Friday, December 27, 2013

Ys: Memories of Crap Writing

I'm going to spoil the ending of Ys: Memories of Celceta. Trust me, it doesn't matter. There is nothing interesting about the plot.

The ending of YMOC is the same as Lord of the Rings. I don't mean that it is similar, I mean it is literally beat for beat identical. You have to destroy the one ring - er, the "sun mask" - in the fires of the hottest volcano. Climbing through fire and quake and goblins, you reach the top and are faced one last time by a member of your own kind, twisted and stretched thin by the dark powers of that you seek to destroy. Then you toss in the ring and the volcano explodes. You are rescued by eagles. Er... I mean "flying mecha".

Now, in the case of Lord of the Rings, the ending was... well, it wasn't the strongest ending ever, but at least it felt like the heroes were doing a task that needed doing.

The problem with YMOC's ending is that there is no reason to do any of it. See, you're tasked to climb the mountain and destroy the mask, and you are forced to accept. But the catch is that "Gandalf" is, in this case, a flying angelic creature. While you could theoretically see him being corrupted by the one ring - I mean the Sun Mask - it's already clear that the "dark" personality of our Gandalf-equivalent is driven solely by the desire to free humanity from his own tyrannical rule and force them to pioneer their own path. So even if he did go "dark", the destruction of the planet would be something he would also want to avoid, and he would be very happy to destroy the mask and claim freedom for humanity.

What, physically moving around a bit much for our crystal dragon Jesus? Well, his main sidekick is a perfectly human lady with a FLYING MECH. She's flown us around on it several times. She's incorruptible - we know because she's held the mask of the sun before and didn't suffer any qualms. And she literally has nothing else to do. She's just hanging around in the background.

Actually, after we're forced to accept the task, she flies up to us halfway up the volcano, kills a few goblins, and then's like "I'll cover the rear, here. Don't worry, if it gets dangerous, I can fly away!" Sigh... then she rescues us from falling into the caldera, so it's pretty damn clear she could have done this whole operation without endangering anyone. I guess Adol could have ridden with her, just for closure's sake.

But is it too much for her? How about the pixie that flies from one edge of the continent to the other dozens of times over the course of the game? No?

Well, we have two rangers on our team - heroes from deep forest villages, masters of stealth and speed. So we can rely on them to - what, they're staying behind to guard Crystal Dragon Jesus? WHY? They're perfectly suited to scrambling up a mountain and not at all suited to holding the line against an army of shadow-goblins. Instead, let's take the child, the hulking brute, and the refined lady in the evening gown. Those are definitely the ones more suited to scrambling up a mountain!

What I'm trying to say is that the ending sucked.

It's not very often that the ending of a game can completely ruin a game for me. Most games have pretty weak endings, and I've come to expect that. But when the ending requires dozens of people to simultaneously fail to notice that three of them can fly, that's pretty sad. It's on the same level as sacrificing yourself in Fallout 3, when you have radiation-proof party members that can do the same task completely without risk.

I don't think anyone is asking for perfection in writing, but this game looks like it took at least a million dollars to produce. Maybe spend one whole day thinking about the ending?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Immediacy in Online Games

Well, the term "MMORPG" is really obsolete, so let's refine how we talk about online games!

There are two pieces to how players interact in online games, and these pieces are simply not talked about much. I don't even think there's defined terms for them. The two pieces are the number of players interacting, and the immediacy of their interactions.

So I'll propose some terms for immediacy, some ways to think about online games.

Pitched immediacy: When lag severely impacts how well players can interact. Usually only matters in battles alongside or against other humans, although some battles are lag-resistant and some non-battle situations might be lag-vulnerable. Due to the difficulties involved with both technology and player awareness, the number of players involved in pitched immediacy is typically pretty low.

Critical immediacy: When players interact in near real-time while tightly bound together. Lag isn't a serious issue, but a player dropping out entirely for a few minutes would be pretty serious. This is typically the "party" part of the game, and may include lag-resistant combat sections. It may also include chatrooms and so on: it doesn't require avatar-on-avatar interactions. The number of players is often quite low due to cat-herding-related difficulties.

Noncritical immediacy: When players interact in near real-time, but loosely bound. If a player drops out, the other players can continue on without much difficulty - or perhaps without even noticing. This typically includes non-party interplayer dynamics, such as wandering around a town where other players are hanging out.

Asynchronous immediacy: When players interact in a way that has a flexible gap between action and reaction, allowing players to interact without being available at the same time or place. Please note this is about interacting with players, not with the game. Skills that grow in real-time, for example, are not players interacting with other players. Messaging someone is, and the giant forum accompanying any large game is also asynchronous immediacy even though the game itself is not actually involved.

Prepared immediacy: When a player doesn't have much (or any) control at the moment of interaction, but has set it up so that things unfold according to their preference. Things like auto-shops, guilds, homes that can be visited, and "NPCified" parties are all prepared immediacy. Creating content and then allowing other players to use/experience it is also prepared immediacy. Actually, drawing fanart or making music videos may also be prepared immediacy, even though the game is not really directly involved.

Incidental immediacy: When a player interacts with other players accidentally or indirectly without really meaning to. Auction houses are a big one, here. Maintaining wikis is another. Also, in some games you can create content that is automatically reshared with others (such as Spore). This "massively single player" style content is also incidental immediacy.

Anyway, those are my suggestions.

As you can tell, every game has more than just the game. The community around the game will start up asynchronous, prepared, and incidental interactions outside of the game itself. But these kinds of immediacies can also be part of the game design from the start.

In many cases, the feel of a game is easy to understand once you start putting numbers into these different tiers. Like in City of Heroes, you could argue that there are typically 1-6 players in pitched immediacy, the same for critical, but several thousand for noncritical immediacy due to the shared cityscape. Functionally, that "several thousand" is more like 80 or so due to the way the city is constructed and the way the servers are sharded.

Those are my suggestions. Let me know what your thoughts are.

Futurism, Google, and Careers

A lot of people have talked about what Google's purchases and recent direction mean. A lot of people have come up with things that make some amount of business sense, but personally I think that Google is run by people who believe in "the singularity".

Well, whatever the reason, Google's proposed product lines sound like a bad scifi movie: "Starting as a simple search tool, over the next thirty years Googdyne released universal translators, always-on augmented reality, self-driving cars, and military robots."

Whatever Google's vision of the future actually is, it's clear that they have one glaring gap in their plans: technology requires cultural infrastructure, and they're radically underestimating how much. For example, Google Glass is a pretty impressive technical feat, but it is basically useless in today's world. The only value it has is first-person video, and that's pretty limited.

It's easy to imagine a world where people use augmented reality quite frequently. In fact, that world makes more sense than this world. But the culture isn't there. People don't have any expectation or interest in that kind of thing, and it'll take a long time before we can drum any up.

It could be that they plan to sidestep this by making things so insanely useful that nobody can bear not using them - for example, decent web search. But I think they're underestimating that, too. They did it once, by luck, and now they seem to think they can do it on purpose. Well, good luck: cultural tech use weighs a lot more and hits a lot harder than most people think.

For example, the concept of a "career" - hell, the concept of a "middle class" - is something that only exists due to cultural use of technology.

This is one reason why I get annoyed whenever anyone says something like "is technology stealing jobs?"

The only reason jobs like that exist is technology. The issue is that the jobs it initially created, it is making easier and easier. In turn, that makes them require fewer people and people who work at a higher level. That's the way technology has always worked: make something possible, then make it progressively easier. In this case, "jobs".

Perhaps there will always be more jobs available to create, but that's a theory that falls flat in our current culture. We've attached ourselves to a specific point on the tech curve and are culturally out of position to deal with it changing.

Anyone who wants to invent the future needs to examine the present. The world is changing in a lot of ways, but humans are not.

You can give humans augmented reality, but if they can't use it to live their life, it's not going to get used. You can give people robots, but if it doesn't put a roof over their head it's not culturally relevant. Hell, you can give them life-saving vaccines and they'll get upset about it.

Self-driving cars, though... that's a keeper.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Player-Generated (Worlds)

The core problem with letting the users control how a generative world generates is how to make those generated worlds have meaning.

In most generated-world games, the world generation is a complicated weaving of content and algorithm that results in a carefully balanced, paced, and gated mess. Trying to change how the world generates will screw up the house of cards. Not just in the sense of things becoming too easy, but also in the sense of things becoming unplayable. Not only would you probably screw up the progression such that you couldn't advance, but you'd probably screw up things like whether the world is even navigable or survivable.

The default algorithm and content for generating the world comes up with millions of variants, but they all interact with the basic gameplay in a way which gives everything meaning. When you see a vein of iron above ground level, you get excited at the prospect of an easy score. When you hear PSSsssst you jump in terror because you know what's coming. When you go into a cave, it's been carefully sculpted such that most of it can be traversed on foot without extensive modification... but sometimes you'll stumble into a ravine which stuns you. That, too, has been carefully sculpted to contrast with the caves, which contrast with the mineshafts, which contrast with the mountain caverns, which contrast with the hills, which contrast with the desert...

Even in games which focus on beauty or relaxation, the worlds are generated with that kind of situation in mind.

What I'm trying to say is that allowing a player to short-circuit that design and substitute in their own preferences won't make the game better: it'll make the game worse. The balance will collapse. Even though you could surprise yourself by creating a world that is very different, the gameplay wouldn't back it up, except by rare accident. Worse, the act of screwing up the gameplay balance in a few of your worlds probably damages how accepting you are of the original gameplay balance.

Now, if you want to look at player-generated content, start by looking at things smaller than worlds. There are plenty of games where the player can build a wide variety of things... just not worlds. For example, in Minecraft you can build vast castles. In Kerbal you can build space ships. Even in more modestly customizable games such as the Elder Scrolls series, you can still build a very unique character.

The key in all these situations is that the gameplay revolves around building content to fit the context.

You don't just build pretty ships in Kerbal. You build them to go on specific missions in a specific universe. You don't just build castles in Minecraft: you build them to show specific people or to perform a specific function. In something like the Elder Scrolls games, your custom character is a mix of aesthetic options and stats, which fit into two different contexts (cultural and gameplay).

If you go into Kerbal and never launch any missions, designing the ships means nothing. If you go into Minecraft and just walk around without building, the layout of the world means almost nothing. If you remove combat from an RPG, your careful character design will feel flat. These things can still be entertaining from time to time, but it's not enough to support the game. The context has been removed or blunted.

It's the same with world generation. Normally worlds are generated in the context of the game rules to the point where there is one generation algorithm and it is a beast. Allowing the player to change that destroys the context of the game rules, and in turn makes the generated worlds almost meaningless.

There are plenty of ways for people to generate worlds and maps as they like, but unless they are placed in a specific context and given a specific application, there's not a whole lot of interest in those worlds. They're just pretty pictures.

What we need to do is think "why would a player create a world" rather than "how". "How" is easy. There are tons of ways, and even the bad ones work great. But "why" is harder. Why would the player need their own custom world?

1) One option is to tweak the challenge offered by the game. Allowing the players to alter the parameters of a game's challenge can be very entertaining if you build the game with that in mind. For example, a different amount of gravity, or lots of lava on the surface. Obviously, a world creation algorithm that's too tightly fit to the original challenges won't be able to support this kind of variation, but if you aim to allow this from the beginning, it should be possible. It also works well with multiplayer challenges.

2) The player may want to create something beautiful, interesting, or amazing, perhaps to share it with others. This is the "handicraft" world, which is interesting within any one of the game's contexts - gameplay, aesthetics, whatever. This is not about balance, but about astonishment. Therefore, allowing the players a lot of options in terms of theme control, arbitrary "stretchign", recursiveness, and so on can lead to some really interesting results.

3) The world is the gameplay. Rather than walking through the world (character as gameplay), the world is the gameplay. For example, you're trying to raise pet monsters, so you create a world and they grow across its surface according to the environment and mutations and so on. This method can be a lot of fun, but it limits the variety you can achieve because the world has to support the gameplay.

Well, I keep saying "world", but in fact this applies to literally any content. In The Sims, the players build houses as gameplay, and the sims live within them. The sims themselves are a combination of 1 and 2 depending on how much you care about the actual gameplay. I always cheat in that game because the gameplay is annoying, so for me they are only #2.

The real question is how deeply you can layer it. For example, in The Sims you can create your own clothes, facilities, and even meshes if you feel dedicated. And even if you don't, you can download them as mods and add them into your game. In Kerbal, literally half the game is mods. Can you let your player-created content merge with other kinds of player-created content on different levels?

Maybe that's where the "world" part comes in. Maybe the whole point is that the "world" is yet another category we can create content for, in, and with. Maybe the whole point of "creating" a "world" is simply that you are choosing which massive quantities of content you want to mix together today. Unfortunately, you'll need the foundations - the massive quantities of content to mix - first.

Anyway, the thought you should have when considering player-generated worlds is not "how", but "why". Once you know "why", the method will be pretty obvious.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Discovery and the Community

One of the greatest things about games to me is finding something new. In the past, that's always been something programmed into the game - a particular village or awesome plot point or whatever.

But what about games with infinite content?

Games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress were the beginning. Now there is an explosion of up-and-coming games that make them look like tinker toys. Starbound and No Man's Sky are today's flavors. Not only is there a massive amount of player-driven construction possible, but there's also a lot of content built right in. Content you will never see if you just play it as you like.

And here is where the trouble starts. How much do you guide the player? How much do you show them, how much do you let them discover on their own?

I want to explore. Telling me where to go, or that some other player was here before, ruins it for me. On the other hand, I don't like futile searches for some required doodad, and would prefer if you told me how to get it. And, hell, a lot of times I just want to see a video of something cool on Vimeo. Every player has different preferences.

In the end, right now, there is a crisp divide. You either know nothing and have nothing to do with the community... or you've read the wiki and know absolutely everything about everything.

In the future, this divide will not be crisp.

The community is starting to be integrated right into every game at the most basic level. Doing this clumsily can really alienate someone like me, because I like playing games alone for the first thirty hours. Getting constantly reminded that someone else was here first, or is running around screwing up the world on his own, that's a big failure in my mind.

On the other hand, there are tons of kinds of content that you need the community for, and even more that benefit from the community even if you don't absolutely require them. For example, the community will produce better tutorials than the game devs, and will show you how to build things the devs never thought of, although both could technically be accomplished without the community.

But giant cities built brick-by-brick or mods that add in completely new functionality are things that no player will ever be able to see without reaching out to the community. There's no question that the community makes high-level play a million times more interesting. The question is: can you get a player involved in the community without destroying the low- and middle-level experience?

For example, in Starbound I can't find a "molten core", which means I cannot progress. There's nothing in the game that tells me what one is, or if there's any other way to progress. So I'm going to have to go to the wiki and read up on it.

How much effort will it take to get just that one piece of data? When I'm there, won't I feel the urge to look up how to make those musical instruments, or read up on the seemingly-useless lever item, or how to use the 3D printer? It's incredibly difficult to not get sucked in. And if I do get sucked in, I'll go back into the game with high-level knowledge short-circuiting my low- and medium-level play. A lot of the joy of exploration will be gone, because I'll know the parameters of the universe.

Similarly, if there's a game where community content is automatically shared into the single-player experience, it's easy to drown in it. That was the real weakness of Spore: content overload. Even in something like No Man's Sky it's a risk, because there's probably going to be a damn popup with the name of the first person to discover whatever planet I'm on, completely ruining it for me.

So... I guess I'm telling devs to be careful. Integrating your community into your game is a great idea, but you have to be careful to let it leak in slowly, in tiny amounts. Augment your game with community content, but don't make your game 100% about community content.

... Also, don't tell me that I'm doing something hundreds of other people already did. That's really dumb.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Many Characters Forgotten

So... playing another tactical RPG. Yyyay. Technically, this one's an action RPG with tactical elements, but that's a flaw that I'll just have to see past.

I really like tactical RPGs. While scifi is the setting I'm obsessed with, I'd say that tactical RPGs are my genre of choice. I haven't designed any in a while, because it's arguably the genre Unity is worst at.

Today I suffered the same problem with this tactical RPG that I always have: they keep introducing interesting (or potentially interesting) characters, but I've already settled on a party and don't need them. This is made worse by knowing that even if I ditch an established party member for the new guy, the new guy's personality won't show up at all. They're just bundles of stats.


We want our characters' personalities to matter at the heart of gameplay, and also to push the player to try a wide variety of parties with a lot of different characters. So their personalities need to drive their conflict performance, the way they interact with the world in the core play loop. I'm avoiding the term "battle", because it's actually much easier to do this with a noncombat set of conflicts.

Let's consider the way personality can matter.

The first way is that the core type of the personality can drive interaction. For example, a stoic person and a hyper person would approach a situation from very different angles, and get a different kind of result. This is similar to choosing a technique or move set for a combat class.

Another way is that the mood of a person can drive the interaction. Someone who is stoic or hyper doesn't address the situation differently, but instead feels different things as the situation grows. Those emotions drive their actions, rather than their fundamental personality. This has the disadvantage of being a bit hard for a new player to master, but the advantage of being a whole lot more flexible, tactically speaking. How much of a time delay is required to change moods is a design point: it might be an absolutely immediate response, very similar to how personality alone would work... or it could take longer than the whole battle, requiring careful mood management between conflicts. Or, of course, any length between.

Speaking about time as a matter of importance, we can also talk about not having a single monolithic "personality". Instead, think about it as a series of personality elements. For example, stoic-stoic-romantic, or hyper-lazy-motherly-lazy. Every round, the cursor moves to the next personality element. This creates an ongoing pattern where the overall mood is affected by the current personality element's response to whatever is happening this round. This adds complexity, which means we would necessarily have slower conflicts with fewer participants, but that's not necessarily bad. Differing chain lengths leads to drift, keeping the various participants subtly desynched.

We can also create complexity by layering it. For example, we might layer downward. Below the "stoic-stoic-romantic" might be another set of personality elements. Maybe "romantic-depressed-lazy". In the course of the conflict, you might strip away the surface personality and the one underneath would surface, in which case they might be romantic-stoic-romantic or stoic-stoic-lazy or whatever. This could be considered "damage" if you like, and the way to "win" or "lose" might be to get that lower element stripped away, leaving you unable to properly respond.

We can also layer "upward" or "inward", adding a layer on top of an element, or slotting an element between two elements. These temporary personality elements don't really reflect the fundamental personality of the character, but it is an interesting idea.

At this stage we're still talking as if the conflict will be some kind of winner-take-all battle, with talk of stunning the enemy's personality or forcing them to react a different way. While that may be completely feasible idea, let's also think about what the goal of these conflicts could be. Why would you want to stun the enemy until they are unable to argue against you?

The first thing that springs to mind is that you're deciding something. For example, there's a town meeting and everyone is putting up plans about how things are going to change. The supporters of two conflicting plans argue. The argument is partly about forcing your opponent to see your side and be unable to support their own plan, but the other part of the conflict is convincing the audience that your side is right.

This merges very well with the rest of my design idea, which requires that a steady stream of new characters come in without being simply discarded in favor of your established characters. You're not running a party: you're running a town.

There are no villains, really. Just people who have different visions for the town. On any given day or week, two or three plans will be proposed. The plans always conflict, so you will have to side with one of the teams proposing your favorite plan... or perhaps with the one you don't like, in an attempt to sabotage it.

These will change the nature of the town, surely but steadily. New people will trickle in, and they also find themselves in favor of specific plans, showing up in your weekly town planning meeting. The town itself exists, of course - this isn't happening in a vacuum. If you vote to expand the fisheries, then your town docks will expand, and you'll probably get a few fishermen as immigrants. If you vote to expand the space docks, you'd get more ships landing, and more transient sailors on shore leaves... etc, etc.

However, the town meetings are analogous to the "battle" segments of the game. There would also need to be a lot of between-battle gameplay. And I think this system could support a lot. Ideally you could wander around town as any character, talking to people, chasing sidequests, buying and selling furniture and clothes and stuff, searching for secrets, learning new skills... all the sorts of things you do in RPGs. Plus any multiplayer you may or may not have.

This would help to cement the characters in your mind, as well as allow you to customize them in small ways and feel invested. However, it also allows you to set up the situation for the town hall meetings, because you can get a feeling for what plans are going to go down and who will support what. Then you can attempt to set up certain people with advantageous starting moods, or maybe get other people to take a vacation out of town. Maybe you even start a preemptive argument among someone who is on the fence to get them to join your team in the debate. People's stats will be better the more debates they've had alongside these partners, which is the way you do leveling...

Of course, when it comes to the meeting, you'd have to choose which three of the support characters you'd like to take into the debate, and then juggle them as the conflict goes on and moods slowly shift...

Well, I dunno if it'd be fun, but I think it's an interesting idea.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Claustrophobic Gameplay

I've been thinking about small, dense worlds for gameplay. Most games scale up, I've been thinking about scaling down. A good example of this approach is any game set in one (large) house, such as Maniac Mansion or Gone Home. Of course, me being completely obsessed with scifi means I'd probably think in terms of one small moon base or something.

Most of the time, in games with small spaces, the gameplay is simple puzzles. Pick up A, B, C, twiddle D, insert into E. Classic adventure game stuff. But why? Can't we do other kinds of gameplay?

It's a matter of how long the game can be. In general, you can think of the length of the game as being the density of the space times the size of the space. It's relatively easy to create more space, so most games use larger spaces. Games like Go and Chess have small, static boards and are about as dense as you can get, and still they are rarely more than a few hours long.

Some games use space densely, but still switch it out. For example, a tactical RPG where every meter matters, but you keep getting thrown into new maps. So they have both density and size, and this is reflected in their typically extraordinary length.

Anyway, adventure gameplay can be made extremely dense because it is polymorphic. That is, the same things mean different things depending on what else has happened. The kitchen has a microwave? That's not interesting at the moment, but it becomes interesting when you decide to microwave something as part of a puzzle, or need to unplug it and use the plug for something else, or carry it to the window and drop it on someone's head far below... there's a lot of things it could be used for, depending on the context. By changing contexts continuously, adventure gameplay pushes the play density way, way higher than other genres typically go.

Of course, there are many ways to change contexts, and you don't always need to be adventure gamey to do it. Katamari Damacy is a fun example of simply using size as context, and a single house ends up having many different gameplay paths depending on where you start and how large you are. They attempted to double this by adding in new modes, such as collecting hot items only, but in my opinion it didn't work very well because the whole setup was engineered with size as the primary context, and using other contexts ends up awkward.

I'm more of a Katamari sort than an adventure game sort, so I got to thinking about physical gameplay that changes context, rather than puzzle gameplay.

One aspect I like is the concept of size changing how you interact with the setting. However, rather than a destructive interaction, I started thinking about a navigational interaction. At its most basic level: you can only go through certain places if you're small enough or large enough, due to the layout. But more than that, I want "going through space" to be actual gameplay, not just a simple act of navigating. Like a free running game but upside-down.

For example, let's say there's a narrow space. If you're tiny, you can just go through fine. If you're human-sized, you've got to scoot through sideways, holding your breath. If you're in a space suit, you can't get through... but you can stick your arm through. If you're a quad-copter drone, you've got to flip vertical and float through on pure momentum. That sort of thing.

There's also the matter of gravity and rearranged rooms. The same physical space could be laid out very differently depending on which direction gravity is coming from, or if there's gravity at all. Even the difference between lots of gravity or small amounts of gravity can change how you might navigate a space: with low gravity, leaping and climbing walls is easy. In high gravity, you're stuck to the floor... but you can exert a lot more force without spinning or bouncing, so there are times you'll need that. And, of course, various kinds of obstacles might squash to the ground in high gravity, which can be important.

Back on the subject of topology, I was thinking how to make the layout result in complex gameplay. Simply gating the environment with spaces you can or can't navigate depending on your size is too basic. But I've already mentioned a path to a solution: the ability to stick your arm through.

It's not just your size which matters, but also your flexibility and reach. There are many places a human can't squeeze through, but they may be able to get their arm in, or even crawl in until their butt gets stuck or whatever comical situation you'd prefer. This gives them a certain amount of reach into the restricted space. Combined with a long stick or a bit of wire or something, this could in turn support some more gameplay. A nonhuman of roughly the same size as a human (say, a cargo bot) would not be able to do that.

I like the idea of force being useful. Even if the cargo bot had an arm capable of reaching through the slightly-too-narrow space, it is not a soft device and if it is pulled through by force, it will rip apart. Humans can squash a bit, especially if you play fast and loose with biology. This means that they might not be able to simply slide through, but if they could get their arm to the other side, or grab ahold of something, they could force themselves through. Maybe you use a robot to drag a piece of debris over so you can grab it and pull yourself through... There could be some kind of damage meter or something if you want to make it cost more than time.

But how does this turn into gameplay? I need to make this a game which is interesting, and simply moving through space arbitrarily ain't gonna cut it.

I'm thinking of a "compact roguelike" - a small space station where the point isn't to move on to the next level, but to backtrack across the same rooms while changing their conditions so you can get something done. There would be a pretty loose set of conditions so you could approach it in a variety of ways - this isn't a puzzle game with only one solution. Similarly, the passage of time is often critical, so moving confidently and sleekly would be very valuable.

Balancing your human form, space-suited form, and a variety of remote operated robots would be the key, and a big part of the early game would be finding the places where you can change into a space suit or find and pilot various kinds of robots. A lot of the rest of the early game would be about figuring out what systems can be changed in what way from what locations to change the way the space station is navigatable - gravity, pressure, heat, wind, light, doors that lock or unlock, etc.

But in terms of movement, it's still a bit lacking. I really want movement to feel explorative, not just transitionary. I don't want the player to wedge themselves through a door just to get to the other side. At least, not while counting it as important gameplay.

To get the explorative movement I want, it's important to make the player have to explore constrained spaces "dark" - that is, without a clear idea of exactly what is coming down the line. This means that doors are only valid in terms of whether they are open or closed. So rather than simply exploring from room to room through doors, it's important that we have some very different paths to use. Which means our space station is built a bit unlike most game's space stations: the player will need to spend a lot of time in air ducts, crammed between walls, above ceilings, below floors, squeezing between endless computer pillars, clutching to the underside of walkways, flailing in midair in the wind of the climate control's main pipeline...

In addition, we can rely more heavily on rubble and debris. Collapsed ceilings, desks and chairs piled up against the door - anything to make navigation more difficult while simultaneously connecting the outside and the inside of the rooms. Vents and Jeffrey's tubes would abound, as would elevator shafts and so on.

There are two keys to making this interesting. One is to insure that the paths are never completely linear: the player always has something to actually explore, not just a corridor to squeeze down. There's always a challenge of whether you can turn and squeeze through a side passage, or navigate around a structural beam or something.

The second is to insure that there's always gameplay. When you crawl into an air vent, the standard movement gameplay would be "press forward to go down the air vent". However, this is a pretty dull thing to do if much of your gameplay involves crawling down air vents.

Fortunately, the first thing rescues the second thing. To make it so that there is open exploration in tight quarters, one of the things we'll end up doing is creating a lot of awkward, angled paths off the main path. The challenge is to go down them - not something that is easy, as you know if you've ever been in that kind of situation. The human body only bends in specific ways, and in a confined space even turning over is frequently impossible.

The gameplay needs to be fast enough that you never feel annoyed about the slow movement, and the best way to do that is to make the restrictions not about speed, but about orientation and flexibility. Therefore, the controls are not simply "push forward to go forward", because we want to allow the player much more control over how they are bent and pointed.

There's a lot of question as to what kind of interface would work best. Perhaps simple WASD with QE rotation is best. Perhaps a mouse-centric interface where you click on specific surfaces. Perhaps you do some kind of split interface where WASD controls you, but if you hold control it controls your hands instead of your legs. Lots of options, but all the options have to work well when in confined spaces or in the open, when a human and when a quad-copter.

You can also add a lot of complexity to the basic design. For example, having an inventory that actually exists in space, so it changes what you can go through and you may have to take off your belt and throw it through ahead of you. Or having a button to exhale and stay exhaled, so you can squeeze through smaller spaces... but after a little while you're going to get lightheaded, so be careful not to get stuck someplace where you can't breath! Also useful if the atmosphere has been contaminated someplace.

Anyway, just thinking about it. It might be an interesting game.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Sci Fi Navy Terminology

One of the difficulties in creating science fiction worlds is creating a naval setting. Starships are incredibly critical in most science fiction settings, basically replacing trains, ships, and airplanes all in one go.

In most cases, I'll have some idea of how the universe works - a specific set of technologies, a specific kind of culture, that sort of thing. But when I was a bit younger, I had a really hard time putting things into a reasonable military (or pseudo-military) structure. This is because whenever anyone talks about navies, they talk in exceedingly specific terms and concrete examples. I needed general information, and they were drowning me in trivia.

It came up again this month, with a new setting I developed, so I figured I'd go ahead and write a bit about the naval terminology and structures I tend to use.

These aren't really based around any real-world navy, but they are feasible enough and flexible enough to form a scaffold. Obviously, if your starships are so rare that they never form into fleets or task forces, this isn't necessary.

First off, I start with a very quick overview of how shipping works. The reason for this is because military vessels will usually have the same spectrum of sizes as shipping vessels. This is for two reasons. The first is because you build the space frame sizes you're comfortable with, and the second is because it's hard to supply ships that are larger than your supply ships.

If your planets are largely self-sufficient, then there won't be any ultra-heavy space trucks. In turn, that means there won't be any death stars. On the other hand, if you need to ship massive quantities of food and metal, you're going to have massive military vessels. The bigger the freight requirement, the bigger the biggest military ship.

Similarly on the small end. "Space fighter" is a pleasant thought to most science fiction authors, but it only makes sense in settings where there are civilian uses for a tiny interstellar ship. Because of this, I tend to only use fighters in settings where there is no FTL radio - the small ships are essentially messengers. Obviously, you can go against this rule if you like, but I find it makes more sense to follow it.

Similarly on the fast versus slow. Do you have "jet liners" for people to travel from star to star, or are they more like "ocean liners", taking weeks or months? Well, the military's gonna have the same kind of preference, taking into account their additional need to keep an active presence in a given theater for months at a time.

With that out of the way, you can begin to think about the kinds of combat encounters that might crop up, and begin to think about the kinds of ships which fit the role. In general, the terms used by real-world navies are pretty adaptable. You might get looked at a bit funny initially, but once it becomes clear that the role is warped by the technology, the players will accept that the real-world name still fits okay.

Now, I can list a bunch of kinds of military operations you might want to have - for example, orbital domination (requires a vehicle that can deploy and control thousands of satellites) or blockade running (requires vehicles that can stealth and vehicles that can detect that). However, the encounters you want in your world will shape the world you build.

Not every setting has blockade running. Not every setting has orbital domination. Not every setting has mines. Or drop-pods. Or interdiction. Or even carriers. It all comes down to the kinds of battles you want to happen in your setting. You can always retroactively add more if you feel the need.

The key is to identify the kinds of scenes you want. Do you picture marines rushing out of a smoking drop pod? Do you picture bombers harassing a burning supercarrier? Do you picture a destroyer floating above a frigate, pulling it in with tractor beams? The vivid imagery you have in mind will immediately tell you the kinds of ships you need.

Then it's just a matter of giving that class of ship a vaguely suitable name. For this, you can read up on military classes like "destroyer" and "battleship" and so on, but remember that those are typically roles not sizes. For example, a "destroyer" isn't defined by its size, but by its role as an anti-submarine escort to larger ships. A "cruiser" isn't "bigger" or "smaller" than a "destroyer" - it's a vehicle that's built to operate for a long time unaccompanied.

By these rules, the Enterprise of Star Trek fame is a cruiser. See?

You could also just invent your own names, of course. Don't know what class the psychic vortex ship is? Just call it "psych-class" or whatever.

Anyway, that's how I do starship design in scifi settings.

Characters that Push and Pull

Recently I've been developing a lot of prototypes that have characters in them. In creating various kinds of gameplay, I've noticed something interesting. I've been trying to come up with a short description of it, and here's my best attempt:

The more a character forces the player to adjust to the character, the more the character feels like an interesting person.

This is a bit of an unsupported statement if I just let it stand, so let me go into a bit more detail.

I developed two Power Rangers ripoff prototypes. In the first one, you controlled the heroes - told them which fights to fight and gave them turn-by-turn orders. However, because the rangers were basically faceless spandex stuntmen, they didn't feel like people. The monsters ended up feeling significantly more interesting!

The second prototype I created was about supplying the rangers with gear. You didn't get to choose their fights - they showed up, told you what enemy they were fighting, and you had to decide which equipment they should take into battle and how quickly to make their robots available. The equipment wrangling was actually kind of interesting, especially the robot side, since every new system you attached took more prep time... but a surprise side effect was that the heroes ended up feeling like characters. Although their traits and behavior were both simplistic and largely random, it was very easy to start to empathize with them and their efforts.

I think this was due to the afterbattle briefings I put in. You could debrief a ranger and it would show how well the various pieces of equipment and systems performed in the last fight - a necessary method of getting feedback. In turn, you would be able to refine your loadout so it would be better next time. In the background, the other four rangers would chat while you did this - randomized nonsense driven by their three traits. It made them feel surprisingly alive while also giving you information about what kinds of gear and systems you might want to give them (to match their traits).

Struggling to adapt my gameplay to the characters made it important for me to understand what the characters needed, statistically speaking. In turn, they became interesting characters to me, even though they were randomized nonsense in reality.

The Sims showed this to the extreme. While you do control your sims to a large extent, you spend a lot of time trying to rearrange your world to perfectly suit their needs. And, of course, people got really into it, even though the sims' "personalities" are basically randomized nonsense in reality.

You can even see this in things like Half Life, where the most popular character is the woman that leads you through a few tutorial sections. She's interesting not because she has anything valuable to offer, but because you have to play by her rules for a while. And, importantly, it's not just an escort mission: an escort mission is not about adapting to the character, it's about treating the character as a thing.

I'm sure you can see a lot of other examples, including perhaps partially explaining why boring villains (such as Sephiroth) become so popular.

So now I'm thinking about a whole slew of possible games where the point is to integrate well with characters. Hm!

Monday, December 02, 2013

Droning Misconceptions

When Amazon announced their drone delivery experiments, my Twitter stream filled with people who made incredibly misinformed comments. So, uh, I made this FAQ about basic stuff so that nobody ever has to make uninformed judgments ever again. There, that's that problem solved.

I guess it's not a FAQ so much as a FMUSS (Frequently Made Uninformed Snarky Statement).

Q) Amazon is doing drone delivery!

A) Well, technically they're looking into Quad Copter Remote Operated Vehicle delivery systems, which is technically not... well, okay, the word "drone" is damaged beyond resurrection, so sure, they're drones.

It's uncertain that the technology exists to do this just yet. Personally, I don't think it's ready. But, yes, Amazon's apparently looking into it.

Q) They should just pay people to deliver!

A) This is wrong in two ways. First off, they are paying people. These are not fully automated, they're semi-automated ROVs. An operator can probably fly several at once, but they're still going to have to pay pilots. And mechanics. Fucking tons of mechanics.

Secondly, humans literally cannot deliver in this manner. There are no humans that can fly through the air to deliver a single package. The closest we might be able to do is motorcycle deliveries, which are dangerous and slow in comparison.

Q) They're going to fire all their delivery staff!

A) This is a short-range small-parcel delivery service. Quad copters cannot go far, nor can they carry heavy loads. This cannot replace their ordinary shipping.

Eventually, it might. Automated/ROV trucks are on the horizon. You can get upset then.

Q) Free Amazon stuff if you're a good shot, HUR HUR HUR

A) This was the one that made me quit Twitter for the night. That anyone retweeted it boggles my mind, because it's so badly thought out it makes no sense.

First off, these are deliveries in an urban area. Are you planning to fire a rifle in the middle of a city? HUR HUR HUR

Second off, these are short-range deliveries, meaning that another drone will be by to see what happened to the first drone before the cops could even arrive.

Third off, they have ground-facing cameras, and will almost certainly be able to see muzzle flashes. Even if you took one down, they'd probably know exactly where you shot from.

Fourth off, these are unscheduled deliveries. I'm unsure how you'd be ready to shoot one.

Fifth off, they have on-board GPS and constantly-streaming audio video. Unless you knock those systems off-line, they'll certainly be able to see anyone who comes by to visit their downed drone.

Sixth off, if you want to be a moronic criminal, just rob houses. You're less likely to get caught and the payoff is far greater.

Q) Amazon is evil! They shouldn't do this!

A) Yup, they are evil. But, uh, that has nothing to do with using drones.

If ROV tech is ready to hit prime time, then it's going to hit prime time. Amazon might be the first adopter, but it hardly matters who does it first because everyone will follow. It's like smart phones - it took a while for the technology to arrive, but when it did, smart phones became dominant in a flash.

Personally, I don't think the tech is ready, yet. I think the tech is only at the level of murdering civilians at $10,000,000 a hit, which is not Amazon's typical business model. But it'll be interesting to see Amazon's experiments.