Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bringing Up the Average, Pt 2

Had a good talk with Jansen. I thought it might be interesting, it contains some further ideas to further refine the pay-what-you-want pricing model.

It's a chat log, so pardon the format. I have edited it somewhat, to reduce clutter and skip over stuff that doesn't matter. I've added some [editorial notes] as well.

[Stuff skipped]
me: The point isn't to keep people from being asses, or to put them in a bad spot. It's to make sure that people realize the value that they're actually getting.

Jansen: however, i think they're going about raising the avg the wrong way
the way they have it, they've set a bar for amt to get extra stuff
everyone's just going to pay $7.40, which will do almost nothing to raise the avg. prolly should have been $10. b/c, with that bar in place, fewer ppl will pay between avg and $10

me: You have to pay more than whatever the average currently is, as I understand it. That's an excellent way to bring up the average.

Jansen: Help us bring up the average! Everyone who pays more than $7.38 gets the first Humble Bundle as well!

me: Refresh in ten minutes. It'll be a different number. The "bar" is moving, and is based on the average.

Jansen: which is the problem. it limits the $8 to $10 range donors, they will prolly do $7.40 instead

me: I agree that the idea needs polish.

Jansen: okay

me: However, the fundamental idea is brilliant. "Bring up the average, get more stuff". Most people are strongly influenced by the average price. It's a big win!

me: Hopefully keeps the downward spiral these things tend to suffer from from happening.

Jansen: i haven't really noticed a downward spiral. the avg's increased since i bought mine. i'm not saying it doesn't exist though, it's just not happened in the past week or so

me: At some point, it settles into a saddle point. Something with as high a buy rate as the HIB2 settles very quickly.

Jansen: but, if everyone has the incentive to go above avg, then the avg will be higher

me: Exactly! [The saddle will be at a higher price.]

Jansen: however, the avg can easily go above ppl's price range

me: That's fine, it's pay what you want.

Jansen: it's penalizing ppl who are less wealthy, rather than less generous. there's little difference between $5 and $10 (unless you're lacking in any income at all). but if the avg were, say, $40 (just spouting a figure)

me: It's true that that might theoretically be able to happen, but the chances seem extremely remote. It's far easier to bring the price down than bring it up.
Plus, if you can only afford $5-10, it's still pay-what-you-want, so you can still afford it.

me: Although you'll feel like a dick. And you won't get the extra.

Jansen: this is true. so, the answer is this: the extra needs to be less than the main bundle. bundle of five games, one or two games for above avg payees

me: Well, I think that's probably true, but it hasn't been tested. It may be that there's actually a sweet spot where the bonus is better than the default. Then you essentially have a "climbing bid" situation.

[Technically, the extra could be anything at all, including things like swag or even just a web-comic-like "voting incentive" image. Having a bonus worth more than the baseline would probably be bad, but it hasn't been tried, as far as I know.]

me: That WOULD penalize the poor. [To have a better bonus than baseline.]

Jansen: it's truly a penalty for ppl who cannot pay above avg in good conscience to their finances

me: Yes, I agree. However, I'm not sure, from a business standpoint, which is better. Poor people can't buy some things, and that's just the way it is.

Jansen: i assume the HIB ppl don't directly want to screw with poor ppl lol

me: It may be ten or twenty times more profitable to accept that.

Jansen: that's true

me: If you're getting along on a shoestring budget yourself, you might need that extra cash to keep making games. Or music.

Jansen: yar

me: Also, there's the HIB option more directly: The awesome bonus this time is the standard next time. So if you don't buy it now, you can pay what you want in a few months. [This better-bonus stuff has screwed up the language a bit, but the basic idea is sound.]

Jansen: interesting


me: Here's another interesting thing you may not have noticed, just so it's in the chat log: Did you look at the highest payments? The top ten list?

Jansen: they're by ppl who think along your same lines about the avg (most notably Notch of Minecraft) and are deliberately trying to raise it

me: No...

Jansen: i noticed that when i saw Notch up there. no?

me: Look again... They're mostly ads. That's an... interesting kind of ad space... So that's just one more way to bring up the average, if you implement it.

Jansen: it is. one of the ads is by a company that's involved in the bundle

Jansen: however...
Jansen: ppl paying more than avg to get kool stuff and increase the avg == good
Jansen: ppl noticing the avg is low and deliberately trying to raise it == good
Jansen: companies artificially increasing the avg to buy available ad space == BAD
Jansen: it only happened thrice this time, so that's fine

me: I'm sure it happened lots, and they just fell off the bottom.

Jansen: but, if you're suggesting utilizing that on a larger scale.... i'd not think that was a good idea

me: Why is it worse than normal advertising?

Jansen: b/c it directly costs the user money, kinda

me: It raises the average at least a little, which in turn probably causes the buyers to spend a little more. But let's reframe it just a bit.

me: Have you ever seen a pay-what-you-want that seemed too high? Ever?

Jansen: that's true. so, assuming the avg is too low, it's alright

me: With the understanding that it's not quite as pure-summer-breeze as giving out extra stuff for raising the average, it seems a valuable tool.

Jansen: assuming it's implemented in a way that causes the avg to skyrocket, it's bad. it all depends on implementation

me: Hah! Wait, let's think about that. If the advertisers actually cause the product's average to skyrocket out of control, then they are your primary target audience.

me: Once you've reaped your money from them, give the product away for cheap later.

Jansen: which defeats the purpose of a "humble indie bundle"

me: Yes, it certainly wouldn't fit for them. [And it seems unlikely to ever happen, a note that was removed when clipping the chat.]

Jansen: [first-day sales pitch is] "top ten commercial contributors get the ad spot!" so, it's a competition. it raises the avg to, say, $50 (given the commercial contributors and other buyers eager to get in on it)

me: Well, if you really want to get a bidding war for ad space going, then you allow them to add to their payment later. Classically, this kind of bidding technique can get people to pay $4+ for a $1 bill.

Jansen: yes, that' fine. but commercial bids end first day of sale

me: Hm. Why?

Jansen: so the avg steadily decreases after first day of sale. you get the commercial revenue, and then the price tapers down with time

me: I'm not sure I follow your no-commercial-bidding-after-day-one argument, but I do like the idea overall.

[Clipped tangent about wagering on price decreases]

Jansen: that way, the price will eventually get to a lower level

me: I think that will always happen, though.

Jansen: and so ppl who can't pay more are just losing time.

me: The wait-and-pay-less idea is valuable, but mostly if either the wait is longer than a month or if the thing you're buying is extremely time sensitive.

me: Anything sold today will be free tomorrow in this kind of world, so I'm not sure it makes sense to overcomplicate the sales.


Jansen: ^.^

Bringing Up the Average

Although I love the Humble Indie Bundle 2, I'm in just the right spot to get utterly hammered by news of it. For the past week, virtually all my feeds, friends' chat statuses (stati?) and so on have all been about the Humble Indie Bundle 2. So I was getting pretty damn sick of it.

But my interest is renewed! They've done something way more interesting than release a bunch of indie games. They may have found an interesting technique for price management.

The HIB2 is pay-what-you-want, which means that many people pay crappily. The average payment is indicated when you buy, and I would bet it strongly influences what other people are willing to pay. However, I would also bet this is a negative spiral: if the average is $10, cheap people will pay $8, and the price will go down. When the average is $9, cheap people will pay $7...

I think pay-what-you-want pricing is the next big thing for indies who want to make any money. But the prices always go too low. For example, at last glance, HIB2 had an average of around $7.30. Anyone who buys HIB2 for less than $10 is, frankly, a tremendous ass. But they don't realize it, because the only indicator of value they really have is the average payment so far. Since the average payment is so low, most people must be paying at least that low and, therefore, they are all being terrible jerks. Any one of those games should be worth $7.30.

The HIB2 folks aren't quite as aggressive as I am, but they came up with an incredibly clever idea:

If you pay noticeably more than the current average, you get extra stuff. In this case, the original HIB.

Oh! That's fucking brilliant.

From now on, every pay-what-you-want pricing scheme should have this same idea built into it. I bet the average price may be improved by as much as 50%. I think this may actually increase profits substantially. IE, to a point where you might actually be able to live off them as an average indie developer or musician.

I think it's an amazing idea. It's too bad the HIB2 crowd didn't think of it before they started, but even coming in late, it's a valuable technique.

Let's do that from now on.

EDIT: The point of the technique isn't to keep people from paying too little. It's to drag the average up so that they realize the value of what they're getting. If someone's gonna pay $5 for a bunch of games regardless, that's fine, it's part of the pay-what-you-want ideal. But everyone should hopefully understand that the thing they're buying has more than $5 of value, and they should realize that they're being a jerk by paying so low.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ad Hockery

Being a geek, I love thinking about the next technologies that may make a splash. One technology whose time is slowly approaching is wide-range ad hoc networks.

We're nearing a point where ad hoc networks among personal devices will become very common. You're probably already using wireless keyboards and connecting your phones to wifi networks - both of which are examples of a nascent, budding ad hockery between our various devices. Your thumb drive is only an inch away from not needing to be plugged in. Your DS is only an inch away from being able to interact with people playing the same game on their phones.

In addition, the technology has reached a level where individual people can create/deploy large numbers of ad hoc wireless nodes. Hell, we're maybe a year away from being able to print them on our home fabricators, aside from a few generic parts like batteries.

It seems to me that, even though nothing has really started moving yet, this is about to explode. Especially when net neutrality fails and the EU passes its internet censorship bill.

A lot of people want to fight against governments and corporations screwing up the internet, but I'm more interested in what comes next. It seems far more likely that geeks can come up with a new technology that slowly replaces the internet, and far less likely that geeks can oppose all the money on the planet working against them. So, I'm betting on ad hoc networks.

What I see initially is ad hoc networks largely limited to your personal devices - your computer recognizing your phone, and your lights detecting your iPad, for example. Already happens to a large extent: every time someone turns on the 360, my computer tells me I should share my media with them. If my DS is near another DS playing the same game, it often pops up and offers trades. I simply predict more of it.

I see this network expanding to allow approved foreign devices. Your friend's phone automatically connects to your phone and tags your friend's location when he's in walking range. Hold up your phone, and you see markers where your friends are. This voluntary sharing requires fewer privacy breaches since A) your friend is only reporting his position to you, not to a central network, B) your friend is free to obscure or hide his presence in any way he sees fit (or lie), C) you do not have to report your position to him.

This kind of connectivity will rapidly grow into a painfully insecure ad hoc network that supports your game playing habits, connects you to random passerbyes because you signed up for the same dating service, pops up today's menu from the restaurant you're passing, and trades computational data about traffic patterns.

At this point, the ad hoc network will shoulder more and more of the bandwidth that a user tends to use. Not because it's good at it, but because it's available. A lot of products will come out that rely heavily on short-range ad hockery or extending ad hoc networks to wider areas. Ad hoc networks will begin to integrate with internet connections, such that a phone browsing the internet might connect to a node through an ad hoc network instead of relying on a 3G connection.

The nature of ad hoc networks of this size strongly favors individuals and open source products. Even if a corporation or government seeds an ad hoc network with a few thousand nodes, it's unlikely they'll keep up the project, and it's also likely they'll have misimplemented something (on purpose or on accident). Individuals are likely to deploy their own devices (either stationary or carried) to take advantage of better technologies, better implementations, and higher security. In addition, owning a reliable ad hoc node will probably give good karma and interesting tidbits of information.

Once a baseline ad hoc network reaches a certain level, it essentially replaces the internet. It may use many of the same data backbones for ease of long-range high-bandwidth transmission, but even if you are surfing "the internet", you are surfing through a largely anonymous connection via an untracked route. Similarly, you probably won't be surfing that obsolete old thing any more: a large ad hoc network will support applications and data presentations we will have a hard time imagining. But they'll be just as much part of our day as the internet is today.

(There are some REALLY wacky things you can do with large ad hoc networks, especially ones with moving pieces. But that's definitely a whole other article. Lets just say that the most straightforward few of them are augmented reality.)

Anyway, I've spun a tale of large ad hoc networks springing up in the relatively near future. Let's say... five years from now, it'll be obvious they're starting, and in ten years they'll be a major part of many lives.

As predictions go, I'm pretty comfortable with it. There are a lot of barriers in the way, but most of those barriers go away instantly if individuals can manufacture low-energy wireless relays in their spare time, or buy open hardware versions on the cheap.

I just can't imagine the internet remaining as it is today. It's so... seventies. And the only route I see away from the internet involves massive ad hockery.

Fortunately, if there's one thing we geeks are good at, it's ad hockery.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Everything is Game?

The idea has always been lurking, but I've recently been bombarded by it actively, so let's talk about the idea of games as things other than entertainment.

I hear a lot of people saying things like "learning should be a game!" I use learning arbitrarily - there's loads of other things people also think should be a game, such as working, finance reform, engineering, watching TV... anything and everything is a fair target for the "should be a game!" folks.


"Game" is a hopelessly vague term that carries an awful lot of baggage. When someone says "learning should be a game!", what they actually mean could be any number of things.

It could be "learning should be fun!" or "students would learn faster with a progression of tasks and rewards" or "learning would benefit from a strong set of social interactions with other students such that students are exposed to many possible view points while they learn" or "this is an algorithm which can be represented in a computer program, and the students can learn it by simply making the inputs and outputs clear."

These are all great ideas, and I'm sure there are loads more. However, these are not games. When someone says "game", they often end up meaning "something that teaches so I don't have to". And that's not something you normally want to mean.

Games use a wide variety of techniques to entrain players in many different ways. What techniques are used vary from game to game. Some techniques are great ideas nearly all of the time, others have significant drawbacks. Simply saying "game" is vague enough that it isn't very helpful, especially since when people think of a "game" they usually think of something that includes techniques that aren't suitable for most non-game purposes.

For example, most games have a feedback system that trains players to become good at the game. Good at the game, not at what the game is trying to teach. This is so common it rears its head in non-games, and we call it "gaming the system". How easy will the system be to game when it is a game?

It is possible to design a game that keeps players carefully on task, but this has many drawbacks. For starters, it's normally a deadly dull game.

Instead of saying that "such-and-such should be a game!", think about it a bit more. Which techniques do you actually want to use? Make sure you understand the potential drawbacks. Once you understand what you want, just do that. There's no need to make a real "game" out of it: just take what you need, drop the baggage you don't need. Call it a game if you like, but don't take the baggage that normally comes with the title.

Let's say you want to teach children math. But children are notoriously uninterested in math, so you want it to be a game! Well, what you actually want is for the children to want to learn math. "Game" is irrelevant.

What common game-related techniques would be useful to you? Well, that depends on the age bracket. If these are young children, they might benefit from simple aesthetic rewards, such as being told the problems and results in a fun way, or given balloons or stars for getting right answers.

Sound familiar? Yeah, these techniques are common. Because we're not idiots: we already use a lot of these techniques commonly, without calling them "games".

But we can learn from games in more advanced cases. For example, if you're teaching algebra to high school students, giving out stars and talking in a squeaky voice is going to do the opposite of make them want to learn.

Fortunately, games have figured out some good formulas for appealing to high schoolers. It's somewhat difficult to create a challenge/reward progression, since it's difficult to find rewards that will be even vaguely universally appealing. Time off, passes on homework, and fragments of upcoming tests are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, but they might be especially good if you allow students to trade or upgrade them.

Getting the students to work together and teach each other can be extremely valuable if you can get them to do it right. Game techniques can be used here - techniques pioneered by multi-player games since time began use a combination of competition and cooperation (often only meta-game cooperation) to drive both the teaching of gameplay and the pioneering of new gameplay. This same technique could theoretically be replicated by mixed teams of two or three where the members are periodically required to do individual tasks that affect the grade of the group. Alternately, "gating" such that advanced students have to bring up the grade of a weaker student before they can get a particularly nice reward.

Obviously, there are a lot of logistical problems, but that's one of the reasons you don't just say "game". "Game" brings with it a bunch of solutions to completely different logistical problems. Such as the logistical problem of not having a teacher.

One thing you can inherit, if you choose to, is the way that games often have a variety of tasks types and understand that any given player will only be interested in a few of them. While this may be difficult to do in a structured classroom environment, I did mention that "learning" was an arbitrary choice. Having many interactive threads that appeal to many different kinds of people will allow a wide variety of people to participate together in their own way.

Scheduling is another factor you can steal from games. Games use a variety of reward scheduling tactics that are suitable for many situations, although you need to be careful not to seem arbitrary or erratic if you're an actual person handing out rewards. One key is having multiple concurrent threads for each person, such that they can receive a reward for an accomplishment in one thread while they continue to work on another thread. This eases the long gaps between rewards in any particular thread. However, you need to keep the threads carefully interlocked, or the participant may simply speed ahead on one particular thread while leaving the boring or less easy ones behind. Again, a kind of "gating" is a fine solution. Something like "you can't work on the next task in this thread until everyone in the group has accomplished that other task in that thread". Classic CRPG stuff.

Creative play can be rewarded in the same style that open market games such as SecondLife or 3D chatrooms use. Creating fun expressions of whatever you're working on and sharing it with the rest of the players is rewarding, fun, and leads to a lot more involvement from everyone involved. Structuring this can be quite difficult since it is so context-dependent and you need to make sure nobody feels afraid to submit creations. But, done carefully, you can easily find the players forging ahead far past where you expected any of them to go.

What I'm trying to say is that talk like this, regardless of how thorough or slapdash, is hugely more effective and useful than saying "should be a game". Take the parts of games that seem to work for you and drop the rest.

Because it shouldn't be a game: it should be whatever it is, but better.

This make any sense?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Christmas Song

This is the season of Christmas songs. And more Christmas songs. AND MORE! MORE! Fortunately, I do have a favorite. It's a little old fashioned, but it ends like this:

Darkness falls across the land,
The midnight hour is close at hand
Reindeer crawl in search of blood
And terrorize your neighborhood.

The foulest stench is in the air,
The funk of forty thousand elves
And grizzly ghoul from northmost pole,
Is closing in to eat his dole...

And though you fought to change his list,
You weren't completely good
For no mere mortal can resist
Snacking on Santa's food.

Ho ho ho ho
Oh-ho ho ho ho!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Social Games and Such

It's getting popular to talk about social games again!

Of course, as should be clear, we're not talking about social games. We're talking about social NETWORK games. Games which leverage your existing social networks, usually through existing software. Usually through Facebook, to be precise.

I admit that I like the idea of social network games. But I don't much care for what people are actually talking about. When you actually look at a social game social network game design by one of these people, it's either completely pie-in-the-sky impossible or a standard game. It's sad when an ancient game like Parking Wars actually leverages your social network better than any modern design.

Another thing I don't like about social network games is Facebook. I'd like to pretend I can be neutral, but being Facebook-centered makes me angry. I hate Facebook too much to give a Facebook-centric game the clear look it may deserve. So, I'm biased.

I'd like to talk about what a social network game might be. I'd also like to talk about how we might make a cool social network game, but I won't have the space in this post.

A social game - no network - commonly refers to social play, such as children playing house or tag together. I think this is a fine place to start. If we want to make a social computer game (no network), we can think in those terms.

A social computer game has a fairly major flaw in that the social bandwidth is pretty restricted. Even with voice chat, you're missing out on about 90% of the depth you get from face-to-face interactions. Much of the struggle for realism seems to be the pursuit of that 90%, making the characters seem more like people standing near you and interacting socially. Of course, the characters aren't people, so they have bigger problems than low social bandwidth.

Anyhow, once we acknowledge our limited bandwidth, we can try to leverage our advantages.

One major advantage we have is virtual worlds. Using virtual worlds, we can allow players to express themselves and have shared experiences. While not as tangible and highly social as playing tag or house, they are more rigorously shared and have easier-to-see fantastical elements. IE, the world can be anything we want it to be, and the other players will all be in the same world.

Correctly constructed, the world can create shared emotional experiences. Right now, these are largely limited to big experiences, such as when someone builds a lava fountain and fires magma two hundred feet into the sky. That's an impressive shared experience, but it's not exactly a subtle one and it's somewhat limited in terms of emotional range. It's more difficult to share something like a personal story, because such things tend to develop at a particular player's speed and in his screen. From other points of view, it is very hard to see what's happening or it feels distressingly like it's on rails.

There may be many solutions for that, and one obvious solution is asynchronicity. Two players can go through the same world, but sharded such that they do not directly influence each other: each one gets their own version of that world. You don't need to completely block communication. This is a social game, and allowing the players to chat with each other can be extremely valuable, as long as it doesn't break their immersion. Which it shouldn't, if the other player is in the same world, even if it is a different version of the same world.

Actually, this is a good time to talk about "legendizing", which is a word I made up that has nothing to do with marking up a map.

A legend is a story that gets told and re-told. It's not always precisely the same. In fact, it can vary quite wildly. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about the wicked step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit into the fur glass slipper: legends are adapted to suit whatever audience they fit.

A modern legend would be Superman, or any other old superhero. Their stories have become hopelessly complex. The idea of a "canon" storyline is the major problem. Superheroes don't have a canon storyline, they are legends. They star in whatever stories suit them and their audience. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about how much of a total dick Superman was in the beginning, coming from a culture where such actions were not really considered unusually dickish. Actually, a modern-style Superman would probably come off as a real pansy to the early 20-th century culture that spawned him.

To me, the key to making a real social game is "legendizing" our content. World 3-B always has a zombie horde and a scared child and maybe even a specific protagonist. However, each player is welcome to unfold the story as they see fit, either through play or through fiat. Sharing it with other players is a key: once the story is told, others can see it and interact with it. Over time, certain "grooves" are worn in the world, where specific storylines are the most popular and fun. This isn't one story that someone told, or one playthrough: it's fragments of dozens of people and dozens of runs, the best from each, assembled by thinking players.

Because this is a computer game rather than a freeform story, there are limits to how creative you can be. But that makes sense: if you're telling a story about Loki and a tank shows up to shoot Odin, that makes no sense and will probably be judged pretty stupid. The limited capabilities of the world are not necessarily a disadvantage, especially if you allow players to build new worlds and the seeds of new legends.

A major advantage of this structured world is that players can be at any point in the story they like. Their friends can also be whenever they like. In fact, they can be where they are and where you are, criss-crossing the story, looking from any angles they please, exploring and creating variants.

And they can be talking. "Did you ever try going through the fireplace? Try it!" "Hey, this princess is kind of a jerk..." "I beat that dragon with a fork!" "I made a version where the princess is a prince, try it..."

We can also modulate this sharing to keep our immersion and pacing strong. If our environment would suffer from another player distracting you, we might actually reduce the bandwidth even more. Perhaps to simple ghostly lights hovering near things other people have found interesting. Even then, the "social" is there, it's just included gently so it doesn't distract.

Exploring the world together, that's social. Revisiting an old story with the advice of a friend. Seeing tags left by your friends (perhaps only on repeat playthroughs), adding new content to existing worlds.

I'm talking about "stories", but that's also needlessly restrictive. Simply building and exploring a world together is enough. It's just less easy to talk about.

So, a social computer game has the problem that the social bandwidth is very low. However, it has the advantages of virtual worlds which can be viewed from any direction and explored together, manipulated together, either at the same time or asynchronously. This does require that the virtual worlds be legendary worlds.


I was going to talk about social network games next. But I think I've already gone on too long.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Why I Don't Buy

I normally don't do completely me-centric posts, but I'm going to talk about my purchasing habits.

I spend a lot of money on games: I buy at least two a month, normally much more. Not all of them are full-price. For example, the 40 games I own on never cost more than $15 each. However, I'm fine buying full-price games: I recently bought Fable III and the most recent Street Fighter for both 360 and PS3.

Right now, I buy literally every western RPG I find, indie or published, and quite a few of the Japanese ones. However, I'm going to change my policy: I'm going to stop buying RPGs or tactical games that came out on a console. I won't even be buying them for the computer. It's just gotten too painfully terrible.

There are many reasons, and they've finally combined in enough force to completely kill my interest.

First: "authentication". The plague of computer games, I buy many games that have minimal authentication - perhaps they require you to enter a code or something. However, I have found that all games that are released for both the PC and a console invariably have excessive authentication in the PC version. It's an old argument, but I'd like to point out that I don't even bother stealing these games: there are plenty of games with less excessive authentication, I just play them.

Second: "distractions". For some reason, RPGs for the console have started to get excessively metagamey. This includes continuous, repetitive, and invasive fourth wall breaking of every sort. The three most common types are A) begging you to spend real money for DLC. B) Constant and obnoxious accomplishment flogging. Just giving you an accomplishment for everything is stupid enough, but it's particularly bad when they pop up messages telling you that you're a bit closer to getting a pointless accomplishment.

C) is the most distressing: ruining the game by introducing elements from your console account. For example, in Fable III, the hero promises to make things right for the villagers. Up pops a contract-like thing. It says, "I, craigp, promise to" and shows my damn account icon. WRONG. The hero promises, not the login account. This is a ROLE PLAYING game, not WiiFit. Ugh.

Authentication and distraction are just the two most minor problems.

The "social invasion" is a plague for role playing games. Whenever you play a console RPG these days, it continually reminds you how well your friends are doing (automatically picked from the list), sends your stats to them, and lets you send gifts around.

Having a multiplayer mode is one thing. But continually reminding you that the RPG world you're adventuring in is just a shallow game? What kind of idiot decided that all games, even immersive RPGs, should have Facebook-style networking?

This social invasion actually has other characteristics: the games tend to act as much like a Facebook game (or set of games) as possible. To mention Fable III again, you are not a hero or a revolutionary. You are a landlord. The main gameplay is not the combat, but the retarded color minigames. All of this play inherits largely from casual games.

Again, casual games are fine. But I want to play an RPG. As far as I can tell, there are literally no Western RPGs released for the console in the past few years that aren't primarily collections of minigames.

This walks hand-in-hand with a general dumbing-down of gameplay. You can actually watch each western RPG chain get dumber and dumber. Mass Effect 2's gameplay was maybe half as complex as Mass Effect 1's, which was pretty simple already. These RPGs are sacrificing complexity in favor of simplicity, and often in favor of the worst parts of MMORPG play.

The last major problem I have with console RPGs is the lack of user generated content. If an RPG is released for a console, then even the computer version won't have much customizability. Gone are the days when you could make your own missions, add your own art. Even in games which are about customization, such as the Sims III, the scope is dramatically reduced compared to what is technically possible. These limitations are imposed.

These factors have finally become too much to deal with. Buying console RPGs is just guaranteeing a failure. I'll probably try to buy more Japanese console RPGs, but they have some other flaws (such as 5,901,503,053,915,913,051,390 hours required to beat them).

Right now, I think that RPG video games in general are in a trough: there aren't very many good ones being released. There are lots of pretty ones being released, but they're so crappy.

So I'm focusing mostly on indie games these days.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I've been randomly puttering around with tabletop RPG ideas (as usual), and I've run into an interesting problem.

When you're making computer games, the game can be pretty much about anything. Many famous games don't focus on any kind of human life. Even games like Sim City (which is theoretically about humans) don't actually have any humans shown up close and personal. These games work fine: a game can be about a machine, a yellow dot, space ship fleets, microbes... they may or may not have a human element to them.

However, I've yet to see a tabletop RPG that was fun to play and not focused on the human element.

I'm trying to write this short, so forgive me for skipping a bit. Basically, tabletop RPGs and LARPs are "low structure" games. Computer games and board games have a very rigid structure, and the player is only allowed to express themselves within that structure. Move to A or B, buy A or B, roll for A or B.

Low-structure games may have very intricate rules, but there are large amounts of "free time" between them. Times when the rules are very relaxed, and the players are left to express themselves in any sort of reasonable way. This is the "role play" part of the game.

Most players are human, and so most players will naturally think of their avatar in human terms. Their avatar expresses themselves in human terms, has human goals, develops human relationships. Even non-human avatars still act like humans, just some particular personality type.

The rules generally tie very strongly to this avatar and the personality it bears. Most RPGs are about fighting because that's the most direct route to being directly about the avatar. If you do badly in a fight, your avatar directly suffers. If you do well, your avatar directly benefits. It's a very tight symbiosis with the player's emotional investment in their avatar, especially since you can express your noncombat personality very clearly through your combat actions.

This also explains why "once removed" RPGs are so rare. It's very rare for an RPG's main mechanic to be starship combat, for example. Even if each avatar has a clear role to play (and dice to roll), there's no tight connection between them and the space combat. Oh, there's a connection, but it's loose. This is why most RPGs with space ships focus almost entirely on personal combat instead of vehicular combat, using the latter only for major plot points and breathers.

Similarly, hacking RPGs are rare, because there is a similarly loose connection. What is arguably the most successful hacking system is the Shadowrun system. You'll notice that it includes direct feedback: if you do badly, your avatar can take physical damage. Also, the environment of the hack is strong VR, usually featuring humanoid avatars (or, at least, things-with-human-elements). Even with this, Shadowrun games rarely have much hacking in them.

So I've been thinking about how to create games which give the human players their self-expression and knot avatars tightly with the primary play rules, but aren't actually about humans/metahumans/near-humans.

Depending on your school of game design, you may end up throwing off some ideas right away and considering it solved, but I find those ideas are generally surface solutions that don't end up being very fun.

The issue for me is that I love elegant rule sets. But the challenge here is the opposite: I need elegant lack of rule sets. I need the part of the game where the players are freestyling to be great. I need it to guide the players into expressing themselves without limiting their expression... but I also need it to remind the players that they are not necessarily human.

It's a tough problem. I tend to fall back on my Bastard Jedi scaffold, but I don't think that's elegant enough. What are your ideas?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Idle Hands

A few days ago, Darius posted a link to this, a video game where the players are all cooperating bridge crew. The details are a bit scarce, but the basic idea is pretty clear.

This got me thinking about games like this (including tabletop RPGs). Games where there are a fairly large number of players cooperating. I've run scads of them, so I have a pretty good eye for how party dynamics tend to develop.

The difficulty in any party-based game, whether it's a bridge crew or a team of adventurers, is that not everyone is always busy. It's very easy to end up with a minimal role - a mistake made in a lot of old LARPs. "Color characters", we derisively called them. The same problem applies to characters that have the same amount of business but dramatically different amounts of tension.

The classic example of a color character is a LARP in which a few characters are simply "henchmen" or "thug". It's possible to write such characters to have an interesting role, but classically their role is just to follow the boss around and be muscle when they need to be. 90% of the time, they do nothing.

This is "realistic", sure. And some players can turn this kind of crap role into something entertaining, but rarely without upsetting the whole boat. In general, the use of color characters is a sign that your LARP design is painfully oldschool.

The classic example of the "tensionless" character is the cleric in a D&D game. The cleric can fight and heal, but it's pretty rare for them to feel tension: healing is rarely tense, and they rarely have an actual dog in the fight. They're just playing fighter support, and they know it. Even though they get the same number of rolls and have access to the same complexity of combat as the fighter, the tension just isn't there. They're just fighting to pass time between throwing heals and turning zombies.

These two kinds of characters - tensionless and color - are the banes of every team game. They are going to plague a game like a "bridge crew" simulator especially hard, because there is very little crossing over from one role to another. If you're an engineering officer, you might become important if things are going badly, but you're basically a cleric: you have no 'natural' role to play unless things get bad.


So far, I've been casting tensionless and color characters as uniformly bad, and I think that they are. However, it's also possible to make the opposite mistake, and desperately try to keep everyone busy all the time.

If we fall back to the bridge crew example, not every player needs to always be working flat-out. The immersion is quite strong due to the physical setting. Momentary downtime could be useful to build tension and immersion, as players sit by helplessly awaiting the next moment. This is generally quite difficult to do in a low-immersion setting, but in something like a LARP it can be fairly effective if your setting fits your setting. Physical setting fits your game setting.

A major difficulty is the modern person's reaction to a lull: Facebook.

Trained by almost two decades of on-line games, players have learned that the game is only one of the ten things they do while playing the game. They fill the empty grind time with random internet doings.

This will prevent immersion. If you are playing a game in person, absolutely ban non-game activities, especially if people are using computers. They can do non-game activities if they need to, but they need to leave the game arena to do so. Otherwise, even momentary lulls will sabotage the flow of the game as the party is torn apart by their secondary pursuits.

Ahhh, such concerns are at the heart of LARP design, and LARP design is at the heart of in-person AR games like the bridge crew example.

It would be interesting to do more of these designs, but it takes a large number of players with a big chunk of time on their hands, so you basically need a college.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Empty Worlds Plus

A steadily increasing number of indie games are following the Dwarf Fortress trend: the point of the game is to build. The world is normally a randomly generated mess to give everything variety, but the focus is definitely on construction rather than exploration.

This is part of a trend towards larger game worlds in general, but games with an actual budget tend to try to populate their large worlds themselves rather than relying on the player. However, I'd like to focus on player-generated worlds for now.

Most player-generated worlds are generated for the entertainment of the player generating them. If you play Dwarf Fortress, you're probably mostly interested in seeing how far you can stretch the game world.

A few newer games are beginning to add human (by which I mean player-human, not game-world human) elements. For example, in Minecraft it is pretty common for players to get together on a shared server to build. Even in Dwarf Fortress, shared fortresses and long, amusingly-told war stories are common.

It's clear that sharing player-constructed worlds with other players in various ways is a concept with legs. One way to do this is through shared construction or management of a world, and another way is through creating artistic sets and allowing other players to experience/use them. Both of these have merit, and they both have, at their core, something that isn't in the game: other humans.

Whether you're interacting with other humans in real time or delayed, whether they have management rights or are just here for the view, these humans are experiencing the world through their own filters, their own judgment.

This sounds painfully obvious, but this is actually an important point that isn't addressed well enough in these games with player-generated shared worlds. What we could really use is some mechanism for helping players to share their thoughts with each other in game space.

Text or voice chat is more or less all that exists right now, and it serves well enough that people don't tend to think about better options. However, if you look at any out-of-game sharing, you'll see an immense amount of emotional value added through pictures, music, camera control, snarky voice- or text-over that's linked to specific times or camera angles.

This kind of machinima is certainly not unique to shared, constructed worlds. For example, there are whole series using this kind of stuff with the Halo engines. However, I think that shared, generated worlds have a much higher need for this sort of thing and need to have it integrated into the game itself.

It's a kind of scripting. Can't use normal scripting languages for an interface, though, because they're not really suited for what we want to do. We almost certainly need a scripting language to actually control the world, but it's overly cumbersome for sharing our emotions and judgments.

So what can we use?

Well, what do we want to do? We want to allow players to inject their own values to the experience of other players. For example, if there's a part of the map with an incredible view, we want to lure players into looking out over the map from that viewpoint and hopefully have them struck by the same sights in roughly the same way. Or we want the player to be able to tell a story about the people who lived in a given place through tiny details that can be discovered by investigating, leading you on a cross-map treasure hunt.

To a large extent, a simple tagging system would work - allowing players to add text or other media to in-world locations or objects. Of course, you would also have to be able to add a camera vector and a "flag" to alert nearby players that there's a thingie to trigger.

Unfortunately, the sort of experience we're talking about isn't really "chunky". It's theoretically possible to cleverly put down triggers such that they cause a more continuous flow of... what other people think... but it would require an extremely deft touch.

Instead, we might want to think about how to allow players to sculpt the world on not just a spatial way, but an emotional one.

The problem isn't the sculpting - there's a thousand ways to do that. The problem is how to give it to the other participants as they pass through the world without (A) stealing their control or (B) being irritating.

The three ways I can think of are music, avatar animation, and companions.

Music is probably the best way, since music is so good at causing emotions. If your game has a music generator in it, it should feed partially off the "emotional sculpting" the players have been doing. It probably is less about the exact spot you're standing on and more about the emotional content of the spots you can see. So if you look out over a vast plain of nostalgia-covered lands, the music should get extremely nostalgic. If you're in a tight space, able to only really see walls, the claustrophobic lack of other areas with music triggers will be reflected in the music.

Still, adaptive music may not be something you can do. So two more options.

Avatar animation is suitable for third-person games. By allowing people to make "points of interest" or "ideal camera angles", you can get the avatar to look in that direction, signalling to the player to do the same. Emotional values in the landscape can affect the avatar's gross animation or coloration as well.

The last option I can think of is similar to avatar animation: a companion follows you around or, at least, is nearby. The companion would be scripted to do specific kinds of things, but this scripting should be open to disruption rather than rock-solid. Companions might be ghosts, people, fairies, dogs - anything that can move around and can show an emotion. They can be aggressive like Navi, or completely passive inhabitants of the region.

The companion option requires a pretty powerful pathfinder and adaptive scripting system, though, so it's not quite as easy to do as you might think.

Anyway, those are my quick thoughts on the matter. What are yours?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Proxy Publisher

I've been reading and viewing a lot of stuff, and I've recently seen the Creative Commons license popping up everywhere. Even in paper books! If you're not sure exactly what Creative Commons is, I recommend this as a first read, keeping in mind that it's three years old.

So CC is spreading, and it's popular. Yay!

With that said, I also have seen a lot of people make the same mistake.

Keep in mind that the Creative Commons community is large and diverse: my opinions are my own. However, my opinions are not unique.

The mistake many people make is right at the beginning. They decide they're going to wade into the Creative Commons waters, so they release something under a Creative Commons license. They feel good, they're participating, they're "next wave", yeah!

The problem is that they publish under the most restrictive version of the license they can imagine: CC BY-NC-ND. This is the "proxy publisher" setting. It says "spread this around, please, but don't change anything!"

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this license, and in some cases it is what you might actually want to do. However, in most cases, it's a mistake.

The problem is that ND: "No Derivatives".

I understand the idea. These artists would like to keep control over what they release. They don't want it mutating out of their control. BUT. This is a flawed presumption. In many cases, it is the wrong way to come at the situation.

The question to ask yourself: what does the ND license actually protect me from?

Has a CC-released work ever been derived into something that upset the author and was popular enough that it got noticed? I know a few derivatives have been pretty crap, but the community simply ignores them. No harm is prevented by taking the ND license.

Also, derivatives (in the unlikely chance you are that popular) are what give your product (and your personal brand) serious legs. The ability for people in various circumstances to adapt your work to suit their needs means that your work can reach them - and everyone they touch.

To be honest, the only thing I think might be better released as ND is intensely personal art. Even then, I would probably argue against it. ND protects you from something that isn't a threat and cripples your circulation.

I know that a lot of artists have problems with piracy. But that's a completely unrelated issue. Completely. The two aren't even vaguely related, and ND will not protect you from pirates, or from tweens who make your pictures into avatars, or fanfic writers - all it will do is discourage talented people who actually want to build on what you've created.

What I'm trying to say is... think carefully about what you're releasing. Do you really need to maintain an iron grip? Don't you think the community has something to add? Do you really think you are the only person with useful thoughts on this matter?

When you release, go whole hog: leave off the ND. Release with SA, instead. The worst that could happen is that people are led to your work through screwball videos or parodies, and is that really so bad?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Social AI Redux

I've talked a lot about social AI in the past, but it's been at least a year, so here's another post about it. Please note that by "social AI", I really mean "the appearance of social AI". I don't have any intention to solve any fundamental AI challenges.

One issue with social AI is that it requires really dense, nuanced information to react realistically. On the order of hundreds or thousands of times more nuanced than today's video games. Perhaps the Kinect will provide enough human feedback, barely, but in more general situations you're going to have to synthesize a lot of the density out of the game world without many cues from human input.

As an example, if your friend touches you, the exact meaning varies hugely depending on the location and type of touch. Arm, shoulder, head, back, waist, chest, hand, etc, etc. Each location gives a different impression. Is it a tap, a pat, a reassuring grip, a restraining grip, a rap, a friendly punch, a warning punch, a caress, a guiding push?

To say that there are N ways to get touched, or even N thousand ways, is a mistake. The fact is that there are an infinite number of ways to get touched. You can't list them all, and even if you could, you don't want to try to interpret them based on a big list. Instead, you want input that is sufficiently dense so as to allow the program to figure out the nature of the touch based on context.

By the way, this density is also important to humans. Humans who are stuck in simple and restricted environments tend to have simpler and less nuanced responses. They often go a little bit batty, like an edge case in a simulation. For example, being stuck in an arctic base for six months. This is fairly well documented, to the point where there are specific recommendations for how to keep your people from going nuts when you station them somewhere with so little stimulation.

Well, aside from that, there's also a ton of interpretive complexity. What is a friendly tap in one country might be an aggressive warning in another, or even a flirty move. Even within one country, different people will react differently. Even the same person will react differently depending on the moods of the people involved and the surrounding context.

The normal method of trying to make a social AI for a game is to give you a variety of interactions, and the AI responds to those interactions in a fairly straightforward way. At its peak, this consists of basically building up a tremendous expert system which takes the mood and the situation and the type of tap and then spits out a response.

This is not a good way to do it for the same reason that carefully scripting every branch of a plot is not a good way to do it. A) it creates distinct 'paths' or 'branches', rather than giving real freedom. B) it gets radically more complex with every choice or branch you add.

So, to quickly state where we are:

You need to do social interactions with a culturally and contextually aware algorithm, rather than using a state machine or expert system, if you want really adaptable social interactions.

You need extremely varied and nuanced inputs to feed that algorithm, or you'll end up basically creating a state machine. AKA "The Arctic Base Issue".

Very few or perhaps none of the human input devices available to you can actually transmit that much nuance.


That's really only a tenth of the story. It's the foundation on which you start to talk about social AI, or the appearance of social AI. But it's plenty long as is, I think.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Interactive Movies

I've always been a fan of Quantic Dream's aspirations. The games they create are always worth playing, if just for how unusual they are. For those of you playing at home, Quantic Dream is known for creating games that are interactive movies. Heavy Rain was the most recent one.

I think it's a genre waiting to unfold. But I also think that Quantic Dream's games so far haven't started the unfolding process.

When I play their games, I am happy to play them. But the instant I set them down, there's absolutely no draw to pick it back up. In fact, there's a barrier.

To me, this feels the same way as when I play a long, constructive game like Civilization. If I don't finish the game in one stretch, I start over. Trying to pick up a half-built world is no fun. All the details that kept you interested have faded. You can remember the big strokes, but there's not much emotional investment any more.

Of course, when I lose track of a Civilization game, I can just start a new, random game. With an interactive movie, that's not really the case. Starting over means retreading the same steps, and it gets more boring each time.

What I'm saying is that I love playing interactive movies, but they're like movies: you don't watch half a movie and then come back to it the next day. At least, most people don't, and it's not really recommended.

The techniques you use to establish emotional investment in a movie or world-building game like Civilization revolve around details. The good acting, the interesting setpiece, the particular way he talks about her, and exactly what that city is building right now. This works well, it really gets us going. But it fades fast.

Games that are intended to be dropped and picked up again use different techniques. The Gears of War and Halo goons don't have to have nuanced relationships and excellent body language. The draw is in the quick drop into gameplay. It doesn't matter what the details are, the algorithm of the gameplay is what brings you back.

Or, in the case of things like StarWars and Star Trek, setting. I think that strong settings feel like gameplay in some ways. A setting with strong, evocative points that all the details hang from seems easier to immerse yourself in, especially on repeat visits.

At least, that's my feeling.

What's in the future for interactive movies and story-games?

Well, I think we'll find they become strongly episodic, and the episodes will be very short - four to five hours. Maybe the episodes will be built and sold in distinct packages, but I think it's more likely that the engine that runs the game will know how to build the next episode based on what happened in your last episode, within the limits of the dramatic arc.

We already see this a bit in Heavy Rain, where the game's progression is radically different depending on exactly what your characters do. I think Heavy Rain accomplishes this through insane amounts of carefully scripted events, but our techniques for doing some of this generatively are steadily advancing. As they do, I expect the game to make very clear distinctions as to the game's internal episodes.

I also think that story games will have to be built around settings rather than stories. The stories are important, but I think that a really vibrant setting with very clear "centerpieces" (such as the Force, the Enterprise, Mordor, etc) will be what draws the players back in after each episode, and I think most games will lean that way.

The biggest problem with creating a game like this is what to do at chapter ends.

Players are notoriously unreliable. Some players will happily play for twelve hours straight, while others will only eke out maybe forty-five minutes. You can ask them how long they plan on playing - and I expect we will start to - but even that is only vaguely accurate.

The ending of a chapter is therefore something really irritating. If your player quits halfway into the chapter, that can still be salvaged, although it's not ideal. But if a player quits fifteen minutes before the end boss? Or what if the chapter ends, but the player wants to continue playing for another twenty minutes?

I think there are two solution, one for each of those problems. Here are my suggestions.

For chapters ending early, I recommend an adaptive progression. If your player breaks it off, then when he comes back, make sure there's at least an hour of chapter left, even if he quit literally at the final fight. This hour of chapter gives you time to reintroduce the player to all the tiny details that get the moment-to-moment emotional investment. Similarly, you have to assume that they have forgotten all the little details from the first part of the chapter.

I don't mean that Gloria is trying to level up her fireball, or that Sven loves Sue. I mean the emotional touches - Gloria's husky voice, Sven's nervous coin-rolling trick, and the way Sue struggles with her umbrella in the rain. You can't just rush back into the scene where Sven is declaring his love for Sue, you've got to re-establish both Sven and Sue as characters worth caring about.

The other side of the problem is the post-chapter play.

Done right, an ending will really kick you down. There's a feeling like you just want to sit quietly for a while. As gamers, we seem to discourage this feeling. These days, our games either never end, or have endings that immediately scoot us on into the rest of the IP. It's rare that a game ends with as much emotional force as Chronotrigger, Beyond Good and Evil, and so many other famous games.

I recommend that we do not allow players to instantly move on to the next episode. I recommend that there is a second type of play where the players basically play house. Allowing the players to do some neutral gameplay like walking around the town, designing costumes, and playing around with move sets will allow them to decompress from what was hopefully a fantastic ending.

SO, that's my prediction for the future of story games. You?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Simulating the Early Years

As you know, I'm a big fan of creating worlds and then colonizing them. Some of the research I do towards this end is interesting enough that it can stand on its own. Like this post about the very early years, when hunter-gatherers gave way to sedentary farmers.

If you have any familiarity with the subject, you might have the impression that this was an explosion or revolution. Poom! Now we're all farmers and we have cities, high population density, specialization, and so on.

That's not really true. Farming flickered on and off for thousands of years before it really took root, and even then its spread was pretty rough. I don't think there's any textbook-endorsed reason for this "flickering", but a little thought yields an obvious answer.

The stuff we grow on farms today is not wild stuff, it's tame stuff. It's domesticated, just like the dog: we brought in wild barley and bred it decade after decade until it behaved like we wanted it to.

So the first farmers were starting with wild plants. Wild plants that grow perfectly fine wherever they currently grow in the wild, and don't really grow much better if carefully tended. It's easier just to go pick raspberries than grow bushes of them. Sure, you might plant some raspberries along the river bank so that when you swing by again in a few years you'll have plenty of raspberries, but you aren't going to sit down and watch.

In order to successfully go agricultural, your farm needs to produce an immense yield compared to the wild land's yield. Factors that can improve your relative yield are: plant domestication, irrigation, and having crappy wild yield (or being unable to range very far to collect it). I imagine that early farmers would often need all three of these factors in order to really consider agriculture as a way of life.

You may think that plant domestication is kind of one-way - once someone domesticates it, it stays domesticated. However, that's probably not really true. Unfortunately, even a successful farmstead is in a tremendous amount of danger. Not just from raiders or weather, but also from soil degradation and salinity buildup. Every year, your field probably produces less than it did the year before. The farm goes bust, the slightly-tamed crops interbreed with their wild brothers.

Eventually, there were enough pseudo-domesticated strains of cereal grass running around that farming could finish the job and properly take root. This seems to have happened on earth about 10,000 years ago, although there are signs that it took root and then un-rooted many times before.

The Fertile Crescent is the famous "birth of agriculture" spot, and this is because the crescent has long dry seasons and short rainy seasons. Grasses grow in these locations instead of dense forests, and that has two effects. 1) long grasses produce excellent farming soil, and 2) cereal grasses are pretty adaptable, and can be domesticated to higher yields very easily. The highly variable terrain also makes settling down a bit more attractive: it's harder to range very far on foot.

These three conditions happen to satisfy two of the three preconditions mentioned, and irrigation was also possible, so the crescent was an ideal place for agriculture to set in.

In Africa, things like millet and coffee were being domesticated, although not at quite such an early date. The places these agricultural revolutions took place in (such as the Ethiopian highlands) have many of the same characteristics as the Fertile Crescent: wet season and dry season, variable terrain, available water.

Asia and America followed in the same kind of pattern.

Why does this matter?

Well, if you're putting down initial settlements in a world-building game, and you're starting at the agricultural revolution, then this tells you precisely where to put them: on variable terrain with a wet and dry season.

Moreover, it also gives you a new lever. Normally, farms are treated as farms. However, farm technology is not simply irrigation and crop rotation. The crops themselves are a technology. The products we grow today have spent thousands of years slowly shifting from the original versions. Over time and as long as war and ruin don't interfere, that technology will improve.

If you really want the game to rely on food, you can also work in soil degradation and salinity. The middle east wasn't always a desert: many of those lands were lush and fertile until they were catastrophically overfarmed. There's quite a bit of evidence that many of the mostly-forgotten great old empires from across the world collapsed due to overfarming.

Anyhow, I actually wanted to post on weather simulation. Maybe some other day.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Future of Tweeting

I was going to call this "the Social Network", until I realized there's a movie out now by that name. This post talks about potential descendants of Twitter and the like.

I just had a conversation with a friend, where we talked about the difficulties of actually finding the right things in this world full of stuff. As a quote:

"They understand they want a cube that's two inches to an edge and blue, but they don't know what that cube is called, or what its manufacturer would market it as. They know they want a material that is liquid at room temperature and has a viscosity somewhere between water and grapefruit juice, but they don't know who would make such a thing, or what market its currently being sold for."

This is something that does crop up fairly regularly in both large and small cases. For example, I met a man who needed a "poster-quality technical illustration", but didn't know the terminology, so he was searching for "data visualization" and other keywords that kept leading him down dead ends.

My response to my friend was "I think a descendant of Twitter will solve this problem."

His response was "I don't think this is one of those problems that social networking or its derivatives is going to help with. We're not searching based on who knows who, or even who knows what, or even for people at all (expect to say we're searching for the person who makes the thing we want.) We're searching for an object, process, or intellectual property that meets certain parameters."

My response was "I'll write a blog post!" and his response was "facepalm". And now you are up to speed.

The future of everything is the social network.

First thing first, the term "social network" is being radically misused. Facebook is not a social network, it's a web site that enables social networks. Twitter is not a social network, it's a web site and API that enables social networks. So, when I say "social network", I don't mean "Twitter". I mean the underlying mass of connections between the participants on various social networking sites, and all the context those connections contain.

Right now, social networks are seen as just that - social. But that's just how the current generation is marketed. In reality, a social network is about connections that you know how much to trust. The people you follow on Twitter, you follow because you value their input at some level. Maybe you follow Gibson because you trust his judgment, maybe because he throws out interesting links, maybe because you hate him but you want to track what he says. The point is, you understand how much he can be trusted on what subject.

(As it turns out, Gibson is mostly a retweeter, so most people that follow him are using him as a source for filtered links. But we trust his filter to do as we expect it to, letting through certain kinds of links and not others.)

Things go the other direction, too. If you look at the Freakonomics blog or Warren Ellis, you'll find that these people use their readers as a vast resource. They constantly ask for information - what's a good band, give us quotes from 1930, send me your pictures, what do you think of this analysis... people with a lot of readers tend to be very interactive with those readers. If Freakonomics people had posted "I need this kind of data visualization..." they wouldn't have needed to search for the right match for days: some of their readers would have instantly known what they were asking for, and they would be hooked up inside hours.

It's not that these people trust their readers. I'm sure a lot of their readers send in crap, and I'm sure they get a lot of spam. But they have a lot of really great readers specifically because their readership trusts them (in specific ways) and therefore wants to impress them/participate.

That's the state of the world today.

It's not really that much of a jump to imagine the next generation of software will help with this sort of thing, will be more useful for the kinds of meaningful interactions that really make social networking worthwhile. Of course, you'll still be able to hear that Anne just ate a sandwich, if you want. Those interactions have value, too.

The other half of this is that I don't think it's much of a jump to imagine companies (or people within companies) using social networking software to figure out exactly what they're looking for and a good source of it.

Social networks have been used for thousands or even tens of thousands of years for precisely this purpose. The purchasing manager wants to buy Ye Old Paste, so he asks his friends if they know a good paste maker, maybe someone who'll hook them up at a discount. It continues today - my company regularly get requests from people who want to know more about what specific panels they should buy, even though we don't sell or install them. It's because they know us, and we know these guys...

It's the exact same as Facebook or Twitter, except without the technical assistance of a piece of software.

Sure, if your social network fails (or is hopelessly inadequate) you fall back on reading advertising or Google-combing. But those are techniques I would like to render obsolete. If we can radically expand social networking software to the point where it allows people to talk to each other in a businesslike way without feeling the stigma of "found it on the internet", we may very well end up making that desperate and blind search for an answer a thing of the past.

Actually, I've already hired people via Twitter, so I can't imagine it'll be long coming.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Fog of the Uncanny Valley

Recently, I've been getting irked by the topic of the "uncanny valley", so I'm going to wrestle it into submission in this post. If you don't know what the uncanny valley is, information is here. If you haven't read the Wikipedia article before, it contains some of what I'll be talking about. Or, rather, rambling about. This isn't very well pruned.

Moving Target

The first thing is that the uncanny valley is a moving target. People talk about "staying out of the uncanny valley", but the position of the uncanny valley depends on the person doing the viewing, and even then can change over time.

For example, my uncanny valley is far to the "left" of many people's. The deadeyed near-humans in modern video games are pretty far up my righthand slope, even though they seem to fall pretty clearly into the valley for many nongamers. On the other hand, Bayonetta is the creepiest thing ever made, wallowing in the uncanny valley even though she's obviously intended to be reasonably far up the lefthand side of that slope.

I don't think this is because of any intrinsic trait I have. I think the curve is a learned one. The hypothesis of the valley is that, by failing to be human enough, something sets off our creepy alert. I've spent enough time working with fictional 3D human beings that their attributes no longer trigger an alert. I think this can happen to everyone.

Therefore, I think the idea of "staying out of the valley" is actually a wrong-headed one. Attempting to climb the right side of the valley doesn't even have to work for it to work: just making the attempt and exposing the gaming population to these entities will cause their valleys, as a whole, to shift left. IE, the valley will always be located to the left of what we normally think of as humans, even if what we normally include in that group is a bunch of fictional characters.

This can also be seen in detail with people who collect dolls or similar. You go into someone's room and it's full of dolls, that's incredibly creepy. But they're used to it.

Of course, I'm talking about "to the left" and "uncanny valley" and all these other words, but there's an important thing to remember.

Not a Good Simplification

Despite the way we treat it, the uncanny valley is not a proven fact. It's not really even a scientific theory: it's barely a hypothesis. It's more of a simplification. It's easy to think of things in terms of the uncanny valley, but it's like thinking of planes as big metal birds: it doesn't actually explain what's going on and is absolutely no help in designing them.

My theory is actually the opposite. I don't believe that the uncanny valley is because we failed to be human enough. I think it's caused by the same thing that causes creepiness in any situation.

If you look at creepy characters and situations, the creepiness is usually caused by magnifying a particular attribute to the point where it is no longer reasonable. Sometimes this is straightforward, such as Freddie having a fire-scarred face and blade gloves: we take an attribute that is discomforting, and we amplify it.

Sometimes it can be a bit more abstract. Pyramid head's creepiness comes from the way we amplify inhuman characteristics. Not non-human, but inhuman: pyramid head gives off all the body language of a seriously disturbed person, amped to eleven. His namesake - the pyramid he has instead of a head - serves not to make him creepy, but to make him iconic. He is not creepy because he has a pyramid for a head, he's just easy to remember. His creepy traits are the ones he inherits and amplifies from the creepy people in our lives.

Approached from this standpoint, what we call the "uncanny valley" is clearly just what we call this sort of thing when we do it by accident. The dead-eyed characters from a modern video game aren't creepy because they just fail to be human, they're creepy because having pallid skin and flat, unfocused eyes is an unsettling attribute.

It may be true that they have to be fairly close to human for these attributes to matter. But that's not necessarily any reason to label it as a specifically "relative to human" thing. After all, there are plenty of creepy attributes out there, and even some attributes which are only creepy in certain situations. I can make a creepy cat in the same way I make a creepy person, but I'd probably amp different attributes. Moreover, what's creepy in one situation might be completely uncreepy in another.

For example, the new Street Fighter character C. Viper is extremely creepy to me. It's because she's wearing high heels. Obviously, someone wearing high heels isn't creepy in and of itself: it's the fact that a warrior in the Street Fighter universe is wearing high heels.

I also find cell-shaded Link disquieting. Not because he fails to be human, but because he fails to be a cartoon. He amplifies several cartoon traits and leaves others unamplified, creating a really uncomfortable result. To me.

So, in the end, I think that what we call the "uncanny valley" is simply when we accidentally amp up disquieting traits.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Star Maps

It's really common for star maps to be in 2D. I think this is unfortunate, so I'd like to talk about making the transition to a 3D star map.

The difficulty in a 3D star map is that the human mind really tends to think of surfaces rather than freefloating objects. Just look at how difficult it is to make out what is going on when looking down on scaffolding: how many levels high is it? Which slats are on which levels? This is a problem that many games are beginning to encounter as they try to build very high (tall) levels. Mirror's edge has some examples, as does Prince of Persia: it's easy to lose track of what is "beneath" you, even though you passed through a few moments ago. Which part of the level is that, down there?

And those games have it easy, because at least they're working with surfaces. A star map is just points of light.

There are several things we can do to ease the problems.

One is to introduce surface-like elements, including things like radial disks around certain stars, and trade routes that have broad, flat surfaces. It's critical to keep these things to a size that can be easily extrapolated, so you can tell the distance. Having a disk around a star that grows based on population makes it impossible to use that disk to determine what z-level the star is on. If the disk is always the same size, though, we can guess where the star is by looking at the perspective-induced difference is size.

Having a flat "z-surface" with "raised lines" is pretty common in games. This is descended from old submarine sims. I find this to be a pretty poor solution, only slightly better than no marks at all. A single flat surface with no relation to any of the actual points of light isn't a very useful surface, so the surfaces should integrate the stars.

Gently sliding the camera into position rather than simply "popping" into place is also somewhat useful, as it gives parallax information. This only works until the user switches screens due to the way we process visuals, so it might be useful to slide the camera into place every single time the user switches screens, even if the galactic camera has no reason to have moved. Even a tiny motion is sufficient to give parallax.

Keeping the same "up" and "north" is also useful. It's tempting to let the player control the pitch and yaw of the camera, since it's a 3D world and your instincts are based around flight sims and FPS games. But in actuality the only control the player needs is zoom: always keeping the same up, down, north, south, east, and west means that the players will be able to memorize the location of stars using the same faculties they use to memorize the location of the door in their room, an icon in their desktop, the shift stick in their car. Humans are bad at rotational pattern recognition, and there's no gameplay reason to allow rotation.

All of these will help, but they have the fundamental problem that they're still representing freefloating dots and rails rather than surfaces. It might be worthwhile to create surfaces instead. We can, for example, build a number of surfaces into the star region, and stars have to be on a surface. Due to the vertical requirements, the best solution is probably thick tubes or large freefloating objects instead of a terrain-like surface.

You will have problem with opacity, though: how will you see stars on the opposite side of an object, or occluded by an object? On the plus side, your travel routes could be inherently linked to the topology, making it feel like more than just a visual aide.

This brings up the problem of opacity in general. Stars are not the only things in space. Things like nebulae are often important tactical considerations, but rendering them is difficult to do without mucking up the display: large opaque blobs will hide everything inside them or on the other side. Also, since they are arbitrarily sized and shaped, it can be very hard to determine where in space they actually are.

National borders have the same problem: they are a 3D perimeter of arbitrary size and shape. How do you draw them so they don't confuse the viewer or obscure other important things? Transparency might seem like the answer, but in fact it just makes things even muddier.

I don't know if there's a perfect solution, but I'm playing with two solutions.

One uses the "stars on surface" approach as mentioned above, except that the "surface" is automatically generated to include all stars not part of your nation/reach. This essentially puts your nation inside a bubble. This has a lot of downsides, though. It requires that you have "flight sim" controls due to opacity issues, which in turn means that if your nation is larger than about a dozen stars, you start losing track and thinking of them as "those stars" rather than individual stars.

The other idea is the "panned opacity". I think of this like radar: the opaque walls of nebula and borders are drawn, but only in a transitory thin slice as the "scanner" travels. This seems to work okay, but it feels kind of "foggy".

None of this is necessary if you have a surfaced-based space, though: you can just color the always-visible surfaces the color of their owners.

Another "solution" is to simply radically downplay the importance of the 3D star map to the player. The AI can take advantage of that 3D space to build an interesting world, but the player's game takes place in a small enough region that he can't get lost. Also, if the player is an avatar instead of a nation, the player will have an easier time of it because they won't have to remember where every star is and what they are doing, just two or three.

What are your opinions on 3D star maps?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Video and Details

Here's a YouTube video of ChinaSim and the new toy that can actually be seen in video. (As you'll see, ChinaSim is basically impossible to see in video.)


Anyway, one thing the sharp-eyed among you will notice is that the new toy has some distinct weaknesses, one of which is that the trade routes don't tend to run along rivers/coasts. That's not ideal, but I'm just showing the basics, so I didn't bother to refine it. Ideally, the contours of the land play a huge role in what cities can reach which cities: cities on the same river can trade with each other, and cities on a coast can reach a wide range of cities also on the coast. Mountains are hard to cross, and so on. The new sim has some aspects of that, but they weren't turned up enough since I didn't spend any time polishing it.

Another thing that you may have missed is that the ChinaSim cities modify the landscape, while the new toy cities don't. There are two reasons for this.

ChinaSim cities build a lot of stuff. They build farms and mines and such. When I originally built it, the idea was to be almost identical to something like Civilization: a resource-based building game. However, that stuff seems very minor in comparison to trade routes, so I left it out.

ChinaSim cities also chop down forests to bolster their economy. This is fairly realistic: even relatively early societies happily chopped down every tree they could find. It also serves as a handy limiter: when you're out of trees, you're out of an economic free ride. When your population outgrows the wilderness, you have to survive on your trade routes.

It's invisible, but ChinaSim also has a fertility rating for the land, which drains over time. This was implemented specifically to get large, flourishing civilizations to collapse, Fertile Crescent Style.

Those things can be added to the new toy, but even without them, sufficiently large nations tend to tear themselves apart into many smaller, independent nations. So there's no need to engineer a mass famine: the world will never consolidate (or never for long).

There are tons of things I could do with the new sim if I wanted to spend more time on it. One is to replace the per-pixel border claims with regional border claims. I want to split the map into regional blocks of maybe 8-30 pixels in area, split along natural boundaries such as slopes, rivers, and so on. With per-pixel claiming, the nations spend a lot of processor power just thinking about what to claim to what extent (hence the halfassed blotchy look you see in the video). With a regional claiming style, that could be eased and made more realistic.

While I've focused on computer algorithms that automatically generate a world, there are plenty of worlds that are not generated in that way. But hand-drawn worlds have many of the same features, and a game where the player is involved in building the world also has the same features.

Anyway, if you want any implementation details, comment here and I'll provide them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spatial Play

Recently I've been talking about using transportation routes to define a world's civilizations, but I've had a hard time talking about why the play is deep. So I'm going to make a post about the fundamentals of constructive spatial play. IE, things like Sim City, rather than things like Halo.

Normally, a space is defined in terms of two basic principles: how easy a point in space is to cross, and what resources are available from a point in space.

For example, in Civilization you have plains tiles, which are easy to cross. Forest tiles are harder to cross (and give a combat bonus). Mountain tiles are impossible (or very difficult) to cross, as are water tiles. However, as time progresses, you learn to cross water tiles using boats - first shore tiles, then deep sea tiles. Later, flying units can also cross mountains.

This carves up the world into "slices" of land, and civilizations in different slices will have some time before they manage to cross over. Normally, the game Civilization downplays this by having technologies advance so fast that by the time you've finished exploring your starting zone, you have the transportation to move into the neighboring zones. Similarly, in space faring games, your range usually expands faster than you can colonize the stars you're currently limited to. A game where the land "slices" remain separate for longer would appeal to me, as it creates a chunky "settle-explore-settle-explore" feel. But I'm getting distracted.

The other half of a map are the resources available. Normally, the more construction-intensive a game is, the wider the variety of resources. If a game is combat-tactical instead, the resources are much more limited. This is because tactical games (such as Starcraft) lean far more heavily on the way space is carved up. While a Starcraft map won't be explicitly broken into zones, it will have many areas that are difficult to cross, creating an unusual topology that makes you have to think about exactly how you should proceed. Tactical games tend to focus on having a complex topology, rather than actually slicing up space into discrete areas.

Construction-centered games focus more on resources, and slice space up with simplistic abandon on the side. Games like Civilization don't simply feature food, work, and money as resources: they actively feature more than a dozen resource types including gems, whales, tribal villages, coffee... spacefaring games (four-X games) work similarly, with each planet varying by size, inhabitability, gravity, and half a dozen different fundamental resource types, quite separate from things like ruins, natives, and so on.

Okay, now let's work out some basic play models.

Both the tactical and the construction games work on the same fundamental idea: you stake out control over the valuable regions, you use them to expand your capabilities, and you defend them. In tactical games, the topology of the land plays a vital role, while in construction games it is the resources that tend to be more important. This is hardly and either-or, though: it's a sliding scale that varies not just between different games, but between different plays of the same game.

For example, in Starcraft you'll want to gain rapid control over your mining spots, even though they are not often topologically valuable. In Civilization, you may want to clamp down on a particular path specifically because your enemy will come through it, even though there are no resources to take advantage of.

Both kinds of game are about controlling specific points in space - a game of territory. The complexity comes when someone else is jockeying for position as well. Your territories bump up against each other. There is often a little bit of bumping, and then a war where each side attempts to strike deep into the other person's territory. There is no mixing - even the most advanced Civilization game doesn't really go any further than "allowing his troops to pass through your land", which is not really a fundamental part of play.

Now, if you use a transport-based system, things get a bit different. In a transport system, the resources on the land are probably of much less importance. Instead, what matters are the routes built to connect various points. The points themselves probably only have value based on their access to the kinds of spaces that are conducive to building routes. IE, probably rivers and oceans.

The fundamental difference between this kind of situation and the above situation is that it isn't about controlling land, it's about controlling movement. Nearly all economic strength comes from your trade routes - they're the most important thing to build. Please note that there doesn't even have to be any kind of specific goods traveling the route or anything: in most situations, just having a route and "traffic" is enough to do the sim. Generally, the further away the two tips are, the more valuable the route. And the busier the route, the more valuable the route.

Connections are a factor you can't forget, either. If A->B->C, then C should be getting some traffic from A, via B. Generally, this calculation is where the AI comes into play: it determines what percent of the traffic to send through to C instead of claiming for itself, and it determines the taxes on those goods. In the end, this resolves to a single percent: B keeps a specific percent for itself, C gets the rest of the economic boost. If B is part of the same nation, it may very well choose to let all of the traffic through. If B-town is part of a different nation, they may claim 100% unless C-burg's nation has some sort of treaty about it. Of course, B-town's flourishing economy will affect it's B->C route independently of A-ville. In terms of in-game flavor, C-burg will still get some of A-ville's products, but from B-town traders instead of direct.

This isn't really very complex, but as you can see, it starts to lead to a very different kind of play.

You can go to war. You can march down the roads into B-town and conquer them. But in the process, you'll probably destroy their economy, radically diminishing their ability to trade with you. With the trade routes not bringing in the traffic, you have just injured yourself by conquering the enemy.

Perhaps forcing B-town to send all of A-ville's trade straight through to C-burg will more than offset it, though. Or perhaps you should invade a city that is not actively trading with you. Or maybe you just want to claim that the river is yours, so you can tax the water trade on it (or benefit from whatever value that terrain has, in games where there are resources on the world map).

There are many factors: what makes a good target for conquest is no longer a matter of how rich and undefended they are, but whether conquering them makes any damn sense. Your neighbor is not automatically your enemy: the borders are not iron walls which nothing crosses.

The political game flourishes as well. For example, marrying one of your nobility to one of B-town's nobility is a good excuse to negotiate a more favorable trade status. B-town will send through a higher percentage of the goods from A-ville if you agree to bulk up the B->C trade road to prevent bandits and promote trade speed. If you're playing with cultural drift/unification, marrying will also bring the cultures closer together, or perhaps even inject your culture into their city without having much of their culture injected into yours.

What I'm trying to say is this: a resource-centric game is all about extermination. A trade/travel-centric game is all about interacting.

Games like Civilization have tried to add more and more cultural/trade stuff into their games with every generation. But they are missing the most crucial factor: they are still thinking in terms of controlling locations. They should be thinking in terms of controlling travel.

Sim City understands this to some extent, as roads and other means of travel are central to defining your city. However, if you control every road, there's not very much complexity in the roads themselves. Their only real purpose is to make sure that the traffic values don't get too high.

So, that's my commentary on constructive spacial play. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Economies and World Building

I just got into a spirited discussion about economies in world-building (either for a game or just as a setting). The discussion revolved around what factors are important - food, energy, building materials, etc, etc. I quickly derailed it into a pages-long argument for transportation being the only thing that really matters.

This post is pretty much a technical description of why I say that, and what my experiences have been. If you're not into world-building, skip this.

When I'm world building, regardless of technological level, the first thing I think of is transport. How do goods and information get from one place to another?

Some of the people arguing against my position take the position that, at least in high-tech environments, transportation is cheap enough to disregard. However, regardless of price, transportation is what enables the growth of economies. All economic centers are also transportation hubs. This is a symbiotic rather than a causal relationship: a stronger economy promotes more import and export, and more import and export promotes a stronger economy. This is not simply a function of infrastructure, either: it's a fundamental matter of how humans think and plan.

Having built many worlds with this philosophy, I can say that it allows you to quickly and fluidly generate a dense and real-seeming set of nations and cities, regardless of technological level or what economic rules you have underlying the simulation. This is because almost everything about a city and nation is heavily influenced by how many transport routes they have running to/through them, and how open/closed/taxed those routes are.

Things like war, disease, and the spread of culture all happen along transport routes, all of which are marked by a size denoting their max load. Size is not length: it's the amount that can be transported in a time unit, which includes not just the actual road/river/spacelane in question, but also the docks on the tips. Safety can be assumed to be a function of size. Things like strife and war can also be fairly reasonably simulated using nothing but transport lines to determine how nations feel about each other, as long as those transport lines include a rating not just of size, but also of taxation/closedness.

Example: it's ancient times, farming's just been invented, and we use a random seeding system to create tiny little villages. After that, everything is determined by the trade routes. Rivers and coasts are easy to transport along since you only have to build some docks, and roads can be built if you take an economic hit for the initial investment. Not a certain amount of money, but a decrease in your "economic rank".

Speaking from experience trying to simulate a China-like environment, what we find is pretty realistic. Cities rise up on rivers and deltas and coastlines. A network of roads springs up as well, but inland cities never get very far. Not because they lack resources, but because cities on rivers and oceans have a strong head-start by then and dominate the route-building game.

In late game, cities will pop up on land routes simply because the land route is there. This, too, is realistic. Add in a random assortment of disasters that can damage trade routes, and you get a pretty reasonable feeling of organic complexity.

Adding some political acumen to the game works flawlessly, and you can see the borders form and wars start... based almost entirely on the idea of jockeying for transport hubs and routes. A second layer of restricting transport along certain routes or to certain countries further extends this political spectrum and, at this point, it becomes close to realistic. Adding in a dash of mutating culture and you have something that can pass muster with ease.

Of course, this can all be done manually, as well. I find most people manually building worlds end up thinking in terms of transportation, anyway.

A high-tech example: you have FTL drive and are all about building colonies on planets. You rank various planets with a basic "economic value". It's not even important whether the value is food-based, ore-based, or scientific-oddity-based.

The cost transporting world-to-world within a star system is low and flat, the cost for transport between star systems is per light year. All transport must be along defined "routes", but defining a route is cheap, consisting of building a landing dock.

With these simple rules and a completely random star/planet layout, you will quickly find a dense web of trade routes that ends up almost identical to the one in our primitive version. The biggest difference is that we're now working in 3D rather than 2D. The difference is subtle at the moment, but if we add in the "upper layers" of the simulation to get political, the 3D world makes for some very odd political maneuvers.

If we add in wormholes for very cheap long-range transport, wormhole star systems become the most valuable, and almost instantly become massive centers of commerce: just like you'd expect, when you "cheat", you win.

Let's turn around and say that you don't need to define routes: any route is fine. This is actually unrealistic, since established trade routes are more than just a landing bay at each end. An established route is important for insuring company longevity, so companies would naturally start to form specific trade routes even in the absence of any physical need to. It's the nature of trade.

But ignoring that, even when treating every shipment with its own independent path-finding, we still end up with trade routes as they follow the same best path every time. The differences are actually pretty minor, although they grow more extreme as the simulation continues if you continue to disregard things like policing routes, taxing/banning trade, and so on.

Another factor that can be fun to include would be information transport routes. This is especially fun if the information transport system is fundamentally different from the physical transport system, ending up with a complicated "two-map" set of trade routes. Either way, it's a lot of fun if we presume that economies are two-stage: initially, goods are what matters, and the physical trade routes are stressed. As the economy grows past a certain point, goods plateau or even begin to decrease in importance and information creation/transport rapidly grows more and more important (exponentially). Info transport and creation can also be the primary source of technological and cultural innovation.

ANYWAY, this post is all about my pet peeve, so it was a bit dull. The basic lesson is: if you ignore transport in your world-building, you are ignoring a major source of depth.

What's your experience?