Sunday, March 30, 2008

Zombie: The Brain Eatening

This weekend was my old college's Gaming Weekend. Whenever I'm fairly nearby, I always try to run a game or two. Plus, it's a great opportunity to hang out with people who haven't seen you in long enough that they've forgotten how irritating you are.

The big game I ran this year was Zombie: The Brain Eatening. A farcical take on Vampire: The Masquerade, it was a "horde LARP". What this means is that there were five zombies and a large number of people playing walk-on roles as various humans. And, of course, getting eaten by zombies.

The zombies all had clans, like vampires do, and they all had "undisciplines" such as arrrrghiturgy and midbossamalism and amateurian. Potence made you smell really bad, and presents let you put special items down as rewards for quests... instead of spending blood points, you spend brains. And, of course, dying is strictly temporary.

The zombies had their own variant of the Masquerade called the Disco. If a zombie acted unzombielike (or really powerful), the hordelings could shout "DISCO!" and run for it. If they survived, they could respawn as hunters - more powerful, more dangerous, more useful characters. Also, the zombies could dance for health and brains, so it's one of the few games where choreographed team dancing was a major component of the game...

The game was testing a few limits. Every game I run tests aspects of gaming I want to know more about, and this one had a few things I wanted to test.

It went well enough. The room was too small, which was actually a huge problem that totally screwed up one element I was testing: I built it so that the hordelings (the human walk-ons) were supposed to run around pretending to be in a movie, but with a small room they didn't really have enough space to improv properly.

The next test would have involved more complex management of this kind of unguided improv, but the data are dirty because of the small room. I don't know whether I want to do the more advanced test without knowing more about the more limited situations.

The other bits came away clean, though.

One bit was inspired by the fact that I never have enough GMs. I always underestimate how many GMs I need. This game, I made all the zombies GMs:

The zombies were trying to save the world from the six forces trying to make it uninhabitable for zombie-kind. However, to do this they needed to guide the humans into saving the world. Therefore, the zombies were all about putting down quests and trying to finagle the humans into being willing and able to do them.

However, the humans were also the power source of the zombies - they needed brains to do these things, which meant they had to eat humans... and, of course, hunters had more skills to win quests with, but were also significantly more dangerous to zombies...

So, in essence, the zombies were those stereotypical 12-year-old GMs who need you to get through the plot line, but also just want to torture you and kill you a lot.

It worked out pretty well, although it was just a test, so the questing dynamics were a bit oversimplified.

I also wanted to see how much nonverbal communication could be brought to the fore. Although zombies were perfectly capable of talking, if anyone heard them talking, they would call "DISCO!" and turn into a hunter. Almost all of the interactions - combat, special abilities - were done through a limited number of hand gestures. Whole combat sequences could be run without needing any kind of spoken word at all.

This worked out fairly well, but my instructions were muddy at times, so there was more OOC communication than I would have liked. The zombies did develop a nice, subtle method of communicating with both each other and humans (without being clear enough to call Disco).

Also, I wanted the zombies to dance, because I wanted to see how comfortable players were with doing physically dumb stuff in teams. Normally, if you give someone the ability to dance in a game, they'll under-utilize it. Even if they're not the shy sort, dancing is too aggressively outside the normal actions in the LARP. So, I moved normal: I figured, if everyone's dancing, nobody will have any problems with joining in.

This worked absolutely spectacularly: many zombies who probably wouldn't have ever danced on their own were perfectly happy dancing in a team, to the point where they choreographed it. While in the first hour or two attendance was spotty, by halfway through the game zombies would rush over to any dancing zombie to join in and reap the rewards of acting like a silly person.

Actually, it worked really well, because even the humans - who gained no benefit from dancing - would break into dance as well.

The last thing I really wanted to test was the idea of a game that couldn't be LOST. It was physically impossible to lose the game, which makes it almost unique among LARPs. I wanted to see whether or not this significantly affected the way people played the game.

The answer is: no, it doesn't. So long as people have a goal, they'll play to achieve that goal even if there is no force acting against them and no time limit. Which is good to know.

A lot of emergent behavior I had hoped to see came out perfectly clear. For example, although an innocent (normal hordeling) calls Disco when he sees a zombie being weird or uber, once he's a hunter (super hordeling) he can't do that any more. Which gives the zombies no real reason to be careful around him. Over the course of the game, zombies became more cavalier about breaking Disco in front of hunters.

Also, something I had thought might be necessary but wasn't sure: the zombies would purposefully break Disco at endgame to turn innocents into hunters. The greater skills the hunters had were required to achieve the better quests, so one of the zombies would perform a "moster hug" - sprint up to a group of players, trump their combat (waaay overpower for a zombie), and then pat them on the head and run away.

I had allowed for a mechanic where humans could get stronger by searching for equipment. This very simple system would allow humans, if not being eaten by zombies, to power up and power up and power up. The zombies quickly learned that if they were over in a corner trying to figure out what to do, the humans were probably all over in another corner getting power armor, rocket launchers, and bandoliers of grenades.

Anyway, the game accomplished what I wanted it to. I'll have to run the improv test again (probably in a different game), but the others told me a lot. I count it as a success!

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Okay, ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement:

Basic Web Comic Page Design is a Solved Problem.

There's really no excuse other than gross incompetence to have (A) more than 100 pixels of title banner height, (B) a navigation bar that is anything other than a sleek line of five buttons, or (C) a comic image that is not a link to the next comic.

I stumble across comics with hugely flawed page designs - several in which even the top edge of the comic is not visible from the top of the page - and I have to wonder... Do I dislike these comics because they are bad, or do I dislike them because they're hard to read? Maybe they're good comics, and the continuous distraction of trying to navigate the page diminishes them?

Why take the chance? The issue is SOLVED. It's SOLVED.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jumping on Tabletops

Brian Shurtleff has posted about an assignment, and about how I affected his thinking on the matter. But he says, "how can a tabletop RPG make movement interesting and deep?"

He linked to a post that's not really very good: I prefer this followed by this.

But that's video games. Over the past few years, I've run a few tabletop games (and semi-LARPs) with the same ideas in mind, and I've learned some things. I'll tell you about them here.

(I'll be using "you" a lot, but I'm not talking about Brian. I don't know him or his work. I'm just... "you"ing in general. It's a writer's conceit.)

I don't like doing this, but first you have to define "movement".

In most video games, movement is actually movement. There's a world, you're moving through it. It's the first line of design, the thing that the players will interact with most, and the first thing they'll see after your painfully dull ten-minute opening cut-scene.

But the first line of play in a tabletop game is not necessarily the same kind of thing. It certainly can be, if you're running a game with miniatures, but in general that's not so popular these days.

What is the first line of play in your tabletop?

It depends on both the system and the GM. Some systems make the first line of play combat. Literally, the whole world of the game is combat and preparing for combat. Some GMs (even GMs that use these kinds of systems) will make the first line of play some kind of puzzle-navigating or socializing-with-NPC challenges.

The first is easy: if you have rules for your first line of play, you can make those rules deep and interesting using the exact same ideals that you use on movement. I'll talk about that shortly.

But when a GM takes over for the first line of play, you're faced with a bit of difficulty. You can't really sweeten your rules, because the GM is not using them at the moment. You certainly don't want to come up with deep rules for every conceivable thing the GM might make the first line of play! At best, the rule sets would diminish each other. At worst, your brain would explode.

In that kind of situation, you can't write rules. But you can write guidelines or meta-rules. On the other hand, I wouldn't suggest it unless those guidelines and/or meta-rules are the focus of your game. They tend to confuse and detract as side dishes.

You can, of course, simply point GMs to this post and say, "like that, except you're on your own in regards to rules."

In regards to rules, building a ruleset for fun, deep movement follows some basic guidelines. Please remember we're not aiming for rules. Rules are not our goal. The joy of movement is our goal. Rules are just a way (one way) to get there. Guidelines, suggestions, maps, and content are all other perfectly viable ways. Even scripted plot.

But let's just talk rules.

There are several factors that make movement more fun. Commitment, diversity, feedback, and integration are the four biggest factors.

Commitment is important because a player's biggest rush comes from when it's too late to turn back. There's a lot of different ways to do commitment, but since there is no computer to track velocity, acceleration, and so forth, the best way to do commitment in a tabletop game is to do it in increments.

Nothing says this better than leveling up. At each level, you choose your exact upgrade. Each choice refines and alters your future path, but no choice feels excessive or blind. However, this kind of system is difficult to expand into a more lively, turn-to-turn encounter.

On maps, the way to implement this is to have the players move fairly slowly. On any given turn they can go in any direction, but once they've been going in a direction for three or four turns, going back where they came will be tough. Of course, this only matters if the map has significant effect on the play.

On something like combat, commitment is, perhaps, the hardest thing. It's easy to say that swinging your sword can't be taken back, but it's not really a commitment: next round, you're free to change tactics or whatever as you see fit.

There are a huge number of ways to approach this, but my favorite is to have "stances" or some similar mechanic. The player spends a turn to enter a stance, and then he can only use techniques from that stance. He can change stances, but he has to spend a turn to do so. However, for this to work, each stance needs to be quite distinct. Otherwise, there's no real reason to worry about which stance you're in.

Diversity is important mostly for pacing reasons. If players always move the same way, it's going to get fairly boring... especially if all the players move the same way. So there needs to be diversity both within characters and between characters.

Having different "modes" of movement is fairly common in good movement video games. Even Katamari Damacy has different modes of movement, although they are so seamlessly integrated you probably didn't notice that "sideways", "forward", "up a slope" and "down a slope" are all distinct movement types...

Generally, the types of movement you make the player switch between offer different levels and "directions" of commitment. You might have the mode where the player doesn't commit much at all, but has limited power. You might have the mode where the player must really commit, but has a lot of power. You can have the mode where the player doesn't commit much, has more power, but is making his commitments mostly blind...

Allowing the player to switch up movement types isn't that easy, though: a player will tend to pick a movement type and stick with it forever. So, generally, you'll want to integrate your movement variety into your challenges, so that any given situation will have a different kind of movement as a winner.

The stances example I gave before is an example of commitment, but it's also an example of diversity. Which is why I like it so much. I use this system a lot, and I like to split my "stances" into "chase" (running away or towards), "team strike", "lone wolf", "one against many", and "the boss killer" modes, although there are a lot of other options. Also remember that your players are interacting, and there can certainly be modes of movement that rely on other players.

Ideally, each mode would hopefully change the turn structure and gross strategic setting itself, rather than simply giving the player a new set of powers. It's the difference between having a sword, having a bow, and launching fireballs from your fingertips, not the difference between launching fireballs vs lightning vs ice cloud.

Feedback is important because a player must always have enough information to (A) appreciate his commitment and (B) make the next commitment. Therefore, you need to be careful not to hide the effects of any commitment he makes.

In this case, playtesting will clear up any horrible problems on this front... but you also need to make sure to be juicy enough in the game itself. Don't make your different movement styles all just numerical variations. Give each a feeling of style and an interesting flair.

I mean, you're writing a tabletop RPG. That's pretty much The Thing To Do, right?

Integration is the big one that everyone misses out on. If you can't do any of the others, do integration.

Integration is the art of making your movement play bits merge painlessly with all your other play bits. This means that movement should change all other play loops a bit, and visa-versa.

The biggest example of this is not getting to move further or getting to attack an extra time each round as you level up. No!

The biggest example of this is cooperating with other players.

Other players are the biggest, most powerful, most efficient asset in the game. Allowing for some kind of combining forces is The Best Way.

I'm not talking about one player being a warrior, one player being a mage, one player being a cleric. That's not cooperation, that's everyone sucking except whichever role happens to be needed right now.

If you're thinking about separation of player abilities, think Shadowrun. Decker, rigger, street sam... are all very different. But they can operate simultaneously, together, each at full capacity nearly all the time.

This level of separation is very difficult for a GM, because the players are operating in such dramatically different arenas that while a GM resolves one player's actions, the others are sitting on their thumbs. Metaphorically.

Unless you're making the turn system so complex for the players that they have to think hard for the entire time you're dealing with other players, that's probably not the best choice. Instead, I prefer a more classic "dual tech" system.

Allow players to gain abilities or bonuses by interacting with other players. Not "I feed you my power!" because spending all your time feeding someone power is about as much fun as watching a decker when you're a street sam. Instead, something like "if both players are in Ice Emblem Stance, then..." or "if players fight back to back, then..." or "if a player is trying to rescue another player, then..."

Getting the players to interact is vital! In my opinion, if the rest of your game is shit but you do that right, you've done a good job.

An Example

As an example, one of my favorite recent games was a Star Wars game I've mentioned a few times. The primary mechanic was Force powers (and sabering, which is really a Force power).

Ditching the way these things are represented in most Star Wars games, I went with a card system. Each player received a pool of Force cards.

They chose a variety of skills, and each skill was a boost. You could do anything, just spend cards flat, but you'd get nowhere fast. Instead, you took a skill, which would require you to play certain cards and give you lots of added effectiveness.

For example, maybe you have a Force Lightning skill. It takes pairs. Or maybe it takes runs. Or maybe you must play kings. Maybe you can only use it if someone else has played a king.

Players were allowed encouraged to trade cards with each other.

There were a bunch of other rules involving dark Force, Force overloads, burnouts, washouts, emotions, stats... but the core was those cards.

Wrangling those cards was commitment, because once a card was used, it was gone. (Oh, and I used stances for saber combat for double the commitment.) It was diverse, because every player had completely unique powers and sets of cards required to fuel his powers (and emotional content). It was full of feedback, because the calculations were entirely transparent and the enemy used the same knacks. And it was integrated - both through stat change over time and through interplayer trade.

The stat layer was just as deep...

Trading cards ended up getting a little too complex from time to time, but other than that, it seemed to work great.

So, concentrate on "movement", whatever that "movement" really is, and you'll be able to build quite a game. Regardless as to whether it's a video game or a tabletop.


At least, that's my opinion. Let me know if you agree.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Games Can't Do That...

It's always on the back burner: the idea that games are The Big Thing that will Enable Us To Solve The Big Problems. Well, I don't think that's true. If something vaguely gamelike does those sorts of things, it will be about as similar to today's games as we are to plankton.

To give a specific example, let's talk artificial intelligence. Real artificial intelligence - hard, general intelligence.

It would seem that games are just perfect for "training up" such an intelligence, don't you think? They've got clear rules, clear rewards and punishments, and a wide variety of situations. Plus, they have the ability to interact with other players! I mean, sure, you aren't just going to plunk one down in front of Final Fantasy MMCXLVIII, but surely you could start simple and work your way up to it, right?

No, not really.

You see, any general intelligence algorithm is going to build a mind out of experiences. There are a few algorithms out there already that might work... but they can't really be tested due to some very specific constraints.

One major constraint is hardware: even the biggest, nastiest supercomputers can't simulate the kind of data wrangling that these algorithms require. This is especially true because of the confusing high-fidelity inputs we receive from cameras and microphones and gyrometers.

To get around this constraint, we can try to use these algorithms on simpler data. Instead of using cameras, we use a short movie clip that can be analyzed at leisure. Instead of microphones, we might try text.

But the thing is, this doesn't end up working. The "encoded" data might be simpler, but it carries with it a huge slew of assumptions that the algorithm cannot learn because they are wholly outside its realm of perception. It's theoretically possible to create "neutered" encoded data that will "train up" an algorithm, but not only is it painfully difficult, it's also obviously not a terribly good example of general intelligence. Even then, it won't fix anything.

For example, text is very simple to represent. And there are just cartloads of algorithms out there that can analyze vast swaths of text and come up with something resembling a good representation of text language.

But this doesn't really allow the algorithm to discuss things. The algorithm can build a representation of the text, but even if it could "think" about things like context, it really has no way to determine context. Context is not really part of our written language. Instead, context is learned through exchanges of language. Interactions.

On the surface it's possible that, given enough time and enough people chatting with it, a general algorithm could learn to represent context and whatever other details need representing. The general algorithm could "think". But, unfortunately, this never happens.


Well, let's look at a game. Let's skip the easy steps and move straight to a game you would think would be suitable: WoW.

Let's put a general intelligence in WoW. WoW has a few big advantages which should be obvious: easy to understand rules, other players, conversations at every level.

In theory, the general intelligence would learn (if it was built correctly) how to fight, how to scout, how to run away.

Things like buying equipment and grouping aren't in the same domain, but our general intelligence has a miraculous set of fundamental systems, so he will eventually pick up on those things too.

Okay, so now our general intelligence is running around in WoW, understanding "LFG TS13+" or whatever.

Or is he?

How is he understanding these complex things?

Through that algorithm, right?

Yes, that algorithm and many many months of experience. Many, many months of experience. All carefully analyzed and collated. He's built up a massive set of interpretive systems to deal with this complex data and produce a decent result.

He has to know that this land slopes too steeply for anyone to run up... which means that he can't escape if he's on the bottom, but the monster can't reach him if he's on the top. He has to understand that the monster over there can heal, and the monster over there is a DPSer. He has to know that when someone says "orly" they are going to suck in a party and need to be ignored.

Even if his algorithm can handle that amount and diversity of data, what is it running on? What computer is running this maze of information? What system is supporting this nightmarishly complex structure that - I guarantee - will be at least fifty gigs of compressed data.

There is no possible way to exaggerate how much computation this level of sophistication requires. Regardless of whether you're very sophisticated in a game or very sophisticated in real life, that sophistication has to be calculated.

See, getting around the complex inputs from cameras and speakers doesn't actually solve anything. The amount of computation required to process complex inputs is significantly less than the amount of computation required to deal with the sophistication on how to put the processed result together intelligently.

So, sure, if you had the computational power to run a general intelligence, you might be able to run it in a game. Personally, I think that 99.99999999% of games - certainly all non-MMOGs - simply don't have enough interactive complexity to allow such an algorithm to learn adequately. But, in theory, you could run it in a game.

Why would you?

Why wouldn't you slap a camera and a microphone on it?

I can see reasons you might want to develop a game-like environment for such a thing, but those are specific applications, not general research. You could argue that hardware is irritating and faulty, but games are buggy, shallow, and have very poor interactivity compared to real life.

No, games are not The Key to this issue...

Although, obviously, feel free to disagree and tell me why.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is apparently off the air. Not this blog: my actual site for hosting stuff. Like my pic.

It's been replaced by one of those irritating placeholder sites with pop-up ads and everything.

Time, I think, to switch hosts.

Monday, March 17, 2008

This World Was Made for You and Me!

I've been thinking about worlds.

You see, I have a lot of complaints about Mass Effect. The gameplay was uninspired, the writing was all stereotypes, the plot was about as exciting as a sleeping turtle. That's not to mention the fact that every container in the universe was full of guns.

But, even so, I wouldn't mind more of it.

It kind of reminds me of the Star Wars universe in its way: most of the writing is crap, few of the games are really very good, and the only time the plot surprises you is when it's worse than you ever imagined. Despite that, I and many others have an insatiable urge to keep playing in that universe.

For a long time, I just thought that kind of thing was because of the popularity of a universe. I mean, if Star Wars is drilled into your head since birth, you're going to want to play Star Wars, right?

Well, actually, I'm technically more of a trekkie... but I really have no urge to go play a game in the Trek universe. It's at least as big and well-defined, and it's way deeper under my skin...

Conversely, the Mass Effect universe is bright and new. I barely know anything about it, except that it's filled with painfully stereotypical races and situations. But I'm eager to play more games in it. So, obviously, how much I experience (or enjoy) a universe hasn't got much to do with how much I want to play in it.

I don't think that my preferences are the preferences. Given the number of Star Trek games, there are definitely a lot of people who feel the opposite way as me. But... what makes a universe stand out for me?

I think it's a diversity of interesting elements. I really need to see that the universe is "full": it needs to have not just good guys and bad guys, but mechanics and sports figures and whores. It needs to have problems with bugs, chewy bacon, and that weird smell that always accompanies a newly installed Argleburk Megatransistor.

Star Trek is pretty bad at this. Nearly every detail is critical to the A or B plot of an episode. Even color like the poker game or Data's poems are used in the plot. The universe never feels really "full" - it feels like a vast field of neatly-fitted pegs in carefully-sized holes.

When I first started watching DS9, I felt a little thrill: at last, a Star Trek series where people lived!

Of course, it fell short, and I ended up not liking it at all... but at least I can now peg the reason I really wanted to like it.

From some point of view, Mass Effect totally screwed this up as well. Everyone lived in a tiny room with no bathrooms or anything. Every container was full of guns. It was a very adventure-centric level design.

But from a writing point of view, Mass Effect was full. It did have all those fun little details. Including fairly major details that simply never matter - like Vorkosigan's Joker's brittle little legs. The universe was alive, messy and vibrant. Even if the level design was usually pathetic.

What universes do you want to play in? Why?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Torque Game Builder has officially begun collapsing under its own weight. I've never had so much trouble with built-in physics or with such severe scoping errors. To the point where I don't know how anyone can make games in it any more.

The basic physics system is grotesquely outdated at this point, and their slap-dash upgrades over the years have just made it more kludgy. I don't like my avatars popping through walls. That's unacceptable, especially at the slow speeds I'm using.

The level design system "interacts" with "behaviors" in that any variables a behavior uses or sprites it creates at any time are permanently added to the level design. IE, saved to the hard drive. IE, next time you play, they will already be there.

This is nuts, and made ten times worse by GarageGame's incredibly worthless site, nearly empty wiki, and literally unsearchable forums.

I used to really like TGB... but it's been quite a while since I programmed in it, and this was not a pleasant return.

What other games middleware do people suggest? I'm looking for something with more punch than Flash, but easier to use than C++. Basically, I'm looking for TGB without the sudden suckage.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Brathwaite has posted an interesting idea and a fun thought exercise:

A game about restoring the culture of a group of players. Well, restoring might be the wrong term, since it's questionable that they ever stored it in the first place. Let's call it "teaching".

I think that... I think that a game might be ideal for teaching people culture.

Because culture is a process. Culture isn't a set of rules, or a list of historical events. Culture isn't a language or a dress code. Culture is fundamentally alive.

I know a lot about a lot of cultures. I probably know as much about Irish culture as many Irish-Americans. But to me, it's just information. It's just a cool idea.

This is the problem most people would fall into, I think. Sort of like someone who watches a dozen kung-fu movies back to back and walks out of the theater thinking he can do kung-fu. I can point and say, "oh, that's aikido, that's wing chun". Doesn't mean I can do these things.

Now, it's hard to teach martial arts with a video game. There's really no way for the game to track your physical movements. But a culture... if you were careful and clever, you could build a game that could tell how you were acting culturally.

It wouldn't be perfect, obviously. You are not your avatar, and your avatar would (by necessity) have less subtle, deep interactions than you could have in person. But the idea is that the dynamics of the game would lead the player to feel the culture. Feel it push on him, feel it arise from and react to circumstance.

A game trying to teach Irish culture shouldn't simply be an action game set in Ireland, idealized with dancing redheads and oppressive Brits. It shouldn't be an RPG with druids in it. These things are window dressing. They imply that the culture is window dressing. The culture has to be powered by the game, integrated into it.

I don't want to use Irish as an example culture, because it's not the clearest example of what I'm getting at. Let's talk Gypsies.

Roma culture distills down to a few very specific elements, and these are very easy to put into a game as a dynamic rather than window dressing.

I'm going to build a Gypsy-like culture from a single core tenet, simply extrapolated across times and places.

I'm going to imagine a game where your people have powers that grow stronger the more of you are together. But only so long as they remain "pure". There are a wide variety of "impure" things that your people avoid, including (most importantly) mixing with people who aren't your own.

In game terms, interacting with outsiders is only okay if you carefully remain apart from them, distinct. Otherwise, your powers degrade and they take a long time to come back. If you degrade far enough, you might actually fall sick and die. Too many of you in one place, though, and your powers grow uncontrollable: monsters-from-the-id style.

(This could just as easily be a multiplayer or even massively multiplayer game, as you see.)

My imaginary Gypsy culture follows entirely from this one rule of gameplay. Every aspect of Gypsy culture can be, if you stretch a bit, explained by an attempt to stay pure and separate. Think about it.

The player would. The player would get to see these traditions from the inside. He would understand what it is like to be that kind of outsider, what it is like to constantly travel, and how it all arises from and reacts to the world he is in.

Looking back over those paragraphs, it seems like I'm taking an almost insulting approach to my imaginary variant of this culture. Maybe. I'm trying to keep it simple, and simple is usually insulting. But the game doesn't have to be a depressing xenophobia-fest.

Your own people are very important to you, remember. It's not like you go live alone in the woods somewhere: your people usually travel in groups and there's a lot of joy and complexity to be had in the way a long-standing group interacts.

In fact, most games are careful to set the player (and his party, if he has one) apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world is basically a petty, pointless place only useful for the supplies you can strip from it. You move from town to town, never mixing, rarely making friends, and often opposed by the local muscle.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I bought two hundred dollars of games the other day (I got a working PS2 at last). I thought to myself, why not?

Shiren the Wanderer is a very simple Roguelike. There's no such thing as character generation, the map generation is very simple, and the items are very limited. It's a very limited game.

But it's a lot of (casual) fun!

The reason for this, I think, is the way that the game focuses on the world. Sure, improving your avatar is important, but it's more of an enabler than a reason to play. In theory, the idea is to reach the end of the final dungeon and win. That's never going to happen - it's a roguelike. The end of the dungeon is for hardcore players only.

But along the way you'll run into a large number of "mini-goals" that permanently change the state of the world. Saving a little girl, escorting a chef, that sort of thing. They are generally difficult, but not out of reach. When you accomplish them, the world changes a little. It's a good reason to keep playing.

I've been talking for a while now about using this kind of method. Shiren uses it, and it works. I'm happy to see that it works. Sort of verification by third party experiment. :P

Monday, March 10, 2008


I was shopping today and I noticed a display full of various Easter candies and generic pseudo-spiritual decorations. Mixed in was a copy of Transformers: The Movie.

Hee hee! Optimus Prime died for your sins, kids!

Instead of coming back to life three days later, though, he just played a lot of video games and only eventually resurrected by "merging" with another man... he's a lot more like Eostre than Jesus...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Off with his head!

I recently purchased Valkyrie Profile: Silmaria. Aside from the undertones of grind, it is an exquisite game.

One of the things I liked best about the first Valkyrie Profile game was the combat system. Some brainy Japanese guy said "hey, four characters in your party... four buttons on the controller..." (Presumably, this was not the same person that made Frey female and Odin have two eyes... but, hey, I'm no purist.)

In combat, you press a button and that character acts. If he has multiple attacks, each time you press it he makes his next attack.

"And... what's the big deal?"

The big deal is that hitting an enemy while he's in the air gives you free XP... and hitting him while he's on the ground gives you free action points. Each attack is not simply "hit him with sword", but is a sequence of specific moves that you specify. Moves like "dual cleave", "air drop", "spinning blade"... and you program your characters to do a specific one first, second, and third (depending on their number of attacks). Spells also have a progression, although it's hardcoded.

By being aware of your timing, you could cut enemies to pieces in midair, get lots of free XP.

In VP1, I was so good at this that I regularly got at least 50% extra XP per fight. You also needed to manage shield-breaking (if they block) and building up combos for super-attacks.

It's easy to screw up, too: if you knock a light enemy upwards, he'll sail above all but the most vertically-oriented attacks, and you'll end up stabbing a lot of air beneath him, doing nothing. Moving the enemy around much will also screw up spells, since they're stationary.

I'm not sure if it's clear to someone who hasn't played the game, but this system of combat is much deeper than most RPGs out on the market - it's about as complex as a tactical RPG. Except it's just four buttons.

VP2 has fundamentally the same system of actually whacking baddies, but they have a movement system I'm not terribly interested in. Aside from that, they added an additional bit:

Each of the enemies is made of parts. When you hit an enemy, you actually hit a specific part of the enemy. Sword, head, tail, whatever. This doesn't really change the damage much (unless the part is armored), but if you do enough damage to a part, it breaks off.

And you get to keep it.

Knock the weapon out of the hands of the lizardman, you get to keep it. Cut off the head of a wolf, you get wolf fangs. And so forth.

Adding hit-location damage to the scheme was pretty brilliant, although it seems to be balanced funny. It means that you can theoretically try to set up your warriors to not just knock them up or down, but also aim for various body parts! This is especially important for things with some armored elements and some vulnerable elements.

While this isn't done as well as I would like, it is a very interesting idea. You're replacing the "random drops" with a skill system: what you can milk an encounter for depends on how cleverly you've built your assault pattern.

In VP2 it's pretty random, at least for the moment. But I've been thinking and thinking... and I literally can't think of a better combat system. Sure, I'd implement it differently. But I can't think... of anything better! At all!

This kind of system - the attacks aren't simply there to get the enemy to 0 HP as quickly as possible. The attacks also serve to give you an in-fight bonus, an XP boost, more money, and determine drop! It's all done very simply in live combat, frontloaded by allowing you to pick weapons and attack sequences while wandering the dungeon.

It makes each enemy into a battlefield! It turns what is normally a single point of interest (HP) into a complex field of interests.

Do you see why I like it? Have you ever played it?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Death by Misadventure

I'd like to bring up a dichotomy in game design. Not narrative vs. gameplay, but what I see as the "real" dichotomy: Simulation vs Scripting.

The weird thing is that these words don't really underline the basic problem: they simply describe the symptoms. The underlying problem is one of grain and agency.

It would be easier to show you an example of what I mean, I think.

Dynasty Warriors 5 versus Dynasty Warriors 6. In both games, you run around a battlefield and kill people. The play dynamic in that sense is very similar, so we're going to divide by killing people to simplify the equation. We can simply compare the rest of the game.

In 5, the game focuses on your nation. There are a few dozen zones that can be controlled by factions, and you win by controlling all of them. There is a remarkably interesting method of issuing edicts and so forth. Each zone can be improved, attacked, suffer problems, and so forth. Each zone also tends to provide access to specific upgrades that you can take with you into battle, such as tigers or the kill-o-matic charm.

It's like Risk, but with a bit of Civilization added in.

In 6, the game focuses on the stories of the characters. When you begin the game as a character, you are faced with half a dozen conflicts that are specifically geared towards the character. You are given cut-scenes with full voice acting and so forth to further the character's arc.

There is no control over this: you proceed from battle to battle. Instead of giving you control over a detailed nation, they let you improve your character a'la any modern Final Fantasy game.

Now, 5 is simulation, 6 is scripting. (The combat section in both is mostly simulation.)

Which is better?

Well, if you've been reading me for very long at all, you probably have the strong impression that I prefer one over the other. But that isn't really the case.

Simulation is invaluable in providing play. You simply cannot script in deep play. The harder you try, the more bogged down you get.

So if you want to have any play that keeps players playing, you need simulation. You need to have very high-grain interactions that are under the player's control. Whether this is moving around a battlefield stabbing things, trading stuff between cities, tweaking your character's progress, or building a robot. You need simulation because it gives the player something to do.

But simulation is limited to the things you simulate. You can simulate a battle, you can simulate an economy, and so forth. But they will follow only the rules you create for them.

Scripting allows you to inject things from outside the game. With scripting, you can make the enemies spring a trap without needing to write up an algorithm for trap-springing. You can make a player leave to star in a TV show (and then show snippets of the episodes) without needing to write up an algorithm for leaving for and filming TV shows. You can make a castle collapse without needing to write up a structural simulation. You can make a wife and a husband not get along without needing to write an algorithm for simulating marital bliss.

While you could, in theory, write simulations for every single little thing you ever wanted to put in the game, it's prohibitively expensive and complex. Also, you still will have a very hard time injecting a meaningful theme into your game, even if the computer has the theoretical knowledge of themes. They just cut across too many layers.

Okay, in honesty, to me the ultimate game would be a system that simulates a million billion things including theme-building.

I also want to live on Mars for two hundred years, then move to Alpha Centauri.

In the reasonable scope of things, I think that scripting does have an important place in games. You should think carefully: what is your gameplay? Simulate it. What drives your gameplay? Script it.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Programming Worlds

For me, one of the biggest problems with programming languages is that they are languages. Languages are inherently one-dimensional: they progress forward along a line and that's it. For the most part, the things we want to communicate are one-dimensional: "I'm going to eat a sandwich" is a straight progression. "Turn left at the third light, then right at the dead mime" is a straight progression.

But there are lots of things that aren't straight progressions - things that language is bad at. For example, teaching someone how to gut a fish. Teaching someone how to make a hat. Showing someone a fractal. Explaining a molecule's structure.

Instead of trying to explain these with a language, we generally try to explain these with images. Usually, we accompany these images with language, because various pieces of the image might be known well enough to not need explaining. "This is a hydrogen atom", the label proclaims. "You should already know what a hydrogen atom is, so I don't need to explain it further."

Language as label is fundamentally different than language as progression. If you say "This is a donut", that's not really the same kind of communication as saying "I'm going to eat this donut" or "a donut is made of dough and nuts". That's probably important to keep in mind...

"Where are you going with this?" you may ask.

Why are we trying to tell a computer how to do complex things by using a linear language? We don't tell people how to do complex things using a linear language. The only reason we still tell computers in that way is because we really haven't figured out how to get the computer to "understand" a richer system.

Except... that's completely not true. Even ten years ago there were visual programming languages. The computer understood that each piece on the screen was part of a whole.

What is missing from that picture is the relationship between the objects on the screen. You could draw eight text boxes, but the computer doesn't really know anything more about them. Unless you specify in a language, behind the scenes.

That part is a real nightmare, logistically speaking. We've gotten used to it, but fundamentally, it's very messy and difficult. We've come up with a lot of ways to try to partition it, to simplify it, to standardize it, but it's still a nightmare. And it gets worse every year.

So... let's think for a minute.

Instead of thinking in terms of linear language, let's think in terms of pictures. When we draw shapes on the screen, the program knows what those shapes are and where they are. It just doesn't know what to do with them. It doesn't know how the shapes interact with the rest of the shapes and the world in general.

You can make assumptions pretty easily. If you download one of the new "2D physics engines" that are all the rage recently, you'll find that you can easily draw remarkably complicated systems and the computer knows exactly what to do with them. I made a spinny thing that swung a bucket around fast enough to keep water in the bucket despite gravity. It took me two minutes, and I'd never used the system before. How long would it have taken in C#?

Obviously, the assumptions that the engine makes are very limiting. It's not really possible to make a real game in the engine. You would have to look outside the engine for things like scoring, stage control, narrative events, inventory management...


What if I had another system for building a narrative, and it understood the "physics" of interacting plot blobbies I draw. I could quickly sketch out an adaptive, dynamic plot. I could watch the nameless colored blobs spin and bounce off of each other. If I built it, I would know what each blob was. That one's the princess, that's the castle, that's the hero, that's the magic sword... tweak until they bounce and stick and move in ways that make sense, even if you allow the hero to have variable inputs.

In fact, it could be the same engine, fundamentally. While you probably don't want to model plots using only Newtonian physics, those dynamics plus a few more (state changes, for example) would probably suffice. You won't be writing 1984, but you can create a fun, dynamic little plot.

In two minutes.

Now, the problem with that is that it really doesn't have any oomph. I mean, you see a pink blob labeled "princess" and a red blob labeled "dragon" and, well, rescue one from the other. Wheee?

What becomes necessary is to allow this system to talk to another system. Which means that you would express yourself, moment to moment, on the physical system. That would determine some of the state changes in the plot system, which in turn would create a new physical layout for you to manipulate.

This isn't straightforward to actually do. It's only easy to say.

For example, if we're sticking to the knight-rescues-princess bit, and assuming you play the knight, then the primary gameplay would probably involve moving around the physical map stabbing things.

We could simply make it so that when your plot-avatar encounters another plot-avatar, the enemy's level starts up. You kill the enemy, we delete the plot avatar, and your plot avatar keeps floating along in his path.

That's not terribly interesting. Why make a plot engine if we're going to limit people to linear plots?

Instead, we want to allow the player to alter his plot-avatar's path and/or state by what he does in the physical bit.

One way to do this is "measures of success". The character adds how many kills he made to his velocity, and changes state depending on how much damage he took. This provides a minimal level of control, usually only useful for changing the timing of plot events. Still, you might be surprised how much of an effect that can have on a well-designed plot.

Another way to do this is through pickups. These would be physical objects that aren't really physically important. For example, you find a letter from the wicked witch to the traitorous general. You read the postmark, and head off towards her house. This changes your direction on the plot level, pointing you towards a certain plot element.

By collecting multiple "references", you could choose which one to move towards...

Anyhow, the point is that a system that can do "anything" is very complicated to program. A lot of the things we do don't require a programming language, but a programming world. I would say "environment", except that already means something.

There are a bunch of these already around. But because they exist in isolation, they are of extremely limited use.

The core idea is that we can link together a bunch of systems that make specific assumptions and come up with what we need. It could just be stacking the same systems over and over, each time tweaking parameters and gluing in links.


Well, I like the idea.

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I dreamed that a hundred people were confused about my last post, so now I feel compelled to post about the nature of themes.

A theme is not a plot. It's a kind of underlying concept that you explore.

This is not hindsight or bullshit deconstruction: many of the best works of art in every media have a consciously chosen theme.

For example, Shrek. The first movie had the theme "self confidence". Virtually every character was defined by their self confidence and the measures they took to protect it. This isn't me plucking the idea out of thin air: I read it from an interview with the writer. He consciously focused on the idea. And the first movie was great.

The thing is that the same characters in the same situations with no theme wouldn't have been nearly as tight. The sequels attest to this: they had much weaker themes that weren't really very compatible with the design of the IP. In turn, they weren't as good.

I think that the audience (or players) understand the nature of the theme at some level, even if they can't put words on it. There's just something that "clicks" when everything is exploring a specific theme. Donkey and Shrek just "click", even though there's no particular reason they should: they click because they're both exploring self-confidence from different angles.

As a game example, I think that the Star Wars universe is at it's best when exploring the theme "power corrupts". This sounds like a dismally dark theme, but that's not really the case: the struggle to resist the corruption is a big and rather shiny part of the universe.

There are a million ways to resist it: make oaths, join a brotherhood, fall in love, find a friend, etc, etc, etc. No matter what the path, corruption still drags at you, and that can be very interesting to see what sacrifices arise.

It's also interesting to come at it from the other side: if power corrupts, what does lack of power do? How about someone who is only powerful in a specific situation? How about different kinds of power?

That's just the light half. The dark half is also fun, exploring the millions of ways to fall and the millions of types of corruption...

It would seem to be primarily a story theme, wouldn't it? I mean, can the rules of a game actually contribute to this theme?


Throw away your d20s. There are any number of rule sets that give enticing, corruptive influence over the player. A time-honored tradition is to statistically reward the player for doing dark deeds. My personal take on the matter is much more complex: I built and refined a very unique system that seems to do the job very well. The rules of the game revolve around the idea that power corrupts.

In fact, I think it makes a stronger case. If you just see it, you get a lot of people who say, "well, I wouldn't fall..." But if you live it...

I think this makes the game a much stronger, tighter experience. Sort of like in Eternal Darkness, where a primary theme was "madness". While the examples of madness varied hugely, they all "fit together" because they were all pursuing the same theme, just from various directions. It's a simple, clear example of what I'm talking about.

I hope this is clear...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

IP Range

Intellectual Property, of course.

Intellectual Property is the "industry term" for a coherent, usually copyrighted and/or trademarked group of concepts. IE, a universe. Star Wars is an IP. Lord of the Rings is an IP. Dungeons and Dragons is an IP.

Now, here's a fun fact that you may not have known about: an IP has a specific range that it's designed for. That is, the writer intends to explore specific concepts, and therefore the universe he designs is built to do that.

It's easier to see in smaller IP. For example, the game Eternal Sonata is built to explore a few core concepts involving death, the search for happiness, and the way they intertwine.

If you were to try to write a fanfic in the same universe as Eternal Sonata, it would probably be based around the same concepts, just naturally. You could focus on other themes, like the nature of art or insanity, but it would feel strange, kind of forced.

It would be like creating a Star Wars game about trading stocks and bonds. I mean, you COULD, but it doesn't really fit the IP very well.

Some IP are very restricted, to the point where all of the themes are explored. There isn't even any urge to expand on it (with fanfic or sequels). Not because it's bad, but because it's said all it has to say. There are lots of examples of this, mostly movies. Movies tend to be tightly woven, with no excess fat. Nothing to grab ahold of and run with. Some of these movies get sequels ANYWAY...

An easy example of this is the Blade Runner movie. If you see "Blade Runner 2", you know there's something dumb happening.

On the other hand, some IP are "built to last". That is, they are built to explore very big themes in very diverse ways, so they aren't in danger of running out any time soon. A lot of TV series are built this way.

Firefly, for example, is an IP that can explore a wide range of themes without being in any danger of running dry. Firefly was on purpose. An example of an accidental "built to last" IP is the Terminator franchise.

Some IP are "forced" into lasting. By which I mean they originally have very little to say, but they are stretched and deformed into an almost unrecognizable form that can explore a wide variety of themes.

Star Wars is an excellent example of this: the original movie was pretty strictly limited, thematically. Especially since the universe was so absolute: there are NO OTHER JEDI, there is EXACTLY ONE OTHER SKYWALKER, there are NO OTHER SIGNIFICANT GOVERNMENTS, it's just the Empire and the Republic... the whole fiction was built to serve this one exploration.

However, as time wore on, Star Wars was hijacked. The canon was weakened and expanded so that virtually every imaginable theme can be explored in a Star Wars setting without seeming out of place. I think you could probably make a game entirely about herding bantha and it would seem to "fit", so long as you had a light saber.

It's not that one type is better than another. Tight IP can produce extremely profound stories that are drenched in mood. Blade Runner is an example. It's a very strong, very powerful movie. If the universe had been weakened to allow for future exploration of other themes, it wouldn't have been as tight. Now, you could write Blade Runner fanfic on other themes (I'm sure it exists), but you'll be fighting the current.

On the other hand, a "built to last" IP can produce forever. While any given exploration of a theme might not be quite as tight, you can explore the whole of the human condition in bite-sized chunks. And, as Firefly shows us, "not as tight" doesn't equal "bad".

Lastly, letting your fans hijack your IP and turn it into a universe capable of supporting life is a fantastic crossbreed of the two other types. The downside being, of course, that anything you make cannot hope to live up to expectations... ;)

Anyway, that's all kind of tongue in cheek. The real point is this:

Game rules are the same way.

Some game mechanics (rules and progressions and so forth) are built to explore a specific theme. The really obvious examples are indie games like Passage, but a less indie example would be Eternal Darkness.

Some game mechanics are built to support a wide variety of themes. An example here is the first-person shooter, which can support a huge number of themes, only a handful of which are actively being explored. Sure, most of these themes are rather physical, not all high-falutin'. But they're still themes.

Some game mechanics are hijacked and forced to deal with a huge variety of themes without their consent. A good example of this is D&D and it's ten trillion descendants. I don't think I've seen a genre that doesn't have an example of a D&D-like system.

Game rules are just as much a way of expressing things as pictures or dialog. Different things, but things nonetheless.

I'd like to see some games that have an IP that is equal parts game dynamics and universe design... working together on exploring the same themes.

What do you all think?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Harder! Harder!

(This isn't pointless snark, I'm getting to something.)

Maybe I'm just getting slow in my old age, but has anyone else noticed that more and more games seem to have really irritating segments that don't use the same play style?

For example, I'm playing Black Site right now. It's Gears of War without the cover mechanics. I mean, really. I keep thinking I've already played it.

On the current level, there's a giant plant monster on a bridge, and you're manning a helicopter's turret. The thing is that this challenge (presumably a boss) involves primarily shooting down balls of fire that turn and arc.

I keep dying, because the rest of the game has been about shooting bad guys until they fall over dead. I'm having a hard time switching gears to this oldschool "shoot the missiles", especially with thumbstick controls. (This isn't mentioning the fact that the last checkpoint was ten minutes before and your other squad member is just sitting on his ass in the copilot's seat.)

I find this is true in a lot of games. In God of War, I was thoroughly stymied by a timed segment. In Skate, I'm screwed by the race sections. There seems to be a modern obsession for creating these play types that aren't part of the rest of the game.

I can see the theory behind it. Switch it up, keep it feeling fresh. They do vehicle segments, races, weird requirements... it feels like I'm seeing a juggling act.

Now, one game that did well was Time Splitters: Future Perfect. While it did have a few irritating parts, the majority of the weird screwy games are extras. Some of the extra games are irritating and pointless, some I love to pieces. But I bet that each player finds different weird games attractive.

Classically, these kind of "side-games" are not common. I think to a large extent it's because we have so much more space and computation to throw around: we can create a segment with different rules because we have the power to do so. It's fairly recent, only really happening since GTA3.

But I think it's almost a cop-out. It's almost like saying "my core mechanics aren't interesting, so here are some distractions!"

What do you think?