Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blade and Interactive Visual Novels

I have it in my head to make a simple adventure game, and it seemed to me that the easiest way to do it would be to make it in the style of one of those Japanese games that's mostly portraits and text. To that end, I found a free piece of software: the Blade Engine.

Aside from the way it stamps every screen with its logo, at first glance it appears solid enough. However, if you look at it, it's not very well done, not very modern.

It has some very strange scripting restrictions. First off, the scripting language is very strange in and of itself - you can see that clearly in the manual. It appears to be inherited from 1991.

What you might not be able to see so clearly is that every choice you offer the player requires a new script file to represent the result. So, if you had, say, three things for a player to look at in a room, each would require its own file. A file which is, in all probability, five lines long. If you have thousands of choices, you end up with thousands of tiny text files, all in the same directory, not organized by any force other than your naming convention... for a nonlinear adventure, that's pretty much a death sentence.

Also, it does not appear to support any kind of subdirectories, custom functions, etc. The pay version doesn't seem to have any superior layout, although they have a file packing system which would probably solve the problem that anyone playing your game could easily go and edit the scripts, if they could figure out the primitive scripting language.

Variables cannot be named, but are instead the numbers from 0 to 99, as in "@[1]=9" sets the first variable to "9". This would require a confusing lookup table to remember which variables correlate to which events in the game, and I find my planning comes dangerously close to 99 variables as it is...

No loops, no switches, barely an "if" structure...

Moreover, the graphical display is extremely limited. For example, you cannot have a character built of layers - body and expression separate. Or, rather, you can, but there are only three layers in total, so you'd be limited to a single character on screen at a time. A layer can only load one image at a time...

Okay, okay, I get it, it's just for interactive novels, it's not intended for such complex games.

What is?

Flash? Am I going to have to forever build the guts of the various interfaces anew with each project?

I know there are some oldschool adventure game programs that allow you to graphically edit the rooms and so forth, but I'm not looking for something with that much animation. Maybe one of them could be used, ignoring all of the "walking" nonsense?

Maybe I should try Game Maker after all?

Anyone have any experience making games this simple?

The Legendary Brain Fuck

Oh, um, language NSFW warning... better late than never? I'm swearing, because that's what it's called. It's called a brain fuck. I don't think I've ever called it heard anything else.

One of the things I like to hear players say, probably third behind "that was fun!" and "let's do it again", is "what a total brain fuck!"

They don't mean the "urban dictionary" definition of brain fuck, which I'm pretty sure I've never heard used in real life. These players are talking in the "Evangelion" sense, where something has such radical twists and surprises that the gray matter makes a little "squeee?" sound and seizes up.

This happens often enough that I have learned to look at it as several different kinds of brain fuck. (At this point, reading this aloud on TV would have cost you about a hundred thousand dollars.)

The first kind of brain fuck is what I call the "non-sequitur fuck". This is when you do things that make NO sense and do not fit in at all. An example of this might be if you're playing a fantasy game and then, out of nowhere, the Borg land. I consider this the lowest kind of brain fuck, but done right, it can be hilarious.

The second kind is what I call the "big twist fuck". This is when something unexpected happens (or something expected doesn't happen), but it's not random. It makes sense, it's just very unexpected. This is that Evangelion fuck that was so popular way back when. I don't particularly care about this kind of brain fuck, because it's very easy to do and lacks finesse. It's kind of a "cheater's murder mystery fuck", in its way. Many of the most popular TV shows among the SciFi crowd use this all the time: BSG is written with exactly two in every episode, as far as I can tell.

To me, the highest order of brain fuck is called the "twisty pathways fuck". This fuck is built into the very nature of the game or show, such that when it is revealed, the audience realizes there was no way it could have ever gone any other way, even though they'd never thought of it. I try to incorporate this into every game I make via the rules: players never really understand the social implications of rules until very late, so it's surprisingly easy to do. For example, a good Star Wars game is built so that the rules of the Force make a surprisingly graceful, inevitable slide into the dark side that will surprise every player without seeming forced or arbitrary. You don't really understand "falling to the dark side" until you've experienced it in such a way...

Some shows (such as The Matrix) seem to have a twisty pathways fuck, but in fact do not. They just have big twist fucks that are based on their nature. That's definitely lower order...

Anyway, what makes you cry "brain fuck"? Do you like this sort of thing?

Monday, April 28, 2008


I've written a lot of on-topic essays and thrown them all away. Here's an interesting but random, pointless one. Edit: It has been pointed out that this post might be total crap. Lemme know what you think!

Something about me you might not know: I really love music. I'm one of the people who gets a physical reaction to music - certain songs make my skin prickle, and not in a figurative sense. I always associate it with good music, and it only happens when I'm focusing on the music. The more prickling, the more I like the music. I couldn't really tell what caused it, all I knew is that it always starts somewhere a chunk before or after the middle of the songs in question.

The point is golden proportions in music.

Yeah, a little investigation. It turns out that almost every song on my hard drive that makes me prickle has its central shift at 62% of the way into the song, or at 38% of the way, plus or minus a bit. I don't think this is just chance, because many of the songs that don't cause me to prickle don't time this right, and the more off they are, the less I prickle.

For example, Chrono Cross: Time's Scar. A game I didn't even like, but man, I love this song. It fires up proper at 57 seconds in, out of 149 seconds. 149 * 0.382 = 57. Kwoon's "I lived on the moon" - the only song of his that I really like - is 272 seconds long. It switches gears at 105 seconds. 272 * 0.382 = 104.

It's not just weird songs. Even good rock songs...

"Heavy Fuel", by Dire Straits, is a song I love, but it doesn't make me tingle. It's 301 seconds long. That gives 114 seconds in, or 186 seconds in. There is a shift, but it's nearly ten seconds late and not the big shift in the song.

"Sultans of Swing" is a song that does make me tingle, but only a little bit. It's 350 seconds long, which means we should have a big shift at either 134 (2:17) or 216 (3:36). The solo starts at 3:30, which is a significant error even in a song this long, which would theoretically explain the smaller reaction. :D

"Footloose", a song I'm not proud tingle to, is 229 seconds long. It should shift at 87 (1:27) or 142 (2:22). Yeah, the song shift is at precisely 2:22. Like Sultans of Swing, it's not a big reaction, but since the song shift culminates fifteen seconds later, I would probably consider that to be what "should have been" at 2:22.

Cake. I hate Cake, but I can't help listening to them. The Distance is 3 minutes even, 180 seconds. 69 seconds or 111 seconds. There's a major shift at 67 seconds, and another at 110 seconds. Actually, the last two seconds of the song are silence, so it's an even better fit. That cannot have been on accident...

White Rabbit doesn't make me tingle, but I love it. It's 153 seconds long, so 58 seconds or 95 seconds is the theory, but since it doesn't make me tingle... the shift is at 85 seconds, very early. The peak is at 105 seconds, very late...

It's definitely true that I have a much stronger reaction to songs that peak at the late ratio (0.618) rather than the early ratio (0.382). I haven't included many examples here, because they're mostly game music or really obscure music. I wonder why?

Interesting, at any rate. It's a strong correlation: I think I have a strong reaction to the golden ratio! I bet there are miniature examples, too, like golden ratios within a progression or golden ratios of frequency... it's interesting.

How about you?

(Warning: If you're going to check timing yourself, VLC gets the time marker wrong if you jump to a position in the song... or, at least, it gives a different time reading than if you play from the start.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Organic Farming

I'm brewing up a post on player connectivity, but here's something that really pisses me off. (Obviously, this is a rant.)

I've been reading up on sustainable farming, because I have a freakishly boundless curiosity. A lot of it is really interesting, and in America there's a huge crossover between organic and sustainable, to the point where there's really no clear dividing line.

It's pretty interesting. For example, to qualify as "organic", they can't really use normal methods for killing pests and treating diseases.

On the crop side, they got really clever: by switching up crops and planting at selective times, they interrupt the pest cycle and keep diseases from taking root. For example, a given kind of weed can be prevented from invading a fallow field by planting a fast-growing ground cover crop just before it might start (which also increases soil organics). Insect pests have similar solutions, plus the addition of nonharmful predators and competitors such as ladybugs. Once the populations and rhythms are established, the problem is apparently fairly manageable without any pesticides at all.

On the animal side, especially with cows, diseases are what you would expect to be trouble. It turns out that "organic" cows don't really get sick very often, because their conditions aren't so bad. So, that's good. Except, get this: they can't use any antibiotics on any of the cows, ever, or lose their "organic" certification.

While this is worrisome, they say that treating them homeopathically tends to work. They've said this multiple times in the papers I've been reading.

I can't... There is no emote... MUST I TYPE IN CAPS TO SHOW MY ANGER?

Stop getting your idiotic woo in my research.

What they mean is: "well, we give the cows plenty of water, and they usually get better on their own. Oh, and we pay through the nose for some useless sugar pills because otherwise those poor homeopaths would be diluting poison for no good reason!"

Similarly, you're not allowed to use any "genetically modified" crops if you want that all-important "organic" label and the 200% price increase it allows.

Now, admittedly, the majority of genetically modified crops (not counting the ones grandfathered in, such as every crop on the face of the planet) are modified in ways which really don't help a sustainable farm much. Most of them, for example, are simply herbicide/pesticide-resistant... immune to things these farmers won't use.

But there are a lot of modified crops that are good! Some metabolize specific soil contaminants, some provide specific vitamins, some are engineered to survive better in climates they aren't accustomed to. More are coming out every year, and this will only accelerate as we understand the genetics better and can do modifications cheaper.

Why a blind, flat ban? It's another case of woo!

Sustainable farming is a valuable field of research that can benefit everyone in every society across the world. I will not have everyone in every society across the world believing that homeopathy works, or that all genetically modified crops are magically bad.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nonexistant Words are Important

This is kinda a futurism post, because it's just so nice outside!

I am one of those people who believes that language affects thought.

I don't really believe you think in language - I don't, so I don't see how I could believe in it - but I believe that the same circuits that allow you to speak the way you do also allow you to think the way you do. IE, your brain optimizes for your language, and operates that way even when not doing languagy things.

So I like invented words. I like assigning a word to whatever I'm talking about, even if I know it will never be used again, because it gives me a symbolic representation of the whole concept. I can attach to that word, fasten meaning to it, and measure it against the rest of the universe as I know it.

That's one of the reasons I really liked Douglas Adams.

Douglas Adams was very good at concepts which exist, but aren't generally recognized. Both important things and unimportant things and things which appear to be one but are actually the other. A few of his books - such as the Meaning of Liff - are literally just stacks of fake words used to describe things we all know but never notice or think about.

There are a few more communal efforts to do this sort of thing - some good ones that start with "A" are: Adelphia and Arrowsic.

(There isn't a word, as far as I know, for "examples limited to the first bit of data because the 'researcher' writing the report is too jazzed up to read all the way through before posting." I'm taking suggestions. I'd choose "Springfield", but I think it already means "to use a generic example that seems to be one of a strong set of examples, except that not only does it not exist, the strong set of examples also does not exist.")

I think these kinds of exercises are important, because I think culture and society are going to become increasingly splintered and unstable. Right now, cultures and societies are horribly bad at talking about themselves, and even worse about talking about other cultures and societies. I think that needs to change.

I think if every society in the world came up with these kinds of words based on the cities, places, and people around them, we could learn an awful lot about how people think differently... I think, even without any other reason for it to exist, that would be a very good reason to do it.

I would like to do it myself, as a representative of the armchair nerdcore. So here are some examples from New England which may or may not clash with pre-existing Liff-words. As usual, my meanings are based more on the sounds of the city name, not the actual nature of the city.

If you have any personal examples from anywhere, post them!

Framingham: Any arguer who approaches an argument with no intention to even understand the other side's commentary. Implies a lifelong pursuit of this activity.

Taunton: To explain an argument, position, or worldview by confidently misquoting something.

Woonsocket: To do something fun while explaining that it's for the better good, really. IE, defining "woonsocket".

Worcester: Something that has strayed so far from its origins that it has no real similarity to them and no useful purpose in its present form... but it refuses to die.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


If you're producing some little, direct-to-internet show, please do not release it on Hulu.

Nobody outside the US can see anything, and lots of us in the US aren't willing to watch their player because we have this little thing about using something that plays ads at us.

I understand that Hulu is a good alternative for major broadcasting corporations who are terrified of actually changing the way things work. It's a good balance between the third millennium and a terrified fear of losing your status as top dog.

But I notice some content (such as Phil Plait's stuff) is not produced by major studios. Why are they releasing on Hulu?

I can only presume they were suckered in by an aggressive marketing campaign... much to the detriment of everyone who isn't a US citizen.

Anyway, what are your thoughts on Hulu?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Choices Again

So, Brenda Brathwaite posted on choice frequency.

I've posted on this subject before - although my essay is now lost to the winds of fickle hosting services, so I can only reference a tangential post.

Basically, I agree. I thought I would explain my theory on the matter, since the original essay is gone. GONE! Sob...

I don't think it's simple frequency. I think that the choices also have to (A) be actual choices, (B) change the game state in a significant way, and (C) be partially reversible or repeatable. "Meaningful", yes, but I define that a bit more complexly.

For example, if you're on a map, choosing whether to move left or right at any given moment is a meaningful, frequent choice. Moving one way brings you closer to some goals and further from others, moving another way does the opposite. Reversing your path is usually possible, but takes time.

Similarly, if you're playing poker, you're faced with numerous opportunities to make very meaningful choices. Bidding, just as a most obvious aspect. Bids can't be taken back, but every hand, you get to try again. There certainly are "make or break" hands of poker, but they're very unusual.

As a final example, you have games like Rock Band. It may feel a bit odd to say that a song beat is a "choice", and I think "choice" is probably a bad term. I... really hate the word "choppertunity"... but I think it's better than "choice". Maybe "option"?

Anyway, Rock Band sends these notes sliding down the neck towards you, and you hit them. You're not making "meaningful choices" between hitting the notes and letting them slide by. It's a skill test. But, fundamentally, I think that the basic play properties are the same as choosing which direction to go on a map. Frequent, repeatable opportunities that change the state of the world.

As an example of how not to do frequent choices, you can see modern dialog trees. You know, a kid says, "hey mithter, you got anything to eat?" and let you choose between "KILL HIM NOW!" and "Give him your life savings!" twenty times an hour.

Not only are these choices not frequent enough, they aren't even really choices. Nobody is constantly wavering between dark and light. These are paths that they choose at the beginning and stay with for the whole game. So the "choices" really aren't choices at all.

So, yes, I agree with Braithwaite, and I guess I don't have much to add.


Um. Have a nice day, I guess?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Futurism: Global Governance

My last futurism rant got a lot of comments and interesting discussion, so I thought I'd try again...

Global Governance. An idea that finds a lot of traction with idealistic geeks and freethinkers, it sounds like a great idea.

I hate the idea.

"What? But you're an idealistic geek freethinker!"

Yes, but I've studied history.

The basic problem with a global government is that it is a global government. This has several huge, huge problems.

First, governments (like any large group of people) tend to become more important than the things they govern. That is, people within the government will strive to make the government more powerful, even at the expense of those beneath them. Even good people will use the government to aid their local interests at the cost of everywhere else.

Second, elected government officials (which I presume is the idea) are going to pander to their voters, which means we're going to see a lot of representatives pushing for dumb, suicidal policies because the idiot public doesn't understand the first thing about consequences. And, no, it's not just US citizens who are bad at it: even the brightest citizens usually don't think everything through.

Third, any system with a single point of failure (a single government) is just fundamentally bad design. Not "eating fast food" bad, but "driving in the wrong lane" bad. It's a tremendous, insidious, unavoidable, pervasive flaw that literally dooms the system in the long run.

People don't argue against these points. Instead, they say, "but look at all the good it could do!"

There is a long history of power grabs, a long history of evil on the part of whoever is in power. For the most part, a power structure's only limitation is that it has competitors. It has to do well enough to compete with them.

Without that restriction, the power structure can feed itself until there is no more power to be grabbed. It will destroy its power base out of sheer gluttony, down to the highest level of repression it can manage while still remaining in power.

It's not a conspiracy, it's not due to inherent evil... it's just the way that power structures work. Look at governments, unions, trade cartels... there are an almost infinite number of examples. They do good... until they decide they're more important than their goal.


I'm not saying that we should be isolationists. Not only do I find the idea morally wrong, it also removes the competition that keeps power structures in check and power bases healthy. International trade is important.


This has pretty much been a rant so far. But, I'm not ranting to no purpose. So far, there hasn't been any futurism in it. Here it comes:

We could do it today.

We have the technology to, say, go and start sustainable farms. Ignoring political and human elements, if we got a thousand people to start a hundred sustainable farms, and kept them in communication to trade information and willing aid, at least half would still be working five years later. My gut tells me closer to 80%.

Of course, that isn't going to happen. Putting aside the various political concerns such as land, zoning, and crop restrictions, you couldn't find a thousand people willing to do it. You might find a thousand people willing to do it for a few months, but then they'll go back to doing whatever they were doing before. Any other job in America is more efficient.

But that won't always be true.

Even if we presume that there is no upcoming global depression from USA's inanity and Europe's stately textbook march into socialism, technology advances every year. Every year, we learn more about how sustainable farming works. We may even invent new, more effective crops for it. And, eventually, it will become more efficient to farm sustainably than to plant a hundred thousand acres of corn and dump oil on it.

The same is true of space. Technically, if I wanted to live on the moon because I'm sick of earthly governments, I could do it. It would cost tens of billions of dollars, but it's technically feasible. Bill Gates could do it, if he didn't mind bankrupting himself in the process.

But in a decade, it will probably only cost a few billion dollars. Bill gates could invite up a couple of his friends.

A decade after that, a few hundred million, then a few million, then tens of thousands... and, eventually, the main cost of living on the moon will be in buying some land to live on up there.

This is the march of technology. It shows no signs of stopping - it shows no signs of even slowing to merely linear growth.

It shows that our current ideals of government and economy are already verging on obsolete, and will probably be considered insane and evil by an increasing percentage of each new generation.

I don't know what the right alternative to a global government is. Maybe some kind of global hang-out where small factions can talk shop and send each other birthday presents.

But a world-size EU or an effective UN are not in the cards. They are not viable forms of government in a future where I can build my own genetically engineered crops in my basement.

I think.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fundamental Issues in Social Play

Last post, I wrote about a fun little idea I had. Tom Hudson said that a bunch of people had tried stuff before, and it hadn't worked out.

Given that that was also my second paragraph in that essay, I agree. But it's clear that Tom doesn't think my silly little approach avoids any of the problems other approaches have had. (I'm not being snarky. The approach is silly, even if Tom never said so.)

Obviously, the best way to demonstrate this would be a prototype, so I'll work on that a bit. BUT, let me explain to you the fundamental difference between a "classic" approach such as Emily Short's and my own.

The big difference is scripting.

In a classic solution, you can be as brilliant as you want in offering the player social choices. But no matter how brilliant you are, you're going to run into a fundamental flaw: the characters can only say what you write them to say.

That's not gonna work.

It's very important to do away with scripted dialog. Instead, you have to abstract it out. Either use a bunch of fragmented dialog bits that get recombined, use an abstract language you designed specifically for the purpose, or be completely abstract and use something like Simlish.

In a game of combat, you do not see every blow of every weapon in great detail. It has just started to be possible to do that, and most games still abstract combat out to some generic flailing plus a few colored numbers. Social stuff, at least in the beginning, needs to be abstracted just as far. (Although, obviously, not to the same end.)

Abstracting this stuff out will make it possible to do stuff algorithmically. Someone can become angry with you, even if it wasn't programmed in! Someone can be turned against someone else even if the designer didn't expect it, because they can betray without needing to have it explicitly scripted!

Now, obviously, I'm skipping a lot of stuff. This is an immense topic and describing it in a single post is not going to happen. For example, now someone will claim that this has been done before, probably pointing to the Sims. "Look! Dey have all dese emotions an' stuff!"

Here's the bit you need to understand: The design is as important as the algorithm. If the algorithm allows anyone to become angry, then the design has to make sure that people becoming angry matters to the gameplay. If the algorithm allows anyone to side with anyone, the design has to make that matter and offer up a good way to let the player use it.

If they can be angry, but it's pointless, then IT'S POINTLESS. There's no difference between a Sim talking about science-symbol and a Sim talking about police-symbol. An angry Sim is angry, which just makes life irritating for a while and has no significant effect on anything. All of the socializing-with-Sims stuff is useless, because there is no significant game effect to it. Yay, you made a new friend, just like the old friend.

The Sims isn't about socializing, it's about consumerism when you play it straight and it's about injecting your own meaning when you play it freely. Either way, socializing isn't a big part of the game.

To make socializing a big part of the game, you have to design it from the ground up.

Details on how to do this.

I hope I'm being clear. I'm not very awake today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Social Combat!

So, I've been dabbling in prototypes that test the idea of "social combat" - it's like normal combat, except it's not physical. The idea is to introduce the same level of complexity and depth to a social situation as you get in a combat situation in other games.

There have been a few attempts, but they're always pretty bad because they are either foolishly transparent or require some kind of wicked new AI.

Nothing makes this clearer than Oblivion, both with it's insipid social minigame and the fact that the haggling is simply based on your skill level.

It occurred to me:

Logical fallacies!

What if I made all the various techniques and stats related to various logical fallacies?

As I thought about it more, I became convinced it would work. Here's the overview:

The game is a trading game set in ancient somewhere. Egypt. Whatever. The idea is haggling. Various characters have various fallacies they are best at, and at higher skill levels (earned through play), they gain access to special, highly advanced comments of that type.

For example, if one of the characters is a street waif, she might have a specialty of "appeal to pity". She's an expert at making people feel bad for not giving her an excellent deal. As time goes on, she masters various specific techniques that allow her to choose between aggressive and passive approaches, between long-term benefit approaches or short-term approaches. For example, she learns the "tries so hard" technique, where you subtly get a low price, then pay a bit more because you "don't want them to feel pity for you". This technique wouldn't get you a very good deal, but sets up a long-term "hook" that can be used for even better deals at a later time from that same salesman. Depending on the situation, the salesman might decide, then and there, to refuse to take any money at all!

Like most fighting games, each kind of fallacy would have a different "elemental attunement". Appeal to pity, for example, is a simple "emotional" attunement, as is an appeal to ridicule or consequences.

Also, some techniques are better in certain situations. For example, ad hominem attacks aren't terribly useful straight-up. Yelling at the seller or buyer is useless. But you can use it to undermine their argument by insulting the person who gave them their information. It's a defensive technique, see?

Similarly, some techniques can reinforce your own techniques, working in concert. For example, if you're using an appeal to association: "most people like my apples, you'll like them, I'm sure!" You can add in an appeal to authority to give it more weight: "Even the queen likes my apples!" You can add in some ipsedixitism: "And apples are good for you!" plus an appeal to tradition: "Everyone knows that!"

Of course, then your buyer could retort with a bit of motive: "Of course you'd say that, you grow apples for a living!" Then attach some flattery: "It looks like you do a good job of it, too." Then a bit of special pleading: "How about you give me a sample? I've never had one before..."

Now, if the seller is immune to "emotion" damage, he negates both the motive comment and the flattery... but the special pleading is "almost logic", a different element. So a bit might get through...

What everyone wears is also important - specific clothes impart specific bonuses. Some give you some immunity to certain elements, others boost certain elements. Some offer protection against or strength in a certain fallacy type, others might actually only boost a specific technique within a fallacy...

What do you think?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Future Shock

When I have too much time on my hands, I start researching. This essay is on technology, not game design. Sort of.

There is a lot of noise being made by futurists of all shapes and sizes. Predictions on what kind of technologies will come when, extrapolated from the idea of an exponential curve. It certainly seems possible, plausible. You have to admit that vastly more futurists' predictions have come true than any prophet or precog in the history of mankind. They have a hit rate of between 10% and 25%, and they are predicting very specific things. There are no wishy-washy could-be-this, could-be-that predictions. When you say "there will be software to translate text into sound so the blind can use computers", there's not a whole lot of wiggle room. You're either right or you're wrong.

The thing about an exponential curve is that the damn things kind of sneak up on you. Things seem to be fine, then a bit unstable, a bit wonky, maybe... suddenly everything goes vertical and the whole world is fundamentally different.

What's worst is that the kids don't even notice...

For example, cell phones. Half the world's population uses cell phones. Not half the world has cell phones, but in many cases, those without cell phones will frequently use someone else's cell phone. Third-world villages might only have one cell phone... but, damn, I mean, that's a village with no running water (no source of water in the village at all). That's a village with no utilities... and they've got a cell phone?

That's science fiction, that's what it is. Every time I picture it, I get a little shock. A little bit of, "well then, that went vertical while I wasn't looking..."

There are a lot of other technologies that are about to go vertical. How long do we have? Five years? Ten? Maybe twenty, if the government bans them?

How do you think you'll feel when you buy your ten-year-old one of those science kits for Christmas... but when he completes it, he's re-engineered your front lawn to glow safety orange at night?

How about when your printer breaks down, so your eight-year-old goes into the basement and makes you a new one? He's not even a geek, any more than a teenager with a cell phone is a geek. It's simply that the technology is in their blood. In many cases, literally.

To me, everything smacks of future shock. I don't think about "oh, with this technology we could do such-and-such". That's easily predictable. In twenty years, it will cost about as much to buy an outfit as to buy a 3D printer that can print you that outfit. It's not science fiction. It's not a guess.

The question is, what kind of shock waves will it cause?

The idea of science going asymptotic is fun for me. But we already see the stretch marks from our current slow advance. Not just in the form of panicking religions, but in every aspect of our society.

Even with something as easy as email... a lot of otherwise bright middle-aged professionals have a really hard time with email. Oh, they'll use it... but they sound like nine year olds. They can't write emails. There's just some kind of short-circuit in their head.

Cell phones, yeah. I'm feeling it. I went to buy the cheapest model of cell I could find, and it comes with a camera. I couldn't find one that didn't come with one. Future shock!

I want to use the camera, but... it doesn't click. It doesn't register in my brain, somehow. Even though every teenage girl in America can do it second nature. I mean, yeah, if I think of it, I can take a picture... maybe I could figure out how to send it to something other than my phone? But I never think of it. It just doesn't exist to me, even though I've always wanted a camera.

Sure, This sort of thing is clearest with certain nutjobs who refuse to believe in evolution. Somehow, the idea just... slips by their brain. They can't grasp it, so they deny it. Some days, I feel like denying that my cell phone has a camera. In decades past, I would just not use the camera, live my life, and die without ever using it. Regardless of what I believed, or whether I argued against it, the next generation could get on with it without me.

But the pace of science is outstripping the roll of generations. It will only get worse. A child born today and a child born five years from now will be growing up in two radically different worlds, as odd as that sounds. When each child is ten, they will have very different holiday wish lists.

The one born today will have his birthday in 2018. He will want a VR-XBox 9000. You know, the one that simulates every cell of the enemy exploding simultaneously and shares it with your friends worldwide?

The child born five years from now, his tenth birthday will be in 2023. He will want a construction AI to build him custom game machines with adaptable capacities for each game individually.

Those are guesses.

But they're probably good ones.

It's easy to say stuff like that. I mean, you can think, "yeah, that sounds cool, if I understand what you're talking about..."

Have you stopped to consider what it actually means? This isn't you getting a cool new technology. This is a child being shaped by a cool new technology.

You can already see it. These are people whose lives incorporate Flickr on a fundamental level. They are young people who grow up understanding that they post photos of every goddamn thing in the universe for all their friends to see. It's part of their brain. It's the same way that I fundamentally understand that computers are The Thing. To them, computers aren't The Thing. Computers are a medium. Computers are a default. Sharing information is The Thing. Friends can stay in touch every second of their shallow little lives, even if they are far away!

Ten years from now, sharing information won't be The Thing. Sharing information will be the medium. Sharing information will be the default.

What kind of weird, wholly ungoverned society will evolve out of that? What is The Thing on top of sharing information? Five years later, that thing will be the default... what will be built on top of it?

This cannot really be slowed down much.

All I can think is that our current method - our consumer/industrial society - it can't really last very long. It isn't built to withstand the ability to build open-source cars in your basement, or to manufacture your own prom dress based on a photo of your favorite actress. It isn't built to adapt to a hundred million children all working in amorphous synchronicity. It certainly isn't built to work in a world with no third world.

What kind of future is there? How bad will the future shock be? Will there be violence to try to stop it?

Those questions are infinitely more interesting than the relatively simple ones of "what technology comes next".

What is your opinion?

LARP Writing, Work Together!

If you were to try to graph all of the interactions of various players over the course of the game, you would end up looking like the insane guy who scribbles nonsense math all over the walls.

While it's important to understand the basics of how players will interact, trying to map it is a nightmare. Not only do players join and unjoin various groups at various times, but "group" isn't even something that really exists... it's just a vague, ever-changing bunch of people who tend to interact.

So, instead of thinking about players as players, I think about them as liquids.

Instead of having Anne and Bob, and having Anne be the good guy and Bob be the geek, I take a different approach. I say that I have a liter of Anne and a liter of Bob.

Like liquids, players adapt to fill whatever situation they are in. They rush towards any gap, regardless as to whether it's at all related to their character. They carry other players along and are carried along, intermingling. They can be smooth or choppy, depending mostly on the situation rather than the player. They slosh around, separate, splash out of the containers and all over the floor...

Obviously, you can take this analogy too far, but the point is that players cannot be thought of as "units". You are grossly oversimplifying if you represent a small game in such a way, and grossly undersimplifying if you represent a large game in such a way. So think of a player as a quantity, not a single unit.

This is important because any game, regardless of size, tends to form a specific number of "groups". "Group" is the wrong word, now that we've taken on liquids as our visual. Instead, these are "whirlpools".

The number of whirlpools depends on the way the game is designed. A game with a lot of careful politicking and secrecy will have a lot more groups than a game built around slapstick and short-sighted violence.

Generally, the games with the fewest secrets and politics will have two whirlpools, whereas games with a lot of secretive politics will often have seven or eight. The average appears to be four, with occasional temporary whirls here and there.

This is completely independent of the number of players in the game. I've played in games with five players that had six or seven distinct groups. I've played (and run) games with two dozen characters that only had three or four groups. I ran a twelve-person game just a few weeks back that only had two groups.

The difficult part in thinking in terms of groups/whirlpools is that we have an instinctive urge to identify them. "This group is psi-cops, that group is rebels..."

But whirlpools are not units any more than players are. The edges are fuzzy, and the center roams around. Plus, they are formed by the motion of the players, not by the intentions of the designer. The designer can build the game to promote whirlpools around and between specific players and things, but depending on how the players splash around, you will end up with whirlpools that don't act like you expect, or don't even exist where you thought they would. Over the course of the game, smaller whirlpools will form here and there, and sometimes they will even collapse the original, designed whirlpools...

There is a lot of chaos to the way that people play games, and as a designer you really need to accept that: fight it, and you end up with terribly dry, boring games. Instead of fighting the chaos, you need to build a game which is robust enough to handle the chaos. If your rebels and your psi-cops end up together, fighting against their common friend, your game still needs to be able to handle that without collapsing in on itself.

The funny thing is, if you design your game to be able to handle this kind of chaos, it usually doesn't have to: if the players deviate from the route you expected, the inherent robustness you've put into the game will guide them back on track, even if you don't intervene. This is because of what forms whirlpools.

Although players themselves can form small whirls pretty much at random, the stable whirlpools always form around keys. Keys are points of focus and, usually, conflict.

For example, if you have a game where the Woodgie-Boodgie of Koof can be used to either save or destroy the world, you will probably end up with two or three whirlpools around that alone: the group that wants to save the world, the group that wants to destroy the world, and probably a third group that wants to save pieces of the world.

It doesn't have to be a thing. For example, if two characters hate each other, that forms a barrier that pushes aligned players apart. If Anne hates Bob and visa-versa, then Charlie will tend to side with one or the other, rather than all three collapsing into a single whirlpool. The strength of this barrier depends mostly on (A) how much social force Anne and Bob can exert to stay separate and (B) whether Anne and Bob play their hatred up or diminish it in favor of getting things done. Both A and B can be tweaked by how you write up their characters in the game, so it's primarily your decision as to how the whirlpools form.

The name of the game is barriers, as you might be able to see. Whirlpools form when two groups of players try to stay separate and conflicting. In the first case, they're arguing over a widget. In the second case, they're favoring one or the other player. Any time you add a conflict or some inability to work together, it builds an invisible wall that can form whirlpools.

There are two basic methods that most designers choose from when it comes to building these walls.

One is to build a convoluted maze of walls: Anne hates Bob, Bob hates Charlie, Charlie hates Donald and Anne but loves Eugene...

The other is to build clear "rooms": Anne, Bob, and Charlie work together. Donald, Eugene, and Fey work together. Oh, and Charlie's a traitor.

The latter has the advantage that it will tend to fall out in similar ways each game. However, that lack of complexity is also a significant problem: when the "teams" are so clear-cut, you'll need to have the rest of the system be very interesting and powerful to keep them thinking and acting, rather than just being bored with a straightforward progression.

In Zombie: The Brain Eatening there were two groups: zombies and humans. It was very clear cut, and that meant that the rest of the game had to be complex enough to keep the players thinking. To that end, the horde were kept constantly distracted by their revolving characters and quest for upgrades. The zombies were driven to actually complete the game, so they were desperately trying to herd the other group...

The maze method of construction is also useful. However, I will tell you what happens: once the waters start to flow, some of the walls will simply crumble under the strain. Anne is supposed to hate Bob, but they really need to work together, so she'll stay in the same group as him. She'll just complain about it.

This isn't bad at all. It adds a lot of spice. But it is less predictable, more subject to the whims of the players. Usually, the same whirlpools will always form, but how much of which players are in which pools will vary hugely. Usually you can tell that a player will probably end up mostly in one of these two major, non-diametrically-opposed groups... but which?

This can lead to imbalance, so it's important for the GMs to keep an eye on the situation and add some extra bulk to the losing side if needed.


This theory has more advanced applications.

One thing you have to remember is that whirlpools don't have to be stable. Often, the most fun in a game is watching the whirlpools collide. Not even necessarily in conflict!

To this end, it's often a lot of fun to having moving or disappearing-reappearing walls. For example, if your game has an A plot (the widget can save or doom the world ) and a B plot (aliens are trying to steal human brains), it can be fun to slide the parameters around. The widget can only save the world if the aliens get fed brains... the aliens will leave if you give them the widget... the complexity creates new conflicts and alliances between whirlpools that were not, until that moment, adjacent.

A classic example of how to do this is in any game where you get memory packets as the game goes on. Reading a memory card will make you feel some way about somebody or something.

The downside of memory cards is that the walls they build are generally pretty fragile: if people are working together wholeheartedly, it will take one hell of a memory to break them up. Still, the more experienced players are usually happy to stir the pot, so they will often make mountains out of molehills, at least temporarily.

Another thing I like to do is the sacrificial whirlpool.

In this method, which I used and refined in my 6-7 runs of METEOR!, you build the game so that a lot of small whirlpools form... and one big one. The bad guys form up quick, teaming up rapidly into a whirlpool many times the size of any of the small ones. Even if some of the bad guys aren't participating in that same pool, they are still involved because of how their characters are written and all the information in the game clearly points to them as being involved.

So I basically force them together. But, you know, it doesn't take much force. I kind of push them together with feathers. Even if none of the bad guys talk to each other, their activities will still end up acting in concert...

This one whirlpool is very strong and dangerous, and the bad guys run around taking on the little whirlpools. The heroes are forced together, into one (in later runs, two) giant hero-pool, at which point they go and crush the bad guys. The walls between the heroes are torn down, any problems they have with each other, any incompatibilities are surmounted.

In the end, it produces a fun situation. Fun enough that they wouldn't let me stop running it until I moved away.

But the real weird thing about this is that METEOR! was a game of chaos. At the beginning, I literally handed out random superpowers. I stand around with a stack of superpowers and hand them out, one to each player, at random.

The design of the whirlpools had nothing to do with powers or capabilities. It wasn't done through revealed memories. It was done entirely through the character sheet. It was done entirely through who they remembered and what they thought of people.

And it worked fine. It began chaotically, but quickly smoothed out in every run.

It doesn't take a hammer to arrange your players to form interesting groups. It just takes a feather.

Friday, April 11, 2008

LARP Writing, Choice Architecture

So, I've talked about how careful you need to be not to have second-tier characters, to make sure every player will have enough interesting things to do. Now I'm going to talk about the exact opposite: every player has different preferences, so there need to be a variety of unique characters. I'm not saying one character is a spy and another is a cook: I'm talking about the nature of the choices they will make.

As a clear example, let's think about three players. Anne plays a boff-weapon LARP religiously, almost every weekend, even during the winter. Bob has never played a LARP before, and is a bit shy. Charlie has played LARPs and is brilliant, but he's tired as hell because this is the second day of the con and he didn't bother to sleep at all last night.

Each of these players is an asset to the game, but in very different ways. Any player who isn't going out of his way to screw up your game is an asset, because even poor players and imbeciles can be used as sticky widgets and information blockades... but that's getting ahead of myself. We're talking about characters, not play topology. Wheee! Made up words!

Anyway, each of these players is suitable to a different category of character.

Anne is likely to be quite aggressive, and is very well suited to a character with a lot of active, outgoing links. The character who knows everyone, or the character who wants to get things done. Anne's character can definitely be one that gets surrounded by complexity and stress.

Bob is going to be a timid little animal, so his character should be a bit simpler than the others in terms of motivations. Additionally, he isn't going to be aggressive, so instead of having very many outgoing links (people he wants to talk to), he should specialize in incoming links (people who want to talk to him). But, most important, he needs a character with very clear motivations, a character who can safely ignore most of the chaotic intrigue.

Charlie is normally a sparkling, brilliant player, but it's important not to underestimate how much "tired" screws up a player. Tired is generally most relevant in the beginning of the game, because as the game goes on, he'll either wake up a bit or finish falling asleep, and either way the problem is solved. So, while in the late game Charlie is happy to have outgoing connections and be surrounded by complex situations and choices, in the beginning he needs to be pulled into the game using someone like Anne and a cup of coffee.

There are a lot of different kinds of player, of course. There's players that like drama, players that like humor, players that are fine with being in a romance plot or crossdressing or being gay, and there's players that aren't. And, of course, there are the super-players that are good at everything under the sun. Not every game will worry about every kind of player: for example, in a comedy game, if there is a drama plot, it's probably a really silly one that even a newbie could get behind.

If you're designing your game around specific players (or are tweaking characters to fit them), you can usually figure out what kinds of players they are by asking the right questions and begging them to answer honestly. I generally use a multiple-choice questionnaire, including questions about how many LARPs they've played, whether they've ever done any acting, if they're comfortable with romance, whether they're funny, whether they like being confused...

Of course, if you actually know the players, these questionnaires are irrelevant. You should be able to tell what kind of capabilities someone has within ten minutes of meeting them.

The more difficult problem is when you're writing a game "for posterity". You don't know who the players will be.

In this case, you can make your job easier by issuing a few restrictions: "For experienced LARPers only" or "serious drama!" or "a great first LARP!" This will limit the kinds of players that will play.

However, whether you restrict it or not, your real job is to make the characters in the game run the range. You can then cast in much the same way - a simple questionnaire - but the players are assigned to these pre-existing characters.

This is where a lot of LARP writers get sidetracked. They start thinking of characters and writing them down, and they forget the first rule: every character must be worth playing. There should be no second-string characters.

This is not about stapling in a character for the newbie, it is not about adding in shallow, pointless characters that have no longevity or complexity. It is about making your characters have a wide range of suitability. The characters are all integral to the game, the characters are all delightfully complex with roles you can get into. It's just that some are more amenable to experienced gamers, others to new gamers. Some to shy people, some to drama queens. Some to sinister genius, some to hilarious punnery.

If you know that your audience is going to be a specific way - for example, everyone's new, or everyone's tired - you can build your characters to more exactly fit your target audience... of course, if it's ever played by people who aren't in those categories, it will fit poorly...

Anyway, something to keep in mind.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

LARP Writing, Resolution Mechanics

For anyone who wants a LARP more complicated than a six-person melodrama, conflict resolution is a big part of the game. In LARPs that go on for more than one session (such as Vampire LARPs or various boff-weapon LARPs) the conflict resolution is the game, and the rest is just a momentary scenario.

In essence, the difficulty is in keeping the resolution simple enough that it can be done without being burdening while still being complex enough to make it thought-provoking.

There are a lot of methods of resolving conflict in a LARP, most of which are transparent. Usually there's some kind of tiered system which, if the two in conflict are close enough, devolves to some kind of chance (typically Rock-Paper-Scissors). Some LARPs use a more subtle system, such as giving each player five cards, and letting them choose which to use up in a conflict...

But those are just simple tools to make the game run smoothly. The real issues in conflict resolution don't lie in how you make your decision, but the results of the decision and how it stretches to include other mechanics.

For example, I ran Zombie: The Brain Eatening. I used a simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic, but unlike virtually every other LARP ever, a tie meant that both parties hit the other. This meant that the game had a lot more dying, especially in team situations, where anyone on the other team that you didn't beat in RPS hit you. In essence, any challenge could result in injury unless you were immune to their level of damage (which wasn't very common).

Similarly, everyone had three states: okay, wounded, and dead. This made tracking death fairly straight-forward. There was no HP counter, no doing X damage of Y type.

I'm not saying this is the way to go. You have to consider the results you're aiming for.

For me, I wanted a horde game with an awful lot of dying in it. So, obviously, I chose a ruleset which resulted in people dying. This ruleset is not what you would want if you were running a LARP with longer-lived characters.

Higher complexity is acceptable, especially in games where every character is intended to be complex. The idea with this is that characters should have longer-term effects from their encounters, but not be out of the game unless something extraordinary happened.

Also, not all conflicts are physical. There are a wide variety of conflict types. You might have one for arguing philosophy, or influencing voters, or changing the past, or sneaking. You can choose to centralize, use the same mechanic for all your conflict types. This will make the game feel very conflict-driven. Alternately, you can decentralize, and use various conflict types.

An example of this would be from a vampire LARP, where obfuscate renders you invisible and auspex lets you see invisible people. Instead of explicitly stating things and maybe rock-paper-scissoring, the obfuscator is careful to show his level in the number of fingers he holds up. The auspexor can simply compare for himself. This is a very passive-aggressive method of conflict, and both sides of the equation will often find themselves screwed over pretty much at random from time to time. Sort of what vampire is known for.

I hate vampire LARPs.

Anyway, the point is that you want your game to have a given feel. The types of conflicts you have and what happens when they are resolved will give your game the feel you want. In addition, it can also provide you with grist for entertaining your players if it is deep enough. If it is shallow, that's fine, but you'll have to find some other method to keep them entertained.

There are plenty of fun LARPs that go both ways.

Monday, April 07, 2008

LARP Writing, Basics

Hey there!

So you have a great idea for a LARP. But you can't seem to get it to work out as well as you like. What's wrong?

Writing LARPs is a skill, just as complicated as building a boat or painting a portrait. Sure, it's not exactly a respected skill, but just like boat-building and portrait-painting, you will do significantly better if you learn the basics before trying to do it for real.

The basic, fundamental truth of LARPing is that you are not telling a story. You are not building a world. You are not creating beautiful experiences. You are entertaining players.

Imagery, story, worlds, and all the other cool things in your head are methods to entertain, but they are not the foundation. No matter what you're building, you'll want a foundation to build on. So forget the cool ideas you have for a minute and think about players being entertained.

LARPing is an interactive experience, more for some than others. You, as the designer of the LARP, need to give the players ways and reasons to interact. Moreover, you have to give them ways and reasons that will keep them interested over the whole of the game: too many games have "second-string" characters that don't have enough of interest to fill a thimble.

There are two basic "kinds" of ways to put interesting things into the game. The first is called "preloading": this is the character sheets, rules, and so forth. Essentially, you tell the players some things and let them get on with trying to figure out what it all means.

The other method is to introduce content over the course of the game. This is fairly effective because it allows you to pace the game: in theory, you could include everything right at the beginning, and rely on players' natural prevarication to prevent it from spreading and getting solved. In practice, it works better to keep it off the board entirely until a given time or event.

Most games take a solid middle ground, but some games go to extremes.

A short dramatic game often has very little "late content" - many drama games focus on letting the players clash without any kind of significant interference. Note that, while the rules for a drama game might be simple, the game is still very complex due to the personalities and situation involved.

On the other hand, a humorous horde game will usually have a very simple mechanics and content, but spice it up by rapidly swapping out simple content for new simple content, often at random.

No matter whether you write the complexity into your world, your characters, or your timeline, you need to remember that all the players are going to have to interact for as many hours as you run your game. This means that every player is going to need quite a lot of stuff to do and feel.

Generally, if I'm working on a more moderate game with a balanced amount of complexity in character, world, and timeline, I follow this rule:

Every character needs to have at least four connections - people who he has interesting relationships with, plots he needs to accomplish, doohickeys he needs to obtain, things other people want from him, aspects of his personality that give him a reason to feel strongly about in-game events... Usually, I try for five or six.

Not all of them are listed on the character sheet. Usually, only two or three are explicitly listed. The rest are hidden in his character background, his personality, his pockets, his contingency cards, or on the character sheets, backgrounds, personalities, pockets, and contingencies of other characters. If it's a small game, I generally stick to 2-3 to start with, and introduce most of them later. If it's a large game, I generally show most of them up front and have very few late releases.

This level of complexity allows for a player to always have something to do, which is especially important in the early game.

It's not really this straight forward: depending on how things go, you may find that something you thought was going to take a player two hours takes them thirty seconds, or visa-versa. It's also likely that certain players will prefer certain kinds of cues while ignoring others. So it's important to make your game robust, whether you write that robustness into the game or whether it's a GM tweaking on the fly. There are upsides and downsides to both.

Maybe I'll talk about that next.

But, remember: every character, every single character, needs to be connected to a lot of interesting things. Every player must be entertained.

Failure check: If you can separate your characters into main characters and secondary characters, you have failed this module.

LARP Writing, Intro

I went over to Brandeis for a bit last weekend to play some LARPs. Brandeis is nice enough, lots of space, not really anywhere decent to eat. Kind of the opposite of WPI. Lots of very interesting people, definitely less homogeneous than WPI's gaming crowd.

I actually don't like playing in LARPs. I always regret whatever I did in-game, because I tend to short-circuit the game, even if I try to avoid doing so. I can't stop solving problems whenever I see them, rather than waiting until the end of the LARP... I don't know if it's just me, or what. I play many fewer than I run, but I make sure to play a few every year.

Anyway, I want to write a guide to how to write LARPs. I may not be the best writer of LARPs, and I don't think I've ever made a game without flaws, but I think I've learned enough over the past decade that my viewpoint should be interesting.

So I'm going to spend the week posting a how-to-write-LARPs series of essays. Starting with the fact that Live Action Role Playing Games are very different from other kinds of games, so you have to break out of thinking about them as a world, or a story, or a central party surrounded by NPCs.

If you have any interest in LARPs or in learning a bit about a kind of game you don't have any interest in, keep your eyes open this week. If you're stumbling across this post in the future, click the tag below.