Sunday, November 30, 2008

No, Don't Shake It!

After my last post, I realized that it sounds like I'm saying that it would be a good idea for an IP such as Final Fantasy or Gears of War to come out with a bizarre new style of game instead of a normal sequel.

I'm definitely not suggesting that! Those IPs are not built to support that kind of variation. If you came out with Gears of War the RPG, it would probably be considered a very awkward move.

If IPs like these do come out with games from outside their previous style, they tend to be fairly conservative and standard. Chances are very high that the Halo RTS will not have any amazing new dynamics in it: it'll basically feel similar to most other RTS on the market. I don't mean boring - I just mean that the mechanics will be very similar to those things that RTS fans expect.

When I wonder if it's possible to have an IP that lets you experiment with very new and unusual games as sequels, I'm not talking about any existing IPs. I'm talking about whether you can come up with an IP that would allow that.

It would need to have a specific set of attributes. For example, it would need to be diverse enough to allow for a variety of gameplay styles. Halo is better at this than Final Fantasy, because Halo concentrated on developing its non-gameplay aspects across multiple games, while Final Fantasy always develops new non-gameplay aspects. This means that Halo can abandon their typical play style and still feel like Halo so long as they keep those assets in play.

I don't think Halo is a really great example, though, because the Halo universe is very confined. It's not just a matter of how many different styles of games it can support, but also how many different styles of... narrative, for lack of a better word. You'll never get a Halo game that is about falling to your darker urges, like in Star Wars. It's just not supported by the nature of the game, and if you published such a game, it would be heralded as "a new direction for the Halo franchise". It would be hard to do an adventurous game (whether an adventure or an open-worldish RPG) because the IP is completely militarized: the lives and adventures outside of the military are not part of the Halo IP, even though they obviously must exist in a technical sense. Again, you could make a Halo the Adventure game, but it would feel very un-Halolike.

So the question is...

Can you imagine an IP and an approach that would allow you to develop radically different games from sequel to sequel without ever losing the "feel" of the IP?

Friday, November 28, 2008


Most of the best-selling games these days are sequels. A lot of people don't like that.

I think it's a sign of the industry's health: it's a good sign that the first game did well enough to fund the second game, the third game, however many games come out. It's true that it seems like most people only buy sequels to games they've already played, but that doesn't mean there are no new, creative games. It just means they aren't as well marketed. In many cases (Psychonauts, cough) this dooms them to die a horrible death, but that's true even if there are no sequels running around.

For me, I like sequels because I know what to expect. I'm a little disappointed by how WELL I know what to expect, but that's a different matter. The point is that, in general, sequels are strong games made by a strong, experienced team working with an IP and tech base they are very experienced with. They're successful because they're usually quite good.

If I want to be surprised by something, I buy something that doesn't have a number in the title. Usually, I buy strictly indie games on that front: I'm nervous buying anything like, say, Mirror's Edge, because they tend to have the worst of both worlds: an inexperienced team working beneath a "creative board" that cripples any creative impulses. Creative games with inexperienced teams are fine, clones with experienced teams are fine, but clones with inexperienced teams? No thanks.

(Obviously, Mirror's edge wasn't a clone... but it was definitely rough, especially in the "writing" department. I put it in quotes because I would hesitate to call that "writing".)

For me, there is an interesting edge to new games, games that aren't cycling through an old IP. And this relates to my last post about "full characters", actually. A new game will typically revolve around some powerful organizing concept (often the main character's weird abilities) and will therefore have a very unique flavor.

Even if an IP is quite good, that doesn't happen in sequels. The powerful organizing concept might be there in the first game, but after that, it's pretty familiar, pretty well explored. There's a push to keep the nth game feeling like the nth-1 game, and that means that the edge wears off even as the team starts to come together and polish the game to a shine.

I wonder if it's possible to build an IP that explores weird new games, an IP that keeps its edge no matter how many games you release. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if you managed to come up with a way to do it, it would be instantly derailed the moment you became a success as the well-meaning (greedy) board of directors gets its talons into the project.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fill 'Er Up

I hate blank-slate main characters, and here's why.

These days, most games have blank slate main characters. The idea is that the player's avatar is so incredibly nonexistent (especially outside of cut scenes) that the player can fill him with any personality he chooses.

To say this is common is an understatement. It's ubiquitous. To the point where it exists even in games with seemingly strongly defined main characters.

For example, in Gears of War, you play the improbably named "Marcus Fenix". He seems like an actual character. He's got a badass voice actor, he has lines of dialog, he's definitely not visually neutral.

But he's still an empty character. After establishing his very basic personality and history in the early cut scenes, he rarely says anything more emotional than "keep moving" and "could be a trap".

This sort of thing is easy to see if you compare the main character to the secondary characters. Compare and contrast: your main character in any Bioware RPG. Even if we take into account all the dialog you choose (and we shouldn't, because it doesn't actually constitute the avatar feeling any emotion), you STILL have less character development dialog than any given party member's left big toe. The other characters will have strong judgments, wacky opinions, fun lines of dialog, actual emotions on their faces... you, on the other hand, get to choose whether to kill the beggar or give him money.

Obviously, you can have good games with hollow avatars. The world is full of them: the Final Fantasies, if you like them. System Shock II. Fallout I & II. Half Life. However, this long list is not because of any strength in the idea of a hollow character: it's because there are ten times more hollow-character games than defined-character games. Even games that theoretically have strongly defined characters, such as the Spider-man games, end up hollowing out the character for your use.

But compare these to games which have a main character that is not afraid to have a strong personality. Psychonauts. Beyond Good and Evil. Planescape: Torment. Sly Cooper. Grim Fandango. Most of the best adventure games (and the worst, I admit).

These games have a very different feel from hollow-avatar games of the same sort. The main character's existence as an actual person shapes the whole game. It shapes the plot, the gameplay, the color, the EVERYTHING. You are living in their world.


The hollow avatar started back in the beginning, when you didn't really have much choice. Even if you made your avatar a bright red and blue clown, you couldn't really show him doing much in terms of emotion or characterization. But these characters were not intended to be hollow. They just HAD to be.

In the game designers' minds, the characters were fully formed. You can tell by the way the world is so strongly shaped around their personalities... even though you can't actually see their personalities. Little Nemo and Bonk are very clear examples: you don't really see much in the way of emotion or personality during the normal course of the game, but the whole world is built around their very strong personalities.

In some games, hollow avatars are used to great effect. System Shock II being an excellent example, or Half Life if you prefer the wussy little brother. These games make use of the same basic limitations: you never see your avatar's emotions because A) you never see your avatar and B) your avatar never runs into anyone he can have a chat with.

Similarly, Ico and Shadows of the Colossus both have hollow main characters, but, again, they are hollow because their personality rarely gets a chance to show. The worlds and plots are built around a very strong personality and set of emotions, and this shines through.

That's not the case in a game like Gears of War, where you spend the majority of the game staring at an armor-plated football player hanging out with other armor-plated football players. Obviously, your avatar has a billion chances to show emotion and personality. You can always see his body language, you almost always have people within talking distance, so why is it that the other characters all have interesting lines and you always just grunt? Why is it that the OTHER characters express all the things I, as THE PLAYER, am feeling?

Even in games where you make your own character, such as Oblivion, I think I would enjoy playing someone with a personality.

I think people assume that a hollow character is the best thing because it allows anyone to give any personality to the character. But that's stupid. If you've played Beyond Good and Evil, which avatar feels more real? Which avatar adds more to the game? The photo realistic, extremely cool Fenix... or the cartoony, slightly insipid Jade? I'll give you a hint: it's Jade. If you doubt it, go play both games again.

In honesty, I would have preferred to play Cole or either of the Carmines in Gears of War. I have a feeling I would have felt the war far more personally that way.

It's not as if a hollow character can be filled with any given personality, either. Even if we're playing something like Oblivion, with an almost unlimited set of options, the personality we give our character is going to be tightly linked to how the character plays. A good example is the assassin: a lot of people wanted to be assassins in Oblivion, but you can't make your avatar feel like a dangerous assassin. A) Assassins have to frolic (literally) through the woods picking daisies and B) bows suck. The "dangerous assassin" personality dies quickly, mutated into something bizarre and perhaps hilarious.

To me, this means there is no excuse not to give the avatar a strong personality. Make it permeate every facet of the game.

"But what if the players don't like the main character?"

That actually happens pretty rarely in decent games, and the reason is because the quality of the gameplay and plot will change their judgment on the quality of the character. Jade's character is actually quite irritating, taken out of context. But the gameplay is good and the way she's exposed to plot points takes the butter out of the smarmalade and lets us admire her.

Sly Cooper's about as interesting as a piece of cardboard, but he's got an extremely STRONG two-dimensional personality, and the rest of the game supports it. The main character from Destroy All Humans is practically ONE-dimensional but, again, the game makes him interesting to play as.

So... characters. Yeah. That feel things. And have personalities.

It's cool.

I think.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If You Can't Kill the Children, It's Not Fun

I'm sure this is familiar to some of you, but I need to type it out anyway.

Bethesda released a new Fallout game, which is a good example to use, although the same complaints can be aimed at a wide variety of games. In Fallout 3, you can't kill children. In the earlier games, you can. In fact, it's something that can happen by accident, especially if you're having a firefight in the middle of a village. Using plasma cannons and missiles. Which happens fairly often, actually.

Non-gamers (and probably most gamers) will stare at you in horror when you say that the game is not as good because you can't kill children. "You want to kill children?!"

Tch, that's not the point. This is not a matter of programming children to be killable. This is a matter of programming children specifically to be exempt from death in a world where you can kill anything and everything else. It's roughly the equivalent of going to see Blade Runner or some other beautifully atmospheric movie, only to have a corner of the screen filled with a cheerful cartoon animation doing the Macarena. For the whole movie. But it gets bigger when the movie is at its darkest and most atmospheric. After all, you wouldn't want anyone to get depressed by the dark and atmospheric nature of the movie!

Let me see if I can explain it in another way.

You want to live in that game's world, at least for the moment. You want to live in that world, but THE CHILDREN AREN'T LIVING IN THAT WORLD. They are exempt from the world. They are immune to its dangers, pressures, etc. They are the equivalent of a comic book character breaking the fourth wall, and that's not always suitable.

So, YES, if you can't kill the children, it's no good. Not because killing the children is good or even because I want to. It's because if they're immortal god-beings, it completely ruins the immersion. Destroys the reality of the game. For the sake of some little old lady's heart?

It's rated M, lady. Kill the children.

Open World Games

... They're very popular, these open world games. But I think it's worth considering their strengths and weaknesses rather than simply screaming "open world!" and spending ten million dollars on it.

The core idea of an open world game is that you can interact with the world in any way you see fit, rather than being stuck in some kind of linear mission progression. The truth is usually that you're stuck in a linear mission progression, but you can ignore it and go diddle around.

I don't like open world games.

Okay, that's really wrong. I love open world games. I love them so much that I hate them for falling short so much.

For example, Crackdown is an "open world game". You have the whole city. You can go anywhere you want. You can even take your starter pistol and baby-fat starting character over into ninjas-kill-you land. If you're good enough, you might even win. And the game can handle that.

The issue here is that this is not a simulationist open world. You can tackle the quests in whatever order you like, you can collect orbs, you can even fight the cops, but none of this stuff is terribly emergent or adaptive. Even the cops get tired of chasing you after a bit.

This is true of every modern open world game I've played, except maybe some of the roguelikes. GTA3 and Mass Effect are the same way, as simple examples: you can do the missions, you can explore the city/universe, and maybe you can play with the cops for a bit until you get bored.

There are things to do in the city - steal cars, do races, etc - but these are simply side missions scattered around the city just for kicks. They are scripted in, preprogrammed pieces that change nothing except, perhaps, your XP meter.

I find that these are a disappointment. I feel that an open world game should maybe be about THE WORLD. Hence, you know, "open WORLD".

Fable II offers a very basic glimpse into this kind of idea, although I only bring it up because it's recent: half the space-adventure games since 1993 have done the same thing. It's relatively easy to model the economy of a system if you ignore realism, so these games all have an economic system for you to open-worldly abuse.

The problem with these kinds of games is that I find them a bit unsatisfying. Once you've bought the city (or learned that buying the city will take all year and isn't worth it), what's the point? All of those stupid prescripted missions do have a purpose: they give the world texture and flavor. They make THIS planet different from the last one you landed on more than superficially.

But the missions are boring! Not only are they only minimally adaptive, they're not "open": the mission goes no deeper or shallower than scripted. For example, if I save a group of slaves from Plorbax the Grundarian, I'm generally given a good option (let them go, even though we're in the middle of a jungle full of fifty foot high monsters) or an evil option (usually, kill them. Occasionally, sell them).

I can't actually interact with these newly rescued people. I can't offer to schlep them back to their homeworlds, can't offer to make them my crew, can't try to date one of them, can't try to settle down in the jungle like the Robinsons, can't do anything.

Obviously, simulation of PEOPLE is a bit more difficult than simulating an economy, not least because we can't easily simplify people without losing what makes them interesting. It's a bit more difficult, yeah, like 'nobody's ever done it' difficult.


But what, I thought, if we're coming at this from the wrong angle. What if instead of trying to simulate the people, we just try to simulate the illusion of emergent behavior?

In my mind, the point of an open world game is that I am permitted to explore the universe as quickly or slowly as I see fit, in as much or as little detail as I wish.

Let's say that we build a typical open world with all its kajillion little side quests. But, instead of placing those side quests in the world, we leave them floating free in the database.

As the player explores our world, we can assign these side quests. So, he's trying to chat up someone on the street? Now she's the main character in the "I'm being chased by the mafia!" side quest. Going down a dark alley? Now it's the "out of control car!" alley side quest. Looking more closely at a corpse? Now it's the "mysterious letter in my pocket!" side quest.

Furthermore, using this method it would be easy to release supplements or mods, free or for a price, to instantly integrate into the world. You would keep the density down, obviously: you don't want every random passerby to hit up the player with a side quest, you don't want every new building to be a weird new situation: just the ones the player seems to show an interest in. It's also quite possible to string them together: while rescuing the slaves, you can take special interest in one and they will have a suitable side quest assigned, just as if they were an actual character with an actual, meaningful existence.

In addition I think this would permit a whole new set of "flavor" subquests. For example, if you're on top of a building, admiring the view, it could spawn the "side quest" for someone else admiring the view with you. There's no competition, no challenge, it just adds some targeted flavor to the world.

What do you think?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Poor Bill Paxton

So, yesterday someone was watching TV and I heard a very familiar voice. It was saying something boring about some TV series, but in my head I clearly heard "That's it! Game over, man! Game over!"

I wonder what it must be like to have your WHOLE LIFE defined by one relatively minor role. I mean, does anyone see him as Bill Henrickson, or, like me, is it all "Why is Hudson wearing a suit?"

Twenty years later, and I still can't picture this poor guy as anything other than a doomed space marine. Yeah, I know he starred in Twister and played a big role in Apollo 13. At those times, I thought "Why is Hudson driving a car?" and "Why is Hudson wearing a space suit?"

Oh, no, wait, that makes sense.

Sorry, Bill!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Transition Team

As a side note, I'd like to point out that Obama's various transition teams contain a nobel-prize winning chemist and two people who actually know something about virtual worlds/the internet. This so far makes his teams the most qualified we've had in eight years. (Actually, any one of them makes his teams the most qualified we've had in eight years.)

What bad news! I'm not happy about him assigning people who actually know their business to the FCC transition team. I prefer my oppressors inept, you know? ;)

Cityscapes and Immersion

It sounds silly, but one of the things I enjoyed most about Mirror's Edge was the menu sequence. The city in the background was beautifully done, and the music was perfect. I've always had a thing for cityscapes, even if they're only fleeting: the intro for Megaman and Streets of Rage, for example. The games had nothing about cities in them, but I liked the intro sequences. Don't even get me started on Blade Runner.

There's something very vibrant about a cityscape that vanishes when the game actually starts. Even if the game is about the city, such as Simcity, it doesn't contain the same feeling of potential and vibrancy.

So I was thinking about what kind of game could still give that kind of feeling. If we zoom in, we can get the same kind of feeling from unique things in the city. Not simply traffic patterns and police stations scattered in among the commercial zone, but unique bits: what makes this police station different from other stations? Why does the foot traffic linger at that particular toy store? Why is that particular person unique?

You can see it in games like Assassin's Creed, Crackdown, and even City of Heroes. There is an inkling that THIS roof is particularly interesting, or that the crowd is interesting, or that any number of other bits of city are interesting. However, these all tend to fall flat if you get close: the crowd is just a milling of identical NPCs, the roof is a nice enough view, but gets boring instantly, the graffiti is fun as background noise, but if you actually look at it, it's one of five designs repeated a thousandfold.

I think that one major reason for this is because video games are not particularly immersive. We talk about immersion, but one reason we talk about it so much is that we're really pretty BAD at it. Video games are marginally okay at immersing us in a "flow" sense - getting us involved in the mechanical rules and so forth - but they're pretty bad at getting us immersed in a more classical sense. Movies are much better at it, because a skilled director will draw our attention to immersive details, such as a unique piece of graffiti, an interesting view from a roof, a crowd that contains real individuals...

A big component of these tricks is that they calibrate our judgment by showing us what "people" think and do (even if those people are imaginary). Sometimes this is extremely straightforward: they simply show people thinking, doing, and feeling. This is especially common in children's shows (and scifi), with their hundreds of close-ups on people's smiling or unhappy or angry faces. As the audience matures and learns the thousands of cultural clues, the directors simply linger on those cultural clues instead of the faces proper.

For example, we know how to feel about dingy underlevels of the spaceship in Alien because the director uses the same cultural clues we've learned about dingy industrial areas. He then plays it up by focusing on the interactions of the workers, showing how THEY feel about the place (and the crew above them). Using these cues we can also judge the lower levels strongly, and when the fight starts raging down there, we feel a lot more immersed.

Video games often use these methods, although usually pretty clumsily. However, they are very limited by camerawork. The only ways to zoom in on someone are to either have a cutscene and take movie-like control or to have pop-up portraits. Neither of these is ideal: one is extremely limited, the other makes the game into a non-game, however temporarily.

But if we acknowledge that this is something we need to implement, we can use our limited methods to give judgment clues a lot more adaptively and precisely, perhaps (in the long run) even better than a movie director.

For example, lets say you're playing a game where you're moving around a city, similar to Assassin's Creed or Crackdown (or Mirror's Edge if you could actually move around the city). When you discover a particularly nifty place, you stop for a moment to enjoy it. But there is no real sense of immersion, nor any reason to dally, so the enjoyment quickly wears off and you move on.

But what if there was someone with you up on that neat rooftop, someone who could say "wow!" and thoroughly enjoy the view? In a movie, that's what would happen: the actors involved would stand at the edge of the roof and look around, and we would mirror their judgments. In a video game, that doesn't happen. But it could.

In theory it could be our own avatar that does these things, but assuming you have any kind of direct control normally, I think that stealing control away would BREAK immersion rather than reinforce it. So we are more or less limited to having another character present.

There's no reason it has to be human. Maybe it is - maybe it's your sidekick, or your girlfriend, or whatever. But it could also be an AI, a ghost, a memory, a flying dog... they don't have to be human, they just have to make judgments that we can agree with.

Pacing is an issue, too: most modern games are paradise for people with no attention spans. If we're deeply engaged in the rules and mechanics of a game, taking time out to think about how pretty the view is would be distracting.

On the other side of the affair is the difficulty in actually getting characters to judge things in a way that aligns with the things our player wants to judge. In a movie, this is easy: the audience is damn well going to judge whatever you point them at. In a game, it's more difficult, because you can't point the bastards. You can't even rely on where they point themselves: in a first-person shooter, I might be running along looking down the street, but as a player I'll be noting the cool sunlight effects in the corner of the screen. If a character behind me pops up and says, "wow, this street sure is dirty!" I'll reply, "durrwhocares?"

Add on to this the difficulty of actually getting characters to have the breadth of judgment required, you've got quite a feat. After all, these characters will have to be able to not just comment intelligently on a nice view, but also have to feel immersed in that view. Then, ten steps later, they've got to be equally immersed and judgmental about, say, a traffic jam. Or a man wearing a pink tutu.

I think it might be possible to do this to some extent, although I'm not sure how suitable it would be in any modern game. These days, all the games we play are horribly egocentric and impatient: the city doesn't exist, it's just an excuse to provide us with city-themed levels. We don't like slowing down to smell the roses because we've been trained to think in terms of advantage, and there isn't any in smelling roses.

I'm not sure that the characters' judgment clues would actually MATTER, either, since we don't often consider them to be worth thinking about. They inhabit a lesser world and are obviously not intelligent beings, especially if we save and load and replay this mission a lot. It might be necessary to radically change that in order to make this sort of thing work.


I guess that's my rambly essay. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mirror's Edge & Motion Sickness

A few of my less game-related RSS feeds are pointing to a Wired article which suggests that Mirror's Edge is a proprioception hack. IE, it screws up your sense of where you real limbs and body are.

I guess, technically, you can call motion sickness (which is what he's talking about) a proprioceptive effect, because it originates from visual cues not matching up to your body's more subtle cues about movement, speed, etc. But to imply it's something new and amazing is really pretty silly.

Motion sickness is a pretty complicated subject, and most people don't realize the full spread of cues and effects. For example, my mom is fine on boats, in cars, and so forth, but revolving cameras in movies and first-person video games give her serious trouble. Similarly, I have a friend who can play FPS games all day, but if you expand the view angle to more than ninety degrees, he gets really ill.

What we're seeing in Mirror's Edge has nothing to do with the fact that you can see her hands and everything to do with the motion of the camera. We're not used to this kind of bobbing, tilting camera work in a video game. You know the only thing it's been used for until now?

HORRIBLE MONSTERS. We use it in movies to show the viewpoint of a werewolf or some other slavering beasty. Why do we use it? Well, one of the reasons is BECAUSE IT MAKES PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE AND NAUSEOUS.

I will say that I am 99% sure Mirror's Edge is not doing some amazing new "proprioception hack". It's just making you (well, some people) motion sick.

It's riding the edge of providing too much visual data about motion your real body isn't doing. The more data it provides, the more realistic the game will feel... but the more people will tend to get motion sick. If that realism is a "proprioception hack", people's standards on the matter are way, way too low.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mirror's Edge

This is in two parts. The first part is me making my typical whiny review of a game (no spoilers). The second is me discussing design details. If you don't care to hear my whining, skip to the "***". The other "***", obviously. I mean, uh, the FOURTH "***".

So I'm playing Mirror's Edge. I'd like to remind everyone that I love moving in games. I love my avatar maneuvering through levels. It's a passion. So, I would say that I am their target audience.

It's not a game I can give a numeric rating to. Like the first Sly Cooper, there's nothing else in the niche to rate it against. Unfortunately, Unlike Sly Cooper, it is a pretty badly flawed game.

It's not a BAD game. It's just that, like its main character, it tends to fall short a lot.

First, the cutscenes are mostly 2D animations done by the Esurance guys. That style works well for snappy commercials, but is ill-suited for anything faster, slower, or more fluid. When they can tween, they run at full frames, but when they actually have to redraw a frame, they drop to animating on twos. There's nothing wrong with animating on twos IF YOU STICK TO IT, but switching framerates mid-scene is horribly jarring. Also, they don't use any animator's tricks, so things like sprinting appear very disjointed and jumpy instead of appearing properly fluid.

If I had to describe their animation style, it would be a graphical quality slightly below that of Teen Titans with the animation quality of South Park. So, not very impressed.

Also not impressed by the character design. All the characters are painfully bog-standard except the main character, who is painfully bog-standard and ugly. I'm impressed by the shoe design, and by the way that the level designers played around with color and luminescence.

Graphically, the game is glitchy even on the 360, with numerous dropped polies and thin black origin lines flickering around. It also features The Return of the Long Ass Elevator Rides Two: Electric Boogaloo.

The story has only one upside: they didn't try to write a romance plot in. Unfortunately, everything they DID write in was painfully stereotypical. The only surprises in this game are in the level design - you won't find any in the plot. The "big twists" were evidently shocking to my avatar, but they only served to make me think Faith is a bit of a retard.

No, I take that back. There were surprises in the plot: when I overestimated them, they consistently surprised me by falling short.

Only bloody-mindedness kept me from skipping the cut scenes, which are badly written and animated in a style I don't much like. At least the audio is solid, with decent voice actors, decent sound effects, and very suitable and listenable-toable music.

The setting is a painfully bland police state with painfully bland corruption running its painfully bland course. At least it doesn't look so standard, thanks to the graphics used in the levels. It's a very CLEAN painfully bland city, you see, which actually adds to the experience.

"But that's all besides the point! It's all about the gameplay! How's this first-person free-running game PLAY?"

Weeeeelllllll... let's leave the bulk of that for the design section. But lets briefly talk about level design and pacing.

The game features a lot of classic navigation puzzlers a'la Prince of Persia, but the pacing is awkward unless you've memorized the levels. The fighting is a shame, included just because nobody can imagine releasing a noncombat game. It's terrible, whether you're kung-fu fighting with ninja (AKA "strafe, slide-kick, press Y") or fighting cops (AKA "Press X, press Y, hold the trigger"). It's not terrible in that it's EASY - you die like a dog - it's terrible in that it's NOT FUN.

The game is laser-focused on its linear path. There is no side exploration, no bonuses, no nothing. The closest you can get to expressing yourself as a player is to find little bags which serve ABSOLUTELY NO PURPOSE. There are no interesting secret zones, very little secret information (a few screens with a bit of text hidden in a corner, a few voice mail messages), very little of interest. There are occasionally multiple paths to your goal, but one is obviously better than the other and neither is particularly interesting.


Let's talk about the design details.

Moving a platformer into first-person view is a dangerous move, but one that's been brewing for a while. Games have become more and more free-running-esque as the years go by and our hardware improves. Prince of Persia has become a nostalgic look into the days when swinging from flagpoles was new and amazing. These days, even the (surprisingly good) TMNT game features more advanced motion than PoP, and games like Assassin's Creed and Crackdown make PoP look like a tinkertoy.

All of these games are third-person for a reason. As you know, Bob, platformer games are mostly about where you are in relation to other things. Like, say, the platforms.

If you can see where you are in relation to other things (IE, you can see your feet), you can know when and how to jump, land, and so forth. This is, as you might have guessed, an important part of your balanced daily not-falling-to-your-deathfast.

So moving to a first-person view offers some serious challenges. You have to keep in mind that your players don't have as clear a view as they normally do. It's very hard to chain motions together because first-person view means they'll only be looking at whatever they are about to hit instead of being able to see everything around them.

Mirror's Edge tried to solve this problem in two ways. First, it painted things red. Red means "jump here", and if you see something red, you'll remember where it is even if you can't see it precisely at the moment. In the game it is used primarily to tell you where it is safe to make blind jumps, but it is occasionally (and in my mind, more importantly) useful in highlighting a path through puzzling terrain. In either way it works to offset the limited view of the player, although in the former application (jumping off buildings) it offsets a limited view that even 3rd-person players have. Crackdown had to zoom pretty far out and up to give you a decent view of where you were jumping to in such situations, and it still wasn't perfect.

The second way Mirror's Edge tries to solve the problem is through level design. Most of the levels consist of climbing up sheer, blind faces (or staircases) for a while, and then running and jumping in a generally downward direction. This is helpful because if you're looking down at where you're about to go, you can get a pretty good mental map of the place even if your viewpoint will be too limited to see much when you're actually in it. This considerably offsets the blindness, especially since you can usually see the red marker showing you where you ought to go next.

However, these methods (and other aspects of their level design) take most of the spontaneity out of navigating the levels. It's all made very linear, mostly a matter of pressing the left bumper at the right times, occasionally while fiddling with the control sticks. When you are "free" to move around (say, on a rooftop), your freedom is pointless as the only things worth doing are moving to whatever is red or climbing to the highest point so you can see where you're going.

My problem isn't that such movement is boring: it isn't. Or, rather, it doesn't have to be. My problem is that they didn't really embrace it at all.

In most modern movement games (Assassin's Creed, for example) a big part of the gameplay is figuring out how to work your way to some location. Sometimes, it's painfully linear, but there's usually a rewarding rhythm and sense of progress - for example, finding a new plot element, getting an upgrade, climbing to someplace high, or finding something weird. Unfortunately, Mirror's Edge tries to do this, but there is never any sense of progress because they wanted to focus on relentless forward movement rather than the slow figuring-and-working-forward pace of normal movement games. They wanted to be more like Sonic, so they don't ever give you any roses to stop and smell.

In other movement games, flow is the point. TMNT and Crackdown are good examples. When these are linear, they are linear in a really obvious way to allow you to know well in advance what buttons you should press when, giving your avatar a continuous stream of uninterrupted forward movement. When they aren't linear, they allow you to freely explore an INTERESTING terrain, rather than a tiny rooftop. Mirror's Edge tried to do this with red things but they didn't take it very far: they wanted to be more like Assassin's Creed.

This has the added problem that Mirror's Edge is entirely first person, which means you are mostly good at seeing places you AREN'T. Fundamentally, I think it's a rotten choice for a movement-based game, because movement-based games are about changing where you are, not changing where you aren't.

Another big issue is that the players are limited by what they can recognize in addition to what they can see. Games like Crackdown make it easy because your method of movement is actually pretty simple and limited, just amped up to silliness. But in a proper free running game, your movement capabilities are going to be a lot more nuanced: you aren't just jumping the fence, you're scrambling over it, or maybe it's low enough to Kong. Similarly, maybe you need to wall jump up to the lattice across the way.

This would be almost impossible to properly see using third-person view, and it IS impossible to see using first-person view. This is why real parkour and free runner folks carefully familiarize themselves with wherever they are before they do anything dangerous: they need to know the "grooves" in the local space, places where their capabilities will allow them to fluidly move through. It's not something that can really be done on the fly.

Most games try to get around this with level design. Oh, look, it's a wall of exactly that height, so I know I can scramble up it, every time. And I know there will never be a wall of ALMOST that height, or a wall of that height I can't scramble up for some reason... and I know that if I vault that wall, I will land safely on the other side, no matter what the terrain.

But this doesn't help chains of movements. You know you can vault the wall, but you don't realize that you need to spring off the wall to the chandelier and then swing across through the window. The only way you can know that is if you've seen all the parts of the chain and have them mapped out in your head. That's much easier to do from third person.

Well, there are a few other options, I think. One is touched on in Mirror's Edge: important elements can stand out (in this case, be colored red). If used more excessively, they can form an unbroken chain of where you SHOULD be going, allowing you to maintain flow. I would actually suggest something a bit less world-centric, such as lines of flowing, floating pips.

This limits the puzzle-ability of your game, though. If there's always an obvious path to get where you want to go, you're not going to have to think about it much. Instead, you'll be more like Sonic or TMNT or Crackdown: navigating is a lot of fun, but many of the challenges come from exploration or combat rather than navigation.

Another option is to remove the realtime element from the game. If you "draw" your path in space rather than navigating it personally, it will allow you to analyze exactly what the situation is in a more relaxed way, allowing your avatar's progress to be fluid and sequenced even if YOUR progress involves tweaking paths for a minute.

Anyhow, either or both of these options would get rid of one of the stupidest parts of Mirror's Edge: DYING. Whoops, I died. Respawn. Whoops, I died. Respawn. Often five, six times in a row. Unlike TMNT, the respawn is a significant irritation which often takes you back forty or fifty seconds (this doesn't sound irritating until you realize that you have to repeat that minute many times if you're trying for a difficult jump). Also unlike TMNT, it MAKES NO SENSE. There is absolutely no reason given for your amazing respawn talent. It's not part of the game world in any way. It's just there to let the designers create levels that you have to play through several times to be able to beat.

Nothing breaks immersion like inexplicable and unrewarding failure mechanics. :P

All that aside, I think that there IS some potential here. First-person mechanics are inherently more immersive, and you could make a very exciting game if only you could figure out how the player would navigate it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crossing the Geographical Wires

Here's a thought experiment. I'm not suggesting we do this, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

Imagine that voting for president works the same way it does right now, with one tiiiiiny little difference: any citizen can cast their vote in any one state (or county, or however you divide it).

So I could cast my vote for MA, where I live, or I could cast my vote in, say, Texas.

Put aside the idea of ideal behavior: people aren't ideal. Instead, think about how many people of what types you think would take advantage of this "switched voting", and what you think the effects might be as years pass and people get used to the idea. What sort of new groups do you think voters would create to try to leverage their votes?

I'll get things started: I think that most groups of independents (such as libertarians) would get together and agree to win a specific (low-population) state. "Green party wins Alaska!" would be hilarious...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Space Navigation

This is a technical essay for beginners on the subject of AI navigation in space games.

A few weeks ago, I tried to build a space-fleet-combat-game. In the process, I learned a whole lot about how to get an AI to navigate in space. Recently, one of my friends tried the same thing, and I realized it might be worth doing an introductory essay on space navigation, plotting intercept courses, taking into account gravity wells, etc.

Proper space games, whether Star Control 2-style or Wing Commander-style, have a few factors that make them completely different from other games. First, the main engines point directly backwards and turning isn't instant. Second, you keep going on the same vector: no (or very low) friction.

This totally destroys the old fashioned interception calculations that you might use for a first-person-shooter or RPG, because as time passes, the target will be in a different location relative to you (whether it's you, he, or both that are moving).

The easiest way I found to calculate out a basic intercept course is as follows:

Get the distance between you and your target. Divide it by your average speed. That is the ETA.

Calculate the new positions of you and your target at ETA, but cap your vector at a certain constant number of seconds (3 is good for most action space games). IE, if the enemy is moving x+1m/s, in ten seconds he'll be at x+10m. However, if you are moving at x+1m/s, in ten seconds you'll be at x+3m, because your vector vanishes after three seconds. We negate our own vector because we plan on changing it radically.

Now, determine how long it would take to reach these virtual positions. IE, how quickly you can turn to the proper heading and close at speed. Do not bother taking into account your current vector. This is the estimated course (EC).

If the EC is roughly the same length as the ETA, go for it. If it's significantly different, increase or decrease your ETA significantly and try again until you find an EC that works or your ETA becomes stupid (error out).

This system works in most space games because most space games have a maximum speed cap. If your maximum speed is 100m/s and you're traveling at x+100m/s, accelerating along the z axis will make you arc away from that and to z+100m/s, no x velocity at all. This is true both of 2D and 3D space games: most of them impose this artificial speed cap so that people have a hope of being able to navigate intuitively.

The slower you turn and the longer it takes to reach your maximum speed, the more of a factor your current velocity will be, and the longer your personal velocity cut-off time should be. In addition, when calculating your estimated course (EC), you should take into account that your average speed will be lower than your maximum speed because you have to accelerate - and if your acceleration is slow, that will be more important. Obviously, the longer the thrust, the closer to your maximum speed your average speed will be.


Now, if you're like me, you're the sort of person who doesn't want a speed cap. If you're traveling at x+100m/s and you start thrusting along z, you'll reach x+100m/s & z+100m/s. No speed cap except maybe light speed.

This makes navigation difficult because you have to factor in your vector much more strongly, often moving to negate it. On the surface, you should just be able to do away with the velocity cutoff. However, it's not quite that simple.

First, you need to calculate not just where the enemy ship will be at ETA based on his current vector, but also based on his acceleration. If a ship is accelerating away, you need to take that into account or you'll be hopelessly off course.

Second, this system produces radically inappropriate intercept speeds. You'll blow by your enemy doing 0.3c, you won't even see the bastard as he blips by. So you need to put in some kind of rough vector matching mixed into the basic intercept package. It's possible to program, but the actual physics of the matter make it highly difficult: unless your ship has many times the thrust of the ship you're intercepting, it will take you a long, long time to close and match vectors. And if you've got any human-controlled ships, forget it!

Another factor in this kind of game is the light-speed cap, which is a common thing to want to include. The idea is that the speed cap is light speed, and the closer you get to light speed, the more thrust it takes to change your vector.

There are a lot of problems with this. In basics, this means that your current velocity will screw up your acceleration. Plotting an intercept course may involve having to slow down so you can accelerate along another vector.

Of course, the truth is that the issue is radically more complex than that, because you're always operating from your own frame of reference. You aren't going 0.9c: everything else is. The light speed limit is no good for gameplay unless you (A) are a physicist or (B) throw away any realism it may have had.


With the described system, basic navigation is possible. However, most games want more advanced navigation: they want to be able to orbit planets, do gravitational slingshots, present broadsides, interpose specific faces of their ships, ram (and avoid ramming), etc, etc, etc.

Each of these things requires some pretty significant tweaking... and, of course, the basic calculations presented here are not exactly optimized. They give pretty rough (but functional) intercepts.

There's the basics. Hope it helps.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

More on Augmented Reality

I've written a LOT of posts on AR that I don't post, but I'd like to briefly discuss a slightly advanced reason that AR will change everything.

AR is, at least in early stages, almost entirely about tagging. This is what everyone thinks about. People tag restaurants with reviews, billboards with party plans, street corners with historical info, whatever they want. This is all well and good, and it could evolve into some extremely useful stuff, but the killer app for this kind of tagging is tagging people.

The difficulty with tagging people is that people tend to move around. So you can't simply record the tag as being at a specific spot: you have to assign the tag to a specific person and it has to somehow follow them around. If you don't mind limiting tagging to other AR-users, you can probably set up some kind of ident broadcast, so you can look up tags attached to their identity. There are other methods, but they're a lot clumsier.

Anyway, the point is that you can tag people.

This is a whole lot more useful than tagging places or things. It's an instant reputation, first off: you can look at someone and see what people think of them. Second off, it's great way to know what people's interests are... because I can easily tag myself.

If I'm walking down the street with a "let's have lunch!" tag, everyone on the arnet will see that I'm looking for lunch and would probably be happy to have it with them. Furthermore, they might see tags like "science geek", "go-go-gadget-genome!", "", "who wants custom ARt?" (That's, um, augmented-reality art. ARt. I just pawned it!)

This can be further strengthened by having contextual tags. For example, I might limit the "let's have lunch!" tags to only people I've met... or only people with some of the same interests, or only people with more green tags (like) than yellow tags (dislike). This means that if someone sees my "let's have lunch!" tag, they can feel fairly confident that I will, in fact, be happy to have lunch with them specifically. Talk about an ice breaker!

Those kinds of tags, mixed with the reputation tags, allow a far higher rate of connection between people than otherwise possible. People can easily connect to me, but they also connect to anyone who's ever had an opinion on me, via my tags. They may also have opinions on some of the people who have opinions about me, and that might diminish or strengthen the tags those people have attached to me: it can be a very complicated situation, but it's made completely transparent, and the end result is that anyone looking at me will know who I am. Not just my name, but what I act like, what kind of circles I move in, what kind of accomplishments I've had...

I think that would change the nature of community!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For Love of Radiation

To call me a fan of nuclear power would be an understatement, but I find that most people have hideous misconceptions on both sides of the debate. Talking about "green power" is difficult when people on both sides don't have a clue what they're talking about!

To me, the biggest misconception that anti-nuclear people have is that nuclear power is unsafe. I won't go into detail, but it's not. It's completely safe.

My side is misinformed, too. We seem to think it's economical. It's not. Virtually every other form of power - green or otherwise - is roughly equivalent or cheaper. It's not really nuclear power's fault, but WHY it's true is irrelevant: nuclear power is expensive.

I like nuclear power, primarily because it's a very pretty process, using the untapped energy in the depth of the atom to power whole cities. It just feels more efficient, more scifi. I think a lot of people feel the same way. It's a beautiful solution that never came into its own.

To some extent, I blame the fact that nuclear power isn't the best solution on Jane Fonda. Panicky responses to nuclear power have let it linger behind other options as fewer dollars to go research and refinement of the technique.

But the truth is the truth, regardless of how pretty I think nuclear power is. It's just not the best alternative.

The best alternative is solar, although I won't argue against as much use of other green methods as is plausible.

Although solar panel production produces lots of heavy metal runoff and scads of CO2, it is a scalable solution whose technology is advancing rapidly. I don't think it's too much to assume that there will be a "solar panel paint" by 2040. Unlike wind power, it's useful in both places where we ARE and places where we AREN'T, and it isn't noisy.

However, that's really answering the wrong question. The question isn't "what's the best green energy source?". The question is "how rapidly will our energy requirements drop once we start thinking in those terms?".

New monitors use a fraction of the electricity of old CRTs. There's a breed of low-energy computer processor already on the way, and more in development. Many of us use energy efficient lighting, and it's already a generation and a half out of date.

I don't expect us to "solve the energy crisis" by producing more energy of any sort. I expect us to "solve the energy crisis" by building a computer that uses ten watts of power and an air conditioner that uses twelve.

Yes? No? I'd like to hear your opinion, so long as it isn't a fanatical support or hate of nuclear power. That's not the point of the post.


Everyone's so cheerful today. In the city of Boston, thousands of un-protesters have joined an anti-riot and cheerfully gone about their daily business.

Analysts are concerned that this manic good-will could result in radical, crippling changes to city traffic patterns. Police have been dispatched to major intersections to heckle the drivers into resuming their customary massholery.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Mandatory Political Post

Every blog's gotta have one, I suppose.

Personally, I don't like politicians. Even Obama. BUT, there is a lot of good to come out of this election, the least of which is that he'll do much, much better than the alternative.

Still, to me, the biggest thing about this election is that Obama is not just black... he's a halfbreed. All the racists I've met think that's even worse.

It seems like a long, long time to the human eye, but when you think about it: only 44 presidents went by. At the beginning, black halfbreeds were treated so terribly that it boggles the mind. Slavery at best! Now, we've got one as our main leader.

That's hopeful, don't you think?

To me, racism is one of the strongest examples of human faults. It's been with us since the beginning of time, an instinct that other peoples - even just another tribe - are not people. Inferior, animals, etc.

That we've come so far towards negating that fault gives me a lot of hope for the future. We have a lot of other faults I'd like to see gone. If it only takes 200 years to fix a fundamental human fault... well, let's get to it!

Monday, November 03, 2008

The "Science" Section

I stopped by Borders today on my way somewhere and looked at their "science" section.

I was a little bit proud of them. Last time I'd seen a "science" section, it was full of blatantly non-science and anti-science books, such as books on aliens, crystal healing, young-earth creationism, etc.

This time there was less of that. But instead of replacing them with SCIENCE BOOKS, they replaced them with biographies of scientists, primarily Einstein. Literally 1/3 of their entire "science" section was biographies of scientists. Most of the rest were popular not-quite-science books falling somewhere between coffee-table books and light reading. They had more picture books (space pictures, mostly) than actual science books.

I don't mean text books. I just mean books with some level of scientific rigor. Some level above zero, to be more specific.

Well, it's better than before. Baby steps, as Bob would say.