Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Outer Ring


So, I'm the only person on the planet who doesn't much like Spelunky. I've actually gotten requests for a post about Spelunky. Since I don't often get requests, I guess I should probably, you know, listen.

Spelunky obviously isn't a bad game. But I'm ambivalent while a huge number of my friends and game-designer-sorts like it quite a lot. So... why don't I like it? It's not that it's too hard, or outside my area of expertise, or anything like that. It's just... not compelling to me.

There are only a few games that I don't like that everyone else does. It's not a matter of genres, either. It's something else.

For example, I don't like GTA. And I don't much like Rock Band. Obviously not bad games, and I'm not bad at them for the amount of time I've spent on them. But... just in no way compelling. Playing dress-the-rock-star was the most compelling part of Rock Band to me.

I've thought about it, and I think I know what connects every single one of the games I don't like and everyone else does.


If you've been reading me for a while, you're familiar with the idea of nested gameplay loops. The idea is that the innermost loop is your control over the character, then there's a loop for your character interacting with the level, and a loop for the level interacting with the plot and so on and so forth.

It's an easy way to look at game design, especially if you want to think in terms of giving the player the most juicy agency. It's never as clear-cut as the demo makes it sound, though, because it's less of gameplay loops and more of a gameplay whirlpool: there's no clear divisions between one loop and another, and each loop drags and urges on the others in a way more like water than like a clockwork engine.

But, anyway, what's missing in the games I'm not fond of is an outermost ring. Or, rather, there is an outermost ring, but it spins freely, uninterestingly.

In GTA, doing whatever you want on the city map is clearly the main thrust of the game. Stealing cars, shooting people... hiring hookers... stealing cars... um... shooting people... it's clearly the major point of simulation.

But that outermost ring just spins. It has no texture. Stealing cars and shooting people has no long-term effect at all, and the short-term effects are painfully predictable and shallow.

Now, obviously, there are missions and a plot. And, to be honest, I might like the game if I focused on them instead of screwing around with the city. But the city is the point of densest simulation. So obviously that's where my attention falls. If the game was structured a bit differently - for example, if the city play was less open - I would probably actually like the game better because the outer ring would be the plot events rather than the city's emergent response my crime sprees.

Rock Band is the same way. The outer loop just spins. To me there is no feeling of texture in trying to get good scores on certain songs. The feeling of mastery isn't terribly important to me. Rock Band does have a "band" mode, which is a more textured outer loop than its predecessors, but the band mode is still a very limited, very boring play loop and it holds no lasting interest for me.

That doesn't make these games bad by any stretch. But I can't think of many games I like where the outer loop is so flat!

Spelunky is the same way. Everyone else is admiring the textures of the inner rings. But I can't get over the fact that there's no real point to it. The next randomly generated level offers nothing new, no kind of interesting progression, aside from the occasional introduction of a new tile set or a nastier version of an older enemy.

The outer ring basically just spins, it has no texture, no bumpiness, no interesting pattern.


This can be contrasted with games that I like and everyone else hates, by the way.

For example, I really like the Wii game "Ghost Squad". It's a rails shooter that is maybe two hours long at longest. It has only three stages.

Every time you play through it, you not only unlock new features, you also unlock new pieces of the level for next time you play through. In this case, the inner play loops are not terribly amazing (and quite short), but there is an additional outer play loop above and beyond what other games offer.


So that's my reasoning. Do you see what I mean? What are your opinions?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Extending the Human Mind

Yeah, this one's all futurism. Try to ignore the political tone if it grates on you. It's not the central theme, it's just setting the stage.

Today I was not listening to the inauguration. To be specific, it wasn't that I simply wasn't listening, it was that I didn't want to listen. Political speeches are, by their very nature, almost completely devoid of anything resembling meaning. I didn't want to hear the speech and definitely didn't want to weather the teeth-grittingly obvious televangelist-adapted speaking techniques. Memetic infection vectors, if you want to be suitably super-nerdy.

But I was interested in understanding what the speech meant and, perhaps more importantly, how people were reacting to it. So I watched the Twittering. I got my piecemeal analysis of the speech. And then, just to verify, I read a transcription and verified that, in fact, the analysis was correct.

There were some parts I cared about. Not a fan of letting an ancient death cult with a coat of paint determine my future, still not much actual separation of church and state going on there. But his paragraph about science was most promising. If he means it.

But the speech was more or less unimportant. The Twitter feed was more important. Because those people are pretty good indicators of the pulse of the nation, and I'm hoping are pretty good predictors of future trends.

For example, after he said "and non-believers", virtually every post for thirty seconds was about how great it was that he gave "us" a "shout out". We'll politely ignore the paragraphs where he talks about following god's will and being guided by scripture, since that sort of crap is mandatory for US politicians and we are easily quieted by table scraps. But it means that, at least for a while, the nonbelievers - who outnumber the American Jewish and Muslim contingents combined - are going to be very happy with our new president. That's probably not an analysis you'll see much in more mainstream news sources, and it's not something you could get just from reading the speech.

The point is that the analysis was more important than the content. So instead of doing the analysis myself, I allowed thousands of people to do the analysis and then picked out the best bits I could find. Open source analysis, I guess.

Things come to light when you do this. Correlations and details not in the actual event but brought up in the analysis. Trends that may predict future political activities... for example, based on the Twitters I saw, I would predict that African aid is going to be an extremely low priority in the upcoming four years. I'm not saying that because I've analyzed the variables or made any logical connections, I'm saying it because it was the only part of his speech that I didn't see one Twitter about. It's possible they were just lost in the staggering number of posts, but it's statistically unlikely that there were very many.

But it's possible. There were a staggering number of posts. They might have been out of synch with my rabid refresh-clicking. What I would have preferred to do is to read all the twitters, but as they were coming at roughly 100/second, that wasn't going to happen.

What I really needed, you see, was an analysis of the Twitter posts in the same way that the Twitter posts were an analysis of the speech. With the goal of reducing the posts down to a reasonable number, either by displaying only the most trend-representative posts or by simply describing the trends in the posts.

Humans couldn't do it: even if we put ten thousand more people on analyzing the first ten thousand people's posts, there's too many posts, too quickly. It requires software.

A software agent. A piece of personal software that reads all the Twitter posts and tells me what to think about them.

... what? ...

"Wait! You want software to think for you?"

Well, DUH. There's a lot of information analysis scut-work. I don't have time to keep up with all the information, even if I wanted to. It's going to require us to outsource our thinking, to create a layer of abstraction between us and the original data.

Of course, I'm not interested in letting just any old program do my thinking for me. It has to be software that I can trust and that I can dive into and make sure it really is thinking like me. I'm not going to buy "MS Brain Replacement", but I might get "Neuralinux" or whatever. Properly understood and under my control, this software would be able to parse the high-volume information streams, understanding what my personal values are. It would also be able to leverage other infomorphs' analysis: for trend analysis, for saving computation, and for trusted analysis on restricted information.

This method of extending the human mind has been talked about a lot in the more futuristic segment of geekhood. Some people talk about outrigger brains that will directly interface with our own, but at least in the forseeable future, it's more likely to be this kind of software agent. I can see, looking further ahead, that the line would become blurred - where our mind ends and the software begins. I don't see that as a problem, as long as our software is our software.

After all, we trust our cars. We trust airplanes. We trust our banks. We do a lot of trusting of external agencies, and these agencies radically enhance our capabilities. Our brain is no different, except that we're only now starting to take hold of the reins. Until recently, we've been forced to trust news agencies, politicians, and other rather questionable sources of analysis. But connectivity works in our favor: our personal software agents will be able to "see" a huge number of sources and get millions of opinions.

I look forward to it, personally.

I look forward to being in the voting booth and seeing names I don't recognize. Pull up my infomorph. It tells me what I think of their politics, their scandals, and so on. No reason to blind-vote or go the party line.

I look forward to posting an essay like this one and suddenly getting a rash of highly educated specialists poking holes in it.

I look forward to the capabilities I can't even imagine.

How about you?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Landscaping for Nonlinear Play

I thought I'd bring up this idea and see if it holds up in the light.

I'm a big fan of strategy games, especially strategy RPGs, but the most fun I have is when I can conquer the world in the order I choose. This is actually pretty rare: you could do it in Dune, in one of the Dynasty Warriors, Brigandine, and a few other games, but overall it's very, very rare to be given a map and told to get to it.

It's not the same as a space-conquest game like Masters of Orion! I'm not talking about a game where the main complexity is in the landscape. I'm talking about a game where the main complexity is in the game part, and the landscape simply gives you... an outer play loop. Control over your vector. You play the main game because of your strategic choices, rather than the strategic choices being the main game. And these games are rare.

I can understand that to some extent. While it's not particularly difficult to program, it does make the game flow hard to control. That means both difficulty balancing and difficulty making meaningful plot arcs. So these games tend to have a wonky, unbalanced feel at times, and they never have a plot more complex than "oh, hey, you're the new king of the world!"

Well, let's think about how we could potentially overcome those problems and give our players as meaningful a plot experience as in any linear game.


One method would be to divorce the plot from the strategic game. Brigandine does this to some extent: the various knights often have plot arcs which progress regardless of your tactical choices, although they sometimes halt until you accomplish a major strategic victory such as destroying a specific kingdom.

This is a simple idea where there are linear plots tossed into the nonlinear game, and they progress pretty much independently of the nonlinear part. This is simple, but it isn't very tightly connected to the choices the player makes, so I'm not a big fan of leaving it like this.

There are a few kinds of events we can use as "anchors" or "linchpins" for the character arcs instead of having them simply progress linearly. A few are obvious: taking or losing specific zones, killing or acquiring specific heroes, finding specific unique items, etc. However, perhaps the more interesting ones are ones which are not linked to unique game events but are instead linked to general game events.

For example, if your character arc goes one way if you're on the main team most of the time, or another way if you're usually relegated to the back. How about if it changes based on whether you're badly injured in combat, or after you make a certain number of kills? A certain number of consecutive victories or losses? And, of course, whether your buddy is on the same team as you most of the time, and whether your buddy gets injured.

Now the difficulty is the large amount of scripting required per character. It would be very difficult to script up the usual two-dozen cast, because each character would have dozens of pages of branching script!

You could use some of the cheap tricks I tend to use, such as making it so no characters actually speak at any point. That cuts the amount of work by about 90%. But, of course, how to make it interesting and comprehendable without dialog?

Another choice would be to try to create "landscaped" characters instead of scripted characters. This is basically just writing the main dialog sequences, then writing much more generic "connective" sequences (often not even character-unique) to allow the player to get from one scripted event to the next via any valid means.

Your savings won't be nearly as much, but you'll get a lot more nonlinearity for the same amount of effort.

As an example, you could write the love interest scene. But to reach the scene, maybe the player visits a romantic spot with her. Or maybe he gets critically injured in combat. Or maybe he rescues her from certain doom in combat. Or maybe he does something unspeakably nice. All of these things are nonunique, and the point is that the player can progress through the characters' arcs without adhering to a script.

Basically, we're abstracting out most of the linchpin/anchor events.


I guess that's it.

I'm done!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hello Digital Paper!

I've seen a lot of chatter about digital paper. And I'm excited. I'm easily excited about newfangled technologies.

But people are really freakin' dumb. They're talking about how nice it will be to hang it on the wall instead of having a TV, which is just the least appropriate use ever. Slightly more valid, they talk about how nice it will be that laptops will be so much lighter...

Um, yeah, it would be a perfectly valid use to make laptops lighter. If there were going to be any laptops.

But, sorry folks, digital paper actually kills the laptop. There will be no laptops once digital paper is perfected.

There are only two reasons to have a laptop instead of a PDA. 1) better hardware. 2) better IO (bigger monitor/keyboard).

GGGGggggguess what?

Digital paper solves the second one flat out. When you can roll (or even better, fold) your screen into arbitrarily smaller sizes, the idea that you'll carry it around in a laptop-sized case is stupid. You'll carry it around in an ipod-sized case. More likely, you'll carry it around as a bracelet/watch which has basic functionality when on your wrist and is a full touch-sensitive screen when it is unfolded to its full square foot of glory. (That should be read in a Strongbad voice. "UNFOLDED TO ITS FULL SQUARE FOOT OF GLORY!")

Digital paper doesn't have any computation built into it, at least not in the forseeable future, but that doesn't mean that you'll want a laptop-shaped device to provide for serious hardware. There are many other shapes that are at least as good, including the idea of several small, wearable devices that contain specialized computation and network. Any way you run it, "laptop" isn't going to be there for you. We'll probably come up with a new name for it, like "black boxes" or "minicomputers" or something. "Weenies", if you buy the Nintendo version. They won't have screens, they won't have keyboards, they won't have speakers.

Laptops are going to be killed, but don't worry: nobody will miss them. Just unfold your watch, prop it up with the microframe, and get to work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DRM yay

This is kind of silly.

I stumbled across this DECE thing: digital entertainment content ecosystem. Read: a push to make all hardware DRM compliant. Read: a push to make everyone re-flash their hardware to use linux.

I've been meaning to write another DRM-related post for quite some time, so I guess now will do.

I am not worried about DECE. I am never worried about any DRM attempt.

My whole life revolves around this new information age: I am a creature of information. My work is taking, twisting, and showing information. My hobbies are all related to information gathering and wrangling. The least information-intensive thing I do with my time is read books.

That's how it's going. More and more people are becoming creatures of information.

To us - and to the hundred million children now growing into this information age - the DRM attempts are somewhere between hilarious and depressing. If they do bite us, we dismantle them within a week and continue doing things as we've always done. And, yes, that means piracy. The children of information are pirates, all of them.

Buuuut, the other day I was on the other side of the continent. My cousin wanted to listen to a DVD's audio on her new iPod. So I tried to help her out. I couldn't get it to work: the copy protection stopped me cold, and short of installing a variety of tools, it wasn't coming off the DVD.

When I got home, I looked it up. I can torrent the thing unprotected in whatever quality I prefer. Zero pain. If I had been the one wanting to listen to it, it never would have even occurred to me that there might be DRM. And at no point would I have encountered it as it made its march to my MP3 player. Legally, of course.

DRM doesn't work. We're not complaining that it doesn't work in some kind of cunning attempt to get the fat cats to stop getting in our way. We really aren't affected. Literally the only people who are affected are the actual customers. I don't even notice DRM any more. Doesn't matter how strict, how high-priced, how official... anything I want, from high-end circuit design software to the latest song by my favorite band, is available for free, not that I would ever take advantage of that omnipresent fact. Even flatly illegal information is easy to find.

Now, what do I think of that?

You hear a lot of talk about how bad it is for "the industry". And, despite their hilariously inflated figures, I reckon that's true. I reckon pirates are actually destroying the personal software industry. That's not really something I would consider good.

On the other hand, it's not something DRM can solve. Period.


DRM can't fix it.

Specifically, I don't think anything can fix it, because history shows that this same trend happens whenever there's a rise in technology. You can't really stop it.

So, bad or good, the industry is going to have to adapt.

And that doesn't mean getting better DRM. It doesn't mean legislating. These things cannot even slow the tide. We're getting exponentially more capable - anything you think of today, no matter how airtight, we'll punch holes in it by next Tuesday.

Welcome to the future. It can be a little bit chilly at times.

But tell you what, we children of information promise to make it up to you. In exchange for utterly ruining your industries, we'll give you some new industries. How about advanced space travel, radically improved health care, and ecosystem integration for starters?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tactical Crazy!

I recently picked up Rondo of Swords, a DS game. (maybe originally PS2? Feels like it.) It's a tactical RPG, one of my favorite game genres. But it's SO WEIRD.

I mean, it's completely normal and average in every way. Except... you don't attack and defend. Instead, you move through people. It counts as attacking them. And you can move through any number of people, as long as you end in an empty tile. So the classic "warriors in front to protect the wizards" doesn't work: the enemy just sprints through them. Instead, the dominant "formation" is a knot of people at the edge of the enemy's movement range, followed by a rapid scattering as you close.

The amount of difference this rule makes is mind-blowing. It's actually infuriating at times, because it goes directly against my long-honed instincts forged in the fires of the thousands of other tactical RPGs I've played, all of which use the typical "close and clench" tactic rather than the... I have no idea what to call it. The tactic this game uses.

But it got me thinking. It's enough of a shakeup to be really interesting, at least in theory. (In practice, I seem to suck at it...)

So it made me wonder: what other perversions of typical gameplay could you do? Pick an old, standard genre that's so inelastic that just saying the genre immediately tells you everything about the game. Tactical RPG is one such type. What changes could you make to completely change the way they work?

Here's an example: in FPS games, the standard is shooting at enemies at various ranges while moving through the level. How can you shake that up? Without, you know, turning it into a platformer. How can you use the same fundamental controls, but come up with a radically different dynamic?

Or how about a platformer? You know, without turning it into a shooter. What changes can you make that aren't already in Braid?

I think these questions are important to ask, because just when I feel like all the options have been explored, I pick up a game which is exactly the same but completely different: FPS games where you have a camera, not a gun. Platformers where moving left or right makes time move forward or backwards. RPGs where you don't play an angsty teenager.

Any ideas? Any fond memories? What do you think?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Leaf Ninja Village

Okay, a while back I bought and played the Naruto game for the 360. I'm probably the only non-fanboy who bought it, certainly the only one who beat it, but I think it may be the absolute best "design teaching" game I've ever seen. Since it's usually available in discount bins, I would suggest you pick it up and play it if you have some time.

This is not an endorsement of the game per se, since it is unplayably bad at parts and extraordinarily dull at others. But it has the clearest good and bad points of any game I've ever played. There are no mysteries behind the design, no muddy parts, it's very clear what the pressures on them were, why they chose to do X or Y, and what the final result is in terms of gameplay and audience approval.

I'm going to give the example I like best: the Leaf Ninja City. You spend a lot of time in the city, although all of the plot and interesting stuff actually happens outside the city. The city is just there for you to run around in.

And it is hands down the best multi-tier revisitable level design I have ever seen.

In the beginning, you run around the city in the streets. You get some coins, painstakingly scramble up onto a few roofs, find a few stores, and get a few people to hate you slightly less. Of special note is that the city is extremely immersive in its way: it's quite pretty and packed chock-full of people who will call out to you as you go by. It also fits the IP well, as Naruto is widely disliked in the city at game start (people will call out rather nasty things), but as you do little side quests they come to like you.

It's all well and good, but not particularly awesome.

Then you start getting additional ninja powers. I don't remember what order you get them in, but you gain double-jump, sprint, and wall climb. The city never changes, but you flawlessly - utterly flawlessly - find that it is far more interesting to navigate. You aren't finding new "areas", like in Metroid: you're literally just a bit higher up than you were before, running along a different path.

If you want an example of how to design a "home" level that will change over the course of the game while always being the same, this is probably the best example you'll ever find. By the end of the game, you and your city have grown very close. It's actually quite good.

Of course, there are still a lot of weaknesses, probably due to the target audience. The city is full of random side quests, but they are all particularly boring and repetitive. There are very few places that make you stop and say, "wow!", which is a requirement for any exploration-based game. Oh, and the rest of the game is really irritating.

But if you're looking for a game to learn from, this is probably the right choice. In terms of revisitable multi-tier levels, it even beats out Crackdown, which has always been one of my major examples.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Community via Augmented Reality

I just deleted the first 90% of this essay, which was a long essay on why community is important. Let's just pick up from "community is important" and...

The big-city non-community we've created is largely due to the sheer size of our communities. When you see the same people every day, you'll probably get to know them okay. But when you go downtown, there are thousands of people milling around, and they're different every day, every hour, every minute. They're all either going somewhere or doing something, and you can't really get to know them even if you want to.

With that said, let's assume augmented reality. Actually, let's assume brutally limited augmented reality. Let's assume that our augmented reality consists only of audio from our iPhone (or other 3G device). No video, no added devices, just sound, either to a headset or not.

Everyone playing this little game builds a sound for themselves - not a specific song, but a basic progression and instrument. When they are near to another person playing the game, that person's phone synthesizes their progression into a song, combining it with any other virtual sounds nearby. The strength and prevalence of the progression is based on your proximity to them. So if you're inside, and people playing the game are walking around on the street, the song you hear has haunting little "improv" bits with their progressions. If you're sitting next to people, you hear their sounds combining into a coherent song.

So picture this. You're sitting on the bus, and you hear a beautiful song. You're still quite big-city American, so you look around a bit to try to figure out who it could possibly be, but you don't approach anyone. You big coward.

The next day, you hear the song again.

And the next.

That person isn't unaware of you, either: they are hearing your song. Day after day.

You hear the song walking down the street... it's obviously that girl over there with the jacket, you've seen her on the bus every time. What do you do?

Sheesh, it's giving you every opportunity to connect to someone. You'd have to be an idiot not to talk to them.

Moreover, as you get used to hearing people's songs, you'll start to get an idea of who people are the instant you hear their song. If someone's got a Mozart-like sound, they are a very different kind of person from someone with a Beastie Boys sound. You can also get the feeling as to who it is by triangulating and playing "hot/cold" like when you were a kid. It's probably that guy looking around for you.

Standing in line at the coffee shop, you hear a new song. Smile and wave, maybe push some buttons to change your song around a bit, do a little interactive songwriting...

This is possible with the utter lowest grade of augmented reality. This technology is available right now, and affordable to the majority of people living in big cities. In fact, many of them already have a compatible device.

Could be interesting, don't you think?