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?