Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Exploring New Worlds

I've been thinking about exploring ideas.

I make roughly one world setting every two months - that is, a fully realized setting for a game or story. Drawings, descriptions, rules if it's a game, the works. It's fun.

One of the reasons I do it is because I'm curious to know how far a given concept can be pushed, and in what directions. This is the sort of thing that an author means when they say "I write SPECULATIVE fiction, not SCIENCE fiction!"

As you create these worlds, you find some things you consider to be real gems. See, designing a world isn't just making a world that holds together. The point of designing a world is to make a world that says things, that shines at people. Anyone can create a world where the politics of the elven kingdoms make sense... it's far more difficult to make a world where anybody gives a shit about the politics of the elven kingdoms.

I guess you could say that the point of a world is to clutch the human mind, not to be rigorous or clever or even interesting, although all of those are often helpful at keeping your grip.

So the more recent of my worldish creations have mostly been about providing a scaffold: clear marks and leads stretch across the world so that players or storytellers can follow (as loosely as they prefer) and see what the world has to offer. All the pretty and ugly things I came up with when I was thinking up things that followed from the basic ideas of the world.

Is there any kind of common understanding of this concept? This idea of worlds as a scaffold, as a guide book? Is there any forum for people who want to trade worlds and fragments and explore and write down what they find? A kind of improv storytelling where the idea isn't to do stand-up, but to explore?

Because there are many worlds, and many concepts. And even within a world of my design, there are things I didn't think of.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Designing Fantasy Races

"I don't want my world to be another generic fantasy world with generic D&D races!" you shout.

"Okay!" I shout, "Why are we shouting?"

How can you create fantasy races that are unique? (That includes, of course, fantasies that are modern or science fiction or any other setting - not just medieval fantasies.)

Stuck in a mental trap, you see every race you brainstorm up seems just like some other race somebody already made famous.

Let's go over a good way to create fantasy races.

Steal from Tolkien.

No, no, wait, I'm being serious. Instead of thinking "elves dwarves orcs hobbits", think about what those races mean to the story.

Each race is a lense to view the theme. In the case of Tolkien, the theme of the world can be thought of as "war against dark forces".

The orcs are those that have become dark forces. The dwarves are those that clashed and lost. The humans are those that are fighting right now. The hobbits are those that are getting drawn in. The elves are those that are above, that remind you that there is something besides the dark.

Quick and dirty, sure, but fundamentally the races can be thought of in that manner. Each race highlights a different part of the struggle, from a different angle.

This can easily be adapted to suit your own fantasy world.

For example, if your fantasy world's theme is "steam powered mecha fighting it out", you can create races to highlight it. In Tolkien fashion, you have a race that has embraced the abuse of mecha, a race that was destroyed after a long fight with mecha, a race that is currently fighting with mecha, a race that is beginning to fight with mecha, and a race that is above mecha.

From that you can expand the race into as human or inhuman a race as you want them to be. Classically, races in role playing games are pretty close to human, but every near-human variant is already established in your audience's eyes as a particular stereotypical race.

For example, our species that fought with mecha for a long time before losing and being destroyed. We can say that they would be adapted to fight in/with mecha. So they would be small (smaller pilots are better) and they would be good with machinery (repairing mecha) and they would be hardy (to live through smoke and steam and the steel mills).

Well, that's obviously fantasy dwarves, isn't it? Or maybe you could argue for gnomes. Either way, hardly original!

Now, if you want you could theoretically make them more unique by making them less human. But you have to go pretty far afield before you get to anything unique, and even then your audience will automatically lump them together with whatever popular race is vaguely similar. So even if we make our dwarflike people unique by letting them directly plug into their mecha through personal mechanical interfaces, now they'll just get called "borgs" or "shadowrunners", depending on the graphics we use to represent it.

Personally, I don't feel you have to make a race look distinct. They should look distinct enough from their other in-world counterparts, but it's basically impossible to come up with a visual that won't be automatically matched up with an existing, popular visual.

Instead, you should focus on making the race feel like a part of your world. Even if your races have exactly the same standard names - elves, dwarves, orcs, and so on - if they play a particular role in your world, they become a new and interesting species. And the main way to define a role is in how the species highlights your world's theme.

An example of this is Shadowrun, which has all the standard fantasy races, but uses them as lenses into the theme of a class struggle. This means that elves and orcs feel very, very different from Tolkien versions, because they represent elitists and the underclass rather than representing victory over and betrayal to dark forces.

There is no limit to the number of races you can create in this manner. Simply assign given regions different subthemes and make the races of that region highlight that theme.

For example, "steam powered mecha battling it out" might be a subtheme on the overarching theme of "use and abuse of technology". We could have another region which has the subtheme "oppression via technology", and create races for that. We don't want to use the same approach, because that leads to very samey races, so we might create lenses that highlight different actions that oppress, rather than different states of oppression. For example, we might have a race that specializes in surveillance, a race that specializes in computation, tracking, and paperwork, a race that specializes in "nonlethal" police actions, and so on.

This "theme-powered" method of creating unique races will result in races that feel unique and, more importantly, support the theme of your world intrinsically, making your world more immersive and profound.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dialog Games

Another day, another conversation about how dialog trees are pathetic.

So, you talk to an NPC in a game. You choose - for the millionth time - the "good" option. Well, that's how you decided you were going to play this time.

This is games offering "choice"? This is our concept of "dialog"?

Can we make dialog more interesting?

Sure can! Let's talk about how!

First, we have to ditch the idea of a dialog tree. We need a complex and shifting play field.

For example, look at Pac-Man. You don't simply choose to win or lose. You move left, right, up, and down in an attempt to eat all the dots. But even that would be boring: you have enemies chasing you, trying to eat you. So you've got to eat the dots while always keeping an eye on where the ghosts are. Can't let yourself get hemmed in... unless there's a power pill here, in which case getting hemmed in guarantees you'll get at least one of the bastards!

This is a game: a relatively simple set of inputs affects the gameworld in a straightforward way, and you need to handle the changing challenges. Whether it's a puzzle game where you try to put together a jigsaw, or a platformer where the challenge is in not falling, or a rhythm game where you have to tackle the beats as the flow down the stream. They are all the same: basic inputs to tackle a series of challenges.

A dialog tree, on the other hand, is a highly unique set of inputs for each sequence, and you have only the faintest idea of what the challenges even are!

To make dialog into a game, we need to A) make the inputs more universal, B) make the conversations evolving challenges, and C) let the player see further, so they can see what's coming down the line and how their inputs are affecting it.

There are actually a lot of ways to do this.

One is to simply map the conversation onto an existing game. For example, we can have you play Pac-Man every time you get into a conversation. The higher your score and the more lives you have left at the end of the conversation, the better the outcome. Something similar was actually tried with Leisure Suit Larry's recent game: you had to literally steer your conversation, hitting the right notes and avoiding the fails.

This isn't terribly interesting, though. It doesn't take advantage of what a conversation actually is. What are some other options?

We could make conversation a real-time situation where you control your basic body language using the left stick and the shoulder triggers. Instead of choosing to be good or evil, you physically move closer, show interest, doubt, encourage, etc. While this makes the controls more universal, it doesn't actually give the player any way to see challenges coming down the line.

The key to this whole affair is actually seeing what's coming. Once you have an idea as to how to do that, parts A (controls) and B (evolving challenges) naturally begin to suggest themselves.

For example, we could give characters subtle animations to give clues as to how they are reacting to your actions. This makes the game one of identifying a character's clues and chasing the positive ones while evading the negative ones. This essentially makes every character a puzzle - which is not a bad thing, although it's not one particularly high in replayability or diversity.

Another option is to flat-out display the conversation topics and emotions as physical objects with shapes and proximities to each other. Sounds similar to making it "Pac-Man Social Play", but in this case you can actually embed the social in the play very deeply.

For example, you can put in a kind of social "gravity": if your conversation steers towards a sensitive topic, the conversation is repelled by the instinctive redirection of the NPC. If the course is such that the repelling isn't strong enough and the conversation impacts on the sensitive topic, that starts up a whole new conversation within the "event horizon" of the sensitive topic as the NPC begins to defend themselves or panic or whatever.

So you can plot a course through their hang-ups, ideals, moods, and so on. Probably with an actual line indicator showing your medium-distance future, allowing you to tweak the vector of the conversation to make things go smoother.

This kind of conversation can be easily controlled using a simple "turn/accelerate" IO, where the IO doesn't directly relate to your own dialog, but instead makes your dialog reflect the setting somewhat. For example, if you turn your dialog-ship more towards someone's love of the king of their fantasy nation, then your dialog would naturally turn towards that king.

You could make it significantly more interesting - for example, agreeing with someone's views versus challenging them. It might be better to think of it as whirlpools that have a particular direction of spin, rather than simply blobs.

The point here is that you can invent a kind of game which actually reflects the socializing you're doing.

"But the dialog... how will you generate the dialog? Are you going to write a billion lines of dialog?"

Nah. During the conversation, you'll mostly be focused on the game of steering the conversation. The actual commentary during that time can be pretty generic - short and informative statements like "mumble mumble king mumble mumble?" "OH! Mumble mumble mumble!"

The only dialog you actually have to write at "full depth" is the transition dialog - the dialog you would normally get in a normal game when selecting whether to be good or evil, or when getting briefed on the situation. You don't need to write up every line for every possible position you could possibly be in.

It would be good to have more depth to your dialog than less. If you can write a few dozen lines about likely topics for that character pair, it'll be a lot more interesting. You could even mark them as colored spots on the map, so players can aim for them. Put some of them daaaaaaaangerously close to failure zones.

Until natural language generation improves, having characters with detailed, contiguous conversations is basically impossible. But there is something to be said for "more mumbling, more freedom of conversation" instead of the dialog trees of today.

Of course, focusing on conversation means that the dialog is the main point of the game. So you can't think of it as serving the same in-game purpose that dialog does today. Instead, you have to invent a new position for it...

Hm, gotta think more. This post is just in passing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

GITS and Anonymous

I think this essay covers topics most geeks are pretty familiar with, but I can't remember actually reading an essay on these topics before. So here it is: the essay about self-organizing "hacktivists", futurism, and Ghost in the Shell.

Like most geeks, you've probably mused about the faint echoes in your mind between what you saw in Ghost in the Shell and what you've heard about Anonymous. I'm going to try to draw the line between them.

I will be using the term "meme" colloquially. Don't think about what a meme is too hard, that's not the point of this essay.


In Ghost in the Shell, arguably the most interesting plot line is the "laughing man" plot line. I call it "the plot line", but it's actually just one line in a theme that shows up many times in various GITS series and incarnations.

The basic idea is that people are not so distinct as they seem. They are easily manipulated into doing things either consciously or unconsciously. Obviously, this is not a unique insight. However, the spin GITS puts on it is interesting: the creation of a 'deep' internet allows this to happen with such fluid speed that the unconscious and semi-conscious actions of the participants can form a 'life form' with its own 'will'.

As an example, in one GITS plot line, people begin to do things for no discernible reason, but they all act towards a single aim. The people involved have no idea what they are doing, nor do they have any knowledge of the secret aim. They have been programmed - not by invasive surgery or brainwashing, but by the unending tides of memes they have been exposed to on their immersive internet. The memes are somewhat directed, but also have a life of their own, since the directives of the original source emerged from the nature of the memes, and are therefore echoed by the participants.

In another plot, one man serves as a hub, allowing participants to enter his personal brain/computer. While there, their sense of self is weakened and they can participate in projects such as sharing memories and computing whether P = NP. They can also be programmed to act in certain ways while outside his personal brain/computer.

This sort of thing is hardly GITS-unique. GITS may have been a popular and compelling example, but there are literally millions of science fiction stories with this same fundamental set of ideas. For example, it is a common conceit to have a VR MMORPG which goes crazy and begins to use/screw up/damage the participant's minds. This is super common in Japanese stories, perhaps because they usually cling to a spirit/body duality, but it also happens in Western stories. Finder did a particularly interesting job of it, for example.

I guess you could say it smacks of an "ascension" ideology. The idea that we can overcome our humanity and, well, go to heaven or whatever. However, I am specifically thinking of it in mechanistic terms. That is, I'm not posing some mythical energy state we can merge into, and I'm not relying on the concept of a spirit or soul. Just people who might become something different than what they currently are, within the limits of physics and biology.


Which brings me around to the other end of this rope: Anonymous.

Anonymous and the various similar groups operate in a way that was impossible without the internet. Decentralized, the theory is that any given Anonymous operation can take place with no leader, or perhaps with only a transient leader given a fairly minor role.

In a real sense, the "leader" of an Anonymous operation is largely a memetic broadcaster. Aside from posting specific meeting times if necessary, their job is to yell about whatever they feel is happening that needs to be smashed. And if enough other voices pick up the shout, it becomes an action.

The nature of the memes they broadcast is such that if another person is "infected", they will act in the interests of the original broadcaster. Not because of brainwashing or coercion, but because they will draw the same conclusions.

For example, Anonymous moved against the Church of Scientology. They did not do this because someone wanted to and convinced everyone else to go along. They did it because most people who heard what Scientology was doing reached the same conclusion: the church must be punished. This created a pocket of action, a group of people who, despite their anonymity, all wanted the same thing.

This is a very powerful tool. If there were leaders, not only would the targets be able to strike back, but the followers would also judge which actions they should join based on the leader. This would limit them - "oh, that leader believes things I don't agree with, this action can't have any merit..."

In many ways, this is a very close mirror of the GITS idea, although without the CG bling. This is a group of people who suppress their identities and sequester the majority of their personality and opinion off in a corner so that they can work together with other people doing the same thing very fluidly.

In a very real manner, the Laughing Man is fact. A science fiction concept that is not just possible, but is happening in the real world at this very moment.

To be honest, I would call them "Laughing Man Groups" if I wanted to give them a distinct category. That's the level of similarity I see here, even though Anonymous is only a tiny seedling of the concept.


What about the rest? What about where this is going? What about the next step? What about the fact that a lot of the stuff that these Laughing Man Groups are doing is horrible?

Well, a lot of the science fiction around this concept is based on the idea of subverting someone's brain. Forcing them to act. And I doubt that'll happen any time soon. But it doesn't have to: simple cooperation is more than powerful enough.

And as for horribleness, please remember that these are just groups of people. The jerks and assholes are over-represented at the moment because jerks and assholes tend to be the ones that delve into the darker parts of the internet where this kind of organizing is happening. When it becomes common, I can see it being used for a lot more positive aims.

I can see the methods of transmitting memes and forming task participation becoming a lot slicker. I can see people cooperating almost instantly, trusting their connections have a good reason for their requests. I can see people starting to get very good at prioritizing memes as to which ones are more important, not simply more offensive.

I can also see corporations and governments attempting to form or subvert these kinds of environments, which could be interesting.

Can I see something like a VR game which takes place inside the designer's head?

Well, now we're talking about a serious leap in technology.

Everything I've described in the past few paragraphs could happen with today's technology. Anything more is probably science fiction.

For now.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Economies

So, everyone's talking about how we're entering a "post job" economy, and how we need to grow a new economy because this one's broken.

I agree, so here's an easy-peasy crash course on a few aspects of the situation.

An economy isn't. There is no such thing as some kind of monolithic entity known as "economy". The thing we think of as an economy is a diverse set of very different things which happen to share some common reference points (money).

As people are aware, what we normally call "the economy" is faltering pretty badly. A combination of super-effective mechanization/outsourcing and corporate greed has led to massive and seemingly unending unemployment. A lot of people are languishing with no cash, even becoming homeless.

Of course, as many people point out, the factories and farms and homes are all still there, ready to house, produce, and distribute goods. The problem is that the control systems have gone haywire, denying access to those goods.

Some people would claim this is why we need to centralize control over these - to guarantee people don't fall through the cracks.

Personally, I disagree. While I think some things should be centralized, "the economy" is much too large and complex to manage centrally. Something like health care can be centralized, because humans are humans everywhere: if you get cancer in Texas, you need the same kind of care as if you got cancer in Taiwan.

But if you have an economic depression in Texas and Taiwan, the solution may be very, very different. Economies are far more different from each other than people are.


A lot of people have basically given up hope, insisting either that there is no economy capable of keeping everyone participating well, or that there is no point in looking because we'll all be dead in 2020 due to global warming.

Well, let's look at a few kinds of "economies". Or, more accurately, a few ways to try to manage the production and distribution of goods.

One way is the classic ultralarge marketplace, which is more or less what we have now (although it comes in some variations). Regardless as to whether it's capitalist or socialist or whatever, the structure of an ultralarge marketplace is that the strongest members are the largest members, and they can use their clout as they see fit.

A plus side of this is that you can really get an economy of scale going - find the best places to generate the things you need, organize the production line for maximum efficiency, and so on. You can also externalize the costs really easily, since you can destroy people or places on one side of the planet to maximize profits on the other side.

To me, the big problem with ultralarge markets is that when the big players start getting controlling, there's nowhere else to go. If they decide to fuck you, you get fucked. It doesn't even have to be a centralized set of authorities: the big players are strong enough, and have enough shared concerns, that even without a concrete central authority they will just automatically collude to screw over whoever they decide to screw over.

Ultralarge markets are enabled by global currency (and global currency exchanges), as well as the ease of transporting goods from nation to nation. There's nothing inherently bad about these things, but it's worth mentioning.

Now that the ultralarge market is starting to fuck us over, some people are thinking of self-sufficient markets. These are basically where you try to build yourself a farm and get ready for the coming apocalypse, your intention being to be as self-sufficient as possible while still allowing for some trade between you and your neighbors.

It may be technically possible to live this way, but it's not a way which is very comfortable or good. Putting aside the lack of variety, the lack of economic "slack" will kill you. If you get sick, what happens? No doctors. If there's a drought, what happens? No foreign food imports. If a bandit shoots you, what happens? No cops.

This kind of economy isn't an economy at all. It's desperate subsistence farming with the help of some vaguely modern practices and technologies.

However, there are plenty of other kinds of methods to use!

Local markets are a fairly well proven method. A local government (such as the town) prints up local scrip and sets it at a specific conversion rate to the national currency. This encourages locals to buy and sell from other locals. It is critical that the local scrip have a specific conversion rate, which is why this is typically backed by a local government, often with the help of a bank: it is quite similar to the idea of a bank lending out cash, and it is possible to have a 'run' on the scrip if you're too clumsy about it.

The reason a scrip is preferable to a simple "buy local" campaign is because it exerts far more pressure to buy local, to the point where locals can begin setting up or expanding local businesses due to their advantage over non-local businesses who will typically not accept the scrip.

Local markets are rarely as efficient or diverse as larger markets. However, when the large market is abusing you, a less efficient positive number is better than a more efficient negative number!

Local scrips are already beginning to bloom here and there, but they have a fundamental weakness. Well, two, if you count the fact that the federal government doesn't much like them. The actual, non-legality flaw is that they are only really useful when the larger economy is screwing you over. The efficiency of the modern workplace is high enough that once you get back on your feet, your local currency will not guarantee jobs. There's only so much business you can do locally, and the number of people it takes to do that business will steadily decline as the local economy becomes better established and begins to polish its performance.

The underlying problem we face is that all the jobs we used to do can be done more effectively by machines and software. Well, we could therefore try a protectionist economy, where advanced robotic labor and outsourcing to other nations is outlawed.

I consider this to be a terrible idea. Not only does it mire us in the nineteenth century, it actually doesn't protect us from the economies of other nations which run at a full robot-powered sprint. This means you have to put huge import tariffs on their goods to keep your local economy competitive, and that can easily lead (I would say "always leads") to isolationism, instability, and general governmental foolishness.

Well, is there an economy which allows everyone to participate while allowing for hyper-efficient production and service?

Sure: create a bevy of new categories of goods and services.

It's uncomfortable, depressing, and sometimes dangerous to lose your job, but that is made a hundred times worse if you lose your job because the whole industry you worked in is being automated away.

And don't think anyone's immune. Virtually every current industry is slated to be automated away, from construction to accounting. The seeds are there, it's just a matter of how fast they bloom.

The question is: how can you help someone who was fired from a dying industry to transition to a growing one?

Well, the answer is easy: make it a service. You can embed it in the unemployment office, you can make it an internet forum, you can do a social network for it. It doesn't have to be government-powered, it doesn't have to not be. As long as it is something that a 45-year-old factory worker knows exists and is willing to use, it'll really help. Adult education.

Of course, one issue is that growing industries these days aren't growing as fast as the old ones are being automated/offshored. However, that's a disconnect that doesn't have to exist. There are plenty of industries which could explode... if we wanted them to. We could repair all the roads. We could install solar panels everywhere. We could create a Citizens' BioBrigade which monitors and catalogs the local ecosystems and bacteria.

The real question is, of course, "where does the money to do that come from?"

Ahhhh. Now we're getting to the crux of the matter. Money.

The reason our economy is in the shitter is because of the companies that control the money. All our currencies are tied into the same network, and therefore whenever anyone rips out a part of that network, the backlash gets felt by everyone, everywhere.

So... maybe what we need isn't a new kind of economy, but a new kind of money. Or, at least, a new method of distributing money, since there are plenty of people who are doing reasonably well and are happy to help fund new markets.

Anyway, I don't have the answers. But I think it's time to start talking and trying everything we can.

And if you're a mayor looking for a solution, I strongly recommend looking into local scrip.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Participating in the Emergent Internet

So you like the idea of the internet getting better and better. You want to do your part. You share cool things with your friends - and with strangers, you're not particular.

But maybe you could do a little more? You know, make the internet better without actually putting any effort into it?

Can do!

The internet of the future is not simply sites, but links. Who links to what? What links to who?

To help build this, simply remember that there are two kinds of posts - two kinds of content. One kind introduces new stuff, while the other kind reshares that stuff. Both are important. Creators are often not very good at the whole "resharing" thing, while people who reshare continuously get very, very good at knowing what will make a splash with who. They're different jobs.

Right now, you're a resharer. You find something interesting and want to share it. So you do.

Well, if you want to help the internet grow and flourish, you need to give credit.

Nothing about giving credit diminishes your reshare. Giving credit makes you look like not a dick. So let's give credit!

First and most importantly, give credit to the original poster - the person who originally created the content. If you're sharing directly, this is easy: just link to the page you got it from. But even if you are sharing a reshare of a reshare of a reshare, give a link or a name-drop to the original source. If you can't find the original source, say so.

Then make sure you give credit to the other resharers who, like you, are striving to make the internet more interesting. If you read someone's resharing of a Shatner video and want to spread the love around, link to the original video and to the resharer's post. Links are free. If it's a long chain of links, or of the sharer's link is not something you want to directly link to for some reason, no problem. Do a "via" and tag everyone. "via +doggydoggydoggy and @mobileskunkarmor" or whatever.

Pretty easy, right? Just link. LINK LINK LINK LINK. Links are free. Just get in the habit of linking. The more threads you connect, the better a netizen you are.


What, you want a more advanced course? Okay.

If you want to be a good citizen of the internet, one part of that is being a filter to purify all the bad citizens.

Bad citizen number one shares images and animated gifs by reuploading them to imgur or G+ or whatever. The cool image just pops up in his stream. Even if he doesn't claim he created it, he certainly doesn't give any link love to the author!

Well, simply post the link yourself. A simple reverse image lookup at http://images.google.com/ can give you the source. Don't make any accusations, just a simple comment that says "original source -> LINK". Chances are, the author isn't intending to be a dick, and if he gets upset at you, well... problem solved, he's going to lose a lot of followers and his reshares won't matter.

Bad citizen number two shares direct links to the original author, but never gives any "via" credit. Sure, maybe they stumbled across every single article on their own. More likely, they're leeching off other resharers, aggregating other, interesting people's work and pretending they did it. Make no mistake: finding and distributing interesting content is work, and these leeches are not doing anyone any favors.

A big giveaway is if more than 2/3 of the posts they make are links with no real added commentary. If someone links to a news article and says "I think this is probably a sign that France might be about to raise interest rates 0.1%", that's probably okay. If someone just posts a link to the news article, sans comment, they may be resharing without giving credit to the resharer they originally got the link from.

I don't know what to do in these situations, aside from keeping in mind that the guy probably doesn't consider a resharer's work to be of any value. Funny, considering they are a resharer themselves.

EDIT: There are some people who reshare privately. Maybe Maggie doesn't want her parents to know she's gay, or whatever. If someone has reshared privately, use your best judgement as to whether to include them in your credits or not. If you're thinking this deeply, you're probably not a type 2 bad citizen, no worries.

Questionable citizen 3 makes derivatives and post them without links to the original. For example, creating an animated gif but not linking to the video you ripped it from.

In these situations, I recommend simply linking to the video, if you can find it. Done simply, it should be okay. For example, "ha ha, I loved that bit. Here's the full video->"

Remember that the questionable citizen in question actually did a fair amount of work. They're not really leeches, just clumsy.


Following these guidelines will hopefully result in a culture of clear link love. Sort of a dawning of the age of Aquarius sort of thing, except geeky. Do your part for the internet: LINK!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fictional Religions

This post discusses the creation and use of fictional religions for video games/fictional worlds. Please do not view it as an attack on your real-world religions or religious beliefs.

I've played a lot of fantasy games, read a lot of fantasy stories. They tend to have a lot of gods in them.

Normally, these in-world religions fall into two camps. 1) Religions that are funhouse mirrors of real-world religions (AKA the "crystal dragon space jesus"). 2) Religions whose pantheons exist to cover the facets of the game world that the players will care about. IE, simplifying your pantheon into "goddess of healing", "god of thunder", "goddess of trade", "god of evil", etc.

I don't really have a problem with the first approach, if you're doing it on purpose. However, the second approach is really pretty boring. So let's talk about how you might create some fictional religions that have some real heft.


Religions are not gods. This is a critical point to make. You can have gods without religions, and religions without gods. You can also have religions which have betrayed their god, or their god was killed, or whatever.

Religions serve a purpose to a group of individuals (not necessarily people). A god is just a super-powerful entity. The only time the two are very tightly linked are if you are assuming prayer-powered gods, a concept which was briefly popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nothing wrong with that idea, has some fun meat to it, but let's not limit ourselves to it.

So lets deal with religions and gods separately.


Here's my thoughts on gods!

Most of the time, our stories do not need gods that are extensions of religions, or religions that are extensions of gods. Instead, we need to think about A) what a god is and B) what purpose the religion serves.

In many fantasy settings, the gods are basically just big people. Big, immortal people. If that's the case, that's fine. However, if that is the case then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a god to have a single, specific domain.

Sure, Thor was the god of thunder. And he liked being the god of thunder. But he also had a hand in storms, oak trees, strength, protection of mankind, hallowing, healing, fertility, and drunken binges.

In the real-world religion, these were added to Thor as he merged with various predecessors and cult gods, in the same way that Tyr was demoted from highest god to "that guy that guards the bridge". Unless your fantasy religion's god pops down to say "hey, actually, I don't do that kind of thing you just prayed for, try the temple down the road", people will keep attaching new domains to their favorite god. Eventually, a favorite god can be promoted to "the high god" or "the only god".

In a fantasy religion, Thor could be an actual person running around doing things, and it's easy to see that his domain might end up much the same. It's the sort of eclectic mix you might get by looking at a real person's interests. So the two (worshipping a human-like god and letting a religion grow over time) can have very similar results if you like.

On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for gods that aren't human-like. Or maybe some gods that are and some gods that aren't.

Some of the most compelling gods in games have been gods of ancient religions that have a very alien tint to them. Not all the details can be teased out. Was Xikobaz the goddess of darkness? Well, the translation isn't so simple, and parts of the tablets have been broken, but that thing coming out of the well is on fire, so maybe not?

When you're thinking of a god in a fantasy game, you need to decide what sort of manifestations the players/audience is likely to find.

If you've got human-like gods, you may actually run into them out in the world, maybe even fight them. That can be fun.

But as you start stepping away from human-like, you start getting gods whose powers are more subtle. Maybe you'll meet Cmirkl, ancient sleeping god of shell and bone. But even before you meet him, you'll see the creatures his power creates, the landscapes his existence twists, the temples built to him by people long forgotten by time... or perhaps by people who failed to exist at all, in the end.

Generally, I rank gods on a "queasiness scale".

1) Just a big, superpowered humanoid. Or animal, whatever. Probably has an eclectic mix of powers. Example: Thor, Superman.

2) Seems like a big, superpowered humanoid, but has some crazy powers hidden underneath, such as time travel or infinite polymorphing or dream walking. Example: Loki, Odin.

3) May appear in a humanoid form, but only to interact with humans. Powers leak and bleed enough that being in their presence is probably not wise. Still, recognizably a god. Example: Crystal Space Dragon Jesus, Gaia, Dream.

4) Does not exist primarily in our universe, and doesn't really understand much about humans. Often called "sleeping", because "ignoring us" really doesn't sound so good. Bleeds power like a sieve, can be seen as either a god or a force of nature, depending on how you squint. Example: Cthulhu (sometimes).

5) Largely incomprehensible. Maybe dead, or doesn't exist yet? Anyway, treat it like a bizarre force of nature, not a god. Example: Cthulhu (sometimes), King in Yellow.

Now, what purpose does the religion serve?

1) Cargo cult bullshit. Try to deal with the chaos by worshipping. Has no real effect.

2) Contains the god. Or wards them off. Or sates them. The religion keeps the god from going ballistic on you.

3) Curries favor. The god gently exerts pressure in favor of their worshippers. This is a small but noticeable actual advantage. Otherwise it's just cargo cult stuff.

4) Explicit favors. The god grants magic, miracles, personal appearances, sends angels, whatever. The power of this religion is absolutely undeniable.

5) Respect. The religion doesn't offer up much in the way of powers, but exists out of respect for the deity. Functionally, this usually means the religion is a storehouse of best practices for a given domain, or for emergency responses when something takes a supernatural nose-dive.


Religions are fundamentally about the people doing the worshipping. You can say that a religion is a set of beliefs, rituals, and general practices. However, those don't exist separately from the practitioners. As time passes, the religion evolves in tandem with the civilization it is part of, and some of the older beliefs, rituals, and practices are downplayed or forgotten while new ones come around.

Since this is a fantasy setting, there may be some magical enforcement. For example, it could be that you worship this idol because if you don't, it will kill you. Really - if you miss a day, it will come awake at night, hunt you down, and stab you with a mystic spork.

However, in the absence of such pressures (and even with such pressures), religions still exist in a cultural setting, and serve a cultural purpose. To that end, we can split our religions into a few basic types, all of which can be monotheistic, polytheistic, deistic, etc.

1) Stable state religions. These are religions where, in theory, everyone is part of the same religion. These are typically very old, and are often the source of stability in societies more than 100 (fictional) generations old. These are typically extremely stagnant. The top is usually rife with corruption unless you're doing an idyllic view of things, but at the level of an individual town's church it can be as oppressive or friendly as your story demands. Keep in mind that really oppressive religions tend to get in trouble and become...

2) Unstable state religions. This is where there is a state religion, but it is losing its grip. This leads to much scrabbling in the form of witch-hunts, oppression, and other nastiness. This is often caused by the rise of other religions (often because of mass immigration), but can also be caused by severe trouble, such as a sudden spike in the number of dragons roaming the land. Either way, this religion is burning all its goodwill very fast, and it is unlikely it will ever recover. Eventually it may become...

3) Fractured religions. This is where the religions have the same core beliefs and share most or all of the same holy books/relic/magic. However, they have some rift between them which causes some of the population to belong to one, and some to belong to the other. How bitter this feud is depends on the age of the split: the older, the milder, assuming the religions continued to occupy the same lands the whole time. The split usually happens for tribal reasons, not liturgical ones - that is, you side with your kin against their kin. The differences are usually a list of very minor issues, plus one side tending to be more strict than the other.

3) Minority religions. When a small but significant number of the population belongs to a given religion. While the majority may not be completely happy about it, a minority religion is not an outlaw religion, and they are more or less left to worship in peace, aside from as much racism as you care to plug into your setting. Keep in mind that what is a minority religion here is often a more pervasive religion in someone's homeland, but the main religion and the branch are often under very different pressures, and their beliefs, rituals, and practices may change in different directions in only a year or two.

4) Outlaw religions. Whuh-oh, don't tell anyone you worship Xegelbaz, or you'll find yourself in the gaol for sure. Maybe the witch-hunt is ongoing. Maybe the practitioners have been rounded up into "work camps". Maybe it's just a standing order to report practitioners, but nobody really expects to find one. In the real world, this often happens due to a conquering religion, but in the fantasy world it may be because the magic resulting from this worship is sinister.

5) Conquering religions. This is a religion which is or was a state religion, but has decided that the world needs to be conquered. Conquering religions will use overwhelming force against other religions and the nations that believe them - the tools of the sword, the economy, and the proselytizer. The way this works is that the old religion is outlawed, while a branch of the conquering religion is created which incorporates some of the conquered religion's practices (a spoonful of sugar makes the religion go down). Please note that conquering religions are often rapidly changing themselves, as well: this is not a stagnant religion.

6) Secret religions. How many worshippers are there? Impossible to know. Often a conquered religion, or an inherited-by-bloodline religion. Any way you cut it, nobody admits it, they all worship in secret. If the fantasy world gives out magic for your religious worship, this can be a very powerful secret!

7) Rebellious religions. A minority religion or cult which decides to enter mainstream by fomenting rebellion, or attaching itself to rebellion which is already fomenting. The "us vs them" logic of a rebellion makes it very, very easy to recruit people and turn them into zealots for your church. If your rebellion succeeds, maybe you'll be a state religion in the new nation...

8) Bored-to-action religions. This arises somewhat rarely, but I thought I'd mention it. When society has plenty of people who are interested in changing (themselves or the world), branches of existing religions may pop up organized around that philosophy. Of course, just as likely are secret societies, NGOs, etc.

9) Cults. Everyone loves a good cult! Please keep in mind that a cult has a pretty specific definition. Rather than use it loosely, I'm using it specifically: this is a religion, regardless of size, which uses at least half of these techniques:

A) Assigns a new name or identity when you join/rank up.
B) Isolates practitioners from nonpractitioners.
C) Promises access to secrets if you can rank up enough.
D) Promises experiences not permitted by cultural norms/laws.
E) Has a single, obsessive leader.
F) Follows one core tenet, insists that all problems can be solved by it.
G) Uses physical or emotional stress to make people vulnerable to suggestion.
H) Subverts the hold of the government over its practitioners via secrecy or bribery.

10) Dead religions. Dead religions are a really interesting topic, and also include any religion which is mostly-dead (<20 practitioners). Because this is fantasy, dead religions may still have a lot of power. For example, stumbling into a temple to the ancient goddess of dreams and hallucinations may not be a very comfortable experience...

If you read this far, you're really, really patient. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I've been stuck on thinking about the flashlight projector. Original post included if you missed it.

I've been thinking about the sort of games and apps you might be able to create. This post will be pretty design-heavy.

The flashlight projects an image onto a surface. Fundamentally, that means you can put virtual things on the surface. These virtual things can be just something on the surface, such as a sticker or a logo. Alternately, they can represent things that aren't on the surface, but are only being displayed there.

Three examples of that are:

1) Displaying the piping and wiring in a wall by painting their image on the wall.

2) Casting a shadow on the wall from a virtual object between the flashlight and the wall. Shadow does not have to be actual dark patches - for example, the virtual object might be a stained glass bauble.

3) Showing what is beyond the wall on the surface of the wall. For example, a security guard could shine his flashlight on a wall and play the camera feeds for the room on the other side.

There is also the option to display simple virtual things on the surface, but use them in an information-dense manner. For example, painting a map on the surface, getting a footprint trail of people who passed through, or average rainfall displayed as inches of "water" splashing along the ground.

These are things which have nothing to do with a reality that currently exists, but are still deeply tied to the location, as opposed to simple virtual tagging.

So... what sort of games could you make out of it?


Let's start with the obvious one: let people paint on surfaces, then let other people see what they have painted.

This offers some unique limits and opportunities. First off, the flashlight is a physical object, and most people aren't going to want to seem weird by hunting around Manhattan with a flashlight during the day. It follows that the majority of tagging will happen in places with some foot traffic, but not too much (the weirdo with the flashlight) or too little (nobody else will see it). An alternative is places with very few people plus some kind of guidance/seeking system, which would be useful if there were few users.

If you're painting on surfaces rather than in space, you can take advantage of the nature of surfaces. Some surfaces are the same day in and day out. However, other surfaces are temporary or recurring. For example, if you paint the side of a parked car, you can only see that image when a car is parked in that same spot. If you paint someone's shirt, you can only see the image when someone is standing in that same place. Perhaps you can see blurry shadows if your light shines through where the surface should be, and then there's the fun of looking for places there were surfaces that people painted on, and temporarily recreating those surfaces.

Painting doesn't have to just be painting. Like, with a finger. There are a variety of things it could be.

I like the idea of "stamping". You have virtual possession of a thing. You then stamp it onto a surface, losing possession of it. Someone who sees it can peel it off and stick it in their inventory.

In some cases, this is probably ad-driven. Through the central "inventory management system", you can manage the unique tags for every stamp, regardless of what it actually is once it is on your computer. So if an online game wants to put up stamps for custom armor and a month of free play time, they can pay the central database a per-item fee to register it, and then go around stamping them out. You could also do coupons for the local stores, or even just flat-out billboard ads.

It's actually less obnoxious than normal ads because you, the player, can rip them down and throw them away (by "taking" them). The central database still gets the ad money.

But it'd be a pretty dull game if it was just about ads. So we have to think about how and what people would want to share.

Let's put it in three categories:

1) I want people to see this cool thing - the display case reason.

2) I want to put out rare and interesting things that make the world a bit more magical - the unicorn reason.

3) I want to share and work together on this thing - the garden reason.

The first category would consist of content you created, or links you've found. Basically, you could slap images and youtube videos and stuff onto various surfaces. The world could get very crowded if they never faded, so I think most of these would fade slightly if someone viewed them and did not "thumbs up" them. So after, say, 20 unique views without a thumbs-up, they vanish entirely. "Peeling" these off would not remove them from the world, but simply keep a local copy (if allowed). Depending on the rules, you may report illegal/inappropriate content, which would be removed/gated in much the same manner as any other kind of hosting service.

The second category is driven by the urge to make hidden things in the world, hidden things that people can find. For example, you might stumble across a red "thread" on a wall, which if you follow it, leads to a real-world grotto and a geotag-style treasure box. Or maybe you simulate how the night sky would look if it were completely dark in this city, and then paint the eves of buildings with it. Or you paint a mural, a little bit every day, so that visitors feel the need to check back frequently.

This kind of sharing is generally not quite as "loud" as the first kind, and is often slightly secret or hard to find. They're half treasure hunt. That's fine, sounds fun. Imagine finding a mural in midair (by the shadows the mural casts), and then spending fifteen minutes using your hand and the flashlight to pan across it and see it.

The third category - the social and cooperative creation of content in this virtual world - is definitely the most interesting to me. Imagine if there was a garden in some downtown nook - a virtual garden. People could come by and plant things, harvest things, and so on. Or there's a cooperative scene, where people can drop their "Mii"s and watch them play around. Or any number of other things.

The problem with this category is trolls. I imagine every site would need an "owner" who could veto, roll back, and ban. That might get logistically irritating. But, on the other hand, it offers another way to monetize: "if you want something that runs and changes over time and isn't, say, a static youtube video, you need to pay $5 per 100m of sim..."


Monday, October 31, 2011

Narrative Games Redux

If you're not familiar with the basic argument about the role of narrative (story) in games, this essay is not a good place to start. This essay is about a specific approach.

I'd like to talk about the idea of adaptive narrative. That is, a story which changes as you interact with it, and not with a dialog tree.

If you're like me, you've played Heavy Rain. If not, a quick summary is: the game has no real gameplay, it's mostly a giant branching path story where you try to figure out who the killer is. Spoiler: it's the one person who's definitely not he killer.

As games go, Heavy Rain is a bit of a bust, more like an interactive movie where you can choose which characters die, when.

If you're like me, you've played the old Blade Runner adventure game. There are several games where you are investigating a crime in something like real time, and the NPCs are also advancing in their own plots at the same time. Blade Runner is simply the oldest one I know about. Like most of these games, the way you can interfere with other characters' scripted timelines means that there are a wide variety of endings. Like Heavy Rain, it features not a whole lot of actual gameplay... but it's an adventure game, so that's par for the course.

If you're like me, you've played Catherine, known for its combination of box-pushing puzzle sections and fan service. If you haven't played Catherine, you may be unaware of its bar and nightmare plateau scenes, where you can talk to people, let time pass, and in general feel like you're impacting on their lives. Catherine has gameplay, but it could be replaced with any gameplay you care to name and nobody would notice: it has no relation to the story progression.

In my long history of failing to create adaptive narratives, I've tried many things. But I'd like to consider an approach based on these three games.

The core of the idea is that there are other characters, and they do things in some kind of (probably scripted) timeline. While time doesn't have to advance at a constant march, the point is that their stories advance when yours does.

There are three kinds of "inflection points" I'd like to consider. That is to say, there are three ways I'd like to let the player interact with the NPCs.

1) When the NPC's timeline brings them into collision with the PCs timeline during an event sequence. This could be happenstance (they rob a bank you happen to be at) or it could be that one of you is seeking the other out on purpose. Either way, the interaction offers a clear chance to change the trajectory of one or both characters. This is a common method used by branching plotlines today.

2) When the player, in his free exploring, sticks his nose into an NPC's life. AKA "sidequest syndrome". To be honest, I don't like this this method. Most games that use this method do not use it to radically alter anything, they are primarily subquests or only affect very minor characters. For example, the romance plots in Mass Effect, or the way you can try to free the slaves in any Jedi game ever. This is mostly distinct from type 1 in that they rely on the player exploring to the right physical place and then putting his life on hold to do some subquest.

3) Lastly, a subset of NPCs (and the player) can gather into one place when they are "off duty". These are quiet times in everyone's plot lines, and serve much the same role as a safehouse in a horror game.

In these sections, you can talk to a lot of different NPCs, perhaps in phases as the "off duty" time wears on. You will get to know them better as characters, and form a bond with them. There is also the option of interfering with their plotlines by giving them items, advice, or introducing them to other NPCs.

It's this "off duty" section I'd like to see more of.

Right now, most of our adaptive narratives are set around the idea of giving the player an illusion of freedom while, at most, offering them two choices. Basically, if you can imagine it, the current method is a lot of parallel lines that occasionally jitter slightly to one side or the other as the player bumps them.

The "off duty section" method is more like if those parallel lines converge - three meet here, five meet there. Then they separate and go back to being parallel. This has a lot of advantages, in theory:

A) Keeping up with the Joneses. Because the off duty sections are reliable as a heartbeat, the players can get updated on how the plot line of each character is progressing. It serves as a regular and centralized way to keep up to date with everyone. This allows for many plot lines to be active at once, and for a much longer period of time, rather than the short bursts of sidequests most games use.

B) Deflection as gameplay. By bringing everyone together, you can weave the plot lines in a regular fashion, such that the momentary lulls appear at more or less the same time for every character. The player then has to choose which characters will receive his resources and help, and in what way. So you take an ordinary set of simple branches, and suddenly there is choice and gameplay.

C) Closed-world. This system works great in a non-open-world game, where the player is not allowed to randomly wander into the NPCs' normal lives. In this way, a lot of the scenes and activities of the NPCs can be "just talk", rather than actually being represented in the game engine or with cutscenes.

That's my thinking. You?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Tactical Depth

I've been having a fairly in-depth conversation among my G+ game design circle that's got me thinking about some of my instincts. In this case, I am making a casual tactical game, and rejecting or accepting various suggested improvements.

One of the things which arises fairly frequently is that I reject something that sounds reasonable. For example, because this game features retiring characters when they reach a certain level, you'll have characters in your roster that are all across the level spectrum. A level 30 knight and a level 3 pistolier.

To make it so these characters work together well, there are two basic options: a variety of techniques which allow characters to work effectively together even with low-level characters, or a mentoring system where the weaker character is artificially improved while within a few tiles of the higher level character.

Of these, I choice the mentoring system. I did this not because it had the most depth, but because it had the highest depth to headspace ratio.

What I mean by that is that it's very easy to remember "weak character within 2 tiles of strong character", and the resulting dynamics are quite interesting.

On the other hand, even though the tactical options may be even deeper using work-together abilities, they require a lot more memory. Now the player has to remember "strong knight A can click on weak knight B to enhance stat C if within D tiles", and "strong pistolier E can stand near weak knight B to automatically fire on enemy C if they attack using ranged weapons..."

In a casual game, you have to keep the headspace as low as possible, because people will only play it for short amounts of time and won't be able to track so many highly varied pieces. Because of this, I've cut a lot of complexity out of the game. The idea is to keep the core play tactically deep but not using up much headspace: two players who have never met should be able to simply swap cell phones and play each other's battle scenario from the midpoint and immediately understand most of how the team operates together. No difficult-to-grasp swarms of details like you get in Disgaea or Civilization.

"Deep play, not complex play." That's my motto here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shift shift shift

As I was chatting with somebody, I realized that something I think is obvious apparently isn't obvious at all. So I'll mention it:

We're in the middle of a shift, a technology shift that is changing the way everyone does everything.

The "computer" is such a young technology. It took thousands of years for humanity to really feel the effects of the plow. Hell, the book is barely a teenage technology. How the computer is today has absolutely nothing to do with how the computer will end up being. They may look vaguely similar and sound vaguely similar when described, but it'll be like the difference between when books were hand-copied by scribes and when they could be printed cheaply enough that commoners could read them.

We've always pointed out that computers have changed society as much as the plow, as much as the printing press. But apparently some of us seem to think that it's past tense, as if how society is now is the final result of the changes computers can create.

*Bzzt* wrong. No surprise, if you actually think a bit: computers have a long way to go, and we are going to go that distance with them.

A lot of the devices and hubbub we are seeing are the emergence of computers as a complex ecosystem instead of as largely independent little worlds. E-book readers and cell phones rely heavily on other computers and communication to servers in order to do everything they do.

We (well, I) get upset about this perceived slavery to an outside force. In truth, it's just basic ecology. The fundamental pattern is unavoidable: we will be in a future where computation and content needs to be thought of as ecosystems rather than a standalone libraries. I would like us to create ecosystems that are more robust and less repressive, but even I cannot deny that ecosystems are coming: individual devices will become less and less distinct from the mass of computation floating around you.

We like to talk about embedding computers in our clothes and all sorts of other classic "future tech" stuff. But the truth is that those sorts of ideas are fluff. Maybe they happen, maybe they don't. Either way, the heart of our growing and changing societies is all about the blurring of the lines between devices.

Other changes?

Lots, I'm sure, but none I feel as confident about.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Spent a painful afternoon in the comic shop. Every week I hear worse and worse news about superhero comics (especially DC comics), so I finally went to take a look, courtesy of incompetent electricians disconnecting my computer again again again.

Superhero comics have always been an interesting topic for me, because even though I read them, I was never a tremendous fan.

But dismissing them as "male power fantasies" isn't... well, no, wait. I think they can safely be dismissed as that. However, they have filled a different niche in the past: they told stories of heroes embodying modern culture fighting villains that embodied modern culture.

Superheroes spent a long time competing for space with other paradigms that fought for the same niche: pulp adventure, space opera, noir detective stories. You might claim that superheroes have this fundamental staying power because they express some facet of our culture and ourselves in some particularly good way.

The truth is that superheroes simply outshouted the competition. The only thing superheroes have going for them is versatility: you can put just about any superhero in just about any story, with no real concern for canon or restraint. So that's just what they did. For a century.

Superheroes are a volume product. Marvel's invention of the "mutant" was a brilliant way to mass-produce iconic characters for every kind of story ever.

But, like any aging market, the superhero industry giants have failed to adapt and controlled their products too tightly.

As you will be aware if you've ever actually tried to do anything in the superhero realm, it's basically impossible. Your superheroes, even if you manage to find a name that was never used before (impossible), are probably breaking some kind of trademark regarding their suit or powers.

Moreover, the fundamental idea of the superhero is fading. From a character representing the heroic ideals of a modern culture, it's pretty clearly devolved into a simple power fantasy with fetish elements. Nothing shouts this louder than DC's pathetic reboot. DC's reboot also shouts that the industry is at the edge, out of time.

Some people want to save the superhero. I'd like to let it die. There are many new kinds of heroes waiting in the wings, but they can't come into play until superheroes have stepped down, especially since many of them would be considered superheroes and marginalized by that association if used now.

Superheroes have nothing more to say. They never really had much to say in the first place, although they have been involved in some pretty decent stories, especially when they cover topics such as racism and terror. Still, there are a lot of other heroes waiting to step in, let's go ahead and give the spandex-plus-accidental-superpowers a rest.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Worlds to Play In

Well, today's been a pretty big day for Star Trek vs Star Wars noise. Nothing surprising, but it's a good opportunity to discuss what makes a setting compelling for games and fans.

I've run games in many universes - Star Wars most, but also Star Trek and some others such as Serenity/Firefly. The games I run do not use the official rules for these settings, because those rules suck.

Fundamentally, this makes the games I run more like fanfic than, say, playing KotOR. I've personally found that what seems to make a setting draw in a lot of long-term fanfic also makes it rich for people who want to play games in that setting - whether they are unofficial games like mine, or multi-million dollar computer RPGs.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at popular settings, flash-in-the-pan settings, and how you might adjust your own designs to make them more... fanfic friendly? Let's say "enduring".


The settings of Star Wars and Star Trek are both good examples, because they appear similar at first glance and utterly different at second glance. So we can pull out both similarities and contrasting elements, and discuss why both are so enduring and popular.

Please note, we're not talking about specific canon elements. We're talking about the fundamental pieces of the setting, as might be used by fanfic writers, game designers, and idle teenagers everywhere.

Both Star Wars and Star Trek share a specific trait: their Space Opera roots. Both involve traveling to new and interesting places, but rarely alone or penniless: you usually have a group of hyper-competent friends, a kickass starship, cool powers, and/or a whole government pretty much blanket backing you. Similarly, you are restricted as to how you can behave, or you'll find your backing pulled or your powers turning against you.

This is pretty much the exact same setting as all of the old "adventurer archaeologist", "Private Eye noir", and "great white hunter" stories, and so on. I'm sure that in the days of ancient Rome, they had stories about the Roman legion's escapades in far-off lands that filled the same niche.

Obviously, this "backed exploration" allows for basically infinite expansion, and even if you choose to do something which doesn't involve a lot of exploration (such as Deep Space 9, where you're actually stationary), you still benefit from the fact that the universe has that kind of wide net already built right into it, and you can bring the exploration to you.

I suggest that this is the fundamental method to making your settings more enduring.

Take a look at other popular franchises: in Hogwarts, students explore more and more of their magical world backed by the support of their fellow students, teachers, and artifacts. In Naruto, ninja range far and wide to discover unusual (usually ninja-related) cultures and situations, and fight them. In Avatar, small groups of heroes hop on a giant flying monster and explore their complex, highly varied world. In Ranma 1/2 (don't laugh, it was basically the Naruto of its day), the main characters encounter thousands of crazy martial artists and there is a distinct feeling that there are an infinite number of ever more unlikely challenges out there, but you always have your (admittedly pretty useless) family to help.

Are there any popular settings which aren't built around this basic principle?

If you choose to build a setting using this approach, your main concern is how you spend your time. You have to hook into your audience enough that they begin to imagine other adventures right away. You can't let them watch a few episodes and then escape.

Because of this, you need to develop your primary backing and your competing exploration teams right away.

Your primary backing should be obvious. You're not just exploring new places. You're exploring new places with specific kinds of people at your side, specific interesting resources, specific restrictions.

If you're in Star Trek, you're exploring with a crew of trained professionals and a top-of-the-line starship, as well as plenty of magic technobabble. If you're in Star Wars, you're exploring in a dingy ship, maybe only one or two companions, but you can see the future and have a freaking light saber. In both cases, you are also bound: you can play fast and loose with the prime directive, but any actively evil captain will get their ass kicked by the Federation. Similarly, falling to the dark side is an ever-present threat that will rip the character out of the player's hands and leave them a villainous NPC.

So quickly demonstrate those details in the very first story. Make it clear the ship is funded by a benevolent super-government. Make it clear that you have psychic powers but they can make you crazy if you step out of line. You are adventuring. You have resources, and you have restrictions. Show them.

While creating your initial adventures, you'll also want to establish your co-adventurers, your competition. The entities and cultures you first encounter when reading/playing will be the ones that are assumed to be co-explorers anyway, so make them with that in mind.

As examples go, in Star Wars the competition is not the Sith, but the Empire. Later, criminal syndicates are the main competition. Wherever you go, there is a risk that they got there first, that they are entrenched, or that they will seek to steal it away from you.

In Star Trek, you have the Klingons - the first other explorer introduced, and still the most durable to the day. Until the Klingons, there were really no co-explorers. The Klingons were the first entities that A) could challenge the Federation to some extent, and B) were interested in doing so.

Of course, Star Trek tends to mint co-explorers for each series. Nothing wrong with that.

This kind of competition - another entity that is exploring and searching just like you - is critical for several reasons.

1) It serves as contrast. 90% of the time, the competition doesn't have the same behavioral restrictions that you do. So you are competing 'at a handicap'. Except... it also gives the writers a chance to show why operating with your restrictions is beneficial.

2) It serves as pressure. Knowing that there is someone else out there - an evil version of you - means you can't just freely waltz around. Sometimes, you'll enter a contested zone. Sometimes, you'll need to fight tooth and nail. Without competition, each adventure is simply you tromping on the locals, or the locals tromping on you.


Are there other factors that are important?

Sure. Design sense, popularity, music, character design... lots of other things can help or hurt you. But the differences between the popular settings we've mentioned show that none of these things has a "best" approach.

The only thing that seems to have a clear "best" approach is the fundamental way you base your setting around exploring with backing, restrictions, and competition.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Physical Feel

I've suddenly become very interested in physical games. Not like board games, but like these.

There are a lot of amazing things you can do with physical games that you can't do with a genericized controller, from the "snap" of the box closing itself when you lose to the feel of moving your body in the game's physical space. Even something as simple as those tiltable wooden "marble labyrinths" have a more immersive feel to them than their virtual variants.

It's fun to think of the cool things you could make. For example, that karate-chop game looks pretty amenable to modular design. You could have a lot of different modules and, as the game progresses, it demands that you put more modules on the base unit, to have more complex interactions.

But, being that my skills at actual electronics are nonexistent, I have to stay pretty much in the software world. This got me thinking about how you can add that kind of depth, sharpness, and immersiveness to a game using a much more generic controller (for example, keyboard or 360 controller).

Some games have done a pretty good job: Katamari Damacy probably reigns supreme at this, although I suppose the Kinect has bred some challengers. But I'd love to hear about others. What games can you think of that have interesting and immersive controls? How would you implement such a thing?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Inverted Economics

Thought experiment time!

I'm sick of thinking about economics in terms of how goods are distributed. Instead, I'd like to try thinking of them in terms of how people organize to create goods.

As a quick example, in most ancient societies, local lords held control over the peasants and organized them into farm lots. The majority of people were on these farm lots, usually paying taxes in food.

There are a few competing theories as to exactly when and why cities arose, but it is relatively clear that the local lords had a tough time controlling cityfolk in the same way as rural farmers. If you think about it in terms of organizing people instead of distributing goods, cities allowed people to organize a lot better, but there was no suitable structure to help them organize.

A hodgepodge of approaches were tried, including limiting merchants to specific cities/zones, enforcing family businesses, supporting unions for craftsmen, and so on. But these methods were not really very good at organizing cityfolk, and cities had limited economic potential for a long time - springing up to support the local lords, or to support a mining operation, or as a trade region, or in support of some other pursuit that was not fundamentally about being organized cityfolk, but about supporting another kind of organized operation.

We like to use terms like "capitalism", but the term has no any precise meaning when you think of them in these terms. Instead of talking about how people organize to create goods, it talks about how goods are distributed.

If you look at what we have called "capitalism", you can see several underlying organizational methods.

If we start with the industrial revolution, we can see that the technologies of the revolution had been knocking around for a while. It was only when the culture figured out how to organize people to use them efficiently that we saw the era change. People began to organize into hyper-local groups near a specific factory or machine.

The need for people to be super local finally made cities useful in and of themselves, rather than as support for other pursuits. People produced large amounts of goods this way, whereas fifty craftsmen in the same building before the industrial revolution would not be significantly more effective than fifty craftsmen in fifty different buildings.

After not too terribly long, this simple focus slowly shifted into a new "develop/distribute" method of organization. While there are factories aplenty, they are not the driving method of organization. Instead, a factory is simply a chip in the pile of a corporation: a group of people who manage supply lines, distribution channels, product development, and so on.

A corporation is not hyper-local. While it has components that are quite local (offices), it also has quite a lot of travel as people move products, ideas, and employees around the world. I might call it "dendritic" rather than "local".

It makes sense that we, coming out of a develop/distribute era, think of economics in terms of development and distribution of goods. That's why we have terms like "communist" and "capitalist". But I don't see that it's a particularly fundamental approach to economics.

I'm not judging: the dendritic approach has allowed for science to flourish, which I consider a major, major plus. However, it has also allowed us to do some pretty outlandishly horrible things.

Nowadays we're still in that dendritic system. However, our "always on" communication grid (cell phones, internet, twitter, etc) is becoming more and more pronounced.

It's clear to me that we'll enter a new phase, a method of people organizing that would be considered odd and unlikely if we look at it right now. I'll call it "maelstrom" organization, although only because we're not actually in it yet, so we don't understand it very well. It is people organizing rapidly and (usually) temporarily to deploy a specific product in specific amounts to specific markets.

Exactly how it ends up working will depend on how technology progresses. If robotics become more standard and more useful, I can see a huge number of the jobs we have these days becoming fully automated. Starbucks is one human with five robotic baristas. His job is to make friendly with the customers and to maintain the robots.

Even our desk jobs will become obsolete as expert data systems and scrapers mean we can do a week of market research in ten minutes.

I think this is why we have this "new low" of economic production. Our economy is still stuck in its dendritic form, but that form is no longer very useful, because the people that normally organized at the heart of those nodes have been replaced by technology, or at least by people from far, far away.

Our economists all throw their hands up and talk about how goods are distributed, how money flows through markets...

But it's an interesting thought experiment to think, instead, about how people organize. Let the distribution and markets take care of themselves for a bit, and think about how people organize.

Edit: since writing this, I've decided to call the new kind of thing I'm talking about "laminar organization/economics" rather than "maelstrom organization/economics".

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Asynchronous Participation

I was thinking about creative games that use player generated content, and the various schemes to share and remix and use that content.

There are various "small scale" methods where the players generate some content in a limited fashion that is then used in the world. Eve Online is a great example of this: the player generated content is primarily limited to factions and corporations, and if the players want to generate physical goods they are limited to the goods in the master list.

But I'm thinking of a "deep" method where the players actually generate the majority of the in-game content. Second Life is the canonical example, and there are precious few others (Spore, the Sims, etc).

Most of them follow a "massively single player" model, where one player creates the whole of a given thing (for example, a house or hat or monster) and distributes it to others.

But what of an actually multiplayer model? Where content creation is actively multiplayer, with several people working together on something?

As I see it, there are three methods to multiplayer content creation.

1) Simultaneous participation. This is where players are working on the same thing with loose and informal boundaries. This is extremely vulnerable to griefing, whether on purpose or just because the other player has a different idea/is incompetent.

To minimize griefing in these situations, it's common to reduce player investment in the product, reduce algorithmic reliance between areas of the product, and restrict the participants to invite-only. All three of these are things I want to avoid.

2) Walled participation. This is when players work on the same thing, but with extremely clear boundaries. For example, if each player designs one of the characters that will end up in the party. Or if one player designs the starship model and the other designs the code that makes it move and fire. Or one person builds the level and the other builds the NPC bots within it.

Walled participation has some good points and some bad points, and it's worth keeping in mind. But I'm also not interested in that for this post.

3) Asynchronous participation. This is when one player will do a bit, then let another player do a bit, then another, and so on.

This is less subject to griefing than simultaneous participation because you can do strict version control and roll back to before the griefer did anything, or fork it to allow the griefers their own version. This is much harder with simultaneous participation because the boundaries as to what changes are what becomes very, very blurry very rapidly.

Asynchronous participation has the downside that the maximum "intent chunk" is pretty low, because each player only maintains control for a short piece of the whole project. If your intent is to build a starship in a Star Trek Federation style, and you leave and come back to find a beautiful starship built in Star Wars Empire style, it's going to be impossible for you to enforce your own intent without undoing or ignoring huge amounts of useful work.

Still, I believe this asynchronous participation deserves more consideration.

One thing to consider is that we may actually be thinking about it wrong. We're thinking in terms of big projects. What if we think in terms of little projects?

Instead of thinking about it like architecture, what if we think about it like improv? What if each player's action leads to a response which literally builds on that action?

For example, let's say there's a shared town and someone blows up one of the buildings in it (perhaps for fun, perhaps in the course of some adventure). Instead of rolling back and considering that griefing, you can use classic improv methods and build on it.

Move a bunch of squatters from a marginalized neighbor state into the rubble. Reveal a magic door to an underground area full of monsters. Have the explosion break windows in all the houses for a mile around. Send out an insurance hit squad to collect payment from that nasty team of adventurers. Small or large, just use the classic "yes, and" , "yes, but", and "yes, then" statements. Make the other player's action seem like it was perfect, cleared the way brilliantly, or added a kernel of a grand idea.

The idea here is to let go of your pure and lofty intentions. You don't need to build a city that is exactly like you want it to be: you need to build a city that people live in. It's possible to take content from other players who are interacting and use that to springboard in a new and vigorous direction.

A key reason this matters is because most players are not virtuoso content creators. Most players are only going to create/manipulate content clumsily, and often only in the course of doing other things. To pull them into the world proper, you need to have a way for those clumsy newbies to get pulled in with interesting new details, a way to make their contributions valuable.

On the other side, you may wonder how the players capable of creating good content would benefit. The answer is that most of the high-tier creators wouldn't benefit. They are people who enjoy working for a long time on perfect things, and then releasing them into the wild.

However, there is a type of content creator not really tapped: the event/questline coordinator. These are players whose content creation skills are probably mediocre, and may mostly be about choosing what existing content to replicate and stick into an area. But these are very valuable players, because they tie the player base together into a fun mesh.

So, what I'm saying is that asynchronous participation can A) allow beginners to contribute meaningfully, B) not interfere with high-level content creation, and C) give rise to a new kind of content creator that serves to bind the players together and build a world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Synesthetic Math Toy

I made a synesthetic math toy. You can find it here.

I'm interested in synesthesia. Many synesthetics see colors, shapes, and motion when they look at numbers. I decided that it would be interesting to see what a math toy that duplicated that effect would be like.

The toy I created doesn't attempt to closely simulate any kind of synesthesia, partly due to the limitations of working on a flat screen and partly because I developed it in a weekend. However, the dancing, colored, trailing numbers are reasonably similar to the sorts of things a synesthetic person might see.

My question was simple: how are numbers and math different if the numbers "speak" to you?

When you try the toy out, you may be very confused initially, but that's to be expected. Try playing with it enough that you begin to get used to the numbers, what the various permutations mean. There is no randomness in their colors or activities.

Let me know what you find, keeping in mind that this toy is definitely just a toy.

Caveats: it's untested. I made it in a weekend. There are no alternate sizes, use your browser's zoom function if it's the wrong size.


Thursday, August 11, 2011


Unfortunately, due to a mishap involving a bar and a randomized playlist, I've had Cee Lo stuck in my head. The best way to deal is to make a geeky variant!

So here's the aging internet meme called a song: Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", except this version is Geeky.

I remember when, I remember my first telescope
There was something so pleasant about deep space
Endless twinkling stars make galactic lace

When you're out there in the freezing cold
Yeah, watching the stars
Endless distance marked by the passing of light
Scale gives me a fright

Does that make me geeky?
Does that make me geekaaaayy?
Does that make me geeeeeeekay?

And I hope that you are
Aware that your life is made
of starstuff
And that's enough

Come on now, what do you, what do you
What do you think you are?
Ha ha, cells and anatomy
And you pull out life's tree?

Well, I think you're geeeekay!
I think you're geeeekaaaaay
I think you're geeeeekay
Just like meeeeee

My heroes have the brains
To see the stars on a galactic limb
And all I remember
Is thinking, I want to be like them

Ever since I was little
Since I was little
It looked like fun!
And it's no coincidence I've come
I'll fly when I'm done

But maybe I'm geeeeeekay
Maybe you're geeeeekay
Maybe we're geeee-eee-eeekay

Monday, August 08, 2011

Travel Guide RPGs

I was recently reading an indie RPG rulebook when I began to get bogged down in endless pages of lists and descriptions. It got me thinking.

In a paper book, those lists are not so bad, because a book is fundamentally arranged into chunks. You can flip through a book. However, this was in PDF form. The endless pages broke my immersion completely. In my own works, I am also aware of this restriction.

I was thinking about the fundamental nature of this kind of data. Charts and tables and level perks and item lists. Let's think about them.

First, let's talk about it from the most fundamental level. We use these long lists and charts to inform the player of something. That something is a stack of specific and unique things within a given category. So let's think about that very thing: lists of specific and unique things.

I have seen plenty of tabletop RPGs that don't list specific or unique things. They rely on the players and the GM to develop unique things over the course of play. So it's possible to do it without lists.

But lists of specific things do provide an advantage. They provide a terrain of play. A bundle of experiences-to-be. They are a method for the author to plan out a party's experiences, highlighting interesting confluences the rules create, pieces of world ready for adventure, and the like.

The rules and setting provided by the game are rich with possibility, but the players and GM probably can't see them as clearly as the author. The design of an RPG doesn't end with rules and loose setting, but begins there: lists of unique things are stepping stones and landmarks to draw the players towards the interesting features of your game.

So we have lists. Critical hit charts to put color in your fights. Item lists to allow the players to weigh the pros and cons of various equipment. Monster lists to provide instant, prepackaged tactical mayhem. Race lists to provide options for a new character when the monster list gets a bit too unforgiving.

If we accept that a list of unique things is a landmark rather than a straightjacket, wouldn't that completely change the way we approach things, even if we still insist on a paper book?

"Here is a list of equipment" becomes "Here, these are balanced weapons". "Here is a stack of monsters" becomes "These are ingredients for your fights!"

I'm going to try to think of the bulk of a rule book - everything but the most basic setting and rules - as a guidebook to the dynamics of the RPG. Like any good guidebook, it doesn't tell you where to go, exactly. It just says "this place over here is interesting, and you can get a killer view of the waterfall on the way!"

But that doesn't change the fact that lists are total shit in PDF form. So... let's not use PDF.

Wouldn't it make the most sense to release a tabletop RPG as a wiki? Fuck the paper book. Give me a wiki, each list its own entry. A travel guide to your universe, wiki form.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Classes in RPGs

I've been thinking about class structure in RPGs. I mean classes like "warrior, mage, rogue", obviously.

Classes grow out of the kinds of resources and mini-conflicts that arise from the game's challenges. If games have similar challenges, they result in similar classes. D&D 4th is a notably refined version of this, where the classes are descended from super-clear tactical roles (controller, defender, leader and striker). But all games with classes have the same fundamental idea: every class addresses a particular opportunity or challenge within the game's framework.

This changes based on the framework in question. In early D&D, for example, you had clerics and thieves: both classes addressed the less combat-centric parts of the game. In modern D&D, these have been slowly co-opted into combat roles as the game has become more combat-centric.

Most modern games with classes revolve around a specific kind of challenge which I call "open combat". Basically, everything revolves around damage: giving and receiving and controlling it. The four roles in D&D 4th ed can be easily restated within in this framework. A defender excels at absorbing damage, a striker at dealing it, and a leader at increasing everyone's capabilities to do those things. A controller is probably better thought of as two classes - one which deals AOE/specialty damage and one which interferes with the enemy's ability to deal damage.

Some of you are probably holding up a hand and going "wait, that's not quite right...", but please don't get sidetracked by the particulars: I'm using D&D as an easy example, I'm not trying to analyze every nuance of a particular system. I'm saying that in general, classes exist specifically to deal with tactical challenges presented by the game rules, and D&D's classes are a good example of that. The thousand of other games which also revolve around dealing and receiving damage in open combat also divvy up classes in much the same way.

However, that's not the only kind of challenge which is available.

For example, in a game where range is an incredibly important factor and damage less so, you start to divvy up classes based on their optimal range, speed, and ability to interact with cover and terrain. This is significantly more limited in D&D, even using miniatures, because the damage dealt is still more important than the range it is dealt at. In military wargames the classes are often more delineated by their range and maneuverability rather than by health and damage characteristics. You have grenadiers, tanks, snipers, riflemen, short-range infantry for urban zones, and so on.

In fact, you could divvy it up the same way as we did before, only with "range and mobility" rather than "damage given and received".

A defender excels at surviving attacks from range - infantry, crawling along under cover. A striker excels at dealing damage at range - snipers, tanks, artillery. A leader enhances everyone's range and mobility - scouts, ATVs, command vehicles, etc. Controllers are either A) anti-tank/grenadier units or B) engineer corps to dig trenches and set up bridges and such.

Of course, this ignores things like air support, because I didn't include that kind of challenge in my theoretical game. By creating gameplay elements, you alter the nature of the classes required to cover them: if I added aerospace control, I now have to not only add in the classes for air-on-air challenges, but also the classes for gluing air and ground together (air infantry transport, anti-air ground vehicles, bombers, etc).

The more diverse your gameplay becomes, the more classes and the more specialized those classes will be. Hence the boringness of playing an old-style cleric or rogue: their specialties were outside of the "fun" part of the game, so they spent a lot of time just hanging around being bad at the fun stuff.

So... that's my design thought of the day. What sort of challenges will you base your game around? What sort of classes will be required to facilitate the strategy of those challenges? How fun is it to use those classes and manage the tactics required?