Sunday, September 27, 2009

ODST, yeah you know me

Finished playing single-player Halo 3: ODST. I don't have any particular interest in playing it competitively on-line, so I'm going to review it based on the single-player game.

Anyhow, ODST wasn't a bad game, although there were some infuriating segments. And, for some reason, it gives me a headache to play for more than an hour or so. I don't really hold that against the game, though.

What I do hold against the game is that they got rid of Master Chief only to give you someone even more faceless and banal. It's sort of like when everyone said they hated the Ewoks, so George Lucas came up with Jar Jar Binks.

I do like that they put Mal in the game, I hadn't read up on it much so I wasn't expecting it. It was quite a surprise. He gave some veneer of human touch to the story, although all the characters were well into the uncanny valley.

There are things I miss as Halo advances. I miss the troops actually mattering. I miss being part of a larger effort. I miss being able to kill shit: every episode they give everything more shields and more hit points until, at last, in ODST you simply rely on instant kill methods 90% of the time.

I understand these changes: they have to make the game better for competitive multiplayer mode. All of these adjustments are in the name of multiplayer enhancements, even if they damage the single-player game. Hell, you can't even dual-wield anymore.

Where are my one-player games going? Even Crackdown 2 is "focusing on multiplayer gameplay". Which, as far as I can tell, means crippling most of what made Crackdown fun in exchange for balancing a game I don't want to play. I want to play Crackdown. ODST is a bit similar: the single player game is neutered due to the focus on the multiplayer gameplay. A continuing evolution throughout the series.

I don't mind games that focus on multiplayer modes, but I don't like games I liked for their single-player aspect gutting the single-player aspect to enhance the multiplayer aspect. Grrr.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Castles of the Mind

Nothin' but theory.

It's obvious we can't keep scripting every aspect of our NPCs' lives. There are too many NPCs, too many subtle differences in how the player can treat them. We need to build algorithms that can reasonably drive an NPC's actions - not for all games, but for the growing number that require extremely detailed, player-driven interactions with NPCs.

We've tried to use alignments - you know, lawful good, chaotic good, lawful neutral. But these alignments were created specifically to give tabletop players a framework for making tough moral choices. If you're lawful good, you'll eventually have to choose between honor and justice. If you're lawful neutral, you'll have to decide which is better: order or peace?

These tough questions are possible because of the framework of "lawful/chaotic, good/evil", but they can only be answered by a human mind. Well, a computer could pick a pre-scripted answer (or a random one), but that's not the same at all.

Another attempt is with factions. If a character is on the magician's faction, he wants to help magicians and hinder their enemies. But this breaks down for the opposite reason that alignments do: factions are too simplistic. The pat answer of "anything the magicians do is right" is robotic and unrealistic, and the greatest source of personal strife in this environment would be a "fall from grace", where a character decides the magician's guild isn't very good, and what they decide to do about it. As with answering the questions an alignment poses, there's no way to create a meaningful answer out of this data set.

Don't even think that factions plus alignment is the answer: that just introduces two dimensions of moral choice instead of one, and no answers on either axis.

Unfortunately, to make NPCs capable of having these kinds of moral dilemmas and subtle moral choices, we have to have a much more rugged and nuanced model.

The first step is to build a graph (node graph, not bar graph) of the things the character cares about. This could be people, places, ideals, etc. This would probably need to be scripted, or created from augmented stereotypes: randomly assigning them wouldn't make much sense. This is a simple positive or negative number for each.

From this foundation we can create their opinions on other people, places, ideals, and things. Some of these would probably have defaults set up - for example, if you are for the ideal of law and order, then you probably like the town guard. If you have a father who is a town guard, you probably like the town guard.

These defaults can be over-ridden if the designer feels it would be interesting to have a different value, and of course things that are unrelated in most people's minds might be related in a given NPC's mind due to their personal experiences.

All of these values are positive or negative, and there are edges linking them back to the node(s) they spawn from.

This propagation can continue indefinitely - if you like the town guard, then you like the guy who likes the town guard - but should probably be capped to three layers.

This foundation is significantly more complex than the simpler faction model, but it allows us half of the equation we need in order to make more nuanced decisions. You like the city guard, but if you see the city guard going bad, you'll have second thoughts and perhaps even turn against them, since you only like the city guard because you like law and order. This is true even if you like the city guard a lot more than you like law and order, because even though you may not be aware of it, your liking of the city guard does, in the long run, descend from those fundamental values.

When talking about simple reactive responses, this model is not better than either of the more basic models. If the player attacks a guard, the NPC's response to the player is no different than if the NPC simply had a faction preference for the guards (or, more likely, the government, since it's always abstracted way out).

But the whole point is to pull the NPC away from simple reactive responses into having justified moral reactions. This framework allows the NPC to change their feelings over time in a meaningful manner, especially in response to the aftereffects of player intervention. If the player kills a cop, that festers in the minds of the NPCs who care... but if the cop shoots at the player in cold blood, that also festers.

It also allows them to stay cozy in their bias, because the positive reactions from positive propaganda would offset a larger amount of negative press, just due to the math involved.

Adding into this a news/rumor system, you could create a city that actually responds to events in an intelligent and emotional manner, even though they're probably stuck expressing it with canned catchphrases from a voice actor. It would also create a "disinformation" system of crooked politicians and self-centered media clowns, just like the real world. Although that's optional when you're creating the world from scratch.

However, I don't really think that's enough, because the NPCs still have no way to be proactive. This allows them to know what they think about things, and allows them to change how they think according to what they see, but it doesn't allow them to make or interpret plans.

I haven't really come up with anything solid on that side, but I have the strong idea that it involves ranking change over time and remembering causes of change. This would have the benefit of also allowing for recollection - an NPC who feels maudlin when they go to the park where they spent much of their childhood.

However, the progression doesn't work out yet.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blue Mars

Well, I'm going to rag on Blue Mars a bit. If you're a Blue Mars fan (or employee), don't take it hard, I rag on everything. I'm just one of the internet's many assholes.

I understand that Blue Mars is in early beta, but there are core design decisions that don't change, and those are what I'm going to rag on. Even if Blue Mars was fully populated and had a larger feature set, I would still find it disappointing for many reasons, all of which revolve around the idea of empowering your user base.

Blue Mars is occasionally compared to SecondLife. Usually in the form of, "Unlike SecondLife, Blue Mars does not allow content creation". It's important to realize that not only is Blue Mars technically incapable of allowing the kind of content creation SecondLife allows, it's also a corporate-mindset money guzzler with no intention of allowing ordinary users to create mediocre content, instead starting right from the get go by explicitly focusing only on well-funded teams of professional content developers. As Blue Mars will find, that is not a viable path into the future. You gotta eat your veggies before you get any dessert.

Like the other 3D chat rooms running around, Blue Mars is a game of pure luxuries, where the only thing to do is dress yourself up and cyber. Of course, Blue Mars "isn't sure" about this "adult content" thing, so it's illegal to do that. Leaving you with basically nothing to do. Oh, "the Cryengine supports advanced gameplay, so you can make good games within the context of the Blue Mars space"... my ass.

People who think that way have obviously never tried to make a game. It takes a lot of tweaking down in the guts to get a game engine - even a really good one - to respond properly. If Blue Mars is counting on the Cryengine to allow for the development of immersive games in their space, they're counting eggs that ain't ever gonna hatch. They will, however, have no problem creating samey spaces for people to extremely clumsily stagger around in. Why they decided not to use Cryengine's navigation, and instead went with a painfully nasty implementation of their own, is never really explained.

I don't think that Blue Mars is bad. I just think that there's no reason to choose it over, say, IMVU, which is easier to make content for, has more fluid animations, and you can see people's faces.

My bitterness is at least in part because I'm a Mars terraforming fanboy, and now that these berks have put their corporate thumbs into the "Blue Mars" name, it'll be decades before anyone else can make a game with that name that does the concept some justice.

No, I don't see any reason to play Blue Mars. I imagine it will do well enough, because advertising blitzes aimed at the non-geeks they're really intending to target will generally yield dividends. But as a replacement for SecondLife, it is totally not an option. And I hate SecondLife. So that's saying something.


There's just something wrong with this whole idea of commoditizing game elements. They don't even bother pretending there's any gameplay. They flat out state that it's a micropayment beast that exists solely to make you pay out the nose for any content they deem worthy. This whole thing - not just Blue Mars, but all these games - these are a huge step backwards.

When are we going to start stepping forwards again?

Monday, September 14, 2009


I'm going to start way out in theory land and then bring it back in, so bear with me. Skip to the ellipsis if you want to skip the theory crap.

This is a topic I've done before, but this is new content.

Space in games is usually used both to separate/pace challenges and to form the challenges.

This is controlled mostly by the algorithms which control the space. For example, the simplest spaces are probably in adventure/text games, which have clearly defined rooms and very basic movement control. The gameplay in such games is less about navigating the space and more about putting non-space-related things together. However, even in that sort of game, everything is couched in space. You move to rooms to try things out, and progress is measured in new rooms that you can explore.

Most games have more complex spatial algorithms which allow for correspondingly greater amounts of gameplay in the space, rather than adjunct to it. Most games are about exploring space, and most of the rest are about modifying it, but that's a false dichotomy. An RPG is mostly about exploring, while Sim City is mostly about modifying, but an FPS is both. There is no "real" difference between exploring space and modifying space, because exploring space can be thought of as modifying space such that your avatar is in a different location. Obviously, a player might not feel that way, but I'm talking about underlying algorithms and rules.

A fog of war over some terrain: are you exploring the terrain as you vanquish the fog of war, or are you modifying the terrain to not include the fog of war? It's a useless semantic question. The algorithm of the space allows the player to vanquish the fog of war. There is no need to consider whether it's exploration or modification unless you're considering player psychology.

Well, there's no fundamental difference between space that is explored and space that is modified unless you're going out of your way to create one. But what about space where the rules change? What about once you get that double jump?

There's no fundamental difference then, either. The algorithm that governs when and whether you can double jump occupies the same "logical space" as the rules governing how fast you fall, whether you can survive an enemy's gunshot, whether you are stopped by a wall, whether you can build a house, and so on. It's a complex logical space with a lot of complicated rules, most of which are inherited from earlier games in the same genre.

Many of the most memorably original games are original because of this logical space, rather than the tangential rules governing things like XP, inventory, etc. Braid and Sands of Time both included time mechanics that gave you a strong and then-unique method of navigating space: they did this partly by simply altering the mechanics of what it means to mis-jump or die. Additional rules, especially in Braid, added additional layers of spatial complexity.

Games like Shiny's Messiah or Omikron Soul give you the power to switch bodies. While this often doesn't change the mechanics of exploring space like rewinding time does, it does change where you can go and what you can do when you get there. Which is in the same logical rule space.

Even games which aren't avatar-centric, like Tetris or Guitar Hero or Bust-a-Move, still use this logical space to define the core gameplay. There's a "space" that follows specific rules, and you move forward by interacting with the space correctly.

It's clear just how far this logical space can bend. The same basic idea - the algorithms that govern interaction with space - can be used for everything from Braid to Tetris to Sim City to Quake. Tangential rules are then added to govern the progression of these algorithms and spaces. You move from stage A to stage B. You select an avatar and a map. You get a new gun. You earn a new skill.

Even in a game like Skate, where the whole game is about interacting with space, there are still tangential rules: buying new skateboards and clothes, accomplishing arbitrary tricks and times. These tangential rules are often what designers agonize over.


I prize the spatial interactions. They are usually the fundamental interactions. When a player presses "right", the immediate response is the avatar moving right inside space. This tight, deep feedback can be found in most really great games: they're really great because they enhance the experience of interacting with space. Even the RPGs we prize are largely prized not for their RPG mechanics, but for their spatial experience. How pretty? How impressive? How interesting is the space we're in? Is the narrative tightly tied to/represented by the space?

What do you remember about FF6? The characters? Do you remember why you remember the characters? Because they defined themselves with space. Kefka burned down a city, then burned the world. Each character, on their own, had representative game levels - castles, small homes, smoky gin joints, vast plains. The characters were tightly associated with the spaces that represented them.

In games where exploring space is more tightly done, this is even clearer. Can you even name a memorable action game that didn't include some extremely well-polished or unique aspect of interacting with space? If you can, you're probably not remembering the interaction. Half Life 2, for example. The interesting aspect was not the gravity gun, which was barely a curiosity, but the level design, which forced very specific pacing on to the player. Did you notice that while you were playing?

Now, with that said, has a game ever become lauded for its tangential rules?

Can you name a game where the game was famous because of its inventory wrangling? Its level-up mechanic? Its deep social interactions?

It's hard. There are so few. A few that leap to mind are experimental games, famous only because they're trying out some weird new algorithm. When it comes to real games - even indie games - those tangential rules don't seem to add much to the final product. With one exception: when the tangential rules allow you to modify the spacial rules. For example, a level editor.

Which kind of feeds back into the original point: it's all about the space, and the algorithms that control it.

I think.