Friday, February 29, 2008

Hey, Let's Talk Roguelikes!

Now that I've completely alienated the Roguelike community with a post about Uru, I thought it would be a great time to talk about Roguelikes. After all, they're not reading me any more, so it's clear sailing! ;)

When I was young, I loved Roguelikes and their surprisingly close sister: the MUD. But as I got older, I stopped liking them. Why?

This is actually a very complicated topic, because I still like RPGs. In fact, I like RPGs that are very close to Roguelikes in their UI and rules. Which means there is something outside of UI and rules that matters.

The only thing I can think of is the "narrative", for lack of a better word.

The dialog, the plot events, the way characters join and leave your party. The progression through these things.

I don't want to call it a "narrative", because I don't actually think that I care that it's a narrative. I think that - and this is going to be fuzzy - I think that it's about externality.

In a Roguelike, what you get is what you get. Although each play-through is different, the overall experience is fundamentally the same. I don't mean the UI, I mean the way you feel as you play it.

However, an RPG's content is usually more carefully arrayed.

This is the part that I think some Roguelike fans are going to misunderstand.

There is a... kind of theme to any given RPG. There are people sitting behind it and building cool shit. Someone says, "oh, and if the bad guy saves him now, it'll be cooler when he has to fight him later." Someone says, "to make it feel like a tropical island, let's make all the villagers very relaxed." Someone says "this would be a great time to kick his mage out of the party and let him sweat for a bit."

Now, each time you replay the RPG, it's the same. But that's why most people don't replay RPGs much. Instead, a new RPG is made and they buy it.

This isn't a group of consumerists addled by ads and woefully unaware of Angband. It's a group of people who want a deeper, fundamentally more coherent experience than continually replaying a Roguelike provides. And the only way to get that is to consume a work of art. To EAT it until it provides NO FURTHER SUSTENANCE. It's about exploring someone's brain, not simply a stack of rules.

In theory, it may be that you can simulate this and create infinite deeper, more coherent experiences with a single piece of software. In the same way that, in theory, it may be possible to travel to Alpha Centauri.

Now, if they're still reading, some of the Roguelike audience might be feeling wroth right now. A lot of them probably think that what I want is stupid or pointless, in which case we're talking pots and kettles.

On the other hand, it may be that they think such a thing can be generated.



Far be it from me to dissuade anyone who wants to try. Hell, if you succeed, I'll sign right up.

But... more realistically, other approaches are more plausible. Other approaches such as the one I discussed earlier and caught flak for.

That approach is attempting to get around this difficulty. It is not made out of ignorance. It is made out of a full understanding that this has never even been remotely near something vaguely resembling success, even though literally hundreds of people try.

So... I hope that was clear. I don't like Roguelikes because I'm a zombie.

I must eat brains.

How about you?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tailor's Paradox...

For the past year or two, I've had the very strong impression that if I can figure out how to put tailoring into a computer game, I will have solved a major content generation problem.

If you look at games that allow player to generate clothing, you find there are two basic approaches.

The basic approach is to let players spray paint their avatars with a semitransparent image that looks vaguely like clothes. SecondLife actually offers a wide variety of twiddles and tweaks that allow you to do this in-game, but the result is pathologically ugly, so most of this kind of thing is made by importing an image from another program.

Reskinning like this is just not what I would consider a solution. It's begging the question. Clothing has a distinct existence from the avatar - or, at least, it should.

The other method is when you build clothes as a physical object and then somehow mount them on the avatar. While this produces clothes that have a distinct physicality, it runs into a wide variety of problems with varying body sizes and animations. Flowing clothes are essentially an impossibility, and forget clothes that interact with things (no stuffing your pants into your boots!).

Physical objects are subject to the rules of physical objects, and in modern engines that usually means solid-object physics and pre-scripted animations. Engines just aren't built for soft things. I guess a game that revolves entirely around the physics of soft things might be interesting, actually.

But a larger problem than physics is actually specifying the construction of the clothing.

If you're just reskinning, you don't have to worry about it: the construction is only skin deep, literally. Just paint whatever you like.

If you're building an actual object, the construction is usually very difficult, only made easier because the physics simulation is nonexistent so you don't have to worry about anything actually working. Most construction kits are built for solid objects like furniture, simple houses, and swords. Complex, adaptive physical constructs such as clothes and jet skis are usually quite difficult and certainly not mechanically interactive.

Many games - such as Project Entropia - solve this by having specific, tweakable blueprints. But that's not what I want. This problem is the heart of the issue, and is what I'm trying to solve. How would you (A) let the player create clothing designs and (B) simulate them on various avatars?

Remember, since we're working in a 3D space and can ignore gravity and the need to manually cut things, there's probably no reason to use 2D representations at any point.

This is not an easy problem: think about it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Language, UI, and Systems Design

Oooh, such a pretentious title! Hopefully, not as pretentious an essay...

Duncan recently mentioned Uru in a comment. Uru is the massively multiplayer variant of Myst, and is a game that has done so badly that even Gametap is taking it off the roster. I only managed to play it briefly, not because it stinks, but because I didn't have much time on my hands.

Exactly why it didn't do very well can be left in the comments section, because it has nothing to do with this post. What does have something to do with this post is the Myst mythos. Mystos?

In the fiction of Myst, putting it simply, worlds can be created by writing in special books. Then you can travel to those worlds.

Obviously, the implementation of this within the Myst fiction leaves a lot to be desired: it's not an easy concept to get close to. Not simply in terms of giving the power to the player, but even in terms of giving it to writers. For example, writers decided this language has numbers in it. I can not imagine any possible use numbers would have in defining a world.

Progressions of numbers, sure. You want a symbol for the Fibonacci sequence, that I could understand. You want a symbol for "3"? Why? The idea of "3" has no purpose in algorithmic world design. It's a flat symbol.

If you didn't understand that, I... um, might be about to lose you completely.

Anyway, one of my long-time interests is the creation of worlds (... obviously?), so the idea of this language has always stuck with me.

Algorithmically designing things is right up there for efficiency. It's obviously more efficient to be able to specify that this next level is a close-combat mission containing lots of shotgun soldiers, and then have the level design itself. You could make a thousand missions a day.

In practice, this works out not so great. In practice, it's dangerously close to a "hard AI" algorithm.

This system has to design a level understanding the parameters of the player and the player's avatar, and make sure to make the level interesting, challenging (but not too hard), paced for humans... and, oh, put in fun microquests and plot elements. Moreover, the design of this level will therefore effect the design of the next levels, because the player and avatar will have slightly different parameters upon leaving the level...

Then, of course, understanding where the level stands in the global game is also important, and basically requires you to solve the whole problem again from the opposite direction.

Creating an algorithm that designs a level is not really feasible.

Which is why the language in Myst fascinates me - as a concept, not as an implementation.

See, when you write in the book, the book doesn't say "this would be interesting, that would be interesting, let's think about it like this." The book says, "physics have been defined as such, materials as such, culture as such... processing..."

This leaves the hard-AI problem on the shoulders of the writer.

But, obviously, the writer couldn't simply write "make a world made of chocolate". The writer would have to write something that the simple underlying algorithm would interpret to mean a world made of chocolate.

This is why the theoretical language would need to include concepts like "high altitude wind pattern", "electron shell progressions", "elemental makeup of the planet..." and it's why "3" is so useless.

Obviously, this kind of language is a ridiculous idea. It's so complex, so interwoven at so many levels, it might actually be easier to create it using C++.

But... then again, it might be possible.

The fundamental problem is that of complexity. How many layers is the player dealing with at once? Can the player define new symbols that encapsulate packages of symbols? Can symbols interact with purpose rather than blindly being executed?

This would let "basic" players do things like write the word "elf" in their book. That word would actually be a complex piece of code that interacts with the algorithm that runs the world. It would try various things to make the world produce elves: any complexities such as lifespan management, genetic weirdities, magic, and so forth would happen behind the scenes.

Obviously, a newbie couldn't design the world "elf". Such a word would probably be more difficult to create than an entire planet from scratch. (Unless it takes the easy way out by opening a portal to a world full of elves...)

So... the design... would need to be encapsulated. There would have to be tools to help you.

Tools to help you design words that design worlds.

Now, here's the thing: not everyone would benefit from the same suite of tools. Someone who wants to design words that proliferate specific items or ideas would need a radically different set of tools than someone who is experimenting with how different universal constants affect things.

So you could have very different suites.

Imagine this as a MMORPG. Instead of choosing a race or a class or whatever, you choose what tool the character can use...


Unrelated problem you may have picked up on: the idea of simulating a universe from beginning to now sounds a little... computationally expensive, don't you think?

Well, I've been thinking about that. What you do is build a language that is specifically geared towards abstracting cleanly. When someone writes down symbols that change the way the universe formed, the system doesn't sit there and extrapolate every atom. It knows how the words act abstractly, and can therefore rapidly extrapolate any given piece of the universe at any given time.

Progressions would be critical to this: you don't want a world that's the same everywhere. If you include progressions, the abstraction algorithm can look at "where" in the progression it "is" and create something meaningful. Sort of like a smart random number generator.


Just random thoughts. What I'm interested in is a system that allows the players to design languages for designing systems. Basically, because player-generated content is crippled by the assumptions your system makes, why not let the players generate a wide variety of them as well?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Home, Home on the Lagrange...

If that's not a filk song, it should be...

Those of you with particularly good memories and long attention spans might remember that I talked about the idea of having a "home" in a video game. I said I thought it was important.

I've been thinking more about it, and I realized some interesting things.

One of the major purposes of a "home" in a video game would be to recalibrate the player. To bring his experience back to a set type. This is important because players react differently to pacing and prefer different tempos - so dragging them back together allows you to keep things coherent instead of trying to build a system that magically adapts to their preferences.

An easy example of this is save points. When you run into a save point in a game, your brain does a little mental jig that "resets" your experience. It builds or releases tension, depending on the situation, and resets the tempo from wherever you have dragged it off to.

I don't know if that's clear: Home is a well-lit save point. When you hit a save point, you go "whew. Okay, ready? Let's go!" Everyone does. No matter what kind of player, no matter what your preferences are, just seeing a save point (even if you don't use it) brings your mindset back near the same point as every other player who saw that save point.

This is often taken an extra step by actually resetting the game state to a neutral setting. A save point often restores HP/MP (or lets you use special items to do so), thereby even more blatantly resetting your experience to a neutral baseline.


Not all homes are save points. That would be silly.

Every game has a home or two. Every single one. An RPG with no save points uses the character screen as home. First person shooters use cut scenes. Multiplayer games use the team/map select menus. Short games use the game menu itself. (Interestingly, the same items are not used as homes in games of other genres... they don't produce the same feel! A cutscene in an RPG is not usually a home, oddly enough.)

It sounds like it's just some kind of ivory tower babble, like calling a game "a reductionist viewpoint of classic Marxism" or some such total bullshit, but it's not. The fact is that a player cannot simply always play your game. They get worn down and worn out.

So every game needs to have a break - something that lets the player stop and catch their breath. Let them think for a moment about what happened before, and predict what might happen next.

What I'm calling "home" is simply a method for doing that.

But I'm not calling it "home" because it sounds nice. I'm calling it "home" because it really is. In fact, it is all the definitions of home, if you squint. Except maybe the ones about baseball and old people.

1. A place where one lives; a residence.
2. The physical structure within which one lives, such as a house or apartment.
3. A dwelling place together with the family or social unit that occupies it; a household.
a. An environment offering security and happiness.
b. A valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin.
5. The place, such as a country or town, where one was born or has lived for a long period.
6. The native habitat, as of a plant or animal.
7. The place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source.
8. A headquarters; a home base.
9. a. Baseball Home plate. b. Games Home base.
10. An institution where people are cared for: a home for the elderly.
11. Computer Science
a. The starting position of the cursor on a text-based computer display, usually in the upper left corner of the screen.
b. A starting position within a computer application, such as the beginning of a line, file, or screen or the top of a chart or list.

The reason I'm doing this lexical gymnastics routine is because home can be more than a save point!

What do you think of when you think of "home"?

I guess if you're a young American, you might not have a really strong sense of home. We move around a lot and we don't usually have much in the way of heritage... but that's no excuse! We don't have much in the way of magic or space ships, either, but we include those in our games.

What else is home good for, besides letting you catch your breath?


There are a bunch of things... like... um...

Gosh, this is a complicated topic.

Radial design ("All Roads Lead to Home")
Comfort and belonging
Protecting something that isn't your own self-absorbed ass

The last one is important. The house was not the player's home in The Sims. In some regards, it could be argued either way, but in general a home has to be a change from the normal course of the game in order to generate a distinct feeling.

Of course, places don't have to be homes. In Ico, Yorda was home.

In games like Animal Crossing you have a home, but I don't consider it to be a good one: there's no emotional or gameplay punch to it.

Anyhow, that kind of went on longer than I wanted, so I'll just leave it at that.

What are your opinions on the concept of "home"? What do you think about the additional features I've suggested?

Monday, February 25, 2008

No More!

I just got hit with a flurry of annoying theories using the ever-popular "Two Axes of Whatever" approach. I really hate that shit. I don't know why, it just rubs me precisely the wrong way.

Which means I was very pleased with this cartoon you already read.

I wonder if he's been reading the same essays I've been reading...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Toys and Engines

These days, whenever I think of a game idea, it seems to revolve around a toy. Some system that lets you do a wide variety of irrelevant but interesting things.

For example, I just built a silly little prototype for a game based around building weird steampunky machines on the outside of a weird steampunky space station. Lots of levers and gears and winches and stuff.

The algorithm is kind of fun, you can build a wide variety of things with relatively few pieces.

But it's not a game, and that's an important thing to remember. When people say that Sim City is a toy, not a game, I have to disagree. The game is to build a functioning city. While you are not limited in your approaches, the simulation offers very clear guides. You get smacked down by traffic, pollution, power, sanitation, fire... all of these factors that you need to manage, not to mention the economics.

It's an open-ended game, sure. But the algorithm is very strict, very limited. The goal is very clear. If you call it a "toy", you're saying that every open-ended game is just a toy... I guess if that's what you want to say, that's okay, but I disagree.

See, a toy would be a box full of building-shaped blocks that you could plunk down to your heart's content. No zoning, no economy, no rules. Just doing whatever you want.

This is an important distinction to me, because recently I've been making a lot of toys. I've come up with a lot of rather nifty little rule sets that let you do a lot of interesting things... but they have no external factors. There is no goal, open-ended or not. There are no limits, and therefore no inherent goals to overcome.

It's important to have external factors when you're designing a game. Something to measure success and failure with.

Right now, I can't really figure out a way to make the steampunk machine thing interesting. There's simply nothing to do. No matter how miraculous your machine is, it accomplishes nothing. There are no goals.

I can't really think of any goals for this particular game, none that are compatible with the engine. So I think it's important to think up goals before you really come up with an engine. The goals can be open, like Sim City, or they can be closed, like 99% of other games out there. But the gameplay has to interact with external factors, or it's just plain boring.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nothing New?

While I like open-world games, one of the problems is that they are generally very boring. Every interesting aspect of an open-world game is carefully scripted in.

Scripted events bother me for a variety of reasons. The most important is that they are very fragile: if a player does something the scriptor didn't think of (or even something they did, but in a weird order), the script breaks. This leads to the designers brutally crippling the player's capabilities.

Examples of this are easy to find everywhere, but a recent one for me was the Vampire computer game I played. If you've never played in the system it's based on, let me explain: vampires don't suck. If you meet a vampire with level five auspex, it doesn't mean that he gets a +3 to his perception. It means he can astrally project, not to mention the telepathy and object reading he's already picked up at levels three and four.

Personally, I think the system is shitty even at it's finest. I much prefer Mage, which is really White Wolf's only fun system. But that's besides the point: in order to keep the game "balanced", they crippled everything down to a simple stat increase.

This isn't even mentioning the artificial limits they impose: no attacking plot characters, no turning down quests, no blowing up buildings, no lying or omitting things except when the writers deem it to be so... in short, no deviating from the rails.

This is not acceptable to me, because I want to play amberites and nobilis.

So, let's imagine that we want an open world game with a bunch of interesting content that's not specifically scripted in. How do you do it?

How about we make every interesting thing an active agent seeking to affect the player?

Sure, I'm talking about events. "Helicopter chase!" "The lights go out..." "The Sabbat attacks the Prince." Whatever you like.

But I'm also talking about things. People, places. "The Empire Hotel". "The Prince". "The Antediluvian". "The video tape".

I'm also talking about concepts. "Ghouling". "Gehenna". "The Beast Inside You". "Blood-spattered". "Disease". "Sunlight burns". Eighty different kinds of madness. Punk rock. Sexy.

Anything that you can think of that is of interest is an active agent trying to affect the player.

Please note, I didn't say they are actively trying to happen, or be near the player. Just talking about something grants it some level of power, some more sway over the game, and therefore many agents will try to inject themselves into conversations, news, graffiti... whatever they can do that the player will notice.

Obviously, happening to or around the player is good for an event, and people like making things happen to the player or, to a lesser extent, being affected by the player...

The agents are poised pre-game with a bunch of directives and probably some noise to keep things unique per play through. Then they are unleashed on the world to do their best to lure the player in, bludgeon him, help him, change his experience somehow.

They team up with other agents and static elements (the map, for example, could be pretty static) to create these events. They might even form alliances and rivalries with other agents: the "helicopter" agents might band together and ally with "the Prince" agent, meaning that the Prince would use a lot of helicopters. Both agents would prosper: the Prince has a definite method to affect the player (helicopters can ferry him around, helicopters can attack him, etc), and the helicopters, obviously, have a willing patsy to spread helicopteriness around.

Because agents are out to affect the player's experience, not the game world, there is very little that happens "behind the scenes". The only time something happens behind the player's back is when the agent in question doesn't have the pull to directly affect the player and is instead going for an indirect effect via news bulletins or street conversations.

Now, the fun aspect here is that the player is certainly welcome to have powerful abilities and/or do weird things. These are excuses for agents to piggyback on to the scene. If the player kills someone important, virtually every heavy hitter in the books will have an opening to come in after him. And character agents are free to cozy up to the player directly, and the player can make any human a ghoul, at least in theory. Remember, though: they're trying to affect the player. Simply hanging out with him is not enough.

The difficult part in this is, as usual, the goddamn dialog.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bad Game Design: Stacking Distractions

GDC week: I post my half-baked erratic thoughts.

I was playing a game called Startopia. It's on Gametap, so you really have no excuse to not try it. It's kinda fun, kinda like Kaloki crossed with Civilization.

But the game does something that's becoming quite common, something I consider very poor game design: it stacks distractions.

See, each level of the game introduces a new aspect to managing your space station. Introducing hospitals one level, criminals another, the biodeck in another, religion in another... and, of course, each level features all of the aspects introduced thus far.

Unfortunately, each aspect requires a level of focus. For example, in order to harvest plants, you need to right-click them. Each individual plant.

While this isn't a problem when that's all you're doing, it's not easy to go do that when you're planning an invasion, reworking your entrance ports so you don't have to personally scan everyone, trying to set up a pleasure deck, trading with whoever stops by, and desperately clicking "yes" on every cockamamie communication that comes in. Not to mention researching, producing goods with factories, checking for parasites, hunting for time bombs, hiring passerby, giving people raises, figuring out what kind of room everyone wants next, checking up on your med-bay to see whether your genius doctor has wandered off again...

And, of course, this all scales linearly with the size of your space station.

I'm now at what I presume is the final level. But my base has gotten so large that even if people would stop invading, I still wouldn't have time to maintain it!

This isn't really a complaint about Startopia. It's a complaint about that design practice in general.

Civilization also does this, except that it has two factors reducing the pain. First, it's not real time. Second, your older land and cities generally require very little attention from you. They stabilize pretty quickly.

Even then, however, Civilization is a very complicated game that you can lose track of very quickly. I can't go back to a game of civilization after having quit for a while: I have to start over, because I don't remember the details...

This is a related problem to the "active powers" problem. That problem goes like this: in many games, you get special powers that only activate when you press a button. This is not so bad for one or two powers, but more than that and the player spends a significant chunk of their time activating and monitoring power-ups rather than playing the game. This is especially irritating because 90% of the time, the powers are a dominant strategy. You wouldn't not activate them. So the only purpose of the required activation is to distract the player!

Any way you cut it, I think that a designer needs to carefully consider how distracting any given element of the game is. If you notice that there's a linear growth somewhere - something distracting gets more distracting as the game progresses - you might think about fixing it. Unless your whole point is that the game is a challenge of attention, like Starcraft. Then it's fine.

I won't play it, but it's fine.

Don't feel bad about "writing out" an aspect of gameplay for this level or character. I would be a much happier man if every level of Startopia featured maybe a half-dozen concerns. This level, hospitals are handled by an NPC. This level, there are no merchants. This level, the biodeck has been turned off again. These things are interesting, important play elements, but they don't have to be active and vying for my attention all the time.

This is what's wrong with games!

You want to know what's wrong with games?

Put on headphones. Click here and close your eyes.

WHY CAN'T WE HAVE NICE THINGS? I want that, not better skin tone on my monsters!

(I'm utterly convinced that the reason I hear the locations in this so much more strongly in the demo is because game sounds don't do microsecond delays: sound travels instantly in a game world. All you get is a flat volume differential.)

Press Start to Join!

GDC week = time to post all my rambly crap.

I'm interested in the difference between single- and multi-player games.

There's a lot to be said for multiplayer games: human players add a lot to the game. Even if they are not permitted to create content, they are content. An easy example is the Street Fighter series: these kinds of fighting games only really come alive when there is another human playing the other fighter.

For a long time, games have been primarily about competitive multiplayer. Some games are marginally cooperative, in that they have two teams competing, but fully cooperative games are very rare. These days, they are becoming a bit more common with games like Shadows Over Camelot (board) and coop story mode in Halo-like games.

Either way you slice it, competitive, cooperative, or both, the other humans add a lot to the game.

But they also take a lot away from the game, a point that is often missed.


An interesting note is that cooperative and competitive team size remains the same. A fully cooperative game has a "maximum player count" of almost precisely half the competitive-teams maximum player count in games using the same basic mechanics.


A game dedicated to one player makes that player the focus of the entire universe. That player doesn't need to worry about going at the right speed or doing the right things: he can just play around without any such concerns.

As you add players, the game allows each of them to play on a more-or-less even footing. Basically, you have to play with the other player, rather than just doing whatever you want. Each player adds more limits.

For example, a two-player fighting game: you and another person fight... to the death!

A four-player fighting game like Smash Brothers is the same on the surface, but it's actually a lot less free: each player has to watch every other player and make sure nobody gets a sneak attack on them. Their choices are limited by the existence of the other players. Some four-player games are tag-battles: two in, two out at any given time. This simply reduces the game to a two-player hotseat, meaning the complexity of a two player game, but you spend half your time not doing anything.

Players really can't track too many variables at a time, so as you add more than four players, you have to start figuring out how to reduce the chaos. Games like Quake allow for large deathmatch games of six or eight players, but the levels are designed to keep you from encountering more than a few other players at any given time.

This doesn't completely write out the complexity of having a lot more players: someone is in the lead, better watch for them. Someone just got the quad-damage, better watch out for him... global multiplayer concerns still exist. But you don't have to worry about all the players simultaneously. This does reduce the player's agency: the player's access to information is brutally limited.

These global multiplayer concerns get too difficult shortly thereafter. With ten or twelve players, hunting down the man in the lead is a herculean task, and the random chaos will frequently lead to wild, crowded encounters that players can only "track" by lobbing explosives towards the general area.

One easy method to reduce complexity is to reduce the number of enemies a player has. By making the game team-based, half the players are allies and half the players are enemies. This allows for much greater cohesion and predictability, and easily allows for games of up to twenty or thirty players, if you have decent training. Of course, this further reduces the player's agency, as now he plays a specific role as a tiny cog in a large team.

Even this has its limits. As you pass thirty, the teams are so large that any given player will have no real effect on the state of the game. Because the teams are so large and most players have to have an even amount of power, you can't really change the tide of battle much.

At this point, games usually break down into social events. Basically, the designers say "well, we've reduced the power of the player to pretty close to nothing, so I guess there's no point to truly competitive play..."

But, of course, competitive play is popular, so there's always a few outs. Arenas, PvP, etc. You will find that these subgames follow the same pattern listed above.

Actually, you will find that a social game breaks up fuzzily and follows the patterns listed above even in non-competitive areas. For example, cohesive guilds tend to max out at thirty players. Most groups on-the-fly tend to be four or five people, and larger groups tend to have a chain of command that splits them into wings of three or four...

Also to be considered is unfairness. Not all players want the same thing: many people are happy being the star-bit-collector in Super Mario Galaxy. Many people are happy crafting and buying/selling, rather than the "primary" game of killing shit. But this doesn't change the fundamental nature of multiplayerness. It simply changes the texture. If Mario's world was much more complicated, more than four star-bit-collectors would be chaotic and cripplingly confused. However, you can consider the star-bit-collectors to be on a different "team" than Mario (noncompetitive teams...), so the star-bit-collectors could number three or four and the Marios could number three or four without "overloading" the players too much.

"Unfair" (more accurately, "uneven") situations are another method of splitting players into groups to shrink the complexity of their interactions. But, as I said, this doesn't change the basic situation.

I would personally like to see a massively multiplayer game that leaves the player with power over the universe... but uses some of these other techniques to control player interactions. Maybe even some techniques not listed here.

There's a lot you can do to reduce the "chaos" of multiple players. Reducing player power to zero isn't really my favorite.

Spore promised an interesting variant, where each player has their own universe in which they have huge amounts of control. But each player "leaks" into other universes, hopefully granting a portion of the power of multiplayer. I tend to think that the social aspect is probably the most important aspect of multiplayer, and this system had no social aspect.

Now, though, they've expanded the Spore backbone to include a lot of social elements like card trading and so forth. I think it will probably be done very poorly, but it's an interesting attempt to solve the multiplayer "problem" of balancing chaos with power.


(By the way, player power is being measured in terms of ability to affect the global game state. A player's ability to blow away a monster has nothing to do with that, since the monster respawns a few seconds later and nothing changes.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Content inSANITY!

This is GDC week, which means I post all my rambling, half-baked ideas, comforted by the fact that nobody will read them. Example follows.

I really like player-created content. A lot. But there are a lot of not-so-great things about it. Tools, for example: everyone's content creation tools are really shitty. Also, how to partition/direct the content. Not simply to avoid griefers, but also to avoid damaging an immersive experience with anachronisms.

How to get players to create content - the right kind of content - without pain?

This isn't the answer, but I like it anyway.


On the other side of the theoretical universe, I like the idea of a game that teaches you how to program. Sort of a Diamond Age type thing.

"What if," I thought to myself, "I put peanut butter in my chocolate?"

"And," I replied, "chocolate in my peanut butter?"


My previous thoughts on a teaching game have been pretty similar to the mainstream. Give the player a puzzle, they solve it using whatever thing you're trying to teach them.

Instead, what if we give the player access to the tools, but not puzzles? Just let them play. There would be some kind of overarching plot or something to keep the world they create in interesting, but the point is that there would be very few (if any) puzzles that need to be solved. Think Sim City instead of The Incredible Machine.

For example, let's say we're trying to teach the player how to program.

Instead of actually using programming, let's use nanotech. The "program" is actually a program for a nanotech swarm that builds things out of goo. It contains all sorts of simple commands like "move forward", "secrete metal", "spawn new swarm and start their execution on line 40", etc, etc.

Using this code judiciously, it should be possible to build basically any device. Depending on the limitations of the physics engines, certain things may be impossible (like clothes, maybe) but that's not a limitation on the programming system. It's a limitation on the engine. Some things also may require assembly: it may be hard (prohibitively?) to build a functioning car out of a single program, but each individual piece would be easy.

Of course, creating complex things out of simple instructions is a suicide mission, like programming Windows in assembly code. So there would need to be a way to create and use higher-level languages...

Think about creating a higher-level language in the same way as creating a program for the nanoswarm: the language serves as a set of instructions for a lexical swarm. Whereas the nanoswarm has instructions like "secrete metal in goo", the lexiswarm would have instructions like "print instructions to nanoswarm". Instead of "spawn new nanoswarm operating on line 40", it would be "spawn new computation thread starting on line 40".

While it's not terribly transparent at first glance, it does work out. You can simulate every higher-language feature I can think of if you make your "core language elements" cover a specific set of abilities. Then you can simply plug your language into whatever strata you want. Make your language control nanoswarms. Make your language control the language of nanoswarms. Make your language control the physical behavior of the final product... make a language that controls the language that controls the physical behaviors...

By layering in this way, it should be possible to (A) start slow and (B) allow for anything you care to allow for. Similarly, while the tools technically suck, they suck in a very immersive way... and players are welcome to improve them by building languages that control the tools.

In fact, it doesn't take much effort to see that it is perfectly plausible to have "life forms" that reproduce, move, see, and think simply by layering the languages properly.


As mentioned, the universe would have to have some kind of force in it - probably a plot - to keep the game moving. Wouldn't want the player to stagnate. But one option that can't be overlooked is in the sharing of content between players. Not only content as we think of it, but also grammars and languages that the players have built to make creating content easier.

Depending on the limitations of the engine, it is theoretically possible for a player to build anything from a delicate bracelet to a Dyson sphere. (That would be a lot of goo, though...)

An important element of this is that the designers, when they build the game, will have to build it with the same tools. Human bodies, for example, would not be special cases. They would be built with the same language system. Growth is possible because they have an internal system to convert some objects ("food") into goo, which can then be converted into whatever is needed. Reproduction is possible because the womb is basically a sack of goo that follows the same basic ideas.

Not all languages (in fact, only one language) builds things out of goo.

Things like solar system mechanics would technically be built with the same languages. This obviously has nothing to do with goo. But theoretically, if the players figured out how to do it, they could build solar systems. And if they built a language that controlled how a solar system was built... maybe they really could build a Dyson sphere...

In fact, it may be possible to have a language that specifies the drama or culture or society of an area...

Or dialog...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Protect and Guide

This is GDC week, which means I post all my rambling, half-baked ideas, comforted by the fact that nobody will read them. Example follows.

If we presume that the important part of a game is the experience and everything else (rules, content, advertising) is simply to guide and/or protect that experience, we can draw a few interesting conclusions.

First, although I say that they exist to guide and/or protect, that's not very accurate. It's not that there are two categories of purpose, or even that they represent opposite ends of a continuum. It's just that there's no English word for "with the intention to induce certain experiences while preventing others, especially taking into account external influences".

Strange. I mean, it's a concept that I use every day.

So, to make my life easier, let's make up a word that nobody will ever use: "guidetecting". Or, if you're the sort of snob who thinks things have to be in German or Latin to have any real scholastic value, "grokdus". "Grokdi", plural.

While there's never going to be any use for those words, defining them is important. It lets us specify a playing field. The rules, content, plot, dialog, bugs... they are all guidetectors. They all serve to embrace one kind of experience over all others - on purpose or not.

Sometimes, these are built very explicitly: the beautiful landscapes of a Squaresoft game are definitely on purpose, sharp attempts to pull the player into a specific kind of mindset, a specific kind of experience. Rules limiting the social actions of a massively multiplayer game's players are rather more rigid guides, very directed, very focused to prevent the experience from derailing on a particularly nasty spam-cliff.

Even things that aren't really part of the game are important guides. For example, I'm playing Vampire blah blah blah: Bloodlines. It's a really irritating game if you're not playing a combat whore, and I'm playing a Malkavian. Malks are the nutballs, insane to the last. Which actually makes the innumerable bugs and irritating "features" entertaining (such as the way any and every enemy can see through obfuscate, or the way that animations tend to flicker in and out of existence). Normally, these would be terrible, they would totally break the experience for me. But, since I'm playing an insane character, I can simply say, "hey, I got stuck in a door. It's what I do. I'm a Malk." It actually deepens the experience of being an insane vampire. (Also, I have to cheat because the aforementioned obfuscate never works and I'm a total wimp. This, too, actually fits the "batshit insane" experience.)

Guidetectors aren't protecting an experience, per se. A game's experience is not a single experience. Even in the simplest games, the experience has a progression and occasional pauses. These add up to a larger, more complex experience that fits a player's needs and capabilities a bit better.

Old arcade games didn't really have this very carefully. They tended to start pretty hard and slowly get harder. Only the most passing nods to pauses was made. But that was because of the situation outside the game: an arcade game is not played like a modern game. It is played for a few minutes on a few quarters, then you watch someone else play it. This method is, itself, a guidetector. You didn't build it, but it is there.

All games have these built-in foundations, these rules you cannot break. Which direction you take in abusing them generally leads to what kind of an audience you attract and what genre you consider yourself. For example, RPG fans tend to like to sit in front of their computer (or console) for six hours straight and get really immersed in a game world. The designers take advantage of this by including a lot of guidetectors that work on that premise: slower pacing, lots of ups and downs of various sorts, complicated, intertwined loops of game. Compare to the path that FPS games take, even ones with "RPG elements".

It's very difficult to imagine carefully crafting "walls" out of guidetectors starting from scratch. The human mind is an extremely complex thing, as are the external influences affecting your game. If you design "too specifically" you will probably get run over by players unwilling to share that experience in that way. Example? I've already mentioned one: I'm not interested in playing Vampire blah blah Bloodlines for combat. That's not really what Vampire is supposed to be about, so being forced to fight end boss after end boss and endless waves of bad guys that can see the invisible is just infuriating.

This is actually a case of... hrm, I need to lay more groundwork before I can just spout that off.

We can't realistically build every bit of a game consciously, always keeping track of exactly which things are useful for which experiences exactly when taking into account the various kinds of players and vagaries of their outside influences. The idea is preposterous.

Instead what we do is build a nice little ecology of content. A sidequest fetching soap is an example. In a game like Chronotrigger, a soap-fetch quest is pretty straight-up. It's an attempt to guide us into a simpler, more childlike fairy-tale mindset. The same quest in a Vampire game would be a self-aware joke, a meta-quest there to amuse us and change up the dour pacing a bit.

The same element, even expressed in almost the same way, can serve very different purposes. It is not something you build on its own: you build it in relation to its surroundings. Like an ecosystem, no element stands alone. Like an ecosystem, it can survive the vagaries of weather and natural upheaval. (Cheat codes are like cutting down the rainforest to build condos...)

We've developed quite a few ecosystems that seem to work, and we call them "genres".

Sometimes an element gets out of hand, rampages across the game, and completely destroys the play experience. There are three big reasons for this.

1) The player brings in some outside taint, such as being unusually cunning and realizing that he can reach 99th level in the tutorial mission, or being totally unwilling to fight in your mandatory fight sequences. I call this the "kudzu" effect, and it's especially bad in MMOGs.

2) The designer wants to "punch up" one element of the design, and in doing so places it such that it will crush anything else in the ecosystem. I call this the "shrew" effect rather than the "locust" effect, because I'm planning to make a "taming of the shrew" joke in a few years.

3) Lastly, a lot of games are Frankenstein's Monsters assembled from bits and pieces of vastly disparate ecologies. These ecologies sometimes work out, carefully tweaked into harmony. Often, they get out of control. But always, they are very brittle. System Shock 2 was a fun game to me, but very brittle: a lot of people are not fond of it at all. To them, certain parts of the ecology strangled the rest. I call this the "Frankenstein" effect, for very mysterious reasons I will leave completely unexplained.

As you might guess, these three problems are actually the same problem, because the "imbalance" in the ecology is always the result of a player playing the game. The rules and content and situation and so forth have no life of their own, because only the player can have an experience. All of these problems boil down to the end result that a player experiences something that is not what the designers intended.

Right now, most of our ecologies work in distinct layers. Rules here, art here, ads here, dialog here, whatever else you can think of again independent. Each of them grows into a complex ecosystem, guided by the designers. There is some relationship between them, but the relationship is usually very limited, so as to be very easy to guide. After all, while the rules of shooter A and shooter B are very similar, their dialog, art, plot, and so forth have to be very different.

But I don't think that's a necessity. I think we have a lot of experience creating ecosystems of dialog and art. So we find it easier. But unique rules are newer, not something you can easily find examples of. So we have a harder time crafting complex rule systems.

The thing is, if you think in terms of this theory - in terms of guidetectors (or grokdus) - you see that there is no difference between art and rules. They are not different categories of thing applied to games, they are simply approaching the same goal in different ways. Even ads are for the same reason, although it's rare for an ad to actually aim for the same experience the rest of the game does.

So, to me, I can't really appreciate splitting things up so carefully. I think we can create a more inclusive system. One where rules and content and so forth are all intertwined, rather than being distinct...

I think that kind of system would be less fragile than the ones we currently make. I wouldn't be angry at Vampire blah blah Bloodlines right now if the character generation hadn't made promises the level design couldn't keep.

I hope I'm making sense, but since this is GDC week, it's okay if I'm not.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lost in Blue Analysis

Recently, I got ahold of a copy of a DS game called "Lost in Blue". This is not so much a review of the game as it is an analysis of certain design practices. Don't worry about spoilers. Seriously, it's about like saying "there are droids in Star Wars, and the bad guys kill people."

In Lost in Blue you get yourself stranded on an abandoned tropical island with a cutie one year younger than you, but you're kind enough to break her glasses, making her completely useless for things like gathering berries or walking around.

In the beginning, the game is mostly about desperately running around trying to find enough food to feed the two of you. However, as you discover various rare resources (coke bottles, green bamboo, etc) she spruces up the house a bit and makes things easier (no more fire lighting minigame? YAY!)

The thing is, this changes the focus of the game from survival to gathering enough food and twigs so that you can take progressively longer and longer walks in search for whatever the next resource will be, so you can bring it back and make better stuff.

In short, it changes the game from you and her to you and the cave.

This was a very safe choice, from a game design standpoint. It's hard to go wrong with a simple fetch-and-improve system. But it's a little disappointing, don't you think?

While the Swiss Family Robinson certainly had more than its fair share of extreme home improvement, in the end it was really about the Swiss Family Robinson, not about the House that Dad Built.

Building the house - and taming the elephants and packing explosive coconuts - wasn't done simply because it was possible to do so. It was done so that the various family members could bond and show off in various ways.

To me, I think the big problem with what Lost in Blue did is that they compressed time. For some reason, it has become very popular to compress time in any game involving little people that walk around. Presumably, it's a kind of gamer's short-hand for "things are actually much bigger": there's no way that a tree drops that many twigs or coconuts so often, so presumably the tree is a "stand-in" for a lot of trees in a lot of places.

While this works okay in some situations, it means that the act of walking a hundred feet takes half an hour of game time. That kind of pressure doesn't seem like it fits the idea of a tropical island survival game. "I can't go walking down the beach, I just don't have time to do that before she starves to death!"

This kind of compression is "the standard", so it's used quite often. But it produces a very specific feeling that time is your enemy. Not time meaning days or weeks, but time meaning every second your hands are on the controller. While this is suitable in some places, it's not suitable for someone who wanders around a beautiful island paradise looking for nice places to fish.

This may not seem related to the shift in focus, but I think it is: it's very difficult to give characters enough time to be themselves in any situation where a sentence takes five minutes to say. The pressure, in addition to being unsuitable for the setting, is also unsuitable for the dynamic. It actually makes it almost impossible for the gameplay to really revolve around the characters at all.

How would you fix it? How would you make a game that was "Swiss Family Robinson" style or "Blue Lagoon" style, but make it focus on the characters? Without being shallow?


The first thing I would do is ditch the ticking clock. I would make the clock not run at all, unless you were "fast-forwarding" to get to the end of a job. For example, if you were fishing, time would pass. If you were traveling from the jungle to the mountain, time would pass. If you were building an expansion to the tree house, time would pass. But if you're walking around or chatting with people, time does not pass.

This gives an impetus to walk around and talk to people. The second half of the equation would be to make walking around and talking to people worthwhile. Walking around is easy: by walking around, you discover various resources that can be used.

Talking to people is harder, because we've all gotten so used to dialog trees or flat responses from NPCs. Going up to someone and clicking the A button on them really doesn't put the player in any kind of control, doesn't give him any kind of choice.

It would be interesting, I think, to let the player take "snapshots". Snapshots of people, things, places - even ideas. Then the player could present a snapshot to a character and they would respond in a more-or-less adaptive, unscripted manner. A context engine and a little bit of elbow grease would make this work okay.

For example, let's presume Robinson. You're the father, and you show your middle son a picture of your youngest son. The context engine kicks in. If they've been fighting, the middle son says something like "fine, fine! I'll make peace with him." If the youngest son is missing, the middle son replies, "right, I'll go find him!"

Show him a picture of a place, maybe he'll comment on something in the area, or maybe he'll promise to go out and take a look, or maybe he'll say, "right, the berries in that area are good, I'll go get some tomorrow."

Show him a picture of a thing, maybe he'll come up with a new way to use it, or maybe he'll go out and get some. Maybe he won't have anything interesting to say about it, but now that it's on his mind he'll show the picture to whoever he happens to talk to, and since he's a different person than you, maybe he'll get a different response...

The idea is that the family (or any group of people) is as complicated and adaptive a system as any mad genius' underground lair. Building and maintaining it is just as important as building and maintaining your tree-castle.

I dunno, how would you do it?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


On a COMPLETELY unrelated note...

So, there's a marketing blitz in the building where I work. Attractive, professional-looking women are giving out free bottles of Tava. For those of you who haven't seen it, it comes in a slim little can and has a Starbucky feel to the font.

It's what I call a "marketing drink". Some drinks have an advantage because of their ingredients: for example, Honest Tea has the word "organic" in front of nearly every ingredient. Even things like flavored Coke sell because of their flavor.

Tava doesn't have any ingredients worth noting. It's got some vitamins in it, but we're not talking about anything that will do much good: 15% of your daily allowance of chromium and B6? WHEEEE!

The rest of the ingredients are marvelous things like aspartame and acesulfame potassium. Standard Pepsico ingredients, minus the caffeine.

What does it taste like?

Dunno, let's crack it open.



If you like Three Musketeers chocolate milk, you'll like Tava. It has that same chemical taste that some people apparently can't taste. To me, it's pretty close to undrinkable (just like that chocolate milk) because it tastes like chewing tin foil.

There you go, your official Pointless Review of the month.

"Realistic" NPCs

It occurs to me that the secret to making more interesting NPCs might not lie in making them more like people, but more like players.

Think about it. Real people are very boring, especially strangers. Even in a tabletop RPG, most of the random people a player accosts don't have anything interesting to say. The same thing is definitely true in reality.

The interesting characters in an RPG are the ones with a role to play. It's not that they have goals or a complex relationship schema, it's just that the GM wants them to hang around and do what they do.

All of the interesting characters - PC or NPC - are constantly in a subtle jockeying metagame. The characters "themselves" are "unaware" of it, if you can use those terms in relationship to a fictional fragment of personality. Anchrax the Archvillain doesn't understand that he's around to make life miserable for the players and then lose. He "thinks" he's trying to take over the world with his army of evil. But the GM still positions him to make life miserable and then lose: Anchrax's personality is a vague guide, but does not actually govern his overall activity.

I've been using quotes for a reason. A character never really thinks on his or her own. A character is powered by a person, a person who is trying to put them in specific situations so they can do what they do best.

Anchrax is not trying to conquer the world, and the princess is not trying to escape. They are playing those parts while jockeying to be where the players need them to be, when they are needed to be there, and who they are needed to be. An interesting character is only partially interesting due to their personality: it is as much a result of the situations that the GM puts them in.

Isn't that what we should be trying to simulate?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Storm of Dissection...

There are a lot of theories out there as to how to talk about games. Most people seem to want a formal vocabulary for discussing the aspects of game design.

I disagree strongly. A formal language? Formalizing what? We don't know anything, so how can we formalize it?

We're inventing all these languages that divide up a game into such tasty-sounding pieces, but based on what? To what end?

For example, I like MDA - mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics as posed Marc LeBlanc. It's not the first thing he's posed, it probably won't be the last, and it's a fun brain exercise.

But people are taking it to heart, treating it like it's a formal, scientific approach.

It's just a general way of thinking about games.

This happens a lot: someone posts something that has categories and subdivisions and people say, "oh! It's internally consistent! It must be right!"

They are arguably formal, but don't mistake "formal" for "right". Astrology is also formal.

Thought exercises are grand things. They're just about all I do. But don't mistake them for solutions. We don't know the first thing about games: how could we accurately represent them?

Someday, thought experiments like these may lead us to stronger knowledge. Maybe, someday, we'll be able to have a formal grammar that isn't just voodoo dressed in a tux.

But not today.

Conflict Resolution

Deep magic game design, mon...

It used to be that when I looked at a new game system, the first thing I wanted was to read a gameplay snippet. Even today, I still think that your first chapter should be mostly gameplay snippet(s).

But these days I just flip ahead to the "conflict resolution" section, which is usually somewhere in the third fourth of the book. To me, a system lives or dies based on conflict resolution.

Most indie systems have simple conflict resolution systems, whereas most mainstream systems have complex resolution rules, but we're so used to them that we don't even notice. There's nothing inherently good about simple rules or bad about complex ones: it's just a tendency.

For example, in the system "Octane", your play on a roulette wheel (or simulation thereof). The rules are fairly simple, involving how many chits you have and how you bet them, and a few rules governing what happens when other players stick their big noses into your spin.

In D&D, conflict resolution is much more complex, involving multiple rolls of different kinds of dice, and often some kind of saving throw or special-rules feat/spell.

Compared to Shadowrun (which was essentially four completely separate systems glued together), it's a cakewalk.

The thing I like about complex resolution is that it offers a lot of texture. If everyone has the same abilities just with different numbers plugged in, then each person is really getting the same experience out of the game. Not only do many players want different experiences, but giving each player a different experience allows each player to contribute to the game in a different way. Classic example: mage/warrior/thief/cleric parties.

You need to be careful, of course: you'll be the bottleneck. If the differences in how various players approach the situation is too vast, then you'll waste valuable time trying to manage all of the approaches they take simultaneously.

Still, there's a lot to be said for giving each player their own "rule set". Mages have spells, warriors don't. (Didn't... they do now, and will be essentially indistinguishable from mages in 4.)

Whenever I make a game, this is at the forefront of my design.

For example, I made a LARP where everyone played psychics. Everyone had four psychic powers which were each charged in unique ways. One character could only charge one of his powers if someone asked him for help. Another would only charge his power if he was alone. A third could only get a certain power while he was in the dark, another when someone laughed, etc, etc, etc.

Even though it's the same fundamental rules, everyone's powers were different and everyone gained them in very different ways, which added a huge amount of texture to the game.

Still, the game suffered from severe bottlenecking. Too many players that needed "just a moment" of my time... it's always a tradeoff.

How about you folks? Do you prefer simple rules?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I wrote an essay in parable form. So exciting! It even has cartoons. I don't claim they are funny, or that compression was kind to them.

If you want to know today's thoughts on game design, you can read them here.

If the story seems autobiographical, I assure you that's just a whimsy of your mind. After all, I was born from a skydiving Gypsy who fought to steal back treasures from the Nazis, and by the age of six I was already traveling back in time to hunt raptors.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dungeons & Drags

I wrote a nice little essay I think you'll like, except that I've lost contact with my hosting service and Google Doc's "upload" feature is so bad with embedded images that I might as well just not post it at all.

So I'm gonna talk about Dungeons & Dragons instead.

That's not fair. I'm gonna talk about most mainstream tabletops simultaneously. D&D is just my example, largely because it's got an easy, well-known acronym so you'll know what the hell I'm talking about.

D&D. D&D... D&D?

I don't like D&D.

D&D - and most other mainstream RPGs - are built in a specific way. They are built around the idea that bigger is better. The more content, the more rules, the better the game will be. Hey, the GM can pick and choose from a wider selection, so he can create a wider variety of adventures and that's good!

This idea is so ass-backwards that it amazes me.

You need content, yes, but you have to remember that every game is communicating something. Every experience the players share says something very strongly. Having a million different things that could happen is pretty pointless. Instead, there are about two things that should happen, and they aren't written down anywhere because your adventure is (I hope) quite unique. Anything else will weaken the experience, turn it into a slush of experience points and dice.

There's no depth to running into a dungeon, rolling up goblins, and then rolling up treasure. There's nothing being communicated. You might as well watch daytime TV.

I'm not saying that you should diminish your game for the sake of giving a message. I'm saying quite the opposite: you should have a clear experience in mind when you build your game, and that will guide you to create a great game.

For example, if you run a Star Wars game, it's probably going to focus on the difference between light side and dark side. That's kind of what Star Wars specializes in. The experience will probably be centered around "the struggle not to fall" or something similar. (Of course, now Star Wars has published dozens of RPG books so you can just toss random crap in there, too. Thanks!)

What's your core idea in D&D? "Kill monsters, get XP?" Most GMs have something cooler in mind - "Let's take on a demon! I'll make the villain a demon that controls a horde of vampire bunnies..." or something.

That's not really what's going through the GM's head, though. Instead, he's thinking of a feel for the experience. He's thinking of how he wants the game to play out. He wants the players to feel out of their element, swarmed by hopeless odds, whatever.

Does D&D help him with that?


D&D does not.

D&D's pack of rules - especially since 3.5 - are geared specifically to be completely generic. The d20 system is basically the high fructose corn syrup of the game world. It has no merit other than being easy to mix into things that should never have corn syrup in them to begin with.

This is true of most major tabletop RPGs. As I mentioned, they add more and more content to the game, thinking that makes it better. In turn, they have to expand the rules to cover that new content. When it comes time to release the next version, they go back and revamp all the rules to be more generic, to more easily cover this vast expanse of useless content.

"What are you, some kind of RPG anarchist?"

Yeah, pretty much. There are a lot of indie RPGs out there. These games are tiny, very focused. They are geared towards providing a specific experience. While some of them suck, many of them will provide a surprisingly interesting experience that you would never be able to wrangle out of D&D.

Personally, though, I think playing an existing system is a cop-out. If you have an experience in mind, you should make your own system and content to support it.

If you want your players to go up against a demon and feel the press of otherworldly hordes, you build rules that are strong on attrition instead of win/lose, and contain some built-in system that clashes nicely with the demonic horde's capabilities (giving them a sense of being very alien). For example, I like the idea of making the players use dice, and using dice for all the human enemies... but then have the demonic enemies use cards. If the players acquire demonic powers or devices, they use cards to power them...

Anyway, the point is that that giant stack of lovely books is a giant stack of lovely junk food. Your players may not even realize it, but they're bored and fat.

Mentally, I mean.

Am I being clear? Do you agree?

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Watch the first half of this video:
Then watch

Ah, life imitates art... I couldn't stop thinking, "of course, hundreds of meters underground, cut off from everything... I bet they have crates and exploding barrels, too..."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Giant Worlds. Boring Worlds

One of the big innovations that's come with radically increased memory has been big, detailed game worlds. There's always been a wish for them, ever since Zork or even before, but these days they're pretty commonplace.

I guess I like big worlds, but it feels really empty and wasteful. Most of the world is created using some kind of automation - fractal landscapes, NPC generators, building brushes - but these things do not add any real uniqueness to the world. Most of the uniqueness comes from the painstaking hand-scripting that the designers do.

For example, there are dozens of planets you can land on in Mass Effect. Leaving out the big plot planets, the rest of the planets do have interesting things on them. Unfortunately, 90% of those interesting things are TACOs that mean nothing (oh, look, ANOTHER downed space probe...) and the other 10% is some short little mission.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except for the fact that planets are big. I mean, really big.

I mean, look at Oblivion, which takes up only a relatively small piece of one continent. It's got at least as many unique (and non-unique) bits as Mass Effect. Of course, their cities are really tiny. Even their capital is basically the size of a small village. Cities are big. I mean, really big.

Look at Crackdown. It takes place in one city, and it has quite a lot of unique and not-so-unique content! Vastly more than any city in Oblivion, vastly more than any star cluster in Mass Effect...

Because it doesn't really matter how physically large your gameworld is. In truth, your universe will only have as much content as you manually program in. Whether your game takes place spanning thousands of galaxies or entirely on one small plate of pasta, the same amount of content can be crammed into both.

A lot of people think it's possible to generate content using an algorithm. They (we) spend an awful lot of time trying to find a tool that will let a designer use a "drama brush" or something, something that will create unique situations without being so carefully scripted. I suppose it's a fine goal, but, again, you only get out of it what you put into it.

Even that's kind of missing the point. A giant world full of little adventures is always going to feel... sparse. No matter how much content you cram in. Because in the end, there is no attachment to any of it.

I visit Homeburg, I fix their spider infestation, and I move on. Homeburg never matters ever again. Even if I let a Homeburgerian join my party, it's not like they are Homeburg. They're just a member of my party with no intrinsic connection to any given place.

Giving the player a lot of places to visit means that none of those places is going to be very important. Therefore, even if you generate awesome content for every single nook and cranny, players will still not care (or will never reach it because they're busy being interested with their starting city).

To me, the solution lies not in bigger worlds, and not even in more content, but in changing the things the game focuses on.

Right now, games are extremely avatar-centric. Your whole drive is to get better stuff for your avatar (and his buddies, who are basically extended avatars). In some games, there is a drive to make your avatar a certain kind of person - good, bad, ugly - but even in those cases, anything you encounter is a tool to express your avatar, not something that has value on its own. I can't tell you how many times I just selected "the right dialog" without even bothering to read it, because I knew which dialog makes my character more good or evil.

This is handy, I suppose, because it allows the designers to simplify things. The only changing factor is the tiny point of light we call the player. Everything else is laid down in linear script, nice and easy.

Don't you think we're past that?

Don't you think it would be okay to make a game which revolves around the places, rather than the avatar?

I don't mean something like The Sims or Dungeon Keeper or Dwarf Fortress. They revolve around places, yes, but their gameplay does not vary and they have no real plot.

I guess I'm looking for something kind of halfway between Dungeon Keeper and Mass Effect...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Games as Art

There seems to be a common impression that games are on the cusp of being great art, like we're about to have "our Citizen Kane"...

We aren't. We haven't even really hit talkies.

While games look very advanced, that's deceptive: the advanced part is the stuff we've stolen from film, like film originally stole from theater.

The potential of games - as a media - is not something we've even begun to grasp, even by people aiming for that specifically.


Although this blog is focused on game design, I have a lot of other interests such as art and music (and detective novels). One of the things I notice is that these other things can create a really strong "sense" that I don't see in games.

For example, if you look at a really great science fiction story, the whole thing revolves around a specific set of images. A faraway planet with a tremendous red sun, a scientist's lab with ten-foot beakers full of monsters, a battle between titanic space ships... these images account for much of the "punch" of the story, and each evokes a particular sense on its own.

This is true of most things that aren't games. While most movies, music, comics, and so forth are shallow crap, you can find plenty of examples that are deeply moving in some way.

But... I don't really see that in games.

There are a few games that try, but very, very few succeed. On the order of only two that I can think of.

There's a difference between this and making a statement. Plenty of games make a statement, but I don't care about that. I'm talking about making the audience feel something strongly from the game, not feel something strongly because of what the game says about modern life.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the answer lies in the dynamics of the medium - playing to the strengths of the medium.

For example, I can draw a nice picture of something. A faraway planet with a city of pyramids, say. My skill isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I definitely feel that there is a sense there. A sense of the feeling I'm going for.

Now, if instead I choose to draw a comic, the same image has less appeal. It is much weaker to me, as if it's suddenly just a backdrop.

Well, that's because it is suddenly a backdrop. It's just one panel.

But comics can portray strong imagery, too. Not in the same way, and probably not the exact same things, but they can do it. They do it differently.

While an illustration works by filling out the page in a single, immersive moment, a comic's strength lies in the artist's control over the passage of time and space. So the comic would build a similar feeling using multiple, smaller, probably more focused images carefully arranged such that they "fill in" the overall imagery bit by bit, forming a strong, deep impression.

A movie or animation is similar, except that the artist has less control over the passage of time and space. This is in some ways good - there's a much finer grain to the passage - but is in some ways bad - you can't jump around as easily and clearly as a comic can.

Even simple changes like whether you use black and white or color (even what kind of color technology you use) changes your medium enough that you need to be careful when portraying your imagery. Careful to use the medium as it is best used, rather than as your habits dictate.

You can also make the argument that a momentary image in a movie or comic (a scene, roughly) is very different from the overall movie... but, again, I think that the overall movie depicts something using scenes in the way that scenes are depicted using shots and shots are depicted using lights and lenses and actors and settings.

The question is, why don't we see this more in games?

It's more than simply not having any artistic games. We have many artistic games these days, ranging from text adventures to RPGs even to action games. Most of these games suck pretty hard, though, and almost none of them give you a feeling. Instead, they simply make a statement. There is also an unprecedented level and quality of art in major titles, but, again, it falls flat.

I think the problem is that people are not using the medium. Instead, they are using the methods other mediums use.

For example, in Mass Effect, when you land on a planet it is gorgeous. It looks so good. If Mass Effect were a movie, you would be blown away by the beauty of these desolate landscapes.

But in the game, it means very little. You're busy driving your little truck over all sorts of bumpy ground, and you don't really get to look around much. The sky might as well be white static for all it matters.

It's like a comic: an illustration can be beautiful, but it's just a backdrop in a comic. Instead, a comic uses the ability to hop through time and space to structure a moment more fully.

The physical beauty of a game is just a backdrop. To make an image properly, you need to use the inherent strength of the medium: the way the game plays.


Problem is, moments don't last very long. A beautiful image isn't a ten-hour experience.

Of course, neither is a movie a single beautiful scene.

So... the next step, past The Marriage and Passage, is to use play bits in the same way that a movie uses scenes. Not exactly like movies use scenes, because games aren't movies and bits of play aren't scenes. But... similarly.

I think?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Where are RPGs Going?

So, I've been playing Mass Effect for... A LONG TIME NOW... and I have noticed something.

Ever since the beginning, RPGs have had a few weird little details about them that give them a strong sense of personality. Like many other genres - the FPS tends to do things a specific way, the platformer does things a specific way, and the RPG, yes, does things a specific way.

But as time has gone on, these details have gotten more and more exaggerated. I guess it's true in every genre: does it really make any sense for a man to carry ten guns, be healed by walking across a box labeled with a red cross, and for every building to be full of exploding barrels and crates?

But RPGs are what I'm noticing now. And the reason I'm noticing them is because Mass Effect takes all those little details and punches them up to levels of ridiculosity I've rarely seen.

Now, Mass Effect certainly isn't a bad game. And most people didn't even appear to notice these bits. But let me discuss them with you.

Adventure-Centric World Design

First and most obviously: why is every container full of guns? Search the trash compactor, it's full of sniper rifles. The bin full of slime has pistols inside. The med-bay has lockers full of shotguns. Every long-range space probe is, for some reason, full of assault rifles.

Anything that isn't full of weapons is full of armor or mil-spec mods. Is that any better? Does that make any more sense?

I remember Bard's Tale made fun of this right off the bat: kill a wolf and out comes fountains of gold coins and magic equipment. But Bard's Tale was making fun of you, Mass Effect. Even though you didn't exist yet.

Why does a hermit studying the writings of Space-Elf Boobaloo Matriarch Delarno have four sniper rifles, two sets of armor belonging to different species, and fifty thousand dollars?

One hermit? Yeah, I can see that, there's a plot point there. Every hermit in the game?

There's also the fun fact that if you kill someone, you get gold and stuff off them even if you shoot them with a sniper rifle from a thousand meters away with ammo that makes them disintegrate. BLAM, foom! Bing - $10,000 and a health kit!

This flaw, which I'll name "adventure-centric world design", is a big one for me. I really don't like it, especially when everything levels at the same rate I do. The hermit I discovered at level 3 has four really crappy sniper rifles, the hermit I discover at level 50 has four really shiny sniper rifles. Because the universe is only inhabited by people of my level.

I find that games with a universe that feels a bit more lived-in are more to my taste. In some games, this means you very rarely stumble across objects, but instead find a lot of color. In other games, this means you stumble across a lot of really useless objects.

Another aspect of this is the "HOW DO THEY LIVE HERE?" problem. For example, most people who live on hostile worlds live in little one-room shacks. The front door is not an airlock and just vwooshes open whenever anyone goes in. I suppose sufficiently advanced technology could keep the 10,000 degree heat outside, but there's no bathroom. I guess we evolved past that.

This is a problem in every location. Your ship has no place for marines to sleep. You have a bedroom, though, which makes me curious as to sleeping arrangements... similarly, there's no place to get food, no lounge.

Theoretically, it could all be hidden off somewhere - maybe the slow freaking elevator goes to other floors. But this assumption - that every NPC in the game exists only to talk or die - I don't like it much. Even though it's common.

Choice-Free Choices

"Dost thou love me? But thou must! Dost thou love me?"

These days it's becoming very popular to give the player choice as to his disposition. A dialog tree is no longer simply a source of information, it's also a way to define your character's personality.

But, classically, dialog trees are for letting the player mine for pre-scripted information. This means that expanding them to include personality simply means the player now mines for pre-scripted personality. It's not a particularly good way to do things.

What makes it worse is that, especially in Bioware games, the player is given a choice that literally does not matter, but is presented as if it did.

For example, I'm given the option of helping someone snarkily or kindly. It doesn't matter! It has no game effect other than giving you a point of snark or wuss.

It's just a modern version of the "Will you help? Yes/No - No. But you must! Will you help? Yes/No..."

These "pointless choices" are a relic, and a really poor smoke-and-mirror trick that I wish would go out of style. Especially since the way they implement "personality" is to... always, universally, every time... let you decide between being a total pussy or a murdering psychotic.

I especially like in Mass Effect that regardless of how paragonny you are (paragon: the Path of the Pussy) you still end up committing treason against both your governments, conspiracy to commit treason against both your governments, and stealing the most advanced ship in the fleet to invade another government in an act of war. Yeah, after you spend the whole game saying things like "calm down, we can work this out". (Because the alternative is "kill the bastard".)

This particular trick ("pointless choices") is bad not only because it is transparent, but because it builds up an expectation that the writers universally fail to fulfill. It's like shooting yourself in the foot.

Step by Step, Row by Row, Time to Make this Warrior Grow...

The third of the three typical RPG elements that I dislike today is the fact that RPGs are largely spreadsheet gaming. Every level-up, every new weapon is a few points better on a given axis.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, it is rather excessive. To distract you from the story (you know, the ROLE PLAY), they give you ten thousand fights with a hundred thousand different stats. In the best of situations, the way you set up your capabilities will change your options in the story. That's pretty damn rare, though: your role is generally completely unrelated to your play.

I actually found Ico and Shadows of the Colossus to be more role play than any of the so-called "RPG"s out on the market.


Anyhow, those are the three things I notice most when I look at how insular RPGs have gotten these days.

All three have upsides, mostly in terms of efficiently immersing the player in the world. But I sure could do with some innovation.

What are your opinions?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Back on Track...

I didn't mean to sidetrack everything so much with that little post. So let me get back to game design.

One of the things I really like in games is when they offer a very unique perspective on things. For example, my favorite level in Psychonauts was Lungfishopolis, where you were basically temporarily transformed to Godzilla-size.

But even in the old days, I remember loving light-bike (the Tron bike game, yeah?) not because I was any good at it, not because it was actually fun, but because it was a very unique perspective. The idea that you could "carve up" the playing field is so unlike anything that I had seen that I found it entrancing. To this day I have a weakness for games which allow you to carve up or build the playing field, like those pipe games and those games where you have to isolate bouncing balls.

This isn't simply a matter of offering up a new play mechanic. Some games have the same basic play mechanic, but apply it in a radically new direction. For example, the gameplay in Daggerfall (the game before Morrowind) wasn't particularly new or innovative. But the game let you play that gameplay in a wide-open world of unprecedented size and complexity, giving you a radically different experience. A radically new perspective on an old style.

Do any of you have favorite games - or parts of games - where this is the case?

On Another Subject...

Everyone who knows me knows I am just about as pro-science as a person can be. I'm one of the relative few who get furious when some idiot starts suppressing or twisting research.

I've been pretty angry for the past seven years.

Although most of my hate is reserved for anyone who says "evolution is just a theory", I have a special, extremely warm place in my heart for people who deny global warming. These people aren't simply deluded, they're often denying global warming for a political or monetary reason. Even when they "tentatively accept some level of change to the earth's global environment", they like to claim it's not proven than it has anything to do with l'il old us.

NASA hasn't been the most... up-front about this kind of thing, largely because they're a massive, top-heavy bureaucracy whose leaders are often appointed by the president's administration. So it pleased me to see this.