Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gameplay That's Not So Hot

I've been trying to play No More Heroes, which has very fun writing and a great sense of style. Unfortunately, I find it unplayable.

I suspected I would when I saw my friend playing it, and I definitely do.

It has the same flaws that many other modern games seem to be developing. It's that style of play that's very flat, with the only interesting bits being the writing. Occasionally the play changes, but it simply changes from one very flat style to another very flat style, often with some arbitrary and really irritating limitation.

I think this style of play became really popular with the Grand Theft Auto imitators. No More Heroes is just one example - many games have it to some level or another.

To describe it: in No More Heroes, you play a guy with a beam sword. Kind of a Tonka-toy light saber. The play consists largely of sabering people to death and an occasional throw.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of limitation. The play in Sonic games consists largely of running and jumping.

The thing about this "flat play" system is that, instead of making the system itself interesting, they try to add in a thousand side rules to make the system interesting. Because sabering is inherently pretty boring, they add in finishing strikes, throws, high vs low sabering, "killing spree" power ups, BLOOD, time limits, box-smashing, and ten-million-HP bosses.

This is still quite shallow, so they add in completely unrelated games (even more shallow) to give you breaks in which you can forget the shallowness of the basic play. Things like coconut-collecting missions, driving around, buying clothes, playing with your cat, cell-phone conversations, and the ever-popular cut-scene.

The basic approach is that you have a core gameplay mechanic and, instead of making it interesting, you simply add on more and more features until nobody can say it's boring and still feel sane. "How could something with so many different things to do be boring? My general malaise while playing this game must have some other cause..."

AKA, the "Hey look! A distraction!" method of game design.

Let's look at a sliding scale of depth.

At the zero-depth side is No More Heroes. When you cut away all the silly add-ons, the core gameplay mechanic is one of simple timing and choosing one of three buttons to press. Block is the default, stay in that state if necessary, then when you see an opening either hit A, A (vertical), or B. Hit until you need to go back to default blocking.

Your position on the level is only of the most limited interest - you simply need to be close enough to attack. Against bosses it is a tiny bit more interesting, since you usually want to dodge and that means dodging AWAY from pillars or walls.

That's not exactly deep, though.

At the mid-depth side is Dynasty Warriors (let's say, 5). Again, the basic play of the game consists mostly of stabbing things with your sword (or fans, or magic deck of cards).

At its core, Dynasty Warriors is pretty similar. There are three attack buttons, but they can be somewhat mixed up to vary the path and sweep of the attack. The special button isn't a generic kick, but a charged supermove.

In addition, there is no lock-on and no passive block, and the tide of enemies frequently makes maneuvering important. This means that there are more tradeoffs and more complex need to navigate a level. You can also jump to help navigate, which is a huge improvement over No More Heroes.

However, the play is still fairly shallow. To make up for this, Dynasty Warriors 5 allows you to alter the level, situation, weapons, and items by controlling your nation. While these are technically add-ons, their results pipe back into the main play style: killing things with swords. New clothes, playing with the cat, and driving around don't really pipe back into No More Heroes' combat system in any kind of significant way.

As a side note, Assassin's Creed has about the same level of complexity in combat, but instead of a nation mode, it has a running-around-tall-buildings mode that more closely intertwines with moment-to-moment combat but doesn't intertwine with long-term combat at all. IE, you won't get a better sword by jumping to the top of that roof there, although you may be able to avoid or engage an enemy as you choose.

I can't think of any real-time melee combat games that have a really deep play mode, because melee is inherently a crowded, messy situation without much room to maneuver. However, we can compare this to a game that uses long-ranged combat.

Now, what if we compare these games to, say, Half Life Two, Episode Two.

Episode two focuses primarily on running around and killing stuff, pretty much the same as our earlier examples. Except that it has almost no side-games or mini-games. Yet it's pretty good.

It's not simply the writing - No More Heroes has great writing, Bioshock has great writing, they still have terrible gameplay.

Although there are only two buttons and no block in episode two, shooting someone isn't simply a matter of clicking as in No More Heroes. It's more exacting than the "face the right general direction" in Dynasty Warriors and Assassin's Creed. You have to have it pretty exactly.

Similarly, movement is many times more critical. Since it's no longer simply a matter of getting close enough to kill, you find yourself maneuvering to get behind good cover, to remain unshootable while you do your shooting.

Even without the addition of many different weapons, life, and ammo, you already have deeper gameplay than the earlier examples.


Of course, you can go deeper. A lot deeper.

Portal is a first-person-shooter, except that shooting something directly alters your level navigation. How you can walk is directly tied to what you shoot. This tightens the interplay between the two halves of the main system. It also tightens the level design requirements...

The point is, playing a game doesn't have to be flat.

The most proven method of deepening play is to give the player more control over how he approaches a situation. In a shooter, make it matter how good his cover is, how good their cover is, whether he shoots the lights out... make it matter whether he comes in from the left or the right, whether he outpaces his allies or waits for them.

A melee game will have a harder time of it, because how you approach melee combat is always pretty similar: you rush at it headlong in order to get in range. Many melee games include either a stealth or strategic element specifically to allow the player some amount of control over their "approach". However, the actual melee combat is typically very simple, consisting mostly of button-mashing.

There might be some solutions. One solution is to use the "million mook" approach, like Dynasty Warriors. Instead of melee combat being against an enemy, it's against a faceless horde of enemies, and optimizing your approach consists mostly of which direction you face and the area-of-effect hit pattern you choose to use. This seems like it might "max out" pretty quickly, only improving your play a bit.

Another solution is to really, really slow the melee combat down. If you closed to melee combat and then the game slowed down, it would allow you to actually perceive the nuances of the melee attacks. This would allow you to choose a reaction - is it best to dodge to the side, or to parry? If I parry, would my sword be out of position to parry the man to my right? If I dodge, will I be too off-balance to parry?

Please note, I'm not advocating a button-matching system. I'm advocating a deeper system where the combat is a terrain - swords here and there moving like this and that, you trying to navigate them, deflect them, protect your various squishy bits. Armor could slow you down, but it could also allow you to deflect strikes that hit metal rather than flesh.

Basically, all the things we've abstracted - armor values, attack values, critical hits - can be UNabstracted if you're willing to slow things down.

Anyhow, just thinking.


"That's all well and good, but how do you know if gameplay is shallow?"

Here are some hints:

If you want to put a time limit on a mission, your gameplay is probably shallow.

If at any point you think about doubling a boss' HP, your gameplay is probably shallow.

If you think adding lives will make it better, your gameplay is probably shallow.

If you want to add random games such as driving or playing with kittens, your gameplay is probably shallow.

What about you? Any "probably shallows" you can think of? Comments on the nature of of things?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nature of Rules, Response and Stuff

Ryan wrote a good, long reply to my last post that needs commenting. This probably won't make any sense unless you read the other post first.

I think there's a difference between 'games' and 'play' and one of the main differences is that 'games' have rules... the key is that the rules provide the framework for the game.

Critters have DNA, but that doesn't mean that a critter is DNA, or even that it should be thought of in terms of its DNA. The rules are one part of the DNA of a game: what grows from them can be delightful and complex.

Freeform play is a bit like a virii: it has no particular protection, no particular ability to reproduce without killing something, but it crops up everywhere and is definitely notable.

Like I said: rules (and the rest) exist to protect the experience of the play from the vagaries of... well, life in general. They try to keep the experience similar from "generation to generation."

I hope this is clear...

generally [house rules] need to be agreed upon by all players.

Please remember that many games are played with private or obstinate goals on the part of the player. For example, whenever I play Bang! (a card game with hidden roles), I play with the assumption that a specific other player is on my side. It's certainly not something that is agreed on, but at the same time it's a potent method of shaping the game. It definitely changes the experience - mostly for me, but also for others, indirectly.

You could say that I am playing INSIDE the game rather than GAMING, if you see what I mean.

That distinction is not a terribly smart one to trivialize: you have to take it into account in the same way that you can't write off various other-sized organisms when you're performing surgery.

This comparison implies that playing inside a game (sideplay?) is bad, like an infection, but I don't think that's the case. I think it's vital to keeping a game fresh and interesting - I think many boring games are boring largely because they don't have any of this sideplay adding new elements and spice.

Some games are almost entirely sideplay, like the Sims or Secondlife.

You start needing rules, or a social contract between the players or you end up with the "Bang! Bang! Your Dead!.... No I'm not you missed!" syndrome.

Yes, rules (and content, and aesthetic, and social context, and and and) protect the experience. They protect it from new players, players with different visions of how the experience should go, from the weathering of time, and even from the effects of other rules, content, aesthetics, etc.

I find it hard sometimes to differentiate between rules and general parameters or environment.

Anyone who is being honest should! The difference is simply one of scope or scale. That's kind of what made me go this route.

I mean, "A fireball spell costs 50 gold and causes 15 damage when cast". Sounds an awful lot like a rule to me! But it's also content, and suggests strongly an aesthetic.

So... it's obvious that it's not quite as nicely divided up as MDA suggests, in the same way that a cell isn't neatly divided up into "goo" and "DNA".

I love 'sandbox' games and emergent gameplay. I love games that let me play with all the settings and do things that aren't explicitly spelled out. But in my experience this doesn't happen until the game is played for a period with 'vanilla' rules/settings. You need to understand the game to be able to effectively tweak the rules.

Yes! Right now, it's all done by trial and error. This is a lot like having a creature's DNA handed to you. "What will this creature be like?"

Well, you can try to simulate it in your head... "AGCFCF? That's... um... feathers?" More likely, you attempt to grow it and look at what it's characteristics are when it's alive. Of course, that takes time.

Once you see what the critter looks like, you can look back over the DNA and say, "OH! It meant spines!" and try to tweak it to be more to your liking. In theory, at least.

Fortunately, games are not critters. I think it might be possible to extrapolate rules (and so forth) from a dynamic. I haven't posted about it, yet, because I haven't figured it out yet. As you say:

You can never guarantee that 2 players will feel the same way about a game given taste and how they experience it. One person might find it simple and boring the next might be challenged and find it stressful... by what you describe - what do you want to experience - its sounds more emotional and based on feeling.

That's the core problem, you see. The rules and content impose themselves without much regard to the player's preferences and mindset. If we pursue a dynamic, however, then we can pursue a... by the way, it's fuzzy because I don't have it nailed down myself... we can pursue a specific superset of interactions? We can tweak the rules and content because we know the dynamics the player should be experiencing.

With Star Trek...

Yeah, me too.

Challenge still stands: tell me about your DYNAMIC-centered Star Wars game design. No, I really don't have a clear definition of what that means.


The Nature of Rules

Ivory Tower Alert!

I've been thinking about rules.

I don't think games should be made up of rules.

Think about the games you played as a kid. Most of the games didn't have mandatory rules - you played with tons of house rules, whatever made the game fun. Free Parking in Monopoly being the most common example, but it's also common to change the rules to various games to give specific inept players an advantage.

This lets the game be fun for the inept players and keeps it from being terribly boring for the ept ones.

You'll see this kind of thing even in deathmatch computer games: if your friend is pretty bad, you're likely to go easy on him, or refuse to use the rocket launcher, etc.

There's an innate compulsion among gamers to make games always somewhat challenging: to tweak the rules so that it's never boring. Frequently, this involves giving advantages to the weak players, but just as often it simply involves setting unlikely goals for yourself. How fast can you beat the level, how far can you toss his corpse...

Obviously, there's something more than simple rules to a game. The experience of a game is almost independent from the rules, in that a lot of people will change the rules to try to keep the experience intact.

Take poker. At it's heart, poker has only a few simple rules that define a game of skill, chance, and psychology. However, to preserve that game, more rules are made, usually ones of fairness. No tabletalk, no missing or marked cards, no this, no that. These rules aren't really poker rules, they're rules protecting poker.

Similarly, in a complex RPG, there are a thousand little rules and limits - how you gain gold, what you can spend it on, how powerful that spell is, what the chances of an enemy encounter are. These rules (which border on "content" in many cases) are not there to define the game. They're around to keep the experience of the game sailing true. With a broken system, the way the game is played changes, usually for the worse.

The aesthetics of a game are the same: the game's aesthetics aren't the game proper, they're a way to frame the experience and keep it in the right zone.

This can be taken to extremes. For an extreme version of this, every rule and aesthetic exist to either protect or teach the experience of the game. The actual feel of the game isn't something that is contained in the rules or in the aesthetics, although it is a result of them (along with some other things like social context).

Now, we can easily describe aesthetics. We can say "oh, steampunky" or "make sure it's rated G" or "this is a castle in the clouds, waterfalls pouring off the sides."

We can describe rules as well, less easily but more clearly. "Roll 2d6 for damage", "move 3 spaces", "start to the right of the dealer and go counterclockwise..."

But we really don't have any language for talking about the dynamics of a game, the actual play experience. Every time we want to describe it, we say things like "oh, make it like Grand Theft Auto, but a MMORPG!"

This seems a bit lopsided, since the dynamics are really the important part. I mean, we describe mechanics and aesthetics in these same ways, but only if we're giving a ridiculously wide overview. When we actually talk in more detail, we don't stick to describing them in terms of what other games they're like. We describe them using well-anchored words that other people in the industry can turn into a working product. Sometimes we're very specific, sometimes we're vague and leave the specifics up to them.

Why can't we describe dynamics in that way?

Why can't we say, "this game is ticky-wicky, with an undercurrent of pressure pelting" the same way we say "the game is turn-based, and has a lot of gore"?

No, "ticky-wicky" and "pressure pelting" don't actually mean anything. But they sound like they could, I think. They sound almost like they describe a specific kind of play experience, although what it might be is kind of vague.

"Grinding", "griefing" and a few others are sort of a beginning, but their focus is kind of off. After all, there are a lot of different kinds of grinding, and they feel very different. Not every rule set that involves repeating similar situations over and over has the same feeling.


Even now, I think in terms of the play experience rather than the rules or the aesthetic. I think this is the case for most game designers. There's sort of a feeling that the equation is a+b=c, and we can solve for whichever we really want to solve for.

Think back to Star Wars, before it died. Before the new movies, before KotOR. Back to the old movies and the fan books and when knowing what a bantha was meant you were a terrible, terrible geek.

If you were asked to make a Star Wars game, what would you make? "Can't be a space shooter" says George. "Too many of those on my conscience. Make it anything else."

What do you go with?

The aesthetics are pre-made, although you do get to choose a scale. You know Star Wars aesthetics inside and out, since you're a terrible, terrible geek.

But the actual game? You could argue it in any direction. The universe... is it ripe for an RPG? Sure! It's also a really great universe for an RTS! And an FPS sure wouldn't be out of line, would it?

Okay, forget that crap. Seriously, forget it.

Instead of thinking rules, think dynamic. Sure, genre is kind of a mixed bag of rules and dynamic, but forget about it!

What do you want to experience? What part of the Star Wars universe makes you want to play? What's the feeling you're going for?

I'm eager to hear your ideas for a game revolving around a dynamic.

As a fun contrast, think about a Star Trek game using the same methodology. Which dynamic would you pursue in the Trek universe? What kind of game would it build?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

TMNT: Shock!

In which I disagree with everyone.

I picked up a bunch of budget-priced titles for the 360 a few days back: all the games that got lackluster reviews when they came out. Among them was the TMNT game, imaginatively titled "TMNT". What a pleasant surprise!

The game is kind of short. This seems to be one of the major complaints of other reviewers, which is just one example of infuriating cluelessness. There's no such thing as a long beat-em-up, because it would be insanely irritating and boring! Beat-em-ups are short, have always been short, will always be short, and if that bothers you, don't review them!

The usual method of making a beat-em-up interesting is lots of great extras and replay value.

This game doesn't have any.

So, yes, even for a beat-em-up, I guess it's kind of short. But not in the way the reviewers talk about.

However, aside from some iffy ledge-grabbing sections, that's pretty much the game's only flaw.

The game plays a lot like a Prince of Persia game, if the Prince was replaced with a blue hedgehog. There's running through levels and fighting (not so much with the puzzles), but instead of the rather deliberate, railroad way the prince does things, the turtles sprint along willy-nilly.

Also, when you die there isn't a pop-up asking whether you want to reload or whatever. It just respawns you back at a nearby waypoint and gives you another go. Very smooth, very fast.

The core play is pretty fun, but what really makes the game are all those additional elements.

In example, each turtle has a unique way of fighting and moving. Raphael was basically a death machine in my hands, but all the turtles had a good, unique feel without actually being hard to control or master. Each turtle has a special way of moving, which I actually thought was not really done as well as it could have been.

Raph could climb walls with his sai, but only if they're the glowing red walls. And when he does climb, it's soooo slow. All the special moves are painfully slow, which I don't much understand, given that the game is definitely about speed. Also, not all movements are created equal: Don's staff lets him pole-vault (very slowly), but I only used it once.

I would have preferred if their special movement were more actively useful in a normal level, but that's not a terribly huge concern.

You only control one turtle at a time, but you can switch between them whenever you need. The same button that switches between them also allows you to do a team-jump (a triple-jump, basically) if you're in the air or, when held, a combo attack (again, unique to each turtle). This was occasionally a bit finicky, but overall it was quite good.

The last gameplay element is that there is frequently a "family meter". In this game, the turtles aren't really a thorough team until near the end of the game. In the middle of the game, you have to earn your brother's trust by not being a total screw-up. This added a lot for me, because it was always the same progression: Raph is the last to join and the first to leave, so it gives a lot of personality to it. Also, obviously, you can only switch to the turtles you have earned. It's not cumbersome at all: it's very nice, very fluid.

Again, like movement, the weakness to me is that they didn't really take it very far. Only a few levels had this mechanic. Also, if there were some meta-game method to make your brothers like you more or less, it could have been a lot of fun to, say, choose to help Don instead of Mikey. Obviously, this was way outside their scope, but it's something to keep in mind...

The game's narrative was really, really great. Like most games these days, the story is actually a story. In this case, the turtles are telling Splinter about that time they did that thing, you know, then. I hear now that they're telling the story of the movie? I don't know, I didn't see it.

Unlike every other game, this conceit isn't used to explain the save/load stuff (there's nothing to explain). Instead, it is used to provide running commentary. "I went outside to avoid the security systems, but I didn't know the rainstorm was turning into a thunderstorm..." "So I investigated, I didn't know it was a gang hideout..." "Wait, they attacked you, so you kept going?"

This running commentary is very powerful, very immersive. It's a brilliant way to do things.

I know it's sort of been done before, but never to this level.

An interesting choice was to make the game entirely about the turtles. Aside from some very, very minor mentions, there is no Shredder, no Casey, no April, no Krangg... just turtles and some new bad guys you don't spend too terribly much time on.

This lets you focus the story, which is something most turtle-related things fail at. The game was focused on the idea of family, which makes sense for the IP, and they managed to do it without being smarmy or irritating.

I'm not saying this game will leave you gaping in awe. I'm not even saying it's without flaw. I'm just saying this game is really good. Despite clueless reviewers, despite a rather slimy link to what is evidently not a very good movie.

This review is weird, because everyone else seems to have either hated the game or at least felt deeply ambivalent. I think that's largely because (A) they saw the movie and (B) they paid full price. For a budget title, and considered separate from the movie, this is quite a good game.

Some reviewers think the game was boring, which I can't really see. They compare it strongly to Prince of Persia, which implies to me that they're playing it like Prince of Persia: creeping up to the edge of the ledge, looking down, looking left, trying to figure out what the next move is...

RUN, damn it!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Advanced CRPG Design!

It's probably more useful to do rules of basic CRPG design, but maybe later, because these are what's irking me now.

Rule 1: The first two hours of your game should be infinitely replayable. This means I should be able to skip your cut scenes. Seriously, are you retarded?

It also means that the first two hours of your game should be mostly NOT running around someplace talking to people. That's fine and dandy the first time, but upon replay it's shitty.

Rule 2: Your ending should leave a fuzzy feeling. The best ways to do this are to 1) actually resolve plot threads and 2) give the player a lot of information about what happens to the characters/places in the future (a playable post-level is best).

Endings which don't resolve the plot's errant threads and don't actually let you know what lies in store are pretty shitty, especially for an RPG.

Rule 3: Don't punish players for not reading your mind. Too many RPGs let you choose your upgrade path, only to later reveal that the path you chose is really bad, at least for you. This is a very serious issue that is mostly a problem for the games that let you upgrade each level. Because you cannot take back a level and because each level is more difficult than the previous one to achieve, a mis-step will make your character suck. Especially in games that scale your encounters to your level.

This is not a problem in games that let you work to gain skill points. For example, instead of giving you a skill point per level, a new level simply unlocks the next tier of a skill. Actually buying the skills is done with some kind of skill mark that you get for killing shit or something. These are not strictly limited, they're just expensive to obtain in terms of time. You have to use N skill marks to increase your skill from N to N+1.

Now if a player mis-steps, it's not crippling, it's just going to cost him time.

I guess that might be a basic design rule, actually...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mass Effect

I know I'm behind the times - Mass Effect has been out almost TWO MONTHS, and here I am just starting to play it! The horror of a slow reviewer!

The game seems okay, save for the fact that I spend half my time on elevators. It's definitely KotOR in space... I mean, KotOR in... um... other space... but at least the combat doesn't suck as bad.

My big problem with KotOR wasn't the combat, but the dialog. As I mentioned before, your choices are to talk like a spoiled fourteen year old boy or a naive fourteen year old girl, with an occasional "go away" tossed in for kicks.

In Mass Effect, the dialog is a bit (a tiny bit) less idiotic, and I've discovered something. Because the dialog is better, I actually suffer from an uncanny valley problem with dialog. In KotOR, the conversational dialog was SO BAD that it didn't really come off as inhuman, it just came off as bad. But in Mass Effect, the dialog is unsettling in its failure to be human.

Because it's a static dialog tree, a given line of questioning will result in a given sound bite. Unfortunately, while this sound byte is always in character, it doesn't often follow conversationally. I frequently find myself giving a curt goodbye to people I was having a fun conversation with, or taking freakishly wide tangents at random moments. If you talked like that in real life, people would definitely think you were a bit... off the meds, yeah?

I understand the limitations, of course. I'm not saying they could have done a better job on any kind of reasonable budget. But it's an interesting side effect: improve the quality of the dialog, and suddenly it's uncanny.

The graphics, too, suffer from the uncanny valley.


Monday, January 21, 2008

The Nature of Text

I've been thinking about text. Text instead of graphics, text supporting graphics, text from characters... you know, text.

The problem with generating text has never been getting the point across. It's not at all hard to make a situation generate text.

I remember that I briefly played a weird little mail-based text game where my fantasy character would do all sorts of things and I would send back a little sheet marked up with what I would do next week.

The game would print up a long, rambling, but marginally entertaining account of what I did (sort of like this blog, I guess). The fights would be things like "Throkdar swings his mace, but you duck nimbly... you stab Throkdar in the knee and he goes down like a sack of drowned kittens!"

Generating text isn't really the issue. It's not hard to generate text: you can just have a bunch of sentence fragments and staple them together like a sack of drowned kittens. The difficulty instead lies with what text to generate.

Communication is always communication, whether it's textual or graphic or audio. Every communique has a purpose. In games, there are three purposes to communicating. Let's go over them.

The first purpose is to communicate a changing gameplay context. Graphically, this is done by different graphics. A green palette swap means this wolf is a werewolf. The fact that the bullet is coming towards you means it's a threat. The fact that you're on a narrow bridge means you can't dodge side to side. This is also done nongraphically. 200/900 HP means you're in danger. That red sixty means you just dealt a fair amount of damage. That you have a sack of drowned kittens equipped in your weapons slot rather than a bow means short range rather than long range.

The second purpose is to communicate a changing nongameplay context. For example, you walk to Newvilletonburgh, and along the path you see..... Verdant farmlands. Blasted wastelands. A river of refugees. Snow.

While these aren't directly linked to gameplay, they are critical for giving the player a sense of place and immersion. Often this is inextricably linked with gameplay changes. That is due to a designer linking them, not to any fundamental link between telling you about snow and making you fight yetis. The designer could just as easily tell you about snow and then program an encounter with Helios, god of the desert sun. It wouldn't make much sense, but there's nothing fundamentally stopping him.

The third and final purpose is to avoid repetition like a sack of drowned kittens.

Repetition is a complicated topic. A lot of really great games use a lot of repetition. Not just old games like Pac-Man, but new games, too. There's a fine line between repetition and patterned play.

For example, your favorite FPS. Featured an awful lot of running around shooting people. In fact, it didn't feature a whole lot else. But it didn't feel terribly repetitious, did it?

Contrast and compare: Bioshock. Featured a lot of running around and shooting, and actually a fair amount of other things. But it felt extremely repetitious.

Repetition is what happens when the context doesn't change. Exactly how sensitive a player is varies: some players probably didn't find Bioshock repetitive. Some players probably felt that getting a +2 to their plumbing rolls changed the game's context. I felt that if they had given me a rocket launcher it wouldn't have changed the game's context.

In many ways, repetition is a function of the game's grain. The deeper the gameplay, the more subtle your communications can get without feeling repetitious. Bioshock's gameplay was about as deep as a high school cheerleader, so it hardly mattered to me that their communications were constantly shouting new things - the new things were not meaningfully different. On the other hand, a game of go is not exactly full of amazing new vistas, being that it consists entirely of putting stones down on a flat board. But the gameplay is very deep, and if you can see that depth, every tiny little stone changes the context completely. (If you can't see that depth, every tiny little stone is an excruciating exercise in repetition. Like a sack full of drowned kayakers.)

Anyhow, those are the three basic things communication in a game has to cover. It's actually more two things, since repetition is more a rule of how quickly and slowly the two other things need to change.

Now, text communications. And I don't mean "WEAPON: SPEAR + 2". I mean natural language text.

For most text-centric games, all of the non-gameplay context communications are written up, whereas all the gameplay communications are generated. Example:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

The layout is carefully scripted: everywhere you go it's TITLE then SCRIPTED TEXT DESCRIPTION then LIST OF STUFF. The list of stuff is generated automatically, as are many of the responses to what you type.

Some really old text games print the full description of a room every time you enter it, which gets really repetitive. Newer text games have a verbose description that they print when you first enter it and after that they just print the title of the room, perhaps with a short blurb. At any time, you can call up that long description again, if you've forgotten the context of the room and need a refresher course. If you haven't forgotten, don't call it up, because it has nothing new to say to you.

Graphical games are largely similar in structure. The graphics themselves are carefully scripted, but their positions and various numerical values are generated. While a full description of an enemy or character would get distracting if you saw it all the time, many games allow you to access some kind of status page for a close-up pic and the full statistical readout.

Fundamentally the same.

Except that graphics, numbers, and slots have a much finer grain than full-text descriptions. 60 is different from 55, and if you see them pop up above someone's head, you know which you prefer. An enemy five tiles away is preferable to an enemy four tiles away. Equipping a spear + 2 is better than equipping a spear + 1.

Putting these in text won't work. In fact, it would backfire. Anyone remember the old Dragon Warrior? "Thou has gained 2 gold. Thou hast gained 3 XP. Congratulations, thou has persevered and gained a level."

What do they do now? "Gold: 2. XP: 3. LEVEL UP!" (fanfare)

They've chopped all the fat out of the descriptions, because the fat didn't actually communicate anything. The game state is numeric, and the only communications which are relevant are ones that specify numbers (Gold: 2) or packs of numbers (Fireball spell). Nothing else changes the gameplay context.

You have to remember that the gameplay context is not simply a list of numbers, oh no. It's the topological layout of the situation. In the most obvious sense, where you are in the level as compared to the enemies, powerups, obstacles, and so forth. In less obvious examples, the variety of weapons you've got equipped, the node map of cities you can travel to, the array of equipment available for purchase, the likelyhood of stumbling across more ammo for a particular weapon in this particular area...

So popping up "Gold: 2" is kind of a minimally effective communication. Gold is a very simple gameplay value - a simple scoring mechanism. Far more complex mechanisms are usually at play. "LEVEL UP!" used to be followed by: "+1 str, +1 dex, +3 HP". Now it's followed by a complex list of choices, often displayed graphically so that you can see what lies further down the paths you can choose.

As we've gotten better at displaying graphical information, the topological density has increased dramatically. But although this is technically graphics, it is not of the sort that is expensive to produce.

The complex level-up system in KotOR, for example. It's all either text or tiny icons that show text when you click them. Which stats improve? Which skills improve? Which feats will you buy? It's an incredibly complicated situation, but all the details are clearly shown without resorting to advanced graphical wizardry.

When we think "text game", we think "Zork". But a linear, one-dimensional stream of data simply cannot represent the level of complexity we're interested in. They're great at nongameplay context, but poor at gameplay context. Rogue-likes, with their ascii-maps, reverse the situation: they cut out the ability to represent non-gameplay context easily with text, but don't switch over to actually using graphics to represent non-gamplay... so they're stuck pretty solidly in only representing gameplay context.


The question isn't whether text can represent complex states. It certainly can. The question isn't even whether you can generate interesting text for your game rather than writing it. The answer is yes, so long as it's based on content that is actually in your game.

The question is how to represent enough complexity without turning into a game entirely consisting of menus.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Save the Chatbots, Part 2!

Electric Boogaloo!

My last post on chatbot-driven games got me thinking, and I see a limitation I don't like.

A big part of the feedback in a game is feedback loops. You do something, something happens, you do something based on that, something happens based on that.

The issue is that most games use a recursive loop, but these games wouldn't. Let's see if I can say what I mean.

In an RPG, you walk around a world, and what you are near are depends on where you have walked before. Every step subtly changes your location, bringing you closer to some things and further from others. Similarly, when you kill an enemy, it gives you points and gold and so forth. Although the victory itself is win/lose, the side effects in terms of expended and gained resources are very muddy, and can be anywhere on the scale of goodness. Winning a fight but using up all your magic is almost a loss, even though you won. Moreover, all of these feedback loops - fighting, walking - are more or less unlimited. Save for unusual restrictions, you're allowed to walk around and fight as much as you like, "cycling" the loop at your pleasure.

On the other hand, in this chatbot game, everything is binary. You either uncover the next bit of information or you don't. You either convince the chatbot of something or you don't. It's impossible to cycle this in an unlimited fashion without creating some kind of unusual pseudo-AI, and there are really no variable side effects because there is no engine to track them.

Even if you aren't specifically stuck to a single linear story, you're still going through this only marginally interactive set of scripted rails.

I'm not saying this is at it's heart a bad thing, but it is a very limiting thing.

With this, you cannot realistically allow the players to just dick around. Either it has no effect at all, or they're moving forward. You have to script every possibility, which means that the players are more exploring your story and less exploring your world. They might as well be reading a book that only lets you turn the page if you answer a riddle.

I'm not saying this is an innate restriction of chatbots. I'm saying that it's an innate restriction of games without recursive algorithms. Because the content is not implemented in a fashion that can be unlocked in tiny portions in many different ways over many different times, the content is grotesquely inefficient.

Creating a dungeon is a lot more work than writing up a description of a dungeon. But the implemented dungeon can be explored by players in many different fashions at many different speeds, and there can be many different progressions of fights and treasure. Moreover, depending on how the player explores the dungeon, exploring the dungeon gets easier or harder.

So, a player will read a description of a dungeon and think, "okay, cool, a dungeon". Two minutes later, you had better have another description of something and it had better make sense. Even then, the player has less of a feeling of agency. It's an inferior solution - I would guess your time is spent at maybe 1% efficiency when creating non-recursive content.

This is actually the fundamental problem with adventure games in general, and is probably why they are not as popular. While there is something very juicy about the fact that every obstacle has a unique solution, the fact is that there are only maybe 1/50th the number of obstacles that you'd find in a recursive game of the same length. For every unique obstacle in an adventure game, you've fought four battles and gotten an upgrade in an RPG. Each battle is not simply an obstacle, but a complex set of interlocked obstacles. Same with upgrades.

This is probably why I preferred Quest for Glory to King's Quest: Quest for Glory contained a number of recursive, interlocked systems in addition to the juicy unique puzzles.

Now, it might be possible to create a chat-bot game that has recursive systems, but the fundamental issue here is that chatbots are essentially just memory banks with confusing UI. No chatbot on the market has the ability to create meaningful content or adapt to changes in the world on any interesting level. You would have to create a backbone that somehow determined what changes needed to happen and then modified the chatbot's memory banks. This would be difficult even without the complex world engine, because generating English that is fun to read is right up there on the list of unsolved problems.

This is the big reason that games with adaptive/generative worlds don't have talking NPCs in their generated parts. Any talking NPCs they have are back in the part of the game that can't be significantly altered by the player's recursive play.

This is why when you talk to, say, characters in Animal Crossing, they always seem so self-obsessed and oblivious. It's because they actually cannot notice when you change the world, except as they are scripted to. They cannot look at what you have done and say, "wait, in order to get to your door I need to wade through a river, what's up with that?" They are not only incapable of that level of logic, they are incapable of generating that kind of text.

This is why graphics are so popular: we have, over the decades, figured out a lot of nifty ways to recombine and adjust graphics to a recursive situation. With some newer games, you can even create completely new graphics inside the game itself - a completely unique face, most commonly.

In some respects, I think it's because graphics is easier. Graphics is simply N-dimensional bits that are linked and moved around algorithmically. Wide cheekbones? Alter the cheek bits a bit. Green skin? Change the color of the skin.

What is language? Written language is a maybe low-dimensional construct that is representing a maybe medium-dimensional construct (spoken language) that is representing some theoretical reality!

But I don't actually think that's any harder. Graphics are just as steeped in cultural references and represent theoretical reality, and graphics are 2D representations of 3D representations. (You can count color as another dimension, I guess.)

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's easy. After all, computer graphics aren't easy.

But maybe the same approaches could be taken...

I'll have to think about that, I've gotten off track. What I'm saying is that it's very hard to use chatbots in a recursive game, and that's a restriction I can't bear.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Save the Chatbots!

At the postmortem earlier this week, one of the presenters was Chris Canfield. I presume this is him, although the page contains precisely nothing in common with his presentation.

One of the things he's doing on the side is building chatbot-based games. The basic idea is that higher fidelity - graphics, better graphics, insanely good graphics - are not only more and more expensive, but are also more and more obviously fake. So scale back down, you get a more believable (and cheaper) experience.

Also, he used the phrase "burn content". It makes me feel all happy to hear it tossed off like it's an obvious, well-understood concept.

Anyway, the basic idea is not terribly new. Text games are cheaper to make, if you like gross understatements, and many people are pleased by the kinds of content you can have. For example, it's very difficult to include thoughts or indirect information in a visual game. How do you say, "he knew she was carrying the photo with her even after all these years" visually?

Text adventure games are, however, a limited genre. Consisting of X parts inventory management puzzles and Y parts reading the designer's mind, calling them "interactive fiction" is an arrogant stretch. There are a few games out there which attempt to be something else, usually something involving characters that react realistically, but they are generally pretty haphazard, opaque, and confusing.

Chris' approach has been to separate the games out into what is functionally two games. One game is an information game: going to websites, reading fake blogs, collecting information that you can assemble into a picture of what's going on. The other game is a natural language chat which serves as the hub for the information game and is how the game is actually "won".

For example, in a murder mystery, you would chat with "guests" to get some information, follow the leads on the internet, chat with guests about what you discovered on the net, and so forth until you found the guilty party.

In some ways, this is a great approach. It allows a game world to exist without any actual need to have it implemented in an engine. You not only don't need a 3D model of the city, you don't even need a text adventure node map. The only way you encounter the world is through the "eyes" of one of its inhabitants, talking to you or posting about it on the internet.

This has a really, really powerful upside on the other half of the equation, as well. Because you are seeing everything through the eyes of the characters, you will really get a feel for the characters. Presuming the chat phase isn't so hideous that it breaks immersion, this is a great way to build a deep interest for the characters in a game.

From his description, his examples all focus on a heavily scripted setup. The games play through in one particular way - or you lose. They're oldschool rails puzzle games. This makes perfect sense because it means (A) you can build content instead of generating it algorithmically and (B) your chat bots don't have to adapt.

To me, that kind of play is pointless. Even if you script in multiple paths, it's not really very interactive. I like adventure games for what they are, but I need interactive systems to really get into a game. That's why I liked the Quest for Glory series so much more than the King's Quest series.

But once you create an interactive system, your content needs to be linked to it. If you can pick stuff up, then you need to have a system for inventory and what content can be picked up and what happens when something is brought somewhere and used.

Which basically throws the advantage of "chat-bot adventures" right out the window, since the whole point was to replace the complex, bulky system with a set of viewpoints.


Anyway, I have some ideas on that, but I've got to think them through a bit more. Just thought I would share the basic idea.

What's your take on text adventures?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mario Says...

Yesterday's postmortem was great: I took four pages of notes, which is something of a record. None of the presenters were boring, although some were obviously uncomfortable. I'll probably mention some of that stuff later, but right now I want to talk Mario.

I work for a start-up, which means three of us in one big room rather than any kind of normal office environment. This also means that all of us get to see whatever game someone is playing on the TV today, although they play with headphones on.

For a while now the game du jour has been Mario Galaxies. I'm sure most of you have played at least some of it, but let me describe a very different experience than the ones you've had.

I've seen most of Mario Galaxies second-hand, with the only sound being the relentless chiming of the wiimote. My soundtrack is whatever I listen to personally.

I was very impressed, which I'll talk about in a minute, but this led me to actually try to play the game. I knew I'd made a mistake as soon Mario opened his mouth with the most asinine, squeeky "SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPAAAAAAAAAAA MAAAARIO GALAXYYYYYYYYYY!" ever.

A lot of people have commented on how this game is pretty much the ultimate in "back-seat playing", because the second player has enough to do to keep him interested without actually requiring him to jump and spin and all the rest of that really complicated Mario shit that makes me lose.

The two players are actually playing completely different games, and so it's obvious that their experiences are completely different. I can't speak to the exact experience of a second player, but the experience of a spectator is different again.

To me, watching intermittently with only my own music, the game was not a Mario game. There was no brutally cheerful music or childish storyline: there was a man exploring a universe of endlessly unique puzzles and creatures. If we're talking about mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics, then I was only getting the dynamics and a few aesthetics. The mechanics - jumping, dying, frustration - were being performed by someone else. The aesthetics - kiddie music, dumb sound effects - were also largely absent.

The dynamics were in full force, though: romping through a huge variety of wonderfully unique levels.

Watching Mario Galaxy was exactly like watching Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Or, hell, the movie Dark Crystal, if I could shout at the characters.

Playing it proves to be a massive letdown for me, because suddenly I have to deal with the mechanics and the aesthetics, both of which I dislike immensely. This isn't to say they are bad, they're just not to my taste.

It got me to thinking, though. Although the game's monsters are silly and the graphic design is all bright colors and childish melodramatics, that doesn't really come through much when all you're doing is watching. Ico's and Mario's dynamics have the same feel to them, even though their graphical design couldn't be more opposite.

The sound effects, on the other hand, are impossible to ignore. I think that if you substituted Mario's sounds into Ico's game, you would suddenly have a childish, silly game.

Perhaps it's just the level of immersion. Maybe if you were in VR, with the game world all you could see in every dimension, maybe then the tone of the graphical design would have a more significant effect. Maybe it's just a fundamental difference between how we (I?) process sound and vision.

Anyway, that's really very secondary to the basic idea. To me, dynamics are and will always be the most important part of a game. Aesthetics and rules are important to some extent, but only as (A) hooks to get people playing and (B) rails to guide the dynamics.

But when you're making a computer game, it's easy to let the rules and the aesthetics rule the roost. They are what you are actually making, after all. Mario can jump four feet, eight feet when he upgrades. Mario has a red hat and speaks like a parody of Italy on helium.

What that contributes to the dynamic of the game is not always (or even often) directly related to what the designers might wish contributed. It's common for a designer to add what I consider very heavy-handed mechanics and aesthetics to a game to try to "force" the issue.

I find a lot of forced mechanics in tabletop games. For example, in AD&D, they have a ton of weird little nitpicky rules about how far you can run, how far you can shoot, whether you get stunned, what your exact saving throw is...

To me, those rules shouldn't really be there. They are cement rails: you're stuck following the path they build, even though most of the time that path is NOT the right one for the content you're using. That isn't to say that complex, nitpicky rules shouldn't exist. It's simply to say that complex, nitpicky rules should serve the dynamic, not try to force it.

Similarly, a lot of computer games have a really forced aesthetic. A good example is Bioshock, where the aesthetic was really the only thing in the game. Bioshock's dynamics were not terribly good, but they certainly weren't a "fear for your life in this subaquatic hellhole!" It was more "march forward killing shit, occasionally hack a toy". It gradually converted to "spend a lot more bullets to kill shit than is at all reasonable". These were not good dynamics, and they were not in line with the aesthetics, either.

Similarly, Mario's goofy, childish sound and graphics aren't even tangential to the exploration dynamic. They're just completely unrelated. There really isn't anything childish or goofy about the dynamic: forge through a thousand unique, hostile worlds killing most anything that moves, trying desperately to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend and coincidentally save the universe.

Okay, maybe a little escapist. But not exactly a bright, cheery set of actions.

Apparently, not everyone sees these as forced. I think these people think about things differently than me. To me, if your aesthetic and your mechanics aren't working towards a unified dynamic, why bother?

I have no idea whether I'm being clear or not...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

User Content and Tradeoffs

I've gotten quite a few questions about the limits designers put on persistent worlds and the games that break those limits. So, I thought it might be handy to have a simple essay on the matter. This might be review for some of you.

A persistent world is a specific kind of system. All massively multiplayer RPGs are persistent worlds, but not all persistent worlds are MMORPGs. For now, let's stick to MMORPGs.

A persistent world basically says that whatever a player accomplishes in one session carries on to other sessions. So, if you gain a level, you'll still have that level next time you log in.

Players who play a lot will almost always have more, better stuff than players who play less, simply because every time you play you get a little bit more. Once you have a little more, you never lose it, because the world is persistent. If everyone gains a level every hour, someone who plays eight hours a day will have eight times the level of someone who only plays one hour a day.

The problem with this appears when players overlap. If anyone can attack anyone, the guy who plays eight hours a day will probably kill the guy who only plays one hour a day. This is commonly called "being a dick", although in the games industry we call them "griefers". This gets especially bad when there's a reward for killing players - like XP or items.

Most MMORPGs, therefore, strictly limit how players can interact. People can only fight people within three levels of them, or while they're in the arena, or something. High-level quests don't overlap low-level quests, so the low-level guys don't have their thunder stolen. You can't equip over-level items, so that you can't be unnaturally powerful for your carefully defined level bracket...

But these were not the first step. These were the last step. If preventing players from screwing each other was the same as building a house, that last paragraph would be what color you paint the walls.

Back in the day, there were quite a few text-based on-line games that let you create stuff. Even now, you can find them. Originally, there were few limits on what you could create. Create a space ship, a hundred room dungeon, a monster that can eat planets. Create anything you like, if you can figure out how to script it into the game world.

People quickly realized that this was not a terribly good idea for any number of players over, say, three. One player would program a death star and blow up another player's fairy castle. Much yelling CHATTING FURIOUSLY IN ALL CAPS ensued.

So they started to figure out ways to limit the players. They tried "wizards" - users who had the power to police content. They tried a points system, so only people with experience and favorable ratings could create content. They tried limiting the capabilities of the scripting engine, PvP restrictions, limiting your content to "your land", keeping it out of public spaces... many other things.

The problem was, the more players play the game, the more brains are thrown against the scripting language. Every limit reduced the chances of a player accomplishing something dastardly, but more players meant more chances to roll snake-eyes and get a bastard who figured out how to make everyone else miserable.

Games like World of Warcraft have MILLIONS of players. So the limits have to make it MILLIONS of times harder for players to make other people miserable.

This means that the limits have to be really, really strict. Basically to the point of cutting the scripting language out entirely. However, at that level, the background noise is very loud. Meaning that players writing scripts is not the problem: there's a lot of other ways to grief people, ways that would not really occur to someone with the ability to build a death star to solve his problems.

Things like ninja looting, path obstructing, training, item duping, selling accounts, gold farming, min-maxing, and naming your characters "iluvtits" and "wolverine".

Compared to having your planet blown up, these are relatively minor things. But they're still very irritating.

Now, some games have decided to weather the shitstorm and leave a kind of scripting language in their game, with the understanding that the world will have more than its fair share of grief.

One example is SecondLife, which actually has had a full-featured scripting language, just like an oldschool MUD. Another example is Eve Online, which doesn't have a scripting language, exactly, but allows players to build massive corporations and change the face of the universe asteroid by asteroid.

Obviously, Eve Online has a more limited system so, in general, it's harder to cause grief. But it's much, much easier than something like WoW, and sometimes it's truly spectacular, like one hundred-player faction betraying and completely annihilating another hundred-player faction, stealing (real-world legal) tens of thousands of US$ worth of in-game assets...

SecondLife started off with an extremely open language, and that meant that players found it easy to grief each other. When it was young and small, this was not such a terribly big deal: if someone made a fuss, the GMs cleaned it up.

But the player base has expanded and expanded and expanded. Where there was one griefer, there are now a literal thousand.

They couldn't really handle this, so they've been following the history of old-school multi-user dungeons: implementing limits. Ratings limits, land restrictions, crippling the scripting language, restricting the number of visual elements, requiring a credit card...


I don't know if there is a solution, but I have a hunch it involves dramatically lowering the population density of a game.

Anyhow, there's the bell. I hope you've enjoyed the session. If you notice any errors in the text book, speak up. Read chapter two for tomorrow, and do the questions on page 37 for homework. There will be a quiz.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Building Your Past

I thought I had posted about this, but I guess not.

Some time ago, I ran a Jedi game. This was not a polite "we buy the rules from the licensed sort of folks" Jedi game. This was one of my "Bastard Jedi" games, which generally share a few keywords with the Star Wars RPG and not much else.

My previous Bastard Jedi games were built on the words "Jedi", "Sith", "Force", and "Droid". Otherwise, they were made from whole cloth. This time I went the opposite direction, gathering in staggeringly huge amounts of canon and picking the lamest parts. To the point where the game could not be played without a laptop constantly connected to Wookieepedia. (Notice, it contains spoilers!...)

Still, the game mechanics were very, very unusual and interesting. It would take a long time to cover them all, so I'll simply cover the character creation system, which is really the only one that has any bearing on anything I've posted recently.

First, a note on setting: this was after "all" the Jedi were killed by Clone Troopers, but I varied the setting a bit as to exactly what had gone down with the whole Darth-Emperor-Mace Windu thing.

Now, the character creation.

I got myself a hundred blank index cards and split them into four vaguely equal piles, each of which was marked with a suit. The suits stood for real concepts: race, tendency, experience, and survival (all the Jedi are supposed to be dead, remember?). A character was made of one of each.

For example, your race might be Bith, your tendency might be that you've always been especially good with a saber, your experience might be that you spent several years on a diplomatic voyage, and you might have survived by having been cut up quite a bit by a dark Jedi and left for dead (but you recovered and now have some cybernetic bits).

That's not a terribly coherent character, but even with this kind of nonsense you can see that you could connect the dots. You could build a fairly interesting character by filling in the holes: maybe you were sent on the diplomatic mission by your master, who thought you were too physical. Maybe you were attacked by a dark Jedi while on that mission.

Anyway, all of the things on the cards were things that could be. There was no danger of someone going "off course" and inventing a backstory that didn't fit into the universe and, more importantly, no chance of players just staring blankly at an infinite canvas of options. If I wanted, I could have just as easily swapped out the deck for a non-Jedi deck set in the same universe, or a Sith deck, or even a lost-little-droid deck.

All of the cards were more or less balanced. Even the races, which I thought would be hard to balance, were easy. I mean, a Bith? The cantina guys? Who wants to be a Bith? They suck!

Except it turns out that they don't. They've got all sorts of wickedly advanced senses and technological aptitudes. They don't need sleep, either.

It seems that I could not find a race that hadn't been made cool at some point. Welcome to Star Wars.

Anyhow, picking four cards at random doesn't leave you with a whole lot of choice, does it? You end up with something like the character above. While he might grow on you, chances are good that he's not who you would pick for yourself if given the choice.

Even increasing the number of cards to choose from isn't ideal: I let people draw six cards (and spend a character point to draw more cards if they wanted). Even that wasn't going to be enough.

So the real solution was to get your players into a group - five, six people - and have them all draw cards. Then they can freely trade with each other.

This Bith guy would be happy to trade his diplomatic mission to someone in exchange for, say, advanced saber training or a mission to a doomed world. He's also probably happy to trade his race off for something a bit more combat-happy. Someone else might have the "forbidden love" experience card, and they might try to get that "maimed by a dark Jedi" card, so they can have their forbidden love fall and maim them...

This also lets the players fit their characters together interplayer. Not just in terms of "we should have a warrior, a healer..." but in terms of "oh, look, we both switched masters! What if we swapped masters?"

I had two teams of five, and until I moved to Seattle, the game was going pretty well. The characters were deeply interesting, their interactions very slick. More importantly for a Star Wars game, their detailed backstories gave me great hooks to tempt them towards the dark side.

Anyway, this is to show that this kind of partially-generative backstory system is perfectly plausible. Obviously, if you're going to do it on a computer, you need to change it a bit... but, fundamentally, this is not a difficult way to do things and it can serve to introduce your players to the setting in a completely painless way.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Recently I purchased the 50th anniversary edition of Forbidden Planet. It's held up so well! Every geek should have already seen it. If not, do it now!

I'm one of these guys who really loves the classics. I really enjoy watching old movies, reading classic sci-fi... anything "retro" is directed straight at me. Space pirates are a real weakness.

I got to thinking about games. I've been mining Gametap's RPG selection recently, with games like Baldur's Gate and Phantasy Star IV.

We certainly have "classic" games - games we feel nostalgic for. Games that fuel our retro movements. And, like classic movies, these games don't have the right pacing for new audiences. Anyone who watches Charlie Chaplin today will immediately notice that the pacing is old-fashioned. It's not just that it's in black and white, or that there's no voices, or even the classic topics: the speed of the progression, the nature of the camera work, and the level of repetition are all old-fashioned.

Old games have the same thing, of course: playing Baldur's Gate is often infuriating to me because, in the beginning, characters will die in a single hit. Similarly, the way the leveling system works, the kind of repetition, and the progression of the scenes are all noticeably "old fashioned".

Some modern games still have this "old-fashioned feel", like KotOR and whatever is coming out of Japan next week. Many have gone a different path, such as all of the FPS-RPGs.

I also feel something similar about classic tabletop games such as Battletech, Shadowrun and D&D. The new rulesets often change a few facets to try to make it more applicable to a modern audience without losing the oldschool feel.

But if you compare the original D&D to AD&D whatever.5, you'll find that there have been a lot of changes. Similarly, if you compare KotOR to Might and Magic, even though they attempt to have the same fundamental genre, KotOR has pulled in a new direction. And I'm not talking graphics.

One of the defining features of a classic game is the way it handles progression: instead of having a smooth progression, classic games have a mudflated progression. When you get something new in a classic game, it makes whatever you had before pretty useless. You get a sword+2, that old sword+1 is destined for the rubbish heap.

Modern games, on the other hand, progress more fluidly. Let me give an example.

In oldschool D&D, your mage gains spells. Each new level of spells contains spells that are fundamentally just plain cooler than the old spells, so the only reason to use the old spells is to conserve juice.

In KotOR, which is fundamentally D&D-based, your "spells" are Force powers. Instead of leaving you with scads of obsolete force powers, you upgrade a particular power to be more effective. So you never have more than one "Force heal" power, even though it's now level 3 or whatever.

Similarly, instead of replacing your sword+1 with a sword+2, in KotOR you replace a piece of your lightsaber or blaster with a new piece. There is no sword+1 left when you upgrade to a sword+2. Instead, there's a sword+2 and an oo'ooti'oo crystal.

Now, KotOR has an oldschool feel, and it does feature an awful lot of buying new stuff and selling the old. But even it has realized that abandoning old content is less efficient than upgrading old content.

This can even be seen in the characters. Modern RPGs have a few NPCs with full personalities that stay with you for the full game. Classic games have scads of NPCs with barely any personality that tend to die or be replaced on a whim.

To me, the big "classic" feel for an RPG has nothing to do with camera angle or turn-based combat. It has everything to do with scads of content that we burn through however we like.

And I like that.

I'm actually irritated by the kinds of things I see these days. You can upgrade your Jedi Push to Jedi Push II? But that doesn't do what I want it to! I want to be able to pick content that is more to my liking - pick from half a dozen available "Jedi Push II" variants that I happen to stumble across in dungeons and shops. And I want to keep Jedi Push I as a cheap alternative...

So I got to thinking: what if I take this thing that I like, and I polish it up to a mirror shine and design a... "deeply retro" game. A "post-retro" game, to be excruciatingly pompous.

The whole design is fundamentally about content: upgrading, replacing, finding. But instead of walking along a plot path and stumbling across combat content, let's make everything adaptable content.

Your plot is adaptable content. Your personality and history are adaptable content. You stumble across an "heir to the throne" fragment, pop it into a character, and suddenly they were always high-born. You find a "specializes in delicious pastries" fragment, and you can plug it into a village or part of a city and, bam, there have always been delicious pastry shops.

This can even be horrifyingly meta. The underlying plot is that the wizard captured the princess. You can plug new plot fragments in to change why, when, how, who... or add twists such as the princess and the wizard being in cahoots. You can even push it so far as to un-kidnap the princess such that she was never kidnapped in the first place.

It can also be very flat: you do find a sword upgrade, better armor, a new spell. It's not simply high-falutin' concepts.

This is not a game where you build your own plot/setting, not exactly. Because you only have access to the fragments you uncover as you journey. By controlling what kinds and levels of fragments are available in various places, you can dramatically influence the way the game develops.

For example, those ancient, menacing woods said to be inhabited by the undead? Instead of giving out generic combat rewards, they might give out primarily plot fragments. So if the plot is too difficult, too insurmountable or not fun enough, you spend some time killing ghouls and picking up new options.

Now, one further option is that we can make the NPCs - at least the major ones - also able to do this. This could lead to very interesting situations if handled correctly, where you and the evil wizard are vying for who has never been able to cast any magic...

What do you think? Would you enjoy such a game?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Information Handling

Raph had a post that got me thinking.

All of my games feature some kind of information system.

That's a bit misleading, though. All games are entirely about information processing. You see what information is available, then you try to figure out how to combine it so you can react to it.

If you have to decide which weapon to take, you call on your experience with earlier levels and similar games, then you extrapolate by what you expect later challenges to contain. If you're playing a shmup, you analyze the trajectories of everything on the screen, taking into account your ship's size and speed as well as what the various things are likely to do (change direction, explode, fire shots...)

Obviously, you're working with partial information on a complex system. There's a lot of room for leeway: some people are very good at collecting and analyzing specific kinds of information. For example, when I'm playing a shmup, I'm really good at analyzing a few very complex trajectories, but I'm bad at analyzing lots of simple trajectories. Some people are just the opposite.

Every kind of play I've ever seen is about collecting fragments of information and piecing them together as effectively as possible. In situations with time limits, more, simpler information tends to be the watchword rather than fewer, complex information.

Now, when we think about quests, information is usually simple window dressing. It's an excuse for the designer to make the player run through various challenges. Often, the information is partial. For example, telling you who to go to, but not what they will give you; or telling you what to get, but not where you can find it. This can be done either for narrative effect (getting you deep into a plot before twisting it into something nasty) or for play effect (making you spend time searching for the missing information).

In a MMORPG, using "static information" is a problem if you use partial information, because any player that's figured out the missing piece can share it instantly with everyone. Obviously, this short-circuits the whole purpose of using partial information.

To me, it is without question that static information is not a good idea in such a game. However, saying "use varying info" is not quite as simple as Raph has suggested. There are a lot of methods. Here are a few I love.

Game Chunks

You can get around the flaw with static info while still using static info if you make your game (or subsets of your game) have a definite end point. This is not always suitable in a MMORPG, but it is not unknown: Tale in the Desert is an example.

In this sort of situation the information is usually extremely fragmented, and the player(s) who assembles it first will have a big advantage. This is actually a fairly delicate system.

The problem with game chunks is fairly obvious: someone has to build them, and that can mean a huge amount of GM overhead. Fortunately, there are alternatives...

Player Affected

A lot of competitive games use player-affected data. For example, every time you play a level of Team Fortress, it's the same. Except that the other players radically affect how you play the game. Effectively, playing Team Fortress is less about the information from the designer, and more about the information from the other players.

This is really easy to design, but if you're aiming for persistence, extremely hard to balance. The core problem is that players participate at different levels, and the players who participate more (and are more skilled) will gain an advantage... and that advantage will continue to grow the more they play. If it doesn't, they'll get irritated and stop playing.

It's a very difficult challenge, but there are ways around it. One of the big ways around it is to partition levels apart from each other, and another is to add an outreach/mentor system where the powerful players are rewarded for helping weak players. For more information on this kind of thing, study WoW's level partitioning, City of Heroes' mentoring system, and Eve Online's corporation system. I can write more about those if I need to.

Fundamentally, player-generated content is simply a particularly feisty subset of this.

Player Adapted

One type of information generation system is slowly growing more popular, and that's when you generate information specifically for each player. Because of the amount of shared space most MMORPGs have, adapted information is generally very shallow so as not to disrupt the game for other players. But it's not shallow in and of itself: it's just a design restriction.

Examples of this abound and overlap with player-affected systems. For example, in many games NPCs won't give you quests until you are a certain level or unless you are a certain class. This is a mechanism for weakly enabling player-affected information by partitioning certain quests for certain kinds of players.

Of course, it's certainly possible to have much deeper algorithms. These almost require you to have a very dispersed player base, though: if the player density is as high as in most games, then players changing the NPCs or terrain of the game will radically change other players' play experience, which is generally a poor idea.

Still, assigning each player a chunk of game for himself is not going to be as rare as you might think. As computation and memory get cheaper, it will be more and more feasible to give each player his own little piece of reality in which deeper adaptive algorithms can run. Think of it as instancing gone mad.

Marching Information

Another variation is to have marching information. This is a situation where the information in the game is continuously in flux as it is replaced - every day or week - by new information which is somewhat different.

As an easy example, this could be that a merchant changes locations to another part of the city, or the Swamp of Boggyness stops producing Jewel Toads and starts producing Psychic Crocs.

This can be done with any level of automation. It can be done entirely by hand, entirely automatically, or some combination of the two, depending on the ratio of writers to players you're willing to pay for.

Many designers shy away from this idea because it denotes what feels like a lack of control. They may claim balance problems, but the fundamental problem is that it is more erratic than most designers really like. For some reasons, designers like the idea that what they design will still be in the game a year from now.

I think that's kind of silly, but my games are always studies in controlled chaos. Ask anyone who has played one.

Fundamentally, static writing is not the wave of the future. Designers may want the Palace of Peace to stay exactly as they have built it forever, but that's simply a poor idea in a MMORPG.

As to balance issues, it's certainly the case that the new bits will be out of balance. However, as they change every week or so, the unbalance is only so much. You can spend your time polishing the balancing algorithm instead of releasing ten thousand content patches.


What do you think?

Saturday, January 05, 2008


I was going to write about fractured information in multiplayer settings, but instead I think I will share an email.

Recently, I got a GameFly account from a friend. I haven't received anything, yet, but this email... is an example of everything that is wrong with us.

From: GameFly
Date: Jan 5, 2008 11:34 AM
Subject: Attention: Important Xbox 360 Information
To: [me]

This e-mail was sent to you from GameFly.
To ensure delivery to your inbox, please add us to your address book.

Dear Craig,

Our records indicate that you recently rented your first Xbox 360 game from GameFly.

As you know, the Xbox 360 is a high-end gaming console that uses state-of-the-art technology. As stated in the user's manual, it is important that the console not be moved in any way while a disc is in the tray. The following movements, among others, may cause damage to the console and/or result in scratches to the disk:

Moving the console from the horizontal to the vertical position and vice versa
Picking the console up
Shifting the console in any way while a disc is in the tray

If you have further questions regarding usage of the Xbox 360 console, please contact Microsoft at 1-800-4MY-XBOX.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

GameFly Customer Service

Well, good. I was confused on that matter. Here I've been shaking my 360 to reboot it. Works with my laptop.

The worst part about this is that a lot of people won't see why it is such a fundamentally idiotic email. Our cultural idiocy is amazing.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Normally, I would be whining about politics by now. No choice, that's what Seattle forces you to do.

But, you know, I can't find anyone I do want as president. 95% of the candidates are people I would refuse to shake hands with, and the other 5% I wouldn't give authority over a candy bar.

Fortunately, not being in Seattle this year, I can safely keep my gob shut on the matter.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


I'd like to talk a bit about a design concept that doesn't exist yet, as far as I know. It's vaguely related to my last essay, so you'll have a better idea of what I'm talking about if you read that first.

The concept is about restarting challenges in a specific way. I don't know what to call it, exactly - let's call it "reincarnation", unless someone has a better idea. As in "restart, reload, retry, or reincarnate".


In many western RPGs, you get to make your own character(s).

Further character development is functionally on rails. While you could technically give your character some weird new skill, that isn't a very effective use of your points.

Eastern RPGs take the opposite stance, giving you rote characters and allowing you to heavily specialize them over the course of the game.

Basically, these two approaches seem like the Big Two in virtually every kind of game. Decisions are either planning or execution. If your game is heavy on planning, then your important decisions are made outside the "heat of play" - what stats your character should have, which people to bring, what program to run. If your game is heavy on execution, the important decisions are made during play, small adjustments to your course that change the permanent state of the game. Such as what spells to get, or whether to help the biker gang or the nuns.

It's not quite that simple, because (A) it's an axis, not a toggle, and (B) "heat of play" is not a very exact thing to say. For example, buying and equipping armor is execution-level when you are thinking about the "combat stats" game, but it's planning-level when you are thinking about the "combat" game. Actually, the "combat stats" game is the planning level for the combat game.

It's also a little complicated because games offer so many un-choices. For example, classic RPG combat is not full of decisions. The decision as to whether to attack, use magic, block, etc... it's a fake decision. One of them is obviously right in any given situation. Even when a decision is a decision, it's not really important: a few minutes after combat is over, you'll be pretty much fully recovered again. So it's kind of vague.

BUT... overall, when you look at a game from any given angle, you can see that some parts of the game are about planning, and some parts are about execution. That's all there is, right? Planning and execution.

Well, sort of. I mentioned that a game often has "layers". One layer is frequently "planning" for another layer, although the edges might be blurry.

For example, making a character in a western RPG is definitely planning for the rest of the game.

Aaaaaand there's the glitch.

Most games think of this kind of thing in terms of "the rest of the game". Even execution-level decisions frequently affect you for the rest of the game. But "the rest of the game" is a very long time! You're asking the player to make a skill-based decision that will affect the rest of the game... when he has the least skill!

Many players will replay the first five or ten hours of a game over and over, making new characters, trying new approaches. I've played Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion for over a hundred hours EACH, but I've never even gotten halfway through the main plot because I tend to play the first ten hours dozens of times instead.

Even when you are executing rather than planning, it is frequently in terms of "the rest of the game". When you level up a Final Fantasy character and give them the "summon monkey" spell, that's what they have. You can't change it, you can't take back those points and re-allocate them.

That is, in many ways, part of the charm. If your character is overspecialized in fire magic, he'll have a great time exploring the North Pole, but the marshlands will bury him without a problem. Dealing with weaknesses and strengths is a big part of the game: if you make a stealthy character, you'll have a hard time doing combat even when combat would be easier than stealth.

But this means that the game needs to contain a LOT of polish and deep content for every aspect, because someone who chooses stealth needs to have as much to do as someone who chooses combat! Since the choice is forever, there needs to be alternate content forever. If it ever gets boring, the player will get upset because his character has become boring... and he can't change it.


Let's talk about building houses.

In The Sims, you build a house for your little simmies. Basically, once a house is built, it's prohibitively expensive to significantly change the house (unless you're a cheating bastard). You'll change it here and there, maybe even buy a new house once or twice, but overall, when you build a house, your architectural choices last close to forever.

On the other hand, in Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius, you build a "house". Okay, a lair. But it serves fundamentally the same purpose, right? Keep your goons happy. Plus, well, killing anything that comes in, preferably in a hilarious fashion.

But these kinds of games do something very unusual. Something that RPGs don't do. They... well, their house-building reincarnates.

Every time you beat a level, your lair is gone. The next level has a new layout, and you have to build a new lair.

The lair-building is very complicated, the very definition of "easy to learn, hard to master". Even after dozens or hundreds of bases, you're never settled into a rut, because each level presents a new set of restrictions. This level has a lot of lava, that level is going to be attacked by dragons, the third level has lawyers that tax you based on your monster levels...

This creates a game that is a lot of fun, even when it isn't perfect. It's like learning to walk, and then being asked to navigate a wide variety of obstacle courses in any way you please.

I choose the term "reincarnation" because this is not simply restarting the game! Every new level is improved not only by your own prior experiences, but also by the new abilities that the game gives you. Now you have access to a new kind of trap, now you can build a helipad...

In its way, it's a bit like playing a good FPS or platformer: every level builds on the previous levels, even though you aren't really stuck with the decisions you made in those previous levels. However, this is not an execution-level thing. This is a planning thing.

When you build a lair, you are building a system that the game will toss challenges at.

In an RPG, the equivalent would be if the game contained 20 five-hour adventures, and you created a new character at the beginning of each... but you got access to different options at each new adventure. So, in the beginning maybe you can be a warrior or a thief. The second level, you learn to be a cleric and a barbarian. Third level, ranger and mage... third level's the ranged challenge, you see.

Obviously, the levels wouldn't be completely separate. The easy way would be to make each new adventure the next generation in the same family. Anything that happens to the village, any treasures you bring home, any NPCs you help or hinder affect the next generation of adventurer.

This "reincarnation" system of design allows you to design a core game, but then allow players to explore it in a way that encourages them to learn and try many different approaches. It allows you to get the best planning-style play... over and over and over!

Fundamentally, this kind of design is the same as classic level-based design... except that you focus on the planning elements rather than the execution elements that are classically central. People have done this kind of thing before, especially in in tactical games. But, as far as I know, nobody's really thought about it explicitly.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Case for Boring Games...

I've been thinking about RPGs.

Everyone who plays them can point to an RPG and say, "That's one of my favorites". Whether you point to Planescape: Torment, FFVI, or something that's a bit of a stretch like System Shock II or FFVII, you don't have any problem pointing.

I've been thinking about the stuff I like in an RPG, and I've come to the conclusion that I like the boring stuff.

The primary gameplay of an RPG - killing monsters, exploring dungeons, leveling up - doesn't interest me much. I actually find those parts of the game very boring.

On the other hand, the boring parts of the game... I love. I love wandering around the village talking to everyone, I love mixing potions and enchanting weapons, I love building a character, I love flying around in my airship.

But I hate the same things in non-RPGs. I can't stand Animal Crossing or The Sims, even though they feature my favorite stuff.


As far as I can tell, the big reason is that the parts of the RPG that I like are set within a much larger framework. The point of the game isn't to enchant weapons or talk to peasants: it's to kill shit, explore, and level up. This means that when I spend time enchanting or chatting, I can measure it against an overall world, see it doing something.

Talking to peasants isn't the point of the game, but talking to peasants allows me to explore the world in more detail. Building a new spell isn't the point of the game, but doing so allows me to interact with the world (usually, kill shit) in a more personalized way.

In things like The Sims and Animal Crossing, these activities feel completely pointless. Sure, I can talk to everyone in town... but why bother? The world is a tiny, shallow place and exploring it is awfully pointless. Sure, I can build a classy house, but what does it matter? My sims are equally pleased by two rooms with a lot of corners. Having a nice house is actually bad, since it takes the sims twenty minutes to walk ten feet.

On the other side of the spectrum, I don't like these activities in MMORPGs, because they do not allow you to approach the world in more detail or from new perspectives. Exploring the world of the World of Warcraft is largely futile, because it's pretty well explored already. It's like "exploring" your local strip mall. There are no surprises, unless you count a 10% off sale on stuff you don't need.

Similarly, crafting weapons or potions is pointless because they have been carefully crippled down to a level of non-uniqueness that a fast food restaurant would be embarrassed about.

These all have the same problem: the creation doesn't let you interact with the world in a meaningful, seemingly unique way. Making potions doesn't give you any real new way of exploring the game, and building a house doesn't matter when there's really no world to explore with it.

Compare these to the examples I do like.

Evil Genius is about creating a house of a sort. I know a lot of people played The Sims like it was Evil Genius...

Evil Genius' house creation system was a lot weaker than The Sims, but to me it was a lot juicier. Every kind of room had a real purpose, every piece of furniture meant something. The layout wasn't just for kicks or to minimize travel time: it was continually tested by hapless tourists and not-so-hapless secret agents.

So, while Evil Genius didn't allow for many of the advanced options that The Sims allowed, it had a strong backbone that actually rewarded you for doing well.

Similarly, in Oblivion potion-making was generally quite rewarding. You could make potions of healing, sure. But it wasn't a matter of combining a rabbit foot and green herb: there were a lot of different ingredients you could use, a lot of side effects you needed to manage, and your skill played a huge part - not in simple pass/fail terms, but in what you could wring out of the ingredients.

Of course, potion making in Oblivion is well known for being one of the most broken systems on the face of the planet... that's something you have to manage, I suppose.

Evil Genius wasn't a spectacularly good game, but it's a great game to learn from. It was certainly the case that some players would be better at building bases than other players! It was definitely a long learning experience, each base slightly better as you learn the basics.

But it never came off as "unbalanced". (Actually, the unbalanced part of the game was personnel, not base construction.) The more successful you were, the more attention you drew.

This kind of adaptive feedback is the only thing I can think of that I predict will be in a lot more games. It allows you to play fast and loose with balance, favoring depth over fairness. And that's what I like.


A lot of people love The Sims, and I'm not saying it's bad. Instead, what I think is that these people impose their own world - their own value - onto the people and houses they create. Instead of having a feedback system like Oblivion's potions or Evil Genius' secret bases, the players substitute their own imagination and judgment. It seems to work well, but that's not something I need a game for.

On the other hand, the shallow 1+1=potion of MMORPGs is basically unforgivably bad...

What do you think? Do you like the "boring" parts? Can you think of a game design where crafting combines with massively multiplayer without being infuriating?