Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mass Effect 2 and Wide, Flat Gaming

Haven't played as much Mass Effect 2 as I would like. But I have some things to say.

They made some really oddball gameplay choices. Like everyone, they're trending towards "packet gaming". The idea seems to be that we would prefer each encounter to be its own little game with no connection between them. Why they think we prefer this, I don't know.

It is like many other games of its quality, such as Doom III. At the end of a firefight, you are instantly restored to maximum. Your health regenerates in five seconds (literally), and you always find plenty of ammo for your guns. In fact, there is so much ammo, the only thing I've ever run out of ammo for is my sniper rifle. This is only because in order to make the fights challenging, they have to throw fifty enemies at you at once.

This style of game is becoming ever more common. They write attrition out of the game entirely. Presumably, this is so that they have a much clearer idea of how encounters will progress. In horrible games like Doom, System Shock 2, and Riddick, why, they had to actually design levels instead of designing encounters. That's why those games were so terrible! Man, can you imagine a game like Half Life 2 coming out today? Who wants levels? Pshaw.

This lack of attrition radically reduces the depth of ME2. Not having to worry about resources means that the game plays out super-linearly. Explore a level, hit a fight. If you lose the fight, try again. If you win the fight, no matter how narrowly, you'll be back and at full long before the next fight. This basically reduces the game to an adventure game, except without any puzzles.

ME2 has reduced depth along every category of gameplay except, perhaps, the ship navigation.

Apparently they took our whining about "guns in everything" to heart, because now there is almost nothing in the way of inventory management. Instead, you pick up endless Amounts of Elements, such as "500 iridium". While this is arguably better than finding guns in trash bins, it is a flat gameplay experience. It turns searching for loot into walking over money. Because, essentially, each element is simply a different kind of money. So 95% of the level's pickups are money and ammo. Worse, the ammo is "generiammo", to insure you never ever have to worry about pesky issues like managing your combat loadout. Or thinking.

I'm not sure why ME2 went this way. They have grossly simplified every aspect of the game. While many areas have been broadened (Shephard's armor), they are not very deep (only Shephard's armor, not anyone else's). They seem to have decided that players can't handle a game with any depth.

So I'm replaying Disgaea. Tell me when a game with some gameplay comes out.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Creating Deep Data

One of my abiding interests is algorithmic means to help create content in games. There are a lot of ways of doing this, and it's a very interesting topic, but I'd like to talk about my efforts to simulate China.

More specifically, I have always liked the Dynasty Warriors games, as well as most other games that have some of the same "feel", such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, what I like isn't the gameplay, it's the feel. Carving your way through an army isn't much fun unless there's a reason to care, and hopefully some mid-mission chaos that makes sense. To me, the most interesting thing about Dynasty Warriors is the (emergent or scripted) story that accompanies the assaults and defenses you make.

Details like "well, the such-and-such clan are excellent shipwrights!" or "We must be careful, so-and-so has hired exotic mercenaries" or "this fortress has never been taken, because it is on a mountain surrounded by a river".

So I built me a toy to simulate China. It builds the terrain algorithmically, simulates a few million years of weathering, places a few hundred primitive tribes, and builds a medieval-period civilization of warlords and trade routes.

The end result is just a demo, not a real game, but the data density is immense. You can clearly see the fragments of plots and interesting data points floating around. For example, I've seen a village turn into a major sea port specifically because the city that was the major sea port in the region was destroyed in a war. The population and resources of the region required a port, so the village took on that role. Before then, they were a little fishing village with a few tea farms up in the nearby mountains.

The port "remembers" being a little fishing town, and it "remembers" all the different regions and cultures that the new immigrants came from. Given another order of magnitude of development, it could easily produce detailed people from the town, each knowing his own history and having a sense of style, accent, and ethics rooted in his ethnic heritage but blurring into the city's mix.

The rapid growth without a centralized authority has specific side effects that would govern the city's layout and feel: haphazard streets, ramshackle buildings built on the lowest dollar, ports just kind of extending everywhere. Contrast this with the same situation, except a central authority carefully controlled land zoning and safety. Wider, straighter roads, better buildings, carefully expanded "fractal" docks...

These are details that have historically been up to the designer/writer to decide and implement.

As our data becomes denser and our worlds start to contain ever more detail over an ever wider scope, that becomes less and less tenable. MMORPGs and similar games would benefit greatly from being able to "paint" in broad strokes - a war happened here, this desert blocks travel, etc. From these strokes can come dozens of new cities, each populated with basic quests, able to generate new NPCs rather than continuously recycling the same twelve, each with their own unique flavor.

Obviously the writer would come in and do some real work on the details, or at least re-generate dull sections. But the point is to provide a scaffold that allows you to build these massive worlds, these super-detailed worlds, without spending ten years of development time. There are some kinds of things that already do this - a lot of the various Elder Scrolls games have generated terrain - but there's a fundamental difference between creating repetitive filler content and creating content that anyone would find interesting. Not only can these "deep data" techniques create a lot of interesting content, they can even continue to run during the game, creating a world that evolves and remembers.

Anyhow, the real reason I'm posting is because I think I've figured out how to apply it to people. Hmmmmm.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 15, 2010

White Knight

I occasionally read Penny Arcade news, and sometimes I even agree with them. So I looked at the White Knight Chronicles trailer they posted. I'm not deriding them. Frankly, I don't care if they sell ads for tooth whiteners.

But I have the opposite opinion that they do. Everything the trailer shows makes me more uninterested in the game.

If I saw it sitting on the store shelf, looking forlorn, I'd probably buy it. I buy a lot of games, including just about every RPG.

However, the trailer shows a "customizable city" which is descended straight from Dark Cloud to the point where they use the same terminology. In fact, it's actually smaller and more limited than Dark Cloud's city building, despite the fact that Dark Cloud came out ten years ago. Yes, Dark Cloud also had people you brought back to your town. Dark Cloud 2 went even further.

So I see that this game lets you customize your city, but it actually points out how shallow and limited such customization is. Then it says I can visit other people's cities? Why? What's the point? There's no density or variation to these cities. No personality can be expressed by the player.

The trailer goes on to tell me that I can make my city specialize in building goods and selling goods. But given the limitation of the cities, this seems to be an add-on that doesn't add anything. The fact that it seems to be a primary motivation for building a city is actually damning with faint praise. Sort of like looking at someone's baby pictures and commenting on how nice the paper they're printed on is. The crafting is sure to be painfully shallow and pointless.

However, even those two things aren't enough to sink a game. After all, those are just worthless features. They don't actually damage the rest of the game by existing, except by saying that there will be no unique crafts.

What sinks the game for me is the on-line play.

If your RPG has "on-line play" that means your RPG has to have play that can be on-line. This restricts you to very specific avenues, which it is clear White Knight Chronicles follows.

On-line RPGs have to be either turn based or very, very slow real time (IE, turn based). On-line RPGs have to have identical, uncustomizable equipment and be less about skill and more about wasted time. On-line RPGs downplay maneuvering and precise controls. On-line RPGs have to have shitty animations. I'm not sure why on those last two.

But worst, on-line RPGs always inherit the treadmill. The endless, pointless sidequesting with no hint of plot or character advancement in sight.

And they're touting it as "how cool! Yaaaay! On line play!"

This is the second RPG I've actually not bought specifically because it has on line play. Such RPGs are always terrible. They're inevitably even-worse-than-usual MMORPGs.

I love Level-5. If I hadn't seen the trailer, I would have bought the game. Why don't they just make the insanely good RPGs they've always made before? Why mix chocolate with shit? Shit and chocolate don't mix.

How do you feel about these things?


(Editors note: this is about the Boston public transport system, the MBTA. They're known for two things. A) Their astounding budgetary incompetence. B) Their continuous announcements that you should be afraid. Their main announcement on the subject is called the "see something, say something" program. I sent this letter to them. They actually required my name and email addy, so I may catch flak. We'll see.)

I was writing to congratulate you.

I was ecstatic when I didn't hear them. It made my commute so much more bearable. Was it a sign that the MBTA had new blood? Really was changing direction? I almost wrote to congratulate you then, but I decided to give you a week. That week was up today.

And you blew it.

Today I heard them again. Oozing out of the speakers like wet maggots. Had I just been lucky for the week? Usually, it surrounds me, echoing from the walls, seven or eight times a day. Terror propaganda.

I call it your "hear something, fear something" campaign. Normally, I would call it security theater. Except this isn't security theater. It's insecurity theater. Your painfully transparent and pointless announcements are simply the vapid handwaving of people that clutch at every political crutch and "opportunity" your scabby little hands can get at.

The worst part is that your fearmongering is so amateurish. I strongly recommend leaving fearmongering to the masters: you simply don't have the talent for it. There are plenty of other things on your plate, anyway. There's no reason to continuously blather on about something that is, statistically, less likely than getting run over by one of your buses. Twice. In one day.

Please stop your terror propaganda. It's pathetic and infuriating.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I had a few discussions on this matter over my vacation, and they've been crystallized by this article, which is either by Sean Buckley or A. Michael Noll. It's a short piece.

I don't agree with Sean or A. Michael, whichever is the author. I don't disagree, either. I am firmly in the "mu" category.

For watching TV and movies, 3D televisions are undoubtedly not a killer app. So, yes, if the wave of upcoming 3D technology was going to be used only for watching movies and TV, Sean or A. Michael would be right. However, it won't be terribly long before we start using 3D displays for gaming and computer use, and in both cases it is an extremely useful technology.

That's right, useful. Not just swanky or cool. Useful.

There is a paradigm shift (or two) coming. Our computer interfaces are archaic and painful. If you are an ordinary computer user, you probably haven't noticed. If you are an artist, you have probably noticed all too well. Many programmers are also feeling the pinch. While your parental unit may not need a radical change in interfaces, many of us feel the issue every day, trying to keep up with incredible power using dinky little toys from the seventies.

I see two potential paradigm-breakers for computer interfaces, and they both involve the screen. One is foldable e-paper or, alternately, extremely cheap projectors. This would allow users to have a huge amount of screen space that is largely portable and can be adapted to a wide variety of uses. Having a lot of screen space is a requirement for a lot of us: I use two large monitors, and wish I had three. When I was limited to a single, low-resolution screen (my eee PC) over vacation, it was extremely uncomfortable.

I'm not talking about everyone using two monitors. I'm talking about a radical increase in screen size: whole walls of screen, desks of screen, all over. Carry your screen into the lounge with you. Not touch-screen, probably. It's very tiring to use large touchscreens. But there are a lot of methods to control screens, and even our current mouse-and-keyboard system would work.

The kind of radical change this will engender (my dime word for the day) is hard to overstate. Having huge amounts of decoupled screen space will change the way we work and play on a computer, although it may be somewhat difficult to see if you don't stop and think it through for a few hours.

However, that's only one of two technologies that can change the way things work. The other technology is 3D displays of some kind. Our buddy Sean or A. Michael probably doesn't realize this, but much of my work would be made much easier with a 3D display, and that's not including the games that would benefit from the technology (most of them).

Of course, a 3D display requires some kind of 3D interface, preferably either a camera that tracks your motion or some kind of haptic glove. Once implemented, the 3D app will certainly be a boon for 3D modelers. But more people than you think would gain great advantages from using 3D. Doctors, molecular scientists, engineers, even programmers. It's foolish to say that everyone would immediately benefit from 3D, but if 3D becomes truly viable, everyone will benefit from 3D, in the same way that everyone benefits from a mouse. When introduced, it was a weird luxury item. Can you imagine anyone not having a mouse or mouse-analog today?

I don't want to wager as to whether massive screens or 3D displays will happen first, but I think that when one happens, it will become the standard and the other will be relegated to hobbyists. If I was forced, I would say that foldable e-paper is probably closer than truly viable 3D displays, but that could change quickly if very large companies throw cash at 3D displays.

The point is: our idea of a computer interface is going to change radically over the next decade. I can't predict specifically how it will change, but writing off 3D displays is not a great idea.