Friday, July 31, 2009


(This is a parody of "Hallelujah" with the lyrics bastardized into a song about the discovery of pulsars. I woke up and it was in my head, so I wrote it down. Hope you enjoy it.)

I heard there was a secret star
that pulsed clear beats from afar,
But you don't really care for physics, do you?
It went like this, every second and a third,
A pulse that could clearly be heard,
Baffling and delighting with little green men!

Little green men! Little green men.

It was clear to most that the distant tone
Was long distance from an alien phone
But some math came in and stabbed right through you
You read it in your kitchen chair,
You checked that math in your underwear,
And every breath you drew was little green men!

Little green men.

Well, maybe deep in outer space
Is a suitably little green alien race
But ignoring the facts just isn't in you.
It's not a cry we heard at night,
It's not somebody's distant light,
And it's so cold and lonely without little green men.

Little green men. Little green men. Little green men.
Little greeeee-eee-eee-eee--eeeeeen men.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Raph Koster found something interesting. A few people are touching up their screenshots. I'm sure this is most useful for the in-game advertisements, such as selling underwear or mecha or whatever.

It never really occurred to me that the same techniques used on real actors and models would be used on avatars. It makes sense, but it never occurred to me. I'd like to stretch this to its illogical conclusion.

Actresses and models are employed specifically as faces for metareality. Movies, underwear sales, etc. It's a given, when you think about it, that avatars in games will develop the same way. I imagine that once the uniqueness of the avatars starts to approach the uniqueness of a nation's population, the diversity will result in a similar diversity of jobs. So it's only natural that avatars will be employed specifically as (created specifically for) metagame stuff.

I'm trying to imagine the other rather unusual jobs that will crop up that have nothing to do with actually playing the game. I also like thinking about the differences that these roles will have from the real-people version...

What do you think?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Data Infrastructure

Not game related

Recently I've been thinking about data infrastructure. Like your house has pipes and wires and vents, individuals are extending themselves using a data infrastructure that allows them to wrangle important data while offloading the boring, fiddly part.

Anyone reading this has a significant data infrastructure. We have vast stockpiles of sessions, cookies, login names, emails, and so forth. While these seem like passive storehouses of data, the truth is that programs are constantly accessing those storehouses and applying that data. While we may not personally use the infrastructure, it's there.

Working with systems that produce vast amounts of data is my day job, and in those situations the data infrastructure is much more significant. 99% of the data that is pumped into the database will never be seen by a human, but it is piped through an infrastructure and transformed into human-useful form through complex transforms.

This sort of data infrastructure is going to get more and more common as individuals start realizing that they want to monitor vast amounts of data without needing to manhandle all of it. For example, how many more years will it be before many people have a health monitor that scans their body's overall health on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute basis? Simply looking down and seeing the present situation is useful, but to really be useful it has to have a history of data on you and the ability to determine what kind of changes mean what kind of things.

Not just health data: I can think of literally dozens of things that could pump data into our "data bloodstream". Power production and use. City contamination or health. Whereabouts of your friends and what instant-community events are around. Data trade on solving evolutionary programming problems. Or maybe that last one's just me.

The point is that we'll be developing more and more autonomous computing systems just to support the kind of monitoring we want to do. Figuratively, we're expanding our senses and memories to new areas.

I think its safe to say that many of the things we do manually today will be done automatically tomorrow. Like choosing backgrounds for your computer screens, or skipping boring tweets, or looking for interesting news.I even think we'll probably see a new kind of programming language which is far smarter about determining what you want to accomplish and the best way to accomplish it.

Not just data will be wrangled, though. I imagine that in a decade or two, when I walk into a coffee shop, my computer will figure out exactly how much caffeine I need and what other additives I'll want in my espresso... and order it for me.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Exploring Culture through Games

I've always had a fascination with teaching games (or learning games, or educational games, whatever you want to call them). Mostly I'm fascinated by them because they are terrible, and it's very interesting to think about how to design a better one.

Over the years I've come up with a lot of techniques that may or may not help, but one thing that's been more and more clear is that simply teaching science (or math, or whatever) isn't really a viable goal. Not only does it have to be anchored in some way to something that the player cares about, but it should also be taught in a context that makes it clear what the ramifications are.

For example, simply teaching about electrical current is possible. You could even make it a fairly fun puzzle game. But half of the amazingness of electric current is that we wired the planet with it. The whole planet, pretty much. The changes electricity have wrought on society are at least as important and probably more interesting than the way electricity actually works.

So lately I've been thinking about teaching games that teach something while being deeply rooted in some kind of cultural or social context. I like the idea of teaching science and technology, so that's naturally where my thoughts go. There's a lot to be learned by the cultures and contexts as well as just by the explanatory bits.

In fact, culture is largely driven by the available technology, and it's not hard to imagine games which not only educate about a technology, but also about its effect on a culture.

Here's a fun example: cell phones. Imagine a game set in a somewhat idealized Africa. (All games are set in idealized settings, although often ideal for violence.) Your "special power" is not that you are a wizard or a superhero or a car thief, but in that you have a cell phone.

Sound boring? Now, now, imagine for a second.

The primary power of a cell phone is to let you communicate with someone who is far away. This is a superpower to a destitute villager who doesn't have access to a cell phone. Instead of carting their goods to the nearest city and trying to sell them just to whomever is standing around, you can arrange for a buyer to be there, waiting, ready to pay an exact amount of cash.

If there is family far away, you can keep up with them and mitigate risks by supporting those who fall on harder times. If there is a disease or injury, you can call a doctor. If someone is lost, you can organize a search team. And, if you have web access, you can even do ridiculously insane things like get micro-loans from America or learn how to build a windmill generator.

The power difference between you and a random villager without access to a phone is roughly equivalent to the difference between a random fantasy villager and the legendary heroes you play. However, there is one very important difference: in the cell phone game, your power is proportional to the number of people who share it. You can only call people who have access to phones, after all.

The focus of the game becomes on integrating into your society. Both integrating yourself and integrating this new technology.

I think that sounds like an interesting game. And you'd certainly learn how cell phones work.


It's also possible to make games which span generations of technology rather than being about introducing a single paradigm-changing technology. For example, we could make a game about audio recordings, taking it from marks-on-paper to records to tapes to CDs to files to file sharing...

If each stage is as much about the culture arising around these developments as it is about the development itself, the game can be made much deeper and more interesting. For example, you could play a musician and his children/reincarnations/whatever. Struggling to succeed in each era, using what technology is available.

Moreover, it's possible to use this same idea to push into the future and show reasonable reflections of what technologies may cause to happen to culture. The nature of integrating players into the culture means you'll have to at least think about a plausible result, which is more than most people bother doing. Even if your cultural predictions are incorrect, it's still better than not predicting anything.

For example, you could make a game about the culture arising from widely available chemical fabricators, or AR gear, or rising sea water, or whatever you want.

Most people who do something similar use it as an excuse to revert culture. World War III destroys civilization and mankind reverts to tribal barbarism... that's hardly the sort of thing I'm talking about. The idea here is to be educational both about how whatever it is works and about the effects whatever it is have.

A smarmy global warming game where you try to deal with the aftereffects of rising sea water accomplishes nothing. You might as well make a game of pong in which your enemy's paddle is the height of the whole screen. The gameplay must also involve (in this example) play involving the same dynamics that cause the rise in sea water. IE, play will have to allow players to adjust the Earth's weather patterns.

Otherwise you're just being preachy and boring.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Uniques Economies

I've been thinking about game economics, specifically in massively multiplayer games. They suffer from a host of problems, but the situation gets infinitely more confusing and muddy if you begin to talk about large numbers of unique items, like we will certainly see in the relatively near future.

The whole point of MMORPG economics is that everything is fungible. That is, there is no difference between this gold piece and that gold piece, and there is no difference between this Codpiece of Flugorth and the other Codpiece of Flugorth. Demand varies, of course. Over time, space, and between items, demand varies wildly. Today the Codpiece of Flugorth is worth 10,000 gold, tomorrow only 150. When combined with the various other bits of Flugorth, the price becomes ten times that of the pieces individually, because they form a set, but even that set can be considered perfectly identical and interchangeable with other sets of the same components.

This interchangeability is the cornerstone of MMORPG economics, both the good and bad elements. However, it can't last. As time marches on, more and more massively multiplayer games are going to feature more and more customized content. Even if they take the cheap route and allow for only small amounts of customization on top of solid fundamental blueprints, that small customization will change the value in chaotic ways. Even just letting you die your gear various colors will make the price vary wildly, often with the expensive variants costing more than double the cheap variants.

With true variation between objects you can end up with something more like SecondLife. One detail worth noting is that SecondLife allows for very easy mass production, however, so it is possible for many people to have the exact same product. To a large extent this focuses and centralizes the production of goods so that many of the people in SecondLife own the same sets of goods, even though there are technically an unlimited number of unique variations they could use instead.

However, SecondLife's economy is not suitable for other massively multiplayer games (and is arguably not suitable for SecondLife), so their method of mass production and weekly dole isn't one that should be adopted willy-nilly. I personally would prefer to think of a system where all the players tended to create uniques, rather than a few players creating uniques and everyone else buying them.

In such a system, the economics would be very different and would need to be carefully planned. For example, what purpose is there behind trading? Are some uniques flat-out better than others (IE a unique wooden sword versus a unique flaming sword of badassium)?

An economy of uniqueness seems to require a few rather unusual attributes in the rest of the game.

First, there seems to be a need for an unlimited number of "slots". If someone can only equip one weapon, one hat, one suit, then there are only so many unique things they'll want. They may end up with ten or fifteen hats, if they're obsessive, but they'll usually only wear one of perhaps two favorites. To encourage people to gather uniques, it is important that a large number of uniques be simultaneously viable for play without sorting through them every time.

One example of this would be a wardrobe that the character would automatically dress from, picking random (perhaps themed or otherwise fashionable complements) pieces. This would allow you to see a variety of uniques over time, meaning that none of your uniques get forgotten in the back of some closet somewhere.

However, this is only one step in the right general direction. You're still limited by the number of clothes your character can wear. equally important is increasing the number of slots. For example, your players may want to collect houses, NPCs, dance moves, poetry - things we can't even think of. It's important to allow this to (A) exist in multitudes during gameplay and (B) vary such that no uniques get lost in the closet.

Once this basis is set up, we can talk about the actual economy of uniques. Without this kind of revolving, wide-spectrum use, an economy of uniques would simply be a stilted and clumsy normal economy.

One aspect of any economy is how difficult it is to manufacture wealth. Most MMORPGs have various means of manufacturing wealth, but the biggest is through killing monsters. This automatically scales with your level, meaning that you generate much more wealth if you are higher level and killing nastier monsters.

A uniques economy could have the same basic philosophy - perhaps the components of the uniques are collected from the corpses of monsters - but it doesn't really fit the needs very well. The reason for the monster farming is to create a treadmill, but when uniques get involved there are a lot of other ways to suck down player time, and level-based treadmills should be easy to play down without losing players.

A uniques economy could also have the opposite philosophy, where you can build anything you want whenever you want, like in SecondLife. A newbie can theoretically build anything that an experienced player can. However, this also has problems, largely in the proliferation of non-unique uniques (I call them "hello world" uniques).

A middle ground can be reached by allowing users to literally grow their content. Real-world time is spent while their character manufactures or tends a given product. The next iteration(s) of the product naturally descend from that, allowing the users to tweak their products to their own desires, rather than programming them from the ground up.

This middle ground has a lot of advantages, but the biggest is that the amount of uniqueness between player content will be much, much higher. Even just a few days in, newbies will have manufactured suitably unique newbie gear. After a few months, two players will have developed such radically different equipment that trade becomes useful. Crossing two "lines" of unique content could also be fun...

This method of growing content does result in a huge number of "spares", so you need to take some pains to eliminate them. This can be done through making things wear out, or through making them break when you descend from them, or from selling them to NPCs, or any number of other means. However, at some point some players will be producing literally hundreds of times more stuff than they can use, and this is a serious threat to the economy because they will flood the market.

Therefore two things must happen. One is that those players should have some recourse for all their spares (perhaps donating them for prestige). The second is that there must be a difficulty in marketing. It must be hard for a player to mass market goods (or even give goods away to many people).

There are a lot of ways of doing these things, but thiey all have ramifications on the overall nature of the economy. For example, if it is difficult to mass market goods, then the economy is hugely fragmented, which will result in a large number of players who specialize in moving goods from one fragment to another. These brokers will probably use out-of-game channels to organize and, in time, they will flat-out replace your implemented market with third-party market(s) that unite the fragments into one, more smoothly-operating economy. You can inhibit them to some extent, but doing much inhibiting will make the players angry.

It is still important to prevent an in-game smorgasborg of uniques, though. Players routinely encountering lists of hundreds or thousands of unique items will cause problems with swamping. There are various means of dealing with this, too, such as a central market that randomly segments, or having players rigidly separated into shards.

These are some of the difficulties a uniques economy will cause, I think. But I also think it's inevitable. How about you?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Das Uberscripten

I've been playing Ghostbusters the videogame. The only little problem with the game is that it's bad.

The issue here is that the game manages to be less than the sum of its parts. It has all the pieces of a really great game but, like Doom 3, manages to put them together into a very tepid experience.

In part this is detail work, like the fact that their mouth animations aren't turned up enough and the fact that their AI is so bad it makes me cringe even now. But mostly the problem is that the game is overscripted.

Overscripted games are becoming more and more common. These are games where the developers obviously intended to make a movie, but accidentally put in some interactivity. Every step is carefully scripted. You will fight N enemies in Y configuration, then A and B will talk to you, and you need to pull lever C to fight M enemies in Z configuration.

This is adventure game mechanics. And there's nothing wrong with adventure games, except for the small fact that their mechanics are the reason they died. Today's adventure games carefully support their adventure game mechanics with a heavy dose of Other Stuff, and even then they still don't reach mass approval.

The most terrible thing about Ghostbusters is that it really could have been excellent. All the pieces are there. Great atmosphere, interesting weapons and enemies, some really cool Mario Sunshine elements, quality voice acting, and really memorable characters. All combined with a world-class IP.

But its like world-class IP means death. There are so many things that went wrong with this, all of them involving overscripting.

Why was I playing a new kid? The whole point of Winston was that he was the window character. Why do we need a new one, exactly?

Why does it have to be linear? Is there any reason I can't get a dozen hot spots around the city and choose which mission to do when?

And why - WHY - isn't there a secondary gameplay element? You can't have a horror game without a secondary gameplay element, the pacing doesn't work out. Some games use puzzles (there are "puzzles" in Ghostbusters, but I wouldn't call them that), but in this case I can think of dozens of other secondary gameplay elements I would have liked. For example, helping Igon with his science or Ray with his research. Or how about ghost-dueling with the other Ghostbusters using trapped ghosts? Or how about some slice-of-life KOTOR crap with the other Ghostbusters and the HQ? Hell, even a political minigame to try to mitigate negative press.

Endless stomping through dungeons doing overly scripted fight followed by overly scripted cut scene and repeat over and over... that's just not going to cut it.

Have you played it? What do you think?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Content Shearing

As some people have pointed out, one of the major factors in using user-generated content is the difference between casual users who might only play a few hours per week and the hardcore users who might play as much as they work.

If just tossed into the mix, the hardcore players will generate literally thousands of times more content than the casual players can get through, and this can easily result in the casual players getting "lost" because every time they log in, the world has grown and changed significantly. On the other hand, limiting the change speed to their level bores the hardcore players.

This problem is also the basis for "mudflation", where high-end items and gameplay become middle-end items and gameplay, so each new release has to include more powerful content, increased level caps, and so forth.

I call this overall situation "content shearing". One part of the game is pushed very rapidly, the other is pushed slowly. If not handled carefully, this can result in "fractures" in the content, where casual players and hardcore players literally have no connection to each other. The content and gameplay they use are completely separated, even if the hardcore player is playing through the same levels as the casual player. In some situations, this shearing can actually tear the slow content apart, rendering the game almost completely unplayable to the casual player. As an example, see Eve Online. It's possible for the fast content to get torn apart instead, which may be the case in some relatively short-lived MMORPGs.

Right now the industry standard way to cope with content shearing is to box the content into distinct packages, essentially pre-fracturing it. This is done by gating content and segregating players. (Player segregation is a subtle thing, but primarily revolves around the idea of "guilds" or other tight groups of people who have few connections to other groups of people.)

However, gating the content to prevent shearing will only work for so long, and has some serious drawbacks, such as a huge limitation on the amount of player-generated content that can be used. So it's worth looking into some other methods that will allow hardcore and casual players to play the same game without tearing it apart.

One method is to shackle the fast players to prevent them from grinding through too fast. Some games do this by having a maximum cap on your capabilities, and hardcore players have to degrade some of their existing capabilities to learn a new ability. Other games do this by limiting turns per day, or by reducing the amount of XP gained after a few hours of play. However, these methods all share the same problem: they are telling someone to play your game less. They are actively recommending that hardcore players stop being hardcore players.

That's just silly. "Play our game, but not very much!" Yeah, great message.

There are other methods to handle this shearing. One is to use gated content, but make the gating part of the gameplay instead of something carefully controlled by the developers. In this way, you can get players to gate their own content. An example of this is in giving every character their own little chunk of town, and they can strongly affect their own bit of town. However, unless two players manually connect their regions with a street, the two areas do not affect each other very much. A casual player will find that his world hasn't changed much, or if it has changed, it's because of someone he explicitly gave permission to.

This kind of gating is more character-centric rather than level-centric or area-centric, but other variants are certainly possible, far more than I've thought of.

Another method is to pull the slow players up to the fast players instead of pulling the fast players down to the slow players. This is possible to do if you assume the characters don't stop living their lives when you log off. Casual players who log in after spending the workweek actually workweeking find a quick summary of the things their character did to keep up with the world, and perhaps what current event he's focusing on today.

This "catch-up" method requires a more carefully segmented play experience, however. In modern MMORPGs, if you tell someone you'll hunt 105,519,477,149,000 wolves for them and take a week off, when you log back in he'll still be waiting for you to grind through the quest. That's not feasible with this "catch-up" system, because in a week the situation will have changed, and being anchored in wolf-killing will make you boringly obsolete at best. Instead, each login should be thought of as its own unique episode(s) which, when you log off, finish out. If you do agree to hunt wolves and then log out, when you log back in you shouldn't be hunting wolves any more. Either the quest is off or your character did all the hunting while you were gone.

The "catch-up" method is especially handy for people who come back after long delays, as they can be reintroduced to their character and their world seamlessly, without the need for going through the tutorial again or jumping blindly into a role they've forgotten all about.

The last method I can think of is to think of content as a spinning disk. Content near the center moves more slowly and in tighter circles, while content near the rim moves at breakneck speed. Obviously, hardcore players play out at the rim, while casual players will be near the center.

The key here is that you can draw a line from the casual player to the hardcore player, and even though the hardcore player is going around faster, the line never "breaks" or "shears". The idea is to make content that stretches, such that one piece of the content can benefit from the load of thousands of slow-moving players while the other side benefits from being pushed along by a few hotshots.

This is even more suitable when you take into account the idea of players specializing in different jobs, because a hardcore player is only hardcore in one or two play styles. He's casual in all others. For example, if he's a hero, he'll be hardcore at exploring new areas, gathering teams for raids, and so on. But he's casual in terms of potions, real estate, politics, and so forth. So "flexible" chains should serve his needs in every respect without ever "breaking" and confusing him.

An example of this kind of system is in SecondLife, where a few hardcore players build the majority of the content, and then all the players casually ingest the content. In this case, content is created at the fast outer edge and "falls" downward into the casual edge. SecondLife is notoriously bad at the middle of that chain, though, as people who are kind-of good at creating content or who are good but newbies tend to have no traction on either side of the system, which is certainly not optimal.

It's also possible to have content that "rises" to the outside: casual players creating content that the heavyweights have to deal with. I can't think of a major MMORPG where this is the case, but I can think of half a dozen ways of doing it right off the top of my head, so it's not impossible.

There may also be ways of making these chains where content can't be thought of in terms of rising or falling, although I can't htink of any off the top of my head.

Some care must be taken that the falling or rising content doesn't move the chain much, because if the chain starts sliding around, we once again have problems with shearing and fracturing...

What do you think?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Empty Worlds with Infinite Content

There is a bit of a movement towards player generated content. One undercurrent is the idea of leaving almost everything in the hands of the player. The biggest example of this is Secondlife, but there are others. Eve Online and Dwarf Fortress are NOT examples of this.

It has become clear that there are some holes in the "everything by the player" philosophy, but it is also clear that the "everything by the designer" philosophy hasn't got much juice left in it. So the question is not "is player content a good idea" but "how do we make the most of player content".

Let's talk about foundations.

In Secondlife of old, you were pretty much allowed to build whatever. You used fundamental shapes, colored them, textured them, scripted them... you could build anything from wearable wings to huge castles to automated war robots. However, the barrier was high. Higher than most people think.

Creating content was difficult, sure, but more than that, there was no structure on which to hang it.

This lack of structure results in a lack of feedback. Aside from the commentary of other players, there is little feedback anywhere at any point in the game. Now, player feedback is important. But player feedback as the only feedback is like a ship with no rudder. Yeah, it'll get somewhere, but not anywhere specific.

More accurately, yeah, it'll get somewhere: porn.

When there is no rudder to judge content against, players will judge it based on their own personal opinions. Since they have no particular unmet needs or dangers, those will basically be their luxury opinions, which mostly means porn.

There are other kinds of content in Secondlife. There are motorcycle races and casinos and all of that stuff. But they operate in one of two ways. Either they manufacture a rudder (motorcycle races have no fundamental rewards or penalties) or they tenaciously hang onto one of the game's incidental rudders (money).

In fact, even the pornographic content grips a rudder the player brought with him. All gameplay is judged against some kind of dynamic, some kind of fitness system... a rudder. And if you don't provide one, they'll have to create one.

Players will create them anyway, sure, but even allowing that you may WANT porn to be a driving factor in your game, player-created rudders are inefficient in most cases. It's far more effective to provide a rudder that actually points the player in an interesting direction, helps him accomplish his goals in an interesting way.

An example of this is Eve Online, which is also driven by player-generated content but in a framework of mad capitalism. Many tools are provided to the players to help them in their rush to Make More Money, and this means that the money-related gameplay in Eve Online is orders of magnitude more interesting than the money-related gameplay in Secondlife.

Eve Online is not really "better" than Secondlife. Secondlife has a much broader spectrum of things you can build, so their casinos are all blingy and bloopy and effective at stealing your cash. But in terms of the gameplay of making money, Eve Online goes a lot further with a lot less.

Dwarf Fortress is another example, not even a multiplayer one. Dwarf Fortress is a roguelike where you sort-of control a large number (often 100+) ascii dwarves in their ascii fortress.

While the game doesn't have any explicit goals, it has a framework of implicit goals built right into the gameplay - much more powerfully than SimCity. These kinds of implicit goals are created out of the gameplay rather than out of any scripting, and they not only provide good rudders for players, but they can actually provide more than one rudder per rudder.

Each of these implicit goals isn't just ONE rudder. For example, the implicit goal of surviving against enemies can be perverted into any number of more colorful goals, such as surviving against enemies while having no military dwarves, or surviving against enemies in a haunted region full of the nastiest things around, or even one of those goals combined with another goal, such as no military dwarves and you're not allowed to cut wood.

These recombinant goals aren't unique to Dwarf Fortress, of course. Almost any game can have them, such as seeing who can fling a Warthog highest into the air using grenades, or creating a useful town in Sim City with no pollution at all.

But these player-driven variations on implicit goals are rarely used in multiplayer games, because when you're going up against other players, the basic rules of the game serve to let you compete against the other guy, rather than serving their own ends. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important to remember.

Anyhow, I'm wandering. The essence of what I'm trying to say is that the gameplay of a MMOG radically changes the kinds of player-generated content you can have (gameplay including how you allow players to collaborate). If you don't have any gameplay worth mentioning, the players will import their own and go skewing (and screwing) off at random.

But providing rudders - and perhaps a clear way to build new rudders off of them - allows player-generated content to serve a purpose. It makes it possible for even a poor player to make a judgement call about whether something is good or bad, cool or boring. Combined with a gentle touch to allow non-productive players to serve some purpose (such as filtering content or choosing evolving content), I see this as the future of most massively multiplayer game designs.

Now, Spore failed at this. I won't pretend to dictate to you, but if you do happen to think about why Spore failed - and how it could have done it better - I'd love to hear it. And, of course, whatever other educated opinions you might have.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ten Thousand Players

Every once in a while I like to dip my joystick into something massively multiplayer to see whether my distaste holds up. I decided to re-visit Conan and also play some Perfect World, which I'd never seen before.

I have the same problems I always have. I hate gated content: the idea that I can't wear a particular hat until I'm level 941,513,015,059,104,000 is kind of... painfully stupid. But it's easy to program.

There are many ways of gating content that aren't quite so egregious, but they don't fit easily into the rubber mold asian MMORPGs use, so they don't get implemented.

I also hate... well, actually, it would be easier to list the things I like. But, anyhow, you get the idea.

One of the things I always notice in these games is the utter stupid stupid stupid stupidity of the static game world. There's a conceit that monsters should spawn in every two minutes ten feet from the city wall... and the city folk don't care. There are at least a hundred other heroes within easy shouting distance of me, and they are all useless, pointless, might as well be filler NPCs despite the fact that they're all five times stronger than me. There's this deep resentment in me that all these powerful heroes never bothered to get together and just clean up the countryside.

It's not just that they can't due to respawns. Respawns aren't really in the world's fiction. Every time a hero kills of Ogorth the Demon Kitten, it's played up as if this is the first and last time he's been defeated.

The idea of integrating respawn into the world's fiction is appealing to me, because it could be extremely interesting. "Oh, yah, built my house on top of a spawn point. Five gold coins and you can go in and kill stuff. Ten gold coins and I'll let you use my fireball turret to do it."

But that's besides the point, really. The problem lies in the fact that there are so many other players. There's this peculiar idea that you can just do whatever it is you're doing while more or less ignoring the fact that there's someone five feet away doing something similar and you could, in fact, easily do it together if this were reality. It's like there's an invisible wall between you and them: you can see them, but you can't really interact with them.

I think it's a combination of factors, but many of those factors can now be resolved using technology, and I think it's time to just take a quick look at them again.

1) "We're all heroes here!" problem. The population density is too high in 99% of the MMORPGs on the market. Or, rather, there are too many heroes. The population density is just about right if you have, say, 5% heroes, 5% researchers, 5% chefs, 5% tailors, 5%... well, you get the idea. But when they're all the same, you can't let the world bend at all, because it'll change the world too dramatically for everyone else, who happens to have all the same concerns as you do.

There are a lot of ways to reduce the weight of this. One is to simply reduce the population density, another is to allow players to participate in radically different domains. Above I gave the example of different jobs. It's not boring to have those jobs: the minigames involved and the act of acquiring the things you need can be made just as interesting as the mindless, endless fucking grinding of the "heroes".

But there are lots of ways to do it. For example, what if there were, say, ten overlapping dimensions. Any given hero was only really active in one of them, but was somewhat visible in all of them. Visible enough to talk, trade, and so forth, but not visible enough to steal your kills or feel like a stranger.

Flat-out reducing the population density by a factor of 100 also goes well, because you can then begin allowing the players to build and develop the world through their actions, because only the edges of their world touch other player's worlds.

These are ideas that have been around a long time, but we have the technology, now, to implement them.

2) The "Robot Dancing" problem. Although the world is full of other people, you never really interact with them as people. Even when you're using emotes, they are a painfully clumsy second-hand method of communication.

There are two pieces to this problem. One is the lack of body language. This can be solved either by the avatars having moods and personalities, or by somehow reading the body language of the player. Either of these is possible these days, but we do have the problem that almost every game engine on the planet uses static animations rather than allowing for recombinant or on-the-fly animations. Until we can arbitrarily animate an avatar, this is impossible.

The other half of the problem is one of vision. Even if the avatars are beautifully animated, we can't freaking see them. In reality, we're constantly looking around us, and our eyes have a much higher resolution than the screen. To imitate this in a game, we'll need some kind of zooming, auto-looking-around thing. Perhaps avatars could be inflated in "bubbles" on the screen, zooming in on them so you can see their body language. There are other options.

3) The "Greedy Greedy Gateway" problem. Most games really focus on the grind, and in order to keep that intact, they need to follow some very specific and horrifying practices, gating and segregating content and players. Most players are so used to it that they can't even see it any more, but it's there.

Static content itself is an example of this problem. With today's technologies, it's quite possible to give everyone in the game a unique weapon. Perhaps based on one of ten or twenty base frames, sculpted using various settings, add some add-ons to it, color it uniquely, add some particle effects... with statistics it's a bit harder to do, but not as much as you might think.

I also think that most next generation games should do as Conan does: the clothes are actually a separate model applied on top of the game model. This has a lot of disadvantages, sure, but it has a lot of advantages as well, none of which Conan uses. One is that it allows for more diverse, customizable clothes and armor. Another is that it allows for easy visual representation of wear, tear, and damage.

Bah, that's all just aesthetics, though. The core of my gripe is that content is rigidly gated, and players are herded through like cattle.

I am very bad at being cattle.

And it's just not needed any more. We CAN develop games with other techniques. We're just too damn stuck in this gated mold. We print these games one after another, and the only differences are aesthetic. That's not different games! That's expansion packs! Every MMORPG released these days is just an expansion pack that doesn't let you carry over your saves.


What's your opinion?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

This Will Not End Well

Today I decided not to bother finishing Overlord II. This adds to a long list of recent games where I quite literally get to the final boss and say, "ehh, whatever. I'm done."

I'm trying to figure out why this is.

At first I thought it might be a singularly uncompelling narrative. There haven't been many modern games where I've actually said, "I wonder what happens next?" It's all too predictable, too pat. But that can't be it, because there are lots of older games where the narrative was even worse and I happily completed them. Like every JRPG since FFVI.

I think it's because I've been wounded to my very soul by cheap-ass cop-out endings that have nothing to do with the rest of the game.

It's this "good vs evil" crap, where you can be "good" or "evil". (Really, you can be "insufferable pansy" or "idiotic twelve-year-old pyromaniac".) These "choices" over the course of the game end up literally never mattering: at the end of the game you are ALWAYS allowed to choose ANY of the endings you prefer. I understand why the decision to do that was made, but it's a bad decision. It robs the ending of any meaning, any connection to what I've actually done over the course of the game. It gives me agency, and then spits in my face and tells me my choices don't matter, they never mattered.

I think that this has destroyed my respect for video game endings. I spent so long getting spat on by them that now I can't muster up any excitement over the idea of getting spat on again. Even if I know the game won't pull that cheap-ass idiocy, I'm still trained to hate.

Narrative can still be used to guide me through the end of the game, as Portal did. But it can't be a beacon at the end of the tunnel: it has to be a series of runner-lights that are with me the whole way. Because when I see the light at the end of the tunnel, I presume it's a giant bucket of spit.


The other factor here is one of gameplay. Modern games are much too long for the amount of gameplay they actually offer, with very few exceptions. Any way you cut it, when you're in the final level, there are no new avenues of play left to explore. So all the designers can do either is make things unreasonable, be boring, or both.

But I can't blame everything on final gameplay, because I frequently give up before I even see it.


Edit: Actually, I think the narrative thing really IS it. I think I've become trained to see when someone's pulling a "string of pearls" narrative design and instinctively distrust it. That gap between the pearls is very easy to see... so easy, you might not actually notice that you're noticing it.