Monday, June 29, 2009


I bought Overlord II and I'm playing it. I do have an in depth review in the wings, but because I'm not far enough along yet, I'd instead like to talk about another interesting topic: cultural believability.

Overlord II has you play a rather villainous character, portrayed as really quite evil. In the ads you are sitting on a throne, draped in women who apparently don't care that your armor is spiked. It sets the mood, you see: you're a kind of self-indulgent, spoiled-rotten evildoer.

I can understand the restraints placed upon the game, of course. Allowing players to be evil up to real evil standards wouldn't just get it rated AO: it would be banned from nearly every country and certainly no store would willingly carry it. So you can't torture people, put them on spikes, render them for fat, or any of the truly vile things humans customarily do when they get a taste of power. There aren't even any children in the game, aside from the intro level.

I can live with that. Frankly, I wouldn't be able to play such a game, because I'm NOT evil. I can't even play Dark Jedi in the various Jedi games. I play a remarkably kind and generous evil overlord.

But there are some in-game elements where you are SUCH a pansy. Gameplay elements, not scripted events. And I don't get it. It's immersion-breaking for me.

For example, you can dominate the minds of peasants and they'll follow you around and generally be helpful. However, when you've got more than, say, two, they really get in the way. Pushing past them is a slow process, with the peasant backing up about an inch at a time - assuming there isn't anything for a few yards behind him (or her). It gets so bad that I've had to KILL them just to push by.

Why, exactly, is my ten-foot-tall armored behemoth with glowy eyes participating in this farce? Is there some reason he doesn't simply fling them ten feet away when he runs into them?

There are a lot of these kinds of details, where your badass dude is a badass dud. This is simply the most... tactically irritating one.

Another example is your women. It's true that you have multiple mistresses in this game, but you are a serial monogamist. Similarly, they aren't even window dressing: they just walk around and occasionally make a neutral noise. They don't even LOUNGE properly, let alone hang off you or be, you know, mistressy. In game terms, there's absolutely no difference between how they act and how J Random Goblin acts.

To make the matter worse, they don't let you really just drop the issue. At every turn they talk about your mistresses, your potential mistresses, and decorating your not-so-private chambers. It's roughly the same noise level as collecting stars in Mario Galaxy. Except that the stars are more interactive.

It seems strange to me: you're portrayed as a badass, everyone talks about you as if you're a badass, but you can't ever do anything even vaguely evil, save for stabbing villagers if you really feel inclined. I can stab villagers in Oblivion as well: who cares?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More on 3D Printing

I really do love the concept of 3D printing, but I also have a problem with it. A 3D printer is a powerful tool which serves no purpose. The idea that this machine can print any basic shape (or even a circuitboard) is really cool, but people don't have much need for printing any basic shape or circuitboard.

There is a miscellany of things that they might want to print, sure. Coat hangers. An iphone case. Maybe a set of allen wrenches. But being able to print them in your basement is not of greater utility than being able to drive down to the hardware shop and buy them there, usually at roughly the same price as manufacturing it in your basement, and without the hassle of a complicated machine.

Now I think 3D printers are probably going to really take off, because my whining sounds an awful lot like people suspecting that nobody would ever want a computer in their home. I think that, following that curve, we can expect that all geeks will have a 3D printer in 20 years, and most everyone else in another 15 after that. But what will cause the 3D printer to become popular?

It won't be its ability to print itself. That's little more than a cute gimmick as long as we have the ability to buy parts on line. It won't be its ability to print random pieces of plastic, because it's pretty rare that someone wants a different-shaped plastic widget each day.

There's some kind of breakthrough application. I can think of a few things it might be. The ability to print wifi points, for example. Or the ability to print solar-thermal panels and pipes. But it'll still be a while before someone invents Visicalc for the 3D printer.

What's your opinion?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The BBC Doesn't Get It

The BBC has an article on Twitter which is embarrassingly unresearched.

Not in the facts they present, which are okay, but in the way they present them, as if the fact that few users make the majority of the content is somehow unusual, or a bad thing.

Hey, how about you freakin' research ANY other social networking site? Flickr is the same way. Facebook is the same way. Secondlife is the same way. Every forum - INCLUDING THE BBC FORUM - is the same way.

"Bill Heil" has evidently said that on a normal social network, the top 10% only account for 30% of the content. Bill Heil is wrong. Or, more accurately, Bill Heil is probably talking about a theoretical physical social network. Which is the same as being wrong, especially when the BBC lumps it in as if it's some kind of valid comparison. "Apples have two dozen seeds. Why, that's far more seeds than most other fruits, especially when we posit that a rock is a kind of fruit!"

I don't really like saying that someone is wrong. It might come back and bite me on the ass. But in this case, I doubt it. Bill's just about to graduate with his masters in business, and he doesn't have any papers on line, just a fluffy article on the Harvard business blog with some thoroughly unconvincing graphs. Including one with a line labeled "A social network". Presumably, that's the theoretical social network the BBC was confused by? Being shown as if it's an actual data set, no less. Even if it were labeled more precisely, I would still call bullshit.

Now there are differences between Twitter and, say, any given existing social network site like MySpace. But these differences are matters of a few percent. There is no social networking site which I'm aware of that disobeys this classic percentage of top 10% creating 90% of the content. That's The Dynamic. That's How Things Are. Even in meatspace social networks such as the PTA or a church, they still follow that 10%-90% dynamic.

A lot of time is spent by some developers trying to increase the amount that the lower 90% creates, but in doing so, they empower the upper 10% to create correspondingly more.

I really fucking hate it when someone tries to misrepresent the situation. I don't know whether Bill misrepresented it on purpose or not, but the BBC - which has developed a NOXIOUSLY bad technology section in the past decade - certainly ran with the ball. Ugh.


Monday, June 08, 2009


So, I've thought more about the essay I posted last night. You remember (if you read it), the one that kind of ended in a puddle of loose threads.

I got to thinking about it a bit more, and it became clear that all games are obstructionist when it comes to how players get to explore all the interesting things they can do over the course of the game.

The dynamics the player wants to explore grow from both the rules and the narrative structure, but there is really no difference between the idea of "rules" and "narrative structure". The two have to be taken as a whole and the designer's eye has to take in the overall dynamics that are created. There isn't even a difference, when we zoom out this far, between generative play such as Sim City and strict linear play like Gears of War. The end result is a complex terrain to explore, and whether the terrain was created by someone hand-digging every hollow or by someone just grabbing and shaking really hard is irrelevant. It's also, at this scale, irrelevant whether the mountains and valleys of this terrain are even all known to the developer.

Because all that matters, at the moment, is that the players are exploring those mountains and valleys.

Now, when a game thinks about how to guide the player on their journey, it tends to think obstructionist. That is, the game gates and doles out content at a speed far slower than the player would personally choose if given the cheat codes. This serves a few purposes, and those purposes are the real focus of this essay.

One purpose is to make sure that the player explores a variety of hills and valleys rather than jumping right to whatever his interest is. For example, the steady doling out of parts in Nuts & Bolts means that most players are going to become familiar with each part, rather than simply jumping to what they think their favorite parts will be and never giving a second thought to the others. This can be thought of as encouraging the player to explore various nearby valleys to the one he would normally notice.

Doling is different from pathing. Pathing is when the game requires you to do things in a certain way in order to force you to experience specific hills and valleys that the designers thought were the most interesting. This is usually done with scripted plot elements, both in terms of each dungeon being carefully designed and in terms of the actual cutscenes. Remember that cutscenes are just gameplay you aren't allowed to interfere with. Pathing can be severely restrictive like that, but it can also be gentle and subtle through level design or even more subtle means. It can be thought of as asking the player to explore hills and valleys unrelated to the ones they would normally notice.

Both doling and pathing are different from scattering. Scattering is when the game makes sure that you have to explore multiple hills and valleys simultaneously. An obvious example of this is the Sims franchise, in which it is impossible to focus your exploration on one thing, and you are regularly required to turn your focus to other matters - frequently very boring matters.

There's a difference between scattering as a hindrance and scattering as a means of pathing. There is no interesting hill or valley in the Sims when it comes to going to the bathroom. It exists primarily to make your time management more difficult.

On the other hand, scattering has been used well in many games, and is especially prevalent in RPGs where your experience is pockmarked by rapid oscillation between exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, getting loot, tweaking stats, running around towns, tweaking expenditures, and healing. All of these have some interesting terrain to explore, and they serve their purpose very well. It's mixed in with pathing to a large extent, but pathing involves player choice, and many of these mode-switches do not involve player choice.

There's a lot more to say on this matter, such as discussing patterns and pacing of exploration, but this is enough for today.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 07, 2009


I'm playing Sims 3 (yes, legally). The Sims and I have a strange relationship, in that I loved the first games for about 30 hours and then couldn't ever stand them again. It looks like Sims 3 is much the same, although I may get 50-60 hours out of it.

Now, honestly, that's hardly a bad hours-entertained-to-price ratio. Cheaper than a movie. Cheaper than renting a movie. But at the end of those hours, I'm always left unsatisfied and irritated that I spent so much time playing such a shallow game.

Another interesting thing is that I can't play any Sims game at all unless I cheat. "Time management" is a central theme to the game and, frankly, I hate that stuff. I hate doing it in real life, I hate doing it in fake life. What I want to do is spend as much time as I want to on whatever it is I'm doing. If I'm fishing, I want to fish until I've mastered it. If I'm collecting rocks, I want to keep collecting rocks. If I'm trying to conquer the world, I don't want to be distracted by the pathetic need to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom, the needs that consume the Sims literally every hour of every day. Heck, it takes fifteen minutes just to walk up some stairs and knock on a door.

So I really like some parts of the Sims. Basically, I'm an edge tester. That means I don't much care for the day jobs, which progress at whatever rate they want, but instead I prefer the odd side jobs you can do, like writer, or stargazer, or rock collector. Or, ultimately, gardening, which not only gives you an insane amount of money but also lets go grow cool things like life fruit and steaks.

I'm always an edge tester, but its rare that I encounter a game so dedicated to torturing me when I try to explore those edges. Most games with edges either dole them out tiny snippets at a time (meaning I have to play the game to test the edges) or don't interfere with my edge testing at all. The Sims is the only game I know of where the active barrier between you and accomplishing all the stuff you want to accomplish is your never-ending need for bathroom breaks.

I understand that it's the foundation of The Sims. I just find it really irritating.

Also, somewhat comedically, while the Sims 3 radically enhanced the customizability of the characters, they enhanced it just to the point where I can't stand not having it go further. For example, you now have two scales of build rather than just one. However, why do that? Why not just give you sliders for every element of the body, like you do for the face?

Similarly, they let you customize the patterns and colors on your clothes... but just to the level where you wish they would let you customize more. Why can't I layer patterns, add decals, etc? Why are all the clothes (and, unforgivably, hair) static shapes instead of allowing me to adjust lengths and cuts?

Yes, yes, I know, that sort of thing is pricey to implement. But, to me, going halfway in these sorts of things is worse than not going at all. It peaks your interest just enough to make you irritable, like a man dying of thirst who sees another man, a dune away, squirting water in his general direction.

Anyway, the play of the game is very interesting: it offers ten thousand edges to explore, and then proceeds to be very irritating while you try to explore them.

And, for some reason, the faces are ugly as hell. Especially teenagers.

Have you played it yet? Do you explore edges like I do?

What do you think of the new goals system? I think one of the big problems I have with this type of game is that there is no sense of closure to tell you when you're done, but there's not enough depth to keep going forever. I haven't thought about the specifics enough to write an essay on the matter, but what are your opinions?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Simple Units, Complex Games

Something got me thinking about unit diversity earlier today. Now, years ago I wrote about it, but it's long gone, so let me write a bit more about it now.

Basically, in my mind, there are two approaches to distinguishing units from each other. Tactical and strategic.

A tactical change is when units have the same fundamental abilities but in different magnitudes. For example, a tank and infantry can both move, attack, be hit, be seen by the enemy, cost money to build, etc. A tank probably moves further, attacks harder, takes more damage, costs more, and so forth. These are just grades of abilities.

A strategic change is when a unit has a fundamentally different ability. Not a different grade of ability, but something that changes how the battle works. For example, the infantry might be the only unit that can take buildings, or the tank might be limited only to roads.

Strategic changes can be relatively minor or extremely critical. If the mission requires you to take buildings, the infantry ability to take buildings is a keystone of your strategy. On the other hand, it's very easy to have a game where such an ability is just a curiosity.

Both changes require balancing of very different sorts, but the flavor of the game also needs balancing. Games with diverse units need to be careful to limit the density of the units, to keep things from getting overly difficult and complex.

There are a lot of ways to do this. One way is to limit what units are available/useful in any given scenario. This can be done by fiat if the GM has strategic control - just don't assign the units. However, it can also be made a function of the situation itself. For example, if there is a cloaking space ship that is only useful in a nebula, then the ship is not a useful strategic choice in any other situations. It's possible that the nebula ship is otherwise a relatively normal unit whose only significant, unique tactical consideration is whether to keep it safe for future missions that might be in nebula.

Another method to reduce complexity is to have some units that vary tactically but have the same strategic capacities, and other units that have very similar tactical considerations but very different strategic capabilities. This is not suitable for all games, though, as it produces a very specific kind of feel.

Aside from those considerations, balancing them can be quite difficult and is beyond the scope of this essay. However, there are some basic tactical and strategic variations that are common, and I might as well list a few of them.

Some tactical variations: damage, range, area of effect, percent hit, side effects of strike, armor, health, dodge capability, speed, terrain passable, fuel/mana, scan range, visibility, secondary attacks or special abilities that have tactical value such as grenades or lock-on.

Some strategic variations: long-range scanning, repair/medical, capture of units/objects, resurrection, science or intelligence, leadership, flight if nothing else can fly, construction of roads, units, or buildings.

There are some variations that kind of fall between: snipers, missile barrages, sprint, entrenchment, regeneration, tracking, assassination, hiding, etc.

What abilities can you think of?