goals to characters in exchange for helping them complete their old goals. ("I finally baked a pie, thanks to you! Now I'll help you kill the Evil End Dude! With my superior pies!")

This is an object-centric method of character simulation. Every object in the game - from a book on pies to a person to the sun - can be checked for applicability to whatever goals a given character might have. The character can then act on that value through some kind of personality matrix - follow around people they find valuable, steal artifacts they want, etc.

(Another way to make character simulation more interesting is backstory simulation simulation. However, that would make this entry way too long, so I'll have to cover it some other time.)

Friday, February 02, 2007

Black Holes

There's a certain level of interest that you have to maintain to keep a game running smoothly. The players need to be interested in coming back to your next session (or, if a computer game, firing up the game again).

Some games have this kind of attraction in spades, and some don't. I'm'a gonna use computer game examples, but we'll get back to tabletops.

Oblivion has a pull: even if you actively dislike the game, you'll probably feel the urge to restart it again tomorrow. On the other hand, the recent Final Fantasies don't have this kind of pull. Many people play them for a while, then turn them off and never really feel the urge to go back and play them again - or even reach the end.

This isn't to say these are bad games. In all honesty, I think Oblivion is a pretty bad game, but I still played it for dozens of hours. Bad or good, it's a very addictive game.

Why do some games have so much more "pull"?

Some games eagerly pounce on the player, begging for customization and construction. In Oblivion you can customize your race, your sex, your appearance within your race and gender, your stats, your capabilities, your equipment, your tactics, your alliances... and that's before you get to all the mods that have been produced. I restarted Oblivion so often that I did little tricks to let me skip the "introduction" that they kept forcing you to play through.

In Final Fantasy you can... customize your characters... a little...

Now the interesting part is that it's not simply a feeling of customization - it's a feeling of progress. So, for example, if your game stalls out in the tenth hour (coughOblivioncough) it doesn't really take much for a player to shrug and ditch the character they've spent so much time creating. Chronic restarting is a sign of an addictive start, but a poor follow-through.

The canonical example of perfect construction allowance is World of Warcraft, which evidently never gets old for those inclined to play it.

Let's quickly dissect some basic techniques to make your players want to play your game again. These are viable for all forms of game computer and otherwise, but only if your game actually includes the necessary facets. For example, choosing exactly what to wear doesn't much matter if nobody ever gets a picture of the character.

Startup Customization
Choosing races, classes, sexes, personalities, histories, and powers is an incredibly addictive prospect. I've actually run games which were literally nothing other than creating characters, over and over. This kind of technique is extremely popular, and weights your game heavily towards replayability.

Social Customization
Allowing players to dress characters, select options from dialog trees, build houses, get married, choose party members, and so on is extremely powerful and balances replayability and longevity. However, in order to use any of these methods you'll need to have a way to make them matter - a feedback loop is generally the best choice.

How not to do it: in KOTOR, every conversation has the same choices you can respond with, regardless as to whether you're an icon of the light or a blisteringly evil Sith. It does have minor feedback in terms of light and dark points, but that's minor. Similarly, in Morrowind you can dress your character, but all the outfits are bland and have little to no effect on the social aspects of the game.

Putting any of this in a tabletop can be shockingly effective, by the way.

Statistical Customization
Nearly every RPG allows players to change their statistics. New equipment, learning new skills, leveling up, struggling to keep their HP above zero, using up spells... both short term and long term customization play together and form a fairly strong support system. However, this has little emotional impact, and therefore will wear off rapidly if left unsupported by other methods. Also, it can heavily unbalance the game, especially in the case of multiplayer games.

Secrets of the Universe
Luring the player on with mysteries and secrets is very effective, so long as the secrets are in tune with both the character power level and the player's personal interests. For example, finding out that a particular person murdered some other particular person might not matter at all to the typical adventuring group, but might be incredibly interesting to a more film-noire detective group.

Secrets work even better if each player has a different tidbit of information. Then you get an "information cascade" at some point.

Players who interact on some level other than character-to-character typically are more interested in a game and work better together than players who only interact during game. Of course, not all players are the sorts who can be interacted with, but by and large metagaming really encourages player bonding.

Metagaming, in this case, refers to many things. It could refer to a group of players rehashing something that happened before, or a group of players talking about a particular mystery "out of character". It could be players hanging out for some non-game-related reason, although I guess metagame would probably be the wrong term for that.

The biggest problem most games have is that all these draws have a half life. If you meet with only a few players, or less than once a week, you'll run into the problem that players just aren't jazzed about the upcoming session.

Preplay is simply metagaming with the GM at the head, giving players a few reminders and dropping some hints a few days before the session. This "refreshes" the draws, and the players will be more eager to play than they would have been.

The opposite method is instead of refreshing draws, you can extend the halflife. Using metagame triggers is probably the most effective way to do this: drawings of the cool characters, or linking a song to a bad guy, or a running gag. Anything that a player will clearly remember as being part of the game... even if it wasn't.


I use all these methods. Which do you use?