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".