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?