Sunday, February 27, 2005

On Making Some Nice Textures

I have very
little technical know-how when it comes to how to present the ideas in my head visually. I do very well with word editors, but something like a map editor, or a photo editing suite, or a paint program, or really any kind of visual style editor, end up confounding my efforts.

What I'd like is a texture editing program. It would ask some basic setup questions: Size, resolution, color depth, per-pixel lighting, the general characteristics of what you'd like (complete with mouseover help explanations of each term).

Once that is set up, you can choose from either Materials types (like Half-Life 2 has: woods, bricks, gravel, metal, etc.) or Colors or Fractal-generated.

From there you are presented with descriptive sliders on the left hand side. These sliders contain the characteristics of the texture and give you options of how to adjust.

A wood texture might have types of woods to the side: birch, oak, cherry. Below that you would see finishings: glossy, dull, sanded. Choosing one of those options, let's say glossy, opens up a sub-window that controls the glossiness based upon descriptions: two buttons, less glossy and more glossy, and button controls beneath that controlling the scope of the buttons (increments - tiny, small, medium, high, very high). Click the tiny button, then less glossy, and the texture will have its glossiness reduced by a very small amount.

There will be a host of general controller buttons you can drag to the left side window: Perlin noise, bump-mapping, color mixture. Adding them to your texture would open up a work window with tweakable options.

Concerning a simple color texture. I don't necessarily know that I'm looking for an RGB value of 155, 148, 255. And I don't necessarily want to look at a huge chart of colors or spend time trying to adjust a slider just right. But I can pick light brown, and then decide that I want it slightly darker, okay, no, just a little darker . . . okay, perfect. I can decide that I want to mix it together. No, not swirled. More marbled. Less marbled than that. Now on a diagonal. Great.

Is anyone aware of a program even close to this description?

Or interested in programming one?

Warning: Explicit Posting - Opening Can of Worms

Prepare for
a random smattering of thoughts and one loopy theory.

The loopy theory is this: Males more easily can place themselves into another character, that is, they are more empathetic in general. Females tend toward sympathy.

Here they describe women as possessing both empathy and sympathy and males possessing aggression. But now scroll down to the chart comparing Feminine Talk with Masculine Talk. The Feminine Talk category is concerned with many types of social interactions based around the feelings of others. Males, on the other hand, are presented as guarded and assertive, and I believe that this is because they do readily identify as other people, rather than with. This means that they will struggle to maintain their own individuality and as a result react with guardedness and aggression. Of course, this may differ with cultural norms, regional preferences and the stability of one's identity.

What I would like is for many women writing in to protest this theory (at least then I would know I have readers).

This theory helps explain why men have such fascination with pornography on a mass scale and why women are generally uninterested or make claims that they would watch if story and romance were introduced.

Put a group of young males in a room with a porno on the TV. Pick, say, Lex Steele or Max Hardcore, someone with an enormous penis, and watch how quickly conversation will revolve around said member. Many people will claim this is due to latent homosexuality present in all males. But I believe the fascination with the penis revolves around the mens' identification with the porn star; That they eagerly take on the role, in essence it is them in the movie.

Women, on the other hand, demand some sort of hook. They are not becoming the woman, but rather imagining how she feels, and wondering why she is only being used for sex. Thus they don't see themselves being sexually fulfilled, but someone they know being romantically neglected.

Look here for a study concerning gender differences in moral issues. Of interest to me was this:

"Moreover, Williams and Bybee (1994) found that more girls than boys reported guilt over violating norms of compassion and interpersonal trust (e.g., inconsiderateness and lying). In contrast, more boys than girls reported guilt over externally aggressive behaviors (e.g., property damage and fighting)."

What I get out of this is an idea that females desire harmony because they imagine themselves and how their feelings relate to the possible feelings of others. Males feel guilty over aggressive behaviors because they can become the one they are aggressive toward, resulting in cognitive dissonance. One sees the intense effect of this in extremely aggressive males, where their guilt feeds the loop that causes even more aggression.

Of course, much of this behavior difference is up to socialization. The empathetic male or masculine individual sees a concept such as respect as a recognition of power; That is, one is expected to identify with the strength of another and treat them as a being of power. We see these power struggles in politics and street gangs, and in social groups where these are the primary form of interaction a greater percentage of females display this same kind of behavior (female gangs play the same dominance rituals as male gangs; military females are expected to exhibit aggression that is based upon these roles, not catering to the emotional support of all).

This may be one of the reasons why females are grossly underrepresented as both gamers and game developers. Males and masculine individuals are able to identify with game avatars much more easily than females and feminine individuals. Thus, they are also more likely to go into the industry, and to bring those same behaviors to the work environments.

While some game development companies may have overt sexism, I don't believe that the industry on a large scale supports a sexist system. Just that much of industry operates on what Timothy Leary termed Second Circuit behaviors -- these are political games concerning status and hierarchy (check this out).

What this means is that, yes, it is more difficult for females to gain a foothold in the gaming industry, and yes, it is the industry's fault.

Now that that's over with, what should be done about the disparity, if anything?

Not sure.

What types of games, then, will appeal more to females and feminine gamers?

Obviously it isn't tripe like Barbie Horse Adventure or Britney Spears' Dance Beat (which was probably bought by more middle-aged men than young women) -- these games are little more than low-grade game systems with a 'girly' wrapper. They don't ask for any kind of sympathetic reactions.

A game like The Sims 2, though, does seem to grab a large share of female gamers. After spending some time with it, the key to the game are sympathetic behaviors. You don't have to become any one person if you don't want to, but rather can attend to the social interactions of a family, of a circle of friends, of a whole community.

Of course, the solution doesn't necessarily lie in adding interpersonal interaction systems to games (imagine Halo with a 'Sorry I shot you' button -- who needs rapport when you've got dual-wield?). It could just take time.

Just mosey on over to the Frag Dolls site.

Some of the difficulty in attracting females is simply the stigma that is often attached to game-playing. I don't think DnD'ers will ever get over the basement-dwelling nerd team stereotype. And gamers fight hard the Jolt-swilling, light-avoiding ghoul stereotype (even the ones that do swill Jolt and avoid light). Parents, at least in my time, were much more open to the idea that boys can play these digital distractions but girls should not. We are slowly moving away from that, and the further we get, the more we will see females embracing all different types of games.

Of course, all of this is a theory. There are many more factors at work that relate to how individuals react to games. Those with more serotonin may be drawn to aggressive action titles or fast puzzles. Those who grew up introverted may favor single-player adventures or turn-based strategy titles. We have to consider each gamer's experiences, biological and social characteristics.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Restricting the New Communication

To open, a quote taken from one of the Appendices in the back of the Illuminatus! trilogy:

"Each step forward in the technology of communication is more heavily tabooed than the earlier steps. Thus, in America today (post-Lenny Bruce), one seldom hears convictions for spoken blasphemy or obscenity; prosecution of books still continues, but higher courts increasingly interpret the laws in a liberal fashion, and most writers feel fairly confident that they can publish virtually anything; movies are growing almost as desacralized as books, although the fight is still heated in this area; television, the newest medium, remains encased in neolithic taboo. [...] When a more efficient medium arrives, the taboos on television will decrease."

It seems to me this quote, though years and years old, holds true (at least for now). The whole realm of digital media is, in broad terms, still in its infancy. Things like instant messenging services, Massively Multiplayer Games, file-sharing, voice over ip, blogging -- all these and more are currently being debated by cultural critics, the news media and various proponents/opponents.

When the Internet was first gaining mass public exposure, there were predictions that it would be a massive revolutionary force. There were also predictions that it would signal the fall of society since it would be a haven for child pornographers, evil hackers and black market dealers. Neither of those predictions panned out, though there was a very small kernel of truth in them.

Now some people are saying the Internet is completely worthless, overinundated with advertisers and spam and control (they're right about that), and it's time to create a whole new one, a better one, a utopian one (I think they're misguided about that). And those wishing to censor the Internet feel that it needs more regulation and restriction of content; In other words, exactly what they wanted from books, movies and television.

I see video games as part of, um, what I'll call The New Digital Media. They are, in fact, communications, imparting ideas and tasks and behaviors and emotions. As a result of this, there is a lot of attention on exactly what sort of reactions they might be inducing or encouraging.

Because, let's be honest, any kind of communication can certainly suggest behaviors. But, and this is to all those killologist fuckheads, they do not cause behaviors. Until everyone can admit and realize this, we'll still see tons and tons of bickering and contentious debate and overblown news articles.

The self-regulation of the industry, to me, works. I understand the ESRB Ratings system. But some parents think it's not enough, even though it's essentially the exact same system that movies use. Yet another example that the younger form of communication becomes the whipping boy.

I think all forms of The New Digital Media should have this warning on them, in honor of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (can't wait for the upcoming film): Don't Panic. The New Digital Media is merely undergoing that difficult early period of all communications wherein they are viewed with hostility by many and accused of causing all sorts of dissent and bad mojo and subsequently should be considered by calm and rational minds only, when possible.

We are sorry for the inconvenience.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Are We Not Entertained?

What to make
of the search for novelty in the gaming world?

That drive to, every game, every system, every year, come out with some new gimmick or fad or quirk that will hopefully draw the gaming masses to your title and not your competitor's.

This link makes some serious statements about novelty and gaming, and how it could be the death of the industry. I don't really agree with the article at all, though. I think it's kind of stupid to make predictions based upon how video games are at this moment, not only technologically but socially.

But honestly, do we need new consoles every five years? What about sequels once a year? Why the fuck do they need to keep churning out new Maddens with some small tweaks?

I think that the sheer speed of growth of the computer electronics industry gives gamers a poor sense of perspective.

I already look at my year-old computer and think 'How soon till I can upgrade?'

When we look at an art form like film, we're looking back at least to the late 1800s, maybe even going back to early photography techniques. That is a decent amount of time to mature, to find its niche in society, to develop a body of criticism and study.

And the movie industry still churns out tons and tons of crap each year.

The video game industry is not very old. Rapidly-changing technology keeps people constantly guessing as to what sort of significance that technology will bring to our lives. There is very little consensus on a critical language. Few colleges offer dedicated video-game-related degrees.

These are growing pains. We will probably suffer them for years and years. It will take time to fully assimilate the strange marriage of technology, art, repetitive motion, memorization, hand-eye coordination and what-have-you into a coherent structure that everybody can accept.

It seems like when I was younger videogames were pretty much seen as pointless diversions. I remember being called a 'vidiot' by my friend's father and forced to play outside.

Then I grew up and suddenly these videogame things are important.

Just how important will remain to be seen.

Or, y'know, the whole industry will collapse and disappear.

After all, it happened to that novelty-fest called Television, didn't it?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Gender Blending

I have
a dirty secret.

I am a cross-gender computer role-player.

What I mean by this: when I play RPGs, of the console or PC type, if given a chance to create a character, I invariably choose female.

I don't really know why my preference tends toward female characters. Maybe there's some sort of Freudian analysis (sublimated anger toward the creative impulse?). Or a feminist perspective (vagina envy?). Or a politician's answer (Because I care!).

Maybe one of the reasons is because playing the game with a female avatar, while only different on the surface, feels different. The phrase the clothes make the man comes to mind, as do (and god help me on this one) Live-Action Vampire the Masquerade Roleplayers in gloomy makeup, leather trenchcoats and dour expressions.

Even in certain games where females are represented with different possible stats (and those days are thankfully disappearing) or different interaction options (opposite sex reactions being favorable) I don't really change the way I would play normally - I just think I do.

A theory (which is probably only a small piece of a whole):
Picking an avatar that is fundamentally different from myself (females, aliens) or very unlike my own appearance (tall, incredibly thin, incredibly muscular) increases the immersion factor for me and makes it easier for me to play against type (E.g., becoming a Dark Jedi).

Another theory:
Maybe a character that is not-like-me is more easily imagined as a separate, intelligent being, and thus it becomes easier to empathize with them. It isn't about my decisions, but about the decisions the character would make. Much like the way authors often talk about their own characters taking over the dialogue and deciding what to say.

I thought of this post while playing through Knights of the Old Republic II.

To me, there may as well have not been any male characters in that game, for I never used them unless forced to by a scripted scene. The female characters had more interesting conversation choices and were definitely more complex than the males.

Visas Marr, for example, was both a submissive servant and a powerful warrior, who constantly fought between light and dark urges, and who seemed to respond easiest to my words.

Kreia was a bitter, difficult old woman, and I found myself disliking her immensely, not as an annoying game character that just won't do exactly what I want, but as a person of increasing difficulty to deal with and who'd always find a way to disparage my character's comments.

The male characters seemed to either be hopelessly smitten (Atton), possessed of a one-track mind for violence (Mandalore), unfailingly loyal and cheerful (Bao-Dur) or completely open to your will (Disciple).

So I suppose the question I wish I could ask is: with games like this one out there, why are there so many complaints that the games industry ignores females completely?

Fuck if I know. Maybe I'll address this can of worms from time to time.

So how many other gamers out there play the Glen/Glenda switch when a game allows?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Treading Blogger

The title of
today's post is what I call it when I end up posting without any sort of idea or direction, only a notion to get some words added to this internet thing.

So here, some lists, in High-Fidelity fashion:

My Top Five overhead/isometric RPGs
5. Dragon Warrior IV
4. Final Fantasy VII
3. Fallout 2
2. Baldur's Gate
1. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Top Five names I went by in Civilization
5. Johnin of the Russians
4. Johnexander the Great of the Greeks
3. Johntezuma of the Aztecs
2. Johnses II of the Egyptians
1. Mahatma Johndi of the Indians

My Five Favorite Starcraft units
5. Medics ("Ready for your sponge bath?")
4. Dark Templars ("For Aiur.")
3. Zerglings (they're so cute!)
2. Ghosts (and their cheap-ass nuke strikes)
1. Carriers (my path to victory . . . unless someone builds a ton of Scourges)

As Penny Arcade mentioned, it looks like Troika is defunct. I'm not certain if this is a shame or not. Arcanum, if nobody's realized it now, is such a stunningly compelling game for me that I have to install it every time I come across my old and worn copy and pursue new courses that only cement it into my brain as an experience.

Then they did Temple of Elemental Evil, and that seemed to appeal to such a narrow band of nostalgic gamers (no, I'd never heard of the original DnD module) that I couldn't muster any sort of interest in it. The fact that lots of bugs were reported only further convinced me not to bother.

I heard about Vampire: Bloodlines. I got a copy for my birthday. At first it wowed my socks off, despite the opening cinema that made me wonder if perhaps my video card had broken (were the animators on uppers the day it was created?). After getting into the game I realized I was playing a beta. Much more polish was required.

When Half-Life 2 came out I had trouble believing the two games were made with the same engine.

I never did finish Vampire. Maybe someday.

So, Troika, I bid thee farewell.

Maybe this means I can snatch up the Arcanum license. I want the new subtitle to be Phantastick Technologickal and Mystickal Marvels to Astound and Delight Both Young & Old.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Environmental Hazards

Does anybody
remember Disaster Report?

It was a pretty low-rated adventure - no guns, heck, no weapons that I remember and about three enemies.

So why do I still think about the game?

It was the first game I'd played where the primary conflict was of the player-character versus the environment.

Your character wasn't fighting against anything, but through observation had to respond to different cues in the physical surroundings to determine how to react.

Disaster Report wasn't a flawless implementation of this idea. At times it was far too slow - more of an adventure game than action. A lot of challenges were telegraphed to the player through obvious visual effects.

Still, I'd love to see this idea used again. I can imagine the Source engine making a game like this exquisite. Supports crumbling, buildings crashing into each other, a highway buckling and swallowing cars into the earth.

A game about a natural disaster could be inspirational. What if the player took the role of rescuer?

Quick Design Summary:
The sleepy California town of Freedale is only five miles from a site where a long-dormant volcano has just become active. Micro-quakes are sending mudslides toward town. Lava flows are coursing through the countryside. You are a writer spending time in a country cabin to work on a new novel when the rumble of the volcano coming to life send you out into the woods. With your 4WD utility vehicle and a host of other tools you must start on a journey through the woods and into town, warning people, helping people and getting people to safety.

One of the key elements in this type of game could be small areas of randomized disaster elements. A landslide could knock out a bridge or divert and knock your vehicle from the road or simply coat the road. Fire could be blown into an inferno or, with your character radioing fire crews, be doused by helicopters.

I'm not saying I wish that natural disaster adventures would become a new trendy genre until all the originality is drained from them and we're left with the same game being rehashed every year with a pretty new shell.

I'm just saying that videogames handle the Man vs. Man conflicts well, the Man vs. Environment conflicts not so often and the Man vs. Himself conflicts, well, almost never.

I wonder what would be considered a Man vs. Himself conflict in a video game (maybe the Light vs. Dark side decision-making in KOTOR pts. 1 & 2?).

Sunday, February 13, 2005

In Defense of Cutscenes . . . And Story

Disclaimer: The following was written under the influence of NyQuil. Be forewarned.

At one point in my life I assumed that criticism was basically about fooling people into thinking that your opinions mattered for shit.

Later on I realized that, in fact, most critics assume the same thing.

A teacher of mine clarified things. He said that criticism was about judging a work on its own merits. Ask the questions, "What is this work trying to accomplish" and "How well does it achieve its goals?" Try to ignore your own preferences as much as you can (and I don't want to hear the tired 'there's no such thing as objectivity' response).

I watch this show on G4TechTV called Judgment Day. This show reviews certain games and the two hosts give their ratings. One of the hosts, Tommy Tallarico, pisses me off at least once per show. If he dislikes a genre, or doesn't have the patience to learn the controls, or isn't enamored of the main character, then he gives the game a poor rating.

I know, I know, why watch the show, then? It's a guilty pleasure.

The problem I have is that his opinions tell me nothing at all (and to be fair to him, on the website he is said to give 'his opinionated take on the latest games'). He reviewed Homeworld 2 and hated it, because it didn't immediately satisfy his preferences. So? Why give it a review? Why not abstain? Why subject me to a prejudice and pretend to offer information?

The point I'm trying to make is that useful criticism is not occurring. And while I don't demand Supreme Court Justice-like objectivity (the theoretical kind, at least), I don't see any point in having someone who hates first-person-shooters telling me their feelings about Halo 2 (Personally, I hate Halo 1 and 2, but I think they're well-made games).

It is at this point in my rant that I come to the cause of my discontent. This article attempts to make an argument against cutscenes in video games (cutscenes being the movie interludes between gameplay). This link has popped up on a few blogs, and several that I've read seem to lend their support to the premise.

The premise appears, to me at least, to be that emulating movies and utilizing storytelling and narrative makes games worse in some way.

While it's true that many gamers feel that cutscenes are an annoying interruption, I don't think that a blanket statement opposing them brings anything at all to the game industry.

The only cutscenes that I truly hate are the ones that you can't skip.

My conceit #1: Video game creation is an art.

What if we insisted that painting, as a supposedly creative medium, is best limited to abstraction? Should we say that paintings of actual things force the viewer into too narrow an interpretation and therefore are detrimental to the enjoyment of said paintings?

What is the purpose of a cutscene? Why do games bother with stories?

Story can both anchor a player in the gamespace and set waypoints to drive the player forward. And, provided those story sections are easily skipped, there is no way they could seriously detract from a gamer, um, getting his game on.

Popular writing advice goes 'show me, don't tell me.'

In most video games these days the player is shown everything; It is primarily a visual medium (barring some text adventures), so it becomes necessary to tell a player the significance of what they are doing. Exposition is often key to laying out clear goals. Conversations are often useful in eliciting emotional connections from the player to the NPCs they are working with and against.

Half-Life 2 has no cutscenes. Or does it? All story elements are rendered in-engine. But they're still cutscenes. You can't skip them. You can't pause them. You sit and listen and absorb your next goals, or you wander around and ignore what's being said, but nevertheless those elements remain. They were obviously considered important to the creators. An artist can spend all day trying to figure out whether the audience will react to their story or find it frivolous ("Another 'save the world' FPS? Who gives a shit? Gimme gimme deathmatch!") - eventually they have to fish or cut bait.

Is narrative a no-no in games? I think that very much depends on the gamer.

Narrative seems to be a mostly single-player phenomenon, because narrative creates significance for the player that is often unnecessary in multiplayer. Multiple players create their own significance between each other through their interactions.

I am personally more of a single-player game person. I've never been a fan of forming relationships on MMORPGs. I suck at Halo, hell, I suck at any kind of FPS deathmatching. When I do play video games with others, it's fare like Pocket Fighter or Mario Party or Worms.

So, for me, creating a story structure and, yes, showing me cutscenes enforce the idea that what I'm doing with the world matters. I'm not interested solely in interaction, in feedback, but in coherence and relevance.

In Grand Theft Auto I talked about developing my own stories, which is a blast. But I don't think I'd see the game the same way if it hadn't had its initial structure. If I hadn't followed CJ and watched his interactions I wouldn't have speculated on bold directions for his life to take. If I could've gone anywhere right from the start, without seeing the milestones that the story provided, it would have been fun, sure - but without the same feeling of accomplishment.

Accomplishment is part of what I look for in single-player experience.

People like stories. They permeate our day-to-day lives. From a joke we heard on the radio to the depressing story our friend tells us, we enjoy storytelling. To demand some sort of separation of story from game is ridiculous - if the game designer feels an urge to tell a story with their game, therein is the art. Even chess has pseudonarrative elements - otherwise why a knight, why a king and queen, why pawns and rooks and bishops?

To attempt to treat all games the same is unfair.

In Mr. Thompson's 'more cynical moments' he sees narrative as an excuse for the industry to continue selling the same old stories repackaged each year without 'truly new forms of play'.

But what new forms of play is he expecting? And what new stories?

Stories are old. Games are old. They are both about creation and manipulation and imagination. I don't care if chess never ends - I won't play it unless there is another person playing opposite me on a real board with real pieces. Same with poker. I want the tactile sensation of the cards in my hands, of the chips on the table, of a glass of jack and coke. I want the music in the background and the banter and the smack talk. I'm not there to make money. I'm not even there to win. I'm there for an experience.

I think maybe some of the problem is what exactly is considered a game, and what is simply play? Or even how to define a game, which I won't even fucking attempt. Ever. In my life (don't hold me to this).

I remember Principal Skinner on the Simpsons, when explaining how he kept his sanity by dribbling a basketball: "I made a game of it. Seeing how many times I could bounce the ball in a day, then trying to break that record."

In GTA, if you go on a rampage and just run around trying to destroy everything until you're killed, is that a game? Do the natural limitations of the game engine automatically make a game, or is a goal necessary? If you set a goal to destroy five police cars, does it suddenly become a game? Where do we draw this line?

Maybe what Mr. Thompson enjoys most about video games is Will Wright's conception of game as toy. In this transcript, Will Wright even mentions playing Go as a kid and being "impressed with the combination of simplicity and strategy it achieves."

This is only one facet of the gaming continuum; One purpose for video games to serve.

I enjoy story. I don't care if video games repeat the same stories. So do books. So do movies.

It is not the basic essence of a story that captures us, but the interesting re-imagining of its elements. Star Wars is the Hero's Journey reworked into a science-fiction universe. Romeo and Juliet was a cliche even in Shakespeare's time, but new permutations still arrive to entertain us. The Da Vinci Code was a dumbed-down Foucalt's Pendulum, which was a non-gonzo Illuminatus! Pac-Man is Super Mario Bros is Spyro the Dragon is Jak & Daxter (collect these things, avoid these enemies, use specific things to defeat said enemies).

We will always return to familiar stories.

It's up to us to decide whether they are worth our time or not; Not to decide whether they should exist or not - that is up to the artist.

To steal a quote from Dennis Miller: "Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."

Saturday, February 12, 2005

What's next for Metal Gear? Plasma Snake?

Here's a haiku I composed while attempting to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater:

creeping through the grass
i am completely hidden
shit they're shooting me

Metal Gear seems to be a great example of what, years ago, would've been called interactive cinema. A lot of game developers thought that, with the new storage space of the cd-rom and the powers of Hollywood, a mixture of film and game techniques would bring about a new era of emotion-packed gaming.

What we got were a lot of games filled with hackneyed plots, atrocious dialogue, z-grade actors and horrendous full-motion video (Night Trap, anyone?).

So why would I even mention MGS3, which is a gorgeous and meticulously-designed experience?

Because the creator, Hideo Kojima, is much more of a film director than game designer (and that is not meant to be disparaging). I think he has succeeded brilliantly in creating a game that functions as interactive story. In this interview he even discusses his dreams of getting an Oscar.

What contributes to the overall feeling of game-as-movie?

The first smart design move is the placement of minor interactive elements into cutscenes. These are mostly innocuous things (e.g., allowing the player to switch between 1st and 3rd person views while Snake parachutes to his landing zone) but ensure that the feeling of interaction will be preserved even while story elements are playing out.

The second is the camera placement. Camera angles lend certain emotional tones to scenes, and coming up with a camera system in a game that evokes the desired feeling that doesn't disrupt the gameplay is incredibly difficult. In Snake Eater the 3rd-person view can only deviate slightly from a fixed spot - a small amount of up-down, left-right and about 30 degrees up-down movement.

Third is direction. Most maps are fairly simple and goals are straightforward. As a player you are herded along with the story, but never at the expense of giving up control. Even when your sneaking is interrupted by an incoming message to propel the plot you have small pics of the person speaking to flip through.

Kojima described how he wrote out a 'script-let', which was a plan for the entire game - how the player would move through the environment, what types of things would happen, even what the player would hear as the game progressed.

Fourth is scope. The game has broad plot ideas (the Cold War), specific goals (rescue Sokolov) and minor trivialities (one woman's fixation on science-fiction movies). The boss enemies are appropriately menacing, especially their names - The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury, The Sorrow and The Boss (natch). The story is incredibly convoluted, as veterans of the series expect.

This game definitely wins my Oscar vote.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Dead Game Office

What happens to
all the games that get canceled?

How many MMORPGs, specifically, have failed to even see daylight? To name just a few: Wish, True Fantasy Online, Mythica, Warhammer Online and Ultima X.

Consider Earth & Beyond, which was up and running for some time and still closed shop.

Now what of all the almost-done indie games that ran out of funding, or the major console titles that didn't fit some ad-exec's strategy, or the artsy tech-demo that spawned half a game and was abandoned?

I'm imagining a scavenger company that collects dead or aborted games and extracts useful resources from them - stable codebases, art assets, sound, networking protocol, anything that can be refined or developed or given a new set of legs.

Then the company presents discrete packages of bundled assets that are modular and clean, all fully-documented, ready to be used as a starting point for the programmers and designers.

I'm sure that developers pick over the corpses of their failed projects, but in many cases it's probably a piecemeal affair with little direction or focus, often wasting precious time and money to drill for something useful (can anyone in the industry shed some light?).

Bringing together all those scattered resources presents a daunting task: translating them into useful information.

A company like this would incur a lot of risk. It would need to develop special contracts with developers to get first dibs on trashed projects. It would require format-conversion specialists and especially gifted programmers. It would need to have clear goals for its product and market itself as a sort of asset primer, not a game 'kit', to avoid the stigma that everything created with your assets would look and feel the same.

Anyone up for it? Or even think this is a good idea?

Monday, February 07, 2005

It Game (sic) From the Future!!

Developer Quantum Sutra to release new game 'Sum Total'

Januarch 47th, 2025
California, Eastern nanocult district

In an unassuming, self-assembling dome just on the outskirts of the Silicon Megacommunity, independent game studio Quantum Sutra is preparing to make their newest release available to the public tomorrow afternoon.

The new game, Sum Total, uses newly-developed quantum computing worm-tunneling paradox-generation to create a simulation of the position of every single particle in the entire universe (approximately 10 to the 87th power). Players are asked to manipulate laws of physics, introduce new particles, create novel energies and generally use their imaginations to play god.

Scientists warn that this game could have a profound effect, not just on our own universe, but on the infinite number of similar universes folded into the infinite space-time array. They also point out the danger inherent in allowing the simulation to simulate itself, leading to an infinite progression of simulations that would echo across every dimension.

Lead designer Dasil Gevurah denies any problems with releasing the game. "We've had an extensive string of beta tests, and have yet to come even close to collapsing the Universal waveform. There have been minor incidents involving warping of spacetime, destruction of pocket universes and dimensional bleedthrough, but we feel these are minor bugs that will work themselves out. Indeed, by accelerating time-progression in the game, we have received confirmation that in certain universes the bugs were either worked out, or not worked out, or they systematically destroyed every particle, or they spawned hideous horrors that sought humanity's destruction, or . . . well, I'm rambling."

"Everything's got a few kinks."

Addicted and Lacks Goals

I'd like to discuss
two elements that help make up the way I view gameplay: Impulse and Fun.

[Note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive study. Just an examination of concepts.]

Impulse is the word I use to describe repetitive game elements that drive us to keep playing. Fun is what delights us as we play, as we chase the impulse.

Impulse is the 'gotta catch 'em all' aspect of Pokemon. Fun is catching, training and involving your Pokemon in battles.

Impulse is the desire to make those lines in Tetris. Fun is the feeling of manipulating the pieces, the tension you feel as you just barely get them in place, the subtly frantic speed increase with each level and the enjoyment from seeing your manipulations line up, disappear and add to your score.

Impulse is the click-click-click in Diablo as you fight wave after wave of enemies. Fun is watching your character progress, beating back the hordes of evil and being a hero.

Impulse is making sure every one of your cities in Civilization has all of its available improvements and that the land is completely developed and there are troops defending. Fun is leading your once-minor people to complete world domination.

Impulse and Fun are my own little gameplay yin and yang. In their proper proportions I end up with a pleasing gaming experience. In some ways I see impulse as the bread crumbs leading you down a certain path, keeping you headed in a certain direction, and fun is what happens to you as you gather the breadcrumbs.

Not everyone will have the same reactions to the balance of impulse and fun in a game. I find most MMORPGs at present rely far too much on impulse and lack fun, but this is not a problem for many, many people. I thought much of Simcity 4 was incredibly fun - laying out roads, putting up schools and libraries, planning out a functioning city - but never felt impulse elements; There was nothing there that drove me to continue playing, so I'd fiddle with it for a little bit and then exit the game.

Every designer is going to have a different idea of what sort of impulse elements are desirable (card-collecting? matching three gems in a row? mindless clicking? obsessive token placement?) and what sort of gameplay will cause fun to arise from those impulses.

Thought I Recognized You

I've been thinking
about some research of Dr. Lilly's that had referred to the ways in which humans understand language. He posited that speech isn't so much about its component parts (words) as it was about reference (context) and patterns (idioms, common repetitions).

A lot of our communication may be about recognizing patterns and extrapolating what we expect to be the complete message.

How do I relate this to videogames?

I'd like to know more about how games are analyzing players. Many fighting games are known to get "smarter" as people play, taking note of common moves and deciding the best counters. Bots are used in first-person shooters and are able to exhibit some surprising behaviors, but most of them are hard-coded reactions; They are not observing their environment.

It would be interesting if, every time a bot encountered a player-controlled character, it began 'taking notes' on sequences of behaviors - Does the player attempt to face the bot and provide cover fire in an attempt to achieve distance? Does the player favor melee attacks? Or grenades?

Most behaviors in first-person shooters have been defined by a scripting language specifically written to control bots, so why can't we design bots that translate player actions into that scripting language and devise strategies to counter those behaviors? If we then allowed these bots to communicate what they've learned and added a dash of game theory, then we might begin to see various levels of competition and cooperation in matches.

Here's a paper I'd like to read.

This paper has a lot of good concepts similar to what I'm talking about.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Let's get real . . . Or not

I know I blab
a lot about simulations and making games more complex, but even I realize that games don't have to be deep, engrossing, complex, story-driven masterpieces to be an absolute blast to play.

That being said, I want to present a discussion of realism in games - what role it can play and what exactly I mean when I talk about a game being realistic.

The first thing to admit is that a videogame can only simulate realism, no matter how complex its model. Even those gigantic supercomputing arrays that provide data on nuclear explosions or genetic manipulation are only providing approximations. In terms of the output, they don't give any hard answers, but rather a whole bunch of possibilities.

So why bother even discussing realism in gaming terms? Well, because I want to, and because even though the issue's probably been talked about before, um . . . that is . . . no reason, really.

For me, there are three questions I ask concerning a game's realism:
1. What aspects of this game are attempting to be realistic?
2. How important is this realism in maintaining the 'suspension of disbelief'?
3. Does the realism serve the gameplay? That is, can the game do essentially the same things without the realism?

In question one, we examine the parts of the game that are attempting realism and that might actually demand realism. If your goal is to make a licensed soccer game for hardcore fans, then it would be in your best interest to make sure the stadiums are to scale, that the players handle and animate like a live broadcast. If you're aiming to make Neptune League Bionic Soccer then you can probably take a lot of liberties with, well, everything. This is essentially the first step in any game, and if the answer happens to be "Nothing in this game is trying to be realistic," then you can dismiss all of these questions.

Question two deals with how well the realism elements work together with all other aspects of the game in order to create a convincing gaming space. Is there some fundamental reason to attempt realism? In a military-themed shooter based in present-day, it will be in the developer's interest to model actual weapons, vehicles and tactics - since it's safe to assume this is what the audience will expect. Anything less will break the player a little bit out of that world, and this may be perfectly all right. I see this question as dealing with the game environment, what it contains and the global constraints on the system (such as weather, lighting, materials).

The last question has to do with the gameplay. Is there a reason behind the realism? Certain bits of realism are so fundamental to games that we ignore them until they are absent. Collision detection is how we stop objects in our game from phasing through each other - remove it completely (referred to as 'noclip') and the game is essentially broken. Imagine an Asteroids game where your ship simply passed through the asteroids instead of exploding against them - there wouldn't be much of a point.

The other side of this concerns how much realism is necessary. Do you really need to use up 35% of the processor in calculating convection currents for the clouds in your bike-racing game? Conversely, plenty of action titles have a default gun with unlimited ammo, and this is so negligible, and often a necessary 'fudging', that immersiveness is maintained.

All of these questions feed into each other, and there are no doubt plenty of other questions to ask, especially when you have an actual game in development. Concerns about realism often tie into the parameters you're given: How much memory? Are you utilizing a physics model? What does the audience expect? What kind of budget do you have?

The realism issue is one that should be laid out early in the design process and adjusted as new factors are determined. It is important to maintain a consistency in its use and remember that, if you can take it out of the game without altering the way the game plays, it may be better to do without.

Making Games: The Return

I got a couple
really good comments from the last post, and I'd like to address them.

Anonymous said that one problem with indie games is the generation of content.

Being an avid reader of industry mags, this seems to be common even amongst the giant developers. Peter Molyneux himself (I can't find the link now) said that one of the most difficult things to put in games are animations - they require a great deal of time investment to get right, and even when they are well done, if you have two actors using the same animation loop they invariably end up like clones and become unconvincing (unless, y'know, they're supposed to be clones). He suggested coming up with a way of blending different animation sets together to add a measure of randomness.

I'm a fan of BlitzBasic, even though I haven' t been able to do anything of note with it. As programming languages go it has a relatively short learning curve, and the version I use is geared toward 3d and actually has some decent features built in. The problem is that any complex game would require some serious assets - meshes, texture maps, 3d models with animation, music loops. Even going for cheap or free programs, I would need to become familiar with Blender, a 3d world editor (I'd suggest Worldcraft - now called Hammer), some music software (maybe Fruity Loops, which requires some money, at least for good loop packs), some way of animating your models (suggestions?).

Major studios spend large amounts of time in coordinating their various content creators in such a way that they can merge it all together and constantly update the game, test it and tweak it. Alienbrain Studio is one way developers can do this - but even this solution is little more than a taskmaster that tracks the actual content generation and file updates.

This, of course, is way too costly for poor schleps like me.

Macromedia's Flash has always appealed to me. Back when I used to truly enjoy learning about html I thought Flash was just the bee's knees. Of course, then the web expanded exponentially, everybody brought out their own special ways of spicing up websites, all manner of bits and little intrusive programs to download and around that time I lost interest in plumbing the esoterica. It just became too difficult (without the time and money) to specialize in, and far too confusing for me to devote all my free time to.

Sorry, I'm getting way too tangential.

I think what I'm really looking for (within the next 5-10 years) is a game development suite that functions much like an HTML WYSIWYG editor. The meat and potatoes of the code is hidden (yes, I know the Visual languages purport to do this - but most of them only allow you to setup elements visually, and then you've still gotta drop in and figure out your code), and you manipulate elements of applications (not just buttons, but calculation sequences, data to be manipulated, the kinds of assets you're importing) all the while being offered examples of common solutions and warnings about sloppy application flow - but you are still just a click or two away from the actual code. This kind of system allows inexperienced people to just sort of fiddle around while learning how things are put together, and the code layer allows those same people, once they have gained some experience, to begin truly creating their own code.

I would've liked to see Starcraft use this idea with their easy-to-use editor, opening up easy access to the AI scripts, the unit stats and abilities, the 3d models used - everything, basically.

Andrew Stern replied to my concept of PiSpeak with this awesome link. There is a great example of something new to me - ABL - that appears to be a way of describing behaviors of actors in a simulation. This reminds me of Erasmatazz, an 'interactive storytelling tool for writers'. The site has some resources useful to those interested in simulating interpersonal drama.

One point is how to create behaviors that are truly original to each actor.

I don't have a solid answer for this, only a simple one. Find a way to have personalities favor certain behaviors, have those behaviors linked to specific animations, and find a way to (as Peter Molyneux suggested) blend different sets together along with variation (within certain tolerances) to create something truly original.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Actually Making Games (For Idiots like Me)

I've mentioned before
that I am a failed programmer (But not unemployed - not yet).

What this means is that I've wasted hours and hours and hundreds of dollars in attempts to find a computer language I can understand and utilize.

I have programmed "Hello, World" in Java (1 and 2, as well as JavaBeans and Applet forms), Python (no, I have no idea 'why?'), Perl, Asp, C, Visual C++ and BlitzBasic.

"Hello, World." That's as far as I ever got. I tried all the examples. I understood variables and functions and how to peform operations and even grasped classes and inheritance.

But there's a serious disconnect between me understanding the overall concepts and actually, y'know, getting a program to do anything, at all, that I want.

Nevrax has their MMORPG client / server library available on their site under the GPL (General Public License). When I hear about opportunities like these, I kick myself yet again for being so horrible at coding. There are so many great, totally-free, open-source resources available on the internet. Just browse through Sourceforge's code repositories to get a glimpse of the possibilities.

So why, with all these brilliant snatches of code floating around for the taking, and plenty of fantastic designers posting their ideas (See here, this one, too, and yeah, here too) are we not flooded with thousands of fantastically innovative indie games?

[Please don't point out that there are lots of great indie games. I know this. Thousands, though? We aren't even flooded with thousands of fanstastically innovative big-budget games.]

But access to the tools and the desire to create something with them do not come together in a magical burst of light and give birth to your dream programs.

I know I'm not the first to desire it, but here's how I'd imagine my own personal programming language would sound (I'll dub it PiSpeak) - yes, it would be spoken:

Make a grid of equal squares. Ok, let's define a common board as fifty by fifty squares. Tile the squares with a brown ground texture for default. Make the texture darker. No, swap it to the next texture it resembles most. Now let's create a default unit marker - make it circular. Have it fit within the confines of one square on the board grid.

And so it would continue . . .

Now to many people this method would seem incredibly, well, tedious. But in my mind what I'm doing is building specifics in from a general picture - the way a sculptor might work clay, envisioning a final result and molding, reshaping, scraping and adding bits slowly to work toward the intended shape.

Maybe a game design software that would work like a police sketch artist. Buttons lay out broad options (maybe genre descriptions), and every decision will open up new pathways and provide easily grouped examples of classic game options with places to add in user-made definitions.

I realize this is partly what the Visual family of programming languages attempted to do, and they did a fairly good job. But how is it so difficult to add in the option to put menus into simple language? Maybe some enterprising soul could add skin functionality to a Visual IDE and let users themselves define how the elements are named?

PiSpeak, of course, will take quite a bit more advancement in Natural Language Processing before a demo can be developed.

Three Men in Black Said "Don't Report This!"

Story Synopsis for an Action-RPG based upon the songs of
Blue Oyster Cult

In 1971, a dimensional rift to a microuniverse opened in a storage closet in back of a studio where a band that would forever change music prepared their debut album.

That band was Blue Oyster Cult, and the force of their music resonated against the fledgling universe, the frantic vibrations giving form to the swirling void, bringing to life the myriad forces and powers of which their songs gave praise.

In 1976, producer Sandy Pearlman discovered the growing universe and began to explore its confines and initiate contact with its inhabitants. He found them to be of remarkably advanced intelligence. It was one of their scientists, for example, who worked with Pearlman to develop the new laser light shows.

However, something dark lurked at the fringes of the universe. Something sinister that began to worm its way through the inhabitants. It began to erode the powers of its universe's creators by wearing away at the threads binding them together, and eventually the band was driven their separate ways, with few original members left to continue BOC's work.

The time is now. Sandy Pearlman has discovered a disturbing fact: The microuniverse is under the grip of some mysterious tyrant who has designs on our world. Pearlman learns that the only way to stop the invasion is for the original band to record a song specifically written to seal the rift.

The tyrant also knows this.

Before Pearlman can warn Eric Bloom (vocals, guitar), Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser (lead guitar, vocals), Allen Lanier (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Albert Bouchard (drums, vocals) and Joe Bouchard (bass, vocals) , they are kidnapped by Hungry Boys sent from Celestial the Queen's new residence (Baron Von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria).

You play as the president of the BOC International Fan Club. Sandy Pearlman arrives on your doorstep one rainy night with an offer.

You are to become an Agent of Fortune. Your mission is to enter the microuniverse, collect the BOC and their instruments, recruit Dr. Music to write the Sealing Song and have the band close the rift.

"In the promise of another world
A dreadful knowledge comes
How even space can modulate
And earthly things be done . . ."
-In the Presence of Another World

Wield the Black Blade - forged a billion years ago - whose power grows with each kill. But get rid of it before it calls the Lords of Chaos and Beasts of Hades.

Meet the Veterans of the Psychic Wars, who will beg you to kill them one minute and lash out at you with awesome psychophysical powers the next. Defeat them with help from the Flaming Telepaths. Or vice versa; Just don't get caught in the crossfire.

Attack the 7 Screaming Diz-Busters and return with their eyeballs to the Harvester of Eyes, who grants you access to the Workshop of the Telescopes - from there you may discover the secret of Astronomy.

Learn the Unknown Tongue from the Fallen Angel. Ride the Divine Wind and the Hot Rails to Hell in order to reach the Stairway to the Stars. Diagnose what is making The Great Sun Jester so Moon Crazy - and find the Madness to the Method.

Join the search for Celine, but beware: "Love is like a gun, and in the hands of someone like you I think it'd kill."

Solve the mystery of Morning Final and the motiveless murder.

Team up with Baby Ice Dog and Teen Archer. Help Sir Rastus Bear be Redeemed.

Become a Tattoo Vampire, a Sole Survivor or a Stone of Love. Wield the twin magics of Dominance and Submission. Strike out with the Fire of Unknown Origin. Earn X-Ray Eyes. Collect Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver, fallen matter out of the sun, and use its anti-matter resonance to create blasts of music that reshape the world. Leave Cities On Flame with rock n' roll.

Discover who is behind the taint upon the new universe. Is it Transmaniacon MC? Or Vera Gemini back for Revenge? Maybe some grand E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)? Perhaps the Dragon Lady and Shadow Warrior?

It's possible that Les Invisibles pull the strings - or maybe they'll come to your aid.

Will you be ready When the War Comes, when The Old Gods Return?

Can you gather together BOC and seal the growing rift?

Only one piece of advice do I have to give: (Don't Fear) The Reaper.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Peace Process

I have been
kicking around some ideas for a pen and paper RPG that attempts to shift gaming focus from violence to nonviolence.

I'm not talking about crafting or singing or, um, waiting tables.

What I mean is a focus on nonviolent interactions - protests and walk-outs and sit-ins and leafletting and speeches. Organizing and managing groups to achieve social and political goals. Any violence caused by members of your group will cause ill effects, while violence done against you may gain you sympathy but possibly at a cost of group members.

Or maybe not built around group dynamics (which might work on a turn-based or real-time/pausable map).

Maybe you play a buddhist. Play revolves around attempting to adhere to the Eightfold Path while still accomplishing objectives. You could choose school teachings that would interpret your actions in different ways and present varied 'winning' goals.

The problem I'm having with a system like this is imagining how it would actually look and play. Maybe it could almost be like a collectible card game, where you collect sutras, which will have varying effects on people. A sutra would not 'run out of ammo', but used against the same person will have diminishing returns until it is completely blocked; People could also have a 'universal tolerance' that, when reached, means they will ignore you entirely.

I've been sketching out some ideas for a 'concept core' based around the tranfer of discrete units (cards or tokens or just little rendered post-its) - memes, to overuse a term.

Let's consider the basics of object-oriented programming. Every thing in the program (a chair or insect or sound) is an object, and every object has some basic properties (position, direction, weight). Every action in the program is a function (rotate the chair, move the insect, play sound).

So we have being and doing.

A meme is similar, but more flexible. It can be being OR doing OR being/doing. One meme might represent, for example, the belief in a triune godhead, with different characteristics like transmissibility (how easily it is passed on), adherence and repulsion (how much it attracts and repels certain memes) and priority (how important it will be). The triune godhead will pass easily to people with religious memes that are not strictly exclusionary and not so easily to people overly reliant upon logic (notice I didn't say logic will automatically reject a religious meme - only when logic takes a much greater priority).

Memes are very flexible. If you have an Annoying Jingle meme (very high rate of transmissibility but very little priority) not only will it contain characteristics but also an action - namely, you will sing it every so often, resulting in its spread throughout the memesphere.

Links between memes can result in complicated memeplexes. Let's say, then, that your Triune Godhead meme is the parent meme of an Annoying Jingle. The two memes will alter their characteristics based upon 'genetic rules' of meme-combination. The Annoying Jingle retains a high rate of transmissibility but also gains a much higher priority (essentially you have made a simple Cult memeplex). If you made the Triune Godhead meme subordinate to the Jingle, then you have a meme that spreads quickly but has a lower priority (more of a general belief than specific adherence to a religion).

Anyway, a system with many many kinks, which I hope to continue exploring.