Friday, November 30, 2007

Social MMO

I'm on a number of little mailing lists, and today I got an interesting email about a not-so-closed beta: this MMO, Domo.

I haven't downloaded it, I haven't played it, I haven't done anything with it. Nor will I. Not because it's bad - I have no way of knowing. I just don't have time.

But it makes an extremely interesting case study.

Innovation in the MMO industry tends to be by baby steps, because anything that innovates more heavily is by some tiny little company that folds before reaching first prototype. However, the innovation is there. I've already lauded Granado Espada for its three-character system, and I think everyone can learn from these types of things.

Domo is trying to put in a social game. You can pledge a relationship to someone - master/student, friends, lovers. And you have some kind of destined relationship, too, although the description is pretty fuzzy. The game lets you build up special techniques (only combat examples are given) that you can use with your social partners.

It's certainly a fun little step, and I'm looking forward to talking to some of the players in a few months once everything is a bit more settled. But...

I'm worried it's too shallow.

Relationships are like any other gameplay element. In order to be interesting, they have to have an interesting feedback loop. That means difficult choices that lead to interesting consequences.

Once you've declared you're AngerPump's best buddy, what's your next step?

Presumably, the game uses one of two ways to "develop" your relationship: either time spent grouped or some kind of social resources expended (friendship gems or some such). Both of these are good, choice-wise. Figuring out who to spend time with or who to spend your limited resources on are both interesting challenges. Obviously, they both have the potential to be hugely unbalanced.

For the sake of argument, let's assume a game (not Domo, since I've never played it) uses time spent grouped. Now, the kind of relationship can offer a multiplier. Friends get a flat rate for time spent. Lovers get a big rate for time spent as a pair, but in larger parties get only a tiny social profit. Master/student might get nothing from being grouped, but a significant boost every time the student kills something (or smiths something or whatever) while grouped with the master. You could even have a "rival" relationship, where you get lots of points whenever you kill something your rival wounded...

Obviously, this kind of complexity allows for a very complex choice as to how you spend your time and with whom. It's fun to think about, it's got me all excited.

But the other end of the deal is the consequences. Just getting more "social points" really doesn't mean anything. What matters is what those social points mean.

It looks like in the case of Domo, you get special pair moves, which is a pretty fun reward. But it's not much of a feedback loop: getting a new pair move doesn't actually change your socialization much. It does mean that you're more likely to rely on that person when doing difficult dungeons, so it does have some effect, but it's tenuous.

The consequences of an action should almost always have an effect on that action in the future. It's a feedback loop, right? But you need to be careful not to let things get too broken or flat, because then it's a really boring feedback loop.

One way to get feedback is to take the entire social network into account. You're friends with AngerPump and BladderProblem32, but they are rivals with each other. Therefore, when you improve your relationship with one, your relationship with the other suffers.

If these were NPCs, I would have them automatically talk to you about your relationship: BladderProblem32 would tell you that he's disappointed in your growing friendship with AngerPump. Creampuff_Eater will ask for help killing off a demon on level 41. DumpyLump will ask for more of your romantic time, or maybe Ergognomic will ask for a few hundred silver to get him that new pickax...

Since these are not NPCs, there's no need to do that (and no way to do that without radically changing the nature of the game).

But the point is still there: if you build a network of social relationships, you can make tugging on one of them skew the others out of joint. So it's possible to have a Knights of the Round Table situation, but as you might expect, it just takes one errant love relationship to bring it crashing down...

All of this could be ignored by simply stating that the relationship system is only there to give a framework to the natural player relationships, and that they'll contain plenty of complexity and drama on their own. It's true that I'm always thinking in terms of NPCs, so my view is tinted. But... I don't think that a good feedback loop will ever be a bad thing.

Anyway, if anyone plays Domo, please tell me how it is. And even if you haven't played it, tell me what you think.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The People vs Phoenix Wright

This post does not have any meaningful spoilers in it.

I finally played Phoenix Wright. Just the first one. I don't play many DS games.

There's a lot that can be learned from a game like this. First off, that the word "game" is a really poor one. It's really just an interactive movie. Not even. It's kind of just an interactive comic book.

But it's fun as hell.

For me, the telling bit was the last case. For the final case, they suddenly give you a wide variety of investigative tools: a spray to detect blood, a fingerprinting kit, the ability to analyze clues in 3D...

But although the case was very clever, I enjoyed it least out of all the cases. In looking carefully, the reason I enjoyed it least was because these tools took the focus off of people and put it onto stuff.

The strength of the game is the people. For the first four episodes, gameplay consisted largely of running from person to person and trying to convince them to say something useful. Even in court, it's mostly about badgering them until they tell the truth.

But the final case is mostly about stuff. In fact, even in court, it's not about getting witnesses to tell the truth. It's about simply discrediting the witnesses and presenting the truth through stuff.

This can most easily be seen in the "court record", IE the inventory. In the first four cases, you generally have about a dozen items, sixteen at most. In the fifth episode, you end up with more than thirty. It's not simply that it's a more complex case: it's a fundamental shift in the focus of the game.

I found it irritating. What I liked about the first four episodes was the people. They didn't require any high-tech silliness like blowing on your DS or solving jigsaw puzzles. It was just me, a dialog tree, and a ton of really entertaining writing.

I think there may be a lesson in this, but only if I'm not unique... did anyone else notice the same thing?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Peaceful Games

I've been thinking about peaceful games, lately. I don't mean nonviolent games... I mean peaceful games. I've been thinking about the idea because I've been playing a lot of games that make me wish there was no pressure at all. It's hard to explain what I mean by this, but I'll try.

Something like Animal Crossing seems like it might be the ultimate ideal of a peaceful game, but it's really not what I'm talking about. Animal Crossing is a grind-filled casual game. There's an implicit push to do really dumb things like make shit-tons of money and buy stuff.

It's probably impossible to make a game with no implicit goals, but the idea behind a peaceful game is to make those goals very relaxing.

There are some relaxing games out there, ranging from Jaruu Tenk to Knytt and so forth. But these games are rather more shallow than I like. Jaruu Tenk allows you to spend a huge amount of time with the inhabitants of this little house, but nothing you do has any significant effect and the harder you try to do anything meaningful, the more of an outright bastard the character in question becomes.

How about this idea: Let's take Simcity Societies and mod it. In our heads, because the game doesn't support this level of modification, and even if it did, it would crash every half hour.

You don't build your city build your city build build build. Instead of spending cash on new buildings, you have to spend public will. Which means that once you run dry, you need to go amongst the people.

The people live in the buildings and on the streets you have made. There's a few interesting stories happening at any given time, ranging from thieves to summer crushes. All of the stories are built around the buildings you have put up and their situation. That boring row of houses you put up? There's a squad of ten year olds that really hate living there, man.

You get your public will by simply touching these stories, perhaps making a few of the decisions or introducing a few new elements or building something. You don't have to solve them, or do anything specific.

This is a clumsy example, but the idea is to take the focus off the building of the city and put it onto the people living in the city you're building.

Perhaps a better example is in Civ IV. Civ IV is a great game, but I keep thinking, "I don't want to play it from this angle." I'm not interested in what tile to put a city on, or even whether we have open borders with someone. However, seeing how the people live in the nation is very interesting to me. Ideally, I would be able to play the game by simply guiding stories, and the AI would expand, negotiate, and research for me around the story resolutions.

The thing is that these "character driven games" are only possible because of the complex "reality" behind them. Joe and Sue fall in love because they spend all day at that coffee shop you built so close to the fountain. The Knights of Agrigore only formed because your bandit problem was growing too serious. The trade union is only being attacked because the black hole is passing through sector 14...

While there's theoretically a strong implicit goal to maximize your empire or whatever, the fact of the matter is that such things don't matter. No matter what you do, there will be stories. The kind of world you build using them determines what kind of stories you'll have in the future.

There are a lot of different relaxing games you could build, I imagine. Raph built one about flapping your wings. But, to me, it's got to be people and long-term state changes. I don't like "games" that don't give me any control over the world, and I don't feel interested in games which don't have people/people-like-things/stories-of-people in them.


Well, just thinking. What do you think?

Monday, November 19, 2007

SimCity Societies

Well, there's good news and there's bad news.

The bad news is that the game really sucks. It's basically Magic: the Gathering, but without an enemy. Some structures give you "mana" of a given kind - creativity, industry, research - and some structures require mana of a given kind.

Unfortunately, there's no game behind it. There's not even any implicit goals worth mentioning. While you can simply build and build and build, I don't find the algorithm to be very interesting. Basically, making "the perfect city" is too easy. There are NO tradeoffs.

In order to make an interesting city, you have to cripple yourself on purpose.

The easy example is power plants. While you can get cheap power plants that shoot smog into the air, it's only a little more expensive to get cleaner plants, to the point where there's almost no reason to ever get the nasty ones.

There's no sense of location in the city. Plunking down something that gives off creativity allows you to plunk down something that absorbs creativity anywhere else on the map. Once you start putting down subway stops (or bus stops, although they're a dominated strategy), your sims don't really care how far away anything is.

Also, as I mentioned, no trade offs. I can have a city that's got tons of all six elements. While there's not necessarily anything inherently exclusive about any of them, allowing me to have all six without struggle is just poor game design.

Look, I can understand a creative, religious, industrious community. I can understand a religious, industrious, controlled community. I can understand an industrious, controlled, scientific community. But a religious, industrious, creative, controlled, scientific community? Makes no sense.

Also, they don't let you drag a road to the edge of the map and connect to other cities. Which would have been way cooler in this game than in any of the games they actually let you.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the game is heavily modable.

The bad news is that I don't think it's modable enough. I want to change the underlying game rules, but the modable files just control content. Some of the content can be modded to affect the way the game plays out - for example, I could make subways vastly less efficient to give a sense of place. But I want to make a system for conflicting mana types. Perhaps after the first three mana types, the last three cause unhappiness...

Looking at all this modability, it just breaks my heart that the core game mechanic is so uninspiring...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Motion in Motion

Today I was busily getting lost when I stumbled across the coolest building around. I tried to find some big images I could label for you, but the biggest image on line is about two hundred pixels wide, which isn't terribly useful. However, looking at that Google map, you can see the building is unique.

When I saw it, I started picking out details I particularly liked. The stepped decks are perfect for jumping up or down, floor to floor. There's several square crevices ideally sized for chimney climbing. The staggered roof provides a variety of complex views, and there are different roofs, providing complex navigation. There are window walls you could climb a'la Crackdown, and some overhangs you might need a double jump or something for.

If the inside is anything like the outside, you could base an entire game around it pretty easily. In fact, it almost writes itself: you're an X-games star who tried a stunt that didn't work out, cracked your skull. You're spending time in the hospital when terrorists attack (although it turns out they're corporate shills after a particular patient rather than terrorists)! You start off kitten weak, but as your medication wears off, you recover your x-treme skills. You're trying to get the patients to safety by using your greater mobility to open a path for them. You can't kill the terrorists because they'll kill the hostages, but you can turn them against each other or lure them into "death by misadventure"...

Anyway, earlier this week I was watching my friends play Super Mario Galaxy which, if you've been living under a rock, is a 3D Super Mario game featuring an abundance of mind-boggling gravities and geometries. Slightly before that, I was playing Naruto, which seems to be largely about jumping around like mad until you get into a fight, at which point it's about getting your ass kicked. Slightly before that, I was playing Assassin's Creed, which is basically a slightly gimpy Prince of Persia running around a more freeform world. (It also has the WORST FIRST HOUR for a game that gets such reviews.)

Before that, I played Skate, Crackdown, and the newer, more Persian Lara Croft. In fact, almost half the games I've played recently are about leaping around. The other half are about controlling terrain.

Is it just me, or does everyone, everywhere, have motion on the brain? And not just any motion, but really deep, complex motion?

Maybe this is just a temporary glut, like that year with six "asteroid hits the planet!" movies. I hope not, though, because I think it's nifty keen. I think that once you start thinking in terms of motion, you can't ever be really satisfied by turn based combat again.

What do you think?

The Steadily Growing Scandal of Jade Raymond

Because I like commenting on things I know nothing about.

Recently, I saw a comic I didn't understand about Assassin's Creed. I don't remember where I saw it, but it certainly wasn't SomethingAwful, because I don't read it. So I Googled around, didn't see anything particularly worthy of notice, and dropped the matter.

Game Girl Advance apparently found the same comic deeply disturbing. She's just a liiiiiittle bit closer to the concept, so that makes sense.

Now, let's lay out the field: there are, in fact, attractive women in the games industry, especially on the art side of things. They seem to make up somewhere around 1/20-1/30 the population, at least here in Boston. It's roughly the same as the other tech industries I've worked in.

All of these women may catch local flak from the people they work with. I don't have a clue. But they don't catch flak from the game industry or players at large. They are completely unknown, no more or less popular than anyone else doing their job.

The only one catching anyone's attention is Jade.

I have to put the responsibility squarely on Ubisoft. I think that if any of the companies I've seen out here tried the same tactic, their front-woman would also catch flak.

This kind of backlash happens whenever anyone is made a front-person to the geek crowd, regardless of their qualities and abilities... and regardless of their gender.

Just do a search for "Jared Fogle sucks". You'll find tons of sites bashing that poor Subway Schlob, often in far more personal ways. Anyone can be drawn in a pornographic situation. It takes a real determined ass to tell everyone you were "the porn king" in college. I'd take the former over the latter any day.

Search for anyone who was made a spokesperson in something big, you'll find site after site after site lined up to knock them down. Hell, there are sites dedicated to slaughtering the Mythbuster's reputation, and they never even claimed to have one.

I'm not acting as an apologist. Or at least, I'm not trying to. I'm saying that if you toss someone to the sharks, there will be blood. It is always messy and ugly. This is not extraordinary, it's pretty run of the mill. It's a bit more graphic than usual, but a bit less personal than usual.

So, yeah, I'm sorry Jade got to meet the sharks face to... face. Being a spokesperson exposes you to the cesspool at the bottom of the barrel, and it always gets messy.

So think carefully if your company wants to make you The Face.

Friday, November 16, 2007


If you haven't seen Serenity, don't read this.

The weird thing is that, when I learned what reavers were, I felt disappointed.

I couldn't figure out why. I couldn't see anything even vaguely disappointing. Ever since the movie first came out, it's been nagging at me.

I figured it out today, just a few minutes ago.

I come at the plot from the perspective of a game designer. To me, the big reveal should tie in new elements while tying up the old, so that you always have more room to explore.

Reavers are because of a flubbed Alliance science project? Okay, that's cool... but it doesn't bring any new elements in.

What kind of new play does that introduce? You hate the Alliance... even more? People you don't have anything to do with are... vaguely more suspicious of the Alliance?

From a plot standpoint, the reavers are great. But if you're going to use it as a springboard to new and more interesting play, it needs to introduce new and more interesting possibilities. We already know the Alliance is evil, and knowing more about the Alliance being evil doesn't give us any new ability to do anything.

It can be argued that publicly shaming the Alliance opens up new alliances and so forth. But new alliances aren't new play, not compared to something dramatically new. It doesn't open up a world of new possibilities (although, I guess it does open up a world...)

Anyway, to my mind, this shows a fundamental difference between Hollywood and games. A concrete example that doesn't relate to writing dialog trees.

What do you think?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Realism Shmealism

I've been thinking more about social simulation recently - that's what causes any significant stretch of silence on this blog.

I have always said that you can't really do a realistic social simulation in a game world, because there's no subtleties. It's too clear and simple. Recently I realized, however, that even if you could, you wouldn't want to.

Realistic social relationships and interactions are painfully boring 99.999% of the time. Like life. You show the interesting bits - or you make the character live an extraordinarily chaotic life - but you never sit there and show the boring parts. Unless, you know, you need to set the mood. Not as entertainment.

The problem is that cheating is difficult. You can create a list of story elements or an algorithm for interesting behavior, but in the end you're looking at something that is strictly limited to what you, the developer, put into it. You aren't looking at a cornucopia of content, you're looking at a tool that helps you put in a different kind of content.

The question isn't "how do we simulate social behavior". I don't think it ever really has been. The question is how we generate social content.

My favorite method is to use player-generated or player-directed content.

Let's imagine we're making a Star Trek game. Oldschool Kirk stuff. Half the actual fun stuff in those episodes were social interactions: Star Trek was typically very human-centric, which was probably one of the reasons it was so successful.

So, we want to allow the players to generate content at some level. We basically have two choices: we can let them create the plot, or we can let them guide the characters.

The first option means that a player will have some method of specifying plot elements. "Introduce a girl... Kirk's old girlfriend..." "a new spatial anomaly... that makes everyone itch..."

The second option means that a player has to make the characters act in ways which fit their social roles. "Kirk rants to central command... about imminent war..." "Spock diagnoses a counteragent... to the itching..."

Either way you do it, it's not incredibly difficult to let the other half be simulated. It reduces the problem dramatically, because now the player is the one creating the continuity, so we don't have to worry about it. It's even possible to switch back and forth, so long as we never let the computer handle both simultaneously: the player must always be around, gluing the past to the present.

But you are left with an almost insurmountable difficulty: talking.

To me, talking is the difficulty. It's almost impossible to generate dialog on the fly, even when you get a player to be incredibly specific about the context. For example, Kirk is ranting to Spock about the danger his former girlfriend is in. We know exactly what we need to convey... but what does Kirk actually say? And two episodes from now, when he has to rant about the danger that his old high school buddy is in, will he repeat himself?

There's a few solutions that I can see.

The first is to write adaptive dialog. A lot of it.

If you're willing to blunt your fingers writing thousands of lines of tab A-slot B dialog, this is a good way to go. The AI doesn't have to be very good, because it's embodied in the dialog chains. You don't need a wide variety of evocative locations, because the dialog is your primary feedback mechanism...

The second is to create a meta-language. Something that is simpler and cleaner than English, but still allows for communication.

While some players won't like this, other players will take to it like taking candy from a baby. However, you will need to give your characters fairly advanced AI, so they can talk about and understand abstract concepts like love, self-doubt, what the future may hold... even good AI won't be able to do enough thinking for all of this, so it's generally best if the player controls the characters. This lets the player come up with the complex abstract concepts, and the characters just have to nod and smile.

The third is to go mute. People talking is rendered as gibberish. Let the player try to figure out what is going on from the context.

The downside to this is that the characters will be rendered pretty generic, so you need to make the context very strong and versatile. Body language becomes important, as does the number and variety of backdrops. Basically, this is a prop-driven system. It works well when the player has control over the plot (and can therefore introduce new props).

Anyways, I'm just thinking about all this. I've come up with some game designs - I'll make something in Rails, I think - but I'm having a hard time coming up with something tenable.

I want to make my next game have a very heavy human element. I don't want to make another spreadsheet game or shooter or pointless puzzler.

What do you think?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Shadow Watch Review

So, yesterday was a big day for GameTap, with the release of Sam & Max Season 2 Episode 1, the fixed release of Pirates!, and a game called Shadow Watch.

When I first downloaded Shadow Watch, it had a 6.3 rating. It's been slowly climbing ever since, largely because it deserves an 8 or a 9 and players recognize that.

It says quite clearly in the extras that Shadow Watch is a tactical game that "is often compared to X:Com: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance". Well, shit, no wonder people were giving it low scores. That's like comparing Weird Adventures in Infinite Space to Galactic Civilizations. "This orange doesn't taste anything like a goddamn apple!"

Shadow Watch is the only truly casual tactical game I have ever played. It's the only game in that genre, but that's okay, because it is quite good. At times irritating, but infinitely replayable and very, very solid.

The plot is interesting: you're defending the international space station. Not from aliens, and not by being ON the space station. No, you're a UN task force that runs around kicking corrupt countries trying to sabotage the project. Usually by killing people.

Also, the art direction is unique for its era, although these days it looks a bit more mainstream. I guess you could say it was ahead of its time.

Go play it, see whether it deserves an 8 or a 9.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How To Do Action (AKA Starships FTW)

I love action sequences. Like some people with their obsessifications, I'm an action sequence snob. It doesn't come up very much in my day to day life, for some reason.

While I love all kinds of action sequences, the kind that consistently catches my attention best is action between starships.

I understand that there are those of you who disagree with me. You like kung-fu, or classic Western shoot-outs, or armies fighting armies, or anime characters powering up for fifteen minutes. However, I like starships. And I will explain why by explaining some components of a good action sequence. I think you'll agree with me, although perhaps not on the starship thing.

I won't cover pacing or half a million other things, because nobody's paying me to write a book. So I'm sure you can think of a lot of things I won't cover.

Who Would Win in a Fight, Elvis vs All the Beatles?

If you're familiar with action sequences, you've probably heard a thousand variations on "X vs Y". It extremely popular among nerds to try to compare "power levels". We're pattern analysts at heart.

But aside from a moment's entertainment, that's really not our goal. We're not testing who is most powerful. Because a good action sequence isn't about power.

It's about how the participants react. The pattern produced by the interaction.

For example, the ever-popular Batman vs Superman debate. Superman, being a totally retarded power level, is basically invulnerable to everything Batman could conceivably do to him. But that's the point: in trying to match Batman up, they have to twist and contort what happens in the most delightful ways. The concepts and patterns of action we associate with Batman do a wicked little dance to do what needs to be done, stretching to their limits.

And we learn a whole lot more about what it means to be Batman.

The same basic idea holds true for every kind of action sequence, from clashing armies to Wile E Coyote chasing the road runner. The point of an action sequence is not to compare power levels. It is to see how the patterns interact.

A starship (or any large installation) is best at this. It has more complicated patterns to walk: not only does the starship have a pattern, but all the major crew members have patterns and they all interact in wild and wooly ways. Because all these patterns come packaged as a single combatant, you don't have to worry overmuch about painstakingly arranging for them all to be around at the same time. In fact, most of the time you painstakingly arrange for some of them to be MISSING, because they dominate the overall flow of the situation too much.

It's Only a Flesh Wound!

Most of the time, a combatant has pretty straight forward capabilities. Their pattern in an action sequence is not particularly complex. They have a gun, or a phaser array, or whatever, and they use it.

One way to stir things up is to give one or more combatant a handicap. This alters the situation, lets you see how they act in unusually trying circumstances.

This handicap is usually an injury, but it can also be a weapon malfunction or being drunk or whatever. The problem I have with injuries is that any injury significant enough to really screw up the hero is also significant enough to END him. Humans just don't regrow that well.

Spaceships can handle it, though. Spaceships don't feel pain, and they can always go to drydock to repair even massive injury. Spaceships are great that way. Also, they have the advantage of being strictly fictional, which means they can continue to survive even hideous injuries.

So it's easier to impare a starship rather than a human, at least if you want to use them again.

Over the Planet, Off the Asteroid, Nothing but Net

A vs B really isn't very interesting - it's just two patterns interacting in a straightforward way. What gets interesting is introducing other elements. Handicaps are one such element, but I actually prefer everything else.

For example, holding hostages, fog, racing across rocky terrain, fighting on top of a train... also, fighting hordes of faceless enemies falls into this category, too.

When it comes to visceral add-ons, people and space ships have it about tied. Both can race through rocky terrain, both can protect others or worry about hostages, both can jocky for position. Space ships tend to prefer having only a few complications that are incredibly important, while humans tend to suffer flurries of related complications. IE, a space ship will slowly fall towards a black hole, but the human equivalent would be leaping from rooftop to rooftop, clinging to trellises and so forth. Which is "better" is a matter of taste and pacing, but either can be used for either kind of combatant, it's just a matter of expectation.

Spaceships do have the advantage of having a bunch of crew (or not-so-crew), and the crew can interact in unusual ways. Also, a spaceship can suffer from a wide variety of weird side effects because it is strictly fictional and considered very complicated.

Winner Take All?

The last (or first?) element of an action sequence is the emotional bond. There's a lot of techniques you can use outside of combat to build an emotional bond, but when it comes to a good action sequence, I find that forming an emotional bond due to the action sequence is much more effective.

For example, Jackie Chan is usually very endearing outside of combat, but it's his zany use of scenery and his panicky-almost-pacifistic fighting style that makes him so likable as a combatant.

There's a lot of ways of making an audience emotionally connect to a combatant, but I find that they are almost all variations of a single theme: fighting in the face of long odds. Winning is optional.

Their demeanor while they do this is somewhat important, whether they are funny, determined, horrifyingly efficient, etc, etc. But when it comes to demeanor, the important part isn't what the demeanor is so much as the fact that it's unique.

Conan and Jackie Chan are both very effective at getting the audience to invest in them, to want to see more of them. They do it by being almost the only person in their world with their demeanor, occasionally with a single similar combatant for that "clone fight" everyone likes so much.

Starships don't have an attractive face most of the time, and their combat dynamic is often a bit fuzzy unless the writer goes out of his way to be transparent. So most audiences don't really think of them, emotionally, as living beings. Which is the only reason I can think of to not be in love with starship combat. :D


This article was silly, but I hope you liked it. Feel free to comment.

PS: As usual, blogger posted this at the time I first started writing it, NOT when I posted it. What's up with that? Time travel?

Explicit! (vs Implicit, of course)

Boring coding article.

I'll skip the long backstory. Basically, I've recently started thinking about implicit vs explicit languages.

As you know, Bob, an implicit language lets you do more with less, but makes it difficult to stray from the well-worn path. An explicit language is the opposite, allowing you to do precisely what you want to do, but requiring more. More code, more skill, more mental RAM.

I've worked with the source of a lot of products in my life, and I have developed a healthy distaste for explicit coding. To me, it smacks of selfishness: a coder programming something using more because it is more comfortable for him, screw anyone who might have to use his code base later. Selfish coding.

As long as I have the source (and I always have the source), I DON'T find implicit languages to be especially confusing or surprising as to what they do. There are occasional exceptions, such as Ruby on Rails' ever-indecipherable pluralization rules. But I have a much harder time parsing and remembering the added arguments and lines of an explicit language.

Also, I find that if you build towards implicitness, you build very tightly architectured code. I don't have to wonder whether the "takedamage" function is part of the ship class, ship interface, cship class, c_ship class, c_hull class, c_base_object class, or what. I don't have to wonder why sometimes you're passing a weapon, other times a struct, sometimes a damage class, sometimes a raw number, sometimes an enum... I find that explicit coders will tend to spread this kind of function out among half a dozen more-or-less related classes, and that really pisses me off. (That's a real example, sirs and madams.)

The funny thing is that most programming paradigms (like Object Oriented Programming) are attempts to build an implicit language out of an explicit language. You build chunks of code that you call and they IMPLICITLY do stuff. You're functionally building your own dialect of whatever with every program you write. But nobody seems to think like this.

They should, because people like me have to live with your choices, and if you try to be as implicit as possible, we'll be able to understand your program in half an hour instead of half a month.

So, that's my coding article of the month.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Brathwaite is blogging, which is another blog I have to keep up with. :P

She mentions the idea that we could really use some kind of game design language. As you might suspect, I have strong opinions on the topic.

One of the things I don't like about language is that it rapidly divorces itself from the reality it is theoretically based on. Once you get a language that is self-sufficient, it can go on forever without any kind of anchoring and, in fact, become more important than the thing it is supposed to refer to.

As an extreme example, astrology. Astrology clings to popularity despite the utter and undeniable truth that it is total crap. This is because astrology has a really strong language that represents a really coherent set of ideas.

Those ideas just happen to be total crap.

You actually see this quite a lot, especially in the more woo-woo segments of America, in politics, and in law. That user agreement you agreed to on that last install? Total crap. It bears no relation to reality. It is simply The Law cycling, feeding on itself, and bloating. Yeah, a lot of big corporate stuff is like this, too. You can probably think of a dozen more examples. I certainly can.

Languages are emergent, and they tend to rapidly outgrow their original bounds.

The good science-y languages (such as the medical profession's, as Brenda mentions) are anchored, strongly anchored, in reality. I don't think a day goes by without some doctor somewhere putting the slam down on some pseudo-medical linguistics that have no reality. Not just flat-out wrong terms like made up parts of the brain, but also using generally correct-sounding language to say really dumb things.

And the medical profession is still surrounded by crap language, language that has absolutely no relation to reality. Most "alternative" medical practices, such as magnets, reflexology, and homeopathy. Millions of people believe in these things - or their cultural variants - because the language is so strong, so plausible, so self-sufficient, and the concepts it embodies are so attractive.

If you can explain why something works, then the fact that it doesn't work will be overlooked.

That's a profession where people DIE if you get your language twisted, and despite that, they get their language twisted.

There's no denying that language is critical in teaching skill. Doctors spend an awful lot of time memorizing ninety syllable words, and that's why we trust them to gut us like fish. But they're not just memorizing words: they're (theoretically) understanding the reality that drives those words. Dramapraxelbenzine interacts with orispartamenthium in a specific way not because the language says so, but because they have a chemical makeup that WILL REACT, regardless of what the language says.

Honestly, I don't think that game designers are in that kind of a situation. I think that game designers will let the language control them, and wave their hands in a black-magic voodoo dance of ivory tower linguistics. I believe that for a reason: every game designer I've seen that uses specialized language during their design lets the language control them. It's just too damn difficult to get hard data on the way things interact in a game.

For the moment.

For right now, I would prefer to focus on figuring out a good way to research games, rather than trying to develop a language. The language will arise naturally from the research. Force it, and we'll end up poking our players in the toes to give them their adrenaline fix.

We Will Throw Eggs At You

This isn't the sort of article I normally link to, because I'm not a big fan of politics. I try to avoid politics on this blog, because it would be needlessly polarizing.

But... it's Lawyers Gone Wild. I want to make this game.

"We threatened them saying: ‘You’ve taken an unconstitutional oath, if you don’t go we will throw eggs at you.’ They left,” said a lawyer from Multan, Riaz Gilani.

Micromanage your lawyer population. Protect your criminal trial lawyers until they are needed. Attack with waves of law-student shock troops!

Send torts! Import fancy foreign lawyers! Research robo-lawyer! Humiliate your oppressors! Defend civil liberties... WITH YOUR TONGUES!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Loud Ads

I thought we were past this. I thought you had realized that if you make ads that make noise, you damage both your own rep and that of the site unfortunate enough to host you.

I also thought we were past the "mouseover is consent" days. As it turns out, I have to mouseover banners over the course of ordinary navigation. When your ad pops up in page-blocking, loud assholery, you not only make me personally boycott your products, but you also usually drive me away from the site I wanted to visit. This is especially true if you're advertising smiley icons and shouting "HELLOOOO!" at me. If I ever meet anyone who says, "Yeah, I'm Bob. I market smileys on the internet," I'm going to kick him someplace where he is delicate. Like the medulla oblongata. I may have to peel away some layers to get there, but it'll be worth it.

Now here's a new kind of irritating ad: I just caught up on the last two weeks of Zero Punctuation, which I love. Except now there are banner ads IN THE MOVIE.

They're not only resurrecting the old dumbass ways of doing things, they're inventing new dumbass ways to do things.

FUCK them.