Friday, May 31, 2013

Crew of the Starship

So, I've been thinking a little about space ship games. Generative roguelikeish space ship games like FTL or any of the bajillion space cargo games, for example.

The gap between these and TV shows is pretty big. Compare the Star Trek TV show with the games that are supposed to be "Star Trek like". They're basically combat simulators.

But the combat was never really the focus in Star Trek. Every combat played a role in the overall plot of the episode, but it was just a small cog among politics, characterization, mystery, relationships, science...

Every game just simulates combat. Characterization and politics and mystery, if there are any, are relegated to scripted sequences.

Is there any way to create a game where these matter? Where they are the play and evolve as you dictate?


The beating heart of the game is the crew (main characters). Even if your ship has 3000 crew, only ~6 of those are going to start off as named characters with screen time. Just assign each of them a personality/alignment. We'll pretend we have the rights to a real Star Trek series - say, Star Trek TNG - and use them as an example.

Data is logical, post-beard Riker is confident and relaxed, Picard is an honest negotiator, Worf is the honorable warrior, etc. Sure, this isn't universally true and it varies depending on episode and season, but let's go ahead and assume those are how the characters are defined in our engine.

Now, just having a personality isn't really enough. They have to make those personalities matter, which means encountering things they can judge. Here is the first little trick: deciding who has what roles is important not necessarily because of skills, but of because how that person will react to the things they will encounter. The other half of this is that the first person who encounters and judges something will frame it for the rest of the crew.

In an ordinary game, you'd just send Data everywhere on his own, because he speaks every language, hacks every computer, is pretty much immune to damage, and could probably take on an entire wall of armed Klingons. But in our game, Data's personality is a serious limitation.

For example, if he beams over to a damaged ship and finds that there is only one survivor and it's a suspicious new alien, his reaction would be to consider it logically. The alien probably trashed the ship and killed everyone. The logical thing to do is to play it very safe, not go anywhere near the alien, maybe see if you can stun it or talk in semaphore or something.

On the other hand, if you send Riker over, he'll see the alien and be all "Data, cover me, I'll go and see if I can talk to it" and actually get stuff done.

If you send Worf over, he'd say "It doesn't seem hostile..." (IE 'doesn't set off my warrior-sense') and then Data would be convinced and go over to talk.

This really begins to shine when the situation grows more complex and more things are being thrown at the crew.

For example, let's say the crew goes down to talk to an isolated culture that's interested in negotiating with the Federation. There's a secret here - there's always some sci-fi conceit in every episode, and in this one it's that they're all clones and are suffering "genetic fatigue". There are a lot of pieces in motion - some locals want to steal genetic information from the crew, others want to hide the situation, others want to explore options to cure the fatigue, others are worried about the destabilization that new people bring to their dozen-people-over-and-over society... and, of course, there's also the question of whether they are at war, have unusual technologies they want to use or trade with, and so on.

So Picard is doing most of the talking to the officials, Riker is chatting with the locals unofficially, Worf is getting hit on, and they are all reacting and acting according to their personalities. If they were in a different roles, they would be encountering the same things but have different reactions. Worf chatting with the locals and Riker getting hit on have a completely different feel and resulting vector.

For example, Riker chatting with the locals means he discovers the complex social norms that threaten to be destroyed by their intervention, which would plunge the world into chaos. Worf chatting with the locals means he awkwardly ends up talking to the resistance movement and discovers the plans to destroy the capital while the captain is in negotiation with all the world leaders. In both cases, these threats exist whether or not they are discovered. Although, for fairness' sake, there's no threat of actually losing crew to a blast you didn't know would happen.

Now let's say you throw a doctor into the mix. The doctor's skills discover that they are all clones. How does she react to this info?

Beverly was a pretty typical Star Trek doctor, representing "standard human impulse". I would maybe classify her personality as "conservative and discreet". So she would react in a specific way: she would whisper to the captain about it, and then her judgment would filter the captain's opinion. Her judgment is probably "this seems like a bad way to build a society".

But let's say that Data played that role instead. His reaction would be logical: "this seems like a reliable way to build a lasting society" - all the same parts working in the same way. Like a machine. Seems good!

So depending on who brings Picard the news, he'll either get the impression that the society is wonky and fragile, or that the society is smooth and functioning well. This, in turn, will change his opinion on what the negotiations need to accomplish.

If Picard thinks the society is about to collapse, he'll negotiate aggressively to bring in social assistance, even at the price of damaging the local culture. On the other hand, if he thinks the society is solid and not in any trouble, he's going to take a more relaxed stance and generally try to work out simple foothold treaties like nonaggression pacts and a cultural exchange.

So, basically, we've broken everything that happens into two groups. Things you can judge, and things you can influence. Every plot arc is a scientific conceit wrapped up in a scenario. You affect it using the things you can influence, and how you influence those things depends on the judgments your crew makes and tells you about.

Discovering that the aliens are clones is something you judge, not something you influence. So you just tell the captain your judgment.

Negotiating with the politicians isn't something you judge, but instead is something you influence. It has a bunch of different vectors depending on your personality. On his own, Picard's "honest negotiator" personality will result in a simple, slow unfolding of the relationship between that planet and the Federation. However, news that the society is very interesting and stable might change his personality to "friendly negotiator", while news that it's unstable and weird might change his personality to "aggressive negotiator" or "nanny".

Then the player's duties are changed from shooting at people and optimizing skills. Their new duties are to send out feelers and collect judgments. Then they decide how to propagate those judgments.

For example, Beverly discovers that the locals are clones and passes a skeptical judgment. You, as the player, get to decide. Does she tell the captain? Does she tell Riker? Maybe she even just tells Worf. Maybe she dithers around for a while without telling anyone. Each of these has different results, because it changes (or doesn't change) the personalities of the other crew members and exactly what they are trying to do in their situation.

Maybe you tell Riker, who is currently talking to some cultural leaders. This changes his personality from "relaxed and confident" to "dismissive and confident", and he goes from talking to them in a reassuring manner to telling them that their culture cannot survive, and they need to start laying the foundation for a new culture this second.

Later on, Riker's cultural leaders and Picard's politicians are going to play a big role in resolving the situation. If Riker was reassuring to the cultural leaders while Picard pushed to get cultural advisers assigned, the two factions are going to be at loggerheads and perhaps unify against the Federation. On the other hand, if Riker convinced the cultural leaders to pioneer a new culture and Picard simply opened basic negotiations, the two factions aren't going to be at loggerheads. One is vaguely pro-Federation, the other is very pro-Federation.

So... yeah. That's the kind of structure I've been thinking about.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Navigation as Familiarization

While hurting my head with hair mechanics, I've thought a little bit about games where you move around a world.

I really love moving through a world. Crackdown was a good game to me, because running through the city was so damn fun.

In the prototypes I've created, I've found a few things out.

The biggest is that - shock - your world needs to be lumpy. That is, it needs to have lumps with very different flavor from each other. I think some people really underestimate this. It's a bit more complex than it looks.

First, the regions of the world have to look distinct so the player will be able to remember the various regions and know what to expect when they enter an area. This can't just be a visual change: the nature of the topology has to be different, so that each area feels unique to be in.

This is one reason I don't much like games where driving around is the primary method of getting around. Driving doesn't really feel that varied, and you can't easily look around.

There's a lot of different ways of getting around, and it feels like folly to try to make basically all your methods of getting around variations on the exact same basic method.

So the thing I've discovered: The world map isn't defined by the stuff in it. It's defined by the way you move through it.

So, obviously, when we talk about the way the world varies, we should vary it by changing how you move through it. More than that, we can combine various methods to allow you to explore along different grooves and get different views on the same areas.

For example, let's say our character has motorized roller blades. The state of the road will therefore matter, and we can create unique ground paths by varying between straight roads, tight roads, stairs, slopes, grass - all of this will change ground travel.

But we can also talk about the high travel across the rooftops. Here we can talk about dash capability on long roofs, traveling across beams that connect the roofs, leaping from roof to roof fluidly, leaping and catching a ledge, climbing sides, controlled falls, slides, and catapulting... these all lead to a different kind of groove, a different level of open-ness, and a different fundamental feel.

So you can build your city by mixing different ground and air travel types. Now, the key is that you don't say "zone 13 is parkland and smooth-jump". Instead, you use the various methods to work at odds. So "zone 13" might have parkland and smooth-jumping, but they would be crossing. If you were currently doing the smooth-jumping, you would be exploring in a different direction and seeing things from a different angle. Basically, this allows you to have the player treat the same space in different ways, moving in different directions, seeing different things.

But that's just the tip of the process.

What about vehicles? Well, cars and bikes aren't very useful because our character has magic roller blades. But there are other options. Gliders, sky rails, cannons that fire you at angles of your preference... There's also the option of underground travel, although this is done best with "open" undergrounds rather than sewers, because you want the player to frequently see the buildings and areas he knows from above ground.

Sky travel is frequently long-range, so we need to understand that when using it.

There's also different world modes we can explore. Night vs day. Rain verse clear. Spirit world versus real world. These can change the player's capabilities, the world's nature, and so on.

These days, most open worlds have very large worlds. I would actually prefer smaller worlds with higher density, and these different world modes open up a very easy way to increase the density. For example, in the clear day, the massive solar wings extend on many of the buildings, changing the way the high travel plays. In the night, the buildings retract slightly, conserving heat.

And so on.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ranks and Tiers for Fun

I don't play Pokemon, so I never really learned much about the complex metagame that evolved around competitive Pokemon. In a normal fighting game, the characters are often ranked into tiers by the players - this player is top-tier, that player is bottom-tier, etc. This is normally based around how well they perform in the hands of the top-level players, but in general most of the top-tier characters will be better than most of the bottom-tier characters even in the hands of a relative newbie.

So you play top-tier characters more or less exclusively.

But Pokemon has a very different ranking system. I'm not 100% sure on all the details, but essentially the tiers are fundamentally similar to fighting game tiers... except that they are divided into leagues.

IE, both sides will play top-tier Pokemon (or lower). Or, alternately, perhaps it's a mid-tier and lower... or even a low-tier and lower. If you really love your shitty Pokemon, or have come up with an interesting combo using low-grade mons, you can dominate the lower-tier competition and not worry about the battles between the overpowered heavy hitters. It's sort of like boxing: you don't generally mix heavyweights and flyweights in one battle, but the flyweight battles are still very intense and interesting.

Unlike boxing, we divide up by global performance rather than by something like weight. This means that as the games iterate and evolve, mons can climb or fall. This keeps the whole arrangement flexible enough to support tiered play regardless of whether the balance shifts or not.

I really like this method. It gives us a way to have hundreds of options without making 85 of them useless to a top-flight player. More like the opposite: perhaps 85 of them will be useful to a top-flight player depending on which category he participates in. The others will be in the awkward state of being too strong for one tier, but too weak to be useful on the next tier up.

Now, the Pokemon ranking system focuses on rather simple conflicts rather than the more complex conflicts that are becoming the norm. It becomes very hard to come up with a ratings system when, for example, one character is point and two characters are support, and they can swap out.

Then you get something like the new "vs Capcom" tiers, where the characters have a front-line tier and a support tier. A character that is strong at one and weak at the other isn't exactly mid-tier... they are top-tier when used correctly, or bottom-tier when used badly.

This complexity adds a lot of metagame (can you force them to switch out their front line combatant for their support?) but it also adds a lot of complexity to the idea of weight classes. If you are playing a mid-tier conflict and you use a mid-tier support character, fine... but that character is god-tier front-line, so what happens if you switch to him mid fight? Similarly, if you simply ban all characters with any tier higher than the weight class, you'll end up with the mid-tier class dominated by people who are blandly balanced - mid-tier at everything. But in actuality, that means they are better than mid-tier, because they can serve reliably in all roles regardless of the situation. So they aren't mid-tier characters... but in a top-tier battle, they can't reliably hold up in any role...

There are a lot of really fun options you can play with how you implement this kind of thing. Rather than win/loss ratios, you could simply go by how often they are used. If a particular mid-ranked character is used in 30% of all mid-ranked matches, you know they are dominating the mid-rank and should be promoted even if their "stat" ranks are all mid-tier.

Another option is a point-buy system where each tier allows you to spend a certain number of points on characters, and the ranks are not about banning, but about deciding price.

Another option is an auto-nerf system. At the end of each month, each character is gently nerfed or buffed depending on whether it was over- or under-utilized. With a significant player base (> 1000, each using 3+ characters), this should actually settle pretty quickly.


MOREOVER, this can all be applied to user-generated content.

The big problem with user-generated content is that it is generally not seen by very many players. Most players are going to try out most Pokemon. Most players are going to try out most fighting game characters. But most players are not going to try out most quests created by random internet people. This leaves a very fractured ranking that tends to result in a few excessively popular pieces of content and millions that never get seen by anybody.

Rather than say that the good content is simply better, you could divvy up the content into weight classes. This super-popular content is top tier, the most polished and highly regarded. But you earn points by using content from the lower tiers - the amateur tier and the beginner tier. Of course, just by using them you push them towards the next tier up...

Hm. Maybe rather than giving "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", you rank it before you start on #/5 and then, afterwards, as "better/worse than expected"...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Maker Academy

Games built around a school setting have a bunch of advantages. There is a strong scaffold for goals and rewards, there are clear social relationships and subcultures, the choices are easy to understand but still important, there is a good place to hang your statistical gameplay, people all start at a similar power level, and it's appealing to people who have been to a school and like to see echoes of that, except better.

The obvious example of a school setting is Hogwarts, and the "magic school" setting is so widespread it's gone from being a subgenre to almost being a genre in its own right. Hogwarts certainly wasn't the first, but it was probably the popularizer. Dozens of comics, anime, and games are based in schools and benefit from many of the advantages listed above.

The big innovation Hogwarts popularized was the idea of houses. That feeling of being lost or adrift that you may have felt during school is gone. You instantly belong, you instantly know the kind of person you're expected to be and the kind of things people will look for in your actions. If you value pushy heroics, join Gryffindor and they'll value your personality. If you like considering and understanding things, join Ravenclaw, that's where they'll value your personality. Just create a house for each kind of audience member and your audience will project themselves into your universe faster than you can blink!

In games this is also quite an opportunity, allowing players to instantly tell you what variant of your game they want to play. But, oddly, most games don't use factions that way. They use factions to give statistical bonuses, which is totally dropping the ball. Factions such as school 'houses' should be there to give the players a framework of valuation, not a particular bonus and penalty. You can be a smart Gryffindor or a mighty Ravenclaw, both are perfectly acceptable. It's just that your actions would be rewarded based on your houses' preferences. You can be a smart hero, a muscular buddha.

This is the strength that games leave at the door. The opportunity they throw away.

Also, if you make it into an open game where players can live their student life as they see fit, you need to have a more heavyweight backbone of adventure and progression than most school-based games use. Of course, that's because actual school doesn't exist to let you adventure or choose your path. Real schools exist to teach you a million things you need to learn to work at a factory, and then kick you out. So you'll have to build a framework that goes much further than simply 'classes and grades'.

Let's posit a game, just for the sake of being clear.

This is a school for scientists and makers, rather than magicians. The reason? Well, fundamentally science is about discovering stuff and making is about creating stuff. That'll form the backbone of our adventure and progression system, with classes forming the backbone of our basic goal and reward scaffold.

For houses, rather than use different personality types, we'll use different kinds of cooperation. We'll play a bit fast and loose with this. Rather than actually talking about different kinds of cooperation that scientists use, we'll instead codify it as famous science projects that have different kinds of behavior within them.

This was based on this G+ post via this G+ post. The examples are all from astrophysics, but I would argue that this isn't bad. Astrophysics is full of projects which are big, concrete, and open. You can see how the pieces work, they are actual pieces that keep working for years or decades, and they work in specific ways to get science done. These sorts of things could form the basis of our house system, reflecting how you would prefer to acquire knowledge and build the future.

For example, the LHC is about slamming particles together as hard as possible, generating so much data that it takes weeks to filter through it. House Hadron students might therefore be expected to perform big experiments and then spend quite a bit of time poring over every detail of the experiment. The makers would, for example, build a complex 3D printer and then run it into the ground by stress-testing it for ten weeks.

On the other hand, House Curiosity is about observations in places people can't reach or rarely go. Curious students would be expected to search caves, mountains, the bottom of the pond out front, the steam tunnels, the headmaster's locked desk drawers... anywhere people don't ordinarily go, Curious students would go - looking for inspiration and information. A Curious maker might build a submersible to explore a pond, or a quad-copter to fly to the top of a mountain.

Once you get over the extremely geeky nature of the game, I think you can see that there's meat here. Players would be able to decide pretty quickly whether they would prefer large projects or exploration. Or any of the other houses that get put into the game.

Moreover, the fact that the students are gathering data, investigating, and building means that they have a scaffold for adventures and growth outside of the classroom, whereas in a magic-based game you might have to script all those adventures line by painful line.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Farewell to Consoles

It's a little depressing to see something that was the foundation of my entertainment life veering away from me.

It'd be nice to think of myself as a computer gamer, but that was really only true for a few years - when computer games were good. Then came a vast wasteland of real time strategy games followed by MMORPGs - none of which are even vaguely interesting to me. I guess you could say that Blizzard killed my interest in computer games, and then killed my interest in MMORPGs. Pretty impressive for a company that actually produces good products!

So I've mostly been a console gamer. Kinda skipped the Playstation, because that's when computer games were good, but before and after that... consoles. Sure, a steady diet of indie PC games, and games that are ubiquitous cross-platform releases on the computer for modding purposes... but mostly console-oriented.

Of course I knew the PS4, NameStillStupidEvenAfterFiveYearsU, and the XBox Fucking Stupidname were all going to be aimed away from me. I'm not a "bro gamer", nor am I the "living room audience".

But seeing the consoles actually announced, seeing them come out and just totally say "BRO GAMER LIVING ROOM BRO BRO LIVING ROOM" is incredibly depressing. It really hammered home: not only am I not the core audience, they are actively blocking me out. Their features are actively things that annoy me and drive me away, and they are building their whole business strategy around telling me to go away.

I hate TV. I hate always-on social bullshit. I hate trophies. I hate water coolers. I hate that when you want to build an emotional attachment in a bro game, you have to make the buddy a dog because your humans are so inhuman that you can't bond with them. I'm interested in a tiny science fiction subset of bro shooters... oh, wait, they're going to be TV shows instead.

I hate TV.

The hardware is awesome. I want to play games on it.

But I can't. There aren't going to be any games I can play. Even the games aimed vaguely in my direction, such as RPGs or indie titles on their inevitable indie marketplace, are going to be poisoned by the "features" they must use. This isn't some kind of paranoid fantasy: games on the PS3 and 360 are already poisoned by trophy popups, scoreboards, ambient friend noise, another layer of trophies... and, of course, the omnipresent obsession with dehumanization that bleeds into every game on the console, even games which aren't about murdering people.

People thought Bioshock Infinite was awesome. To me, it was a ruined game. It was a shit game with shit mechanics further ruined by shit add-ins required to support shit social play... the part that everyone loved was the tiny kernel of humanity hiding beneath all that crap.

Well, if you released it on the computer, you wouldn't have needed the bullshit. It could have been a much shorter, more human game. But the console's restriction on content, length, trophies, marketing requirements... all of them destroyed the game. And this is the current generation of console.

The next generation of consoles literally came out and said "yeah, a lot more of that."

... Well, no.

I'm sorry, consoles. I love standalone games. I love the ritual of popping in a CD and booting up a machine and grabbing a controller. I love immersing myself in a world where there is no alt-tabbing, no keyboard, no mouse.

But that world doesn't exist any more. Those consoles don't exist any more.

There is nothing for me in this new world of big media companies force-feeding you bullshit all day. I don't like TV.

I don't like games that try to be TV.

I don't like these new consoles.

I guess I'm a computer gamer "for realz", now.

The only problem is that most of the computer games I play are small, indie games. The fat, poly-heavy AAA titles are all console-based. I need me some eye glitter from time to time.

Sure, those games come out cross-platform. But they're poisoned by consoles. The current generation consoles already stain these games with requirements for crappy play, marketing-demanded content, DLC, trophies, social play... you can take the game out of the console, but you can never take the console out of the game.

Are there going to be any epic, high-quality games on the PC in the upcoming generation?

Oh, right, MMORPGs. Just as fucking bad.

... Sigh...

I really hope indies start putting out serious eye candy, or I'll be getting plenty of vegetables but no meat in my gaming diet.

Actually, I guess that summarizes the argument. I love my older consoles. They're meat. The new consoles are high fructose corn syrup soda drinks.

I cannot deal with that. I can't pretend it's not happening, or just be okay with it. It's not the same thing, it tastes bad, and it's a company actively pushing bad shit on you in an attempt to make money more easily.

No! Gimme meat!

Meat! Meat! Meat! Meat!

Emotional Characters

I wrote a long post about the differences in resolution mechanics between various kinds of RPGs, but it evolved into this. So I rewrote it.

I think computer RPGs need emotional interactions.

A big part of any adventure is the emotions felt during that adventure. Even a solo adventure is made interesting based on the emotional responses of the main protagonist. But in games right now, that doesn't exist.

Oh, sure, you can script it. But you can't actually play it.

The thing is, if you look at tabletop games... okay, this is a bit complicated, let me see if I can simplify it.

Most rules in a tabletop game exist to give you a foot hold within your party and against your world. The rules help tell you which role to play, so you can get in there and play it.

In combat, this role is a tactical one. You're the squishy mage, you're the tank, you're the fast character... the contrasting elements of each character dictate the kind of tactics you need to use. Even if you don't have a proper tank, the most durable character de facto becomes the tank when necessary... and the party's overall tactics will revolve around their lack of a good tank. The rules allow each member of the party to understand the role they should be playing relative to each other, and their combined role relative to the world.

But noncombat rules have the same exact purpose.

Your race, social class, noncombat skills, history, personality and alignment all exist to help you find your role quickly, so you can focus on the meat of the game. On paper, we tend to consider these things out of context, as kind of absolute skills or alignments. But in the game world, they are always relative to the world and especially the other characters in your party.

For example, a woodsie elf and a big-city rogue are in the same party. They go into a city. The big-city rogue is right at home in the city, and it is a hook, an inspiration which allows him to immediately get to work. He sells some stuff, buys some stuff, asks the local pick pockets for information, visits the crime boss, whatever you like. Each act can form the basis for another act which binds his character more tightly to the world. If left entirely to his own devices, it would be pretty reasonable for him to steadily create a chain of events which binds him ever more tightly to this city, perhaps ending up as a minor crime boss himself within a week. That's without any external adventure hooks - it's all just him being inspired by the last things he did and doing something in tune with them, but more aggressive.

The woodsie elf isn't there to just watch, though. The elf is a fish out of water, not good in cities, doesn't understand them. So when the rogue does these city-aligned actions, the elf knows his role is directly the opposite. He's there to be awful at being in the city. So he takes the opposite kinds of actions. When the rogue questions pick pockets for information, the elf might hang around behind him and get his pocket picked, or clumsily try to question them but end up accidentally propositioning an undercover cop.

The elf wouldn't just walk into the city and start questioning pick pockets. There's no inspiration that leads to that. Similarly, the rogue wouldn't walk in and just immediately become a crime lord. There's no chain of events leading to it. It's all about the recursive behavior: the rogue looks at his last action and says "more in tune with the city than that? Okay." The elf looks at the rogue's actions and says "that's in tune with the city, I need to do the opposite, bungle it up somehow." Then the rogue might say "Okay, the elf bungled it up, I have to go in and see if I can rescue this guy, oh, but now he's been arrested..."

Without any plot arc, just the interactions of the characters and the world can build an interesting adventure.

It's all about understanding the contrast between the characters, and using the inspirations provided to you (by the world or other characters) to take a suitable action.


That's emotion, too.

No, wait, I think I skipped some stuff.

In our computer world, we don't need to actually simulate emotion. We're not trying to model realistic characters. We're trying to create an adventure.

So our emotions are simple responses to simple stimuli, and they exist to help us contextualize in-world actions. Of course, many in-world actions are going to be complex, so that simple response will end up complex and multi-layered because the event is also complex and multi-layered.

For example, our elf and our rogue leave the city and enter the forest. The elf is happily humming. It's a very simple in-world bit of ambient activity that helps to build the sense that both characters exist in the same shared world. The elf wasn't happily humming in the forest before the city: this happiness is due to the contrast between the city and the forest. Similarly, if you now return to the city, the elf will be pretty unhappy about it. The first time he was curious but skeptical... this time, he'll probably refuse to go in unless you really cajole him. The city has been darkened by his experiences, the forest brightened, and now the contrast is much, much stronger.

The rogue can respond to any and all of the elf's emotions. These are simple responses varying from simple comments ("you seem happy!") to basic cajoling ("we have to go back in the city, come on.") There's no need to add complexity: the elf's complex inputs will automatically make the output more nuanced as the elf gets shy or enthusiastic or grumpy... all with close-ups of his face, of course, so the player can tell.

This is role playing. The social rules determine the kinds of actions that the characters will want to take, but also determine the kinds of things that make them feel various kinds of emotions. While in a tabletop game these rules are left loose and vague to give the players freedom, in a computer game they need to be as precise as combat rules.

If the characters have the same social rules parameters (for example, two elves from the same elf village) they are going to end up controlled mostly by their limited ability to engage the world, with their interpersonal interactions being relatively bland. Their few differences will generally end up being the texture needed to help them form a good relationship, even if the primary difference is which one is in the lead. The recursive nature of things will turn even those bland responses into a more nuanced ongoing relationship.

If the characters have diverse social statistics, they will be able to engage the world in pretty much any way they please, and the focus of their relationships will be on the differences between them. They'll have much punchier, hard-hitting relationships built on much more solid foundations, and those solid foundations will probably serve as a basis even as their relationship begins to recurse.

Either way, the result would be a very adventure-feeling adventure.

Sounds good... but is it actually possible?

I dunno. Maybe I'll rough out some specific rules.

The key is that there's no "relationship value" that increases or decreases. Everything is recursive. Your relationship is the repeating social output that feeds into the same algorithm with each new social event.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Character Differences

One thing that's always rubbed me the wrong way is character creation. Especially in a computer game, character creation is perhaps the most interesting part of the game in that you have the most freedom, the most options, and the most ability to express yourself.

Like many people, I've never "beaten" an Elder Scrolls game, despite having played most of them for 100+ hours each. This isn't because they're 100+ hours long, really. It's because I like replaying the first 5-10 hours over and over and over with different characters. The choices I make during character creation make those hours play out completely differently each time.

But there are very few discussions about the role character creation plays in your game!

So many people talk about balance, or flow, or level design, or content... but character creation is usually the first thing a player encounters, and it's also usually the densest thing a player encounters, both in terms of options and in terms of effect on the rest of the game. So... let's talk about it.

A part of this is obviously driven by my work on the avatar creation toolkit for Unity. I've gotten into thinking about how to offer the radically expanded character customization abilities without confusing the players, and that's got me into thinking about what the character is for.

You see, there's a common mistake in character creation systems: creating a character for the wrong game.

I don't meant that the player creates a character for the wrong game. I mean that the character creation system is geared to produce characters for other games. More specifically, the most common default for whatever the genre is. For example, in the Elder Scrolls game you create what is essentially a D&D style tabletop character. Many of these skills and options don't fit into the game very well. For example, if you want to be a deadly assassin, you literally have to frolic through the meadows picking flowers due to the bizarre dependencies forced into the framework.

The Star Wars games are even worse. They also make you create a D&D style tabletop character. So much for the lethal instant-killing space samurai. Now every fight is a slugfest.

The character creation doesn't result in characters which fit the game's tone.

You could try and fix this by changing the mechanics around, but in many cases the mechanics are rather opaque. Especially in a game with as high diversity and complexity as the Elder Scrolls or Star Wars games. There are just too many mechanical options that would fit, and no strong guide as to which ones would work best.

So I recommend starting with character creation.

Imagine a player has graced your game with a chance to impress her. "Okay, the universe looks cool, I want to spend some time there."

Instead of imagining her tweaking dials in your interface, imagine her sitting across from you at a table, a cool stack of glossy images from your game world scattered across the table. She looks interested in some of them. So you ask her "what sort of things do you want your character to do?"

What does she reply?

Not "I think I want to have a higher strength" or "I'd like to be an alchemist." She replies with phrases like "this combat scene where this dude cuts through fifty droids looks awesome, I want to be like that!" or she says "This wizard lab looks pretty cool. What sort of stuff can I build in that?" or she says "I like the idea of being a space pirate, ARRRR!" or she says "Whoa, rock the world with explosions!" or whatever.

That's the character she wants to create.

Now, in the end it should ideally come down to dials and stats and skills, sure. That kind of super-detailed optimization is very useful in allowing the player to have more control over their character, to express themselves more freely. But the dials and stats and skills are related to the things that happen in the world.

"Strength" isn't a part of any Jedi situation. There are no iconic Jedi battles or scenarios where being super-strong matters. Endurance, also. Jedi have superb endurance, so it makes more sense for exceptional endurance to be another trait/perk on top of a very high base endurance, rather than having a stat for it.

The battles a Jedi gets into aren't images of the Jedi standing over a mountain of corpses. They're images of a Jedi passing through a crowd of enemies leaving a few missing limbs behind, or deflecting a line of blasterfire, knocking a few of the enemies over with their own shots. The Jedi will only kill or maim a few in order to get where they are going or get the rest to back off. That tension - minimum application of force - could be the driving core of your game mechanics.

You'd end up with a radically different game feel! Now your Jedi character creation screen isn't about whether you're better at murdering people, supporting other Jedi, using ranged attacks - those concepts are secondary to the Jedi. Your Jedi are instead about the methods used to minimize their use of force in favor of their use of Force. A "combat-centric" Jedi is not actually about using more devastating techniques. He's about using less devastating techniques more effectively. It's the counselors that end up cutting down a hundred storm troopers, because they don't know how to control the flow of battle well enough to only cut down three. Its also the counselors that end up overrun and killed when the enemy's numbers grow too many for their limited control to handle.

On the other hand, the counselor would walk through politics and bureaucracies easily, setting local law enforcement scrambling to their bidding, getting crime lords to cooperate... but a combat-centric Jedi would be forced to use heavyhanded threats and entreaties and bribes.

Wouldn't that be awesome? That'd be a Star Wars game worth playing.


This also extends to completely different categories of games.

For example, I was thinking about a social game. In a social game, you could build your characters with stats, and there probably is some element of that. But in a social game, a major part is going to be how and why you do social things. So your stats might be in things like kindness, moderation, empathy, sarcasm, insults, and so on. Your "class" might be more about what you want out of life than how you actually talk.

So, if you want my advice about these things:

Start by laying down some iconic situations that happen in your universe. This is you slaying a dragon. This is you piloting a starship through debris. This is you mind-tricking. This is you frolicking through the meadows picking flowers. This is you as the star of a party.

Then make your character creation about achieving those situations. After that, think about mechanics, understanding that you'll have to come back and redo the character creation after you've settled on mechanics.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Guided World Design and Discovery

Over the years, I've designed a lot of fantasy and science fiction worlds. A very common way to develop worlds for games is to come up with a heuristic that helps to guide you, so you don't have to generate an endless supply of things without an anchor.

One method I used a long time ago was to drop cards onto a map and then draw the continents, mountains, swamps, and so on based on the cards. Initially I used standard playing cards with the suits representing geological foundations and the face value representing height. However, I wanted more diversity to draw from, because that's not enough of a trigger when you're generating nations and fantasy races. So I upgraded to tarot cards, which allowed me to throw in some more complex details such as the major arcana representing weather and seasonal patterns.

Of course, after that I upgraded to Apples to Apples cards, and from there to simply picking words out of the dictionary. As a method of generating worlds, the card system was a little too basic, too structured and yet unable to handle complexity.

I moved on to generating worlds based on simple physics-style assumptions, such as starting with tectonic plates and using them to generate land, ocean, and mountain ranges. Then I used the standard wind patterns that arise on any planet with an earth-like climate to determine the weather in various places... it's quite rewarding to learn so much about how a planet actually operates, but this is also a very limited approach, because there's not much meat at the national and ecological scale. Once you understand the kinds of ecologies that arise in the various climates, it's pretty clear the kinds of people and cultures which would arise in those kinds of ecologies. Once you get used to it, it all feels rather too pat, and once again you're stuck trying to invent new variations out of the blue for the whole world. Which is what this was supposed to prevent.

Recently I've started thinking in terms of discovery rather than creation. The thing which got me on this kick was revisiting Minecraft and finding that, somehow, the new patches have made it run at 3 frames per second on my machine. Really the only thing you can do at 3 frames per second is explore. You can't really build or fight or mine. So I spent a little bit of time exploring Minecraft's generated world. I'm sure you have all spent some time doing that, but if you're like me, exploring is somewhat secondary to actually creating things.

Minecraft's world is generated algorithmically. There's not much in the way of hidden mysteries - it's just a matter of how things come together. But the most interesting areas I discovered were the places where two competing world generation algorithms would collide. For example, when a mineshaft region collided with a rift region, and you had mineshafts pouring out into this endless chasm, and picking up again on the other side. Honestly, it could have been a bug: the game seemed exceedingly buggy and the framerate is a clue. But the bugginess actually created some really interesting terrain, like mountains cut in half, the insides revealed like geodes.

This got me thinking: what if we consider the act of generating a world not actually an act of generating a world, but instead all about creating methods of generating worlds. The world itself is made up of those methods in various strands at various volumes. Predictable strands: you can clearly see the direction the generation is going and actually follow it along or even leave it and come back to it a few miles further along with the confidence that it will be there.

The joy of these worlds would not be in changing them, but in building atop them. For example, rather than mining the ground and building a house, you would simply click to plop down an elven village. The structures they would build and the culture they would adopt would depend on the world around them. Which, in turn, would depend on the world generation algorithms.

You could stick to something basic. The world generation algorithm here is a "jungle pool" - that is, it stamps jungle onto low-lying terrain while leaving the higher terrain bare. Plop down an elven village, you get some jungle-oriented elves building simple settlements in simple clearings.

But move a ways away and you'll find that the world generation algorithm there is "megafauna". So this is a world generation tool which radically increases the size of the plants and animals in the area, and creates a kind of scrubbish prairie when left to its own devices. In this area it is the only generation tool, so the area is basically a savannah full of super-sized elephants and long-range megahunters like giant cats. It's a fantasy world. Plop the elves down here, and they become a roving tribe of hunters building their lives out of the skins and bones of the giant prey they find.

The real treat, however, is finding a place where the two world generation algorithms collide. In this area, the jungle is massive, with trees the size of skyscrapers. Beetles and snakes are the size of houses. Plunking down elves here will mean they will build their villages in the trunks of these massive trees, and perhaps try to domesticate the giant beetles.


Sound fun but far-fetched?

Well, for a video game world, it's a bit far fetched. You would have to come up with a bunch of algorithms that understand how to take the output of other algorithms and feed input back into them. This is not an insurmountable problem, but we are talking about a diverse array of resources that would react differently and serve different roles when amplified in different ways.

For example, a giant beetle is not simply a normal beetle made giant. Normal beetles are a resource used for food and dyes. Giant beetles are unlikely to be for food or dyes, and instead are a dangerous wild monster - albeit probably not a carnivorous one. The beetle's nature changes when it is made giant. But the beetle might get passed to another, different algorithm. For example, a "glacier" algorithm which makes the lands iced over the whole year. Now the beetle has to be an "ice-digging" beetle. What sort of characteristics should be passed into that kind of a beetle?

Similarly, the culture algorithm for each race needs to use the local resources in recursive calls to itself. The elves are passed giant trees and beetles to work with. They inhabit the giant trees, so in the next iteration they are passed giant tree houses and beetles. The giant tree houses are, themselves, a new resource that the elves can use. How? Maybe they turn them in to giant tree habitats for beetles. Maybe they create a source of magic from the life energy of the tree they are inhabiting.

There are a lot of options, but the combination of diverse inputs and recursive execution makes it something that needs to be approached carefully. It's a difficult but interesting thing to work with. There's potential there, but a lot of work would need to be done first.

On the other hand, using this method for hand-designing worlds has some merit because you can just invent for yourself what the crossovers are. You can manually do the combinations and recursion, filling in the blanks with whatever you happen to think would be awesome.

The key to doing it by hand would be in determining how the different kinds of world building algorithms progress.

For example, our "glacier" algorithm is unlikely to just randomly pop up in the middle of a desert. It would be limited to certain areas, and the pattern of progression would be a very wide, straightforward brush. On the other hand, a "magicite ore" algorithm might be a narrow and dodgy squiggle.

And if the two meet... you have ice under the influence of magicite, or visa-versa. What happens along that squiggle? Living ice? Temperature so cold it freezes everything around? Weather that is a constant howling wind because of the massive downdraft the cold spot creates?

Right now, this is the sort of world "generation" I'm thinking of. It's not a matter of simply following rules to generate a world. You follow rules to create potential, and then you choose which potential spots you would like to make important, and explore them.


This can also be done in science fiction settings, although the world generation swaths would instead be star, life, resource, ancient history, and planet generation swaths... maybe political swaths, technology swaths... it's so much fun just thinking of the possibilities.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Thing Where Gods Meet

I was thinking about drama games. That is, games which are about personality and life and negotiation and friends and enemies. They're really quite rare.

I was thinking about the mechanics of such games. They usually end up very shallow, and I've talked a lot about why that is. But as I was writing a book-length treatise on self-constructing narratives in games, I realized there are a lot of potential mechanics that go unused. So this is going to be a design post about a theoretical game called "A Thing Where Gods Meet" (AKA Thing).

In this game, you create a god or goddess. They are associated with certain kinds of powers - for example, the sea, or the hearth, or poetry. You can gain more as time goes on and become quite an eclectic god. Your god also has a physical region they are associated with. This doesn't change, and is a very strong anchor.

The game takes place entirely in "things" - somewhat informal meetups between arbitrary batches of gods, usually either based on place, kinship, or power. For example, a thing might have 5 different gods of the sea from various parts of the world and 8 or so peripheral gods invited because they were guests or are gods of fish or something. The things are not specifically business affairs. They're more about drinking and shooting the breeze. Still, there are favors to be earned and lost, power to be siphoned, and even whole domains to be granted in these rather pell-mell little parties.

The actual play of the game takes place in "the social realm". While all the gods and goddesses are sitting around a shared table eating stuff, the conversations take place in a visualization of the social environment. This visualization has more in common with a squad-based tactical game like XCOM than with what you might consider a social gameplay style. As you might expect, while you do have a main character god, you'll also have a pantheon of allied gods - some you create, some you adopt, and perhaps some that are your friends in the real world. In general, you'll have 2-5 gods on the field. Each god would also have a level of social endurance which would reflect how many turns they can stay active in the thing before getting too tired and burned-out to continue.

Combat happens on a hex grid, but softened so it isn't quite so chunky-chunk. Again, like XCOM's more recent fare. Each god occupies one hex, as you might expect. However, each god has a certain combination of walls and open spots. It's a hex grid, so each god has 6 possible locations for different kinds of shields and openings. These follow the facing of your god, and reflect different kinds of characteristics. A thunder god like Thor might have an open front, two walls to each side of that, and then a completely exposed rear. On the other hand, a canny god like Loki might only have an open spot in front and then 5 walls all around other than that.

The game features extensive use of fog of war, but in an unusual way. When you start the thing, you can see pretty clearly all over. However, as the game progresses, conversation will actually create the terrain of the battlefield, and this will create areas where sight is difficult.

For example, lets say you're Anna, goddess of storms. You're talking to Barry, god of poetry. The actual mechanism of this would be to face Barry and "open fire" in a manner similar to a ranged tactical game. But this wouldn't simply hit or miss. Instead, your conversation would create a "tunnel" leading from you to Barry. If the conversation was about how cats are cute, the tunnel might only reach for two tiles, and then peter out without accomplishing anything. On the other hand, if the conversation is about how he killed his brother to steal his wife, the tunnel would easily reach across the length of the battlefield and not just create a spotty little conduit tunnel, but a massive double-walled bulwark. And, of course, it would reach him.

The charming little cute-cat tunnel would be full of holes and probably count as cover rather than proper barriers. But the massive bulwark would cut off a lot of other conversations and massively obscure the battlefield, making it difficult for others to continue their own conversations unless they happen to be off in a corner somewhere together.

Assuming your conversational gambit is strong enough to reach the target (they have a max range, as mentioned), what happens when it does will vary depending on the nature of the angle you hit them at.

If Barry is a Thor-style character with an unarmored backside, you will probably hit him. On the other hand, if he's a canny trickster like Loki, you'll probably hit a wall. Hitting a wall isn't completely useless: it deals some damage to the wall and can also pin the enemy in place depending on the nature of the conversation. If you wanted to hit Loki-style enemies without a wall, you'd have to strike at them from the direction they're facing.

Because the walls all exist as opaque barriers, your team can coordinate to cover each other's weaknesses. Having Loki standing behind Thor isn't just flavor: Loki's shields protect Thor's unarmored areas. The conversation doesn't necessarily follow orthogonal lines, so Loki can sometimes cover two of Thor's weaknesses by standing in a good place, and more by erecting barriers with conversation. Moreover, Loki could bolster Thor by targeting him: those unarmored zones aren't simply openings for the enemies to use, they're also opportunities for allies to help you.

You can start to see how the geography of the battleground starts to evolve. Clusters of characters support each other, which creates a lot of low-lying cover in their area. Long-range attacks can be quite devastating, but you could fire short-range conversations at those long-range targets to create cover between you and them. Of course, the whole battlefield can become cluttered with massive barriers if a proper fight erupts.

Most conversation isn't simply a one-off shot. Usually, a one-off means you didn't actually hit the enemy. For example, if you talk about cute cats to someone far away on the social battleground, that's a one-off that just creates a little bit of clutter between you and them, rather than actually engaging them.

But if Barry reassures Anna, that's an ongoing channel. The talk may not be continuous, but the feel is. As long as the line between Anna and Barry remains unbroken, Anna will continue to benefit from the reassurance. Barry can even reassure other characters, and Anna will still continue to be reassured by his initial assurance. However, if Anna turns and one of her walls gets in the way, or if Barry moves and a bit of scenery gets in the way, the bond is severed.

The "weak" armor of a Thor-type god is therefore not really a weakness, but an opportunity. It allows him wide latitude in how he can move and turn without losing support.

Less supportive conversations are also ongoing and, in many cases, opportunistic. For example, if Anna yells at someone else, this establishes a malevolent conversation thread running from her to them. On his turn, he might move or rotate to cut that thread off. However, as long as Anna can maneuver to get a clear attack with her next round (or has a friend act before her to demolish that god's facing wall), she can re-establish that thread as if it never faded, hounding him. This gets harder the more clutter is between you, so in most cases this is an "infighting" technique.

Clearing clutter is also a kind of conversational gambit: you don't always have to target a specific person or create clutter. Intellectual or opaquely poetic gods tend to be primarily clutter-reducers rather than clutter-creators.

Although you can "attack" by insulting or shaming the enemy to reduce their social endurance, in most cases you're going to want to get resources from targets instead of drive them away. This is why ongoing conversations are frequently encouraged.

For example, Anna might talk to Barry about getting Barry's support. Each round this continues, Barry would give a little more favor than the amount he gave last round, so it escalates steadily. There's not any advantage to Barry in this, but it's also not actually harming him, so the threat is only modest. He could maneuver to cut it off if he felt it was worth it, although that might expose him to worse conditions if he's not careful. Instead, however, Barry might simply turn to face Anna and open up his own, identical conversation back. Now Anna is getting Barry's support and Barry is getting Anna's support. They are getting chummy together.

There is not any particular reason why they couldn't do this until their social endurance expires. If that's what both want, it may end up being just that. That would be pretty uncommon, though: in most cases you only want so much favor from any given god, at which point you would either step up to a deeper social relationship or move on to another god. Vast amounts of favor are not really as useful as modest amounts of favor with a lot of gods.

And, of course, you could be distracted if things get too complex and risky outside of your little conversation in the corner. If someone starts targeting Anna with harassment, she might have no choice but to break off the conversation with Barry or have her social endurance eaten away by insults.

On the other hand, if Anna and Barry are on the same team and winnowing out favor from another god, Anna might be accruing the favor, while Barry might be using his domain of poetry to support her, steadily restoring her social endurance. Or perhaps bringing her wine - which restores social endurance but also makes you drunker.

There may also be another class of conversation - the paralytic lead. If this connects, you have the target's attention, and they can't move as long as nobody else hits them. The idea is that you have to spend each round convincing them that whatever line you're feeding them is true, whether the topic is that you are descended from the fire giants of Ymir or whether the topic is that you own a cat. If it IS true, it just keeps them still while everyone else maneuvers. If it isn't true, you actually get energy from them - counting coup in trickster god fashion.

Another option is the physical lead, where a conversation reflects you actually doing physical things with them, like dancing or hitting them on the head or serving them beer. This class of effect is useful because it has some kind of cover bypass system, either just passing through it (but not through the enemy's personal shields), or by being lobbed over it and "exploding" in a position of your choice.

Anyway, this whole concept, on paper, seems like it'd actually be an interesting "combat" engine, and the "color" of the dialogs happening on top of it grow very naturally and rarely seem too out-of-place for a party environment. I also like how conversations can be "cut apart" by other conversations, sudden barriers popping up as someone says something too obnoxious or important to ignore. You can't keep talking about cute cats if someone fires a "you killed and ate your brother" across your bow. At least, not without awkwardly closing the distance between the two of you, pushing aside that matter and the walls it created, and saying "ANYWAY, cute cats!"

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Story RPGs

Yesterday I got into a long, complicated discussion with several people about story-based games.

One thing a lot of people seem to think is that if you want to tell a story with a game, you should use something that conveys that story rapidly and clearly rather than filling your game with grindy bits.

But that's a mistaken way of thinking, I think. The point of a story isn't to tell it as fast as possible. Gameplay is a critical pacing and agency element.

Sure, you could just make a novel. And, if you wanted to make it a video game, you could just make it a digital novel where you flip pages by clicking.

But that's really boring. The whole point of making it a video game is to allow the player to explore the world and the story with a pace that suits them. The time they spend caught in the maps or mechanics of the game is time spent becoming more invested in the world and the story.

If you're trying to tell a story, though, you've got to get a move on. You use gating systems to allow players to acclimate themselves as much they want, then move on to the next story chunk and repeat the process. You could call it the "string of pearls" approach, except that in this case we're talking about each pearl being made of time rather than plot. How long will the player want to hang around here? What can they see? What can they accomplish? What can they gain? Each of these is an opportunity to bind them more closely to their characters, the NPCs, the world.

RPG mechanics are probably the best at this because they are specifically built to stretch and stretch. They stretch further for less effort - all you need is to add a new variation with new stats, and you have a new area, a new monster, a new quest. Most other kinds of games you would need to carefully hand-craft each challenge or they would begin to feel repetitive and stale.

But... RPG mechanics are repetitive and stale.

In my opinion, the best RPG mechanics would be ones that let you spend time getting into the world and the game, then let you grab the world and play with it. The two-shot: first make the player feel it is important. Then let the player play with it.

With that in mind, here's a basic idea:

The game is similar to other RPGs except that you aren't grinding level. You're grinding friendship and personality traits.

Once you break free of the local area, fight the boss, build the bridge, whatever it is, there's a section where your characters live through a piece of the story. You get to watch them participate in the plot according to the friendship and personality traits you ground for them.

Then you get control again, in a new place, with slightly older characters and some new ones. New freindships, new personality traits, new ways to grind them using new combat powers...

Each time, the amount of plot between the hub zones increases. The pace and grandeur increases. The effect your characters have on the world increases.

The thing about this is that you don't even have to do some kind of difficult simulation system. You just have the core plot defined, maybe with a few variants, and the rest is all about which characters end up with which people, which factions, in which places. The larger plot arc doesn't have to care whether James stayed behind to defend the village or went out to strike at the lich lord. Only James and the other village-related characters care.

This isn't a method of creating stories out of character interactions. It's not a method of generative storytelling. It's just taking all the choices and affiliations that you would normally give to the player, and instead giving them to the characters that the player builds.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The RPG Non-Genre

Let's talk about the video game genre "RPG".

The RPG genre is completely stagnant right now. But that's probably because it doesn't actually exist. The genre we call "RPG" is actually just box we toss JRPGs, wargames, and tabletop RPGs into. Any features it has on its own are incidental: it's less like a proper genre and more like a Frankenstein's monster put together from random bits and desperately zapped with electricity.

There are loads of conventions that are part of the "RPG" genre, because each of the various niche subgenres we stitched in has conventions, both video game related and not. For example, the typical fantasy storyline. All of these conventions have been investigated by proper genres and by designers looking for interesting things... and most of them have been adopted elsewhere. The ones that remain solely in the "RPG" genre are those which have failed to be good enough to steal. IE, the worthless ones.

For example, running around on a world map and then popping up a completely unrelated fight screen when you encounter an enemy. This is part of almost all JRPGs, wargames, and tabletop RPGs, and in those niche genres it makes sense due to their assumptions and constraints. But it's not a very good mechanic in general, and very few video games actually find it to be useful, as shown by its extremely low adoption rate. On the other hand, leveling up and inventory management have both become core parts of the gameplay in a huge variety of games in every genre.

So, this is the heart of my problem with the RPG "genre". If anything is said to be "an RPG", that means it's using the leftover gristly mechanics that nobody else wanted. Otherwise it'd be "a shooter with RPG elements" or "an adventure game with an RPG feel" or something. Some other genre that actually has something to say and a framework to fill... plus a bit of the good parts of the RPG genre.

The question is: what is the RPG genre trying to do? What is its heart?

Well, let's start with the most common element that is an "RPG": combat mode. That is, the game will play along with you exploring and opening chests and whatever, and then KRAKOOMDWEEDWEEDWEE you are suddenly in combat mode, where the rules are completely different. Sometimes this actually pulls up a completely different screen with completely different graphics. Other times it just forces you to obey combat rules using the same basic assets. For example, Knights of the Old Republic did the latter: you were still on the standard exploration map, but now within the rigid confines of turn-based combat.

Even action-RPGs tend to have this system - it's just that the combats happen in real time instead of turn-based. I would argue that the fundamental break between combat and noncombat is much more important than the specific way combat is executed. The break creates a fundamental requirement for how the game functions, which in turn creates the RPG's heavy focus on progression-based single-player game modes.

Let me restate that: having a "combat mode" means that the RPG must be a progression-based single-player game.

To be clear, a progression-based single-player game is a game where the state of the game all but requires you to play in specific patterns. Spend X time adventuring, then Y time talking to townsfolk, then Z time buying and equipping... the game has a rigid structure where it requires you to play specific game modes for a specific amount of time, then forces you into other game modes, slowly evolving them over time. This happens whether it's a linear RPG or not: it's a fundamental result of having distinct play modes you have to switch between.

The RPG genre actually avoids creating gameplay that is good enough to stand on its own. Instead, every game mode ties into every other game mode, forcing players to switch gears and evolve modes B and C by playing in mode D for a bit.

This pattern means you can't easily play multiplayer, because they are going to be at a different level of progression and playing in a different game mode. It also means you can't just jump in and play your favorite mode: you have to follow the requirements of the game.

Now, many games have different play modes. For example, leveling up in an action game, or managing inventory in an FPS. These create some progression-based play, same as an RPG, but it exists to allow the designers to show you the full breadth of interesting play available in the primary play mode. In an RPG, they exist to create a web of interconnected pieces, none of which stands on its own.

The primary mechanic of an RPG is an endless array of progression knobs, where the player constantly switches mode to move one knob a little so they can switch back to another mode and find they can move another knob another notch... RPGs are the genre where you have dozens of control panels and they all control each other.

If we take a modern, high-quality RPG such as whatever the most recent Bioware game is, we can see that they've started to shave off a lot of the leftover crap. They file off the pieces of the RPG genre nobody else wanted because, fuck it, we don't want them either. But they still focus very heavily on mode-switching... they're just making it a little less obnoxious. You still explore so you can fight enemies so you can level-up your characters so you can get better equipment so you can fight a particularly hard enemy so you can explore in a new place so you can fight other enemies... you're still twiddling a knob on one control panel so you can twiddle a knob on another control panel.

Unfortunately, this knob twiddling is, as mentioned, progression-based gameplay where the player is forced to play in various modes no matter what he wants to do. And, in general, the player's interests are not going to be in all of the modes. Most players have more interest in one of the modes or another.

This is where we can start to consider innovation in the RPG.

The reason that the knob-tweaking gameplay is still so popular is specifically because it is a scaffold in which stories can be told. If you create "meh"-grade spreadsheet play like in most RPGs, you can scale it and scale it and scale it and it'll always be the same grade of "meh". If your gameplay is robust and interesting, you can't arbitrarily scale it because it skews and breaks pretty rapidly. So games with 'good' gameplay can't have indefinite progressions, but you can tell an 80 hour story by stretching and stretching and stretching the same "meh" spreadsheet gameplay.

You could say these epic stories are the heart of the RPG... but when's the last time you played an RPG and found that the 40-80 hours of story were interesting enough to merit exploring? When you sit down with a buddy and tell them about the new RPG you played, what do you tell them? Do you tell them the convoluted, stale storyline? "Oh, the important thing about this game is that the old king is dead and therefore the boundary between dimensions is weakening and..."

No. You tell them how cool combat is, how the world looks, and how cool the character creation system is.

Let's innovate:

Tell no stories.

That's right. Oh, there can be stories, but the player has to be the one telling them or assembling them.

Give up on having the player do A and B and C in places X then Y then Z. Instead, assume the player is in your world to fight, see cool shit, and create/evolve characters.

What can you do with that? What other kinds of play does it support? What sort of multiplayer? What sort of progression system? How do you keep the cool shit feeling cool ten hours in?

What can you do if you let the player role play rather than telling him a story?

Friday, May 03, 2013

Designing Worlds (Methods)

As I see it, there are three philosophies behind designing worlds for role playing games. I've used all of them, and none of them is particularly better or worse. They're just different.

1) Simulationist. A lot of worlds are designed following certain rules or heuristics, and the point is to see what sort of world arises when certain conditions are assumed. Sometimes this is trying to simulate the growth of civilizations from the dawn of time. Other times it's more "if we assume they have access to X kind of magic or technology, what would happen?" Other times it's simply drilling down into an otherwise relatively common setting to try and explore what sort of conflicts and faults exist in our ordinary assumptions (deconstruction).

2) Personal. A lot of worlds are created just because you feel like creating a world yourself or think something is cool. You just want to see silver towers, lush forests, titanic space fleets, gritty cities in the dark, cyborgs leaping up to take out a helicopter... you want to create a world. You generally want to see specific events or places or things, and you create a world around that. These worlds are more of an exploration of your personal interests, and can often carry a vivid vitality. But, on the other hand, they can also be pretty standard - left to its own impulses, personal worlds tend to be very similar to the worlds that inspired us in the first place.

3) Evocative. A lot of worlds are created specifically to allow people to explore and experience specific values or moods. The aesthetic, rules, and situations that govern the world are crafted to create a specific feel. While a personal world might have a dark and sinister city, an evocative world would weigh the players down with that darkness and grit.

To give examples:

Batman's Gotham is evocative, at least at its core. Gotham exists as a heavy weight across all decent Batman comics, and the villains all arise from Gotham's aesthetic and tone.

Superman's universe is personal. It contains whatever villains and situations seem like they would be fun or interesting.

Watchmen is simulationist, exploring the fault lines in the evocative and personal comic book superhero worlds.

If we switch over to RPGs:

White Wolf's vampire games are evocative, built to make the players feel like they are playing an awful game weigh players down with the darkness of centuries of vampire tradition.

Dungeons and Dragons is personal, full of dragons and elves and whatever else pops up today.

There's not really any big-name simulationist tabletop RPGs, because those worlds tend to be more interesting to the GM than to the players. Maybe Traveller might qualify.


So, why am I pointlessly outlining some world design philosophies as I see them?

Because I want to explain a little bit about using pieces of them at a time. I think people's designs are stronger when they understand the strengths each philosophy has to offer. After all, any of those philosophies held too tightly puts out boring nonsense.

Let's take a Standard Fantasy World.

One big advantage of a standard fantasy world is that it is easy to understand. Players don't feel like they are confused: they always have a grip on the world, and therefore their adventures can be about adventuring rather than figuring out what the hell is up with this world.

One big disadvantage of a standard fantasy world is that it is contagious. Every world is poisoned by it - if you ever create any new species, they will immediately be renamed "adjective fantasy race/job". For example, "space elves" or "death knight". The only way around that is to make your world so far removed from the standard pattern of land-based politics that those ideas no longer apply. And that's a lot of work.

In a standard fantasy world or variant, the species are often boiled down to their statistical bonuses. Elves are +2 dex with forest-based flavor text. Dwarves are +2 endurance with cave-based flavor text. That's extraordinarily lazy.

Ideally, each race plays a particular role in your world.

Now, I don't necessarily mean that they have specific nations or policies or whatever. I'm talking about using them to express the foundational elements of your world.

If you are building a simulationist world, each species you plant should represent a specific aspect of the heuristics you're exploring. For example, if you're exploring the effect magic would actually have on a society, they would represent different responses to having magic. Maybe the elves teach magic to everyone but have very strong restrictions on learning magic past that level, maybe dwarves outright ban it, maybe humans keep it to the upper class and don't allow the lower class to use it. On the other hand, if you're exploring different categories of magic instead of the effects of magic on society, each species would be one category of magic. Whether that means air-earth-fire, or whether it means something more unique, like summoning-enchanting-weather control.

If you are building a personal world, each species should represent a particular favorite piece of the fantasies you are trying to include. The dwarves are the endless rows of dour warriors taking up arms. The humans are the flashy solo fighters that revel in high adventure. The elves are the calm, deep waters of ancient magic.

If you are building an evocative world, each species should represent a piece of the mood you aim to create. If you were aiming to create a White Wolflike depressing world of fantasy, the elves could be the oppressive high lords. The dwarves would be the endless underclass. If you were aiming to create a dreamlike primitive world, the elves would be the ancients who barely touch the mortal world, the dwarves might be just figuring out farming, and the humans might be migratory hunter-gatherers that prize their spiritual connection to the wild.

Using races to express foundational elements serves three big uses. First, it gives players a clear grip on the foundation of the world. They'll understand the sort of situations that are going to arise and the sort of tensions that exist. Second, it allows players to affiliate themselves with a particular foundation and explore that element more personally by choosing to make a character of that race. Third, when you understand any given situation, you understand how it can go bad - this will allow you to create more powerful story arcs.

Now, you can also use non-racial expression, but there's always some kind of faction-choosing going on. For example, you might make different schools of magic represent your foundational elements, or different philosophies, or different alignments. The key is that you can give your players a good grip on the world you've created by making it easy for them to see where you've drawn lines.


Once you've sketched out your world in your head, you'll often want to fill in details. But this is a bit fraught. First, you'll often be filling in details nobody will ever care about - it might be better to give the world a spin and fill in the details as the adventures unfold. Second, you'll often fill in the details willy-nilly, rather than thinking about the way it helps the world or the story or the player's grip on those things.

This is where understanding the strengths of the different philosophies can really help. Each philosophy can step in when you're filling in details, and give you a rich and varied world that never feels erratic or confused.

Simulationist philosophy brings the idea of connectivity. Events are connected to events, people to people, places to places. And, of course, people to places, events to people, places to events... you can always think "what sort of thing would arise in this situation?" and "what would happen because of this?"

If you use it too much, it can become a litany of this-then-this-then-this writing, which is the most boring writing style imaginable. But, when used sparingly, it can show that small events have big results, and big events affect small people. It can also be used to establish clear connections in the world, giving players a clear direction to explore and plot arcs a clear direction to spread in. And, of course, it can highlight cracks in the world that are due to be exploited by villains...

Evocative philosophy brings with it the idea of staying on-message. You want to make the players feel a specific way? Then the world needs to be built to make them feel that way. You can't simply write "this is a big evil city". What sort of day-to-day situations make it evil? What sort of architecture? Social structure? People? Give the GM plenty of tools to weigh the players down with the mood. Unlike simulationist stuff, this is more a list of options rather than a chain of commandments, so even if you provide too many options, the GM can just use the ones they like.

Another big tool evocative philosophy provides is the mode switch. If you're writing about a city, write about a person in the city. Write about a street in the city. Write about a company in the city. Write about how the city interacts with other cities. You can easily keep the same tone and create something in an entirely different scope. This is vital if you want to have the players actually feel the mood: sticking to one scope will be too limited and the GM will have to fill in the other scopes with whatever happens to pop into his head.

Personal philosophy brings with it the idea of beats - specific cool things that happen. What would be cool in this situation? Write it down. Don't try to justify it or say it already happened. Just give it to the GM as a suggestion of something cool.

If you're creating a dystopian cyborg world and are outlining a downtown area, just mention in passing "Jumping from a rooftop to the top of a VTOL enforcement craft has a difficulty of 12". If you're creating a fantasy world of high adventure and outlining a forest, just mention "the forest is full of little gullies and hillocks, which goblins tend to pour over suddenly if the adventurers stumble into their trap."


Anyway, those are my thoughts when I design worlds.