Sunday, September 30, 2007

Halo & Sonata

In my copious free time, I finally beat Halo 3. Ah, the lunch break marathons.

Anyway, it didn't disappoint me. Neither did it surprise me. It was exactly what I thought it would be, including the length. It was a fun shooter, although half the time when I shot out a spider-mech core, I would instantly be flung 1400 feet sideways and into the air, then left to fall to my death outside level limits. Also irritating were the number of "oops, you're dead!" moments. I like to earn my complete failure, thank you. Arbitrarily killing me is pointless.

Overall, though, worth playing.

Unfortunately, I think Halo 3's life span is limited, because it's not top dog.

The fact that many people are disappointed with Halo 3 is not Halo 3's fault. It is a victim of its own success. The only way Bungie could have kept everyone's eyes popping is to radically change the game - we're talking change the genre - with each installation. Otherwise, "more of the same" is what an IP will bring. At least it didn't devolve, like Sly Cooper.

After Halo, I spent a little time today playing Eternal Sonata. Which is the prettiest RPG in... um... ever. It beats out Valkyrie Profile in both tone and quality, which I honesty didn't expect to happen for at least another... um... ever.

It also has a fun battle system involving light and dark areas. This is the first game I've seen since Disgaea which uses terrain in an interesting way. It's not nearly as complex as Disgaea's colored land system, but since the battles in Eternal Sonata take less than two minutes, it doesn't have to be. I think - I haven't gotten very far.

The game is largely cutscenes, which I would normally be irritated by. Except that it's so damn pretty. And the voice acting is generally excellent. Sometimes the translator decides to use a big, modern word when they shouldn't, but by and large it is quite a solid writing job, too.

I haven't finished the game yet, but on the strength of the prologue, I recommend it highly.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Adventure Game w/Fine Tuned Time Travel

While I think about the painting game described earlier, I can't help but think about a time travel game.

I've always wanted a time travel game where your control over time was far more flexible than it usually is. I don't mean the momentary time travel you find in Braid or Prince of Persia: I mean real time travel.

So here's the idea: the game is basically an adventure game. Much like any other adventure game, it features a large amount of running around getting items and solving puzzles.

UNlike any other adventure game out there, this one has a line running across the top of the screen, marked with logarithmic time (first inch is one minute, second inch is an hour, third inch is a day, etc). You are a dot in the center of the line, and the line slowly slides left past you. Actually, you're located just below the line, with a little line of your own behind you.

Here's an example of how the first scene might play out:

You arrive at the water park, but the gates are closed. The man behind the counter tells you that they open in about five minutes, if you want to wait. On the timeline, a glimmering gem is added. A helpful arrow signals that you should drag yourself to the glimmering gem. (The gem, if you mouseover it, says "water park opens".)

Dragging yourself up and over will move you to whatever time you drag to. However, this is not a "skip" - if you drag yourself five minutes forward in time, everyone else perceives you as having stood around for five minutes and you automatically fill in any events that happen locally that you could see.

So you move forward, go into the water park and, I don't know, steal a data disk. Then you decide to rewind time. Drag yourself up and to the left. Except that actually rewinds time: you're standing back outside the gate. The disk is in the water park, not your hands. You never took it. The line representing your personal timeline does not stretch forward and then back: as it always has, it starts from scene one and meets you wherever you are.

But there is an event on the timeline: "Hero steals data disk". If you were to simply drag forward, time would progress as it did before, and you would automatically steal the data disk. Because that's what you did. If you replayed the section, you would negate the event because you're doing something else.

Simple enough.

However, that's dragging UP and to the side. There's also dragging UNDERNEATH and to the side (unlocked a bit later). This is an actual time skip, where you physically vanish and travel in time. This means there can be two of you, or maybe none of you. It makes your personal timeline either go loopy or get all dashed.

Your old selves cannot see your present self or feel your work, of course: the way the timeline works prevents that. Similarly, no matter how many of you are present, NPCs will only detect one of you. Unless interrupted, they will continue to perform the events set in their timeline.

So if you dragged DOWN and left after grabbing the disk, you would rewind to before the place opened. You wouldn't be standing outside the gate: you'd be standing wherever in the park you were standing, but it would be before the park opens.

You could then walk to the entrance, let it open, and then walk out and hand yourself the disk. The system looks forward in your original timeline, sees that you are slated to steal the disk, realizes that ain't gonna happen now, and collapses the time loop. You are now standing outside the freshly opened gate with a disk in your hand, having never time traveled.

Of course, you don't have to give yourself the disk. You could simply proceed forward without any issues. So long as you don't interfere with yourself getting the disk: this causes a paradox. Paradoxes are bad, and have to be resolved either manually (un-interfering) or by collapsing the loop as described above. Collapsing a paradoxed loop is rather unhealthy, though.

Most of the puzzles probably depend on there being more than one of you. Because that's fun and not hard to program.

This system can easily get very complex. For example, you might do a lot of looping in that area, and after a few hours of real play you'll find that your timeline looks more like sheet music than a line. Every event you are "slated" to do because you already did it appears on the line that did it, but it can still get unbearably complex. Collapsing loops can become a necessity, but it can also have unintended consequences, since all events you would have done in the loop aren't slated to get done anymore. They now never will automatically have happened, if you see what I mean.

(This is particularly bad if you travel a lot in your time loops: non-local events aren't displayed, and timelines that approach those events wander off the screen... Messy!)

You aren't the only time traveler, of course. Some items are "temporal", in which case they either stick to their time line (so you can't time skip with them) or stick to your time line (so you can rewind and keep them).

Some people are temporal as well, which means that if you time skip, they remember what you already will automatically do in your "old" time line.

A few people are even time travelers, although nowhere near as sophisticated as you. There will be a particularly interesting pair - one travels normal through time, the other travels backwards through time. They frequently give each other something to give back earlier in their personal time line (later in the recipient's time line).

All of these "chronally advantaged" people will have visible timelines of their own, of course...

Obviously, this "adventure game" features a bit more open-ended scripting than most. Think of it more as Quest for Glory or late-game ChronoTrigger.

That's just the time aspect... you could also make it so that you could "rotate" the axis so that instead of being time, it's parallel dimensions! Remember, traveling to alternate dimensions means you change to your alternate-dimension self...


Alternate version: as above, but it's a tactical game a'la Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics. Time hopping (going "below") can't bring your people back to life, but time scrolling (going "above") CAN... but at times you'll be forced to fight other time travelers at points in your career of their choosing...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Context Stacking

Only makes sense if you've read this post on simplifying complex content creation. It has a flash "game" that is the topic of this post.

While it's easy enough to create fun brushes, and it wouldn't be hard to make a fun little doodling program, there's really nothing interesting in it on its own. A doodling program is just a doodling program, regardless of how fancy or friendly it is.

But the point behind creating "brushes" is that they come with context. Something like this is no fun unless you can say "this svirtziwhatzit I just drew will (captivate audiences worldwide/eat villages/let people fly to the moon)!" And then you can watch it happen. This effect will be enhanced because the NPCs in the game can interpret what something is based on the metadata of the brushes that created it.

There still has to be a something for it to interact with, of course. And the idea is that that something will ALSO be built using this kind of brush strokes.

Obviously there would need to be some kind of base "atomic" level: "this is ground." "this basic brush means 'soft and floppy'." "This is a human." Etc, etc. But the majority of the content could be built using brushes that form and affect these baselines. "A fern is something attached to the ground made out of the soft and floppy brush" or whatever.

Build ferns, the people will interact with them. Soft and floppy and not a weird color? Edible. Large and aggressive with big teeth? Run!

Simple stuff. The real strength comes from being able to create new contexts out of what used to be simply a collection of brush-strokes. Your people can become canvases, allowing you to create clothes, tattoos, hairstyles. Your monsters can become canvases as well, and you could create clothes, tattoos, and hairstyles for them. Weapons too, of course.

Or a brush might go the opposite direction. Instead of painting using an elemental brush tweaked for paths, pressure, and color, you might instead find yourself painting using a "people brush" which drops people where you drag it. Or a fern brush. So on, so forth.

Depending on how carefully the elements are chosen, you can probably paint inside people's (or monsters') minds, changing their personalities and preferences. You might be able to paint fairy-tale storylines. All of these canvases can interact in straightforward ways.

For example, you might make a house of some kind of firm physical brush, then splash it with a homeyness brush that would make people want to live there.

Exactly how these elements would intertwine I haven't figured out yet. But the basic idea is that the things you build become the context for the things you will build later.

Also, everything will to some extent be alive and reproducing, slowly mutating. If you paint a fairytale plot, it will try to have children and they will spontaneously attach themselves to various people/things. The children will be slightly mutated. Sexual vs asexual reproduction will have to be tested...

I'm also thinking that this is not only a 2D system, but an UNANIMATED 2D system, where 'walking' consists of bopping along muppet-style. I know roughly how I would animate things - it involves pseudo-3D with a mirroring algorithm, don't forget that I know the joints and so forth - but since I'm thinking Flash, I know that kind of computation would slaughter it.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

User Generated Content Malarky

(Flash "game" reward at end of essay...)

For a while now I've been trying to create a game which would allow me to generate content inside the game. Basically, I find it very hard to go and draw in program B, script out an encounter in text, create a map in program C... it's very broken, sort of like if you had to write a novel by writing one file full of the nouns, one file full of the verbs, and one file full of everything else.

If the creation system is in the game, you can create something and keep right on chugging. Sounds good, right?

Well, you don't see it much, and when you do, it's almost always painful. The reason is relatively simple: there are major programs out there dedicated to helping you build that kind of content professionally, and your dinky little in-game editor is going to suck compared to that. Compare a major paint program like Photoshop to something embedded, like a paint BBS system. Sure, you CAN produce decent content with the BBS tool, but it takes longer and is a whole lot more difficult.

And, of course, either way you slice it, it takes someone who's good at whatever it is they're doing before they can create good content. The teenager with wild dreams of creating a "1337 dUnGuN fUlL oF 7175" can't create anything worthwhile because he has to go make sprites and other crap that requires years of practice.

So, as I was furiously punching Flash in the nose, I thought to myself: hey, what if we made the characters pros and simply made the players direct them?

For example, the painting minigame is pretty simple: your character gives a few suggestions as to what they think would look cool on the canvas. You select one, then you just swoosh your mouse over the canvas. Whatever you've chosen is mapped to your swoosh.

So if he suggests a nice blue blat, and a kind of stippled red cloud, and a rose, you can choose one and then add it to the painting (add it many times, if you want). You don't have to resize the brush, or worry about how much smoothing there is. You don't even have to think about pressure sensitivity. The character has specified all that complex shit in his suggestion, under the surface.

Depending on how you build your character and what sort of things your character is exposed to over the course of the game, you'll get different suggestions. So the complexity that normally damns amateurs is taken care of, packaged into a game.

Moreover, because we're packaging these for the player, we can include metadata. If the player uses a rose in the painting, we know it's a rose instead of just being a bunch of red blotches. Therefore, NPCs who view the painting can say, "hey, a rose!"

Painting is just the tip of the iceberg. Since we're packaging complex rules away from the player, we can begin to layer absurd complexities in a fairly transparent way. For example, we can have a tailoring minigame which works just like the painting minigame. Except that as you brush the "cloth stroke" over the dummy, it not only maps to the surface of the dummy, but also takes into account what part of the body it's being "painted" on and what kinds of cloth have already been created beneath it.

You can even use the painting you already made as the cloth, and in the clothing's metadata can be commentary on what it covers and doesn't cover, what kind of cultural impression it makes... so someone doesn't say, "That's a nice floral sundress!" when they should say, "why are you walking around in only red lace underwear?"

You can continue this abstraction in theory forever. You can have a similar "suggestion" system for city building, starship construction, social interactions, a culture, a monster, even creating new minigames.

The difficulty with this kind of system is that the character has to be able to make suggestions that are (A) transparent enough for the player to understand and (B) clearly linked to the character's in-game state and history. And, of course, the suggestions have to be able to be mapped onto whatever "surface" you're "painting" on, whether it be a canvas, an obstacle course, or a planet.

("In this replacement Earth we're building they've given me Africa to do and of course I'm doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them...")

I'm going to see whether I can whip something up... but what do you think?

Edit: Here's a very simple version that you can play with for kicks. It doesn't use "real" stuff like flowers or anything, but what do you want out of an hour-long project?

Click on one of the gridded brush examples to use that brush. :)

Flash "game"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Social Minigames that Don't Suck

So, I've been playing some MySims for the DS. It hasn't gotten good reviews, but honestly, for $30 it's a fine game. I just wish they would let me do stylus-based designs (maybe they do, later, but I doubt it).

MySims has been somewhat interesting on two fronts. The one I'll talk about here is their social minigame. Sure, it's insipid... but it's better than any other social minigame I've played. Compare it to Oblivion's, which was so abysmal it was like injecting bees under your skin.

For those many of you who don't know the game, basically you get three slots that are randomly filled with a kind of social interaction: chatting, listening, comforting, yelling, etc, etc. When you use one, it is replaced by a new one. The goal is to get their mood bar to max before your time bar hits min.

The game is pretty dull, but it has the kernel of a really good mechanic.

See, as you progress through a conversation, you'll tend to avoid some options. It's pretty rare that you want to yell at someone, for example. These options take up valuable slots until you're left basically choosing whatever fate tosses your way. Basically, as the conversation advances, your freedom is restricted and the tension goes up. Obviously, in MySims this is pretty minimal, but it's certainly possible.

The steady reduction of freedom/resources is a very strong mechanic to base your game off of. Most games have it to some extent, although usually it's a soft touch.

The system could be upgraded: let you build your character's personality. If you have a grouchy character you'll get dealt more aggressive options than if you have a laid-back character. Also, your character's mood can change depending on recent accomplishments/set-backs.

At this point the system has only a minimal feedback loop, but if you make the new options you are dealt based on the response of the character you talk to, you can get your feedback. If you get angry, he'll get angry, which deals you a "get angry" card...

This is mostly likely best as a "mutation" rather than a dealt option. For example, if you get the "comfort" option, it comes in as something pretty mild at first, like "give thumbs up" or something. However, as they get more upset, when you are dealt the comfort option is becomes "hug" or "everything's all right" or whatever. The situation you build allows you to build the situation in new ways. In this way your personality would still show through, but there would be strong feedback.

The whole thing works best if you (A) have a lot of end goals and (B) talk to a lot of the same people over and over. If you're always just trying to make whoever you meet happy, it's a pretty boring situation compared to when you try to convince them to build a starship or run away with you or whatever.

MySims suffers from an excess of leisure, just like SecondLife: there is no pressure to survive/accomplish, so all of the effort of the player is directed towards leisure activities and luxuries. MySims doesn't have many leisure activities worth mentioning, though, and this is the primary thing you hear ranted about in reviews. Animal Crossing had more pressure and more leisure activities, making it an all-around better game.

The MySims kind of social game would require a game with either huge numbers of leisure activities or a fairly high pressure. That's the only way to provide enough goals to let the social interactions vary in an interesting way...

Later, I'll talk about content creation. But what do you think about this?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Targeted Ads and the Uncanny Valley

So I listen to Pandora a bit these days, mostly because I don't really feel like filling up my work computer with songs of questionable origin. Despite the flaws I like to point out in its approach, it is the best thing out there.

The best part about it is that the ads are the worst targeted ads I've seen in a long time. For example, "CLICK HERE TO ADD HEAVENLY SWORD RADIO CHANNEL!"

With "Speed rock, range indie, and power rap".

Except that I've marked every song in any of those categories "thumbs down" when it's come up. I use Pandora for my worktime music, which is mostly Spanish guitar, modern classical, and a dash of old-time blues.

Pandora has extensive information on my musical preferences (at least while at work), but I don't hold these completely off-target ads against them.

Because I hate targeted ads.

I ignore every message from Amazon that isn't telling me something shipped, because it's always suggesting some new book that is almost something vaguely related to something I might be interested in. Like the irritating freshman who desperately wants to be your friend. "Did you see Crash of the Titans? I think you'd like it! I liked it. Let's go play Crash of the Titans!" And you're sitting in your chair going, "go away, I'm eating lunch."

Does anyone else get that feeling?

Normal ads and spam I can just ignore, but targeted ads are almost intelligent. They are very, very close to something you could imagine someone who kinda-sorta knows you saying. Unfortunately, they aren't quite there, so they're mostly just disturbing.

I've always said that a game which simulates a social situation well enough will probably hit a social variant of the uncanny valley. I think that automatic targeted ads just hit that point.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Joy of UI

At work, we got Microsoft Office ULTIMATE 2007! Wow! ULTIMATE, huh?

A lot of people seem to like Office 2007's "upgrades". What I notice is their "ribbon" design that has replaced toolbars and drop-down-menus. Some people like ribbons. To me, they're a retarded bastard child with the worst features of both toolbars and drop-down menus.

See, I like customizing my workspace. I'm the kind of guy who actually changes the resolution of my monitor depending on which program I'm working in. Toolbars - lovely, customizable, dockable-undockable toolbars - were my favorite feature. Because I know how to copy and paste, I simply delete the "copy" and "paste" icons from my toolbar. I will never need them. I add obscure macros, delete "save as", etc, etc, until I am happy with my work environment.

In Office ULTIMAAAAAAAATE 2007, you have ribbons. Ribbons are drop-down menus with graphics. Presumably, the idea is to provide you with everything you need in a given "editing mode" without having to actually use a drop-down menu. Except they can't be undocked, so you can't operate in more than one mode simultaneously, and they can't be easily customized, so you're stuck with half your "ribbon" being filled with large icons for things that you'll never use and certainly don't require a hundred-pixel-wide icon for. However, if you minimize it then you can't do ANYTHING without wasting your time clicking on the menu.

The "quick access toolbar" is not a viable alternative, because it isn't dockable, partitionable, or segmented so that you can open or close subsets of it.

I'm sure someone will chime in with how wonderful ribbons are and how they solve all the problems mankind has faced in word editing. The only possible reason I can think of to like Ribbons is if you're trying to appeal to the most primitive users, and even then there's no reason to actually block customization.

It's kind of interesting. Being a gamer and a programmer, my priority is on efficient UI. Since UI makes or breaks programs of those sorts, you can see a clear evolution from decade to decade.

Doom had a giant bar across the bottom of the screen that really did nothing besides display your health. These days, HUD overlays are the way to go - tiny little displays that usually vanish when you're not actively in need of them.

Similarly, 3D design programs have added feature after feature after feature every year. Their user interfaces are cumbersome and complex, but actually get a little cleaner with every new program to emerge. Modern programs like ZBrush have a UI that isn't much more complicated than ULLLLLLLTTTIIIIIIIMMMAAAAAAAATE Office 2007, despite dealing with a data space two orders of magnitude more complex.

Presumably, the fact that Office 2007 has this nasty, useless "feature" is because a writer's real UI is the keyboard. So the toolbars and crap are really just add-ons. A car's interface is very sharp and well evolved for dealing with driving around at 80 mph - but the car radio and air conditioner generally have really shitty interfaces. Similarly, Word has a very sharp and well evolved way of letting you type onto the screen, but the toolbars or (gag) ribbons are add-ons that aren't under the same kind of pressure for efficiency.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Learning from Crackdown

I think out of all the games I've played in the past few months, the most notable is Crackdown.

That's not something you hear very often, especially since I also played Bioshock.

But Crackdown does something most other games do not do: it was fun at the very bottom. Actually pressing buttons and watching the response is a gleeful joy.

When you stop playing Crackdown and start playing another game, the first thing you notice is that the other game isn't fun. Sure, it might have great atmosphere or nifty RPG elements, but moving your character around the screen is about as much fun as eating toothpaste. I went from Crackdown to Dead Rising. While Dead Rising is a great game that I'm enjoying a lot, you move like a one-legged marmoset on tranqs. Plus, every game that's not Crackdown has a targetting system that is sheer pain.

Most games try to substitute speed for complexity. In most first person shooters, you move FAST, but your movement is not exactly deeply complex. The components never add up - you don't get the same feeling you get from simply jumping from building to building in Crackdown.

I've written on this topic before - a lot - but the fact is that most games use movement simply as a way to get from challenge A to challenge B. Even in racing games, the point of the game isn't so much racing in new and interesting ways as it is acquiring components that let you race more efficiently.

But that's giving up on the core element of the game. The very first gameplay element is how your game responds to the basic button presses. Each response should be a nice, juicy feedback loop that can be moderated into a gameplay system.

Crackdown is a really great example. Basic movement starts fluid and great, but continues to improve as you use it - and the various areas have different patterns of structures to shake things up. Aiming a gun starts easy and satisfying, but gets faster and more effective as the game progresses. Even kicking things gets more satisfying, as they fly further and further distances. I imagine that car driving gets better and better, at least with agency cars, but I didn't try, so I can't say.

Compare this to, say, Bioshock. The movement in Bioshock is pretty much limited to getting from A to B while occasionally taking cover. The gunfire in Bioshock is limited to a clumsy manual aim plus bullets flying straight forward. Every basic element of the game is flat and stale. The joy of the game comes from the parts of the game that have nothing to do with pressing buttons: graphics, story, psychic upgrades...

Comparing it to Prince of Persia is more revealing: PoP has more complex terrain, but actually has a simpler navigation: everything is "leap in the right direction, press the button when you should". It's puzzle-navigation rather than the freeform exploration of Crackdown. Which is better is a good question, but Crackdown is definitely more interactive.

If you look around, you'll see this is true in almost every game of every genre that isn't "rhythm games".

But that's just laziness. The actual pressing of buttons is the first line of game. It should have a juicy response. It is the epitome of "Simple rules, complex results."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

STEAMy Affairs

I've written angry posts about STEAM in the past. But much time has passed. So when I started to create a mod for HL2 for work, I figured, "hey, STEAM's a mature technology now, and I probably over-reacted. How bad could it be?" After all, I finally got on board the GameTap express, and it works well enough.

But STEAM still sucks. Sucks like a vacuum. Like a black hole. Like a politician.

Not only does it make it extremely difficult to debug your code, but it also happy-fun crashes at least once every two hours, requiring a reboot to get it to work again. That is, of course, not mentioning the fact that I can't compile HL2 in debug because STEAM doesn't LET you run debug, so you have to compile it in release. Oh, and any time it crashes, it SILENT crashes. No error messages.

And for this joyful experience all I have to do is sit through pop-up ads and incessant, random, pointless dialog boxes.

Thanks, STEAM! I had forgotten what true incompetence felt like.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Story of FREE Super Saver Shipping

This has been tested and shown to work.

Boring story about Amazon's slightly screwy shipping system...

So, I pre-ordered some stuff on Amazon. I ordered it with FREE Super Saver Shipping, grouped into as few packages as possible. I looked at the delivery date: next month, even though everything is published within the next week.


So I switched it over to standard shipping, and it predicted that my delivery date was a full week earlier. Which was, well, acceptable, but not great. Price: +$5.

So I switched to delivering my order in as many packages as possible, as soon as things come in. The slow one is pushed up a week, the fast one is pushed up two weeks. Yay! Price: + another $3.

But, hey, let's change it back to shipping it in as few packages as possible... wait, "minimum shipment is two packages"? That's not any fewer. Is the charge the same? No, in fact, now we're back down $3, to simple standard shipping prices (maybe plus a dollar?). No change in the shipping dates...

Well, let's just see... we'll switch it back to "FREE" and... well, it's free again, but the shipment and arrival dates are still unchanged. A final three weeks earlier on one, two weeks earlier on the other.

But... but... all I did was go in a big circle!

There's a lesson in this... somewhere...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Game Report

On Friday I ran a 17-player LARP. It was a prototype, so it had flaws, but here is a report on it.

The game was built to test the viability of putting social dynamics into rules. The way I approached this was to make it so that each character had a variety of situations - some social, some not - where they gained power. This required me to have to give each character four powers. Unfortunately, a normal LARP does not require players to have that breadth of capability (or, more accurately, use that breadth of capability frequently), so I had to think of a different way to do the LARP. Something other than the standard "run around solving things and occasionally getting in a conflict". Something which requires the players to use large numbers of powers every five minutes. Therefore, I obviously needed to up the tactical complexity without limiting the socialization.

I chose to make the LARP largely a board game (and, in this case, a large board game). It bore a strong similarity to a miniatures dungeon crawl or old time squad war game. It was STRICTLY cooperative - for the first time ever, I did not put in any conflict between players, or even any theoretical reason for them to conflict. I was hoping this would give them a feeling of camaraderie and allow them to focus on forming cooperative relationships. It seemed to work.

Like dungeon crawls and squad games, the big element here was "table talk". The magical ability to plan out your moves with a player three hundred feet away behind ten stone walls. The ability to come up with complex schemes in one five-second block of "board time" and give long speeches as bullets swarm towards you.

I made all the players psychic, and therefore they could all talk to each other regardless of distance. Also, telepathy works faster than the "real world", so they could do a lot of talking and planning even though each turn on the board was only five seconds long.

I decided to do this because I could make the table talk the method of socializing, and give the board-game avatars most of the powers which were fueled by socializing. I also let the avatar's situation provide fuel for some powers, and let some powers affect the table talk.

For example, one player charged up a teleportation power if she remained silent for five minutes. Another player charged up a useful but weak combat power by laughing. Several people charged their powers by convincing other people to do their plan, or getting thanked, etc, etc. On the other hand, some people could charge powers by being in the dark, or killing an enemy, or getting wounded.

I also added a memory element - they were all amnesiacs, and over the course of the game they recovered not only their own memories, but discovered logs of what had happened in the previous weeks and years. Obviously, the reason they were amnesiacs is because there was a telepath on board looking to grab all the scientists. Them being scientists, they gave themselves amnesia to give themselves time to escape. This meant that the more they learned, the more danger they were in. This wasn't made clear enough because we didn't have enough GM coordination to handle monster attacks. All the monster attacks were desperately half-assed, through no fault of the AGMs.

As you see, it wasn't all light and sunshine. The map was too large, 17 players was about twice too many, and I ran out of prep time so many of the planned features were scrapped. Still, it went pretty well and there is definitely a core of fun in there, and that's what a prototype is intended to discover.

At some point, I'll run a similar game, but I want to make it more social. I'm thinking about making it high fantasy, and reversing the time scales. IE, every fifteen minutes of real time would be a day or week of board time. And maybe giving players control over multiple avatars...

I love designing games. It's too bad they're such a pain to actually RUN.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


I've noticed that most of the games I've gotten recently have been INFURIATING. All in caps.

I've still been trying to play through Fire Emblem, but it's infuriating. 90% of your characters die in two or three hits. This is made worse because they almost always kill the enemy that attacks them, making a perfect opening for another enemy to slide right in and attack. Of course, once a character dies, you need to restart the entire chapter, because a dead character is dead forever. It's like fun, except you're driving needles under your fingernails.

I've been playing through Dead Rising. It's a fun game, except that the boss fights are insanely hard. I'm level... 28 now, and I'm still stuck on the first "real" boss - a psychotic clown. He took me from full health to dead in one twenty-second-long air-juggle combo. It's not unusual. I only have a row and a half of health, only enough to survive getting repeatedly run over and shot by the Dead Rising Warthog-equivalent for a minute and a half. Pshaw, chain guns are nothing compared to psychotic clowns.

I did finally beat Gears of War, but I had to play it on easy. Even then, some of the fights were "hey, you did something slightly wrong! You die." I especially like the way they start to kill you for being in the dark about five minutes before they actually tell you that the dark is what's killing you. They also had the irritating habit of restarting you BEFORE the minute-long unskippable cut scene.

Okay, this one's great. I've been playing a bit of the New Super Mario Brothers. Except that it only saves when you BEAT A CASTLE. When's the last time I wanted to play ten levels of Super Mario straight? A decade ago? I'm not going to put it in sleep mode, because I want to use my DS for other games. So I still haven't reached the second castle. ARGH.

There's a deeply flawed thinking in these kinds of situations. It's more common in Japanese games, but western games often make the same mistakes. I don't mind a game that gives me a challenge. In fact, I like a game that gives me a challenge. But I like my challenges to be less discrete. I don't like WIN/LOSE, especially in games where "lose" means having to play large chunks of the game over again.

All I can presume is that these guys decided to "up the difficulty", but didn't know how to do that without making the player have to replay the area eight times.

Know your game mechanics. Know what constitutes a challenge and what constitutes just being an asshole.

Monday, September 03, 2007

One Panel Comics?

I've been thinking a lot about context. You have to establish context before you can twist or highlight things, so every game, movie, book, speech - everything out there starts by establishing a context. Movies even have a specific term for that long, establishing shot where they show bucolic fields or Brooklyn back streets or whatever. You need to show context so you can give meaning to whatever the meat of your presentation is.

There's a bunch of ways to build context. The most common is to let the visual be dominated by the context. If you're going to do a sports-theme, it's not uncommon for the first visuals to be of a game, or a locker room, or cheerleaders, or similar. The same is true of any kind of context. Familiar contexts can be built easily using this method, but unfamiliar contexts (like an American trying to understand a Shogunate-era context) take a lot more time to explain.

But I've been thinking about how to establish a context FAST.

So I turned to one-panel comics. These comics establish a context and put a twist on it so fast it makes your head spin.

The common way to do this is to have a visual context that everyone immediately sees, then a linguistic context that they read as a twist. Unlike a normal approach, this usually works in the reverse fashion you would expect. Instead of the context being normal and the twist being interesting, the context is often bizarre and the twist explains it. Therein lies the humor, usually.

The Far Side is the obvious example, but Family Circus and every political cartoon ever are also examples.

This is really an application of a more basic idea: that the context is established by the element that the audience recognizes first, then twisted by the element(s) the audience recognizes later. People see the visual context before they read the text, so the visual context is the context and the text is the twist.

But they also see the big visual elements before the little visual elements. A picture of giraffes with chicken heads will be context: giraffes, twist: chicken heads. It'll take people a split second to see the chicken heads. Then you can twist it even further with a bit of text, which is recognized later still.

Of course, this happens most easily by simply placing contexts and twists in chronological order and revealing them - we call that a "story". But it's always best to know the basis you're working from.

It's important to remember that some images are recognized faster than others - it's not merely size. In addition to fun visual tricks, some topics are simply more instantly recognizable. Darth Vader, for example. He's recognized faster than just a generic human. Nudity is also recognized faster, as is clear violence. (I've seen some comics where the violence was so muddy I couldn't recognize it AT ALL...)

I don't know if this is useful in any way, but I thought it was interesting.