Sunday, March 28, 2010

Collective Rewinding

It's all too common that people just want to use the same mechanics with microscopic tweaks. Here's an example of taking a "samey" mechanic and making a very, very different kind of dynamic from it.

Let's think of a game like Prince of Persia or Braid, where you can rewind time. You get hit by a car, you rewind time and don't walk into the street just then.

Now make it multiplayer. If anyone gets hit by a car, they rewind time and don't walk into the street. However, this raises the question of "what do the other players see"?

What if all the players - and even the NPCs - could rewind time, but they all saw it rewinding? So, if you get hit by a car, you rewind time. The guy driving the car then drives by with an apologetic wave: "sorry for willen-haven hitted you with my car!" He also witnessed the rewind, either as a player or an NPC.

Ignoring the obvious "how can I do my murdering" issues, let's look at a bigger issue. Now we run into the trouble that, in any population larger than maybe 10, we're going to be rewinding all the time, in very irritating ways.

There are several solutions to this, but for this particular post I've decided to localize the effects. The car hits you, and you rewind 10 seconds. Let's say you rewind very fast: 10 seconds in one "witnessed second". You and the car pass amicably after that.

The man on the street corner doesn't see ten seconds rewind. In his second of rewind, he only sees two seconds rewind. The man in his fifth-story apartment only sees half a second of rewind in that second. And the man watching a movie in the nearby cinema sees time slow to half for that second.

This gives us a very weird and interesting game mechanic. I recommend thinking about it for a bit before continuing, because while I have some ideas I'll show, it's a big enough thing that there are probably loads of ways to get fun dynamics out of it.


Lets put aside the various physicsical stuff such as shear and reversed light. Lets put aside the sociological ramifications of a world without accidents.

Instead, let's think about killing.

Imagine a typical multiplayer "fragfest" with these mechanics in mind. How would it work? Well, if you shot someone, they'd rewind time and get un-shot.

However, assuming you're beyond their "event horizon" (where their field goes from rewinding time to slowing time) you can continue to move forward while they move backwards, and continue to shoot them even as they rewind time. This doesn't help: your bullets will slow as they approach the event horizon, so you'll never hit them.

We can also assume that you might "fast forward" time in an attempt to create a conflicting field. But it would, at best, push the event horizon back towards the target, never actually letting you hit them.

So, how would you get kills?

Well, you could kill them such that they couldn't rewind time. If we presume they need brains to rewind time, headshots are a good way to do that. But I don't like that mechanic, so let's say that they can rewind time even after death.

You could kill them while they're in a state that they can't rewind time, such as killing them in their sleep without waking them up. But that's not a very common situation in a video game, and it's really sleazy besides.

But you could simply run them out of rewind, either because rewind is limited or because you run them back all the way to their spawn point and they "un-spawn". In the latter case, it's probably not a point: they probably just re-spawn somewhere else. The former case is fun and interesting, so let's put a cap on rewind capability: say, fifteen seconds of rewind at a maximum of two seconds per second (thirty seconds of history, max). That'll give us a fun chase scene.

There's also the idea of killing them because they're rewinding. For example, what if they crossed a bridge, and we break the bridge, throwing it into the ravine. During their rewind, they'll un-cross the bridge. The bridge bits are outside their rewind field, so they'll basically walk backwards and fall to their doom. This is assuming that physics apply in that way: we could also argue that they would walk backwards across "nothing" in the exact same manner they walked forwards, but I don't like that idea, because this way is much more interesting.

Simply erecting a spike wall behind them wouldn't work, because the wall would begin to rewind as the player rewound near it, and it would roll out of the way in plenty of time, back towards wherever it came from. Instead, the core thing would be to make sure that something that was there isn't there.

The game becomes a tactical game where you need to either chase someone back through time long enough to kill them, or change where they ran such that their rewinding screws them over, or both. For example, create a small pit using a grenade behind them. As they rewind, they get stuck in the pit, giving you an easy time chasing them down because they're not moving.

There are a lot of deep things we could do with this. Skill-wise, players learn to either hide their past or move to maximize safety. For example, a random jump now and then will offer some protection against the kind of trap I set in the previous paragraph, even though it made no sense at the time you originally did it. It becomes common to drop from heights, so that when you rewind, you scale a cliff that your pursuer can't follow you up. Mashers and stampers are an important element of safety: difficult to go through moving forwards in time, but guaranteed safe once you've gotten through and want to move backwards again. Not so for your pursuer.

You can set-up counter-traps: lay down a turret or a friend, move across its line of fire. Later, when an enemy is chasing you through time, they step right into the line of fire and have to rewind themselves. Because they've probably been "fast-forwarding" to keep your field small and to help keep up with you, they're probably close to out of juice and are easy prey.

Also, there are some things we can do by making certain exceptions for time rules. For example, let's say players are also telekinetic. While something is being telekinetically affected, let's say it is always aligned with your time field no matter where it is. To keep this sane, let's say you can only telekinetically pull, not push.

Telekinetically grab that can from over there! Woo! Okay, drop it, who cares. But when you're rewinding, that becomes a 2x-speed "bullet" fired from your rewinding self. If you've angled it right, that could easily slam into a pursuer for serious harm, especially if he's also moving at double speed "forward" to chase you.

If a rewinding enemy passes between you and a saw blade, pull the saw blade. It cuts right through the rewinding, so keep your eyes open and if you're worried about whether an object might be used to kill you, grab it and put it somewhere safe.

Out of these rules we've created an extremely distinct (if completely imaginary) shooter game where everyone can rewind time... but it's still a viable shooter and a very unique one.

There are loads of other things you can do with this "localized rewind/fast forward", I've just scratched the surface. What would you make?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Because I feel like it, I'll post a little bit from an earlier speculative tabletop scifi RPG I wrote. In the previous post I explained how a game had funky laws about privacy and information, and in this post I'll talk about how the game before that had weird ideas about what an "information economy" really is.

The game was written by me when I was trying to figure out what the "killer app" for 3D printers would be. The final result had very little do with the question, but it might still be interesting.

Unlike the last game I talked about, this game (named 'Seedlings') was not about information for information's sake. Instead, it was about information that can be turned into something real. For example, the file embodying a chair: feed it into a 3D printer, and you get a chair. The file embodying a flower: print the DNA into a seeder, and you end up with that flower.

The difficulty was in the game mechanics. Most RPGs are about killing and looting. The inherently constructive nature of the game made that impossible. Killing someone and stealing their computer is weak compared to getting the file they used to print their computer, at which point you can print an unlimited number yourself.

The core idea is turning information into physical objects, but there's no recurring play in that. Once you've printed something out, you have it. Even if you posit that it breaks, you're still able to print up an identical one. Without some kind of ridiculous conceit, once you've printed something, you have it, done.

The same problem exists with real 3D printers. You just don't need to print that much stuff. The stuff you use new every day is largely food and packaging. The first can't be printed, the second makes no sense to print. If you do need to print something (such as a book shelf or a new iPhone case), you print it and you're done. There's no "rolling ball" to chase, like there is with our never-ending stream of lattes.

Every way I pushed the rule set I ran into trouble. I couldn't find any core mechanic that would sustain an entire RPG. I thought about making it a game about investigation, but those never fly. I thought about making it some kind of strategy/people-management game, but those are poorly suited for paper.

The only thing I could think of in the end was DNA. If instead of using fabricators, I used DNA, I could put in time delays.

Sure, you can print out anything you want, but it will take days or weeks to grow to full size.

This started getting really weird as I pushed it further and further. I drew sketches of the sorts of places you would encounter.

For example, you're walking through suburbia, and everyone's back yard is full of multicolored plants. One mom says to another, "oh, yeah, Jimmie tore up his pants, so I put them in the compost. The denim plants are in bloom, anyway, so I just had him pull new pants off the vine..."

The villainous Doctor Imevil is hidden away on a mountainside. He's growing a new base, and you can see the photovoltaic ferns blooming on his roof. To keep it from giving him away, he's carefully seeded the whole mountainside with them, pretending it's an uncontrolled propagation of a known product, blaming the original researchers who designed the plant.

The 'last mile' is covered by silk-thin tendrils of roots growing from house to house... to tap a phone, you would plant a "tap-plant" and wait for its roots to find the transmission roots.

Although classic pollution is not as much a problem as it was, the sky at night glitters with microscopic organisms battling it out as the city releases swarms of hunter-killer germs to counter today's diseases, brought in on the winds or the planes. These diseases don't affect the populace - the hunter-killers are extremely effective - but you will sometimes find the sidewalk covered in a glittering puddle. You don't want to know what caused the puddle, but you can be sure it's not contagious. Sure, there's no reason for it to glitter, but I take some license.

And, of course, living clothes, adaptive streets, and semi-intelligent plant life.

These don't directly turn into gameplay, but I find that strong imagery really helps me get a feel for the game. Unfortunately, the final rule set ended up being a combination of a strategy game and a detective game, so blah.

Still, the point is that I can't really think of a "killer app" for a 3D printer. The only things I can think of all revolve around evading the law or living in places where there are no stores. But I can think of a million killer apps for "living" 3D printers.

Now if only I could figure out how to make it into a game worth playing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Funny Laws of the New Century

Every few months I try to write a scifi RPG (tabletop) using fairly realistic reactions to theoretical advancements. Basically, I try to write some speculative fiction in game form. I never publish or anything, but the one I created last month has some interesting characteristics, so I thought I'd share a few of the details.

The tabletop game is codenamed "anonymesh", and revolves around the idea of a massive, dense network of interconnected wireless nodes. Extremely low-energy computers combined with cheap solar cells make running a wireless node quite literally free, and so most people use "meshnet" instead of the centralized backbone internet. This leads to a lot of really interesting characteristics, and as you might expect, the players all play hackers.

The interesting bits are endless, but one of the most interesting things that popped out of this universe was the idea of "deanning". Basically, I tried to think of the weirdest, cleverest laws I could, and some of the privacy laws that emerged were very strange.

For example, you can take a picture of main street and post it on line without getting anyone's permission, without blurring faces, without any of that, because the people in the picture are anonymous.

What isn't legal is running face-scanning technology across that image to identify who these people are. This is de-anonymizing the data, or "deanning" it. Technically, while the deanning is illegal, it can't be enforced. Instead, only the propagation of deanned data is illegal. (More specifically, the propagation of any non-anonymous data without permission, regardless of whether it's been deanned or was never anonymized in the first place.) Data is considered non-anonymous if it reveals more of the person's personal information than the person expected to people they didn't intend. This is an objective statement, but a huge and growing number of guidelines exist in the courts to support it.

This has a huge number of implications, especially since propagation includes "feeding into data mining programs for purposes unrelated to the initial data".

So if you buy a bagel, the bagel shop can remember you bought a bagel. But they can't use the fact that you bought a bagel for non-you-buying-bagel purposes. They can't email you ads, they can't use your preferences in analysis of what bagels are best, they certainly can't sell your debit card info to another company. Not unless the data is properly anonymized. So they can say that their Washington Ave store sold a poppy seed bagel at 10:45 AM, but not who bought it.

It's pretty easy for anyone to save up a lot of vaguely related data and then dean it using basic pattern recognition tools. For example, if you record main street 24/7, you can easily start matching up individuals and determining their habits. Combined with a simple web trawl, you may be able to identify a significant number of people and their exact schedules.

This is illegal, but how would you enforce it? Especially since it's so easy to do with the mesh network: ten thousand man-in-the-middle attacks per message. Just save every bit of recognizable traffic. Analyze encryptions: you'll have gigabytes of data from the same source spooling by day after day, cracking it is just a matter of time and effort.

Well, the truth is that things get deanned all the time. You don't even have to run a thieving wifi router to get enough data to dean. You can dean from an internet search.

But using this information generally leaves a pretty clear trail. The same algorithms that can dean anonymous data can detect when a project or statement contains references to less-than-anonymous data. Individuals rarely have to worry about this in the same way pirates rarely worry about it. But companies have to worry, and have to be scrupulous.

This is especially dangerous to them because many of the wifi routers they depend on are run by untrusted sources who would love nothing better than to forward their illegal data to the police for a reward. It's not illegal to copy the information transferred through their router, not illegal to decrypt it, either, due to some anti-terrorism laws passed by the panicky government.

It's also not illegal to hack into devices, although it is illegal to use those hacked devices in an illegal manner (including data theft). This means that if you do dean data, you want to make sure you do it on an offline-only machine that can't be hacked remotely. Otherwise a hacker might forward that data to the police for that reward, get you thrown in jail.

Those are some of the basic rules, which actually make for a surprisingly interesting hacker game dynamic. There are a few things that may not occur to you at first read, though. Here are a few of those things:

Your friends can talk about you. This is called "implicit permission to dean". Where this permission ends is a rough concept and depends on what the individual has released publicly in the past.

Things you publish "publicly" that aren't intended for public use - for example, your mood on LiveJournal - are considered non-public data. The end user is not expected to always know exactly how every piece of software works, and therefore it is not the user that is held accountable, but the software and those that propagate the information for their own purposes.

So-called "shadow puppets" can be made. These are VR/AR avatars built out of real data fed to them. For example, feed your shadow puppet all the president's videos and speeches, and you have a shadow puppet that looks, talks, and acts like the president. This is almost always a dean even if you do it on public and non-anonymous data, because the shadow puppet can be made to act in a manner normally considered to be private and personal. For example, you can make your president puppet strip naked and dance the watusi. You can also release simulations of the president saying things he normally wouldn't say.

The law hasn't caught up to that extent, yet. Sometimes the infringements are allowed as parody, and sometimes the shadow puppet is waved off as not breaching privacy, but people are starting to crack down on the matter ever since a parody site began releasing pixel-perfect variants of Fox News shows.

"Virtual characters" have some very complex rights ever since the supreme court came down on the side of Disney to find that a shadow puppet of Mickey was not only a violation of trademark, but also a violation of "expected privacy on behalf of Mickey Mouse".

Anyway, the actual game is significantly more detailed (it's actually a bit too detailed for a tabletop game), but the laws about anonymizing and deanning were interesting enough I thought I'd talk about them on their own.