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Archive for May, 2009

Link Sausage

OK, so it’s a weak pun, but I figured it would go over better than something with SPAM in it.

As might seem apparent, this is more game-related links, complete with tangential rumination, with a smattering of other things (as usual).  These things tend to be compiled over a week or more, so it’s not going to read as cohesively as a dedicated article.  I’ve largely said what I wanted to say about the MMO genre and design, so this sort of tangential discussion will be more common as time goes on.  Repeating myself about MMOs gets old after a while.  And you just can’t talk to some people.

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As I note in my Star Trek movie review, I have some quibbles with the film.  One of the bigger ones is the misuse of the very well defined “black hole” to present some sort of magical space singularity creating a variable time warp sort of… thing that kinda sorta sucks like a black hole, but not really.  To some people this isn’t a big deal, since hey, “it’s just a movie”.

Sort of like how WoW is “just a game”, and when they make fundamental changes to how stats behave, it’s not a big deal.  BBB fidgets a bit about the wonky itemization that seems to be going on in the current raiding scene, asking for some consistency in the approach, so that players don’t have to feel that they have been messed around with.  It’s really not too much to ask, as people don’t like parameters changing arbitrarily on them.

See, the way Star Trek arbitrarily and mistakenly uses the term “black hole”, it’s fundamentally ignoring what the already defined term actually means.  In WoW terms, it’s like the newest expansion of the game blithely saying that Strength now determines how many hit points you have, but only in that expansion, since hey, “it’s an alternate reality”.  Remember what the old stat did?  Did you itemize around it?  Sucks to be you, the system changed arbitrarily.  It’s just a game, suck it up.

That’s Hollywood Science.  Writers can’t even be bothered to understand the most basic definitions of words and phrases that they are ostensibly being paid to write about.  It’s a sweet job, if you can get it.

Do you see the difference?  Black holes are known entities, and should function the way they are defined to, or it’s just lazy writing and bad science.  The film’s red matter doesn’t raise the same red flags because it’s a new bit of magical technowidgetry, and they can do whatever they want to with it.  As oakstout noted, someone someday may indeed make red matter, because they wanted to understand the magic.  That’s not a problem.

It’s a microcosm of the “canon vs. reboot” debate.  If you’re going to honor canon, you’ve got to make more than a half-baked effort at it.  If you’re going to reboot and do your own thing, don’t use the same terminology, do your own thing.

True, this can be chalked up to a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.  Still, it’s a symptom of deeper issues.  As the Green Armidillo notes, The Persistent Reward is a Lie.  People don’t like being jerked around, being told one thing, only to be subject to something else.  At its core, it’s a betrayal of trust.  Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s incompetent, but it’s always an irritant.

It’s bad game design to teach players how to play the game, then arbitrarily change how the game functions.  True, a Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness game will use that specifically to mess with your head, but in a game that isn’t meant to drive you nutty, undermining the most basic elements of trust between player and dev is a dangerous road.  That trust is built on consistent application of action/reaction couplets, so that players can predict how they will approach the game.  A game that arbitrarily switches your UI elements might be fun if you want a gaming equivalent to a drug hallucination, but it’s usually just an annoyance.

You can extend the same thinking to finance (a big root of why the economy is broken at the moment is because of people changing the rules or trying to subvert them), language (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) or any other interpersonal interaction.  If you can’t trust the other party, at some point, interacting with them will not be something you want to do.  It’s cheating, in other words, and it’s a  disservice to those who are interacting.

That’s why we have dictionaries with definitions in them.  If there are no standards for communication or interaction, there is no trust, and with no trust, a lot of things break down.  To be fair, language does tend to evolve over time (just check the definitions of “thong” or “gay”), for better or worse.  That’s not what I’m talking about here, though.  I’m talking about lazy writing and arbitrary changes that betray incontinent thinking or wanton disregard for what has gone on before.

Life needs to move on.  People change.  Things change.  As Remy of Ratatouille notes, “life is change”.  It’s inevitable that some things will change over time, and that some old ideas probably should be challenged.  They should be challenged from a position of intelligent questioning, though, rather than hack writing that panders to an ignorant population.

So it’s not so much that I’m mortally offended that “black hole” in particular is misused in Star Trek, it’s that I’m annoyed and dismayed that they couldn’t be bothered to even get basic science right in what is a dominant science fiction IP.  I’d expect it of a Lost in Space sequel, but not Trek.  It’s that laziness and incompetence that I’m bothered by, whether it’s just bad writers or good writers who feel they need to dumb down the “technobabble” to appeal to the unwashed hordes.

…which should be a nice reminder of those inevitable arguments from MMO nuts who complain about the “dumbing down” of MMO design.

It’s real.  Producers feel an urge to dumb down their products, rather than lift up the audience with something genuinely intelligent.  That, more than anything, is what bothers me.  I see entertainment as something that can have a side function of education and enlightenment, and when I see it stoop to stupidity, it bothers me.

With Trek specifically, I’ve always seen it as something that at least tries to be intelligent, even if it’s a bit hokey or simplistic.  That the recent film is rather brain dead is extra disappointing as a result.

I suspect that linguists similarly mourn the overuse of “like” in teenager vocabularies, or the corruption of the language that textspeak invites.  Good math teachers mourn the idiocy of Investigations Math, since it produces mental incontinence and incompetence.  “Moral relativity” is ludicrous to theologians.  The “old guard” doesn’t always just complain to complain.  There are very real, valuable aspects of the human condition that we lose when we embrace mediocrity.

Misusing “black hole” or changing the Spellpower system in WoW isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a step into stupidity via shifting standards, and I’ll always have an instinctive allergic reaction to that sort of thing.  It’s a betrayal of trust, and tacit approval of inferiority, one paper cut in a death of a thousand cuts.  By itself, it’s not a big deal.  But these things add up, and accepting them as “just a game/movie/show” can lead to problems down the road.

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Arthas Trek

I’ve indulged in a bit of geekdom lately by partaking of the latest Blizzard World of Warcraft novel, Arthas, and the latest Star Trek movie, curiously titled Star Trek.  The novel, incidentally, came thanks to this kind lady, who pulled my name from a hat.  If you have any interest in sci-fi or fantasy fiction, she’s got a lot of good reading around her site.

I’ve made some comments about the book over at Spinks’ place (it’s worth bouncing over there, not just for my comments but for her reaction and any other great articles she may have up).  Now that I’ve finished the book, my impression is about the same.  Arthas just isn’t the tragic hero that I’d hoped for.  He’s an arrogant, morally weak, shortsighted, unintelligent caricature of the Greek tragic heroes he’s trying to emulate.  (Which isn’t to say the Greeks were sterling samples of humanity, but their falls made more sense.  Arthas “falls”, but because he’s easily manipulated into idiotic decisions.  Puppets aren’t nearly as interesting.  It’s tragic that he’s so malleable, but it doesn’t make for a terribly compelling moral tale.)

I lay the blame for this squarely at Blizzard’s feet.  Christie Golden does a good job filling out the character and some of his life and motivations, but it just throws his “fall” into sharper relief than we saw in the WarCraft 3 game itself.  His reasons for declining into madness and villainy are terribly shallow, and don’t follow organically or logically from the “good caring prince” that he was presented as initially.  We also get precious little of Arthas questioning himself, or a really good look into what he was thinking that spurred his actions.  He just acts, and while that can make for a rip roaring plot, it’s not all that effective as a character study.

Arthas is a puppet, “destined” to become the Lich King’s greatest servant, and perhaps even usurp his throne.  That’s not tragedy, not a legendary story of twisted motives (like, say, the story of Watchmen‘s Big Bad).  It’s just a Face/Heel turn going through the motions to give the Scourge an iconic face, and a traitor for the Humans to hate.  They were probably going for the Well Intentioned Extremist in Arthas, but I didn’t buy his conversion in WC3, and I don’t buy it now that I see more of his character.

Ms. Golden did what she could, but the core structure of the Arthas mythos is to blame here.  So, if you like what they did with Arthas in the games, you’ll find a lot to like about the Arthas novel.  Ms. Golden knows her lore, and weaves some interesting threads into Arthas’ life.  If you didn’t find him to be a very sympathetic character there, or were hoping for more depth, well… I’m not sure it’s there to be found.  The book’s a good read, but Arthas is an underwhelming character.  I wasn’t expecting a psychoanalysis of the guy, but what I did get just isn’t all that satisfying.  I’d still recommend the book for anyone who likes to geek out to WarCraft lore, though.

As for Star Trek, it’s been argued that the universe’s “reboot” in the movie is necessary to keep Trek relevant to today’s world.  I concur:  it’s dumber (terribad science, plot holes, odd characterization of established characters), louder, sexier, grittier, blingier and bloodier.  That can be praise or condemnation, depending on what you want out of entertainment and the Trek universe.  And, since Trek wasn’t exactly high literature in the first place, well… it’s not straying too far from its original roots.  (Star Trek: The Next Generation was a different animal in the family, for better or for worse.  This movie happily goes back to the Original Series heyday of stunts and silliness.)

As an artist trained to do these things, I’ve got to point out that J.J. Abrams’ high budget alternate reality fan fiction has ILM on board, so at least it looks pretty.  Of course, I’ve already faintly cursed such misplaced priorities (that money could have been better spent on a decent script).  Still, a movie that lets Ryan Church go nuts will get a thumbs up from those who want a healthy helping of eye candy.  (Spock’s ship has Ryan’s fingerprints all over it, so it looks awesome… despite being distinctly non-Vulcan.)  The only slightly sour note that struck me (beside the general Star Wars>Star Trek vibe) is the scale and clutter of the interior spaces of starships.  They certainly scream “unnecessarily complex” in an effort to appear “deep”, but even if you’re not seeing Okuda’s starship blueprints in your sleep, the size hinted at in the sweeping camera movements around the Enterprise’s belly doesn’t gibe with the external proportions, or with even the vaguest sense of utilitarian design (which is kind of important in practical space travel, though not in movies).  It’s not a big deal, just another discordant note in a symphony of noise.

In short, then, it’s a decent popcorn blockbuster flick (way more so than any other Trek movie, with the possible exception of the similarily loud, hyperbolic and overblingy First Contact), but it’s not really what I’m looking for out of Star Trek.  So it goes; dinosaurs like me have to die out sometime.

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I wrote about this earlier, and now it’s officially released!  Kaloki Adventures has made its way to the iPhone App Store, and is now on sale until Friday.  It’s a sweet game of resource management with a side of zany humor.

I was one of the artists for this game, which is technically a port of the earlier XBox Live title Outpost Kaloki X.  It was a fair bit of work to port it, and we describe it a bit on the company blog here (I wrote the art part):

iPhone Lessons

It’s on sale, it’s cheap, it’s good, and there’s a demo.  If you have an iPhone, please check it out!

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In the which I throw together a collection of links and comments, with the vague notion that it may be consumable, or at least instructive.  (You should see my Rice Crispie Treat recipe… it’s never the same twice.)

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Gatheryn has sent out a wave of beta invites, as Ysharros notes over at her place.  I commented there that I’ve received an invite to the beta… but had to turn it down.  See, there’s this little clause in the Terms of Service when setting up an account that prohibits anyone working for a different game company from playing in the beta.

…the beta that ostensibly is about finding and fixing bugs.

…bugs that industry insiders may well know a thing or two about, diagnosing them and even suggesting fixes.

*sigh*

I can understand not wanting competitors getting wind of things, but it’s exactly this sort of insular mentality that has MMO design in a rut, with everyone making DIKU flavors of the month, as Chris notes over at his place.

Of course, that’s assuming that beta is actually about making the game better.  If it’s a glorified PR release with some minor back end stress testing, then the nature of the beast is a bit different.  Also, there are those who aren’t currently employed in the industry who can contribute as well, so it’s not like they really *need* game insiders like me.  It just seems a touch paranoid and insular to me.  As I’ve noted before, game testing is a very different animal from game playing, so I can only hope that the Gatheryn guys have some internal testing going on with those who know what they are doing.

Still, it seems to me that having experienced eyes would be valuable.  Then again, this industry does reinvent the wheel the vast majority of the time, so it’s no surprise.  It doesn’t put me off of the game either; I’ll check it out when it goes live.

If you’re wondering why the state of the art of game design doesn’t progress very rapidly, this is one reason.  In a world where IP is protected fiercely, to the point of whining about secondary sales on the market, a paranoid design sensibility fits quite naturally.  It’s not exactly healthy, but it’s understandable.

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Bleeding Edge

Shamus has another great article up:

Death to Good Graphics!

While he states things a bit more… vitriolic than I might, I wholly agree with the sentiment.  Those of you who know that I’m an artist in the game industry might find that a little odd, so I’ll elaborate.

Why do Pixar movies regularly beat out Dreamworks offerings?  Both produce well crafted visuals, employing bleeding edge technology.  They do have slightly different target audiences, but the visuals are comparable.  Monsters vs. Aliens has a character that could pass as Sully’s cousin (from Monsters, Inc.).  Kung Fu Panda is perhaps the most Disneyish of Dreamworks’ lineup, as it shows a great degree of restraint and respect for the source material, but it doesn’t really offer a visual enhancement over Ratatouille or Monsters, Inc. (and some of the most visually striking sequences are the “storybook” bits that aren’t in the “full real world 3D” style).

The beating heart of Pixar’s success is the story.  Solid characters drive the story.  The visuals are just a means to an end.  They look great, certainly, but without the lovingly crafted stories, Pixar movies would be little more than tech demos.  Dreamworks is just as technically visually adept as Pixar, but their storytelling leans more to the armpit than the heart.  As a result, they don’t enjoy the same level of success as Pixar, either critical or monetary.

The beating heart of a game is the fun factor.  If a game looks gorgeous, but requires clinical insanity to appreciate the gameplay, it’s not much of a game.  If the development budget of a game is largely bent to serve the blingy visuals, something else is getting cut, and more likely than not, it’s the stuff that actually makes the game fun (or stable).

Look at some of the most popular games out there:

Peggle is extraoridnarily low tech visually, but still has a ton of players.  Ditto Bejeweled or the like.  They aren’t ugly, and they have competent art direction to make them visually appealing, but first and foremost, they are fun to play.  This is a big part of why handheld gaming is so significant in the industry, and why “casual” gaming and short session gaming is closer to the future of the industry than Gears of War 5.

World of Warcraft isn’t the most visually attractive game out there, but solid art direction and savvy scalable art assets are layered on top of a game that is fun to play (at least until you’re burnt out).  Age of Conan has detailed art and plenty of eye candy, but just isn’t as fun to play as WoW, according to many.  (I don’t speak from experience on that; AoC isn’t interesting to me, but there are those who I respect who like it more than WoW, like Openedge1.)

Uno on XBox Live has sold a few copies, and Castle Crashers is a critical and monetary success, despite graphics that aren’t appreciably advanced beyond those of a decade ago.  People still play Settlers of Catan, even online, or even Risk or any of its derivatives, and they are far from pixel-shaded DX10 monstrosities.

The priority in game design should be giving the player the chance to have some fun.  I love making pretty visuals as much as the next guy (and I was trained to make Pixar-level visuals; I can *do* super high end with the right tools), but constantly chasing the bleeding edge of visual prettiness means making sacrifices in time and monetary dev budgets that more often than not, could be better spent making the core game experience better, whether that means more iterative design with ugly graphics (to see if the thing *plays* well) or more features, less visual creep.

Yes, that may mean fewer artists in the industry, so I may well be shooting myself in the foot on that, but I really do think that the health of the industry depends more on making greater *games*, and not on making prettier games.  If you can do both, that’s great, but if there has to be a choice made (and there usually is), even though I’m an artist, I’ll always side with making a better game.

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This is why you really shouldn’t think too much about economics in game design:

Destabilizing the Economy

(Or, perhaps, why you really should think about economics in game design…)

I trust anyone inclined to do so to make their own political conclusions.

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Some people remember the T-Rex or the lawyer from Jurassic Park.  What I remember most is the mention of Chaos Theory.  I understood the concept easily enough since I’d been tinkering with fractals since I was 12 or so, but before that film, I didn’t realize that there was a big “T” Theory behind it.  (Yes, that’s me, the art geek, figuring out how they did the effects and ruminating on science when any “normal” high school student would just be cheering the dinosaurs and wondering why Samuel L. Jackson was so quiet.)

Channeled Chaos

Channeled Chaos

What stuck with me the most was the notion of “bounded chaos”.  That’s more or less what fractals are, since they are recursive and iterative, generally staying within certain conceptual boundaries (most Mandelbrot “pieces” share similar structures, as do Julia sets, and so on).  They have bounds within which their recursion makes sense, so they aren’t completely irregular and chaotic (totally random), yet they have an element of randomness to them.  They are noisy (plenty of things going on, some that look random), but ultimately very patterned.  That dichotomy is fascinating to me, as a professional artist with deep interest in science.

To this day, Photoshop uses the Cloud and Difference Cloud filters, which bear a striking resemblance to some of the early 80s fractals that I experimented with.  Such semi-random (but repeating) visual effects are vital to making games, since we don’t have infinite texture storage space, but we don’t want things to look too patterned (since it would look too manufactured and obviously fake).  Repeating semi-random patterns are useful to add visual noise to a texture that repeats, breaking up the repetition and making for a more plausible final output.  The human eye is very good at discerning patterns, and it’s one of the game artist’s more interesting tasks to subvert that penchant.

Most computer generated art and “randomness” is actually very patterned (just by the nature of the medium; computers deal with bits with clear on/off states… true “randomness” isn’t a computer’s forte, though cryptographers make use of their computational power to fake it sometimes).  As it happens, so is a lot of nature, though it looks random on a macroscopic scale much of the time.

As visual beings, we’re used to this sort of “variable pattern” because we see it nearly everywhere.  From a distance, a brick wall may look very regular, but upon further inspection, each brick is different.  Our mind almost accepts this as a sort of visual shorthand, which is why we can cheat it often enough with repeating textures in games.  The mind is used to things looking regular sometimes, and assumes that there’s more detail than there really is.

One of the key derivatives of these notions is that variation does not require true randomness.  We’re actually OK with patterns, and in a lot of ways, they are how we survive.  (Witness the stress that comes when a daily routine is jarred, or big changes happen in life.)  We’re not actually built to handle a lot of randomness; it can paralyze us, and if life were completely random, we’d never really learn much, since cause and effect wouldn’t be predictable.

Short story long, as an artist and scientist, I’ve dealt with randomness and patterns for a long time now.  I see the strength in both (and the interplay between them), and am continually finding ways to use both for my projects.

This, of course, has ramifications for Game Theory.  The very nature of unpredictability is key to pretty much any game.

Mark Rosewater has a catalog of great articles, and a recent one caught my eye:

Kind Acts of Randomness

Mr. Rosewater argues that games require an element of randomness, but that too much randomness is detrimental.  Magic The Gathering is built on unpredictability, but many of the tools that players have are expressly designed to minimize or manipulate that unpredictability.  Some of the most powerful cards make things more predictable.  (Future Sight is one good example, as is Sensei’s Divining Top.  These are very powerful cards, and they deal with only a fraction of the unpredictability.)

Let me quote from the article:

Anyway, in the book, Jesse Schell defines numerous game design–related terms. His definition for fun was “pleasure with surprises.” His definition for play was “manipulation that satisfies curiosity.” And his definition for a game was “a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” Can you see the connector between these three definitions?

The answer is the unknown. Surprises are things that are unexpected. Curiosity is a desire to learn about things you don’t know about. Problem-solving is finding solutions that you are unaware of when you begin. At its crux, gaming is about discovery of the unknown.

I can’t recommend the article enough, and this is the heart of why.  This is why I keep coming back to the notion that players need to have the ability to make varied and significant choices in their games.  They need to be able to try different things, experiment a bit, and not be punished for it.  A good game gives players plenty of things to explore and ways to approach the content, and lets them loose within parameters.  Bounded chaos works for gamers as well as planetary rings.

Put another way, there’s the popular weaselspeak phrase “think outside the box”.  This is completely irrelevant if you don’t know where the box is.  You have to know where the boundaries are and what the parameters of a situation are before you can take significant action.  Complete chaos isn’t all that fun since there isn’t any measuring stick of progress, and no way to learn.  Players can derive their own meaning, but that can be onerous.

This is why even “sandbox” games still have a box around them.  There are rules and regulations, predictable functions within the game world.  Players are cut loose to go crazy within those parameters, but truly random chaos is not given free reign.

I tend to argue that too much constriction in game design can be stifling.  A game that is completely predictable isn’t fun for long.  That’s why I rail against class-based, level-heavy, gear-centric DIKU MMO design.  To me, the bounds they set for their chaos is too tight.  I’ll never advocate for a complete free-for-all mess of a game, though.  That would break things just as surely as a game on strict rails (a movie with a pause button?).

Players have fun with variety and experiencing the unknown… but they also want to be able to master it.  Setting clear bounds on the game design, even if it’s just internal (not given to the players), will go a long way to making the game work.

Another book I’ve read on game design reminds that changing player “verbs” is dangerous; if a Holy Hand Grenade +5 does 5D4 of Holy damage, it should always do that much damage. Changing how things work arbitrarily is the epitome of “gotcha” design, and it’s usually very poor practice because it takes away the player’s ability to predict things in a largely unpredictable world.  (Though, notably, horror games take advantage of just that.  It’s just annoying in most games, but “gotcha+mood=horror” in that genre, and the subtle psychological manipulation of player expectations is key to most successful scary games.)

While we’re at it, even the xDy notation of dice rolling implies bounded chaos.  You know that a 3D6 die roll (3 six-sided dice) will always give you a total value between 3 and 18.  You can plan around that.  A 4D4 roll will give values between 4 and 16, a narrower band, which might be more preferable than the wider variation of the 3D6.  Similarly, a 1D10 vs. a 1D4 + 6 will function very differently, despite the upper potential being identical.

This is the backbone of D&D, and countless derivatives and sister designs.  The ability to tune effects using this sort of bounded chaos is a great shorthand for the risk/reward notion that makes choices interesting.  Is a 1D30 spell better than a 3D10 spell?  Statistically, a 1D30 spell has an equal chance to do high damage as it does to do low damage.  On the other hand, a 3D10 spell’s statistical distribution follows a rough bell curve, with an aggregate higher chance to do decent (midrange) damage than either low damage or high damage.  (And it won’t even do less than 3 natively.)  The choice between the two is significant enough to be interesting, giving power to the player, but not chaotic enough to make game tuning and balancing a headache, or annoy the player with a string of unlucky and underwhelming “rolls”.

So when I call for a classless skill-based system in MMO design, I’m not calling for chaos, I’m calling for more choices for players within somewhat wider “bounds” than the mainstream DIKU strain.  Not coincidentally, more player choice in a multiplayer game means more interesting unpredictability (within bounds) for other players, for better or worse (I think it can be better, but it needs to be considered carefully to channel it properly).  Also, when I write about Autopilot Character Development, I’m talking about letting players take the reins a bit and control some of those bounds.  In a system that has a great deal of freedom, ACD would be a way for players who crave structure to impose it on themselves (and to shrug it off later, if they so choose).  MMOs in particular can take advantage of such a variable system, since players have different play styles, and even a single player might want to change their approach at different times.

It’s certainly a balancing act, finding a sweet spot of effective bounds to give freedom without invoking pure chaos, and every game will have its own set of bounds relevant to its game design, but it’s important to understand why you’re doing what you do as a designer, and to realize that both randomness and control have hugely important repercussions.  Players need variability (not true chaotic randomness), and they also need power to control it.

Other articles that I didn’t quite work in, but are relevant:

Randomness and Replayability

Replayability 1

Replayability 2

(Controlled randomness is important for initial play, but maybe even more so for replay value.  It’s also important for keeplayability, despite the generally higher level of player control that I think keeplayability needs.)

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Thanks to Hirvox for calling attention to this fascinating tangent:

Greedy Goblin Raiding

Gevlon’s mindset is fairly alien to me a lot of the time, but at least I can understand it. His latest experiment with guilds and raiding touches on not only the nature of raiding, but the mercenary nature of sociality (and the kerfluffle between soloists and guildies) in games like these.

What a curious little drama. I, for one, applaud Gevlon for finding this interesting arrangement. I hesitate to call it equitable, since the Goblin mindset isn’t really interested in equality, but the “transaction” clearly seems to be making both parties happy, and that’s enough. Of course, everyone is clear that they are using each other, but when it’s out in the open like that, and agreed to up front, it works.

Social contracts are interesting beasties, and this one, between a guy who is happy doing his own thing (largely preying on others, but not in a “group”) and a guild that seems to work very well as a tuned machine of many players, provides some interesting views on the nature of MMO player interaction.

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