Friday, February 27, 2009

Fun with Anticorporatism

Like many people, I have a bit of an anticorporate streak. Like most of us, I feel this way largely because corporations tend towards making money by screwing people over rather than by providing valuable goods or services in the most efficient manner.

I'm not naively anticorporate, though. Instead, I like to study and think about things. And one thing that's worth looking into are the various anticorporate subcultures that have arisen.

My interest is only in the cultures that have arisen organically from technological advances. Centralized anticorporate movements based around "ideals" have no interest to me because they are inherently doomed and transient. On the other hand, the following subcultures can teach us something about the fundamental transitions we're seeing as technology advances.

Of course, my definitions and examples are going to be based on my personal experiences/research, and I'm sure many other people will have other views on the matter. Similarly, cultures are fuzzy and always changing, so in five years none of this will be relevant. But it's a fun thought experiment.


The most commonly referenced anticorporate culture in America, this term is extremely fuzzy. Whatever it may have meant in the past, it has now come to mean people who illegally duplicate data for personal enjoyment.

This cultural label grew out of the fact that we would call illegally duplicated stuff "pirate". Today we may still refer to those cheap, illegal knockoffs as pirate goods, but we understand that it isn't what the culture is really about these days: modern software pirates have no interest in physical goods when they can simply get everything off the internet digitally.

While pirates often share media, it's not usually about making money. It's more about not spending money, and pirates often have very strong views about the companies attempting to lock the data away from them. While the majority of pirates simply get songs and videos in this way, many pirates also download software or crack existing software to add illegal functionality. In nearly all cases, the pirate culture is about disabling the restrictions on data (including software).

The companies complaining most about piracy are in industries that were initially about enabling new capabilities for their customers. Initially, you bought an album because it let you listen to your favorite artist. You bought a copy of Excel because it let you do spreadsheet stuff. These were not capabilities that were otherwise easy to come by.

However, as technology advanced, these capabilities became very easy to come by, to the point where it's actually easier to get them for free instead of paying. The corporations, in an attempt to save their business model, began to prosecute anyone who distributed the capabilities they specialized in. This often required rewriting the laws of the nation to make duplicating data illegal.

Both sides have ethical arguments - one side claims it's stealing, the other side claims the first side is oppressive and driving would-be customers away. The truth is that these simplistic justifications are a product of the situation, rather than any kind of actual morality, and are all irrelevant in the long run.

As time goes on, we can probably expect to see pirates win. Data is fundamentally impossible to restrict, after all. This means that the industries that were originally about providing this data will have to change their business strategy or go out of business. The latter is dramatically more likely, as this kind of data is becoming easier and easier to produce as well as distribute.


Ah, China. Land of the cheap knock-off.

Shanzhai stands for "mountain village", and is a reference to the idea of lawless, bandit villages. It is therefore vaguely similar in tone to our term "pirate".

Classically, shanzhai knockoffs have been pretty depressingly bad, largely about tricking people into buying them. If you get a shanzhai shirt, it's going to be a lot crappier than the name-brand shirt its pretending to be. Actually, it'll often be a lot worse quality than a generic shirt, since it's relying on camouflage, not quality.

However, in modern China "shanzhai" is slowly making the transition to a different meaning. Modern technological devices such as cell phones and MP3 players can be put on the market for half to a third the cost of their name-brand equivalents. Their functionality is typically in the same ballpark if you know what non-brands to buy, and in many cases is flatly superior because the name brand items are full of corporate crippleware or are missing expensive, patented codecs or functions that shanzhai products have no problem putting in.

This is not some shiny never-never land of joy, of course: shanzhai products are still made with bottom-dollar components and are made to make money. If you know what you're looking for, you'll probably get something that works as well as the original, although with a shorter lifespan... but it's pretty easy to get scammed. Worse, the lack of restrictions and keen eye on the bottom dollar leads to many products being actually poisonous or otherwise dangerous.

You can even consider the pseudo-researched medical procedures to be shanzhai in that manner, although I'm sure city teens would dismiss them as being some other subculture.

There are ethical arguments for and against shanzhai culture, and they are fundamentally the same as the arguments for and against piracy. They have the same causes and, ultimately, the same result. However, shanzhai culture is unlikely to start appearing in western nations unless the economy gets REALLY bad.


Instead, western nations are developing a subculture of makers.

Makers focus on build-it-yourself technologies, and can get some surprisingly high-quality end products: some makers even build bipedal robots. Makers are not about making cheap knock-offs, makers are really about creating customized items, usually using high-tech tools.

Unlike piracy and shanzhai, making things in this way is usually pretty close to legal, depending on how well-paid the prosecution lawyers are. So it doesn't really have any ethical combat going on with the corporations. Yet.

But it shows signs that it will develop these conflicts for the same reason the other examples already have them. Corporations ideally exist to give out capabilities efficiently: a corporation makes cars, cars let you drive around, people buy cars because it's better than walking.

Corporations have shown that they always, without fail turn to attacking movements that grant people the same basic capabilities they grant. So, once makers become common enough that people are driving maker cars or wearing maker clothes, we'll probably see corporations suddenly coming up with ethical reasons that DYI culture is evil.

And it will go that way, because technology will continue to advance. In fact, with the economy being somewhat dented, I expect to see a rise in DYI culture in general - more people with gardens, for example. While growing a garden is probably not considered part of maker culture, the two are synergistic, and as one rises so will the other.

At least, that's my theory.

What do you think?

Monday, February 23, 2009

I Apologize to NASA in Advance

So, NASA's making an MMO. It's gonna suck.

Hey now, I'm not just being a jerk. I'm not just reveling in making asinine and obvious predictions. I want to talk about why, because that's where lessons can be learned.

The problem with these sorts of games are that they are "checklist games". It's not just NASA: most of these sorts of games are built this way, no matter who sponsors them. They're made by making a big list of all the stuff the group considers cool, and then sticking that stuff in the game. In this case, NASA's list will include "doing experiments on the space station", "launching in a rocket", "driving a buggy", and "space walks", along with a few dozen others. Not ALL of these things will make it into the game, probably, but the game is driven by this list.

The problem is that this kind of design doesn't lend itself to having an actual GAME anywhere.

This can sometimes work out if the things described are part of a complex, interactive system. For example, the military can make a military training sim that's somewhat fun to play because we know how to simulate and interact with the idea of people running around trying to kill other people.

But being an astronaut is not part of a complex, interactive system. Astronauts live remarkably uninteresting lives. The reason it's enticing is because it's on a frontier, not because of the amazingly exciting lifestyle of exercising three hours a day and spending ten more hours tweaking experiments.

There is no easy way to make the life of an astronaut an interesting thing to a gamer. This is why most such games focus on the things around the astronaut, like the space stations or crafts. You can create a fun, interactive system based around piloting a craft or building a station. Not so easy to make a fun, interactive system based entirely around fetch quests.

You can argue that the Sims made an interesting game out of this idea, but I would argue that (A) the gameplay was actually mediocre, (B) it was still more interactive than the life of an astronaut, and (C) you controlled a fair number of Sims simultaneously.

Now, it's possible to have mediocre, shallow gameplay and still have a fun game. The Sims is one example of this, and every MMO on the market is another. However, these games make up for their gameplay with their metagame aspects - they give the player a huge amount of freedom.

Being an astronaut in the realistic world of NASA is absolutely the opposite of freedom. Not only does mission control script out your life by the minute, but it's actually scripted out weeks in advance. Talk about freedom of choice!

Now, it's possible to make a near-future space-themed MMO that is interesting. However, it would require abandoning the NASA theme. NASA won't do that. It would also require some pretty fancy footwork in terms of game design, and NASA is nimble like a brick. Glued to a table.

Unless NASA is making a very new kind of MMO or abandoning their NASA theme entirely, it is simply impossible for their MMO to be any good. It HAS to suck.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Durability, Range, and Luck

I've been playing a slew of tactical RPGs recently (I have a commute, so I have DS time for once). I have worked out... A FORMULA! Whee.

Basically, I have thought up a rating of measurement I call hardcoritude. If the hardcoritude is above one, the tactical RPG is hardcore. If it is below one, it is casual. The amount above or below determines how severely hardcore/casual it is.

This does have an effect. It's not just some arbitrary rating: casual games tend to have very specific gameplay choices that hardcore games do not. Let's take a look. We'll compare Rondo of Swords and Final Fantasy Tactics A2.

The formula is simple. Its (average movement speed times 1.5) divided by (average range times average tiles hit).

In Rondo of Swords, your average speed is 7ish. Most characters move at six, but some move a little slower and some move a lot faster. Because Rondo of Swords characters actually CAN move through enemies, we don't have to reduce our average movement speed to take into account "blocked paths".

The average range for ranged attacks in Rondo of Swords is six, trending higher as the game goes on. However, the vast majority of attacks are not ranged attacks - say, two-thirds of the things we do in the game have a range of 1 (or even 0). So, our real average range is a little under three.

The average radius of effect in Rondo of Swords is difficult, because few attacks actually do that "diamond effect" that most games use. Instead, they have all sorts of weird patterns, typically starting at range zero. We'll say, on average, 3 tiles is your average effective area of effect for area-of-effect-effects. But, again, the majority of attacks (especially ranged ones) are a single tile. If 80% of our attacks are single-tile attacks, we end up with 1.4...

The end result for our Rondo of Swords rating is (7 * 1.5) / (2.666 * 1.4), or 2.8. A very high rating.

Now, if we compare to Tactics A2. Tactics has an average movement speed of around 3.8. The effect range is typically 5 for ranged attacks, and a very high percent of attacks ARE ranged attacks because even warriors have them. So, say, 40% of attacks are ranged, which gives us a final value of 2.6. The average area of effect for AOE effects is 7 tiles, taking into account both summonings and normal AOE powers. However, only about a third of effects are AOE, so we'll go with a simple 3 for the average of all attacks.

Our final rating is (3.8 * 1.5) / (3 * 2.6), or 0.7, a pretty low (but not extremely low) value.

What does this tell us?

Well, casual tactical games trend heavily towards much higher levels of chaos. Basically, a hardcore tactical game starts to look more like chess, while a casual tactical game starts to look more like poker.

So a casual game will tend to have more HP because even support and artillery units will get hit by the high-range, high AOE effects, and it's more a matter of minimizing how effective such attacks will be rather than maneuvering to avoid them entirely.

Casual games will tend to have a much higher element of luck, too: in Rondo of Swords, your percentage to hit is always very high, so close to 100% that missing happens only very occasionally and only against units that are specifically fast. However, in A2, your chance to affect someone with something other than basic damage hovers between 50% and 80%. (It also has the annoying tendency to make any number lower than 95% into a 50-50 chance.)

The side effects these chances cause are also much more critical in a casual game such as A2. In Rondo there are side effects, but they are very minor. In A2, side effects can actually turn your characters against you or make them completely worthless for several turns.

This is a trend that seems to be solid for other tactical games as well. For example, Disgaea is slightly hardcore. It's a little hard to estimate because players will tend to get AOE powers that can hit literally dozens of tiles, and it's difficult to work geo tiles into the equation. But, at the edges, it's somewhere between 1.1 and 1.6. You'll notice that percentages and side effects exist in Disgaea, but it's pretty rare for them to change the tide of battle. When "poison" is actually one of the stronger side effects, you know you're dealing with a hardcore tactical game.

However, Disgaea is more casual than Rondo of Swords in terms of combat. Even magicians can typically take a few hits, there are side effects, and so forth. This is reflected in the number: it's more hardcore than A2, but not as hardcore as Rondo.

Yeah? Can you think of any games that break this mold?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Balanced Choices

In my last post I glossed over an area because it would have taken a whole essay to explain. An anonymous poster immediately noticed.

So here's the essay.

The anonymous poster... ugh, I hate anonymic, so we'll call him "Herbert". Herbert says
"Not enough deeply disturbing dilemmas, I think. I want to choose the light side but it will mean sacrificing something very important. Usually it's sacrificing a tempting weapon or maybe a nice sum of money."

Okay, this is the "balanced choices" theory of design. This is the same theory of design that KotOR and friends use. But they are starting to discover its limits, and you can clearly see this in Mass Effect. It's not a very good way to design things, although it is useful for another reason.

As you read this essay, please consider the difference in choices between Mass Effect and a KotOR game. I think you will see that they have followed the same logical path I am outlining here.

Let me explain what I'm talking about. In fantastabulous detail, yes.

First we have to point out that we're not talking about a skill challenge. A choice of this nature should never be about choosing the option with greater utility. These choices don't train up a skill (like jumping, shooting, or placing plumbing) and they don't happen often enough to form a complex "terrain" of choices. Furthermore, they are heavily warped by the player's play style and current situation, so any "balancing" you do between the options is going to be totally ruined by what the player brings to the table.

It is possible to make the choice between a long-term gain and a short-term gain, in which case it could really tax the player's skill at analyzing these sorts of things. But frankly, you'll only choose the short-term option if you're doing badly, and it will always feel like you've failed, like you've had to ask for help. It will make you weaker in the long run, too, so that's a nasty positive feedback loop. No, not a good situation.

These kinds of choices are not useful as skill challenges. They are, instead, offered mostly as expressive choices. Allowing the player to choose between a gun and a sword is a very effective choice, even if they are the same, utility wise. Hell, even if one is a bit better or worse.

This is because most players have a strong preference on that front: I'll always take the gun. While it's not a "challenging choice" - the answer is obvious - it does allow me to express myself and start on a path I prefer. Of course, if the game continues to offer me the choice between sword and gun over and over for the rest of the game, they don't count. I've already expressed myself on that front, and unless something has significantly changed the utility of one or the other, I'll just go the same way over and over again.

Self expression is the only thing these sorts of "A or B or C" choices are useful for. But, once you've self-expressed a particular sentiment, there is only a little value in expressing it again unless something big has changed.

Now, to get back to Herbert. Herbert says he wants his preferred side (light side, same as me) to be balanced against a tempting equivalent on the other option (guns and money). Let's quickly examine why this is not a good way to think, although the same end result may be reached from other lines of thought from time to time.

Let's remove the flavor for just a moment. Instead of light side, we'll just make it a "power point". Which it is: you get a point or two of light side for choosing the light side path.

Those points are very personal and long-term statistical improvements. They are very valuable and keep their value forever. Choosing a gun or money, on the other hand, is a short-to-medium-term benefit that will go away as you cycle through various equipment over time. (Actually, money is usually completely worthless in KotOR games, but let's skip that fact.)

This means that, without the flavor, we're talking about that old bugaboo we mentioned, long term choice vs short term choice. Unless we have decided that the points are worthless, choosing for short term is going to feel like failure. It's admitting that we need outside help instead of being self-sufficient with our steadily growing point-power.

Now, adding the flavor back in, choosing light side is emphasized even more.

It may make us feel good that we're "sacrificing" for the sake of our light side choice, but the fact is quite the opposite and, as before, it's not usually an actual choice. It's usually asking us to re-express the same thing we've expressed before: yeah, we're STILL light side.

We could, instead, reverse the flavor. This is probably what Herbert was trying to get at. The idea that we choose flavor or reward.

I think that flavor is, essentially, a long-term reward. No matter how long the game goes on, the fact that we saved that child will never be "replaced" by a "better" act of good. They are cumulative, unlike which gun you equip. So flavor is a long-term reward.

Choosing guns over flavor is, therefore, admitting that you need help bad enough that you're willing to give up on the cool shit in the game to get a boost.

This works in both directions, of course - light side and dark side flavors are equally long-term and valuable. So it's not simply that bad guys get more stuff. In order to get the cool "I burned all their faces off" sequence, you have to sacrifice stuff, too.

You could make it long-term reward versus long-term reward. For example, strictly a flavor choice between light side and dark side (perhaps with a small amount of random statistical crap tossed in so that the player feels like they're affecting their game). But these flavor choices have a dominant side, just like offering me a gun or a sword. I'll always choose the gun and, similarly, I'll always choose light side. It's not a choice except for the very first time.

You can choose between, say, light side flavor and light side points - two tangentially related long-term choices. Except that most players will probably choose in favor of one or the other and always choose that way, just like I'll keep choosing light side after I've starting choosing light side. There may be a little bit of waffling, but I think you'll find it trends towards choosing flavor, because flavor keeps it's value even after the game has ended, so it is longer-term than points. I know I would feel like I was failing if I chose points over flavor. Unless, obviously, the flavor was not enticing to me. Players don't feel bad about not choosing something they find has no merit.


What I'm saying here is that the idea of a scripted choice that is internally balanced is not very good. A player will generally make his choice the first time he sees such a choice, and then continue going that direction forever. If offered choices between long-term and shorter-term rewards, he'll trend towards the long-term rewards. And flavor is a much longer-term reward than any balanced gameplay reward.

The problem is that these choices are always going to be inherently shallow. Compare them to non-shallow gameplay. Non-shallow gameplay iterates rapidly and involves training up your skills. These kinds of scripted choices do not iterate rapidly - they barely iterate at ALL - and they don't involve any kind of skill. So they are not skill challenges.

As ways of allowing the player to express himself, they are good to some extent, but tend to become very repetitive. Even if I have always chosen light side, the scripted choice is always between light side, neutral, and blatant dark side, rather than being chosen to challenge my sense of light side.

Therefore, it is necessary to create a method of extremely long-term options that never ask the same question twice.

That is what I outlined in my last post.


Sigh, I'm trying to figure out how I should have written that first half. It's not very good. Oh, well, does everyone understand what I'm saying? Agree? Disagree?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Star Knights: We're Not Jedi, Honest

I should make it clear that, for once, I know exactly of what I speak. I have run the Bastard Jedi game three times, and have become quite familiar with how players play it.

For a long time, I've been thinking about how to turn my Bastard Jedi game from an insane tabletop into an insane computer game. I'm sure the guys who tried to make the first D&D computer game had a similar headache.

The biggest issue with the Bastard Jedi game (on the computer it's called "Star Knights" or, in full, "Star Knights: We're Not Jedi, Honest") is that the player's character(s) are not simply a stack of combat statistics. There needs to be a progression through a more... moral... area. That's the point, even in the very dualistic Star Wars games that exist now.

However, these dualistic games that currently exist do it pretty badly. Better than nothing? Maybe, but not as good as I would like.

The real problem is that these games offer you one choice - light side or dark side. Once you've made that choice, you'll typically choose the same way throughout the whole game, meaning that the hundreds of carefully-scripted "choices" that the game pops up aren't choices at all: one option is very dominant and the rest aren't worth thinking about.

This is made worse by their use of points as a primary reward mechanism. Light side vs dark side. You want to get as many points of your given side as possible, because they give you more power and make you look nifty. There are other rewards involved - cash, items, and flavor - but the points are very long-term and personal. It would take a gamebreaking injection of cash, items, or flavor to make you choose against a moderate number of points, so the points are obviously going to be the dominant reward mechanism. Since a specific pattern of secondary awards are usually associated with one kind of points or the other, players will tend to choose one kind of points and be wholly satisfied with both the primary AND secondary reward mechanisms (people saying "thank you" vs people dying in a fire, for example), which further unbalances the system.

It's possible to rebalance these choices such that the points you like oppose the secondary rewards you like. However, with such limited secondary rewards, it is difficult to do this very often without accidentally making the player swap his points preference. IE, he wants the light side secondary rewards, so he chooses dark side points.

There are other measures that can be taken to take care and make it interesting, but the truth is that it's a very limited mechanism and prone to becoming very muddy and not-fun if you make it too balanced.

What we really need are a whole lot more long-term rewards of a whole lot more types. And this is what my Bastard Jedi games were centered around.

Screw light side vs dark side, my Bastard Jedi had six or seven emotional axes, each of which could be considered to be light side or dark side. For example, humility vs arrogance. Having points in either direction gave you advantages if you used that axis and, in turn, using that axis made you more likely to gain another point in it. So your 2 points of humility will give you a +2 if you are humble in combat (or whenever), but it may increase to 3 points of humility.

There is no "OH YOU FELL" moment. No "oh, now you're dark side" moment, nor any "oh, you're redeemed now" moment. Not built into the rules, at any rate.

What there is is a powerful addiction that forms. The pressure of the game is enough that you really want those bonuses, and it's an easy habit to use your traits to get that edge.

Until you start to realize that you're using it all the time, and at more and more severe levels. You can't use two points of humility if your humility is at five, even if you only need two points of bonus.

At two points of humility, you're humble. That's okay. It's a Jedi trait, right? But at five points of humility, you're not humble: you've developed a serious self-worth issue and self-destructive tendencies. This is not because of the rules. This grows organically out of having to role play your use of ever higher levels of humility.

There's the catch, see? You fell without really noticing. You fell to the "light half" of the axis.

As a side note, this also tends to create unstable equilibriums, where players will start to use their less severe emotions to get smaller bonuses and attempt to keep their severe emotions under control. But that increases their less severe emotions and, before too long, you're a wreck.

And it's all done by the player, to the player. There are no rules that say, "oh, you have four emotions above (absolute value 4), you're now an emotional wreck." The rules don't have to say that. It becomes painfully clear to the player.

Quite aside from any other long-term results such as plot events, new saber crystals, and changing relationships with other player characters, these six or seven emotional axes are enough to power the whole engine on their own.


They can't be easily translated to a computer game.

They can be, mechanically speaking. But without the social pressure to make you RP your emotion, there's no real connection between choosing one emotional axis or another. You can program in RP - make the character(s) act appropriately - but now you're taking it away from the player and making it character development by partial fiat. Furthermore, it's very, very difficult to script all the different ways that characters should express their various emotions in various situations!


To be honest, I think the scripting involved would probably be manageable in a AAA title, because I don't see how it could possibly be larger than the scripts for Mass Effect or Fable II. But for one hobbyist, that's a retarded level of scripting to aim for.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Futurist Economics

Hey, it's nutball pseudoeconomics!

So, this recession's got everyone in an uproar. It's pretty severe, to the point where calling it a recession is pretty optimistic. Per capita, it's not particularly notable on most axes when compared to the various other recessions we've had, but there are some unique factors.

Chances are, if you're a big geek, you've seen some of these figures. I've got half a dozen blogs on my feed that like to wax poetic, and any time I see their figures, I feel sick. Not because their figures are disheartening, but because they're always so shallow.

For example, this recession shows an unusual characteristic (according to one feed): it's the first one where we've lost more private-sector service jobs than manufacturing jobs. This could be a sign that this recession is going to have a different kind of result than usual.

That may be true, but to imply that this recession is preferentially affecting service jobs is just a total fabrication. The simple truth is that we now have an order of magnitude more service jobs (technically, MY job is a service job!) than ever before and far fewer manufacturing jobs, both per capita and in absolute.

Understanding this is important, and it's important to realize that this is probably also a factor in the slower recovery times associated with more modern recessions: I could make the argument that the service industry recovers slower, adds jobs more slowly, than the manufacturing industry. So a weaker manufacturing industry would therefore slow recovery time.

But that's not a judgment. Even if I were to say that, I certainly wouldn't argue in favor of an increased manufacturing sector. I would instead argue that this trend is moving us rather unavoidably into an ever more info-heavy economy.

Our current economy isn't really built for that. It's definitely a manufacturing economy, and it served us fairly well when we were a manufacturing country. It's served us less well as we've transitioned to an "information-centric" country. Its instability and slowing recovery times may also be side effects of this transition.

When the pundits talk about the economy dipping and resetting, I think they're probably right... but I'm not sure I agree that the economy... well, is the economy.

Please take this pet theory into consideration. I am not arguing that we should put effort into transitioning into a new kind of economy. I am instead arguing that we will slide into a new kind of economy without trying. In fact, I expect we will try very hard to not slide.

I am not arguing for any particular market or any particular theory of economics. I am arguing that our technology has become so powerful that we will see - slowly, unless viewed through a historical record - a tipping.

Our economy currently views everything as if it were a manufactured good, whether it actually is a manufactured good or whether it's a music file or a news report. I think we'll see a slow transition to viewing everything as if it were information, whether it is information or a manufactured good.

You can already see it beginning. Apple is one of the kings of this. It's true that they sell computers of various kinds and purposes, but their company focuses on the design, branding, and market penetration aspects. The hardware is designed with these things in mind. The hardware is subservient to the information elements.

This is inherently a luxury economy, at least by the classic definition of "luxury". The whole point of this system is that information is more important and more prevalent than food. Or, at the very least, that food (and manufactured goods, etc) is somehow bound to information so tightly that it makes more sense to buy and sell that information instead of directly buying and selling food.

Banks already do this, obviously. I'm arguing it's going to become more common. It's already pretty common, actually: we waste a hell of a lot of cash on food that's been "info-ed up" for our easy consumption. McDonalds, Starbucks, "organic" produce, these are all things where the physical food is wholly subservient to what they mean, where they position themselves in culture, and how they sling information.

Despite how "bad" things are, the truth is that this is still a luxury economy. As blue-collar workers turn out their pockets to find the cash to pay for their cable bill, their car payments, their heating bill, we need to realize that those are all luxuries. Most people - even those who are out of work and gnawing on their fingers in stress - are living in luxury.

Luxury is strangely fragile in our new world. Today, a comfortable life either shatters completely, leaving you utterly destitute and with absolutely nothing, or it remains pretty comfortable. The issue at hand is that "luxury" is not significantly more expensive than "baseline survival". If you have a family, your monthly bill for your internet connection is less expensive than a day's food. Canceling it isn't make-or-break. Even if you did cancel it to save money, your life would still be full of books, food, heat, cars, and probably more TV than can possibly be healthy.

So, even though an information economy is inherently a luxury economy, we're still living in a luxury economy. Even if we stop being consumerist in terms of forking over cash, we're still consumerist in terms of watching TV, sending text messages, and reading some ivory-tower idiot blather about economics. That's not going to change, because these activities are so cheap, and they're only getting cheaper. Even if you're starving and have your gas cut off, you can still pop over to the library for free internet! Luxury is CHEAPER than survival!

I think it's inevitable that our economy, as it recovers, will begin to put its emphasis more on information, and less on manufacturing. I mean on a very fundamental level, not just in terms of percentages.

Well, I might be biased.

Did that make any sense to anyone?

Friday, February 06, 2009

A Linear Discussion

So, I got a comment on my post about linearization that brought up some issues I'd like to discuss. These are issues of flow and narrative.

Oldschool RPGs tended to have a very specific kind of play style, and that play style was "play for an hour, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for two hours, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for five hours, realize you built..."

Of course, during the play you also tended to do a lot of random wandering around, essentially meaning that there was some downtime.

These days, all those "dead ends" have been polished off.

I say that's a bad move.

I say those dead ends are part of the enjoyment of the game for a substantial number of games. A game designer can't think of a player restarting the game as failure, because the player isn't actually starting from the beginning. The player is starting with a lot more knowledge than they originally possessed.

They have, in essence, just cleared level one of the "party building" game, and are now moving on to level two.

Perhaps it can be taken too far, sure, but there's a lot to be said for it. The best ten hours of Oblivion are the first ten hours, and I've played them more than a dozen times. That's where all the play density is.

Now, Greg's comment pointed out that it is often in everyone's best interests to prevent the player from make bad narrative decisions (such as, say, wandering off into the middle of nowhere instead of doing something cool).

I say this thinking is what is wrong with so many of today's games. There is an inherent arrogance in this kind of narrativist thinking, a kind of "play the game like I tell you" vibe. It's become so common that it's hard to see because we're in the thick of it.

The essence of my argument is that if you have to limit a player in order to insure they have the best experience, you're not designing a game. You're designing a movie.

Games, by their nature, have limits. You can't create a game where the player can do anything, because it would be (A) boring very quickly and (B) impossible to program. But limits come in a lot of different varieties.

Some limits make the game deeper. For example, in Daggerfall you can equip shoes, pants, a shirt, and a cloak (if I remember right). You can't equip eighteen pairs of shoes.

These limits make the gameplay denser, because they make you have to choose between the options you are faced with. If you have shoes that let you walk on water and shoes that give you an armor bonus, which will you wear? It really matters, unlike the choices between shoes that give you 2% better armor or shoes that give you 2% better mana regen. Why bother making a choice with such boring and inconsequential results?

These gameplay decisions allow (or prevent) you to express yourself as a player. I doubt any two people ever played Daggerfall and ended up with the same character. There are just so many ways to express your preferences and choose your path... even if the plot is linear. The limits on the gameplay are designed to make the gameplay deeper.

But there are other kinds of limits, and we're seeing them more and more these days. Every RPG these days features fewer components, fewer choices, more "carefully balanced" so that you can't possibly make a WRONG choice. We're seeing the glorification of time - your power level depends 99% on how long you spend grinding. Sure, you can spend all that time and end up with a shitty character, but only if you have the brain of an eight year old with severe head trauma. The path to normalcy is quite clear.

So the fact that old games had linear stories and some modern games don't is irrelevant. The amount of freedom and agency you get by being able to choose good or evil in the last ten minutes of the game pales in comparison to having to balance eight pieces of equipment for each of your four party members. That it can even be considered a step up shows that mainstream designers have a pathetic lack of understanding as to what a game is.

There is certainly room for games of physical skill, where you're jumping and aiming and so forth. In those games, it is less important to have this kind of deeper statistical gameplay.

But why is it that even Fallout 3 has shitty statistical gameplay? Even Fallout 3 is dumbed down to the point where you can't express yourself because the dominant strategies are so clear. This, the "paragon" of "open world games", with all the gameplay of a buried ET cartridge. Carefully dumbed down so you won't ever feel TOO challenged.

That's crap! It's crap! You don't PLAY modern games, you EXPERIENCE them. That's worthless! Why am I watching this 45-hour-long movie where I have to push buttons?

Is it any wonder that I've begun to hate RPGs in favor of action titles? Because action titles put that shitty complexity on top of a skill challenge, while RPGs just have the shitty complexity?

Give me back my paintbrush. Let me excel. Let me fail. I don't even care if your story is as linear and nonsensical as a marmoset fired from a cannon.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Body Politic

I have a fair number of blogs on my feed, and a lot of them are armchair activists on the side, political idealists of the least dangerous sort. My own views on politics tend to wander a bit more because I pride myself on at least TRYING to get my opinions to reflect the facts, rather than visa-versa.

The thing about CHANGE! is that people think of the government as some kind of... assortment of disconnected pieces. Like we can swap out our banking system for another as if plucking a lego off a stack and putting another one on.

The truth is that the government is more like a complex, living organism. Like, say, a human.

A patient walks into the emergency room complaining of dizziness and fatigue. Examinations reveal he has a weak heart. Perhaps not THE problem, but certainly a factor. What do you do?

Well, our armchair idealists chime in with "we should just replace the heart with a turbine. Increased, smoother bloodflow. It's way better."

Of course, this idea is just dumb. Even if increased, smoother bloodflow was actually a) what we wanted and b) could be created with the turbine, it doesn't take into account the fact that this is a very complicated system.

Where does the turbine get its energy? Where does the heat dissipate to? How long before it breaks, especially in the wet and nasty environment inside the body, and how do you fix it when it does? Will the body's immune system reject it? Is the turbine going to give off any toxins from its casing? Is the vibration going to cause detachments?

If it was as easy as simply popping in a machine, then we would all be cyborgs by now. The reason medical research takes so long is because the body works in very complex ways.

Well, a government is roughly the same. If our economy comes in complaining of dizziness and fatigue, we can't simply pop in a new heart. There's a lot of long-term, highly balanced, highly evolved systems that will suffer on every level, and that's assuming that the new heart actually works well for a long period of time without tying us to a wall socket.

That isn't to say you should ignore the weak heart. But it is to say that you need to be careful. You can run around willy-nilly, especially when the system is weakened. You need to consider the kinds of treatments that will help, and consider the factors that might affect both short and long term outcomes.

To do this well, it's important to understand how both the government and the economy function, which isn't something ANYONE can claim at the moment. But a decent substitute would be to study the various systems that have evolved over the lifetime of the government, why they evolved, and what they do. Something that none of the politically radical folks I've ever talked to have bothered to do.

See, the thing is that replacing the heart with a turbine pump could be good in many situations. If, for example, our economy already had a turbine pump heart, and we're just switching out for a better model. In order to know that sort of thing, you need to have, actually, you know, STUDIED THE ECONOMY.

Every government is somewhat unique, too. What works for England (or whoever) may not work for us. There are certain common trends: if arsenic is fatal to most creatures, we can rule out arsenic as an option pretty quick. But there are a lot of things that seem to work, or almost work, in other governments. Our government evolved differently. It has a different layout, a different immune system, a different everything. We need to take that into consideration.

Of course, this is just as pointless and idealistic as these silly idealists, because NOBODY EVER CHANGED A GOVERNMENT TO FIT THEORY OR FACT. Governments are always assembled and destroyed following the fads of the population and the drift of political sentiment. Ugh.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Linearized Play

Today I saw some interesting posts that kind of gelled my thinking on a specific subject.

Trends in games are easy to spot. For example, you can clearly see the spread of wargamers, followed by the spread of dungeoncrawl RPGs (D&D and ilk), and so forth. On the computery side, you can see the spread and demise of adventure games, the spread of the first person shooter, the spread of the FPS RPG... sometimes, these fashions are caused by a cool new technology, sometimes they aren't, but they always follow more or less the same arcs.

Right now theres a hideous fashion spreading through the game design world, the bell-bottoms of game design. I hate it like I hate hearing rap when I want to listen to, you know, MUSIC music. It's horrible.

This fad I'm talking about is the linearization of gameplay.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the concept of linear gameplay. At first blush, it's largely just about how the levels proceed, right? If you have to go from level to level in a specific fashion and never get to change the plot, that's linear play.

Well, no, it's just a taste of linear play.

Because a lot more things can be linear.

Back in the good old days of yore, mighty RPGs were released to the computer. Like Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. Like Eye of the Beholder. These featured "open worlds" to at least some extent, and although the plot was linear, you could do a lot of other things between and around the plot.

These RPGs had parties that were widely customizable - and each character often had dozens of skills, a dozen stats, and a sack full of special powers. The characters were not "balanced" - half of the gameplay was to work with the character system to try to get what you wanted out of them.

These games had "3D" like chickens can play the piano. Some had a bad fake of 3D ("90-degree-jump 3D"), but most didn't even bother going that far. This was so far before the era of polygons that it was almost before the era of the mouse.

Compare and contrast to today's RPGs.

Today's RPGs are... maybe 1/10 as free? The worlds are rarely very open, there's plenty of safety rails to keep you from ever getting in over your head EVER ANYWHERE, the enemies are carefully leveled to your level, and your character is carefully balanced so that no matter how you build him or her, they will be able to face leveled challenges at a specific difficulty.

No, seriously, today's games are actually less open and have less agency than those old computer games. Essentially, all the branches have been cut off and everything smoothed into one linear path. Even if there are multiple paths, they are carefully parallel and each is perfectly straight.

As far as I can tell, this is a result of the rise of consoles. By which I mean the NES and Atari, not the Wii and 360.

These consoles had much more restricted interfaces than their computer counterparts, but were very popular and able to display on your TV, a must for the time. Their restricted capabilities meant that instead of focusing on "spreadsheet play", they focused on "action play".

For some reason, this fad has continued and grown even until today. You can see it in MMORPGs, where early MMORPGs feel more like those oldschool RPGs and the current WoWified flock feel like Frogger the MMORPG.

See, WoW is a linearized game. All the branches and edges have been rubbed off, and players are carefully guided onto their paths. While it is technically open world, the fact is that no matter where you go in the world, you will not gain a significant advantage or disadvantage (although, obviously, you can just waste your time). No matter what equipment you get, it will be within the specific limits of their proscribed power curve, and no combinations of equipments or skills will give you a significant advantage above that curve. That's an ideal, of course: sometimes, people do break the power curve, but the team almost immediately "nerfs" them back down onto it.

This is not to say that the game is "dumb". It isn't dumb, it's simply linear. It's built so that you cannot spreadsheet your way to glory: being a spreadsheet whore will only get you a few extra points here and there, enough for a small advantage but not enough to change how you play the game.

There are nonlinear elements, such as guilds and socializing, but these are not part of the gameplay. Some of the plots are nonlinear, but it is just aesthetic: they don't actually change your long-term experience or power level in any kind of significant way. Everything happens incrementally, along a carefully designed curve.

I can understand that. MMORPG, lots of players, gotta keep it balanced. I don't LIKE it, but I can understand it as a drawback of the MMO as it exists today.

But it's spreading.

Single-player RPGs are gravitating towards this same linearized path. Tabletop RPGs, most notably D&D 4th ed, are also heading this direction. But there is no reason to do so. These sorts of games do not have to be linear and, in fact, that is their great strength. It is what sets them apart.

I hope this fad dies a horrible death ASAP. Now would be a good time. Because I'm pissed that every RPG and tactical RPG I find has been dumbed down to this linear system. I might as well be watching a movie: there's certainly nothing particularly creative I can do with this kind of on-the-rails gameplay.

Give me something juicy! Let me screw up! Let me do exceedingly well! Why do I always have to do precisely as the game designer imagined it? Give me a little freedom, you egocentric jerk!

Or something.

Has anyone else noticed this crap?