Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Amazon's New Service

Like everyone else, today I saw Amazon was starting up a new cloud music system. It's like iTunes, except your songs never actually get to your machine!

I hate this cloud shit. But maybe not for the reasons you might expect.

My problem isn't with "cloud" systems, believe it or not. My problem is with the systems Amazon and Google and Microsoft call "cloud" systems, which really aren't cloud systems at all.

A cloud is fundamentally a giant misty whatever of nebulous structure. "Cloud" meaning "web-accessible centralized server" doesn't make any goddamn sense. I know this is a lost battle, but I'll tell you what a cloud is:

YouTube is a cloud.

A barely-structured riot of always-available videos. YouTube is what "cloud" should mean.

Sure, there are users. Sure, people have favorites and can privately share things. But the structure is not rigid. Users can and will do almost anything: most of the structure is built by users, not by YouTube.

I'm not saying YouTube is perfect. I'm saying that YouTube is a cloud.

Amazon's music service is not a cloud. If it was a cloud, it would allow you to upload and listen to whatever music without thinking about payment. Instead, the "cloud" service Amazon is offering carves up the cloud into tiny little chunks and says "this square inch is your part of the cloud."

Really? That doesn't seem very cloud-like to me. That seems like a web-based rental store.

The numbers say music piracy is in decline. This is because the numbers don't bother to actually track what's going on.

It's true that people are torrenting less music. But they are still getting their music for free. From clouds like YouTube, pseudo-clouds like Facebook, and clear-sky streaming from places like Grooveshark.

This was inevitable. Torrents are not, fundamentally, very good for exploring music. The only reason they were so prevalent was because there was nothing better around. Now there's a bunch of good solutions for free and nearly-free music.

... But what about Amazon's toy? Why am I so pro-cloud and anti-web-rental-store?

The strength of the cloud is that its users self-organize. When I'm on YouTube, I can find pretty much anything. The threads linking various videos and songs together are surprising and sometimes unusually insightful. They contain a lot of metadata, it's always a rich experience. Especially if you turn off all downvoted comments.

YouTube is a living organism in the proper sense of the term. Millions of users constantly swapping videos and metadata like cells swapping chemicals and proteins. Interacting with a proper cloud is always different, always changing, and always full of interesting little insights. Also, it is resilient against imposed order: even with YouTube's sometimes crooked policies and vote-bot abuse, all the videos you want to see are still there, somewhere. Like a living creature, it cannot be truly controlled, just made vaguely presentable in front of guests.

On the other hand, a web-based store is not a living creature, nor is it a cloud. It's a store.

It might be a vigorous and interesting store, but interacting with a store carries none of the cultural weight and freedom of interacting with a life form given free rein. Anything you can find in Amazon's music store, you can find that or better on YouTube, with all the added interconnective metadata that makes it even richer.

That's why I hate these pathetic kinds of "services". They exist specifically to bend the user over backwards and gut them, all the while telling you how lucky you are that you can be screwed over personally, no matter where on the planet you are!

Try offering a service that does more for the users rather than less. Maybe then I won't be so angry!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Appealing & Appalling

My feed has recently been slammed by a bunch of links to various people whining about whether Dragon Age 2 made the game too "gay friendly" at the price of being boring for straight people. After a moment's thought, I decided I didn't really get it. It's boring for straight people, sure... but I'm pretty sure it's boring for gay people, too. I think the characters are just boring.

I had a bit of a discussion on Buzz about it, but I'd like to expand on my thoughts. Before I begin, if you've played the game, try not to get upset if I have a different opinion than you. If you haven't played the game, there are spoilers here, but the plot is so poor that you won't care.

I'm not here to talk about the plot. I'm here to talk about the characters. Specifically, why they (with one exception) are so bad.

Every single character in the game is lovingly modeled out and animated. The voice actors are fantastic. The banter is great. But they are all... so... boring. None of them are appealing (with one exception), and I can't imagine very many people, gay or straight, finding any of them attractive deeper than their visuals.

My own personal dislike for characters and plot arcs ripped from Vampire the Masquerade aside, the main reason I think these characters come off as so dull is that their plots basically ignore the player.

I've been using the term "brain damaged" to describe two of the characters in particular: Isabella the pirate stereotype and Merril the elf with a bad accent. After thinking a bit, I realized why they both seemed so brain-damaged: their plot arcs require them to hold the idiot ball.

Isabella is constantly talking about how she needs to find this idol thing to appease someone she pissed off, and how much she wants a ship. Not too long into the game, I've killed off dragons and syndicates and demonic rogue mages. I've helped random people out for absolutely no reward. Why is it I don't say, "Forget the idol. I'll buy you a ship, we'll go sailing, and we'll off the guy you don't like. There, done."

Actually, they do let you basically say something similar to that, but Isabella just blows you off. Why? Because there's still another 10 hours of gameplay before you get to the next part of her arc, so she has to continue to be an idiot until you get there.

Merril's the same way. "I want to use blood magic to save my people, because it's strong!" My response: "Merril, I just killed 57 blood mages, their demonic zombies, and a spate of weird undead things they summoned. I'm a spirit healer - the exact opposite of a blood mage. You are not cut out to be a blood mage, and even if you were, there's no actual statistical advantage to being insane and weird."

Merril's response would be "Oh, but I have to be a blood mage. Because we need one mage of each specialty in the roster, and I drew the red straw!"

After a little thinking, I realized that the reason I didn't find any of the other characters interesting (except one) was for the same reason.

It's time for the big unsurprise reveal! The character I like is... Varric. Like every other player I know, Varric is my favorite character. Why?

It's not that he's a big smooth-talker. There have been plenty of smooth-talkers in RPGs that I've hated. No, it's something more fundamental.

Let's review the introduction plot for each character in one sentence.

Anders: "I have to hide from everyone because I'm possessed by a demon!"

Aveline: "I'm stuck with you guys and I'm so sad because my hubby was killed."

Fenris: "I'm being hunted by people, and I need to kill them to be free."

Isabella: "I lost my ship and need to fight off all the people who don't like me!"

Merril: "I have to leave my tribe because I practice blood magic!"

Varric: "Hey, *you*, join us. Let's go someplace cool!"

The only one of these plots that involves you more than skin-deep is Varric's. Everyone else is "I have an arc! Help me accomplish my arc!" Varric is "Hey, let's go! Let's do stuff, you and me and whoever else!"

Interacting with Varric is inevitably like interacting with someone who is a respected friend. Even in non-plot-related interactions, he is thinking about you as much as he is thinking about him. Varric includes the player in every interaction he has with the player.

The other characters do not. All of their interactions are "I need to do this for me, can you help me? We'll do it at my pace, you're basically a hammer for me to use against my enemies."

I have no problem with helping people in RPGs, but Varric's approach is much stronger. He doesn't want me to help him. He wants me to help us.

I'm pretty sure it was written this way on accident, largely because of the necessities of the framing device. But it's a valuable lesson either way.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Time Investing is Not Enough

So, in the hours and hours and hours of commuting that Boston requires, I play a lot of DS games. Right now, I'm playing Radiant Historia.

Radiant Historia is a really good game, a lot like Chrono Trigger except that the battle system is significantly deeper. The two games are distinct enough that it's a mistake to directly compare them, but it made me think: fame is largely a matter of time and "space". Radiant Historia is better than FFVII, for example. It's definitely better than FFXIII, allowing for the graphical and interface restrictions of it being on the DS.

But Radiant Historia could never become famous like Chrono Trigger or FFVII. These games were released into a ripe position: there weren't very many RPGs around, they were king of the hill. Sure, Chrono Trigger was excellent, but importantly, it also had room to run. The only other significant JRPG-like released in America in 1995 was Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. While a good game, it didn't come out until 6 months later and was not even vaguely aimed at the same audience.

FFVII was the same way. It had to compete with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and one or two others, but it was really in its own class as a 3D RPG.

On the other hand, Radiant Historia has to compete with other JRPGs not just from 2011, but from the same month. The market is much more crowded. Even a good game doesn't have "room to run". If you were to pick up and play Radiant Historia, you'd probably say "Oh, it's pretty good, yeah..." and then forget about it in six months. There's not any space in your brain, no place for it to really take root.

We see the same thing in other industries. In the past, you would get a few catchphrases that would last a decade. You can still see hints of this looking back at older entertainment routines, where you could be assured of a "LUUUUCY!" or an "Ayyyyyyyy!" (finger-guns). Now we have a much, much larger set of memes that vie for our attention. Our culture has actually adapted to annihilate memes after a set period of time to make room for the next wave.

That's why when we use famous but aging internet memes ("All your base", "he's not me, but he could smell like me...") we are actively judged by our internet culture as being outdated. "Stop using those, here are the new memes..."

Angry Birds has sucked down more time than all of Wikipedia's editing since it began, by an order of magnitude or more. But in five years, nobody will remember Angry Birds very well: it'll be forgotten. Despite the time you spent on it, there was no "space". Your brain had no room for it to run. (To be fair, it's also not built to run even if you had space, but that's because they know there's no room...)

The only memes which continue to survive are those which produce daily variations, such as lolcats or "fail". While old memes by our standards, they remain viable because there is a continuous stream of widely varied content. They are more a method of expression rather than an expression.

These are memes which don't require room to run in order to stake out a piece of our brains. Instead, they continually chip-chip-chip away at our brain through repeated exposure from different angles of attack. If you think of Chrono Trigger as a cheetah that needs room to run, lolcats is a mole, patiently digging out a catacomb of thought and value.

It may be that the future lies mostly in "mole" memes - games and media which chip patiently away at the audience until they establishe a niche that lasts as long as maintenance continues.

Alternately, it may be that the future lies in emptying out lots of space in our heads and unleashing cheetahs of our choice onto those fertile plains. For example, it would be pretty easy for me to really fall in love with Radiant Historia: all I have to do is not play any other RPGs for a while, and maybe draw some fanart.

A hybrid option is also available. For example, in the form of the anime "Naruto". A continuous release schedule of new episodes allows the show to chip-chip-chip away at their audience's brains, although the flexibility is somewhat more limited than a proper mole meme. However, Naruto is shored up on the cheetah side as well, as it is the target of a hugely successful marketing campaign and a relatively small number of directly competing anime. These two combine pretty well with the active support of fanboys chattering like monkeys in insulated forums and circles. Fan art, fan fiction, and so on enhance Naruto's limited flexibility by stepping way, way outside canon to say whatever the audience likes. Naruto's simplistic characterizations and drawable visuals make it easy for it to be stretched to express different things as required by any given fan.

This is easy to contrast with other, less famous shows. The audiences of something like Desperate Housewives are A) buffeted by a lot of similar/competing shows, B) not as likely to form into fan groups and stretch the expressiveness of the show. The show itself is also much more limited than something like Naruto both in terms of how far it stretches in canon, and in terms of how easy it is for a fan to stretch it further.

If we were to say that lolcats is a mole and Chrono Trigger was a cheetah, Naruto would be a monkey, perhaps. Not particularly fast, not particularly good at digging, but able to live in the weird and complex garden built for it.

phwa. I guess that's all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Okay, I was waiting until the surge of "gamification" posts died down a bit before giving my opinion. Well, it's died down a bit, and this is my opinion.

For those of you who haven't heard the term, "gamification" is the idea that things which are not games can benefit from having game-like features that improve efficiency, user retention, learning speed, and so on.

The most common version of this is what I've heard called "pointification". That's slapping gamelike rewards (typically points or trophies) on otherwise ordinary tasks. As opposed to "pontification", which is what this post is.

Putting aside the putrid verbification of the root words, it's worth looking at these concepts a bit more carefully. I'm not planning on using "gamification" or "pointification" again, if it can be avoided.

The second is a word substituting in for other words that already exist and don't make linguists vomit in their mouth at all. "Pointification", or the assigning of points or other rewards of marginal relation to the task at hand, is really just a particularly limited subset of "reinforcement". The fact that we don't think about it as a subset of this term shows we didn't bother to actually do any research before spouting off.

If you've never bothered to read that Wikipedia article, maybe you should. It's got a pretty good overview, and you can clearly see where "pointification" falls: it's a generalized positive feedback reinforcer. The ever-popular "gamer points" on XBox is this plus some socially-mediated feedback as you see other people's gamer points and they see yours.

You can also learn more about the details of how to schedule these things. There's no need to mumble on and handwave: use the research the human race has already done. Sure, psychology's a soft science, but game design isn't a science at all. Learn from the sources available to you, even if they aren't (gasp!) games!

The term "gamification" is being used as an umbrella term for a bunch of concepts that really have no connection to each other, aside from being vaguely related to the same cultural wellspring. "To make like a game" is a very indistinct concept. It's far preferable to use more specific terms, such as talking about what sort of reinforcement you'll be using.

I usually divide "gamificiation" up into a few distinct categories which are so completely different that they should really be talked about individually and never clustered together under a single vague, undefined umbrella term as they are now.

Reinforcement tweaking is when you alter the task you're talking about to include more effective reinforcements. This is a super-set of "pointification", which is a horribly crippled term. I think on purpose, since when I read about it, it was cast very negatively. Anyway, let's talk about reinforcement tweaking instead.

Immersion tweaking is when you change the act of performing the task to better suit your needs. This may involve scheduling tricks, world/interface polish, or complexity adjustment. I'm sure there are other things it may involve as well.

Thirdly, culture alignment is when you adjust your task to be more in tune with the perceived culture of your target audience, such that they are more likely to participate. This may be a change in audiovisuals, a marketing campaign, or any number of other ways to improve the appeal.

Lastly is interconnectivity, where you adjust how the task relates to others, the world, and itself. A "social game" (another terrible term) uses interconnectivity extensively, as an example.

These categories are not entirely distinct. For example, interface polish may include visuals which are adjusted as a reward for participation. Classic example: strip poker. However, it is something you need to consider in more detail than just throwing up an umbrella term and hoping it sticks.

EDIT: Forgot to mention making tasks simulationist and interactive to allow for exploration and learning-at-your-own-pace and such... So, lastly is simulation-centric design, a phrase I'm not really happy with, but maybe someone else can come up with a better one.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Adaptive Social Inclusion Networks

I'm a bit of a hermit, but if I go too long without hanging out with friends, I get a little buggy. As I've gotten older, it's gotten harder to hang out with friends. I think this is probably true of everyone: as people get older, their social circles seem to stagnate. Perhaps this is just because many people get married, and living with their spouse is a fair amount of social interaction.

Well, regardless of the reason, it got me thinking. If I wanted to hang out in college, I just popped down to the lounge and there were always people around. Even if I didn't know any of them, it was always easy to just pick out a geek and start up a conversation. Now that I'm over thirty, I don't do that any more. A) I'm not on a college campus, and B) most people my age aren't randomly hanging around hoping to get talked to.

When it comes to socializing, there are a lot of subtle challenges, largely falling into three groups.

The first problem is the age segregation culture. In American culture, we seem to have decided that the only people who can hang out together are people within a few years of age. This wasn't really a noticeable problem when I was young, because as long as you're in school, you're in a place where there are loads of people your own age in close proximity all the time. Now, I don't have anything against people my own age, but there's no incubator for my current age bracket. The density is too low.

This age segregation is a huge problem. I think it's probably one of the worst parts of American culture, and it spells demise for any circle of friends. Without a continuous stream of fresh blood, any group will wither away as the years pass.

Even though I'm perfectly happy to ignore any cultural norm that irks me, this age seg issue is a real barrier to people like me, who aren't really very social.

The second category of issues for social groups is pre-existing social mixing groups. For example, I can go to a skeptic's meeting, or a cartoonist's con, or any number of other existing groups. Generally, these groups break down the age segregation barrier somewhat, depending on their nature. The skeptic's meeting has a wide age range, but something like an anime convention is going to be mostly young people.

Social groups like this have existed pretty much forever. Any given church is an example. By joining a social group, you can get your socialization even if your best friends move away. And if you like your social groups to actually accomplish something, you can simply join one that accomplishes something.

However, these pre-existing groups are as much a curse as a blessing. They have two serious flaws.

One is that they have a defined set of parameters. Most of these groups meet on specific days at specific times for specific reasons. They don't really "hang out". Meetings are not my idea of socialization: there are too many people and too much noise. In order to manufacture a less aggressive setting, you have to make friends with people and manually arrange to meet them at some other time, a process which gets steadily harder as the age bracket gets older. This same problem is exacerbated by the fact that the organizers of a group want to feel like they are doing something, and tend to fill every minute of meeting time with stuff.

The other flaw with pre-existing groups is that they lag behind the times. These groups don't really use the internet very well.

Even if the group is really new, it is still a defined group. You can come participate, we plan for an event this Tuesday! How oldschool: it's almost certainly possible to enhance this kind of situation using a more adaptive scheduler that weaves together micro-meetings. Of course, that would feel very weird, culturally speaking. We're too used to these oldschool groups, which is why we keep doing them that way.

The third major set of issues is the internet.

It's very easy to make friends on the internet, and hang out with random people on the internet. However, I feel that this is not a good substitute for face time. Maybe when I have 3D wall projectors that make it feel like they're in the same room with me, yeah. But for now, face time is hundreds of times more effective at filling my need to hang out.

The internet is a great organizer, but it is a poor taskmaster. While I can build a social tool that creates micro-meetups, if nobody goes, then it's a big waste of time.

This problem is made a hundred times worse by the nature of the internet itself, which actively discourages leaving your home. If you think NEETs are only in Japan, you are kidding yourself. Hell, the term NEET is originally a UK term.

Even people who are gainfully employed often spend most of their free time on the internet.

There's nothing inherently bad about this, but I think it's good to get out of the house. Hell, I use the internet for productive results, and I still would like to hang out with friends. I guess I sound like someone's mom, but spending face time with people is very valuable: you don't have to stop using the internet, but you should at least talk to your friends in person from time to time.


All this extensive chattering has been leading up to this thought exercise: can we create an Adaptive Social Inclusion Network? An ASIN fills one particular role: it gets people who have a hard time socializing to hang out.

In order for an ASIN to properly function, it needs:

1) No age barriers. It should welcome a wide variety of ages, preferably all ages. Not just on paper, but by the fundamental way it works.

2) No lifestyle barriers. It should welcome a wide variety of people living different kinds of lives. Someone who has only a few free hours a week, someone who just popped over from Indonesia to tour the area, someone who has loads of free time but spends the rest of it playing WoW...

3) No viewpoint barriers. It should welcome as many different kinds of people as possible. "Variety is the spice of life" is especially true when you're talking about socializing. If you're not irritated at a friend's stupidity at least once a month, you probably haven't really got any friends.

4) Fresh blood. It should actively welcome new members and strangers.

5) Adaptive meetups. It should schedule little mini-meetings to have random groups of 4-10 do something fun. For example, watching a terrible movie, or learning how to draw. This requires some amount of scheduling knowledge on the part of the software, to try and guess who will be available for what, where, and when. It also requires you to have a variety of mini-meeting subjects to keep people interested.

6) Taskmastering. You need to be able to pull in hermits. This is probably the most difficult, because it really can't be done with software. You need a real human to interact with the hermits to badger them into coming not just to the main meetings, but to the mini-meetings. This doesn't have to be aggressive: an email written by a real person would probably do the trick for anyone active enough to actually join the ASIN in the first place. A kind of karma system for people who email other people would probably work.

7) Acknowledging multiple kinds of social needs. People socialize in different ways. For example, I can't stand parties: if there's more than half a dozen people, I get a tremendous headache. Also, I prefer to talk about cool things and maybe work on small projects together, rather than just watch a movie. I'm happier sketching out a comic book with someone than playing poker with them.

a) Attention needs to be paid to people who are at a meeting or mini-meeting and not enjoying themselves. They don't necessarily need to be forced to enjoy the meeting, but you should at least change their category so they are invited to meetings that are more their speed/with people they are likely to get along with.

b) Self-improvement is a valuable goal that some people will want to pursue. It's worth mentioning this specifically, because it has to be handled gently. When people hear "self-improvement" they hear something desperate, but the truth is that most people want to improve themselves, and having friends of the right sorts is often the best way to go about it.

c) Cooperative tasks and "pester-helping" are also worth mentioning. There are many people who are working on something cool as a hobby or self-employment task. Having friends that pester them about it means it's far more likely to get done. If you stop working on a game and your buddy comes up, face to face, and asks you when the next stage will be done... you'll probably start programming again.

d) Sex and romance are always touchy subjects. I don't have any real opinion on them in this context, except to say that there probably needs to be a pretty strict policy about it. Do whatever you want on your own time, but if you're at a mini-meet, don't cross the line. Whatever that line was defined to be.

e) "Ally clusters": most people are very strongly influenced by their friends. A way to massage who hangs out with who would go a long way towards keeping people happy and productive, if that's what they want to be. This might be impossible, though: the software would need to be brilliantly designed to understand things so deeply.


So, that's the sort of thing I've been thinking about recently.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Small Worlds

These days, games tend to be designed with the idea that bigger is better. A wider world. Vast expanses of space filled in with variations on standard content. Examples abound, especially in RPGs. For example's sake, take a look at Oblivion. Not only are there vast stretches of general terrain, but the majority of architecture (dungeon and inhabited) also reuses a lot of the same content.

While there's nothing wrong with this idea, let's briefly consider what would happen if you took those million man-hours and dedicated them all to a much smaller surface area. Say your entire RPG happened in a high school.

With the kind of content creation thrown at a game like Oblivion, every character in the high school - every student, every teacher, every janitor - they are all unique characters. You never encounter a faceless or cloned NPC. Every corner of the school is carefully designed. You never think one room is the clone of another room unless that's what the designers were going for.

The increased density changes a lot of things. The first thing it changes is the player's perception of the environment. When the player is in an environment that is (A) very dense in unique content and (B) going to be their major haunt for many hours, their awareness stretches. They will become aware of smaller details, smaller presences, smaller changes.

This is no surprise: players pay attention to what matters in a given game. In an adventure game, every pixel might matter, every word might be a clue. But in a vast open-world game, few things actually matter. Just keep your eye open for the cool car you want and listen for the game to start up the battle music that says you're being attacked. The other cars are unimportant, and you don't have to always look around you to see if bears are arriving.

However, there are loads of other things that a denser game environment changes.

The cost of content is dramatically changed because the content interacts with itself a lot more. In a game like Oblivion, every unique NPC only reacts to their own tiny corner of the plot. This is accepted: the NPCs don't ever do anything that feels like free will, and even if they did, they're separated by vast amounts of space.

But when you condense to a smaller space filled with the same number of NPCs, suddenly you can't ignore the fact that they see each other. The denser the space and the more mobile the NPCs, the more your NPCs have to interact with other NPCs and content. So each NPC becomes more expensive to build.

They're not any more expensive in terms of graphics, but they are in terms of scripting and testing. After a certain point, you'll need a kind of basic social AI for them since it becomes too difficult to script for every condition they may encounter. Even if you had a full-blown perfect AI for each character, you'd still have to configure the content carefully so the game unfolds in a way which pulls and entertains the player.

You can cut down on this by cutting down the mobility and density of the space. For example, in Phoenix Wright, the space is very dense, but the characters cannot move about. You'll spend most of your time directly interacting with unique NPCs in unique situations, but none of the NPCs are programmed to figure out what to do with themselves: every inch is carefully scripted.

This solution has obvious limits, but you could do somewhat similar techniques that aren't so restrictive. For example, imagine a game version of Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. There are hundreds of characters, but they are all variations of the same half-dozen fundamental characters reinterpreted on different worlds. So the different versions of the NPCs never interact: you're left with a fairly dense space and lots of interesting characters, but you don't have to worry about the crippling recombinatorial explosion of them interacting with each other.

There are also other concerns about "dense space" games.

For example, most dense space games have to have time as a major element. While player time is always important, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about game-world time that matters: changes to the state of the game world over time.

Because the game world is so much smaller, changes to the game world usually touch a whole lot more content than you might think. If you choose to nuke or not nuke that town in Fallout 3, either way the percentage of the content it affects is on the order of 0.01%. But replacing a single teacher in our theoretical high-school game will affect on the order of 2-3% of the content, since it is all much more tightly interwoven.

In addition, it's harder to do "disconnected" stuff. While you can kill 50k bandits in Oblivion, it's usually significantly harder to have those kinds of "fire and forget" encounters in a much smaller world. If you manage to write them in somehow, they often end up expanding the world dramatically in the process, sort of like the way that Persona games classically have a very dense home base but a completely not-even-vaguely-dense dungeon section. Anyway, a higher percentage of your interactions are likely to be world- or content-altering to some degree.

In the end, this usually means that dense space games will probably focus on a ton of tiny, incremental changes to the world. This is not how we normally think of game design: we usually think in terms of numeric systems and level maps, rather than tiny changes to NPCs. Our industry's inexperience at this is another reason that games with dense space will probably be more difficult for us.

At least, games with dense space that have loads of NPCs. There are plenty of dense space games you could make that have few or no NPCs. For example, Sim City is a dense space game with no NPCs. But that sort of game isn't really what I mean: I'm talking about RPGs.

And some RPGs are already condensing space, at least some of the time. For example, Dragon Age's relatively dense "base camp". Of course, the play in these parts is generally not really there: the NPCs don't interact with each other, time doesn't really pass, nothing really changes. It's just a handy way to talk to NPCs that aren't in your party. Still, it's a shadow of the sort of thing I'm talking about.


I've kind of babbled on a bit, but what I am fundamentally saying is that bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. There are advantages to having a smaller, denser space: the player feels a stronger connection to the space and it offers opportunities to have much more dramatic and subtle NPC events/arcs. There are also costs.

I hope to see more games use less space.