Friday, December 18, 2009

Can Not Do the Research

Like many of the skeptical and sciency community, I'm also irritated at Randi. He Did Not Do the Research and posted an opinion. When experts - not even strangers, but friends and acquaintances - called him on it, instead of Doing the Research he did a song and dance. Poor.

That got me thinking. A lot of denialists for any given scientific theory are driven by religious or financial bias, but some, especially young ones, are actually just clueless. How difficult is it to Do the Research, from scratch, without a long history of reading and researching sciency stuff?

Well, me, my first stop is Wikipedia. But while Wikipedia is an excellent resource for me, it occurs to me that it's a painful thing for folks who aren't science geeks. Scientific Wikipedia articles are generally pretty close to accurate, but they are dry as dust, and have so many blue links that lead to other places that are dry as dust. Easy to choke on a Wikipedia entry.

Fortunately, there's an alternative! Youtube! Instead of us reading the research, we can have the research read to us. Some really excellent teachers using really excellent visual techniques can teach even a schoolchild the basics of both the science and controversy surrounding any theory!

Unfortunately, none of these folks are on the first page of a search. Or the second. Or the fifth.

Let's pretend we're James Randi in an alternate universe, and we want to know about global warming. Searching for global warming gives us a stack of ancient videos, conversations by politicians, and Glenn Beckites. We don't want the controversy yet, we don't even know what a greenhouse gas is.

Maybe we'll watch a few of these, with the understanding that these are the same people who would side with spoon-benders under different situations. We've spent 114 years of our life fighting this kind of nonsense: ever since we retired from magic shows. At the age of 72. Okay, I'm making old jokes. I'm upset with Randi.

Anyway, we want something with science to it. We could just pop off to Potholer's channel, but the point is to get to something like that from scratch.

Let's change the search terms. Science of global warming.

Okay, now it's 90% denialists.

Suddenly I, the author, amn't as upset as I was. It does appear that science is fractured, that there is a debate.

This is, unfortunately, not true. The problem is that Goog-era search engines function on some measure of popularity rather than usefulness. Great if you want cats riding bicycles, terrible if you're looking up something with an objective truth.

Don't be fooled, our fake Randi in an alternate dimension! There must be science here somewhere! These videos we're looking at now are cherry-picked from a wide, wide field. Just because they've been promoted to the front doesn't mean they deserve to be there. It certainly doesn't mean they are representative of the science!

"Global warming explained" is no better, youtube doesn't know what "explained" means, and returns basically the same videos despite their lack of the word "explained". "Global warming skeptic" is even worse, of course.

No, no... none of these searches lead anywhere!

I, the imaginary James Randi, give up! Why I don't ask any of the tens of thousands of experts that would happily spend the day explaining it to me, I don't know. But limiting ourselves to anonymous explainers - IE Youtube - is a failure. Because Youtube's search is SO BAD.

What you want is there, but Youtube search doesn't know that.

This is not optimal.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hand me that Apple Crate

I'm gonna talk about something besides game design. You probably don't want to read this post.

Some of you might realize that as I've gotten older, I've gotten steadily more anti-corporate. I think this is probably the opposite of a normal progression, where a college student is anti-corporate and, as he gets older, he realizes corporations are an important part of blah de blah de blah.

I'm the opposite. I thought that they were part of blah de blah in college, and now I think corporations are tied for the second worst thing on the planet. The reasons I think so are complex, and since it's such a common sentiment, I won't go into them. But I will talk about the issue most people have with naive, anti-corporate college students. That is, that they are naive.

After all, we all use corporate goods every day. The clothes we wear, the water that we drink, the computer you're reading this on, everything is brought to us by our complex web of corporations. So how can you be anti-corporate?

But that's a bad argument. After all, it's the same argument slave owners made about their slaves. How can a slave be anti-slavery? Everything he has is provided by his owner. He would be starving and dying of malaria in Africa without us! How hypocritical!

The question is not whether or not I use corporate goods, but is whether or not there is a better solution. Not some pie-in-the-sky solution that requires all humans to act inhumanly good and caring and perfect. Some solution that understands that even decent humans are dicks.

I think there are a variety of partial solutions. Like any paradigm shift, I think the future will be made of a patchwork combination of these new solutions burning away the old guard.

One solution is that it is growing ever more possible for corporations to transform into very transparent entities. For some corporate-like entities, this is a huge advantage. The recent climate change email scandal would never have happened if the scientists were publishing all their emails publicly at all times. Not because they would have avoided conspiracy - there was no conspiracy. But because the emails would be part of a clear context chain that is openly available to anyone. The "conspiracy" vanishes when you realize that these emails are cherry-picked, out of context, and rely on a misunderstanding of scientific terms and data sources.

Other corporate entities would be slaughtered by this change, or at least whine. For example, a transparent news room would reveal the sordid underbelly of what stories get shown in what light, and why. A transparent bank would reveal what advantageous trades they're going to perform, when.

But these are businesses that exist specifically in the cracks of imperfect information. They make money not by providing value, but by wedging themselves into any gap they see and pulling as hard as possible. In many ways, they make money specifically by reducing value. This is not a method of doing business I find ethical or sustainable - the steady increase in connectivity and information processing has put them on a path of leveraging ever smaller and riskier information gaps to make their money, since the largest gaps have been erased due to other people's enhanced information processing.

Obviously, transparency is a difficult thing. If a government required emails to be published, then a lot of people would simply gather in person to discuss their shady deals. But I'm not suggesting that the government step in. After all, governments are tied for second worst thing on the planet, and are already too buddy-buddy with these monsters. I'm simply suggesting that in the upcoming years, some small corporations are going to begin publishing a lot of details about the internal workings of their company and technology, especially in fields where leveraging information inequalities isn't the point of the business. These businesses will be more successful for two reasons. A) talking about stuff openly always generates more good ideas and more energy. B) your prospective customers and clients will feel they can trust you.

Because these open businesses are more successful, they will begin to dominate their field, slowly spreading a "transparency movement" where any business that does not publish is considered untrustworthy.

I think this is very likely as we enter a world where information is so easy to discover, so tightly integrated, and so carefully parsed. Imagine walking into a store and looking at fifteen brands of toilet paper. Up pops your AR: this brand is a company that is rated as 57% transparent by DougsTransparencyIndex, that one is rated 12% transparent. While neither have any grossly immoral acts proven, Doug says, the one that is more transparent will have fewer swept under the rug. Which toilet paper will you buy?

No need by the consumer to actually go out and research these companies. The computer collects and displays information automatically.

And if you think that's unlikely, stop reading this blog and go start reading on technology trends, because you're about to become painfully obsolete. It's not only going to happen, it's happening already.

That's just one solution - transparent companies. I think it's important to remember that the growth of this information web in which we live in also enhances several other methods of creating wealth.

The most famous is the start-up, which is a risky proposition but can be extremely lucrative. A relatively small group of people pitch in to deliver a new product that makes them all rich. I think that start-ups are just starting to enter their really powerful phase, and I think that over the next twenty years, start-ups will be the name of the game. After that, I think that they might start to decline, because start-ups actually operate on information inequality, and I think that twenty years from now we'll start to see the information web becoming so efficient that even the kind of inequality start-ups use will be corrected away.

That's a little hard to imagine, so let me explain. Remember that this is in your old-and-gray years.

I've worked for three start-ups now. Each was built on the expert knowledge of two or three people, leveraged together to create a product that provided value that didn't exist on the market. For example, the one I currently work for is leveraging a combination of solar thermal expertise with data mining expertise to provide some ridiculously overpowered and easy to use analysis systems for green energy installations.

The reason that the start-up is possible is because the expertise can't be effectively applied without a start-up. Once we've done this, the expertise will be available for anyone to see and use (and duplicate). However, we'll have developed further expertise we can leverage and so on and so forth. That's the theory. But the point is that start-ups exist specifically to make your expertise/genius/skill available to the market in an efficient manner.

In twenty years most of us will be deeply immersed in an ambient data network. Distributing expertise will be extremely easy. I think that start-ups will begin to find more and more of their opportunities are made too trivial by the network. You don't need a start-up to do something if you can just go out and do it.

In addition to the transparent-corporation and start-up paradigms, there is one more method I can think of that supports my theory that being anti-corporate is viable. That is the personal work theory.

As mentioned, our network is getting stronger and smarter every year. It is getting easier for an individual to self-employ. Or, if the product she wants to distribute is too big for her alone, she can form a temporary group to release a single product. You see this enabled by the network more and more. We have things like Etsy and Kickstarter that are just coming into their own. I can foresee a time not too far in the future where the structure and safety a corporation provides will be replaced by the ambient structure-forming nature of the network.

This will make things like ZipCar obsolete. I love the company, but it exists on a mountain of data imbalance. Specifically, it exists because there aren't loads of cars just lying around for you to borrow. ZipCar will find itself competing with a steadily rising number of free and easy solutions that help people find rides/cars just out of nothing. The advent of a widespread set of reputation systems and a connective "friend-net" will give us the power we need to automatically determine whether someone can borrow our car or tag along for a ride. The seeds of this required data underlayer can clearly be seen in things like Facebook.

Now, to some extent it might sound like I'm talking about some kind of socialist fuzzy-wuzzy paradise, but I'm not. I think life will be better and richer because, historically, life has been getting better and richer with every generation, although not always by the same measures. That doesn't mean there will be no hardships. I expect reputation will come to be as important as money for many people, and that raises its own sticky questions. Depending on what kind of projections you make, it could be that many of the people in question will be pretty poor, although somewhat alleviated by their strong network of connections that they rely on.

I'm trying not to make any specific predictions about the future outside of the ones specifically related to my anti-corporate stance. I don't want to predict the world will be glorious. I just want to point out that the rise of a dense and intelligent data network is making the staple of corporate evil - maintaining and abusing information imbalance - increasingly tenuous. Simultaneously, it is promoting some alternate ways of getting things done. I expect the transition will not be sudden, and it will probably be economically bloody. But it's going to happen.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Single Player Games

I don't know, every year people keep shouting that one player games are dead. What GB Games says is a bit less silly, fortunately. He talks about adding in a feature to your single-player games that let the users share stories. Thus making a single player game with a community.

This segues into two things I'm interested in that are actually just one thing.

The first thing is that he's talking less about fundamental game design and more about viral marketing. While you have to be a bit careful in your game design so that you can allow this kind of sharing (and probably content swapping), the real idea here is not to change the way the game fundamentally works, but simply to change the way that the players relate to it and each other.

The other first thing is that I feel anything that affects the player's experience should count as part of the game design, even if it isn't actually much part of the game. Dwarf Fortress has a very strong community for its size, but there are no inherent tools to help you share your experience. The players share anyway, leading this to be part of the experience even when there are absolutely NO tools, no hint of anything to help you share, in the game itself. This is capitalized on because the sharers usually take a "Lets Play" approach and add in plenty of color and flavor that is also not in the original game.

These two first things combine into one thing: the idea that a game isn't really a standalone package any more. Whether your game contains the tools or not, the players will want to communicate and interact with each other.

Even, and here's the part a lot of people don't like, even just in one-player games.

I love one-player games. I don't much like multiplayer games and loathe massively multiplayer games. I buy more than half of the single-player RPGs and first-person-shooters that come out for the consoles I own, and quite a few for the computer as well. I am Mr. Single Player.

But I find one truth to be particularly glaring: the games I play longest are the ones that I visit on-line sites, download mods, look up cheats, and read silly things about. These places I visit are very rarely associated with the game devs. They are almost always fan-sites or faq-sites. Moreover, I don't think their existence causes me to play the game more. I think their existence is because people like me play the game more.

Dragon Age is a good example. Most Dragon-Age-related sites are either A) associated with the devs, B) sharing space with other games such as Oblivion, or C) dead. Dragon Age just doesn't have the same mindshare as, say, Oblivion or the Sims, which have literally thousands of indie sites dedicated to talking about them in niche terms. Despite the fact that these games have no inherent "sharing" technology.

Well, the Sims does have uploadable "family albums". Which are, as far as I can tell, less commonly used than simply posting to a foum. And on the other side of the spectrum, Spore is specifically designed around allowing players to share. And... it's not very good. No longevity at all.

What I'm trying to say is that making it possible for players to share stories is rarely a bad idea... but if you make a game that gives your players stories to share, there are plenty of already-made solutions for the sharing that they will happily use.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An Article on Choice

I seem to be all about reading other people's articles this week. Here's one from Pixel Poppers on player choice. Doctor Professor is harping on the difference between "real" choice and "fake" choice, which is something I have also harped on. Out here in Boston-land we use the term "agency" as an umbrella word to refer to how much the game allow the players to express themselves and change the game world. I presume that it's not just a local term.

I agree with most of the article, although I think the Little Sister "choice" was a stupid one rather than an interesting one. The reason I think it's stupid is the same reason I think all light side/dark side choice threads are stupid. Although you are faced with the choice fifty times (or five hundred times) in your play, you only actually choose ONCE, near the beginning, and after that you're simply reassuring a skittish computer that you are still playing the same character.

That's a major problem with all these games that let you choose between two narrative options. In order to really make them even vaguely interesting, you'd have to (A) have a lot more characterization of the avatar and (B) have to have choices present very differently depending on past choices. For example, in Fallout 3, you can blow up or disarm a nuclear bomb in the first city. This is a simple "good vs evil" decision. However, blowing up the city is a rather hideously evil thing to do, just fantastically evil.

Why is it that your avatar, a man with such intense evil in his past, can then go on to cheerfully befriend the other cities and people in the game? Obviously, the choices for these other cities were scripted to be "compatible" with "every play thread", which in turn means they don't express the avatar's personality very well at all. I can see getting along with these future towns if it's played in a sleazy way, or a repentant way, but that doesn't happen.

The act of blowing up the city has profound game effects - it actually makes you use an entirely different city, and gives you access to all kinds of other quests. However, it doesn't actually change your AVATAR. Your avatar still thinks to himself, at all further moments, "well, I could be nice here, or maybe a little mean". That choice fails to have any meaning to someone who personally nuked a city.

So while I agree with the linked article, I would stress the need to drag a little attention off of scripting the world and on to scripting the characters. Funnily, the current situation is actually the reverse of the old "dost thou love me" trick. While the game does give you lots of agency, it gives the illusion that your earlier choices didn't matter. Ha!

Properly scripting the character to allow the player to define their avatar's personality is more or less impossible at the current time. But I'd be satisfied with small steps.

Anyway, just more mumbling.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Multiplayer

I just read this article on Lost Garden. I'm sort of in agreement, except that I'm mostly not.

While I like the overall idea of ditching some of our arbitrary constraints and crufty assumptions, I don't think that the proposition he actually writes is a good one. If you haven't read it, the article can be summarized as being a giant endorsement of A) multiplayer, B) rules to let players express themselves, and C) integrating games into daily life.

I agree with most of these in almost all situations (only (C) is somewhat iffy), but I disagree with his examples. For example, he specifically says that we can "dodge" the hard problem of highly interactive/adaptive NPCs by having other players instead. This only works in certain situations. It is inherently an extremely low-immersion solution, and is almost always implemented in a way that damages any one player's ability to express himself in the game. It very often (although not absolutely always) produces hierarchical player gradients, with certain players being extremely powerful and dominant and others being unable to accomplish anything aside from following in their shadows.

There are theoretically ways to mitigate these problems, but that produces other problems. It is just as easy to dodge the "NPC problem" in other ways: they're all hard problems whose "solutions" have complex repercussions.

To make it clear what I mean, look at any MMORPG. While a MMORPG is perhaps the multiplayer game type, you'll find the majority of player-player interactions are deeply non-immersive. Some of the talk is about game rules (rather than character interaction), and the rest of the talk is blather about the player's personal life and preferences. On the other side of the spectrum, hardcore RPers might be much more immersive, but the high-end game requires you to go meta in order to succeed. There's too many rules and details that need to be accounted for in order to win a raid. Most of those details would be invisible to the character, and the rest don't contribute much to the character's personality or experience, unless you consider "mind bogglingly tedious bookkeeping" to be the experience. In which case you should work and at least get paid for it.

An NPC will be much less adaptable, but there are many advantages to relying on them even so. They have no problem staying in character, they can be scripted to further the story/mood/arc without deviating, and they're always available to act specifically when the player wants to. The limits can be disguised somewhat through clever UI design and scripting.

Both approaches have their issues, both approaches have very wide repercussions, brutal tradeoffs. More than that, I don't mean to sound like a cheerleader for NPCs. Simply put, it is important to realize that there are no easy solutions. As a designer, you must always realize what the issues are about your approach, and what sort of design it necessitates and allows.

NPCs vs players are only one facet. I use them because they're first in the essay. I could write more on the various other topics - such as integrating into daily life - in the same way. But I won't. This essay is long enough.

Please keep in mind that there are no easy design solutions, no perfect template that can be modified. Everything you do will have repercussions, and everything you do will have hard problems associated with it. Your design needs to mesh and tick along well, which often dictates which approaches work well together: the various aspects need to mask each other's issues, support each other's strengths.

For example, his three big suggestions mesh very well together. Each aspect plays to the strength of another aspect. Which is presumably why he focuses on them. But you could make an equally interesting game out of the very opposite assumptions: it all depends on what your design goals are.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Codifying Games

I stumbled across this today. Not sure how I found it. It's another attempt to create some method of codifying games. It's a mechanistic method, better than most of the systems I've seen proposed, but I don't like it.

To me, a game is only a game when a player plays it. So I argue against solely representing the mechanics, and instead prefer to represent in a more holistic manner. I have a lot of problems with a mechanistic approach, and perhaps the largest is one which Joris falls into as well: a mechanistic approach tends to assume a single player playing a single, one-dimensional play-through. This is something I want to get away from.

So, my ideal language for describing games would take into account the fact that every game is played millions of times by both different players and the same players on repeat plays. I would also like to be able to model multiplayer games and, more specifically, games featuring parallel play, where the players do not take clean turns but instead act at their own pace. For example, a MMORPG.

My ideal language also allows for non-mechanistic elements to be modeled, as well as emergent, player-generated, and random elements that may or may not be mechanistic. Furthermore, I think it is a mistake to try to balance games using any language, although the language might indicate where sticky spots might be.

The game examples chosen by theorists proposing would-be languages are always highly mechanistic games, which suit their highly mechanistic languages. Modeling chess or tic-tac-toe is not very interesting to me. How about we model Sim City or Quest for Glory IV? Or Fluxx or Apples to Apples?

The non-mechanistic elements in those games are very strong, which makes any mechanistic representation of them woefully incomplete. Even just the mechanistic elements are generally badly represented: a big part of Sim City is the way your older construction decisions affect your new construction decisions. This complexity is not just beyond modern models: I think it might be beyond models. I think it might require actually creating and playing the game. But the basic idea of it, and the amplitude of it, and the reaction it hopes to cause, can be represented.

Unfortunately, my magical ideal language doesn't exist, and I have only a few basic ideas as to what it might, maybe, look like. I just thought I'd chime in with my dislike of these mechanistic representations.

After all, a game designer first and foremost builds interactive systems. So maybe we should have a model that represents the player half more thoroughly?

Friday, November 13, 2009


I'm writing this with a cracked rib, so I may be a bit off from my usual.

Today - again - one of the blogs in my feed posted about piracy. It seems like every day that one of the geeks I generally listen to posts about the ebbils of this horrifying method of theft. Frankly, it irritates me.

I think it's perfectly okay to think software/music piracy is wrong. But I think it's important to realize where this thought comes from. It's been injected into your head. It did not arise there magically, and I'm damn sure you didn't decide it on your own, because by the time you were old enough to think rationally on the matter, you had already been taught about it.

Now, that doesn't inherently mean that the thought is wrong. There are lots of things you get taught that are correct. And I'm not even going to argue one way or the other. What I am going to do is point out that arguing about it is like pissing in the ocean.

The fate of the "copying is theft" meme will not be decided using our minds or our culture or our rhetoric because it has no strong inherent morality. It will be decided by reality. The reality of the situation is that, no matter how you feel about it, it is simply impossible to even slow down the advance of "piracy". There is no way to magically turn back time. People will steal software. More and more.

You can, if you wish, argue with them. Brand them evil, or at least jerks. But it's already more than half of the people you know. In ten years, basically everyone under 30 in a first-world nation will be a pirate. Already, I would wager that it's over 50%, at least in cities. Hell, I bet there are destitute Africans downloading illegal ring tones to their shared village phones.

You can brand them all jerks and criminals. But that seems kind of retarded.

Whether or not copying is theft at the moment, in ten years, nobody under thirty will consider it to be significant. In twenty years, everyone under thirty will be amazed anyone ever thought it was immoral.

So before you judge for or against, how about you stop and think about how things are, rather than how your fantasies want the world to be. Your business model had damn well better not conflict with pirates, or you'll go out of business faster than an honest politician.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Magic Systems

One of the reasons I like science fiction better than fantasy is because science fiction obeys its own rules and fantasy doesn't. With that bias in mind, lets talk about magic systems in games.

Most magic systems in games are "prepackaged". You have spells, and they are basically treated the same as guns, grenades, medkits, etc. You have a spell, you point it, you fire it. It's not really very... "magical". It's more... "I-just-bought-a-new-gunical".

Because magic is indistinguishable from guns and medkits, you can treat it in the same way as you would treat guns and medkits. For example, if your game is narrative-heavy, you can simply make anyone not actively an enemy immune to all magic. This is especially obvious in Dragon Age, where you can fill a room with fire but the enemies within won't feel a thing because you haven't talked to them and determined that they are enemies, yet.

Dragon Age doesn't want to have a more complicated or diverse magic system. It doesn't have a simulationist world, why would it have a simulationist magic system?

But for those of us that like some level of immersion, there are three other ways of handling magic.

One is programmatic magic. Programmatic magic is magic which the player builds out of components (such as runes). The upside of programmatic magic is that it's relatively easy to put into your game, so long as all the physical objects and living entities follow the same rules. The downsides are that the clever player will be absurdly overpowered, and that the programming is probably either too simplistic to really get cool magic out of it, or so absurdly complex they might as well be programming the game.

Another is psychic magic. Psychic magic allows the player to direct the spell to do anything within its realm of possibility with great grace. In a tabletop game such as Mage or Nobilis, the player might simply say, "Oh, I summon a soot-covered raven to deliver a message to the high wizard." That's not so easy in a computer game, but you can still get away with allowing the player to direct the spell personally, such as telekinesis spells which allow you to move objects specifically how you like.

The third kind of magic is narrative magic, which basically takes the magic out of the control of the player and makes it... mystical. Semi-predictable. For example, if the player can make wishes of a genie, or summon the spirit of luck, the player might be able to give simple directives, but the effect is controlled by the needs of the story. Since narrative magic doesn't easily fit into a statistical world (even more poorly than psychic magic), it's not very popular. Also, it makes the GM have to do a lot more work, coming up with the exact results of everything.

There's a fourth kind of magic, sort of: passive magic. This is a magic effect that is not controlled by the player to affect the world. An example of passive magic would be an immunity to fire, or the ability to see treasure chests. However, passive magic gets along well with any given other kind of magic, so I won't treat it separately right now.

While narrative magic is the least popular at the moment, I can see it gaining some popularity as we create algorithms for making it work. Plus, it's really the best alternative to psychic magic in a world where the player has to interface using a mouse and keyboard instead of his brain.

As an example, I'll pop back to Star Wars. Play any Star Wars game, and your Jedi is encouraged to buy guns and medkits magic spells. Even though it makes no sense for the setting. Instead, the game would be much better served by a combination of psychic magic and narrative magic.

Now, I'm obviously glossing over some tiny, insignificant little details like how to implement narrative magic. I'll post on that matter soonish, but I'd love to hear your opinions.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Dragon Age Animation

I've done the snarky bit, let's talk a bit more about what went right with Dragon Age.

One of the things I really liked about Dragon Age was the body language. They almost completely avoided the Oblivion dead-man's-stare, especially during cutscenes. This was done partly with generic body language, but also partly with camera tricks. Most people overlook that even if NPCs have realistic body language, if your screen is constantly focused on their face, then the PC has unrealistic body language. Like your avatar is staring with an Oblivion dead-man's-stare.

However, you can't make the camera swing around. That would be very disorienting. Dragon Age instead uses a variety of cuts to give you a more movie-like feel, which I think was a good idea. The two methods combined - camera tricks and body language - combine to make the characters feel a lot more realistic and immersive than previous games, graphically speaking.

There is still a lot of room for improvement, and I think we can expect to see improvement in the next generation of triple-A titles.

One spot that stuck out egregiously was the head turn animation. Probably the most common social animation aside from "generic hand waves 1 and 2", it was the worst animation in the entire game. It revolves the head like it's on a platter, with a constant speed and a sharp-edge start and stop. You can hear the greasy robot blood in the character's veins.

I presume that this animation is the way it is because the "rotate head" function takes an arbitrary angle to rotate to. The engine then either performs a simple rotation or, more likely given the way these engines tend to work, animates a fragment of a larger, linear head rotation animation.

This is a shortcut they should not have taken. The only time an actor rotates their head like this in a movie is when they want to be clear that the character is unnatural and insane. So, no, not a good choice for a major animation nested into every character.

While the engine may have technical limitations that prevent it from running on-the-fly or layered animations, it is still possible to create a selection of rotation animations and either place the targets in the spots where the animations make sense, or slightly rotate the body beneath the head to make it all line up nicely.

Head animations were a big opportunity to distinguish the personalities of the various characters. A normal person, when they turn their head, ducks their chin a bit and blinks. And definitely doesn't have a flat speed with a sharp start and stop. But you can throw in variations to distinguish both characters and moods.

For example, the grumpy witch might not "come out of" the duck-turn, leaving her chin down, glowering askance at you. The insane zealot girl might lead with the top of her head, giving her more of a cuckoolander feel instead of a robotic, "I keeel you in you sleeeep" feel.

Add in some more general head posture animations, and you can give the characters a lot of personality without needing to fully mocap and tweak every scene. In the game as it stands, the difference between mocapped and generic scenes is both striking and distracting.

Now, the head turn isn't the only thing that could use added juice. Right now the body language is still very restricted and limited, with the body itself standing rigidly. Presumably this is to keep the number of required animations down: if everyone can use the same twenty animations, you don't need to make twenty animations for each character. In order to keep them generic, you have to keep the body language from being too communicative.

It's obvious that what we'll need for the next generation of body language is an engine that can synthesize animations on the fly, augmenting the "gross" animations with layered and amped sub-animations to give them more personality.

This would also be useful in fixing of the worst animation remaining: the walk animation.

The walk animation is so bad it is the sole reason I have to play in first person mode. This isn't really a rant against Dragon Age: everyone's walk animations are hideously bad.

First, they're not even vaguely unique. Usually there's only three: woman, man, and big huge dude. Second, they're animated without taking anything else into account.

Sure, it would be nice to have walk animations where the characters actually looked at things, actually stomped when they're angry, actually turn to the person they're talking to. But easier than that, please put in a turning animation.

When I turn left, my walk animation doesn't change even slightly: I revolve seamlessly. When the rest of your game is super-realistic, does that make sense?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I would prefer to lose half the graphical quality to double the way it's integrated into the game world. When one aspect of your assets so far outstrips the others, maybe you should stop spending on the excellent asset and shore up the crappy ones.

Unfortunately, to really do it right, we need to have a next-generation engine that allows for arbitrary, layered, on-the-fly animations.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Dragon Age Early Review

So, I'm playing Dragon Age. It's obviously a very polished game, and I'm enjoying it to some extent, but it really does exemplify all the things I hate about modern RPGs.

The checklist leveling is bad enough, but the developers have the gall to put in quests that require premium content. Put the hooks right in the game. "I need help!" "Oh, I'd love to help you, except I can't. Because I'm not willing to spend extra real-world cash to do something in-game, you assholes. So, yes, I'm a hero, but I can't help you. OH WELL."

No, that doesn't break immersion! NOT AT ALL!

I don't mind you selling additional packs or whatever. But the moment you make them intrude on my experience, you have ripped the guts out of your game and turned it into a pathetic shadow. You have made it impossible for my character to act in character. All while shouting "BEND OVER!" You might as well put a rapping spiky blue hedgehog in the game to shout coca-cola slogans at me. "I'm the real thing, baby! I'm not distracting you, am I?"

It's bad enough that it's basically an MMORPG. That's such a terrible terrible idea right there. Why would you mimic something that's specifically been crippled and neutered when you don't have to? It's such a bad design decision!

The fact that it's as good as it is is a sign of truly stellar assets teams and a solid writing team. Now all they need is some game designers.

I also like the fact that it will cover your characters in blood and you'll do truly gory finishing moves, but they still use "safety underwear". It's like the design team's whole thing was "let's make a game that takes absolutely no risks."

And they did.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Wealth in Massive Games (gedankenexperiment)

There has been a storm of concerned armchair economics gurus that has come out of the woodwork over the past few months. I've become steadily more angry at seeing people trot out tired old theories that show a deep misunderstanding of even the most basic facts about money and wealth.

You can learn more about economics by playing Alpha Centauri than by reading Marx.

But almost all games suffer from an oversimplified economic rule set. This is to avoid getting in the way of whatever the "real" gameplay is. I would like to turn that on its head and theorize a game about economics.

Here are the restrictions:

1) The theoretical game must be massively multiplayer (or massively singleplayer, a'la Spore).

2) It must contain interesting non-economic gameplay (typically, various kinds of killing).

3) The economic rules must emerge from simple fundamentals rather than by complex fiat (IE, no arbitrary money sinks, no specific "B happens if you raise taxes").

4) The game must contain zones, modes, or other variations that change the fundamental rules somewhat to highlight the different economic results that occur when rules change.

5) It must highlight the difference between MONEY and WEALTH.

All the examples I can think of are constructive, rather than the "static state" worlds of WoW or WoW, WoW, or maybe WoW. For example, my first instinct is a space empire game like Masters of Orion, but with far less focus on war and far more focus on the amount of time it takes to travel through space. By having specific resources obtained only from specific star systems, you would be able to stress the costs of shipping this product (or derivatives) all around the empire.

The game would require somewhat arbitrary use of fundamental materials to build products. For example, building an acropolis might require explicitly listed goods in addition to research, time, and labor. These are somewhat arbitrary sinks, but at least they make sense.

The game would also highlight the difference between a new economy and a mature economy as you expand and build up your planets. You could also have "low-traction" zones where travel happens faster, or low-fuel zones where you're forced to stick to light speed in order to make it economically viable...

You have any ideas?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Moulin Rogue

I thought I was done with Batman, but last night I had a big dream where Moulin Rouge was completely redone with Batman's "Rogue's Gallery". Here's a sampling, the Roxanne melody, redone by various villains. Wheeee!

Will drive you

Maybe I'll rob two banks tonight!
I don't rob them for money,
The coin says if its wrong or if it is right.

BAAAATMAN! Maybe I'll rob two banks tonight!
BATMAN! You'll have to wear your cape throughout the night!

My eyes upon your corpse
My hands upon your neck
My lips stretched in a grin
It's more than I can stand! (vicious giggling)

Joker & Two-face:

Why did my wiiiiife die?
Frozen eyes caaaan't cry!
Rest, take it easy,
I'll save you as "Freezy",
And please believe me when I say
I love you!

(Psychiatric talk bridge and scattered repeating)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Stuff Simple Games are Made Of

Me Via Twitter: I've been studying relativity! I'd forgotten that it's quite mad. Quantum physics is only a bit more mad. All tutorials skip the hard stuff.

On GChat:
John: What possible use could you have for relativity?

me: I thought maybe the time dilation effects could be an interesting mechanic.
Imagine a chess match where the various parts of the board have different internal clocks.

John: OK, I can see that.
I remember modeling games with non-zero communication propagation times, but never tried tracking local age of units.

me: Well, think about it: the faster you go (the more you advance), the fewer turns you get to take.
It's a built-in negative feedback loop. Choosing the best point will always be a tradeoff.

John: Interesting.
I guess I'm having a hard time imagining the metaphor for a game in which it was so important that you do something on a ship (or conveyance of your choosing) that the tradeoff would become relevant.

me: Yeah, I'm having a bit of a time with that, too.
I'm thinking of throwing in the mass distortion effect, and having some kind of cosmic gravity-ball.
Relativistic pong, maybe.

John: Hmm.
Does relativity guarantee that inertial mass is alway equal to gravitational mass after distortion?

me: I was thinking of ignoring reality just a little.

John: That was actually a legitimate question, not a narrow insinuation, but I will take your answer as I choose.

me: :)

John: I suppose anything with RKV's might benefit from being able to calculate their physical properties.

me: Only to some extent. After about 0.7c, there's not much point. Everything is dead.
Nonviolent relativistic games are all I can come up with.

John: Perhaps interstellar wine shipping?

me: Radioactive material shipping...
Same idea.

John: You need the wine to age a certain number of years before it comes to market, but you want it to be sold as soon as possible?

me: "It was a very good year. Before their sun exploded."

John: Actually, never mind. The math works out that you would always age it locally and then send it as fast as you could.

me: Ah-ah, you're assuming relativistic travel has no effect on the wine.

John: Its true!

me: Winefolk will certainly be able to taste that "space aged" flavor.
Or think they can, at any rate.
"My, did you fly this through a nebula? Excellent nose on it..."

John: Why do I get the impression you'd have a lot more fun writing the NPC's for that game than the game itself?

me: I'm gonna do it.
I'm gonna build a relavitistic wine-merchant game.
And I'm gonna post this conversation to my blog, 'cause I'm a nerd.

John: hehe
Go for it.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thinking without language

I have a lot of interest in making adaptive, interesting NPCs. In most cases, this involves making NPCs that are "smart" - that can react to what the user does, what the situation is, no matter how exotic it becomes.

It turns out making NPCs more intelligent isn't actually what we want: we simply want them to seem more intelligent. If they actually are more intelligent, they'll act erratically (from our perspective) and will frequently derail the pacing and plot. This is in addition to making the world more chaotic simply because they take actions without the player's awareness.

So we can either take pains to make intelligent NPCs and then cripple them so they don't get too uppity about it... or we can focus on making them seem more intelligent as they go about their not-so-uppity lives. We want them to have some level of independence, but just enough to adapt to the player, not enough to derail the game.

As it turns out, that level of independence really isn't hard. You can program an NPC with a "tactical" understanding of the game world that the player navigates. Then the NPC can simply "play" this game using the same heuristics we would use to make him play any other tactical game. It doesn't even have to be a very high-level play, since they'll be playing tangentially to the player instead of competitively.

An example of this would be the ever-popular "love triangle" in an RPG. If you have two prospective love interests, it is possible for them to understand the basics of time and interest allocation such that they can figure out who is ahead, who is behind, and how to try to score more interest from the player. They can even work together behind the scenes (not in character) to insure that whoever is behind advances as quickly as possible and whoever is ahead slows down, so there's always tension. This is opposed to how it would normally go, where the player would simply pick the one he (or she) fancies and stick with them until the end of the game.

"Moves" on this playing field could consist of a variety of techniques, from the petty (showing up every time the pair gets some time alone) to the clever (figuring out what styles the player seems to like and dressing in them) to the meta (getting the opportunity to pull the player's ass out of the fire in a combat). The idea is to be somewhat subtle: a small push from the one behind combined with a bit of a snub from the one in front can do wonders, even if those pushes and snubs are not in any kind of romantic way.

This brings me to my second point: language.

Language isn't important. In fact, language is a pain in the ass. The only time you should be concerning yourself with language is when you have NPCs that actually have to communicate concepts. For NPCs that simply have to communicate emotion, language is like using a hammer on a screw. It looks like it should work, but it just isn't the right tool.

Instead, what we want is the subtler patterns of body language and situational language, enhanced by clever use of the camera.

Body language isn't something that can be canned. As most modern engines do not support live animations, this is a technically difficult situation despite the rather small and straightforward nature of the animations. There's no need for inverse kinematics or physics, just a little bit of layered subanimations to adjust the features, the way the head moves, the cant of the shoulders and the curve of the spine. It does have to interact with the world a bit - for example, staring aimlessly off into space only makes sense if there's space in that direction to stare aimlessly off into. Those are minor factors, and aren't exactly going to strain your engine.

The subtleties of animating body language would probably be well worth it, but there are twin dangers here. Scylla is the uncanny valley: an NPC that moves "almost" right will probably be extremely unnerving. It's probably best to exaggerate and overanimate. Charybdis is the emotional levels this requires. Body language may add too much emotion into your NPCs, making your players uncomfortable. Driving the player away because the scene makes him uncomfortable is exactly the opposite of what you want!

Body language is also not the only language you need: you'll also need situational language. Unlike real life, in a game world you can simply create situations at demand. These situations can be crafted to create the kind of emotional situation you want to create, regardless of the body language of the NPCs. For example, if the heuristic decides that the strong, tough-guy character needs to be brought down a peg to be liked by the player, the heuristic can simply make the next encounter a surprise encounter where tough-guy gets the worst of it (and, of course, reacts in-character: this assumes your characters are always reacting, unlike most RPG battles where the characters simply step forward, take their action, and step back).

Situational language is our "crutch": because simple body language can't communicate concepts very well, we can use situations to gently say things that fall outside the limits of body language (such as "she's willing to sacrifice honor for fairness" or "he's willing to kill to protect you" or whatever). These are the concepts we would really like to convey through our adaptive NPCs, the concepts that make the NPCs really come alive in more than just a moment-to-moment way. And it's actually stronger to communicate them through a custom situation than through any conversation... so don't bother with language!

What do you think?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

ODST, yeah you know me

Finished playing single-player Halo 3: ODST. I don't have any particular interest in playing it competitively on-line, so I'm going to review it based on the single-player game.

Anyhow, ODST wasn't a bad game, although there were some infuriating segments. And, for some reason, it gives me a headache to play for more than an hour or so. I don't really hold that against the game, though.

What I do hold against the game is that they got rid of Master Chief only to give you someone even more faceless and banal. It's sort of like when everyone said they hated the Ewoks, so George Lucas came up with Jar Jar Binks.

I do like that they put Mal in the game, I hadn't read up on it much so I wasn't expecting it. It was quite a surprise. He gave some veneer of human touch to the story, although all the characters were well into the uncanny valley.

There are things I miss as Halo advances. I miss the troops actually mattering. I miss being part of a larger effort. I miss being able to kill shit: every episode they give everything more shields and more hit points until, at last, in ODST you simply rely on instant kill methods 90% of the time.

I understand these changes: they have to make the game better for competitive multiplayer mode. All of these adjustments are in the name of multiplayer enhancements, even if they damage the single-player game. Hell, you can't even dual-wield anymore.

Where are my one-player games going? Even Crackdown 2 is "focusing on multiplayer gameplay". Which, as far as I can tell, means crippling most of what made Crackdown fun in exchange for balancing a game I don't want to play. I want to play Crackdown. ODST is a bit similar: the single player game is neutered due to the focus on the multiplayer gameplay. A continuing evolution throughout the series.

I don't mind games that focus on multiplayer modes, but I don't like games I liked for their single-player aspect gutting the single-player aspect to enhance the multiplayer aspect. Grrr.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Castles of the Mind

Nothin' but theory.

It's obvious we can't keep scripting every aspect of our NPCs' lives. There are too many NPCs, too many subtle differences in how the player can treat them. We need to build algorithms that can reasonably drive an NPC's actions - not for all games, but for the growing number that require extremely detailed, player-driven interactions with NPCs.

We've tried to use alignments - you know, lawful good, chaotic good, lawful neutral. But these alignments were created specifically to give tabletop players a framework for making tough moral choices. If you're lawful good, you'll eventually have to choose between honor and justice. If you're lawful neutral, you'll have to decide which is better: order or peace?

These tough questions are possible because of the framework of "lawful/chaotic, good/evil", but they can only be answered by a human mind. Well, a computer could pick a pre-scripted answer (or a random one), but that's not the same at all.

Another attempt is with factions. If a character is on the magician's faction, he wants to help magicians and hinder their enemies. But this breaks down for the opposite reason that alignments do: factions are too simplistic. The pat answer of "anything the magicians do is right" is robotic and unrealistic, and the greatest source of personal strife in this environment would be a "fall from grace", where a character decides the magician's guild isn't very good, and what they decide to do about it. As with answering the questions an alignment poses, there's no way to create a meaningful answer out of this data set.

Don't even think that factions plus alignment is the answer: that just introduces two dimensions of moral choice instead of one, and no answers on either axis.

Unfortunately, to make NPCs capable of having these kinds of moral dilemmas and subtle moral choices, we have to have a much more rugged and nuanced model.

The first step is to build a graph (node graph, not bar graph) of the things the character cares about. This could be people, places, ideals, etc. This would probably need to be scripted, or created from augmented stereotypes: randomly assigning them wouldn't make much sense. This is a simple positive or negative number for each.

From this foundation we can create their opinions on other people, places, ideals, and things. Some of these would probably have defaults set up - for example, if you are for the ideal of law and order, then you probably like the town guard. If you have a father who is a town guard, you probably like the town guard.

These defaults can be over-ridden if the designer feels it would be interesting to have a different value, and of course things that are unrelated in most people's minds might be related in a given NPC's mind due to their personal experiences.

All of these values are positive or negative, and there are edges linking them back to the node(s) they spawn from.

This propagation can continue indefinitely - if you like the town guard, then you like the guy who likes the town guard - but should probably be capped to three layers.

This foundation is significantly more complex than the simpler faction model, but it allows us half of the equation we need in order to make more nuanced decisions. You like the city guard, but if you see the city guard going bad, you'll have second thoughts and perhaps even turn against them, since you only like the city guard because you like law and order. This is true even if you like the city guard a lot more than you like law and order, because even though you may not be aware of it, your liking of the city guard does, in the long run, descend from those fundamental values.

When talking about simple reactive responses, this model is not better than either of the more basic models. If the player attacks a guard, the NPC's response to the player is no different than if the NPC simply had a faction preference for the guards (or, more likely, the government, since it's always abstracted way out).

But the whole point is to pull the NPC away from simple reactive responses into having justified moral reactions. This framework allows the NPC to change their feelings over time in a meaningful manner, especially in response to the aftereffects of player intervention. If the player kills a cop, that festers in the minds of the NPCs who care... but if the cop shoots at the player in cold blood, that also festers.

It also allows them to stay cozy in their bias, because the positive reactions from positive propaganda would offset a larger amount of negative press, just due to the math involved.

Adding into this a news/rumor system, you could create a city that actually responds to events in an intelligent and emotional manner, even though they're probably stuck expressing it with canned catchphrases from a voice actor. It would also create a "disinformation" system of crooked politicians and self-centered media clowns, just like the real world. Although that's optional when you're creating the world from scratch.

However, I don't really think that's enough, because the NPCs still have no way to be proactive. This allows them to know what they think about things, and allows them to change how they think according to what they see, but it doesn't allow them to make or interpret plans.

I haven't really come up with anything solid on that side, but I have the strong idea that it involves ranking change over time and remembering causes of change. This would have the benefit of also allowing for recollection - an NPC who feels maudlin when they go to the park where they spent much of their childhood.

However, the progression doesn't work out yet.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blue Mars

Well, I'm going to rag on Blue Mars a bit. If you're a Blue Mars fan (or employee), don't take it hard, I rag on everything. I'm just one of the internet's many assholes.

I understand that Blue Mars is in early beta, but there are core design decisions that don't change, and those are what I'm going to rag on. Even if Blue Mars was fully populated and had a larger feature set, I would still find it disappointing for many reasons, all of which revolve around the idea of empowering your user base.

Blue Mars is occasionally compared to SecondLife. Usually in the form of, "Unlike SecondLife, Blue Mars does not allow content creation". It's important to realize that not only is Blue Mars technically incapable of allowing the kind of content creation SecondLife allows, it's also a corporate-mindset money guzzler with no intention of allowing ordinary users to create mediocre content, instead starting right from the get go by explicitly focusing only on well-funded teams of professional content developers. As Blue Mars will find, that is not a viable path into the future. You gotta eat your veggies before you get any dessert.

Like the other 3D chat rooms running around, Blue Mars is a game of pure luxuries, where the only thing to do is dress yourself up and cyber. Of course, Blue Mars "isn't sure" about this "adult content" thing, so it's illegal to do that. Leaving you with basically nothing to do. Oh, "the Cryengine supports advanced gameplay, so you can make good games within the context of the Blue Mars space"... my ass.

People who think that way have obviously never tried to make a game. It takes a lot of tweaking down in the guts to get a game engine - even a really good one - to respond properly. If Blue Mars is counting on the Cryengine to allow for the development of immersive games in their space, they're counting eggs that ain't ever gonna hatch. They will, however, have no problem creating samey spaces for people to extremely clumsily stagger around in. Why they decided not to use Cryengine's navigation, and instead went with a painfully nasty implementation of their own, is never really explained.

I don't think that Blue Mars is bad. I just think that there's no reason to choose it over, say, IMVU, which is easier to make content for, has more fluid animations, and you can see people's faces.

My bitterness is at least in part because I'm a Mars terraforming fanboy, and now that these berks have put their corporate thumbs into the "Blue Mars" name, it'll be decades before anyone else can make a game with that name that does the concept some justice.

No, I don't see any reason to play Blue Mars. I imagine it will do well enough, because advertising blitzes aimed at the non-geeks they're really intending to target will generally yield dividends. But as a replacement for SecondLife, it is totally not an option. And I hate SecondLife. So that's saying something.


There's just something wrong with this whole idea of commoditizing game elements. They don't even bother pretending there's any gameplay. They flat out state that it's a micropayment beast that exists solely to make you pay out the nose for any content they deem worthy. This whole thing - not just Blue Mars, but all these games - these are a huge step backwards.

When are we going to start stepping forwards again?

Monday, September 14, 2009


I'm going to start way out in theory land and then bring it back in, so bear with me. Skip to the ellipsis if you want to skip the theory crap.

This is a topic I've done before, but this is new content.

Space in games is usually used both to separate/pace challenges and to form the challenges.

This is controlled mostly by the algorithms which control the space. For example, the simplest spaces are probably in adventure/text games, which have clearly defined rooms and very basic movement control. The gameplay in such games is less about navigating the space and more about putting non-space-related things together. However, even in that sort of game, everything is couched in space. You move to rooms to try things out, and progress is measured in new rooms that you can explore.

Most games have more complex spatial algorithms which allow for correspondingly greater amounts of gameplay in the space, rather than adjunct to it. Most games are about exploring space, and most of the rest are about modifying it, but that's a false dichotomy. An RPG is mostly about exploring, while Sim City is mostly about modifying, but an FPS is both. There is no "real" difference between exploring space and modifying space, because exploring space can be thought of as modifying space such that your avatar is in a different location. Obviously, a player might not feel that way, but I'm talking about underlying algorithms and rules.

A fog of war over some terrain: are you exploring the terrain as you vanquish the fog of war, or are you modifying the terrain to not include the fog of war? It's a useless semantic question. The algorithm of the space allows the player to vanquish the fog of war. There is no need to consider whether it's exploration or modification unless you're considering player psychology.

Well, there's no fundamental difference between space that is explored and space that is modified unless you're going out of your way to create one. But what about space where the rules change? What about once you get that double jump?

There's no fundamental difference then, either. The algorithm that governs when and whether you can double jump occupies the same "logical space" as the rules governing how fast you fall, whether you can survive an enemy's gunshot, whether you are stopped by a wall, whether you can build a house, and so on. It's a complex logical space with a lot of complicated rules, most of which are inherited from earlier games in the same genre.

Many of the most memorably original games are original because of this logical space, rather than the tangential rules governing things like XP, inventory, etc. Braid and Sands of Time both included time mechanics that gave you a strong and then-unique method of navigating space: they did this partly by simply altering the mechanics of what it means to mis-jump or die. Additional rules, especially in Braid, added additional layers of spatial complexity.

Games like Shiny's Messiah or Omikron Soul give you the power to switch bodies. While this often doesn't change the mechanics of exploring space like rewinding time does, it does change where you can go and what you can do when you get there. Which is in the same logical rule space.

Even games which aren't avatar-centric, like Tetris or Guitar Hero or Bust-a-Move, still use this logical space to define the core gameplay. There's a "space" that follows specific rules, and you move forward by interacting with the space correctly.

It's clear just how far this logical space can bend. The same basic idea - the algorithms that govern interaction with space - can be used for everything from Braid to Tetris to Sim City to Quake. Tangential rules are then added to govern the progression of these algorithms and spaces. You move from stage A to stage B. You select an avatar and a map. You get a new gun. You earn a new skill.

Even in a game like Skate, where the whole game is about interacting with space, there are still tangential rules: buying new skateboards and clothes, accomplishing arbitrary tricks and times. These tangential rules are often what designers agonize over.


I prize the spatial interactions. They are usually the fundamental interactions. When a player presses "right", the immediate response is the avatar moving right inside space. This tight, deep feedback can be found in most really great games: they're really great because they enhance the experience of interacting with space. Even the RPGs we prize are largely prized not for their RPG mechanics, but for their spatial experience. How pretty? How impressive? How interesting is the space we're in? Is the narrative tightly tied to/represented by the space?

What do you remember about FF6? The characters? Do you remember why you remember the characters? Because they defined themselves with space. Kefka burned down a city, then burned the world. Each character, on their own, had representative game levels - castles, small homes, smoky gin joints, vast plains. The characters were tightly associated with the spaces that represented them.

In games where exploring space is more tightly done, this is even clearer. Can you even name a memorable action game that didn't include some extremely well-polished or unique aspect of interacting with space? If you can, you're probably not remembering the interaction. Half Life 2, for example. The interesting aspect was not the gravity gun, which was barely a curiosity, but the level design, which forced very specific pacing on to the player. Did you notice that while you were playing?

Now, with that said, has a game ever become lauded for its tangential rules?

Can you name a game where the game was famous because of its inventory wrangling? Its level-up mechanic? Its deep social interactions?

It's hard. There are so few. A few that leap to mind are experimental games, famous only because they're trying out some weird new algorithm. When it comes to real games - even indie games - those tangential rules don't seem to add much to the final product. With one exception: when the tangential rules allow you to modify the spacial rules. For example, a level editor.

Which kind of feeds back into the original point: it's all about the space, and the algorithms that control it.

I think.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Having a Point

I just finished Arkham Asylum. No spoilers, don't worry.

The thing about the game is that it got me thinking about themed games, and how the gameplay doesn't usually match the theme. For example, Arkham Asylum was a Metroid game.

But it got me thinking. If you were free to make a Batman game, no rules, no regulations, no DC dictating to you, what would you make?

I think the Arkham idea is a good one. You put it in Arkham and not only do you have a limitless supply of supervillains and freaks, you also have a chance to make your game about madness. Every story needs a point or it wallows in itself. Like Arkham Asylum does.

My first move, in making my imaginary Arkham game, would be to ditch the bat. You don't play Batman.

You play the supervillains.

I'm a big fan of replayability and deep, wide gameplay, so I would probably make it an open world (well, open-asylum) game. But there is no centralized leader. You can choose any supervillain, and play through the game in only a loosely scripted manner.

This gives us three points of strong gameplay. One is the specific gameplay of the character - and how their madness affects it. For example, Mr. Freeze and Harley Quinn would play very differently in terms of how they move, attack, and so forth. But more importantly, their psychology affects the way they can interact with the world.

Quinn's silly, childish insanities lend themselves to a kind of Tank Girl feel, tainted by her obsession with the Joker. She would be better able to interact with both supervillains and random inmates, she would play around with pianos or complicated control pads, or so forth. Mr. Freeze would be more likely to disassemble, hack, or repair the devices in Arkham, and to build up a lair. There are a lot of potential ways to do it, and it would require some prototyping to figure it out in detail.

The second point of strong gameplay is the dynamic of all of the supervillains expanding into the asylum. This can not only provide the typical deep gameplay of strategic expansion, but also the added unique flavor of negotiating with total madmen, both from a position of strength and weakness.

The third point of strong gameplay comes from the plot and arcs we can introduce. Using some moderately flexible triggers, we can create an emergent story (we could even re-use the same components in the existing Arkham game, although I don't know why we'd bother). But, more than that, we can also have their madness evolve as the game progresses.

The point of the game is exploring the dynamics of the kind of fantasy madnesses these characters suffer from.

There are many other games you could come up with for a Batman theme exploring a point. It is somewhat hard to find a point that can support a thirty-hour game, but certainly not impossible. You could even make a game exploring the oldies but goodies that Batman has explored in the past, such as the existence of a superhero causing an upward spiral of supervillains.

Perhaps you have some good ideas yourself? At the very least, I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.

If you've played Arkham Asylum, tell me whether you thought the same things about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Holistic Design

"Holistic" has a bunch of new-agey connotations I don't like, but I can't think of any other words that mean the same thing. So, before I start, this has nothing to do with holistic health or medicine or any of that, all of which I think is crap. But, of course, this may be crap too.

There's a strong duality in the mind of many game designers. A feeling that the rules and the aesthetics/narrative are two distinct entities that come together to make a game. I don't believe this. I believe they can be separated and even recombined, but it's not an ideal or "natural" practice. I've been thinking about how to show this.

Katamari Damacy. You could theoretically separate out the aesthetics and replace them with anything. Earlier I used the example of organic proteins. Which would be a pretty boring aesthetic at first glance, but let's consider it.

The idea of rolling around and sticking things to your ever-growing sticky ball can theoretically be decoupled from the fact that you're rolling over toys and squids and people and planets. But those decoupled mechanics have very little value.

Mating them up with a different aesthetic sounds like it should be simple and translate well. But any new aesthetic/narrative you define would be better served by other rules. The same fundamental mechanic might serve in both situations, but the specifics would have to be redone to make it fit with the new aesthetic.

For example, a Katamari Damacy where you roll up music notes and motes of light would certainly be possible, but it wouldn't make much sense for it to be rolling around on an open-map world with wild terrain. That would feel wrong. Instead, I'd move the Katamari to a tube-track like something from a Jeff Minter (Yak) game. The patterns created by moving forward in a spottily-floored tube give the otherwise unintriguing dots and notes an intriguing air.

Even though this is the same fundamental roll-over-stuff-and-get-bigger/bounce-off-larger-stuff, it isn't the same game. A twisty donut arrangement and much higher maximum speeds are better for this kind of aesthetic.

I could make the aesthetic the aforementioned proteins, which come in radically different sizes. Again, it would make no sense to have the same kind of world design as the original. Organic proteins are interesting because (A) they are on a radically different scale and (B) they are chemically interactive.

Perhaps a "swimming" Katamari would be the right idea, with proteins all floating around in patterns. Instead of a ball of souls, something like a squid of souls. Calamari Damacy. The camera would need to be different, obviously.

Another option might be that the level is made of the protein strands, and you race along them absorbing free electrons and sucking off atoms. That would be fun because you would change the nature of the level as you do this. For example, sucking off a hydrogen atom might result in the strand you're on fusing with a nearby strand.

The aesthetic is not separate from the gameplay. It appears that way at first glance, but it's like saying that the paint is separate from the painting, and that you could use that same paint to paint a different painting. Maybe, but the quantities would be weird and you'd be laying it down in radically different patterns.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mysteries of Scale

My mind's been stuck with the idea of little pieces of unique, touching content. I've been stuck on this ever since the failure of Spore, an unaccountable failure, a depressing failure, an idiotic failure.

One of the things that is most touching in games is when you discover something new and interesting (I call them "tidbits"). There's a lot to be said for games with deep and interesting gameplay, but there's also a lot to be said for the moment you first see a flying city or meet a particularly weird and entertaining fellow.

Well, I'm fairly confident of the basics of gameplay, but I have always had a harder time with the basics of tidbits. I like to think I'm relatively good at them, except that all my tidbits tend to be big impressive things rather than small, personal things. But unlike rules and dynamics... well, I can tell someone how well their rules are going to perform, what kinds of dynamics will result, and what they might want to think about changing. But I can't tell them how their tidbits are going to act, and suggesting new tidbits for them is hard to do without diluting their vision (assuming they have one).

I always find it fascinating when a game comes along that seems like it will let me see tidbits from other people, to learn more about how this sort of thing works. But these games always fall through. After so many games failed, I took a step back and decided to figure out why I didn't see anything I considered a tidbit in them. Why didn't I consider, say, an interesting SecondLife vehicle a tidbit? Why don't I consider a funny-looking creature in Spore a tidbit? But a six-by-six pixel blob with one line of text in a retro adventure game can feel like a tidbit!

I think it's in the framing.

I've been thinking about this. I think that if you slow way, way down, everything becomes tidbits. Because tidbits are interesting in comparison. An interesting NPC is interesting because he's weird-looking and he's got funny dialog. If there's fifty weird-looking, funny-dialog NPCs in this region, there's nothing tidbitty about any one of them. (Although the square full of weird people could be tidbitty in itself!)

I think if Spore gave up its content a hundred times slower, I think people might feel a little of a sense of wonder at the creatures and civilizations they find. At least for the first hundred or so. But because they are common as dirt, none of them are interesting except for the ones that are programmed by the game designers to stand out (the center-of-the-galaxy guys, for example). Everyone else just blends in.

Similarly, in SecondLife, if you take it very slowly and consider each thing you find, then every other thing suddenly takes on life as a tidbit. If you look closely and slowly, everything that has been hand-crafted has some little tingle of tidbittiness.

I don't think that these are ideal tidbits in either case. I'm simply saying that you can have player content result in the same kind of emotional response you can get from developer-scripted content. It just requires a radical reworking of the game's pacing.

And the game doesn't even have to be slow. It just has to reveal different kinds of things at different times. You can be jumping across platforms, shooting at aliens, and all that... when you encounter some new NPC. The NPC will be interesting because NPCs have been made very rare.

There's all sorts of theories I have as to how to punch up the tidbitty nature of things - how to make them more interesting to the player. But I haven't tested any of them yet, so they're just smoke.

However, the speed of reveal has been tested and can easily be tested. Just play a game with large amounts of player content, such as Spore or Secondlife. Then play to restrict yourself. Don't play to win: play to see the world, but only one new object every minute.

It makes the games even more boring than they already are, but you can feel the little twinge that you get from seeing something new and interesting.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you have any opinions?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fairy Tale Games

The problem with fairy tales is that classic fairy tales are structured very badly for statistical gameplay. They are, flatly, adventure games. Albeit generally ones that are long on narration and short on puzzles. They aren't RPGs.

Now some modern fairy tales have been created which either have plenty of statistical play or, at least, can be easily adapted into games that have statistical play. Prime examples of this include Quest for Glory (a computer game) and Thieves and Kings (a comic/illustrated story). There are plenty of others.

These systems do pretty well at one- or perhaps two-character statistical play. But they are extremely difficult to adapt into four, five, ten, a thousand character play. They still have the memory of the original fairy tale structure, and therefore they always orbit a Hero, and anyone else he or she meets is likely to just be an Accomplice or Background Flavor. A good example of this are the classic Tolkien novels, with their scads of characters, only three or four of which are even worth remembering the names of. Think of this back before the movies came out, not since.

There are systems where many characters - five, six, even seven - can all get along well enough and do cool things in a statistical setting. As far as I can tell, these were all pioneered by the dark and sinister crossover of WWII wargames and WWII fantasy novels Tolkien's books. Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk.

Fundamentally, they took all the elements of war stories and mixed them with fairy tales to come up with a statistical variety. Magicians have a different way of playing than warriors than thieves than elves than... well, you get the idea.

By introducing this highly varied statistical system, these games allowed players to all play together as a functioning team, each player having different capabilities which are more or less useful in various situations and don't require a main hero that dwarfs the other members of the party. (Although early balancing being what it was, this often happened anyway.)

If you notice, this is what the Lord of the Rings movies adopted to distinguish the ten billion minor characters those books contained. While seeing exactly how an elf or dwarf fights as opposed to a human has no particular story merit, it looks cool and is very well known. So now we can remember Legolas as The Elf That Surfs Wooden Planks Down Stairs While Firing Fistfuls Of Arrows And Looking Intense. Before the movies, we would remember him as, "Oh, was there an elf in that party? Yeah, I guess there was." Not that there's any real story difference between those two memories, because Legolas, along with just about everyone else, is there only to serve as background noise until their single plot event.

But there is a gameplay difference.

This gameplay difference is extremely good at allowing for small parties like this, and is the backbone of nearly every modern RPG, both tabletop and computer. How large and diverse your parties can be depends almost entirely on how distinguishable your characters are from each other statistically. So some games, like Disgaea, allow you to have many characters in any given battle and dozens of characters in your roster. They do this because their statistical play is so complex and nuanced that there is an almost infinite variation available. Of course, they are also almost unapproachably complex to many gamers for the same reason, so there's a tradeoff.

MMORPGs have a fun time of this, too, trying to balance variation with complexity and... uh... balance.

Anyhow, that's all getting off the track. These statistical variations are a trick to make you able to have more than just one or two main characters like old games and fairy tales. However, they make it difficult to tell a fairy tale.

FFVI (FF3 as it was called when I played it) gives us a good example of an approach that might help. Like many other games of its time, it had many characters, but it took a somewhat unusual stance that you might remember: the party got split up and you had to play through their story segments separately. This isn't unique to FFVI, but FFVI is the game I bet everyone's played.

This method requires the same diversity of stats to keep play fresh, but by creating multiple independent sub-fairy-tales it gets around the hopelessly dreary march from A to B that most of these games have. Of course, this solution is probably not ideal, as it does involve quite literally making multiple games. It also doesn't adapt well to tabletop games.

Radical diversity of gameplay is another option. This is when the various character classes have SUCH different capabilities that they are essentially playing a different game. This is a subject all its own, but it doesn't work very well in tabletop games due to the way it pulls the GM apart.

A few theoretical methods I've come up with - some of which I've used to a bit of success, some still untested - might be worth mentioning.

One is the Worldbuilder method. In this method, the game is not about dungeon crawling (although there is plenty of it): it's about worldbuilding. For example, players might build or obtain a castle, they might recover or enchant a magic sword, or discover a long-lost spell, or open up a cave full of obedient golems... and, of course, the Enemy might do all of those same things.

In this case the players probably start statistically fairly similar to each other - somewhat distinct, but not tremendously. As they proceed, they define themselves by what they have (and where they are). Someone with a magic crystal sword will have statistical characteristics that revolve around it, while the same character with their own castle will have different characteristics (such as guards). The very act of defining and obtaining these things can also set side quests in motion, allowing for loosely connected MMO plots.

The basic play results in kind of a magic-the-gathering sort of feel, but it also results in an a very fairy-tale feel as well. These games tend to be fairly short - five or six sessions each - but they lend themselves well to multiple games played consecutively in the same world.

The best method I've found for allowing this kind of variation is to allow players to generate two fairy tale elements out of components, and then the GM chooses his favorite for the Enemy. If the players choose to contest it and try to obtain it before the Enemy does, then they have a tough fight ahead of them and the Enemy gets the second object instantly.

Of course, it's not just defining and obtaining components, because these things need to wrap back in on themselves, but you get the basic idea.

Another method of doing fairy-tale games without being simple fantasy games is to use less character-centric play. If the players don't play individual characters but instead play, say, concepts, then the players can use the characters like chess pieces to build the game into a meaningful and deep story.

This is also not a new idea, although it's still fairly rare. It's extremely rare to give the players an actual goal, too: most of these systems simply use a bidding system to make players form conflicts. That doesn't give players enough of a goal for me, so I strongly recommend giving players a concept or moral-of-the-story or something that they can strive for that isn't directly related to in-game assets. IE, don't make them want to revive a kingdom or save a princess. Those are character goals. Player goals would be more like "show crime doesn't pay" or "you get a point for every round of a duel (2-character fight)".

Can you think of any other methods to make fairy-tale-like games? Have you ever used any of these methods, or played in a fairy-tale-like game?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PC Madness

I'd like to talk about madness in live games (both tabletop and LARP). And fortunately, not only do I want to talk about it, but someone asked me to. So I don't feel too silly.

In most games, insanity comes in one of two ways. Either statistical or freeform.

Freeform insanities are the most common. That's when you just take a trait like "paranoid" and play it however seems reasonable. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, and good players can do it well. However, it does have two draw backs. The first is that many players won't do it well, and the second is that it doesn't have a strong connection to the game world, which means it may interfere with rather than help the gameplay.

Statistical insanity is used by games that "specialize" in insanity in a desperate attempt to wedge insanity into the core gameplay. The biggest example is the Cthulhu game, and the other Cthulhu game, and that other Cthulhu game, you know the one. I suppose we could mention this Cthulhu game too, and that one if we feel a bit mad.

This legislated statistical insanity allows for the rules to dictate an insane reaction. For example, you might be forced to run in fear, or gibber for 2d10 turns, or whatever. They also give the GM a clear indicator if he wants to play unreliable narrator. Low-sanity characters can see things in an unusual manner or, if the GM is a poor GM, see random crap, whatever he pulls from the hat.

Statistical sanity is also often linked to other game performance. For example, you might have to have a certain minimum or maximum sanity to perform a certain spell.

I do not like either of these approaches. The first has no structure to serve as a foundation for a game, and the second is a good foundation but is not terribly good at actually making the players feel their characters are insane.

I've experimented with character insanity in many ways. It's not an easy thing to work into a game properly, which is probably why nobody does. I have not discovered a way to base a game entirely on madness. It either makes it impossible for the players to act coherently OR it requires a huge amount of GM effort.

But I have figured out how to integrate madness into many other kinds of games.

Let me show you how I do it.

The basic idea is simple: reward the players for being insane.

The specifics are more complicated than that, so let me explain a bit more.

In Bastard Jedi, madness was a big part of the game. However, it was couched in such a way that I don't think any of the players figured out until several weeks into the game that they were going insane. Or even that it was possible.

The mechanic was very simple. Everyone had a few emotional axes, such as humility vs arrogance and harmony vs anger. They have a score in that axis, such as a +2 or a -1. At any time, they can act suitably whatever and receive a number of extra dice equal to their rating. So someone with a -1 anger could gain a die by acting harmonious or lose a die by acting angry.

Very simple, and an obvious, clear path to falling and rising, right?

Nnnnnnno, not really. The mechanics are simple, but the resulting dynamic has several layers because it screws with the player's head a bit. As a clear example, after a player has gotten used to relying on being humble when they need a few dice, you find something fascinating: the player character has developed a rather serious self-esteem problem. Even when the player doesn't need dice, he's in the habit of being humble, legitimized by the idea that he has to be "ready" to pull the humble out at any moment.

Humility... that's a light side trait, though, right?

No, I never said that. You can fall to humility. I don't know if you noticed, but you just did.

This "lead-in" trick works exceptionally well and on all kinds of players. Even shy or socially inept players have an easy enough time bending the short distance required to express a simple emotion, and it becomes second nature remarkably fast. Lead-ins aren't suitable for one-shots, but for anything that runs over a few months, the technique can be used at will. The players will happily wander into full-blown insanity without any explicit help from you, without even a list of insanities.

Depending on the situation, the players may instead draw BACK from full-blown insanity. But they know it's there, and that immerses them very deeply in both their character and the game world.

I can't guarantee its efficacy for other GMs, but it's always worked spectacularly for me, and I'm a fairly "hands off" GM.


The other method I've used with somewhat less success (but still more than Cthulhu or Cthulhu. Or even Cthulhu!) is the sanity tradeoff.

For example, if you get superpowers, you get insanities to go with them.

The key to this is that your insanity is directly entangled with your superpower, either as an obvious social result or as a psychological source of power. This means you need a wider variety of subtler insanities. There's no Axis of Insanity where you randomly roll to see if you're gibbering or running in terror this round.

For example, if you gain the ability of flight, then you can take one of two insanities. One is that you can't fly unless you are feeling a specific emotion, such as detachment or panic. (One of them, not either of them.) In this situation, the insanity powers your ability.

"That's not insanity!"

Ssssshhh... you don't start insane. You go insane.

The other option is to have an insanity that is a clear result of the ability to fly - the social result. For example, feeling "above it all". This is also not an insanity, it's just being snooty. While the insanity-powered ability is mandated by the need to fly, the ability-result insanity has to have a different mechanic. I generally use "active tokens". When I think the player is acting his mental difficulties out, I give him the token. When I think he isn't, I take it away. As long as he has the token, he can use the ability. This works okay with 3-4 players, but some other method is almost certainly possible, and it could certainly use some refinement.

The player characters are rapidly (depending on your timescale) given additional abilities either powered by the same insanity or resulting in the same insanity. Unfortunately, it also means that the player has to go further into the mindset.

What was once powered by a simple feeling of detachment is now much more powerful but must be powered by a feeling of profound isolation and uncaring. It becomes necessary to actually do acts that show how detached you are. In the beginning you might have refused to give a beggar change. Now you must sweep past him without even seeing him. Your friends want your help? Well, if you turn them down, you'll be able to use your power for the rest of the day...

Any otherwise normal (if slightly peculiar) mental states can be blown up into full-blown insanity if you let the players grow into it.

This method seems less efficient, but I haven't given it nearly as much polish or playtesting, so take it for what it's worth.


Notice that in both methods I never give explicit instructions. There is no "you must run around screaming now", no "oh, you see a giant purple iguana flying around your head". I just let the players take things to an insane extreme. You might think this limits the kinds of insanities you'll end up with, but that's not the case. Players are quite creative and will usually come up with much more convincing insanities than your rule book.

Basically, my philosophy is that true insanity comes from within.

Have any of you used these techniques? I've used them in games large and small, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Mechanics that Change the Game

The mechanics of the game fundamentally change how it is played, and what kind of flavor the game has. A lot of people seem to forget this, and they instead think about how to tweak the parameters of familiar mechanics to give the proper feel. For example, I've seen people try to run horror-themed D&D games, and I've seen people try to run lighthearted, slapstick Shadowrun games.

I've also seen this in computer games, where old techniques are recycled into a very different kind of game, and it doesn't usually end well. At least computer games have the excuse that making a new set of mechanics is actually difficult. There's no excuse for using the same mechanics over and over in tabletop games, unless your only point is to be as familiar as possible to the players.

There are a wide variety of relatively simple rule changes you might want to think about making to give your games different flavors. These are suggesting with tabletop games in mind, but they can be adapted to anything.

Replacing the Randomizer

Most new designers of tabletop games are happy to simply change the number of sides on the dice you roll. After all, rolling a bunch of d10s is quite different from rolling a bunch of d6s, right? And what if you have to roll a bunch of DIFFERENT kinds of dice? Whoa, it's like a breakthrough.

Well, you can make dice feel different, especially if you throw in exploding dice or pattern matching results (pairs are worth more, or rolling three sixes kills you, or whatever). Dice are also easy to calculate if you run that way: you can easily determine the precise chances of things happening if you know how many dice they have and what their target is.

But there are lots of ways to replace the randomizer. There are two basic categories: replacing the random function and offsetting the random function. Replacing the random function is just a matter of choosing a different method of randomization. Most are interchangeable with dice to a large extent, but some are not. For example, if you use cards, then the cards drawn from the deck cannot be redrawn, so it is possible to count the cards, modify which cards are put into the deck, and other things that "stack" the deck to your (or your players') preference.

My preferred method is to offset the randomizing function, by which I mean that the randomness is controlled by the players. For example, if the players are each given five cards that they look at and can play on any conflict, then it is up to the players to choose which cards they will use up when. Add in trading cards and character-specific pattern recognition, and trading cards becomes a major element of the game.

There are lots of other methods, such as allowing players to bid on dice, or spend points to reroll/redraw, or using tokens rather than dice with both sides revealing their "bids" at the same time. All of these reduce the amount of actual randomness by granting the player some level of control. All of them also make a significant part of the gameplay about figuring out the best tactics. If you are careful, you can craft your offset rules to guide the players into a particular mindset.

For example, in one of my Bastard Jedi games, I used the aforementioned card-based system, including all the trading and pattern matching. One thing I did on top of that was give out cards that had red backs as well as the normal, blue-backed cards. These were "rewards" for doing dark-side things, or were channeled from the local dark side miasma. Choosing when and how to use dark side cards was one of the three or four methods I used to make the dark side both more attractive and less clear-cut.

Stat Arcs

Another big deal if you're trying to make a game feel a certain way is to create stat arcs. This is a system whereby a stat will trend in a particular direction for a particular reason. One example of this is the insanity mechanic in most cthulu games. Another example is any game where you actively spend stats to do things, and can only rarely regain them. Other examples might include dwindling batteries, fame (as a useful stat), and equipment that degrades with use.

It's possible to do positive stat arcs, too, although somewhat more difficult.

Stat arcs are only valuable if the player is given the option of either proceeding along the arc or doing something else. Dwindling batteries dwindle a lot faster when you fire your laser cannons, so it's up to the player: fire the laser cannons, or find another way out of the situation. Obviously, if one choice or the other is clearly the better choice, it's not really a choice at all. If you can either fire your laser cannons or just wish them to death with your brain, you'll never even hesitate.


Somewhat related to stat arcs and sometimes embedded in them is the idea of tradeoffs. This is rare in most modern games, because they have a continuous "upwards and onwards" feeling. However, tradeoffs can really make a game interesting.

For example, I ran a game where you could be radically enhanced, but each enhancement saddled you with more insanity. This led to an interesting situation where players had to weigh how insane they could afford to be (really insane, not the easy insanity most games feature). Obviously, the radical enhancements weren't the only source of gameplay power, or there would have been little in the way of choice. Instead, both equipment and skills played a roll. Just... less efficiently.

There are lots of examples of this in every non-game arena. Sacrifice to get your job done. Even comics have "with great power de blah blah". The closest a game comes is making it so that if you choose the good path instead of the evil path you don't receive the extraneous, useless power-ups for at least another ten minutes.

Cut and Choose

I like this method because it's not very nice. I find that most of the best methods are not very nice.

Using a cut-and-choose mechanic relies on some kind of bidding system where a player will say "either this or this". For example, "I stab him with the sword and he dies OR he stabs me with the sword and I'm badly wounded."

Obviously, whoever is doing the choosing (it's always someone else) will choose whichever appeals to them most. It's not really much of a choice unless they like the other guy, too. But it can be designed with a better set of choices.

The best way I've found to do this is to do a reflect. That is, once the player gives the basic options, the GM (or other adversary) attaches price tags of some kind to each choice. Whichever one the player picks, he pays for, and whichever one is left over, the adversary pays for.

So the adversary might say, "killing the enemy will cost you five karma, but getting maimed is free". Now, if the player chooses to kill the enemy, the adversary is up five karma (or, perhaps, the karma vanishes). If the player chooses to get injured, then the adversary is the one who pays.

The cut-and-choose method does require an adversarial relationship, as it's extremely easy to work together to derail the system otherwise. This is usually best done by making it a zero sum game of some manner. That way, even if they collude, the colluder will quickly run out of resources.

Anyhow, all of these methods can be used as primary or secondary resolution mechanics that dramatically change the flavor of the game. Have you ever used them? Can you think of any others?

There are a lot of specifically interplayer mechanics I want to talk about, but that'll have to wait.