Friday, September 26, 2008

Source of Ideology

This is a history lesson, not a political rant.

Over the past few years, I've noticed that people talking politics often insult other people by calling them Randians or Objectivists or other names derived from Ayn Rand's ideology. Personally, I think this is a bit unfair: there are a lot of naive political ideologies out there, and I don't see when Ayn Rand's should merit special condemnation. If anything, it's less deserving, because it hasn't been adopted and abused anywhere.

So I'm going to talk a little bit about Ayn Rand herself. That's probably the absolute best way to understand her ideology, where it came from, what lies beneath it. And when you hear someone getting called a Randian or an Objectivist, maybe you'll feel something about it.

Ayn Rand was from Russia, left for here in the late 1920s. She lived through the Russian revolution, when it went from tzarist to communist. She didn't apparently like it very much, and was only too happy to leave.

When she got here, she found pre-depression America. She married an actor and lived through the depression with apparent ease.

It sounds ethnocentric, but comparing and contrasting America to Russia at the time, America was flat out better at everything. We manufactured more, of higher quality and variety, lived better, had more freedoms, and even when times were at their hardest during the depression, we still had a better economy than Russia. Ayn Rand was not on the bottom of the pile: although a poor immigrant, she was educated and intelligent, and didn't have too much trouble getting a solid job scriptreading/writing.

That is what caused her ideology.

Imagine yourself living through the same thing. You live through the rise of communism in your country, with them blaring propaganda about the evils of capitalism. You see that things aren't terribly good under communism, you remember the days of the previous government a bit fondly.

You leave for this devil-land full of evil capitalist swine and find it to be very nearly a paradise.

What are you going to think?

I would wager you would think the exact same thing as Ayn Rand: Capitalism is good, and more of a good thing is even better.

Putting aside her gender role beliefs, that's more or less the core of her belief system. Why it came to be.

And now you understand more about objectivism than most people who have actually read her books.

This lesson was brought to you by the letter Aaaaayyyyyy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chunky Peanut Butter

Designing your Interface.

For the past few posts, I've been dancing around a core idea that doesn't get much play: the resolution of your interface.

I don't mean 800x600 or whatever. I'm talking about the detail level of the control that your interface gives the user.

On one side is the quick time event: the user doesn't have much control. He either pushes the button and moves on, or fails to push the button and gets moved back. It's a lot like Chutes and Ladders: the sense of control is largely illusion, and any skill test that might be there is simple pass/fail.

On the other side is Quake and buddies. Allowing you to control your position and direction with exquisitely fine control, the game's complexity arises from the natural, physical complexity of the rules combined with the nature, physical detail of the controller.

A game with that high level of physical complexity but a less complex controller is not the same at all. There are many games which have the same basic physical nature as a first person shooter - for example, Crackdown. However, their control system is not as fine: Crackdown's aiming system is automatic instead of the skill test you'll find in Quake. There are other examples.

I spoke of "grooved space", such as what you find in Sly Cooper. Sly Cooper's physical complexity is about as high as Quake, but the gameplay is radically different because the way you interact with that complexity is very different. Sly's acrobatics are largely helped along by Sly himself: you jump for a spire, he lands on the spire, no need to worry about pixel-perfect exactness.

As pointed out by Mory, this can lead to a boring game: it reduces the amount of skill required by a tremendous amount. However, in Sly's case, this reduction does not harm the game. It helps the game, because the game's main skill focus is on timing. All of the jumping around and combat and so forth is made much simpler so that the game can focus on timing.

The game eagerly switches between kinds of timing, running the gamut from Solid-Snake-like sneaking to Sonic-the-Hedgehog-like sprinting and jumping. It even has its Guitar Hero moments. But this breadth of experience wouldn't be possible if the low-level skill challenges were really hard. It would require too much effort for the player to just DO things, let alone do them with proper timing.

There's no "right answer": a game with a very low-grain interaction can be fun: play Rock Band. A game with a very high-grain interaction can be fun: play Quake. And everything in the middle can be fun, too. But they are very different approaches, and their side effects need to be understood by the developers. That's why Sly 2 & 3 weren't so hot.

As a side note, I've been giving examples of games where the space is complex and the controls are simple, but the opposite is also possible and, in fact, almost indistinguishable. Thinking about space and how the player moves through it as two separate elements is not a good idea: it's really one element. Game space-time, you could say.

For example, in Crackdown, movement is very high-grain. You have as much control over your movement as you do in Quake, and you have much better movement capabilities. However, it's not usually a high-skill situation: the world is carefully designed to fit your capabilities, so being a bit rough on the controls works out fine. It's the same result as Sly's "yes, I can land on that spire", but approached from the other side.


Do you see what I mean? What games are you playing, and where do they fall on this scale?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Grooved Space

I posted a Jedi Thought Experiment last time, and it got some good comments. TickledBlue points out that if we use the Force to mark opportunities ("trust in the Force") then we get something that, on the surface, seems like a quick time event. In the words of Brog: "If you're being chased near a cliff edge and suddenly the force flashes a safe colour over the cliff edge, you should know instantly that this means it is safe to jump off it RIGHT NOW and do it without hesitation, because in a seconds time it might no longer be safe."

While that does sound like a quick time event ("PRESS A NOW OR YOU TAKE DAMAGE!!!"), there is a huge difference in design philosophy, and this runs as deep as the difference between Dark Side and Light Side, yeah?

The difference is player agency.

The above example isn't the best example, but I'll use it because it's been established.

If this was a quick time event, when you don't PRESS A RIGHT GODDAMN NOW NO U PRESSED SWORDY BUTTON BECAUSE U WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF A KILLER COMBO U LOSE!!!!11!!! then you take damage and are required to do everything you just did again.

If you miss this "Force Opportunity", then... you miss the opportunity. The game keeps playing.

This can lead to incredibly irritating game design. The obvious example is if you need to jump off a railway and land on a flying car (I mean, duh, OBVIOUSLY). If you miss it... are you stuck on the railway? It can also be abused for single-time bonuses - oh, you didn't jump on that particular car, so you didn't get the easter egg/bonus points.

But just because it can be used for bad design doesn't mean it has to be. The philosophy of the Force is pretty similar to the idea of a benevolent and vaguely all-powerful god: trust it, it will provide, etc, etc. If your design is full of one-shot "tests" and tricky, unclear Force patterns, then you are a shitty god. The Jedi order wouldn't have formed, because the two sides of the Force would be Dark and Irritating.

In our example, what the Force does is "groove" space. Let me see if I can explain:

In Sly Cooper, space was grooved. The game could tell if you were trying to jump to a specific spot - say, the top of a spire - and it would helpfully land you there. But, at the same time, it didn't force you to jump to the spire. It's not "PRESS A TO JUMP NOWWWWW OR U FALL AN DIE!!!!!11!!!!!111!!!!1111!!", it's "Hey, you're jumping to the spire? Don't sweat the small stuff, I'll get you there." "Grooved" space, completely without any extraneous capitalization or exclamation points, because as it turns out, Sly is quite nimble.

Our example is similar: as a Jedi, if you want to jump off a spire and land on a passing car, the Force will show you the "grooves" that will let you. If you press the right direction and jump at vaguely the right time, it'll make sure you get there. The Jedi has some slight automation to give us that fluid, Force-following sensation.

But it still leaves all the control in the hands of the player...


This is actually a topic I want to talk a lot more about: how "chunky" your game controls are is a very interesting topic. Games run from things like that Simon Says toy, which is essentially a quick time event with batteries, to something like Quake, where you are free to move and aim very precisely in any number of increments.

But... let's not talk about it in this essay. I think grooved space is enough for now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reviewer Unleashed!

Okay, I got a copy of the Force Unleashed, and I'm gonna whine about it.

Short review: Oh, look, another game where lightsabers don't cut shit and you suck! But with added quicktime events, because we don't want you to have any fun!

Long review: Wait, I played this game already. On this console, even. Except it was called Conan.

Except in Conan, your mana didn't refill as fast. This was okay, because fighting was fun. Conan was, of course, absolutely ruined by the idiotic quicktime events that happen at every point. Quel coincidence!

So, I haven't played the Force Unleashed for too terribly long just yet. I stopped when I got shot to death by a race that's not supposed to have fucking ranged weapons. So far, it's not very good. Their much-vaunted physics/animation system is... um... pointless? Not terribly interesting? The ability to throw shit at other shit doesn't really support very much gameplay. It's kind of fun for a bit, but it gets pretty repetitive.

The rest of the game is cookie-cutter action game. Your character might as well be Kratos, except that your melee combat is really dull and there are no really awesome boss battles. Just really boring ones.

Now that I've ranted, let's see what the average score is from the rest of the world... Reviewers seem to rate it as a high six or low seven, players seem to rate it as a high eight. I can only assume this is because reviewers are smarter than fanboys.

A lot of people talk about how pretty it is, which is true to a point. Boy, I sure would have liked them to think about using lights other than "ambient standard". I also liked how their cutscenes tend to use in-game animations, meaning walking so wooden and lock-step it's painful. The story might be good, but there's a whole lot of quicktime events between here and there, so it's going to be irritating.

Whine whine bitch moan. When did the rebels get shocksticks that can block lightsabers? Why does my lightsaber do a fraction of someone's HP in damage instead of, say, cutting them in half? For that matter, why can't I cut anyone in half? It's a big part of my Sithy ideal. Force grip, check. Cut people in half, not check. You see, that'd be straying from the cookie-cutter action-game mold, and they'd actually have to start thinking about balance and fun, instead of stamp-stamp-stamping down levels.

I'm always depressed by the new Star Wars games because Force Powers are depicted as, basically, D&D magic spells. Unleashed's push-physics is a step in the right direction, but let me explain to you what's missing from all of these titles:

The Force.

Whoa-ho, you know, it flows through all things, you can sense it, feel the Force, be one with the Force, trust the Force...

The Force can be more than just magic spells. In fact, in all the various Star Wars stuff (canon and otherwise) we see people on both sides doing a lot more with the Force than we do in these games. Stuff that seems insignificant until you think about just how cool it would be in a game.

For example, it's common for Force users to jump off something high and land on a moving vehicle. It's common for Force users to sense other Force users. And, hey, saber combat isn't about stringing together combos, it's about using the Force to guide your blade. Let's not mention the whole redemption/falling stuff, which is always simplified to a painfully childish level.

Here's a thought experiment: this is a Star Wars game very similar to the Force Unleashed. Except we'll start as completely untrained, and it's in black and white.

As we train up, colors are added. But they aren't the "true colors": they're representations of various ways of seeing the Force. So, when we learn to see the Force in all living things, we see all living things limned in, say, green. The further away they are, the more stuff in the way, the foggier and fuzzier the lining is. The halo sparks and fizzes based on the personality of the life form: a Sith would have delightfully sparky halo, while a Jedi might have one that is a gentle rivery-type effect.

When we learn to see opportunities - to "trust in the force" - we see a fog that flows towards important things, and bunches and swells with timing opportunities. So if we're standing in a corridor on a space base, we see a slight fog being sucked down the garbage shaft, or chugging in clumps towards the edge, where platforms are moving by beneath.

There could be a system for sensing raw Force, for sensing connections in the Force, for sensing danger, for sensing the future...

The idea being that, by the end of the game, you are experiencing a radically different environment than a non-Jedi. You can tell that people are going to shoot at you when you turn the corner, because you can see the red streaks that represent danger. You can tell when to jump off the cliff, because you can sense when the ship's going to drop by. You can track down another Jedi, because you can see his distinctive glow even from space.

I understand this kind of thing is difficult (especially to not make it overwhelming), but it is really any more difficult than the advanced physics and AI Unleashed uses?

To be honest, I'll gladly stick with shit-tastic Light Side powers if I can have the Force overlays.

What do you think? Have any of you played it?

Edit: Having played more of this game, I can safely say that I wouldn't have even given it a 6.


Particle physicist pirate 1: "Avast! Enough of your scurvy puns! Walk the length of the Planck!"

Particle physicist pirate 2: "Arrr, my peg leg not be pointy enough!"

Particle physicist pirate 1: "Right, that's it!" -stabbity-

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Let's talk copy protection!

Sheesh! Spore is still more than 90% one-star ratings on Amazon. Yes, because of the copy protection.

As someone who bought and installed Spore legal-like, lemme add my words to the fray.

First, the fact that it checks to make sure you're valid when you log in to play on-line. That passes muster in my book because you're logging in to play on-line. You're logging in as a specific player to share content with other players. I don't know how you could do that without verification.

Second, the fact that it initially checks on-line when you install. Meh. I don't like that idea for most games, but it's an on-line game. Playing it on an offline-only computer would be a little like just playing solitaire.

Third, the fact that it is allegedly very invasive. Haven't seen that to be the case. Far as I can tell, this version doesn't rootkit, doesn't run a process in the background, doesn't really do anything other than verify that you're using the same computer. There is the hassle of running out of installs and having to ask them to clear your records, but I don't honestly see that as a problem.


Because it's already hacked.

The game's only been out for a little while, and it's already been cracked wide open. The world's "greatest" (certainly most malware-arrific) "piracy prevention system" was destroyed in less than a week.

I don't think they've got their own "gray shard" for content sharing yet, but give it a few weeks.

If I ever decide to play Spore again - maybe after they release a gameplay patch to either take out all the gameplay or put in some actual gameplay - I'm certainly going to install a cracked version.

Because I don't like invasive "piracy protection". Because I don't like it when someone installs something without telling me. Because, frankly, I don't like EA.

It's not what the protection system does. It's what it implies. It implies that they are willing to cripple long-term playability in favor of... what, exactly?

Not preventing piracy, since it takes roughly 45 minutes to download a cracked torrent. Delaying piracy two or three days?

Yeah! What a great reason to make it so I have to use the pirated version three years from now, when EA is bored of maintaining the game. Great. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Games of Evolution, Thought Experiment

Okay, in my unhappiness with some aspects of Spore, I've started to think about some possible ways to create a game featuring the same basic progression of scales, but with a more evolvy feel rather than focusing on the arbitrary aesthetics.

One of the issues with this kind of game is that each scale has such distinct machinery. A space ship isn't terribly similar to an amoeba, especially not aesthetically. But - but! It's possible to represent them using the same underlying algorithms.

Lets say you start off as a simple cell, just chugging through freefloating molecules. In the course of evolving, you don't simply evolve flagella or cilia (or spines and eyeballs): you also evolve internal "organelles". See Wikipedia.

All those internal structures aren't just for kicks. They radically enhance the capabilities of the cell in ways that aren't about moving or eating things. But, if anything, they're more important.

Thing is, trying to build a system that can evolve those organisms in an "organic" way, step by step... that's pretty difficult, and it wouldn't be much fun to play.

However, if you look at the organelles, you see something interesting: most of them are equivalent to organs (hence their names) in term of overall functionality. And most devices' internal components ALSO serve the same basic functionality.

If we give up on trying for realism, we can throw out the idea that we need to simulate these with any kind of care, and instead we can simply express them by fiat. "Oh, the endoplasmic reticulum is basically the circulatory system of the cell," we can handwave, "and a nation has roads, and a starship has plumbing/ductwork."

It's not accurate, but it's serviceable.

Then we can offer up a specific set of evolutionary options to the player - a kind of mutation system that is weighted by gameplay - and let him choose. He doesn't have to try to foster some kind of subcellular machinery: we can handwave a very primitive "circulatory system" into existence, and he can choose it - and continue to improve it by choosing in favor of mutations with better circulatory systems in further generations.

This same handwaving can be applied to the internal evolution of just about everything, if we don't mind a certain loss of realism. We can even talk about subsequent generations of cars: cars don't reproduce, but the same basic laws govern their evolution in a society. So we could allow the player to selectively "breed" cars for preferred options. We could even apply this to nations, cities, perhaps even ecosystems...

More external modifications, such as growing eyes or wheels, are a bit more dependent on scope and type of interaction. A cell won't grow wheels, and a car won't grow flagella - but they do serve the same basic purpose. In different mediums, different specific implementations are prevalent.

For example, there are little boats that do use flagella. We call them oars, though. Some even use a single oar out the back. You can easily argue that this is the same basic idea: different scale, same basic medium. More advanced boats evolve sails (flicking fins) or turbines (jellyfish and octopus use a roughly analogous method). We can talk about airside boat evolution and waterside boat evolution: maybe oars are flicking fins and sails are more like a primitive bird wing. Any way you run it, the basic ideas are the same: in any given medium, the same external evolutions will happen.

There are a lot of issues to consider. Transitions are important: when does a cell turn into a multicellular organism? We have rules on how multicellular organisms can develop organs (made of cells), and how cellular organisms can develop organs (made of molecules), but between the two is a bit iffy.

Similarly, not all evolution uses the same components. A tribe might become radically more advanced if it makes a tribal "organ" by domesticating animals. Those animals are not tribe members any more than the structures of the cell are DNA. But there has to be some kind of reason or source to the development: we can't just say "oh, look, something so arbitrarily handwavy that it's incomprehensible!"

(Plus, we want to support "zooming in", if you want to see how a tribesman lives.)

Anyway, the advantage to this kind of abstraction is computation. If we develop organelles as algorithmic components rather than some kind of complex chemical stew, we can abstract the operation of the whole cell to a very simple algorithm. Then, if we're treating organs in a multicellular organism as algorithmic components rather than huge assemblies of cells, we can simulate the whole organism as a simple algorithm...

Downside being, of course, that it's more or less impossible to actually make.

Monday, September 08, 2008


And my quest for things to dislike about it.

Okay, I've played about thirty hours of Spore, now. It's very playable, definitely very good, and I'm sure you'll read (or have read) all about its wonders on other sites. On THIS site, I'm going to talk about the three things I don't like about Spore. (It's always three things...) Here they are, in ascending order of irritatingness.

1) The gameplay can be pretty obscure. At times, I didn't know how to do something and the timer was ticking away. New tribes are being added, space empires are expanding, and I'm sitting there going, "HOW DO I PLAY THE FLUTE?"

It's partially me, obviously, but I also find that progress and game dynamics are both really poorly marked. I've restarted several times, and each time I've slammed into some dynamic in the space age that I wasn't expecting that totally screwed up my game.

2) I'm disappointed that the aesthetic choices you make have no consequence. There is no difference between something with four legs and something with one leg: if they have the same foot, they both run as fast, dash as far, sprint as long.

One of the big things I was looking forward to was spending hours tweaking my monstrous limbs to do exactly what I wanted them to do as efficiently as possible. Instead, I find that it doesn't even matter where you put armor plate: a little nub on the left toe is as effective as coating your whole creature with it.

I was also hoping to do the same with vehicles, maybe even with buildings... but it's all... aesthetics only.

I think that's a serious weakness, although I can certainly understand why it is the way it is. However, given that you can get from amoeba to space age in about two hours, perhaps a little bit more of the player's time spent adjusting things would have served well.

Especially since there are lots of details you might not notice: tribesmen and townfolk will wander around and chat with each other. Did you notice? They sort of have a personality, but it's always rush rush rush.

3) Speaking of rush rush rush, to me, the worst part about this game that I've been eagerly playing for thirty hours in two days is this:

I wanted (and was expecting) to have a relaxed, explorer's space game. I wanted to explore the universe, see interesting new things.

Instead, I find that 99% of my time is taken up fighting fires, because evidently I'm the only sapient in the galaxy that can fire a gun. Even if you buy your cities all the turrets money can buy, even slam down a few $400,000 super-turrets, if you're not there, they just lose. This isn't to mention the thousands and thousands of "ecological crisis"es which could just as easily be solved by a guy with a gun in a helicopter. I'll buy you the helicopter.

The worst part is that you really can't spend any time exploring.

In my mind, I was picturing it: I would travel though space that was mostly empty. When I would stumble across a planet with life on it, it would be very interesting. I would spend an hour or so exploring the planet, seeing and interacting with the life forms, maybe taking samples.

Instead, I find that I'm hemmed in by dozens of rapidly expanding star empires, many of whom not only arbitrarily shoot at me while I explore, but actually invade my space for no reason at all. Oh, and I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but all the assaults from all pirates and civilizations are always launched simultaneously, which means that just as I get a call from a buddy begging for help, I get calls from three of my uselessly-fortified colonies, all being attacked by different people. (Or, best, I once had a pointless outpost invaded by pirates and three other races at the same time.)

It's gotten to the point where I find their homeworld, wander over, and let them shoot at me. "Hey, punching bag," they say, "those aren't bullets you're shooting."

"No," I reply, "they're atmospheric generators."

Then I stand back and watch their homeworld turn into Venus. "What? Only one of your cities has atmospheric shielding, and I just bombed it? Maybe now you'll leave me alone and I can go and search for turtles! I just want to find some turtles, maybe breed them for desired traits! Leave me alone!"

Sigh... even if I did have that kind of time, there's not much you can actually do with the animals. You can't even meet them face to face - no hunting expeditions, no petting zoo.

I am overwhelmed by a large amount of shallow content, when what I wanted was a small amount of deep content. Curses!

By the way, there is a distance limit: all you aspiring explorers, GET AWAY FROM YOUR PLANETS. No events will trigger if you're more than a certain distance away. (Although they'll often trigger as you're trying to leave.)

Unfortunately, you have to continually fill up on gasoline, so you'll eventually run out of cash. Especially since the cost of fuel seems to rise the further from home you get.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Fantasy, Fantasy, Fantasy

Here's a bit of fluff:

I don't really have any respect for the fantasy genre. Probably because it's all I can write: I want to try other genres, such as scifi or thriller or detective or whatever, but they always just end up being fantasy beneath a thin veneer of paint.

This is pretty common these days, especially in scifi. I think it's because we've all been damaged by Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which were fantasy shows at heart, and only science fiction because the characters dressed funny and had metal horses.

I'm not sure I know what the heart of a scifi show is, but I think it's something about the limits you set. About what you are allowed to do in terms of introducing new power and warping the plot.

In your mind, what distinguishes the genres from each other? What genres do you like or dislike, and why?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Character Swap

Here's a fun thought experiment:

A MMORPG. As original or boring as you like. Here's the catch:

The more you use your character, the less powerful she gets. Whether this is in terms of actual skill, or ability to move around, or number of turns per day - whatever the method, your character gets weaker. They also get statistically stronger, though, as they gain XP.

Why do this? Because you can swap characters with another player on the forums. The swapped character has full power - including their increases from XP.

Swapping back does you no favors: the weakened character is permanently weakened for you. You can easily make a new character, but even at full strength they aren't terribly powerful.

What kind of dynamics can you expect to arise from this kind of game?

Unless we add in some kind of strong "personality system", we can expect that players won't get very attached to individual characters. They'll basically just play the game without any regard to whose skin they are wearing. A "sell and discard" mentality.

So lets add a "feedback" system. Whoever's skin you're wearing, they become radically more powerful when they're teamed up with a character you wore out.

If you wear a mage down to the nub, to the point where he's completely useless to you, you give him to your friend and take your friend's warrior. If the two of you stay as a team, this warrior you took is hugely powerful because he's teamed up with your old mage.

Now characters have a "stickiness" to them. That mage you played isn't just a memory - his presence is important to you.

While I don't think this would cause role playing or anything like that, you can't honestly claim that MMORPGs do that as it stands, so I don't think that's a weakness.

We can expect to see a rise of guilds, just like usual. In this situation, though, guilds would have a very weird dynamic where the new people who haven't played the guild characters are the strongest and most important members. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it's an interesting thing...

What do you think would happen? What sort of interesting potentials do you see?