Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pandora Redux

I wrote about Pandora a long time ago. Now I'm revisiting it.

In some ways, it is much improved. The ability to have multiple channels (which either didn't exist or I didn't see last time I talked about it) theoretically solves many of the problems I had.

However, I find it still feeds me a steady diet of crap. Perhaps they've focused so carefully on things like secondary harmonics and major progressions that they've forgotten that some songs are simply bad, regardless of the fact that they use my favorite melodic tricks. Perhaps their database, as large as it is, is too small... so when I say that I like or dislike something, it desperately searches for a song - any song - that fills the role.

For example, I've officially marked EVERY modern soul song with a thumbs-down, but it keeps feeding me them because I like classic jazz. And I like David Bowie, so it feeds me random, really bad crap in a desperate attempt to sound like Bowie. A database that's too small, or a total failure to mark crap as crap?

Still, it's MUCH better than it was before, and is now my favorite streaming audio "station". Having to give thumbs-down to literally every other song is still very irritating, but at least it lets me fast forward... so stations with a higher "hit rate" are still more irritating, because I have to live with songs that make my oh-so-spoiled ears bleed.

Obviously, there's still a piece missing. I really don't know whether that piece is being able tell whether a song is crap, or whether that piece is having a much larger song database. There's definitely room for improvement, but they're the best no-DJ "station" on the net, I think.

PS: It doesn't know what "humor" is. "Like Weird Al" just gives random junk.

PPS: Also, you can't listen to it for all that long, because you can't fast forward more than a certain number of times per hour. :P

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Death By Fire (Emblem)

I'm playing through Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones. As you know, Bob, it's a GBA strategy game similar to Final Fantasy Tactics.

I'm not sure exactly how I feel about the game: I love it, but it's extremely infuriating. Why?

Because when someone dies, they stay dead.

I like the theory. There's a huge amount that can be done with that. But I don't care for the execution.

From strictly a gameplay perspective, it's terrible because the only thing that really threatens you are bosses, which are only found at the end of a fight. Since you can't save partway through a fight, this means that you're basically stuck restarting from the beginning after you've finished getting all the way to the end.

Of course, it's also a positive feedback loop, which is generally a bad thing: if you start losing characters, you get weaker.

However, even if all that wasn't the case, it's still something I can't really bring myself to like. The reason is that it's treated like a standalone event. Someone dies? They spout a line of dialog and vanish from the roster. There are no other repercussions... even their loved ones seem to instantly forget about them.

The drama of death isn't in the dying, it's in the loss it causes everyone. That's why we can kill a million goblins and thousands of people named "mercenary" without a twinge of grief or guilt, but why we feel really bad for an assassin robot in Terminator 2.

They have a unique "talk" system in this game, where various people can talk to each other during battle. This is often used very well - you have to talk to specific enemies with specific people to get them to join you - but is, in general, underutilized. I had two warriors, father and son. The father is dead. The son? Doesn't care. Merely doesn't have anyone to talk to anymore.

I might have done it differently.

I think what I would have done is changed a secondary relationship.

For example, if his father dies, maybe he'll suddenly get the ability to talk to a younger boy in the party, essentially taking on a father role. If his father was alive, maybe the two of them only become friends. Maybe they have no significant relationship at all.

It could also be done via "lonely cut-scenes" where he gets all emo or whatever, but that kind of goes against the mood of the game. Instead, I would have liked to have seen more (optional?) "large" talks - five or six people all talking about things. It's possible to change what individuals would say in such a meeting without changing what others would say (keep scripting to a minimum on that front, at least).

The reason I'm so disappointed in their death mechanic is specifically because they have the loss mechanic in place already. The "talk" mechanic is perfectly suited to dramatize death. It's like someone handing you peanut butter and chocolate, but refusing to mix them. Currrrrses.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Has anyone else really noticed that almost all the secondary game mechanics in games (such as gaining levels, money, a world map) are basically montage simulations?

Can you think of any games where the secondary mechanic is not a drawn-out montage? Not something that would be shown in a movie via an eight-second clip with peppy music in the background?

"And then Alice killed lots of slimes until she could fight better." "And then Jake worked for the mafia for a while, until he proved himself."

It's just MONTAGE. Unfolded. Decompressed. And wallowed in. It's like "Games are longer than movies, so all that crap we normally take out of movies, we'll just put back in."

But what else should we do?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Simulating LARPs

LARPs - big and small, serial and one-shot - use the same two basic dynamics to drive the overall actions of the players. 1) They use simple logic progressions (I want A, B has A, B wants C for A, D has C...). 2) they use opportunism (Someone's fighting over there! Let's check it out!)

These two basic methods can be simulated fairly easily. The problem is that they exist solely to provide grist for the banter mill: a LARP is all about Role Playing, after all. Sometimes, that's person to person RP. Sometimes, that's person to environment RP. Either way, new situations allow you to have new RP, and that's what the logical progressions and opportunism fuel.

That's not something we know how to simulate. Sure, some of the RP is straight forward: "Give me the dongle or I'll keeeeeeeeeell you!" But the best is far more nuanced, funny, self-referential, and situational. RP isn't about running around mindlessly spouting catch-phrases as you pursue an agenda. RP is about exploring a character as the situation around you changes.

While the overall progression of a LARP can be simulated, it's really not a very interesting thing to do unless you're trying to balance your LARP. The good stuff is the moment-to-moment RP, which we haven't really figured out how to simulate yet.

A computer game that tries to make active NPCs is usually, essentially, trying to simulate a LARP. It's the wrong half of the equation to focus on, in my opinion.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not Good vs Evil, Please!

A lot of game designers these days use some kind of reputation/karma system based on good and evil. The idea is a simple one: easy to conceive, easy to program, and strongly rooted in the basic actions that players tend to take. Rescuing princesses and shooting civilians, the basic choices of players.

I don't really like the idea.

Some people don't like it because it is a shallow representation of something rather complex. It's hard to explore the theme of good and evil on a slider, you know?

I don't like it because it's a slider.

To me, the game dynamic is more important than the morale it represents. So, I hold all one-axis sliders in contempt. Good and evil is simply the most common. Other ones I've seen include law and chaos, emotional and reserved, even soft and hard. Sometimes, they are even combined for multiple sliders in one game, presumably to give it more "depth" - as if you won't notice the limits if there are more of them.

But a game is interesting mostly because of the way things are placed in "space". Mario is only interesting because his running and jumping navigates a carefully designed space full of fun obstacles. GTAIII is only interesting because roaming around the city in various ways lets you interact with the various things that are in the city (roads, buildings, people, power-ups) in various ways. The leveling system in an RPG is only interesting because of the "bumps" in the way it progresses - aiming for that next power-up, that new sword, whatever.

A good and evil slider (sliders of any type) don't really seem to fit the bill, not quite. They're not really a very good platform to make things bumpy. There's not really much "bumpiness" in your path to the light or dark, and even if there were, one-dimensional paths don't exactly have any easy ways to detour around bumps. Because they are not intrinsically linked to a space, sliders are kind of... background noise, like being able to choose your radio station in GTAIII. Sure, it adds spice, but it doesn't add gameplay.

Factions are the same way: factions are essentially a crap-ton of sliders, some of which always move in opposite directions. This doesn't lead to agency or choice, it just leads to being swamped with over-simplified "choices" that are never difficult to make. You know the old saying, "if you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way"... it's never a choice as to whether to help the Sharks or the Jets, although theoretically you could choose your enemies. It may add some replay value, but I don't like sacrificing play for replay, you know?

It might be possible to add bumpiness to sliders, but how about instead we talk about a different method of doing the same kind of thing?

First, let's limit the world. A lot of games these days pride themselves on huge worlds teeming with life. Of course, the difference between any given person or place is nonexistent, which is actually a very depressing thing to suggest. Instead, lets imagine a world like an old-school RPG, where the world has only maybe ten towns, and perhaps twenty people in each town. On such a scale, each person can be a specific, unique person.

I think there's a big future in these "small worlds". I think we'll see a massive increase in the number of games that pack a thousand times the experiences in one-one-thousandth the space.

One of the big things these little worlds can accomplish is a sense of community. A real sense that the individuals matter - both to you and to the world. The feeling that you know specific people and that they know you. And I think that is a much stronger place to come from if you want to explore morality and character. The whole exploration of good and evil often comes down to who you love, who you serve, and who serves you. That's not something that's easy to do when everyone and every place is identical.

The dense, interconnected web of people are the bumpy terrain for the player. Each person is an individual, and can be dealt with as such. Helping or hindering a person will obviously make them tend to like or hate you, with caveats. Also, people feel specific ways about specific other people and things, and this also guides the way they feel about you. And, of course, individuals act on their emotions differently.

To some extent, this can be thought of as a slider for each person, but the key here is that each person is interconnected... and those connections can change as the world and the player interfere. I think that's a good level of bumpiness and complexity.

Now, I'm not talking about complex AI. We are talking about a lot of dialog, at least the normal way you'd do it, but we're not talking about complex AI. Just simple affinities for given people, actions, and things.

This isn't a perfect solution, but I think it walks in the right direction.

Other ideas? Comments?

Limited Choice, but Big Choices

There's a lot to be said about the power of limiting choice. It's very popular to give the players as much choice as you can. That's good in some ways, but bad in some ways. The more choice players have, the less control over the flow of the game the developer has. Especially in persistent world games, this can lead to player malaise and a general feeling of not going anywhere.

There are two popular methods of giving better control: 1) Restricted actions, unrestricted space. This gives the illusion of unlimited choice without any of the actual ramifications. I hate this solution because it produces painfully bland play with zero agency. 2) Quests. Basically, optional direction and restriction that a player takes on to temporarily add some spice to his otherwise humdrum slaughter of vorpal bunnies and blue slimes. Quests typically have very transient results, so they're also very shallow and zero-agency.

I think that it might be more interesting to approach this problem from the other direction. Instead of giving a player more freedom and then trying to compensate by reducing their agency, how about giving a player less freedom and more agency?

For example, a player normally makes a character. Picks a race, a hair color, stats, whatever. Instead, what if we presented the player with his choice of three characters. These characters are generated mostly randomly, but are created with ties to game events (questy-type-things). For example, you might get an elven archer, but the elven archer starts off well-known as the defender of a small village somewhere, and therefore has very different opportunities and NPC reactions near that area. Maybe another choice is a cybernetic commando who is known for the fact that he survived the first encounter with the Strekhakh aliens.

While the player has limited choices, the choices are actually more meaningful - have more agency - than the standard "race, stats, class" crap that players normally go through. It ties the player to the world proper.

Similarly, revamping quests to provide agency rather than distraction might be possible. Quests would need to be generated based on an algorithm rather than painstakingly scripted in, and they would need to have a long-term result based on the performance of the player in the quest.

The player is "linked in" to the quest network by the character he's chosen. A character who lived through the Strekhakh attack will (at least initially) have quests related to that (either the aliens or his performance during the invasion). The elf defender will probably have quests related to defending and coddling the town.

This quest-based mentality allows you to control how the game progresses by simply controlling the number, type, and importance of result from any given type of quest. If you want the Strekhakhs to be dangerous, than the best result of a quest is simply to keep them at bay.

Quest results could also compile into greater outcomes as well: if fifty people defeat Strekhakhs locally and grab random alien artifacts and stuff, the game itself can say "The Strekhakhs are being pushed back!" - not as a result from an individual quest, but from the overall quests.

The same thing is true of characters. If you want the game to revolve around Strekhakhs, offer more characters whose pasts involve the Strekhakhs. You can even introduce special plots by offering characters that have extremely strange backgrounds and therefore get very unusual quests and information.

The downside is that this kind of game would require a very robust method of creating and distributing quests. NPCs are the standard, but the NPCs would have to be able to refer players to other NPCs and so forth, which could get difficult. There are other options, they all have tradeoffs.

Anyhow, I think that limiting choice is probably a better choice than unlimiting choice. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mapping Space to Other Things

I have become more and more interested in mapping space to something besides space.

As I've said before, the basic idea of space (how you perceive it and move through it) is treated too generically for my taste. In essence, every game is fundamentally about navigating space. Sometimes the space is very fine and open, like a fighting game or a first person shooter. Sometimes the space is clunky and restrictive, like skill trees and dialog. But space is always treated as "generic". The only difference between here and there is simply that here is closer to the gold that we've placed on an arbitrary point in space.

Why not make a space intrinsically linked to some part of the gameplay?

For example, imagine a game in which you can fly. As you fly higher, it gets colder and harder to breath. There is a strong relationship between space and some part of the gameplay. This is rendered meaningless if you can't fly, though: the idea is that you have to be able to change your position and, in doing so, change the game dynamics.

That's the most basic kind of linking, and many games already have a vague Z-axis play modifier: falling. But that's basically saying "The difference between being here and being there is that being there sends you here."

How about something much more complex, though? How about a game where one of the play spaces is radiation? Walk right, you can sense ultraviolet. Walk left, you can sense infrared. Keep walking, and your senses keep panning away from the human norm.

If this was the main play field in a platformer, it could reveal platforms that are only visible to certain kinds of radiation - then you might have to go jump on that platform, which is invisible to you when you reach it. Or maybe it lets you see through things which are opaque to other wavelengths! Alternately, it could be a secondary play space, like the "sphere grid" the new Final Fantasy games use.

You could link space to anything. You could link it on one, two, or even three axes. You could link it to length of weapon, age, speed of attack, time, space in another play space, the health of a follower, gravity, research speed, the height of ladders, charisma: anything.

Suddenly you've got this weird game where where you stand affects how you play. If it's the primary play space, you've suddenly got a platformer where jumping while on the right side of the level might have a very different result than jumping while on the left side. Or where you can fly, but only where the updrafts are hot enough. Or something.

If it's not the primary space but is instead something like a power-up grid, the result of marching around on it is not scripted - the painful limitations inherent in scripting no longer exist. Walk far enough to the "fire" side of the grid and you take damage if the weather is less than 90 degrees outside. But nothing is stopping you: specialize as foolishly as you want.

Of course, you don't have to map it to space. You could map it to time, but that's pretty common. You could map it to velocity: While moving left, there is no gravity. While moving right, there is a lot of gravity. You could do all three, and make the player's head explode.

I think that would be fun.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bosco's Inconvenience Store

If you haven't been playing the recent Sam & Max games, you've been missing out. They are, by and large, a lot of fun. Even if you suck at adventure games, just grab a walkthrough and walk through. It's like watching an especially well-written episode of... something...

But the reason I bring it up is because of Bosco's Inconvenience Store. We live very near an Inconvenience Store of our own. The similarities are frightening.

"Do you have any... Benedryl?"

"You might be interested in what I have behind the counter..."

"Okay, how much is it?"

"Five hundred pennies!"

"That's kind of high..."

"You want it or not?"

"Fine, fine... hey, this is children's Benedryl. Cherry-flavored chewables?!"

"But it works, trust me, trust me!"

But our place also sells beer and wine. In fact, half their store is beer and wine.

Fascinating post, this one. I feel like Neil Gaiman.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Women in Games

(This post was written on May 6th - the data may have changed by whenever you're reading this, but I bet they have the same basic results. For some reason, although published several days later, it is still post-marked to Monday.)

"How do we get women to play games?"

"Get more women to design games!" or "Get women to make games for women!"


Seen Hollywood? Notice that at least 80% of the writers and directors are white males? Even on romance movies?

Basically ALL of the IMDb's sidebar movies (top, recent, and soon-to-be released) are written by men, nearly all of which have white-sounding names. "Tracy" isn't even a girl, he's just an unfortunate man. Well, as unfortunate as a rather high-profile Hollywood writer can be considered to be...

There is ONE movie on their sidebar by a woman, written and directed by Julia Loktev... and it looks pretty damn indie, given that it's her first movie in which she does not play herself.

Ooh, look, "The Invisible" has a female co-writer.

Thats two women, out of the roughly twenty movies on the side bar - roughly forty names. Roughly thirty-eight of which are men, and probably almost entirely white.

I'm not saying we should emulate the movie business. Partly, I think we're a fundamentally different beast. Partly, I think that the movie business is nasty.

But nobody says "Hollywood needs to attract more female audiences!" I mean, sheesh, Casablanca was written and directed almost entirely by guys - one women credited for part of the play. Breakfast at Tiffany's? Entirely male. Old examples, but still highly regarded as appealing to women, right?

I'm all for more women in the games industry. (Although, honestly, I'd rather you all became rocket scientists and geneticists. They need more warm gray matter of any kind. And, of course, rocket scientists and geneticists are cuter.) But "more women" is obviously not the tried and true method of appealing to a female audience. The tried and true method is that somebody - I don't give a damn as to their sex - develops a knack for appealing to a female audience.

That could mean you.

I'm not saying we couldn't use more women. I am saying that you don't have to wait. Hollywood creates movies that appeal to women even though they lack anything resembling equality. There's no need to wait. If you think you can create something that appeals to a female audience either entirely or in part, do it. Don't cop out.

Unfortunately, I can't. I'm kind of a sci-fi testosterone junkie. The closest I'll come to creating Casablanca is seeing how many gunfights they'll let me include. :P

Crafting Constraints

Today I attended the Harvard Interactive Media Group's panel. It was excellent, and this is the first such meeting I have found better than "painful", so this is a ten from a guy who gives out a lot of ones and twos. I have a lot to think about: it was rich in ideas.

But one of the things I want to talk about that I don't have to do a lot of research on first is constraints.

This is going to be painfully ivory tower.

It's fairly well known that creativity flourishes under constraints. Tell someone they can write five pages on anything, they're likely to be stymied. Tell them to write five pages on cloning, or write five pages that use the first twenty words of the dictionary, and they have a ball. People that work well without constraints typically work well because they are very good at assigning themselves constraints. "Write five pages about anything? Well, I have strong feelings about cloning... and wouldn't it be cool to use the first twenty words of the dictionary?"

In a very real sense, expression is mostly about applying constraints. If you squint, you can see that the real purpose of a piece of art is to offer up a set of constraints to the viewer, such that they are impelled to think in a certain way - think, feel, and witness within specific constraints. Well-chosen constraints will allow the viewer to have a rich but directed experience.

This experience varies across culture because how constraints interact in our minds is guided by experience, which... um... varies across culture. So in one culture a specific set of constraints might produce a very rich experience, while in another it might not resonate at all. Even internally to a culture: romance movies don't resonate well with me because the constraints it applies do not present me with interesting challenges and opportunities to think about. "Choppertunities"... glaarrgh... I used the word...

Movies simply offer constraints that change over time. They not only offer a constraint space that makes people think in specific ways, but also change the constraints to make them think in different ways at different times. Also, the changing constraints form a constraint all their own, which might be thought of as the genre. The constraints governing the changing of constraints are, in fact, well-defined cultural structures - defined over decades of symbiosis with a given set of viewers.

Games (interactive media in general) offer constraints that not only change over time, but also interactively create new constraints. How your spaceship can move interacts with how you choose to move it, and this creates a new set of constraints on how your spaceship can move (IE, dodging into an open area gives you "looser" constraints). Similarly, in an RPG, how you advance your character determines your skill set. While the progression is constrained in specific ways, the way you move within those constraints changes the constraints of how you can interact with the game. Whether to learn a fireball or heavy armor: it literally forms the constraints of the game.

So, what do we get when we think of games as interactive constraint generators?

Moreover, what do we get when we think of how we can get more user interactivity/content by either creating constraints to cause it... or creating constraints as a result of it? Friends lists are the obvious example.

Thoughts? Lack of thoughts?


So, it appears that LOTRO is actually getting good reviews. One of the things the reviewers like is that there are tons of titles you can get for just about everything, and then you can pick a certain number out of your (presumably) hundreds to let other people see. I don't know the specifics, because I haven't played LOTRO. But it got me thinking.

While this pleases most players, what this really underlines for me is the difference between creative play and explorative play. This is simply explorative play: you get specific titles for specific acts. You can then show whichever you like.

My preference is for creative play, though, so after a moment of chatting with Darius, we came up with an interesting idea:

What if doing those things didn't give you titles, but "title components"? Then you could combine those components into titles which are generated heuristically. The more skilled you are in wordplay, the better a title sounds.

For example, you kill a bunch of chickens, so you get a "chicken-slayer (15)" title component. If you, a rank amateur, chooses to make a title out of it, you'll get "Chicken-kicker" or maybe even "Farmyard animal abuser". A person who is very skilled in wordplay can get you "Avian slayer" or something slightly less abysmal.

Or you could combine a bunch of components. Like "chicken-slayer (15)" and "roc-slayer (3)" and "giant raven slayer (12)" might combine nicely to create a "Wing Nemesis" or, if you're bad at word play, "flying hazard".

Of course, toss in an "orc-slayer (25)" and suddenly the title is worthless. It's just a generic "killing shit" title, instead of specifically applying to avians. The more generic the title has to be to cover all the components, the more watered down it will become. Unless your skill is high enough to create multi-part titles, like "Highguard's Air Defender, Goblin Slayer, and Buyer of Profane Artifacts".

Components relate to objects, locations, and actions all at once. So "chicken-slayer (15)" would be chickens (the object), actions (slaying 15 of them), and a location (not mentioned in the example, presumably Highguard).

I think this would be fun, especially since you could have other applications for wordplay. Naming, name transfers, and renaming weapons, armor, and spells could become a cool alternate/add-on to the classic "buy new shit" model. You could spread rumors and try to control the NPC population via newspaper headlines... "Hear ye, hear ye, the Buyer of Profane Artifacts is to visit us at noon tomorrow!"

The same underlying recombination system could probably be expanded to create weapons, armor, and spells from components of those types (presumably using armorer and spellcrafter skills rather than wordplay). You might even be able to mix and match components, so killing a ton of goblins gets you a component that can be used in a title... and/or in a weapon or spell, to make it better against goblins...

Just an amusing thought. I wonder if it would make the game more fun. It would for me, because I don't like explorative play unless I'm the only one doing the exploring.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Data = Process

There's a tendency today for code be a specific way. In fifty years, we'll look back upon this era of coding as sheer idiocy. We'll call it the "Enterprise Era". I can hear Kirk screaming now, so maybe I should call it the "Khaaaaaaaaaan! Era".

There's this ideal that data and code should be separate. Now, this makes good sense: you're turning your program into a tool that interprets a specific kind of data (which is, actually, just a program written in the "language" of your program). This lets you change how you handle the data, lets you add new components, and so on really cleanly.

The problem is that at some point, this became holy writ rather than clean coding.

The "holy writ" version of this is the ideal that your program has to be able to be upgraded to handle other data without breaking or modifying its architecture - "seamless integration" or "seamless expansion".

But you have to remember: a tool only "breaks even" when it saves as much time as it cost to implement. 99% of new feature requests don't upgrade politely. When you are given new requirements, usually they don't fit your architecture - even if you do have this beautiful infrastructure for adding new capabilities. So you have to go back and reprogram everything anyway. The tool saved no time. Worse, such "tools" frequently slow down normal development.

Excessive infrastructure to support these theoretical, mythical improvements results in wasted time and a dramatically bloated code base. It's an inefficient waste of project resources to create tools that will never "break even".

I'm not saying you shouldn't plan ahead. There's always a trade off: at what point is it worse to code more abstractly, and at which point is it worse to code more concretely? Obviously, sometimes you'll need something more toolish, sometimes you'll need something more applicationish.

The separation of code and process (or lack thereof) is an attempt to make programming easier... NOT a mandate from above.