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Archive for October, 2009

I’m not really much of a Halloween sort of guy.  What little I do for Halloween is indulge my kids’ interest and get candy cheap once the holiday is over.  I’ll even hand out candy to the little thugs that stop by if I’m in a good mood.

(OK, I’ve been having great fun with Halloween events in Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates, but that’s sort of… not normal.  When I tell neighbors I work on games, I get the standard blank stare and a “that’s nice” when they are actually trying to find a way to discreetly run away and tell their kids to avoid me.)

Anyway, things worked out this year.  I didn’t need to find a role to play for Halloween this year, Ixobelle did it for me:

Plot Refinement: NPC Intros

Mwahahaha!

(Is it terrible that I can actually identify with the “grieving mad doctor” character?)

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Tobold linked to an interesting article in The New York Times a couple of days ago, wherein “hardcore” marathon runners are rather dismissive of slower runners:

Hardcord vs. Casual

It’s an interesting take on things, but fundamentally flawed when it comes to gaming.  At least, for some players.

To wit, not everyone cares about the rat race.  (Link to Ysharros’ great article on gaming principles.)

Yes, in an era of Facebook, XBox Achievements and Blizzard’s new battle.net services, where players are competitors first, pride provokes participation, and ego is the raison d’être, the tacit assumption is that the biggest reason for playing is so that others know about it.  This isn’t a surprise, but it is unfortunate.  Gaming becomes less about the game itself, great game design, or even fantastic experiences, and simply becomes a way for nerds to feel like jocks.

This has all sorts of deleterious effects on sociality (the infamous Counterstrike “emotes” being an easy example) and game design (MMOs reveling in the rut of racing rats on treadmills, idiotic “achievements” that detract from gameplay).  To be sure, some of this comes from reflexively being the contemptuous, confrontational CroMagnon cretins we are when internet anonymity facilitates and magnifies stupidity, but more and more, games are built around this impulse.  It’s certainly profitable, but more and more, I find such a trend to be disturbing.

Perhaps there’s no going back to more innocent times when games were things to enjoy, not work at for the equivalent of a part time job that costs you money.  There may not be a way to stuff the Gamer Score Genie back in the bottle.  Pandora’s preening peacocks are noisy, obnoxious beasts, but we’re stuck with them.  I think that it is unfortunate that they have such a significant bully platform, but perhaps that’s just the inevitable result of a society that manages to grow old without growing up.

Still, I’m sitting out this rat race.  I still find much more joy in the journey than I ever would by finishing it before someone else.  I don’t need someone else to feel superior to so that I can have fun in a game.

The “marathon to MMO” analogy works with the business model fairly well, though.  People buy their entry tickets, and start running.  They aren’t charged for each hour they run, or even for each mile they run, and they certainly don’t buy perpetual access to the route.  They buy access to the complete route for a chunk of time, after which said access is summarily cut off.  Is it any wonder why both the elitists and the hosts are troubled when these slower runners don’t play by the same unwritten expectations?  It’s the exact same mentality as those who say that a subscription to an MMO is a “level playing field”.  It certainly is, if you’re only looking at a couple of variables and assuming the rest, blithely ignorant of diverse goals.  (To be fair, there isn’t financial impetus to acknowledge diversity.  “One size fits all” pricing doesn’t have room for that sort of reasoning.)  Slower runners don’t fit the mold, and will always be a problem for the race mentality, even though the administrators are more than happy to take their money.

Of course, such runners would often be better served by not buying into the marathon in the first place, if it’s just a race.  Notably and naturally, I don’t buy into subscription games.  My money would be wasted on such, since the nature of the beast runs contrary to what I want out of a game.  Such oddball souls as I are better served by running at their own pace along the marathon path when it’s open to the public (GASP, Free To Play!), maybe buying lunch along the way (GASP! Freeloaders actually spending money in an environment!).  Importantly, people who feel welcome have a tendency to return the goodwill, even if they aren’t running the race that the elitists define their existence by.  (I cite again Daniel James of Three Rings/Puzzle Pirates fame:  “Money can’t buy you love, but love can bring you money.”  …as a Brit, I wonder if he was influenced by the Fab Four.)

Different strokes for different folks, to be sure, but in the end:

Not everyone is interested in the race.  Some are only interested in the route and the roses along the way.

These people are not “doing it wrong”, they are not misguided souls in need of correction, rehabilitation and scorn, they are not denigrating the sport/game.  If you as a game or marathon provider let them in and take their money, they are your customer.  If you don’t want your experience soiled with their presence, don’t take their money and don’t let them in.

Fortune cookie version for the TL;DR crowd:

He who dies with the most toys still dies“, “First means nothing without second“, and “It’s hard to smell the roses when you’re running at top speed

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Nothing much this Friday, just a plug for a gaming gem that Good Old Games finally added to its library:

The Incredible Machine (Mega Pack)

If you’ve never played The Incredible Machine, this is a perfect time to pick it up.  This “Mega Pack” is several games in one package, comprising almost all of the Incredible Machine gaming released to date.  For $10, you get these venerable old games in a Windows XP-playable format, free of DRM.  GOG really has the best online game purchasing system, and a great library of fantastic games.  (Come on, Lucasarts, let GOG sell your masterpieces too!)

If you’ve ever had an inkling to play with Rube Goldberg devices or physics based games, TIM stands as a masterwork in the field.  The puzzle part of the game is worth the price alone, but the sandbox is the part that I’ll be introducing my little girl to.  She loves World of Goo, and this should be a blast for her.  (And hey, it’s even educational!)  This, WoG and Crayon Physics are the trifecta that make me happy as a gamer who managed to grow up, hoping to help my little ones find happiness in games.  They don’t make ‘em like this often, and when they do, they really should be applauded.

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Twinkies

Just another quick plug.  Life is still busy here, but there’s plenty to read.  Specifically, Ernest Adams’ series of game design articles:

The No Twinkie, Bad Designer! Database

It’s well worth a read.  Sometimes, the best way to avoid making a dumb mistake is knowing what it is.

(If it helps, think of it as one man’s game design version of the tvtropes website.)

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“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Grand Moff Tarkin

Grand Moff Tarkin, the Glare of Doom

(Picture shamelessly copied from the Wookieepedia article on Grand Moff Tarkin.)

Brian “Psychochild” Green thinks modern MMO design lacks adventure. I concur.  I can’t help but think that this is largely due to the developer impulse to control the game experience, rather than let the reins loose a bit and let the players be the content.  It’s wholly understandable, considering just how badly players can screw things up, but realistically, in a medium where audience choice is key to the experience (games), you must let players control the experience to some degree.

There’s no way around it if you’re actually making a game rather than a movie or Skinner box.  Games are interaction, experimentation and play.  We’ve lost that along with the adventure.

MMOs in particular need not spend time and effort trying to make groups of players go through a Pavlovian script, but rather, to leverage the inherent variability and instability that comes when you have people interacting as independent, yet interconnected, agents of change.  That’s part of the promise of these Multiplayer games, after all.

So, Luke, you scrappy little Force user with little more than dreams and prophecy to drive you, stop wasting your time with batches of ten womp rats.  Start flying a borrowed bit of middleware machinery, and craft a plan to demolish the triumphantly technological, carefully controlled Death Star that is modern MMO design.  Some of the clumsy few may die on the way through the trenches (R.I.P. Vanguard), but all it takes is one perfect shot to show that the Empire isn’t invincible.

The freedom of sentients everywhere depend on the actions of a brave few!

Death Star Under Construction

Death Star Under Construction

(Picture shamelessly pulled from the Wookieepedia article on the Death Star.)

Disclosure:  I am not in the SWTOR beta, and I don’t think it will be the Force I’m looking for.

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My inspiration for this relatively quick post(considering the expansive topics, anyway) comes from two somewhat disparate sources.

First is the talk given by Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently about how work and learning sustained him during his rough childhood in post-WW2 Europe.

Two Principles for Any Economy

As refugees from East Germany, he and his family had almost nothing, and had to work hard to stay alive.  Things eventually got better for them because they kept working.  I’ve long believed that work is essential to mental, physical and spiritual health.  The natural question that I come back to whenever this comes up is simply:

What would you do if you didn’t have to work for a living, and had all your material needs and wants satisfied?

I’d still design games, produce art, and find ways to teach people art, science and math.  (Those aren’t incongruous; I believe that art and games have vast teaching potential.)  When I wanted to work up a good sweat, I’d find someone who needs help moving, or go build something in a woodshop.  I’d go pick up that Ph. D. in Astrophysics that I’ve wanted for years.  I would spend more time with my family, working and playing (play is a child’s work in a lot of ways), learning and teaching.  I love being productive and creating things and/or fixing things.  I couldn’t sit still for long.  Is it any wonder why I’m allergic to the Big Brother welfare state?

The second source is Wolfshead’s article over here:

Why Scaling Challenge Should be the Future of MMO Content

It’s an excellent article that is quite obviously about play, but it prompted a similar question for me:

What would you do in an MMO (or any other game) if you didn’t have to work for gear or levels, and all your in-game wants and needs were satisfied?

I’ve already answered that a bit in my Game Tourism article, but to recap, I’d play the game.  In other words, if the “game” is nothing but the loot treadmill and chasing levels, well… there’s not much there for me.  I’d play with that for a while, and probably have fun, but it’s ultimately a shallow set of experiences to build a game on in my mind.  There is a LOT more that can be done in game design.

Now obviously, these are somewhat different questions, but to me, they both dig to the same core questions:

What is important to you?  What motivates your actions?  If you were freed from mundane concerns, what would you spend your time on?  Are you a consumer, a constructor, or a contributor?

What is the measure of your character?

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Shamus over at Twenty Sided has a great series of articles up on FUEL, specifically the game design aspect of procedural content, and how it fosters exploration in the FUEL world.

FUEL:  Introduction

FUEL:  Defining Procedural

FUEL:  Roads

FUEL:  Terrain

FUEL:  Final Thoughts

It’s well worth reading through all of them if you have any interest at all in how games are made.

Procedural content is a fantastic tool for devs.  It multiplies art assets and labor, and makes higher level art direction easier in some ways.  WoW made extensive use of procedural terrain generation, and I suspect pretty much any MMO has used at least a simple fractal generator or three, at least as a starting point for the huge swaths of land they tend to boast.  Crafting all of that by hand just isn’t feasible.  Hand-polishing places here and there, and lovingly crafting certain high traffic locations is smart, to be sure, but you can do a LOT with clever procedural algorithms.

This is one good example of fractals that show up when you know what to look for (thanks to Postcards From Azeroth):

The Mirror Of Dawn

The edge on that lake is very fractal.  Compare it to the Mandelbrot set fractal over here.  You’ll find this sort of thing all over the place when you look at large scale geography in games.  Fractals tend to look natural enough to fool the eye, at least as long as you don’t look too deeply.  There are entire programs built around this.  Bryce is perhaps the most common one, but Terragen looks to be one of the more powerful ones.  (I keep meaning to experiment with it… when I have all that free time, right?)

Whether you use one of those programs or an in-house terrain generator, the principle is the same, though.  Let the computer do the mindless, repetitive vertex shuffling according to some simple rules that can generate complex output.  (Pretty much what fractals are all about.)  Computers love to do that sort of repetitive, mindless number crunching, while computer artists and engineers tend to see it as a waste of time.  (Not to mention mindless and morale-killing.)

It’s a bit like brushes in Photoshop, or filters.  They exist as visual “macros”, quick and easy ways to perform repetitive tasks, hopefully freeing up expensive artist time to work on art direction and specific set pieces.  That’s a significant part of why Photoshop and Painter even exist.  I could reproduce the Mona Lisa pixel by pixel in MSPaint, but why in the world would I want to beat myself up that way?  Computers waste a lot of our time already, why not let them shoulder the load when they are good at it?

I worked with Renderman for a while in college.  In one class, I wrote shaders from the ground up, effectively creating textures for 3D objects completely in code.  There are some shots of my work over here:

Renderman (There are also some cool eye shaders over there that I had a blast putting together.  The mesh for the eye was just a simple NURBS sphere; all of the subtleties of the cornea and coloring came entirely from code.)

OK, it was done in Renderman code, which is more like scripting than coding.  Still, there was no painting involved, no 2D graphics program, just code and a 3D mesh from Maya.

Procedural Gourd Texture

Procedural Gourd Texture

Everything that made this gourd’s coloring was typed up in a text editor.  The assignment was to take a real gourd and replicate it with a simple Maya 3D mesh and the Renderman code.  The color, texture, lighting, surface lighting properties and even slight bump mapping (I don’t think I used displacement mapping on that one) on that gourd are entirely text-based.  If I, a paltry college student, could do that, imagine what the Pixar guys get away with.

You can do a lot with code.

That might sound a little odd, coming from me, an artist.  I’m one of those newfangled artists, though, who sees great value in this sort of thing.  I loved the “tree painting” tool I used for EA.  It let me “paint” where trees should grow, how dense and how tall, on a Maya surface, and it would bring in preconstructed trees and scale them appropriately.  I effectively painted forests onto the world.  It really could have gone a step further and had the trees themselves be procedurally generated.  Trees are perfect for that sort of thing.

Roads are another natural fit, considering they tend to either fit a grid or flow with the terrain (itself procedurally generated).  Sure, you need more constraints in how they actually behave so that they make sense, but it’s precisely that sort of process that game programming deals with all the time.  It’s all in finding the simplest rules possible that will, when given a starting point and a bit of randomness, can produce something that looks natural.

In a way, it’s telling the computer how to process rules like we teach art students.  If you can give the computer the code equivalent of the rules and principles of art, like balance, rhythm, line, proportion, variation, motion, color theory and so on, it can generate a lot of art in short order.  (All that artists do is apply the same rules to whatever ideas rattle around in our head.)  It may not have the spark of creativity that makes the finest hand-crafted pieces as great as they are, or the rationalization that allows us to think a Pollock painting is high art, but computers, sufficiently educated, can do a lot.

Though, it should be noted that educating them takes time and effort, as well as an artistic eye.  Computers are also notoriously stupid (or exceptionally smart) in that they are rigidly bound to internal logic and thinking “inside the box”.  They are fantastic tools, but must be used the proper way to be of any use.  You can’t just put Deep Blue in a room and tell it to whip up the perfect video game.  You can, however, use them to shoulder a lot of the inane repetition in the development process.

Shamus describes it in depth over at his place, so again, I heartily recommend his articles.  I’m mostly just chiming in as an artist, noting that I love it when the computer can help make my job faster and easier.  I suppose that at some point, it could be argued that a sufficiently advanced computer could do the job on its own, but I’m confident we’re at least a few years from that situation.  And, well… once that day comes, I’ll be telling the computer how to do the job I once did, so things will work out.

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It snowed last week.

The first snow of the season always makes me happy.  I love Fall and Winter.  It’s my time of year, and always makes for some great photography.

It does make moving about a bit harder, though.  We’re looking to move to a new home, and my wife really wants to get in before it gets cold and really snowy outside, which would make things more troublesome.  Still, I’m really loving the colder temperatures.

At the same time, EA/Bioware is giving me the cold shoulder, much as the Gatheryn people did.  See, they opened up the floodgates for applications to beta test Star Wars:  The Old Republic.  I like the sound of the game, and would happily beta test it a bit, but according to the Beta Application terms, I’m disqualified because I work in the game industry.

I’m not out to steal their ideas.  If anything, I’d give them a few.  No, what I’d want out of tinkering with their beta is a chance to take a look, to offer some opinions, and to find some bugs.  I’ve done my share of testing games at my job, and I know what to look for and how to fix it.  I like fixing things, and offering ways to make a product better.  (Which gets me into trouble sometimes, actually.  Not everyone wants things fixed.)

I’m one of those weird souls who plays on a test server and actually tests things, though.  I know, the trend is to use betas as promotional tools (and the response to the SWTOR one, which crashed the application server, is a good indicator of the interest in the game).  I’ll admit, a beta is a good place for me to check out a game.  (I got into the DDO Unlimited beta and loved it, even as I found things to submit bug reports on… they only cared that I wasn’t working on another MMO.)  Still, I consider it my fair bit of the bargain to actually do some testing and help find problems with the game.  Strange, I know.

So, alas, I won’t be beta testing SWTOR.  I wish the game well, though.  I’m not bitter, just a bit… chilly.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be playing Puzzle Pirates a lot more.  One of the Ocean Masters over there (PP’s Game Master position, since servers are called Oceans) bestowed a very kind gift on my unworthy piratey soul.  (Quick plug:  there’s a link up there in the upper right to show you my pirate, and if you join the game via that link, there *should* be some in-game currency in the offering by way of the referral system.)

Demeter, the Greek goddess hailed by Homer as “bringer of seasons“, has kindly granted my PP account a year’s subscription.  She sent me an email explaining this, and that she knows that I like to play on the PP test ocean (effectively their Public Test Realm), the Ice Ocean.  It’s a wild frontier sort of place, where bug hunts are more important than hunting gold, and new species of game design are wont to rear their puzzling heads.

More than once, I’ve noted on the PP forums that I’d make Ice my home and play there almost exclusively.  (The trouble being that only subscribers or those who have purchased doubloons recently can go there.  The gift of a subscription unlocks the realm for me.)  Yes, it’s potentially subject to a complete wipe, but I don’t mind.  Playing on Ice is all about experimentation, exploration and taming the sometimes wild bugs that inevitably come up in game development.  That, to me, is far more interesting than playing on a “normal” server scrabbling around in the water for pieces of eight.  Ice, as a test server, is more about *playing* the game than accumulating more piratey *stuff*.  I can’t help but appreciate that.

(Which means yes, I’d likely do the same thing in WoW, if that were my game of choice.  Test realms are about the last “frontier” of MMO gaming, and that I get to help the devs that I like is icing on the cake.)

Plus, well, Three Rings does excellent work.  I’ve often held them up as an example in the game dev field, and I welcome the chance to spend a bit more time with their work.  I’m still busy and not really an online gaming fanatic, but if I’m going to play online, I’m going to play somewhere that I’m happy to do so.  The Ice Ocean is one of those places that just feels like going home.

So, even as my little family is finding a new home in this crazy “real life” thing, I feel like I’m going home to one of my sanctuaries in the online gaming world.  It’s a gift that I can’t thank Demeter enough for.  These Three Rings people are some of the best devs that I’ve had the chance to converse with.  (Special mention of Apollo, another OM, and the great fun that he’s offered as a forum admin and event runner.)

To be sure, it’s a relatively small thing in the grand scheme of Life and All That’s In It, but to me, it’s a very kind welcome mat and a magnanimous gesture that makes my heart warm, even as I go play in the snow.  Thank you, Demeter!

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Game Tourism

Bartle thinks I’m an Explorer.  (EASK 100/50/50/0, to be precise.)  I spend more time looking around and taking screenshots in MMOs than any other activity.  I love sites like this:

Postcards From Azeroth

The WoW Map Viewer makes me very happy.  (Of course, it’s broken for patch 3.2, which makes me a sad carebear, but since it’s a labor of love, I can’t really complain.)

To me, the most interesting part of an MMO, and most other games, is the worldbuilding involved.  Some of that is due to my career (I’m an artist in the game industry), some of it is just personal preference.  A large part of it is due to my constrained gaming time and very low tolerance for grind and abusive game design.

Shamus of Twenty Sided fame has a great Escapist article up on this, coming at it from the angle of wanting an “I Win” button.

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.  I’ve matured past the point of wanting to prove my self worth by conquering an abusive video game.  (Truth be told, I hated it back in the NES Ninja Gaiden days.  I didn’t quite have words to express it then, I just knew that I liked some of the game and hated the “gotcha” moments and “Do It Again, Stupid” gameplay.)  I detest grind (known as “do the same thing over and over so you can qualify to do something else”).  I can’t stand memorization as a general rule, so long “Quicktime” events bother me.

I come to something like WoW or Guild Wars and want to spend a lot of time looking around.  I’m a tourist, that’s what I do.  It’s a matter of priorities.  I don’t care for the mindless treadmills that pass for “gameplay” or the puerile cesspool that passes for “community” in most games.  I want to see what the devs put together, and how their worldbuilding comes together.

Devs, if you believe that you have an interesting setting and great game world, let me look around in it.  Let me see it at my leisure and poke around the fringes.  Stop pushing me through cattle runs and Achievement galleries.  Let Team Ninja do the whole “we’re the Dev Gods, kiss our feet” routine wherein the player has to qualify via self-flagellation to see your magnum opus.  Players bought the game, let them play it and see what you made.  Some players are masochists, sure, but if you want to make money in the mainstream, realize that those players aren’t the bulge of the bell curve.

Devs, if players who have purchased your game are only seeing half of it because they don’t have da skillz to see the rest, you ripped them off.

So, how about some potential fixes for the problem?  Complaining is cheap and easy, right?

I worked on Tiger Woods for the PS2, and we had a “dev cam” that we could take control of and look around the scene.  This was a vital tool for us to actually see what was going on with our art, and how we could fix things.  I want that as a player.  Make it a cheat, fine, but give me control of the camera for when I just want to look around.  I can promise you that I’ll have a greater appreciation for the artistry involved with the game if you let me study it, especially if you let me pause the game and then take control of the camera.  (Frame by frame control would be brilliant, too.)

It’s scary, since some visual elements are indeed constructed like Potemkin Villages, and letting players look “behind the curtain” to see the wizardry might feel a little… drafty.  Thing is, in a world ever more preprocessed and spun into superficiality, I think that some players would appreciate such candor.

For MMOs, let me buy levels, or just do away with the gating grinds in the first place.  Ultimately, what would be great is if there were a Map Viewer in every MMO.  It doesn’t need to affect the live game (though a “Ghost Mode” would be great).  In games where moment to moment tactical information is important to conceal for playability, an offline Viewer would be perfect.

Make all of the cinematics available from the start.  If someone wants to spoil the story, that’s their choice.  If they don’t understand the context because they didn’t play through some parts, maybe that’s a good reason for them to go back and play the game some more and have a bit of fun playing through. 

(Tangent:  Why are these heavy story-based games pretty much just “story for a while then game for a while, the two rarely mixing”?  One simple reason is that interactive stories would require a lot of permutations to work and that gets expensive.  So, if you’re going with the traditional “play game, play movie, repeat” route, let gamers skip the game part if they so want.  And vice versa, to be sure, let players skip any cinematic they so choose.)

Adjustable difficulties are another great tool, adjustable at any time.  (Or as close to any time as possible.)

Invincibility codes are the baseline on this one (at least for single player games).  It’s an absolute minimum, and it should be hardcoded into the game itself, and noted in the instruction manual.  No Game Shark, no hex editing.

In an age when we can pause live TV and many people buy DVDs for the extras, I still find it odd that we don’t actually have more control in games.  You know, those silly entertainment things that are all about letting the end user control the experience?  Devs, if you’re trying to force your players into narrower and narrower chutes, perhaps you should be making movies.  Let game designers do their job.

And let the players look around and play.

Addendum:  What about a game that is all about giving players control of pausing time and not just looking around, but playing in those interstitial chronological spaces?  Think The Matrix meets Okami.  (I never thought I’d make that particular pairing.)

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