Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Got Smarts?

Zen of Design
discussed Artificial Intelligence and laid out an image that I felt was particularly apt and clever and easily-envisioned.

"In most games, the best way to think about A.I. is to think about it as a puzzle the player needs to solve. It's roughly analogous to the cards that start face up in solitaire - it's the visible circumstance that you have to modify your gameplay patterns to deal with."

This is all well and good, and is, I feel, a good analogy for most of the A.I. available in games up to this point.

I think what I would like to see from some A.I. is for it to be like a poker game. Reacting to the opponents becomes a part of the strategy, where behaviors are not strict patterns, so the game becomes a series of several possible states to predict through logic, knowledge of the game system and knowledge/evaluation of the opponents.

I chose poker because, unlike chess, it seems to be a more accessible game. And in addition to that it seems to allow more success for more people. That is, more people become skilled poker players than chess players. And more people become casual poker players than casual chess players. At least, it seems that way to me.

The big difference between chess and poker is the amount of information available during the course of the game. In chess, all available moves are readily apparent, given a person with enough talent, skill and calculating power -- which means that the gap between skilled and unskilled becomes very large very quickly. If I can think four moves ahead and my opponent can only think one move ahead, my advantage is substantial. If I memorize a book of the one-hundred most popular openings and my opponent knows zero, my advantage, again, is greater.

In poker, it's necessary to deal with hidden information and thus probability. And while it's true that math whizzes can suss out the odds of which players are holding which cards, in the end what they're really doing is making an informed guess, with their degree of success depending on the number of players and the cards in their own hand (and, with variations like Texas Hold 'Em, the cards in the river). They aren't privy to actually knowing all the possible iterations of the gamespace, but can only deal with possibilities. There are no openings to memorize, only strategies that must be gauged against risk and reward.

And, of course, possibly the greatest aspect of poker: Attempting to read the other players to determine whether they are bluffing.

To come back to A.I., then, it isn't necessary to have one present all manner of complex human behaviors. But it could be cool to have it present a very specific type of human behavior. If we were programming a poker game (to mix analogy with example), it wouldn't be very difficult to make a character that always raised when holding a hand 3-pair or better with queen or better high. Why would we make that a case? Why not?

And couldn't we design series of these types of not-necessarily-most-efficient strategies and classify them according to how risky they are and what kind of general mood they present to people when used in a game? From there modular A.I.s could be built with different levels of recklessness, that take different gambles, that present novel yet beatable opponents.

Because, of course, with a game of computer poker, a company is probably going to read standard reference materials and consult with experts to find the most successful strategies. Then they're going to build an A.I. that implements these strategies. And the only way they can think of to decrease its efficiency is to restrict information, rather than alter its strategies slightly to present anomalies. Which means it's not going to be an interesting opponent.

Which I believe is the important thing about A.I. Not to make a good opponent, or a smart one, but an interesting one.

Reading back over this, I think I've just spouted a whole mess of gibberish.

Ahh, the Internet . . .

A Tangent

The difference between the two systems above reminds me of a discussion I read on the RPGnet forums, concerning whether or not a deck of playing cards numbered 1-6 with six types of each card was fundamentally different from rolling a 1d6.

Some said yes, some said no. I'm not a statistician, but according to some people there is no difference number-wise -- over time a 1d6 will average out to the same probability as the deck of cards. That's the important distinction -- given enough time.

But there is a very important difference. Unless, after every card drawn, you return the card to the deck and re-shuffle, then the card deck becomes easier to predict than the die. When you have one card left then the system is 100% predictable.

But the die remains random (if you're assuming that the microscopic and subatomic surface of the die isn't weighted ever so slightly to one side, throwing off the whole damn thing -- but we'll leave that shit to chaos theorists).

I know, I know, but statistically a thrown die will return a specific distribution of numbers, and that presents as indistinguishable from the card deck. In the fucking magic fairy-land of mathematics, yes.

But out here in "the world" that doesn't mean shit. I have the same probability of throwing a thousand 'ones' in a row as throwing any other sequence of numbers. Because each throw of the die is a single event, each time you throw it your odds of rolling any number are that number over the total number of sides.

This is the big problem of symbolically representing real-world things. As cool as it would be if concepts always matched the world, we'd also get shit like this.

Lies, damned lies and statistics.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


Nothing wordy today.

Just had an image of a game wherein the objects and obstacles and enemies in the world would coalesce from Rorschach-looking blots. Maybe different blots would have certain emotional correspondences that would represent their eventual forms. Who knows?

I do know that these guys would make it.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Some German Word

A quick post
letting people know that the Irrlicht Engine has been updated. For a free open source 3d engine, they certainly have a whole host of really great features, including some stuff that all the newfangled commercial engines are boasting about.

Of course, I'm too stupid to be able to do a damn thing with their gift to the world. So I have to be content with admiring it and every now and then singing its praises.

Tiny Things

All the talk
of the amazing, revolutionary, drop-my-freakin-jaw astounding Spore by the incomparable Will Wright has brought to mind an old, old game design I had kicked around once in middle school and have been refining ever since.

I had been given an assignment to write a report on a dangerous disease. After skimming material in the library I settled on diphtheria. A very badass disease. "Very contagious, potentially deadly, horrible host of varied symptoms, once a major killer of children? Beautiful!" That's just how I thought at the time.

So I had a vision of a game wherein you were in control of infectious agents. Choose bacteria or viruses or the body. Each would have different strengths and weaknesses. Bacteria reproduce by cell division, viruses only inside of host cells. The body can muster different kinds of antibodies. This early vision was highly informed by SimEarth, another Will Wright game (not surprisingly), so much of the game in my head consisted of lots of little tiles shifting around with very loose control over different variables.

Over the years this vision would alter as I was introduced to new and different games and gameplay concepts.

From exposure to Homeworld I added a fully three-dimensional innerspace, with virii and bacteria and blood cells all flitting around and interacting.

I decided that an important part of this game would be the idea of levels of detail. That is, the game proper would probably require at least a medium level of abstraction, but there would always be more information to be found by selecting units and, from there, more technical knowledge available if the user so desired. I know, I know, educational games.

I imagine that rather than individual unit types (soldier, spearman, cavalry translated into the disease theme by procrustean means) that each unit would instead be made of characteristics that could be mixed and matched, and would lead to behaviors.

For example: I have chosen to control a virus. At first it can only attach and infect weak red blood cells. After I have taken over my first cell, I get to choose a set of low-level characteristics for the new copies. Let's say I'm getting ten copies. I can set five of those copies to go after weakened white blood cells. The other five can be set to go after medium-weak red blood cells (since the initial infection slightly improved my ability).

I see a mix of direct control and autonomous behavior. You can direct your virii, give them patrol routes or just tell them to engage in seeking out new cells to infect. I'm still brainstorming on exactly how to model information increase (the way to advance your available characteristics). Maybe it could be related to the infection percentage of your current area.

As for these characteristics, there needs to be a way to suss out what kind of defenses the opponent has without the opponent necessarily knowing. Hidden information. The problem of codebreaking - how do I use what I've learned to my advantage without tipping my hand?

Levels could be broken down by organs, with different tactics necessary in each one. Different types of cells and improvements available. The host having access to different types of drugs and treatments.

And, of course, the ultimate challenge would be attacking the entire body. Redirecting infection routes to attack vulnerable areas. Changing what tissues your bacteria can enter. Striking a balance between destroying your host and keeping it alive long enough to spread the disease.

To indulge in what I'm dubbing Wright-ism (wherein the seemingly simple concept of a game is expanded to an awesome and shocking level of complexity), I see the infection eventually spreading to other hosts. Maybe different ages and sexes and ethnic groups providing slightly altered challenges.

And eventually a final tally evaluating your infection and mortality rate.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Color Me Unimpressed

I've been perusing
the copious amounts of E3 content over at Gamespot, because apparently I have no life nor a desire for one.

It would be wholly inaccurate to say that the games previewed were lackluster, simply because luster seems to be pretty much the only thing they possessed. "Pretty . . . graphics . . . " were the only words the monsters could muster.

Which is my backhanded way of saying the descriptions were dull and uninteresting, with no fascinating stories or compelling play mechanics to be seen.

I wanted to do a game-by-game breakdown, showing how unbelievably stale the forthcoming games sounded. But after reading about thirty previews with nary an original thought in sight, I decided to just recap what I retained as the relevant phrases.

Multiplayer capability! Multiplayer with vehicles! Multiplayer with different types of weapons and characters! Destructible environments! Breakable statues! Detailed bullet decals! Realistic damage! Weapons! Shooting things! Jumping! The same action sequences you've seen a million times! Characters with no depth! No moral ambiguity whatsoever! Everything you've done over and over again with very little discernible difference other than the slightly-improved eye candy!

One exception that I noted (there may be more, sure): Shadow of the Colossus (though I think they should've kept it as Wanda and the Colossus - I guess that title wasn't 'edgy' enough).

Nowhere in all the hoopla could I find anything but the vaguest reference to story or drama or emotions or tickling anything but the sex/violence button. That and a spate of barely-justified sequels.

And the shitty thing, the really shitty thing is: I'm gonna end up playing a lot of those games, and I'm going to enjoy them. Really enjoy them.

I know I'm going to like Starcraft: Ghost. And the next Civilization. And whatever Nintendo's got cooked up. Plus a bunch of RPGs.

Actually, you know, I'm probably going to end up liking everything but Prey.

My name's John, and I'm an addict.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Avast, Scurvy Readers!

Pirates of the Burning Sea website has been revamped and updated with lots of new and interesting things.

I've been watching them for some time now and am delighted they've made it this far. Anytime I hear about a new MMORPG I immediately begin wondering how close to launch they can get before being canceled.

Flying Lab Software is at the very least promising a new genre and some gameplay innovations in their product. They also put up some of the best devlogs I've ever read, chockful of both general game design info and specific decisions they've made and challenges they've encountered.

I'm looking forward to see how the game shapes up.

Update: The Smattering

I'm an uncle
for the second time as of Monday, the 23rd. My new nephew is unbearably cute and, as Cerberus remarked, looks just like Winston Churchill.

E3 is done with for another year. I didn't go. I've never been. Instead I'm stuck reading reviews from jaded developers bitching about how shallow the industry is getting. Or gaming newspersons bitching about the dearth of creativity.

And while they all make excellent points, I would at least like the chance to become disgusted by the atrocious spectacle and leave the industry in a disappointed huff instead of, y'know, watching it from the sidelines.

A friend of mine, however, did get to the Expo (for the second year in a row, the bastard), and had a few recommendations, which I will present here since he has no official web outlet.

-Much praise was heaped upon Rebelstar: Tactical Command for the GBA, which he described as 'combat rounds of X-Com', so I'm totally hooked already.

-Another Ratchet and Clank game is forthcoming - sweet.

-Apparently the Starcraft: Ghost game still exists and will actually be released someday.

-Black and White 2 'didn't reinvent the wheel but this is like . . . the second version of the wheel'.

-His pick for best of the show goes to Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, but only the PC version - as if any other version could be as good.

The link for A Gamer's Manifesto has been passed around quite a bit because, well, it's informative and well-written and just a great fucking plea for some change in an industry that is becoming endlessly and needlessly autophagous. My favorite aspect of the manifesto is that most of the suggestions can be implemented with only a change in focus - they require no specialized hardware or yet-to-be-written software, only that developers and publishers make an alteration from the typical videogame creation cycle.

I've been reading this discussion over at Grand Text Auto, concerning making believable interactive characters. While I have an intense interest in Artificial Intelligence and making virtual organisms and creating wonderful, emotional, incredibly interactive game characters, I think one of the big reasons why we haven't seen one yet is because of this: Why?

I'll try to explain.

My answer would be: "Because." But this is hardly satisfying, and it certainly wouldn't be sufficient to whomever would be asked to fund such an undertaking. Much of the discussions seem to concern how this is important and interesting to the video gaming world, but I don't see the advantage so much.

I wasn't bothered that the humans in Half-Life 2 (or the original, for that matter) only spoke their lines and reacted at a bare minimum to what I did. They had powerful lines and completely believable emotional reactions as far as I was concerned. In other words, there would have been no benefit to extending their behaviors and abilities (and there would have possibly been a detriment, in terms of tension and game flow).

The question I would like answered (and that I will contemplate myself): What are some examples of games that would benefit from having broad, detailed, believable characters?

What I like to explore in terms of virtual characters are the ways in which they could form parts of software that are not necessarily games, though they may be game-like. An emotionally-complex avatar could assist with all manner of mental disorders and illnesses. A dedicated AI could be used as an extension of memory, as a patient and caring nurse, as a friend. The benefits to psychiatry, personal development and social interaction could be considerable, given a clear direction.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Yes, Keep Legislating

If there's one lesson
that Americans know by now, it's that making more laws is the solution to everything.

There's no reason to think that, oh, common sense or rationality should ever win out.

With that, Yahoo! reported some great news from Illinois. Background, here.

For those too busy to click links on a web page, the Governor of Illinois put a bill forward to ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to children and it was approved by the Illinois Senate. BUT, they sent the bill back to the House after removing the possibility of jail time for offenders (thankfully).

The weird thing about this bill (other than that it may be unconstitutional, apparently), is that it relies on the ratings system already in place to prevent just what the bill purports to prevent (if parents did their fucking job, that is).

Before I sound too alarmist, I should mention that the bill comes off as somewhat pedestrian. It allows for a Class A misdemeanor and a $5,000 fine for any clerk selling restricted material. Read the fulltext on the Illinois General Assembly website, search for HB4023.

I guess what the bill really does is require proof that the buyer is over 18 to purchase any game with a rating above T.

Which is strange, because the ESRB ratings E10+ and above admit in their definitions that the game may contain types of violence (e.g., cartoonish, fantasy, mild). I'm guessing, if this bill makes it, that some idiot parent is going to test its shoddy wording at some point, to the detriment of us all.

The decent parts of the bill at least account for family members buying restricted games and giving them to minors (store owners are not held accountable in such a scenario - and which, in fact, is not illegal).

None of that really disturbs me. I've gotten carded to see an R-rated movie before (though not in awhile). And I can't wait until some punk kid outside the game store begs me to get the latest virtual bloodfest for him.

What disturbs me are the words of the bill's sponsor, Senator Deanna Demuzio:

"Video games are not art or media," she said. "They are simulations, not all that different from the simulations used by the U.S. military in preparation for war."

Which, yeah, I know, is the beginning of a long rant/argument that will probably take years and years. It's just bizarre to me, growing up with video games as such a central life experience, that there are people out there (probably lots) still thinking of them in such strict, reductionist terms.

Well, fuck 'em, and fuck Senator Deanno Demuzio.

And the capstone to this piece, of course, is Illinois Senator Mike Jacobs' stirring words that truly capture the courage and strength of the modern political figure:

"I'm going to vote for this bill, but I'm voting for it for one reason — because this is a political bill. If I vote against it, it will show up in a campaign mail piece."

I suppose, uh, fuck him, too.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Getting Carded

While contemplating
a few things concerning a collectible card game idea I've been kicking around for awhile now, I stumbled upon a couple good resources.

Sloperama has a lot of information dealing directly with video game development but also a lot of stuff about getting board games made. He never minces words and pretty much tells the whole horrible truth -- to sum up: the odds of getting your game idea made (unless you do 100 percent of the work and put up 100 percent of the funding) are approximately 0%, with maybe a .00001% margin of error.

While I'm not really fond of them apples, they are the only ones available.

The Warlord CCG site, while not a property I'm familiar with, has a good set of online diaries that discuss specific aspects of producing a whole bunch of cards that interact in amusing and challenging ways.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Rogues: Another Look

"THE MOST DEADLY CLASS IN ACTUALL PVP (NOT DUELING!!!) IS THE ROGUE, BAR NONE. I am a Rogue and I waste everything I come across. When I see a Paladin I smile cause I know he'll be an easy kill, they always are. They freakin die everytime. When I am killed it's ALMOST ALWAYS to very high levels or groups focused on killing me, and that's it."
-Urdraxa, idiot, WoW forums

Apparently discussing WoW's Rogues is one way to raise peoples' dander.

I'm trying to get to the heart of this matter, look at a bunch of different angles.

This link makes some good points. It's nice to see someone offer more than a call to nerf - instead they suggest adding abilities to counter the rogue's advantages.

Which suits me fine. What I hate is constant weakening of a class to please the people that complain. I would rather have a game beef up one class and bring every other class up to that level than see a nerf occur.

I thought that perhaps rogues were simply unstoppable in PvP. This guide seems to offer a fair assessment of a rogue's capabilities (though it IS a rogue guide, so maybe it can't be trusted), and it shows they excel against certain classes and have trouble with others.

Man Bytes Blog talks about how stealthing-anywhere breaks immersion (good point). Maybe stealth needs to be conditional?

Zen of Design says it's an issue of the sense of control that stealth classes get - they have discretion over which fights to pick.

On the other hand, it seems that rogues get shafted when it comes to end-game content. So maybe they should have control over their fights, a kind of concession for their worthlessness in groups? Maybe not.

Blizzard describes the rogue as "[t]wisting events to their favor, striking only when advantage is greatest: this is where a Rogue excels."

Which means that, as shitty as it seems to some people, rogues are working as intended. They are supposed to take advantage of weakened or distracted players, they are supposed to use cheapass stealth and backstab and they are supposed to run away and stealth like little bitches when they are being beaten. They are supposed to be assholes and attack cloth/leather classes and they are supposed to be arrogant cocksuckers.

It's about this time that people should be thinking, "Wow, your main must be a rogue, the way you act."

One suggestion is that Blizzard can get rid of the rogue class. Because at the moment the abilities that people complain about the most are the core abilities of that class.

Another suggestion is that they can change the rogue class to a different, yet similar class. In other words, change the way the class plays. Perhaps make it more group-friendly, drop the stealth-focus. Piss off all the rogues but possibly make them more useful in the social aspect of the game.

They could also change the way stealth works. Require a reagent. Have non-stealth areas. Make stealth impossible while in PvP battle. Or give classes more ways to deal with stealth.

I really don't know what to do. Obviously. And it's not my job, so yippee.

I do know that pretty much every class is accused of being overpowered and that it seems every online game degenerates into a Salem-style witchhunt with cries of "Nerf!" rampant.

That's my two cents.

I don't know. Fuck rogues.

And nerf, um . . . paladins. Yeah!

Psych Evaluation

Been playing
Psychonauts recently.

Overall, I find it has been an enjoyable experience. The humor isn't so much 'joke-then-punchline' format as it is 'quirky' - which, depending on your demeanor, can be titter-inducing or nauseating.

It has been doing quite well critically. That doesn't mean it's perfect, or that there aren't people unhappy with the game.

My biggest problem thus far has been one of control, which I suppose is my own damn fault, considering I've been using a mouse-keyboard configuration on a game that continually screams at me to buy a gamepad. Also, the targeting system for the main ranged attack power (a sort of psychic blast) is absolutely atrocious - which again, could be the result of my controller choices.

The art design is beautiful. The scenes are colorful and cartoony, the characters amusing and the levels inventive.

I'm not going to try and claim that they drastically alter the platforming genre.

But the game is fairly solid and clever.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

WoW-ie Zowie

Ruminations on some new content in World of Warcraft (applicable to MMORPGs in general)

1. Thinking about the game Fable (and discounting how big of a disappointment it was for me), the way it created a player-nemesis was pretty cool. A rival hero crossed your path from time to time and just so happened to be on the opposite path of whatever you championed.

I can see an implementation of this in an MMORPG. From time to time you'll receive a piece of mail that beckons you to an inn you frequent. At a table will be a lush that directs you to a spot in the woods. Once there, your nemesis appears, warning you to give up your current path or be destroyed. You fight, both of you wearing down, until your nemesis begs for mercy. Kill him, and gain a significant item and a clue leading you to a greater threat. Let him go, and face him another day, in another land, with even higher stakes.

2. In WoW I keep running across the Son of Arugal, a level 24 Elite monster. Problem is, I'm playing a level 16 Warrior, so my only option is to run like hell.

What if, after three encounters with Son of Arugal, the nearby village suddenly has a new quest for me - to kill that dread beast. "But how?" I ask. "He is far too powerful for me to succeed against." The villagers tell you that they've laid a trap that will make him vulnerable . . . you just have to lead him into it.

The next time I run into that bastard, I run for the trap. He stops following, so I have to run back and lure him again. Closer and closer, careful not to take too much damage. Finally, he's in the trap - and I have done the impossible!

The point of this: Give players opportunities every now and then to do something that is typically impossible in the game system.

3. Several other MMORPGs have ways of tracking player accomplishments. A list of finished quests isn't necessary in WoW - but maybe, after a series of quests are finished, players would get a 'summation' in a journal, detailing the salient facts.

Maybe a character would get a bonus for finding every discover-able area in a zone. And then, after discovering every zone on the entire map, gain a Master Explorer title. From that point, any character grouped with a Master Explorer gains bonus experience when entering a new zone.

It's almost inexcusable that WoW has no character biography page. Almost.

4. Add critical successes to crafting, giving an item a slight bonus. A minor extra.

5. On Local Defense: I go to Crossroads a lot. It's very central to a ton of early Horde quests, all the way up to the late 20s. And it gets raided all the fucking time. When it does, my character is pretty much stuck watching level 60s slaughter every NPC in sight.

The proposal: There is an armory in certain towns. When a certain number of PvP-flagged, opposed players enter town boundaries, the armory activates. It calculates the average level of the attackers.

Defenders can go into the armory and pick up a special weapon that will allow them to fight at the average attacker level. Note that they gain none of the higher-level skills or defenses, only their attack, and only the average, not the highest level attacker. But at the very least wielders can expect to get in a few hits on an attacker before they are crushed. Dedicated defenders might even make the attackers think twice before attacking that town again.

Leave the town boundaries and the weapon de-spawns. If all attackers leave the boundaries the weapon de-spawns. If your PvP-flag runs out, the weapon de-spawns.

Hell, make the weapons melee-only.

The point of this: Give all players a chance to participate in Local Defense. It's not ridiculous to think that people defending their homes would have a distinct advantage against aggressors. Also, a good way to get people involved in PvP early on - a way to 'get their feet wet'.

The Parental Response

Being a Rogue
in World of Warcraft is a good way to earn a lot of enmity.

Which seems to make sense, given both the connotations and the fucking definition of the word 'rogue'.

You see, a Rogue has a distinct advantage in one-on-one PvP, assuming that they can get the drop on the opposition using Stealth and Backstab.

According to some of the forums, however, that's totally not cool.

Rogue isn't the only character class that gets attention from the Nerf Criers. In fact, almost every class in the game has at least one post bemoaning how grossly overpowered X power is, or Y trinket, or some other aspect.

What all of those posts boil down to is this: "That's not fair!"

We all know that life isn't fair. But guess what?

Games don't have to be fair, either.

In fact, there seems to be an assumption nowadays that playbalancing automatically means that each side will have exactly the same advantages and disadvantages.

This is, of course, folly.

Consider the much-lauded multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. You have spies and mercenaries. Spies have the benefit of a wider field of view, scores of gadgets and stealthiness. Mercenaries have got the guns. There is no regard given to a level playing field - in fact, on a level playing field, the spies get riddled with bullets and left for dead.

But this system is balanced, in the sense that the players must not only know their own skills and their opponent's weaknesses, but the right time to strike.

What many MMORPG players don't seem to realize is a fundamental lesson of American history: Separate is inherently unequal.

The only way to have completely equal classes is to make one class, with only one set of powers and only one talent tree.

It seems that the majority of those bitching that such-and-such is overpowered or underpowered are what would be called 'achievement gamers'. They add up all the stats, figure out all the hidden formulas and crunch all the numbers, all in an attempt to point out inequalities in the system. They do this in order to maximize their own characters. They debate which builds and equipment sets will gain the biggest advantage in PvP. Which means they tend to be the first ones to call for nerfing if they discover even a minor advantage over their character.

They are, of course, the ones that gravitated first, and care the most, about WoW's honor system.

Because the honor system doles out both numbers and ranks, achievement gamers flocked to it and found the best ways to maximize its benefits for their characters.

There's nothing wrong with being at a disadvantage in a video game. In fact, if anything, it can provide motivation to examine your shortcomings and correct them. The players with mounts give me impetus to save up enough money for my own mount; I don't whine that I can't travel as fast as them.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this:

Get over it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Come Get Some

I got an awesome
link the other day concerning my 3d Realms comments, which turned out be an excellent essay that could be dubbed, simply, "Why 3d Realms Sucks: The Definitive Answer".

The link had a side benefit of reminding me exactly how ridiculous and mediocre Duke Nukem 3d really, really (no, really) was, as well as pissing me off all over again for those Army of Darkness line ripoffs.

But anyway, the commenter, squaracter, apparently has a great livejournal that manages to inform, entertain and add to the game world's much needed cynicism (which helps to balance out hype in the fascinating collective psychic egosystem [sic]).

Do Your Thing

I often say
that everyone's a geek, you just have to find their subject.

I usually say this when justifying my obsession with games, gaming and game-related stuff.

My wife, for example, looks perfectly normal. But ask her about some obscure fact concerning Buffy the Vampire Slayer and she will respond in record time. She will then, whether you wish it or not, proceed to lay out the events preceding, coinciding with and following whatever obscure fact with which she was initially presented. And she is like this about all the tv shows she watches.

So it is with some satisfaction, naturally, that I point out she is a tv-geek. After all, geekery loves company.

Contemplating this word 'geek', I stumbled upon this, which offers up a few good sources for the word's origin. It's early usage means fool or simpleton. The later, and more familiar, connotation refers to a circus performer that bites the head off live chickens (or some variation of this). This may have been where it picked up its connotation of having an intense interest in some subject -- after all, you'd have to be pretty damned interested in chickens to eat them alive (just a guess).

Regardless, the word seems to have been picked up to use as a moniker for the socially outcast, especially those whose interests don't appear to correspond to the mainstream (e.g. High School scientists, drama clubbers, et al.).

Like many derogatory words, however, geek has had its script flipped. This means that it's been absorbed by those it was once meant to offend and had its meaning modified. There is, of course, another word that has undergone this process, so there's precedent for you.

Now the word geek is used affectionately amongst people with keen interest in their pet subjects. At least by me.

And I have chosen to universalize the word. After all, isn't memorizing pages of sports facts and statistics a little scary and obsessive? Isn't spending hours in the gym, studying muscle groups and designing the perfect nutrient shake not all that different from spending hours playing Final Fantasy VII, studying chocobo breeding instructions and designing the perfect blend of materia to defeat Ruby Weapon?

Which is why, when my wife watches 'America's Next Top Model', I can't help but comment on how the judging panel is full of total fashion geeks. Or when I see the frightening couples on 'Showdog Moms and Dads' I nod knowingly.

Just visit a hobby garage some time. You'll find people with an encyclopedic knowledge of engines and other vehicle-related components.

Not long ago my car refused to idle. Seeking help, a friend of mine showed me that I could tape spare change into the throttle, which worked well enough to get me to the garage. I walked up to the front desk and explained my problem. The exchange went like this:
"My car isn't working right."
"What's wrong with it?"
"It won't idle. It'll start, but then it stalls before I can put it in drive."
"What year?"
"Make and model?"
"Mercury Cougar."
"Yeah, you've got a bad Idle Air Control Valve. But I'll run a diagnostic to make sure."

The diagnostic, of course, confirmed the analysis. That, my friends, was the result of a true car geek at work.
Dictionary.com has a pretty good secondary definition: "A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept."

I call for the 'socially inept' part to be stricken from the end, and for the first part to be considered common parlance. It's about time that word got its new meaning recognized and recorded.

Let your geek flag fly.

Convergence of Hip

Last night marked
the debut of the Xbox 360, and it was presented to the world on a rawkin' MTV special, hosted by Elijah Wood.

Before the finger-wagging begins, I'll be the first to point out that Microsoft's strategy has been transparent from the beginning. Peter Moore (their VP marketing guy) stated that his aims are twofold: 'feed the core' gamers and 'captivate the masses'.

And the masses will certainly be captivated. Celebrity endorsements, amazing! That is entirely new and fresh, I certainly give a fuck what games P. Diddy plays. Interchangeable faces! Nothing is more important than the ability to match my game system to my outfits. High-definition! Yay, let's drive up the cost of game production just to include a feature that most people can't afford.

There is, of course, Microsoft's program to make the Xbox 360 a media center, to which I say, "Bah!" Sure, people modded the original Xbox to do just that, but they did it that way because it was cheap and easy.

My Xbox hard drive died. I called the company, and they informed me that I could pay them a hundred bucks and shipping and handling and they'd fix it right up. My friend said for about sixty bucks he could install a new hard drive and a mod chip, put a whole bunch of emulators on it and all the frontend software to let me burn games and movies. Now guess which option I actually considered.

I don't waste money on consoles in order to play dvds and stream music and trade pictures online. I waste money on my computer in order to do all that stuff.

The real trick is in convincing people that all the extras are really worth shelling out more money than they paid for the last console. Because once you tell people that it not only does A, but also B, C and D, they start to really consider whether they need all that crap. This is known as brand dilution. Add in too much extraneous function and it takes focus away from the whole reason you made the damn product in the first place.

Of course, what I'm actually worried about is money. The video game industry has smelt the scent of money in the water and now they're in a frenzy. The push to be flashy and ultra-cutting-edge and new and over-hyped is upping production and marketing costs, and all of those costs are being fed back to consumers.

Doesn't anybody remember Ion Storm and their out-of-control hype machine, wasteful spending and blowhard rock-star attitude?

Well, I guess not.

When people start talking about a 300 dollar or more price point for the next Xbox, I start to get a little uneasy. It is difficult for me to imagine dropping 300 dollars all-at-once, and then fifty dollars or more per game. And, of course, even more money to pay for the Xbox Live stuff.

What I would suggest is for game stores to start seriously considering a rent-to-own program.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Way Back When

Well, well, well
. . . imagine my surprise to read a preview for the upcoming Prey, only to realize, "Holy crap, I heard about this game, like, forever ago. Forever ago in video game years, which is, like, four, maybe five years."

3dRealms is responsible for Prey's resurrection. The same people that have been promising Duke Nukem forever for a period of time much longer than forever. Isn't there some kind of Nobel Tardy Prize they can win? 1

Of course, 3dRealms doesn't even want to deal with the property, so they've shoved it off on Human Head Studios, the same guys that brought us Rune. 2

When Prey was first being hyped, it was totally going to be the game that would make Unreal look like Stickybear Math. Then it just disappeared off the face of the earth. 'Vaporware', as it's known in the biz.
But now it's back, baby. Of course, all the cool new engine stuff they were touting is ancient history (colored lighting! shiny surfaces! slightly better textures than other games!). Instead they're using the Doom 3 engine, which isn't a bad choice, so long as you like to make ceaseless corridor-crawls with the world's muddiest palette.

What really bothers me, I suppose, is that the interview seems overly guarded. While this makes sense, as they are preparing for the big reveal at E3, it does little to excite me -- and when you've taken this long on a game that, when it didn't materialize, people quickly lost interest in, then you have to try much, much harder to wow at least some of us.

So many years, and all they can reveal about the story is that it involves an ex-Army Ranger/regular guy 3 Native American fighting on an alien spaceship that is alive and he fights aliens and portals open up and sometimes the aliens come through and sometimes he goes through the portals. I'm not going to dig at this story, because we're used to computer-created fantasy worlds like this by now (even if it does sound like a three-page comicbook I drew in fourth grade).

This better be the most refined fucking story in the history of video games. Seriously.

They tout the portal system and it sounds pretty awesome. An interesting way to provide surprising gameplay moments and link disparate scenes. Very postmodern. Except that was also their 'big deal' way back when, and looking at it now it seems more like a garnish than a meal, a way to add flavor to their gameworld.

To me the idea isn't too much different from the teleportation panels in the original Doom. Except that you can see to the other side. Whoop!

I would like to see if they are going to be doing any expansive terrains and how the Doom 3 engine handles those. I confess to not finishing Doom 3 4 , but I did get to see some of the Mars surface areas and, while not exactly huge, presented decent enough vistas (though confined).
What I really want to believe is that the original story was so compelling and the design document contained so many inventive gameplay mechanics that 3dRealms felt morally obligated to bring the product to the public, as denying the world such a game would have disastrous repercussions on humanity. Human Head Studios proved they had the creative vision to bring this game to life by devouring the hearts of oxen in a long-lost Norse ritual, and Odin himself deigned to lend his wisdom to the programmers.

Hmm . . .

1. 3dRealms is also the perpetrator of the game Shadow Warrior, a pretty typical First Person Shooter that stood out from the crowd by offering up horrendous Asian stereotypes with a side-order of chauvinism. Outstanding.

2. Rune being a merely mediocre third-person hack-hack-hack (maybe there was a slash command?) and key-hunt, only set in a surprisingly dull and unsurprisingly repetitive Norse environment.

3. I'd like to think that, at the very least, being an ex-Army Ranger prevents a person from being described as 'a regular guy' (though I'm sure there are many Army Rangers that would argue that point). But from a strictly story standpoint, that kind of statement seems both contradictory and cliche ("Sure, he may have jump wings, a scuba bubble, training in all sorts of weapons systems as well as hand-to-hand combat; he may know survival techniques, tracking techniques, reconnaissance techniques; he may know squad tactics and have MOUT training . . . but deep down, he's just a regular guy like you or me, he's no soldier.")

4. I stopped playing Doom 3 when I realized they were using the 'enemy materializes behind you in the shadows' trick that they completely overused in the original Doom, and they were using it constantly. I hate to confess that it took quite a few exclamations of "But I checked that corner!" before I caught on. Oh, and let's not forget the 'this wall will slide open, containing an enemy, as soon as you turn your back and cross an invisible line' trick.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Off the Rails

I'm all for
open-ended game design.

I love sandboxes, both real and virtual.

I used to play obsessively with Legos, building impossible vehicles and enormous fortresses, then smashing them and starting over.

Which is why videogames that offer lots and lots of choices appeal to me.

Of course, a sandbox has constraints, too. If the whole yard were sand, I wonder if it would have the same appeal.

I remember the game Silent Service II. This was one of my first computer game experiences. The great thing about it was that you could begin any year of World War II and go pretty much anywhere in the Pacific. Different years opened you up to different tech and levels of enemy activity.

The gameplay wasn't open-ended, per se. It would definitely end. But the approach to playing could vary wildly.

Do you flank the destroyers, sink the cargo ships as quickly as possible and then cut your engines and hope to avoid any depth charges? Or do you engage the destroyer, put a whole heap of torpedoes in its hull, then surface and use the deck gun to finish it off, allowing you to sink the cargo ships at your leisure?

I remember some tense battles. I remember trying desperately to sink the Yamato, pulling desperate maneuvers and experimenting over and over until, just barely, I succeeded.

This post isn't meant to make any kind of statement about video game design or how to make a good game or what a game is or anything of that kind. It's just a reminiscence and a general statement of affection for games that function as toys.

Hello, I'm Shallow

Yeah, I'd love
to go to E3 this year.

I'd love to visit conferences and network with professionals.

I'd love to discuss the present and future of video games with innovators and marketers and dreamers and programmers.

I'd love to collect game-related schwag.

I'd love to put up cool pics of meeting my favorite designers.

I'd love to see the new Xbox and possibly the new Playstation and hear all the outlandish rumors about the new Nintendo.

But, really . . . fuck all that.

I just wanna see booth babes.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Dirty, But Not Juvenile . . . Possible?

The challenge
: Make a sexually explicit game that is neither crude nor shallow, overly-simplistic or awkward, sexist or juvenile. In other words, make the ESRB Mature rating actually mean that the game is meant for mature individuals, not only that the content could offend.

Following a tangent for a second, I know I'm not the first person to see the irony in the Mature rating. Games that earn such a label tend toward infantile fantasies of power and control, delighting in destruction and mayhem, satisfying the instinctual lizard-brain ego-trip but little else.

Presenting sex in media, however, has been difficult for a long time, at least in America. Consider the movie Monster's Ball, which featured Halle Berry getting shtupped forcefully by Billy Bob Thornton. That's all I know of the movie - nobody I've talked to has ever mentioned if it was good or bad or artsy or boring. The sex scene overrode the movie.

Which is one of the challenges facing the game industry: What does a game about sex look like?

It can be seen that media about sex does not have to feature sex itself (Playboy). Or the sex act can be present but not the focus (Sex and the City, which centers more around the social ramifications of sex in the context of relationships).

Most games, however, that feature sexual situations range from passable to godawful.

Japan doesn't have a problem putting out sexually explicit games.

Hentai, though, essentially takes male pornographic power-fantasies and encourages overflow into the sexual realm, featuring rampant debasement and abuse of women. In other words, while they could be a healthy outlet for chauvinist aggression, they don't present any emotional alternatives. As I mentioned in an earlier post concerning Grand Theft Auto, the violence is necessary to complete the game but not to play the game, which I feel is an important distinction. Comparatively, hentai demands a linear play experience and offers no alternatives: You either fuck abusively or you lose.

American games have taken a tamer but just as emotionally weak course. They feature an adolescent's view of sexuality, which tends to consist of oversized mammaries and *snicker-snicker* double entendres that would only amuse a sixth grader. We are given sex which is hidden and dirty but also with absolutely no related emotions (Not surprisingly, the same view of sex which is taught in school - raw mechanics with no social reference whatsoever).

If we look at BMX XXX, we see that the whole goal of the game is no more complex than watching scrambled porn - ooh, titties! So we have a shitty game mixed with Girls Gone Wild-type titillation. And, like most people, I didn't see a point buying and putting up with a crappy game just to see something I could find on the internet for free.

Even the Leisure Suit Larry series, which is oft-praised (not sure why), presents sex as the overriding goal, not a mechanic to succeed or interact, but as a way of winning.

Which means that the best we can expect from sex & games so far is the depth of a pack of horny frat boys.

I don't really have any good ideas, either, for a compelling, sexually-explicit game. Most point to a sort of interactive pornography, which I suppose is compelling to some people (though, for me, I don't watch porn to interact with anything but myself . . . I'm not interested in clicking and jerking at the same time).

I'm sure that, over time, the industry will explore less-simplistic versions of sexuality as videogames grow ever more mainstream and complex. This isn't something that will just happen all on its own, though -- it is up to game players and creators to ask difficult questions and demand more sophisticated and mature content.

Connotations of a Name

I'm not entirely
certain that I like the name of next-gen system Xbox 360.

360, of course, makes it seem like they just went around, decided that it's better to profit than innovate, and made a course along the exact same way they voyaged the first time.

Then again, calling it the Xbox 180, while hinting that a new direction was plotted, could lead people to believe that they were hoping for failure with this model, since that would be opposite from their debut.

They could just avoid degree measurements altogether.

Maybe put it in radians?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Let the Minions Expand Your Brand

As totally freaking
excited as I am that GTA: San Andreas is coming to the PC, making that sublime gaming experience prettier via anti-aliasing and farther draw distances, I am also quite disappointed that Rockstar is planning absolutely no new content.

Which just seems silly, since there are quite a few areas that could stand to be fleshed out.

For one, the gang warfare should extend all over the map. There should be more obvious types in certain areas, i.e., biker gangs in the country, hippy gangs in San Fierro and Mafia goons having a heavy presence in Las Venturas.

And speaking of Las Venturas, that area was grossly under-used. The casinos that you could enter all featured the same games. There was nothing to distinguish them.

I was really hoping for a sort of penultimate mission sequence, like Vice City's grand heist.

San Fierro starts an intriguing storyline with Kendl urging CJ to go into real estate. But this ends up going nowhere.

Basically, the game should be tightened.

The hope, of course, is that the mod community will take up their tools and breathe new life into the familiar storyline. While this would make me ecstatic, judging by the finished number of mods to Vice City, I won't hold my breath.

I understand the desire to bring a product to every conceivable platform. It's called 'covering your bases'. The problem I have is that it is nice to play to the strengths of each system. At the very least offering downloadable content on Xbox live, or the ability to do some cooperative rampages with someone halfway around the world.

The whole enterprise, for me, equates to a band I really like putting out a really great new version of an older, lower-fidelity song. Great, cool, I'd probably enjoy hearing it with improved quality, but it's not something I could justify purchasing. If it were re-tooled or extended or otherwise made into something similar yet different, then spending becomes a maybe.

I just hate thinking of possibilities and then finding out that instead of a whole new addition to my house I'm only getting a fresh coat of paint.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Oh Yeah . . . That, Too

I know that
there's a big fun-is-necessary vs fun-is-not-necessarily-necessary debate concerning videogames, and probably games in general. And I know that I fall onto the side of the fundits, though only by being semantically an asshole.

But I thought about something while looking up some Alternate Reality Games. Sure, they're used to fulfill an ad exec's wet dream (Viral marketing! Self-perpetuating memescape! Buzzword horseshit!); Nevertheless, they are just insanely fucking cool.

All of this lead to something that, maybe, is so completely obvious to most people that they're bound to say, "What? You're only now just realizing that!?"

People are drawn to scores of different games - Videogames, board games, card games, reality games, word games - because, whether in a small way or a big way, they inject our everyday life with a little bit of magic.

Corporate Whoring

Separated recently
(for a few days) from my World of Warcraft addiction (enduring a mild case of DT), I decided to plug up my PS2 and venture into console gaming.

I started up a game that has garnered horrible reviews and is certainly guilty of having a god-awful title: Run Like Hell (or RLH, as all the hep cats are saying).

I totally agree with Gamespot's criticisms. The camera sucks, the cutscenes suck, the gameplay is simplistic, the quests are monotonous . . . whew!

Why do I enjoy this game?

For some reason I have a disorder that causes me to enjoy sub-par entertainment. I've always been quite partial to low-budget horror films. I worked in a video store for awhile and ran through every Friday the 13th, every Leprechaun film, dogs like Rumpelstiltskin and Night of the Demons and even cheese-gore classics like Dead Alive and Cannibal Holocaust.

Oddly enough, the thing that I really dislike about RLH is the advertising!

Let me set this up for you: It's the maybe-far-distant future. The future, anyway. You're a pilot on a big space station. There are some kinda cool humanoid aliens working on the space station. While you're away on a mission the station is overrun by really vicious aliens (that come in two flavors -- the Aliens-style aliens and the Captain-Gantu-ish brutes). It, naturally, falls to you to kick ass, take names and save the surviving station inhabitants.

And don't forget to get a refreshing BAWLS! beverage from machines located all over the station.

Yeah, no shit.

I've discussed advertising in games before and said I felt that it could be quite appropriate to a game. But RLH is, definitely, not one of those games.

What twisted fucking ad exec paired these things?
At the very least the BAWLS should, like, completely restore your health instead of giving you a miniscule amount. I mean, if you're going to awkwardly position your brand into a randomly-chosen videogame, shouldn't it do something really great in said game?

I'm the head of Charred Deth Cigarettes. I decide to slot them into the new Mario game, really create some cross-brand synergy. So when bringing my horrendous plan to fruition, do I decide that my cigarettes just give Mario a 5% increase in his jump height? Fuck no, when he grabs one of my smokes, it warps him straight to Bowser and makes him grow the size of the screen.

what shitty marketing is about!