Monday, January 31, 2005

AAARH!!! Real Pirates!

Just a quick extension
of my earlier thoughts regarding overused cliches and using history in videogames.

Pirates. Videogames.

Two great tastes that should seemingly taste great together - but for some reason are not well-represented. Yes, yes, I know Sid Meier's Pirates! was a brilliant gem of design; Now name another great pirate game (and not the recent remake of Pirates!).

I think one of the deficiencies of pirate games is that they rely, not on solid stories, but on ideas that have become well-known cliches, at least in America. The eyepatch, the parrot on the shoulder, the pegleg, Davy Jones's locker, the Skull and Crossbones - these are agreed-upon symbols. We know that the presence of these images are meant to evoke piracy in our minds.

But pirate games deal only with the surface of being a pirate, the types of things that five-year-olds regularly imagine.

Why not bring sophistication to the genre?

This site presents lots of rich details to mine for gameplay ideas.

Pirate flags may have been used to strike fear into enemies. Let's say the more success you have while you fly your black flag, the more ships will surrender to you without violence; However, the longer it is in use, the more you will attract bounty hunters eager to stop you. You would also have an option before combat to fly a red flag, which states that no quarter will be given - depending on the enemy, this could have a motivating or demoralizing effect.

What about letting a captain set a code of conduct, which would have varying effects on your crew? You could adjust the shares each member receives, regulations on alcohol, women, swearing, religion - and all of those things could cause profound changes to the morale of your vessel.

Let me play a pirate who treats his crew as democratic members of a collective, who attacks slave ships, frees the captives and kills the slavers as a warning, who sends assassins against corrupt government officials, who sets up ancient greek-like city-states among the Carribbean islands. An educated man, a champion of freedom, yet brutal in meting out justice.

So let's try to reign in those cliches like a wayward yardarm, eh, Maties? Else I'm forced to keel-haul ye!

Terrain in the Membrane

I am completely and utterly fascinated by terrain generation.

Maybe it has to do with the view, perfectly suited to those with well-developed god complexes.

For those with a serious jonesing for worldmaking info, check out the Virtual Terrain Project. They cover a whole heaping helping of things which I often peruse but completely fail to understand. Why do I do this?

Here's an interesting fact! "Our method, dubbed Real-time Optimally Adapting Meshes (ROAM), uses two priority queues to drive split and merge operations that maintain continuous triangulations built from pre-processed bintree triangles." What the hell does that mean!? I only think I sorta know! [Read all about it here]

Middle-Earth Online has a perfectly coherent breakdown of what is probably the most common method of making terrain for videogames. They also explain some of the difficulties in creating miles and miles of world for players to trek through. I especially like the way they can adjust which specific distant objects get rendered, allowing for navigation by landmarks - I suppose we could name it something like Continually Refocusing Distant Object Rendering using a Dynamically Adjusted Priority Queue. Whee, this is fun!

Designing reactive terrains is akin to making a matte painting. Different layers are laid down which alter the behavior of the system. First you create the shape of your terrain with a triangle grid. Then you delineate impassable areas (cliffs and steep slopes).

Many games now use specialized procedures for generating vegetation based upon terrain type - so when you lay down semi-arid desert then the program decides what types of plants and animals to spawn in that area. This is especially useful for online worlds, which may introduce new zones or planets to traverse at regular intervals and therefore demand ways to simplify content creation. With this system a developer isn't responsible for placing every single bush and rock and lizard - of course, there should be a way to place specific trees or bushes included.

Terrain textures are often governed by programming that seamlessly tiles them across an area in order to avoid obvious seams (imagine bathroom tiles which, when properly placed, form one swirling abstract image but, if misaligned, clearly denote their square natures). Noise is introduced into the textures and blended through, altering their properties slightly but maintaining their general characteristics.

But what of water?

Most terrain engines allow only one set water height. It is impossible to have, for example, a lake in a volcano crater that drains down its side into a series of descending locks, not without some clever fudging or annoying zone loads.

I am wondering about using particle systems to model, at the least, water in motion. They are already used most often to create ambience (a broken pipe sprinkling out droplets, for example). What if you created water volumes, then had a way of determining a cohesion level, a flow direction and a limited number of definable bounds. When the cohesion level of a bound was breached, then flow direction would travel perpendicular to the bound until the volume emptied or was blocked. Wherever a breach occurs, a particle system spawns and emits a number of particles determined by the total water volume - the size of the particles is determined by the constraints of the space the particle emitter is projecting to - and you could even determine a pressure of the emitter which would help determine how much the particles stick.

I think the new (maybe) ideas here are: (1) The particles will not continuously emit; They are produced based upon a set number (namely, how much water you have in your volume). (2) Particles adhere into 'superparticles' which retain the behavior of the regular particles (like a Bose-Einstein condensate).

The difficulties of such a particle emitter (other than, y'know, would it actually work?) are: (1) Are current processors capable of such tricky computing? (2) How do we determine simple planes to define the bounds of a volume of water? Especially if it's inside of, say, a cylinder. (3) Water is hydrophilic (it forms strong bonds with itself) but only when constrained. How do we determine at what point water loses all cohesion and can effectively be destroyed in a virtual environment? Done wrong, we will end up with water drops that attract each other a la the T-1000.

I think I'm going to begin copyrighting titles of programming methods before they are even implemented, beginning with my own water particle system.

I'll title it: Rendering Non-Static Water Volumes using a Particle System with a strong Cohesion-And-Flow-Model (CAFM) and Processing Fluid Bounds in Realtime.

Yeah. That's got zing.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

My Press Release

I don't want
to see another Massively Multiplayer game that promises to revolutionize the genre.

I want to see a press release that says: "Chances are this game will be canceled before we even hit open beta. We are offering the exact same tripe in a prettier shell, which means it will run half as good on your system and lag twice as much. We promise to either (A) have too few servers to handle our initial popularity, thereby causing massive service outages while we struggle to play catch up OR (B) Have far too many servers for our small subscriber base, resulting in way too much overhead to pay costs and leading to early bankruptcy. If you've played one MMORPG, then you've played all of them up to and including ours, as well as, no doubt, every one in perpetuity for eternity. Our idea of innovation is expanding the leveling treadmill to include things even more boring than our endlessly repeating combat model. Trust us, there's nothing new here."

Not since gym memberships took off have so many people paid so many monthly fees to do such a limited number of mindless repetitive tasks.

Doomed to repeat

, in the right hands, can be vehicles for profound storytelling.

In most hands, however, they manage to be as entertaining as a summer blockbuster, full of sound and fury, signifying marketing.

It seems to me that we work less and less with archetypes and more and more with outright cliches. So many genres are thick and stagnant.

Derivation is inevitable - we tell the stories that fascinated us most as children, creating new details where our imagination desires them.

But much of the industry consists of out and out repetition.

Most of the industry consists of repetition.

The glut of WWII shooters have actually made me bored with the idea of killing Nazis.

We are reducing one of the most varied, frenzied and confusing conflicts in history into an oversimplified shooting gallery.

We expect games to skirt moral decisions and then blame them for being amoral.

Doesn't anyone see even a tiny bit of irony in a game that asks you to mow down wave after wave of Nazis without the slightest twinge of horror at your actions? Or any kind of mental effects?

Games don't have to be heavyhanded. But it would help if they were, uh, handed at all.

Too many games are like slasher films. They specialize in objectified violence. They are still exploring their limits in terms of language and gore. They trade in an adolescent's version of sex and drugs. They present a world of either hero, enemy or victim.

This is not bad in and of itself. Scarface presented a movie world that made drugs and violence seem flashy and appealing; But in the end the 'hero' was brought down by his own hubris.

I don't see this idea in most videogames. The cornerstone of tragedy, one of the fundamentals of drama, and it is neglected in interactive entertainment.

I blame the ego. People expect videogames to place them on an upward power curve, to gain in their abilities until they are fully equipped to survive the gameworld. We don't expect to suffer repercussions.

Would Vice City have been the same game had Tommy Vercetti died on the edge of a dock from a police sniper's bullet with the mansion he stole in flames behind him? Would gamers have felt empowered by the violence, or shocked at its eventual (indeed, inevitable) conclusion?

Whom the gods kill, they would first make mad.

But let's not go out and create a bunch of Max Payne retreads. Please.

Remaking History

Historical wargames seem
to generally fall into two camps: Incredibly detailed numbers-oriented war/economic simulators or shallow real-time strategy games.

The simulators appeal to die-hard fans. They require a tremendous time investment both in learning the system and knowing the history involved. They are not designed toward helping newcomers to the genre but rely on an extremely loyal, but small, fanbase. Their lineage stretches back to tabletop strategy games and, further back than that, to the actual plans used in wartime to track troop movements and formulate plans.

I remember trying to play a hex game based on some battle or other during World War II. From the get-go I was at a disadvantage, since I knew nothing of how the battle unfolded, the tactics used by both sides or the strengths and weaknesses of the units. There was also no tutorial. I fumbled my way ten minutes into the battle and got completely destroyed by an outnumbered German force.

On the opposite side we have real-time strategy games. While it's true much of the RTS genre is made of nonhistorical situations (Warcraft, Command and Conquer) there are several that purport to offer more 'realistic' bents, namely the Age of Empires series and Rise of Nations.

The problem I had with Age of Empires (and most RTS games) is that the missions don't exist as any kind of riveting storyline. They essentially take the same idea each map (build your base, increase your forces, destroy the enemy) and rearrange it slightly (fewer resources, restrictions on units). Age of Empires used the same formula of resource gathering and army-building. The historical setting was a skin over a tired, tired idea (even back in 1997, when it came out, the RTS genre was tired).

Where is the middle ground between impossible simulation and shallow clickfest?

What I would like to see is a historical game that actually teaches some history.

Woah, woah. Where are you going? I'm not talking about making educational videogames because, let's face it, they always turn out to make a mockery of both education and games.

I want to see a game which explains historical facts and requires me to use these facts to complete certain goals. Don't simply discuss strategies that exploit a game's engine, but find a way to make those strategies matter.

The Brothers in Arms game, or at least its press, is taking a detailed historical tack in an action game and may provide at least a measure of what I'm talking about. They use actual maps to recreate accurate battlefields, simulate infantry tactics instead of run-and-gun and consult with military experts to provide a realistic experience.

What I like, though, is the strangeness of history, the little details that are left out in school.

Did you know:

"Nuclear physicist Niels Bohr was rescued in the nick of time from German occupied Denmark. While Danish resistance fighters provided covering fire he ran out the back door of his home stopping momentarily to grab a beer bottle full of precious "Heavy Water". He finally reached England still clutching the bottle. Which contained beer. I suppose some German drank the Heavy Water."

Now that would spice up a game.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

School in summertime

I am going to
briefly discuss Class-based systems. There are a few things to get off my chest.

I really, really, really . . . fucking . . . hate Class-based systems. I am speaking of those character creation systems that force you, right off the bat, to choose the kind of specialized character you wish to play, immediately limiting your options in the world.

What I hate about this system is that in most RPGs it will take awhile for your character development choices to matter. By then you have invested a great deal of time into your character. So if you find yourself hating his higher-level skills or looking with eagerness at a skill restricted from your character's use then you are either forced to play a character you hate or start all over again.

Okay, let me renege on my conviction a little. In City of Heroes the Class system is well implemented. It works so well because it fits the comicbook genre and the way each Class differs is perfectly explained. The available skills are deliberately simplified and your basic attacks will remain useful, so you know after an hour or so whether or not you will enjoy playing your character.

In, say, Neverwinter Nights, it is difficult to tell exactly what is useful and to whom. I wanted to become an Arcane Archer, and I tried really hard. I just couldn't figure out exactly how to reach my goal. I checked the manual only to discover that I had made a fundamental error early on preventing me from reaching my goal. Not cool. Don't force me to read the entire manual and plot out my character perfectly before even playing the game - make it clear, from the beginning, what it takes to get where I wish go.

One system I loved was Arcanum's. They had a list of different classes which you could select as active. When you gained points toward your level then the game would let you know which skills you would choose to match the class you chose. But it did not lock you into that path. The class system was simply a template you could follow; It led to consistent characters. You could always, however, mix and match your skills to suit your play style.

Morrowind also had an excellent way of doing things. There was a whole big list of generic skills. You chose some skills to be your specialty, then some to be secondary and some tertiary. You gained bonuses on skills that were ranked higher, but you still had acces to every other skill. So this means that if you made a character that specialized in long swords but, upon playing, found destructive magic to be more appealing, then you just shifted your focus. Eventually, by actually using destructive magic, you would gain points in that skill.

I'm just so sick of seeing medieval fantasy games that purport to offer tons of different classes - because often there isn't a marked change in gameplay between classes. When there is a difference, it is usually a shitty playbalance, like an overpowered warrior class or a completely combat-worthless magic-user.

If you want to have classes in your game then use them as templates for creating certain archetypes. Offer everyone the same skillset but ask them to specialize. You could even have them select certain interesting backstories to lend credence to their specialties. In other words, more opportunity, not less.

Maybe leave a Class-based system for a mid-level player. They can either continue their own path or choose from different Focused Jobs. Have these jobs plainly spell out what they restrict.

Do away with this stupid idea: a class can restrict you from using a certain type of weapon. Just because a person is good with a dagger doesn't mean they can't pick up a longsword.

Let's say you have different weapon skill tiers. Your first two slots are your expert weapons. The next five slots are major focus and the five after that are minor focus. All other weapons are unskilled. You get to choose which weapons to put in the tier slots. Now let's assume you have a dagger in an expert slot, but you're tired of using it. The game will warn you that removing it from your expert slot will lower it's efficiency. You put the dagger into a major focus slot. If it's efficiency was at 110% in the expert slot, then it is capped at 75% in the major focus slot. You could likewise take a staff maxed out at 75% in a major focus slot, migrate it up to an expert slot and then upgrade it to 110%. Each tier has a maximum efficiency rating.

If you have a system for base stats (Strength, Agility and the like) then consider having the stats themselves, not a class, clamp their power. This requires clearly opposing stats.

Let's say the stat pairings are Muscle/Agility, Wisdom/Intelligence and Appearance/Manipulation. To quickly justify: I'm assuming that as muscle mass increases, agility decreases and vice versa; Wisdom is life experience and intelligence is book experience (the more you spend acquiring one the less you have for the other); And I'm taking quite a liberty by assuming that people with a pleasing appearance don't have to be be as manipulative as those without (maybe Appearance could be replaced with Image - after all, plenty of rock stars look atrocious but don't have to use any charm whatsoever to score).

Stats can go from 1 to 20 (a strength of one represents major paralysis - I'm assuming that being completely disabled does not factor into this game) and begin at a baseline of 10 (average being, well, whatever you think is fitting). Players get a certain number of points to distribute and have the option of altering their maximums. If you plan on creating an uber-warrior, change your max agility to 15 and max strength to 25. This allows not only for customization of current stats but future stats. Maybe every few levels you could readjust your stats at a small penalty, just in case things aren't working out with your superstrong but not-so-quick warrior.

The basic challenge of, well, any game really but RPGs specifically is this: How do we define nebulous human characteristics in terms that are concrete enough for a computer to do calculations on them? A human GM is allowed to fudge things and embellish - maybe he really wants your hero to find the Tome of Malice, so instead of letting the Soul Eater to destroy you he contrives a last-minute escape. A videogame isn't allowed (or capable of, yet) this kind of leap - your numbers either outweigh the Soul Eater's numbers or they don't, or your item is sufficient to save you or it isn't, or you are fast enough to get away or you aren't.

The way I see it, most RPGs use Class systems because it's just something they do. They can be useful for Pen and Paper roleplaying, but are unnecessary in most videogames. Computers are capable of much more complex interrelationships of skills and abilities. There's no reason to hold them to a standard made so GMs could cut down on juggling numbers.

Closer to cybernetics

has an article up that details professor Markus Giesler's study of iPods and their users.

Professor Giesler studies consumer behavior, which puts him in league with the spawn of Satan known as marketers, and he certainly discusses his iPod study like some hip young advertiser trying to look cool to tech-savvy twentysomethings. He claims that iPods turn people into "cyborgs" through "technotranscendence".

Of course, much of his claims come direct from experiences submitted by actual iPod users, so I shouldn't be overly critical.

My real beef is that the idea may be a little too early. He calls iPods an extension of the memory because they can hold names and addresses and other information. But if that's all it takes, then anyone carrying a little notebook stands on equal footing. The idea that they provide the soundtrack of a lifetime feels like a stretch as well. Walkmans have been doing this for years.

Here is my idea: I have a portable MP3 player. It has a touch screen that is operated with a stylus plus a few buttons for redundant functionality. The headphones are two small pieces that fit into the ear like earplugs. They are built to be able to accept sounds coming into the ear as well as project music received from the player. What this means is that a user can take the noise around them (a busy street, a conversation) and have it mixed in with a chosen soundtrack. You can adjust the sound of the music as well as the outside sound, so if you want Danzig to overpower your significant other's nagging, just adjust a few sliders.

What I am looking for in the future is technology that enhances life experiences in ways we can rearrange and adjust.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Creating virtual organisms

I'm well aware
that the task of creating realistic simulations of living organisms in software is, well, probably near-impossible.

To give just a minor sampling of the sheer variety of variables to consider, cruise on over to this site.

An organism is really a complex engine that requires constant reorienting in relation to its environment and internal state. A body will attempt to maintain homeostasis. This does not mean that a body will ever be balanced, but rather that its condition will fluctuate constantly as it attempts to reach a balance.

Not only are an organism's internal states, physical and emotional, in constant flux, but so are its reactions to environmental conditions.

Most games will use complex chains of IF-THEN procedures to dictate behavior. For even more detailed behaviors, some games use lookup tables, wherein different reactions fall into different slots in the hierarchy. The problem with such tables is that they tend to be processor-intensive and are therefore the first things to be cut down when a game goes into the optimization step.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about simulating living creatures is the sheer variety of their physical expression. Even members of the same species can operate with different sets of instructions.

When we discuss, for example, a way for a creature to navigate, there are many factors to consider: Is the creature fleeing, fighting, or foraging? What is its position in a herd/pack, and what relation does it maintain to other creatures of similar type? When does herd/pack cohesion break down?

The A* pathfinding algorithm is extremely popular, but why might it be a poor choice for organic movement? A* is used to find the shortest route between a start and end destination. Often animal behaviors require different goals. A deer might flee in a zig-zag pattern, confusing a predator by creating a 'cone' of scent to follow while at the same time increasing its distance and attempting to flee in a line perpendicular to the predator's movement direction. There may be no actual endpoint, but rather a desired distance from a predator and proximity to the herd/pack.

And what of foraging? This requires a search pattern. Let us consider a small herd of ten animals. Each animal is going to attempt to maximize its food intake while minimizing its activity and maintaining proper distance to the herd. Animals must be given both desired maximums and acceptable minimums. But how to set these? When should an animal's instincts take precedence over its loyalty to the herd? So we need instructions for both individual organisms and the herd as a superorganism.

But then we have to take into account internal herd behaviors. Herds maintain a structure, and there are different ways that creatures maintain these structures. Systems of subordinates, bellwethers to determine movement, protective maneuvers. Some animals may have strong family bonds, so a system is needed to decide which orders are relevant when.

One interesting take on building behavior is presented here. Rather than attempt to stack behaviors in a hierarchy, they are treated as discrete units. There is a very precise way of determining priority, and once a meme gains top priority there is a method for it to exercise and relinquish control. I like this system because it is incredibly flexible. New behaviors can be added easily. A picture of an organism can be built up slowly, instead of attempting to quantify everything in one go. This system could even be extended to allow certain memes to transmit to other creatures. Particularly successful memes could alter the behavior of whole species.

Creating convincing organisms is not merely for scientific simulations. Irrational Games is trying to build a functional ecosystem into their upcoming BioShock. Depending on the implementation, the game might provide some truly surprising interactions. Gameplay in such a system requires the player to observe behavior and utilize it to achieve objectives.

This seems no different from most games, which require players to find patterns in enemies. But patterns are limited. Let's assume a stealth game. Your objective is, obviously, to stay undetected. In most games of this type, if your character is seen the guards will go into an active mode. You must find a place where the game marks you as hidden long enough for the guards to go back to search mode. In a more realistic game, there would be differences between guards actively searching due to suspicion (you make a noise) and observation (they see you).

Suspicious guards would stay on alert long enough to investigate. If nothing is forthcoming, they return to post. Once you are observed, there will be different tiers of effects. An active search is conducted. If you are not discovered, then maybe guard levels will be increased, or their search patterns will be more thorough, or secondary defenses are activated. Sections can be go on lockdown. Rather than limiting your character's progress, a backup defense system can force the player into an alternate playstyle. A game like this would need lots of playtesting to balance, though.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Ruminations on AI

As a wannabe game designer
and a failed programmer, I spend a lot of time complaining about AI in games and speculating on what the future might hold.

When reviewers were praising Far Cry's enemies, I was wondering how I could snipe someone from half a mile away and have a helicopter take off seconds later and immediately hone in on my position. Or how I could steal a boat and bombard a camp with grenades for a full twenty minutes and find that I had missed everyone in camp, and was forced to slowly lure them to my kill zone.

After fiddling a bit with the Crytek Editor I realized the limitations. Far Cry's AI system was path and zone based. Since I was in the helicopter's zone, it didn't matter if I was hidden from view or far away - my position was not concealed from the AI. The enemies in the camp would not venture outside their given range, not without some frustrating carrot-on-a-stick maneuvering.

Still, though this is referred to as artificial intelligence, it is really just intelligence albeit extremely limited. A system that receives input and creates dynamic plans based upon that input can be said to possess intelligence. Note I said dynamic plans. Programs are not necessarily intelligent, though as we design more complex programs that grow in tune with human thought processes and develop self-correcting procedures we will see things like word processors and accounting programs gaining intelligent aspects.

But most computer intelligence we encounter in videogames and it is still rudimentary. The difficulties in getting bots to navigate a 3d enironment and react to other players is in itself a challenge. Imagine trying to program a bot to factor in layered reactions to a fluctuating needs and wants system along with personality factors and moods all while navigating a world and performing appropriate reactions.

If the new Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, lives up to even half of what it promises, then it will represent a leap forward in NPC intelligence design. According to their press, Radiant AI will decide for itself what it needs to do based upon the world around them and their personal characteristics. I would like to see how this breaks down design-wise. What I'm most interested in is seeing how they can keep the world open-ended yet still advance the storyline. Will a character with an important task for me actively seek me out, or wait in one spot for a certain amount of time each day until I receive their task, or will they wander around until I happen to run into them?

Most games that offer unlimited freedom in a gameworld are forced to make certain allowances in order to add structure and plot. GTA, Simpsons Hit and Run, True Crime, Jak and Daxter -- all of these games use a large world as a 'hub' that lets players choose certain missions, leading to a feeling of greater choice. But ultimately there's only the choice between structure and freeform and never the twain shall meet. Morrowind left a giant world to explore, but the NPCs only did a few things - they guarded, or attacked, or followed, or stood there and waited for you to initiate something. They had a wide range of things they could do, but always in reaction to something the player did. The Sims react in surprising ways to all sorts of things, but at a loss of control for you, the player. They are almost like physics simulators - you control certain variables, set conditions and initiate certain behaviors, then watch the reactions.

So what remains to be seen is how game developers are going to merge freeform and structure. How can we model a reactive gameworld without creating a picture of anarchy? Will Radiant AI model social structures as well as individuals? My fear is that NPCs will each have their own goals and schedules, but how, for example, will wizards of the same guild act? Will they perceive loyalty to the guild, will they scheme for power, will they seek to enrich the guild?

I'm interested in the confluence of order and chaos. This is an important issue for game designers, as they are dealing with incredibly complex systems in which even minor changes can introduce major amounts of instability. Anyone who has taken a peek at the AI behind games like Neverwinter Nights or Morrowind knows that, while incredibly flexible, they also have a tendency to produce scores of unforeseen behaviors. RPGs tend to have a more difficult job since they seek to model not just combat but conversational skills and reactions to different characteristics.

Shooters have an advantage over RPGs in that combat is well-documented. Tactics of movement, seeking cover, providing suppressive fire, flanking, retreating are all broken down Barney-style (so that even grunts can understand) and provide excellent manuals to use while programming. Personality and conversations, however, don't have clear-cut manuals. It is up to current game designers to draw from neuro-linguistic programming and Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the Big Five personality dimensions.

Complex intelligences will come about when game designers begin exploring other disciplines. Right now the limitations are in some ways about hardware and other ways about software. The game industry is not focused on creating a new plateau of intelligence, but in refining the old one. So many games still only explore combat-based interactions that there is no need driving the industry to innovate new behaviors. Hardware has long been limiting the growth of intelligence in games. Typically designers will allot only about 10% of the CPU cycles to the AI. The upcoming Cell chips promise such a quantum leap in processing power that developers are free to create the type of intelligences they've long dreamed about.

It would be nice someday to interact with an NPC that isn't just a prop. And hopefully Crytek will leave the omniscient helicopters to Terminator games.

Subverting the paradigm

Yeah, I know.
What a bullshit post title.

I'd like to throw out an idea that both captures and frustrates my imagination.

I envision a game that reverses the notion that player-characters must always increase in power and options.

What if you played a character with memory loss?

How could this kind of game be effective?

How do you reduce a game character without making play unintuitive or outright impossible?

I've been trying to hammer out even a simple way of making an idea like this into a fun experience. Maybe a puzzle-style game that gave you a small set of skills that would each degrade over time, and it would be up to you to use them effectively. I see a square arena viewed from overhead. The player-character has five different tasks to accomplish and has five different tools. Each tool will only be 'remembered' for a certain period of time.

Of course, this simulates the direction I desire, but isn't very compelling. It feels like any other puzzle game. The idea of the player-character 'forgetting' things sounds like a corny justification of arbitrary gameplay constraints.

I'll keep turning this idea over and over in my head. Hopefully I'll hit on something.

Or just forget the idea completely.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Making your own fun

Grand Theft Auto.
The name conjures up the worst types of violence that videogames have to offer. Carjacking, beating hookers to death, drive-bys, molotov cocktails, chainsaws, cop-killing, multiple car pileups, factory explosions. Pretty much all the bases covered.

And goddamn if I don't love it all.

Having played through the most recent GTA: San Andreas, a sprawling, gorgeous masterpiece, I sat back and delighted in my accomplishments. Violence on a grand scale, beautiful, operatic violence, brilliant set-pieces of destruction and random sprees of chaos. My character had been cold and vicious, never breaking a sweat while mowing down pedestrians or flinching even an inch when launching rockets at police choppers.

It was a bright, clear day in San Fierro when my version of CJ traded his wife-beater and bandanna for a sweater and beret and said goodbye to the tempting yet shallow criminal world.

San Fierro was a beautiful city, and CJ drank it in. He began searching for snapshots that would net him a nice bit of bonus cash from the local paper. In the park he met a nice girl practicing martial arts and she agreed to go out with him. He took pleasure in driving his pimped-out ride down by the waterfront, or up and down the rolling streets. CJ began to forget about the petty thugishness of his youth. He even started to lose the memories of more recent events: Mama's death, Sweet's incarceration, those crooked cops framing him up, the feds pulling his strings, the Venturas casino heist. Crazy times. Hopefully, with the car dealership up and running, and Kendl working her real-estate deals, he could start to dream about settling down for good.

So what had happened to the game? Why was I shirking violence?

The great thing about San Andreas is that it allows these flights of fancy. There is a perverse pleasure, of course, in causing mad destruction; But, because the world is so convincing, so consistent, there is also joy in creating your own elaborate stories.

Hopefully there will be more games that create this sort of atmosphere. What it comes down to is creating a great deal of freedom and making the different parts of a world interesting. True Crime failed for me because, while they definitely made a fairly accurate map of LA, the random crimes were repetitive and dull and there was nothing else to do. There was never any reason for me to explore. San Andreas, on the other hand, offers plenty of reasons to explore: surprise vehicles (like the riding lawnmower), crazy downhill mountain bike races, base jumping off a radio tower. Even walking around reading the ridiculous store names was a blast.

I hope in the future we can figure out a way for a game to generate truly creative content that is not either too boilerplate or overly random. Combine that with the beautifully realized world of San Andreas and you'd have a virtual reality I'd happily get lost in.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Beating a Massively Multiplayer Game?

Much has been made
in MMORPGs regarding what, exactly, to do with high-level characters. There will always be a point when a player has done almost everything there is to do in a game. From the very beginning, even in beta, players are at work finding ways to turn a well-balanced system into a finely-tuned quick-leveling grind. This appeals to achievement players, who get to boast about how quickly they reached max level, or how many badges they earned, or stand around and act superior to all the noobs.

High-level characters inevitably complain that, even though they have wrung over 1000 hours of gameplay from a company's product, there needs to be more stuff to do!

So let's implement a Final Option: When a player reaches maximum level and has earned every accolade available then, if they so choose, they can begin a long series of missions that must be undertaken solo. These will be broken into multiple parts, and should present some unique challenges and reveal some incredible secrets. Once begun, the character cannot accept any more missions or join any groups. Make the way back just as hard as the way forward (maybe a penalty of some sort for abandoning the journey).

Upon completion, the character is retired. They will be effectively invisible to enemies but also cannot fight. They will roam as unkillable observers. They will also be members of a ruling circle comprised of all other retired characters. The circle will be given different proposals from the game developers and asked to vote. These could be simple things like whether to unveil a new minor enemy to game-changing changes like the redesign of a zone.

This would have the effect of not only allowing high-level characters a new, different level of elite, but would also make the gameworld on each server original. Imagine if one server voted to overrun a zone with a dangerous new threat while another chose instead to turn the zone into a peaceful area. With enough of these changes, you will see vastly different playing experiences. And you will begin to see the retired characters forced to take a role in consulting with lower-level players to see what changes people would like to see. Poorly-run servers will see players jumping ship, while well-governed ones will flourish and even be held up as a model for other retiree circles.

Retired characters would be governors and mentors. They would be forbidden from power-leveling players. Those who chose to forgo the Retiring quest could still power-level people, but they could no longer brag about having done everything. Imagine if members of the circle could be brought to task for their decisions. The votes would be public. If a certain number of non-retired players censure Retired Player A, then a vote could be tabled by Retired Players B and C to restrict A's influence. If the vote succeeded, then A's voting power decreases.

The idea is to provide a sort of endgame without actually stopping a player from interacting with the world. There could even be different endgame paths for characters: A circle dealing with placement and strength of enemies, a circle dealing with new zone content, a circle creating guild guidelines. Ultimately, the aim should be to create an incentive to get to the highest level. And the ability to alter the gameworld is a powerful incentive.

Of Jedis and Pavlov

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

. . . there was a massively multiplayer Star Wars RPG that didn't suck.

That's what I like to believe when I contemplate the shocking dullness of Star Wars: Galaxies.

Let me give you some background. I did not subscribe to the game. I merely played a two-week free trial. I did, however, play it obsessively during those two weeks.

I liked my character, Zagnoob Thweep. He was a rapacious little Rodian with a fondness for slinging a pistol. In those two weeks I had managed to climb the unbelievably dull ladder of skills to become a Novice Pistoleer. I'd also gotten pretty far in Surveying and a few steps in to some other things, crafting and dancing and swedish massage.

When the two weeks were up, I was positive that this was my game. This was something I wanted to pay a monthly fee to play. This was my salvation.

Then I relected on my experiences. The entire two weeks had consisted of me ordering my character to attack low-level creatures that spontaneously generated before my eyes, taking on 'missions' that bore the same format with a word changed here and there, repairing my ridiculously expensive speederbike every ten minutes (until it finally got to 0% and, despite still physically existing, was impossible to repair - yay, a worthless mode of transportation!) and painstakingly searching for scraps of minerals I could use to craft ineffective grenades and weak blasters.

I realized that I had been drawn into the MMORPG trap. Let me summarize the goal of these vile creations: Provide players with unceasingly repetitive tasks which provide just enough of an incentive to keep playing. Turn the player into a rat pressing a button for morsels of food, and dole out these morsels so sparingly that the tension generated is enough to keep him on that button.

Galaxies has no content. Let me explain what I mean by first saying what Galaxies does have. It has more than enough racial variation to create an interesting avatar. It has a broad spectrum of large planets. It has cities that are architecturally consistent. It has Rebels and Imperials. It has Jedis (if you have the patience for that route). It has blasters and sandpeople and Jabba the Hutt (though I never did get to see him).

But an avatar is not content. Taking your avatar and immersing him into an engaging quest which requires emotional decisions is content. Big planets are not content. I spent two hours running across the barren landscape of Tatooine without seeing 1) any kind of creatures 2) any other players 3) any buildings or 4) anything interesting at all. The landscape is not content. I would have been much happier with a smaller map that yielded surprises around every bend, caves hidden behind waterfalls, nests of animals, farmers eking out a living, an ancient library yielding some forgotten scraps of Galactic history - which is still not content, but is a step closer.

What if that hidden cave had held a small piece of Imperial code which could be turned into either the Imperials or Rebels? And once the game had calculated 1000 total pieces of code turned in it would figure out which side had the majority of pieces. If Imperial, then their code was secure and their presence on the planet would increase; If in favor of the Rebels, then they would gain knowledge of a critical flaw in Stormtrooper armor, granting all Rebels a bonus against Stormtroopers. That is content.

At one point in Zagnoob's travels, I thought I had found content. I learned of an impending election in some major city (the name escapes me). The two candidates had much to say of their opposing views. The voting system required you to obtain testimonials from the citizens (an interesting justification for a 'fetch' quest). So Zagnoob scoured the city and soon had what he needed. He went back and registered his vote.

And that was it. After that point the NPCs repeated the same bits of dialogue about the election. I had no idea when the election would be, if ever. Even after returning a week later they looped the same conversation. There were no sidequests I could do to give my side an edge. It was effectively a dead end. What was the point?

Let me try to narrow down this idea of content. Publishers tend to think of art assets or skill systems as content. My notion is that content has relevance. Art assets set mood and tone, they facilitate in role-playing, but they are essentially skin for a spreadsheet. Skill systems describe character advancement, but they are the spreadsheet. Content unites the art assets and the skill system with a compelling reason to continue playing sans the habit-based level treadmills most MMORPGs use in place of content.

Ignoring MMORPGs in general, what exactly drives my ire toward Galaxies?

Oh, it looks like Star Wars. They did a great job of creating an atmosphere perfect for a Star Wars game. But it doesn't feel like Star Wars. In all those hours I spent guiding Zagnoob hither and yon I never once felt driven to really do anything. Even after I had tracked down the Rebellion and gotten a few generic missions to drive up my faction points (whee) I never felt that what I was doing had any effect on the gameworld.

Enough of my general complaints on the entirety of the game. Here are a few specific gripes:

Letting players build their own houses and shops is a cool idea. In Galaxies, though, the implementation is garbage. Hundreds of houses and shops are strewn all across the landscape in haphazard fashion, and the way they are streamed in creates annoying popup. Zagnoob would be riding his speederbike, zip-zoom, and then BAM, he slams into the side of some retard's shop that contains absolutely no merchandise other than ore that's selling for 99999 credits. At least impose a little order. And maybe create an Amazon-style ratings system that allows players to rate different shops, so that Zagnoob wouldn't travel twenty minutes to someplace promising sweet blasters only to find a broken newbie pistol going for a thousand times its worth.

Why, why, why make dancers such a necessary class? I understand that the designers wished to ensure that cantinas would become social gathering spots and that it adds a non-combat element blah blah blah. I will grant that the dancer profession is an interesting idea and implemented in a creative way. But fuck all that. Instead of attempting to force players into cantinas (there is a thing as too much structure), make the dancers a useful member of a group. Give dancers some combat skills. Give them bonuses to dodge. Allow them to work their healing powers inside campsites. In other words, get them out and playing with others. There are similar qualms about some of the more esoteric professions. Playing a chef is, well, it's uh, let's be honest, it's essentially useless. Any player who has poured enough hours into a game to master the chef profession is going to want compensation for his time and labor in collecting ingredients, forcing him to charge exorbitant prices.

What you get is a game that is incredibly unfriendly to new players.

And the friendlier you make the game to new players, the more players will stick around to become veterans.

Where is the Force? It's supposed to bind and penetrate us. It's supposed to be generated by all living things (well, other than creatures that have adapted to neutralize it). But other than the people who choose to pursue the path of the Jedi, the Force is absent. Why not have certain quests generate Force points, which players can then spend to increase certain skills they have mastered, e.g., a pistoleer has earned ten Force points, which he chooses to use to increase his pistol accuracy by 5 percent. Why not specialized multi-part missions that yield special force abilities, like increased dodge, surveying range boost or crafting focus? Using the Force is not singular to Jedi, so why cut off players from this part of Star Wars mythology?

As for creating non-combat professions, where are the diplomats? Here is a simple system: Have certain major NPCs with several tiers of conversation that will be checked against a character's progress through the diplomat tier. Higher-level diplomats will open up the top level conversations, which will yield not only information but the ability to influence the gameworld. A good diplomat could get the coordinates for a secret Rebel base and then sell that information to the Imperials (again, have a counter - each diplomat can get that information only once, and when the counter reaches a certain level, then the Imperials launch an attack on the base).

I find Galaxies' greatest flaw is that it paints a broad, pretty picture but conveys no emotion at all. The developers made a list of fascinating professions, but they feel more like time sinks than independent, compelling experiences. There are large cities, but they're filled with NPCs that convey nothing interesting or useful or players hawking garbage. The planets are huge . . . and boring. The combat contains plenty of options, but most battles go one of three ways: 1) You shoot at things from a distance while they shoot at you from a distance or 2) Things come right at you and attack you while you attack them or 3) You run like crazy and hope you can outrun whatever's chasing you before it knocks you out.

Lots is not content. Big is not content.

Next time, I hope they can take an idea I love and, out of it, make something I care enough to play.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Improving the sports genre

Sports games
can deal with different aspects of a sport.

Management sims allow players to deal with sports as an abstraction - stats to weigh against other stats, transforming a given sport into a game of comparing odds and making bets based upon careful analysis.

Action-based sports titles tend to concenttrate on either simplified controls and loads of spectacular moves or more realistic variations that demand both careful strategy and quick reflexes.

But where sports titles are lacking is in the human element, that is, true emotional feedback that is more than a success/failure equation.

While fans love to discuss amazing plays or impressive statistics, they also love compelling personalities. Maybe it's the good-natured racecar driver who's always cool under pressure, or the hot-tempered b-baller who trash talks, starts fights and always seems to get in trouble but is a magician on the court. Even people uninterested in the intricacies of a sport can nevertheless connect with individuals.

So where are the sports games that integrate any kind of personality dynamic into the gameplay?

Imagine this for me: a golf game where you manage a roster of promising young golfers. You alternate between practices and tournaments, advancing their skills by smart analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. Your golfers age over time and their skills will advance or wither along with their temperaments.

Say you are offered the chance to teach a brilliant 10-year old - a natural at the game, but also an insufferable little shit. He skips practices, fights at tournaments and makes it difficult for you to do any managing. Now you are faced with the added dynamic of whether to stick it out, coming down harder on the boy in the hopes he will gain some discipline, or cut him loose from your team and pick up someone not quite as good but well-behaved.

An important thing to consider is just how integral the personality dynamic should be in your game.

For action-oriented titles it may be prudent to allow players human-management as an option. In a basketball game, you could select whether or not to go to the locker room in-between games. Once there, you can motivate fatigued players, discipline sloppy ones or deal with reporters claiming to have dirt on your resident bad boy. Your actions during this time can influence your team stats, giving certain bonuses or demerits depending on the situation.

If you choose to skip the locker room, then stats won't fluctuate - they simply advance in a manner consistent with traditional sports titles.

The personality dynamic works best with team games like football, soccer and basketball. Because in these games you can only control one character at a time, the personalities of your teammates can have a profound influence on the way the game is played. You can't afford to rely only on your direct control, but must understand the way your team interacts. If one player has an aversion to another it could make it more difficult to coordinate tactics. If two teammates favor each other they might stick close, giving them more power in a more limited area but leaving a coverage gap.

A tangent: Let's imagine that it's not only your own team's personalities you have to contend with, but the opposing team's and the fanbase's. If you consistently beat one team then you could spawn a rivalry. This could increase your exposure, opening up more options on a higher management level. On a team level this could give you a boost of aggression when facing your rivals. In a sport such as boxing your character's adrenaline level could be related to the crowd's reactions; But remember that they'll influence your opponent as well.

The important thing to remember when trying to introduce personality into any sports game is how it affects the sport itself.

If it ceases to be an entertaining and accurate portrayal of the sport in question, then the experiment has failed. If it is so overdone that player's feel they are micromanaging emotional wrecks, then your dynamic is far too susceptible to fluctuation. If a player can get through a whole season and never even notice there were emotional issues involved then your dynamic is far too subtle.

It all boils down to making the gameplay and the sport your top priorities, and using the human element as a way to add flavor to the characters - a way of making them more than a collection of numbers denoting passing yardage or runs batted in or successful triple axles. Personalities should accentuate the interesting range of human reactions in and to sports without degrading the fun of playing them.

Begin Here

This will be a seldom-updated site for me to explore whatever tangents related to game design. Sometimes I may discuss general design principles, or maybe I'll talk about board games or card games, but I'll try, try, try to relate everything back to videogames.