Sunday, March 22, 2009

Personal Infrastructure

Futurism ramblings...

Our infrastructure is deeply tied to our rate of adoption. It's hard to progress - in medical, power, environmental, whatever - without an infrastructure to back it.

Now, our rate of technological and scientific advancement is increasing. But the rate of infrastructure construction isn't. If anything, it's actually getting worse. Which means that it's starting to get hilariously out of date and seriously compromising our ability to move forward (or even keep from sliding backwards).

The future seems to lie with going around the government rather than being helped much by it. It's a nice change of pace to see the government go from actively malicious back to simply incompetent, but neither mode is going to improve our standards of living any.

Technology is advancing far enough that pieces of infrastructure that had to be formally centralized in the past are becoming steadily decentralized as time goes on. An easy example is power: alternative sources such as solar are becoming more and more common. These sources are often personal, especially solar, and they are getting cheaper every year.

It's gotten to the point where people are actually backing "guerrilla solar", installing solar panels without going through the union or government paperwork. In many cases, the cost of the red tape is easily equal to the cost of the actual system, so going around the dinosaurs is often very appetizing.

Of course, this has some drawbacks. Like all forms of infrastructure, it's more complicated than it seems. Already there have been some fires due to faulty installation of guerrilla solar panels. It's clear that people shouldn't just tackle these things half-assed: the red tape exists so you don't do it wrong and burn your house down. This is especially true if we move to other kinds of local infrastructure, such as local plumbing, local manufacture, local foods... each of these has their own complexities and potentials to cause severe problems for both the owner and everyone nearby.

Still, as bad as the potential results are, we can expect to see a rise in the amount of personal/local infrastructure, and a lot of it is going to be guerrilla. Taking that into consideration, it would be better to try to help the guerrillas to do it right than to have them doing it wrong. And, of course, non-guerrillas would benefit from knowing more about what's going on: some installers are close to incompetent even with the red tape.

What I'd really like to see is a wiki for installing local infrastructure. Any kind of infrastructure, from data to food to plumbing. A kind of wikipedia for do-it-yourselfing infrastructure.

Does one exist? Who else thinks this would be a good idea?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Yes, I've been there...

I've actually seen the Giant's Causeway in person, alongside some folks from North Britain somewhere that only spoke English-english.

You've got an impression of the causeway from these blogs, but you really don't get the real feel. So before you lot start thinking about game design, let me tell you what it's like to be there.

First off, it's cold, because this is the northern tip of Ireland and it gets all the bad weather. Plus, it's right up against the ocean. Obviously.

Now, these hexagonal stones are actually hexagonal pillars all crammed up against each other, and they rise and fall like everything else in Ireland: a lot. In the popular spot you've got a few wobbly plains of these things rounded and interrupted by steep little hillocks you can only climb if you ignore the "don't climb" signs and put your back into it. Since it's on the seashore, the stones are often wet, making climbing them even more entertaining.

However, simply wandering around getting to see hexagonal pillars isn't all there is to do in the giant's causeway. There are a lot of other formations in the area, and it's a great place to go birding because it, like all of north Ireland, is infested with titanic cliffs. The view from on top of the cliffs is incredible as well, which I can tell you not because of my amazing cliff-climbing capabilities but because there is a nice path up to the top.

The path crosses in front of a few other kinds of weird freaking formations, including "pipes" running like support beams from the bottom of the cliff to the top. It looks like the whole of the cliffs is a supersized church organ that got partly buried over a few thousand years of disuse.

The area is very interesting, but what struck me about it was less the rubbish touristy stuff and more the fact that all of these rock formations were formed with the same mechanic. And if you look into it, there's hexagons everywhere: when you boil water, it boils in hexagons, for example. I, being a science geek, was amazed.

Personally, I'd prefer to make games out of some of the other Irish tourist attractions, such as pubs. I mean, such as the dozens of older-than-stonehenge-and-still-standing stone age structures such as Newgrange and surrounding areas. Thousands of years old and still waterproof. I'd love to play around with a building game that's more about how LONG your structure will last rather than getting it to fire a ball through a hoop or light a rocket or whatever.

Or how about the inland tidal ponds that completely dry up at low tide? Or, and here's an amazing new idea, castles!

Anyway, just keep in mind that the physical presence of the Giant's Causeway is more impressive than the text you've been reading. If you do think of a game based on it, make it a game that takes into account the actual setting, not some imaginary, boringly idealized setting.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


I'd like to talk about forking paths.

Although it's starting to fade, forking paths are still very popular in game design. Bioware is the biggest example of this, in that every RPG they've created in the past decade or so has been entirely based around the idea of "choosing between good and bad".

There are some problems with this kind of design, the big one being that when you give your players some choice, it changes how they view that element of the game. It goes from being a simple story to being a part of the gameplay. And bad gameplay, like Dragon's Lair or the quick time events that are killing otherwise interesting games these days.

I've already talked about the fact that these choices are typically only ONE choice repeated over and over and over. This is obviously not terribly freeing, but it does offer some advantages. The first is that it's relatively easy to program, since you're essentially programming two plots and letting the player pretend that it's an infinite number of plots. The second is that it gives the player the illusion of choice - every time he re-selects his chosen path, he feels a bit like he's actually choosing a path. So, psychologically, it has some benefits.

Personally, I feel that choices like these are actually bad. I wouldn't complain if the plot made my avatar good or evil and made him do all those plot choices, but when you give me choices, I always think "all these choices are so... inapplicable. None of them is what I want my avatar to do." Whereas if you never brought it up, I'd basically just say "my avatar's a wuss/a dick. Okay, let's get on with it."

It's obvious that many players don't feel that way, and I don't see any reason why game designers should be avoiding a psychological trick just because I don't personally like it. If that was the case, there would be no MMORPGs at all, because I hate those psychological tricks, too.

But if you're looking to design a game that features some level of actual choice, you have to consider how you're going to do it.

One way, and the way most would-be designers seem to immediately pick, is to simply make a wider variety of choices. Perhaps your first few choices are good/evil, but then they start to turn into things like honor vs life, for example.

There are some problems with this, such as the fact that it's still on rails and players like me will still fail to find a choice that really matches what we want to do. But more importantly, it takes a TON of scripting. Would-be designers who think in this manner are setting themselves up for the let-down of a lifetime when they realize the literally thousands of pages of scripting they'll need to do to support this. That's one of the fundamental problems with these kinds of scripted choices.

If we think about it in terms of first person shooters, we've got an easy way to recognize these things.

Rails shooters such as House of the Dead are quite fun. However, you do not control your motion, you only control the shooting. This is like a linear story RPG. This has some serious advantages: you're not only able to focus only on the parts of the level that the players will see, but you can also insure that the players will move and interact with the scenery in a fun and interesting way. For example, diving down a well.

Some rails shooters allow players to go alternate routes - route A or route B? This is like a Bioware RPG. It doesn't ACTUALLY matter which route you choose, because they're programmed to be roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty and they both lead to the same boss. But it gives the player a sense of control and is a useful psychological trick. Sure, you may think both choices are dumb, but at least you can choose the dumb.

Now, we can imagine such a thing being taken to an extreme. At every door the game pauses and asks whether you want to enter. At every corner, it stops and asks whether to turn right or left.

This doesn't actually give you a better game! It gives you a worse game!

It is much, much better to make the player control his position at an infinitely higher level of granularity. By which I mean letting him walk around and face whatever direction he wants.

He still gets to explore all the cool things you want him to explore, but he also gets to do it fluidly and in complete control at all times. There is no sense of being railroaded into bad choices (assuming a relatively competent designer).

It's true that building a game that allows the player to explore rather than simply putting him on rails is more difficult both in terms of mechanics and level design. However, once you start considering how many more rails you need to lay in order to give the player the "freedom" to go more places, you realize that the price of rails is exponential while the price of the walking mechanic is linear.

It's probably cheaper to lay two or three main rail lines than to create movement mechanics and carefully program out all the nooks and crannies of the level. But when you start talking about branching those rails out to hundreds of possible destinations... the price skyrockets and the railway map becomes hideous.

I hope this explains where I'm coming from.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Here, something a bit lighter and software-related.

I've just seen Microsofts "year 2019" videos, and they're all about touchscreens.

As someone who actually WORKS with touchscreens and tablets both in my hobbies and in my work, allow me to edjumicatify you.

I llllove touchscreens and I think that the killer app is going to be flexible touchscreens. Once we have a flexible Kindle, we're going supernova. Nothing will ever be the same. Imagine a thin, hardback book, about the size of a Macbook Air. It has a dozen pages in it. Each of the pages can display moving video and is touch sensitive.

The pages are designed to be removed from the book, to operate as independent displays or, if arranged in a lattice, larger displays. They can hook up with other books and pages. You can use "smart inertial dragging" to flick things from one page to another even if they are not attached to each other.



And this needs to be stressed.


Touchscreens are quite literally an interim technology.

The real next step is going to visual recognition.

Touchscreens are limited by the scope of your hand. The screen I develop for at work is fairly large as such things go, and it's pretty tiring to use. I can't imagine using a wall-sized touchscreen for anything besides collaboration (when it will be important for the other users to clearly see your motions).

Instead, what I expect is for larger screens (and virtual screens) to instead detect your intentions by your eye and hand gestures. You don't reach up and drag something across three feet of wall. You look at it, gesture slightly with your hand, and look at where you want it to go. Vwip, it goes there.

Similarly, interacting with controls is a matter of looking at them and making subtle hand gestures. You don't need to be anywhere near the screen, as long as it can tell where you are looking precisely enough.

Now, you're not always going to want to be looking at what you want to control. For example, an audio guy might be studying the wave forms of whatever he's listening to, but adjusting knobs somewhere else. It's pretty easy to set this up, either using positional recognition (when he looks there, he wants the controls over here) or lock-assignation like sign language speakers sometimes do. That is, looking at what you want, gesturing to "lock it in" to a place (say, your left hand, or just off to the right) and then gesturing relative to that.

THAT is the real future of large screens.

Touchscreens are just a handy-dandy interim technology that we'll use until we get there.