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.