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Archive for August, 2010

So… there’s a bit of kerfluffle recently about Tycho going all Corporate or something on us, the Gamers.  The nerve.

Andrew, MBP, PvD, GBN and Syp (edit:  and Cap’n John) have good posts on it (with links to other good ones), so I won’t reiterate much… I’ll just point to what I’ve already written about this, almost two years ago.

Sell and Resell

…so does that make me a pirate blogger?  I mean, reusing an old post is about the same as just stealing, right?  Never mind that I wrote it and that I’m not charging for these things, we’re talking ideals and morals here, people!

So, henceforth, anyone (including myself) who links to any of my previous blog posts must pay me the full price originally charged for the post.  There are no discounts and no sales; I’m not running a charity here.  Each link will incur the full price, so if you link twice, I’ll expect you to pay twice.  Anyone quoting any part of my posts will likewise be expected to pay.  Anyone quoting a comment from any of my posts will also be expected to pay, though I will be sending the lion’s share* of that fee to the commenter in question.

We’ll run this on an honor system for a while, until I can buy my own legislator to enforce matters.  Until then, my rabid internet wombats will be watching via my Big Brother WombatCam.  Do not steal.  They will find you.  You will not like it.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY!

*”Lion’s share” is here defined as a number not less than 51% and not more than 55% of the original fee, calculated at the moment of the transaction according to whim and solely at my discretion as the blog administrator.

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The tabletop version of Warhammer, that is.  It’s the same reason I don’t play WarMachine.

Have you seen those models?  Or this sort of thing?  Or the multiple rule books?  (At least WarMachine is all in one book…)  Or what some players do with the models?

That’s just… way too expensive and getting everything ready is way too time consuming.  That said, I could, of course, drop all of my other gaming and goofing off, choosing instead to focus on one of these.  That might work.  Of course, it could be hard to find someone to play against, but I could drive for a while to a game shop and make do.  (I still think there’s money to be made doing an online version of the “real” Warhammer, like MTG Online… but way better.)

Still, the real, deep down reason I don’t play?  I’d want to make my own miniatures and terrain, all the way from sculpting to painting… and probably devise my own rules… especially if I were to really dig into the Steampunky WarMachine. I’m an artist; it’s an occupational hazard.  I’d get so lost in the game and doing it my way that I’d not have time to do the other things I want to.  Like sleep.  Though, if I could make a living at it, say, by selling my miniatures through these guys, it might be a viable option…

…so yeah, they look like pretty awesome games, from what research I’ve done.  I’d probably get sucked into them like I almost got sucked into BattleTech years ago.  I’m happy the games exist, I just… don’t have enough time in this life to do everything.  Alas.

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If I ever get a custom license plate, I think that’s what it would have on it.  42A113 is vague enough that it reads a bit like a “real” license plate, but for someone with an eye to detail and some geek knowledge, it’s a couple of fun references.  Mixing the two shows my druthers as a reader and animation nerd, and might even suggest some interesting similarities between them.

I tend to believe that good stories function in similar ways.  If there are layers of detail to be plumbed, especially if there are subtle interconnections between details, a story can reward those with better memory, larger vocabulary and greater experience.  Allusions to other works can be valuable as well, though pushing in the direction of “pop culture” like WoW does at times can be a bit… distracting.  Still, a passing reference to Plato in a sci-fi novel makes me smile.  It also suggests that a story is part of a greater whole of the human experience, rather than a universe in a bottle.  (Which, to be fair, isn’t always the point, so these elements must be carefully used… or guarded against.)

It’s all about connections.  I believe that education is best when it teaches students to connect disparate bits of data and find reasons for why things are the way they are.  It’s a foundation of critical thinking (you need to have the facts and see how they interact) and creativity (mashing ideas up in new ways is the backbone of creativity).  There’s a physiological basis for this notion as well; neurons in the human brain build connections to other neurons, and it’s that vast web of interconnections that makes the brain so powerful.  The more we learn and connect, the more we are capable of learning.

One big problem is one of vocabulary.  If you don’t know the basic building blocks of an idea, it won’t make much sense.  Much has been made of the supposed Cambridge experiment where readers manage to understand words even if the internal letters are scrambled.  This writer thinks it’s poppycock, and I agree. (Fun bonus article from a Cambridge researcher.)  Even if it were a legitimate study, however, I submit that people can only read those words well because they already know what those words are supposed to look like.  If you didn’t know what supercilious meant, or that it was even a word in the first place, scrambling it even simply like this would just throw you off completely:

His superlicious gaze made her uncomfortable

I can just imagine the internal reaction:  “Wait, what?  Is that supposed to be ‘superluscious’?  What a stupid portmanteau.  This writer is worse than Stephanie Meyer.

Readers need to know what the words they are reading are in their proper form and what they mean before they can see them “through” scrambling or incompetent typos.  I saw this on Facebook, for example:

“I don’t loose things. I place them somewhere safe which later alludes me.”

Grurgle.  Not only do we have the trendy-but-idiotic misuse of the word “loose”, but “allude” is very different from “elude”.  I can read it just fine and know what is meant because I know the real words, but it comes across as an incompetent stab at fortune cookie wisdom.  Don’t use fancy words if you don’t know how to spell them.

On another hand, jargon can be terribly opaque.  My wife and sister have occasionally read my walls of text here at the TTT repository of blather, and more than once, they have told me afterward that they liked the parts they understood, but that they just didn’t understand some of the terms or phrases I use.  They are both intelligent.  My wife has read a lot of books, and my sister is an English major who reads almost as much as I did growing up.  (Hint:  WAY more than the average nerd.)  Both of them are familiar with my gamer… ness, and my somewhat expansive vocabulary.  They have learned to understand me in most settings, but here, where discussion so often meanders into game design territory, they lose bits and pieces of the logic.  They just haven’t learned the gamer vocabulary, and they don’t have the experience with games that I have.

Similarly, I’ve written up game design proposals that tend to cobble together ideas from various inspirations.  In a sort of metatextual shorthand, I’ll often cite those other games in the proposal, in lieu of writing out a paragraph of explanation, counting on fellow gamers to understand.  A quick referral to “4X gaming” makes a lot of sense to an old school Master of Magic fan, but to someone outside the industry and outside that particular niche of “old school strategy gamer”, that can come across as “something even dirtier and contemptible than hardcore pornography”.  Communication can be very difficult without the proper framework and fundamental elements of discussion.

Oft times, this sort of shorthand is very useful, cutting down on unnecessary repetition, pedantry and blather, but it can also be a real barrier to clearly expressing ideas.  The sort of  “quick pitch” five second summary of ideas that makes some game pitches function out of the gates simply won’t work if your audience doesn’t understand the references.   (That’s a great article on pitching games, by the way.  Know your audience!)

Inside jokes and clever allusions are great if you can tuck them away in an otherwise superficial narrative, but if you don’t have at least some common ground, the allusions themselves aren’t going to carry the conversation very well.  It’s possible to communicate largely with allusion and jargon, or so Captain Picard would have us believe, but it’s not simple, and it’s rife with potential for miscommunication.

So, as I am wont to do, I want to take this into game design.  Sure, literary tools are important for writing and reading, but the principles of good design that lead to those tools being used properly carries over to proper tool usage in game design, both when we’re using words as tools in games and also when we’re using game mechanics.

Game terminology can be difficult to explain, especially if you’re trying to write for a non-gamer audience.  Not only do we have weird terms like “frag” and “gank”, but we also have acronymitis, with things like DPS, FTW, MMO, FPS, RPG, BFG and so on.  A simple phrase like “DPS, watch your threat so you don’t steal aggro!” can be utterly incomprehensible.  Sometimes context helps, but I do feel bad for my wife sometimes, muddling through my denser articles here.  It would only be worse to spring a game design proposal or technical art article on her.

Then again, something like this bit of scientific fluff is nigh impenetrable to someone in, say, marketing (and a real scientific paper would be even more troublesome).  Marketers, in return, have all sorts of weaselspeak at their command.  They might employ it to different ends, to be sure… but if communication is the goal (not always the case in marketing), sometimes it’s easy to get lost without really meaning to.

As for game design itself, one of the biggest things that we as designers need to do is teach the player the “verbs” in the vocabulary of our game.  “Verbs” in this context are those actions that the players can use in the game world.  Naturally, then, “nouns” are those things that players can act on and influence.  Until players know what they can do and what things they can do it to, the game can be frustrating.  Clear communication about how to use the tools in the game sandbox is vital to making a game work.  There is certainly a balance to be struck between playing Galactic Civilizations without a manual or help file, and this sort of overcompensation… but players really need to understand what the game does, especially if the game vocabulary changes over time.  (Say, by adding a double jump or picking up a new weapon.)

I’d suggest this video for another take on the teaching experience, by the way.  Aquaria is a sweet little game, but it has too many hidden functions.  When the narrator notes that most players will probably need a walkthrough file, to me, it sounds like an admission of failure (though it’s fair to note, as the narrator does, that it can be a design choice, for better or worse).  It’s one thing to hide a lot of nouns, feeding the Explorer and Achiever niches, but when the game has hidden verbs, it can get very frustrating or even impossible.

A game, in some ways, is a conversation between the designer and the player.  They meet somewhere in the middle to share authorship of the play experience, and it’s vital that they understand each other… even if they wind up arguing in different directions.  If there is no shared language, however, that conversation can never take place.

Something like Braid might have allusions to previous games, like Super Mario Brothers, but it also has to function on its own if someone doesn’t have that in their “gamer vocabulary”.  It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, but it’s worth the effort it takes to make the gamer/designer conversation as clear as possible.  Talking past each other just results in frustration and other assorted PR nightmares.

Once you have the basics down, you can start slipping in the clever allusions, references and in-jokes as appropriate, like spices into a fine soup.  (See?  Metaphors, similes and allegories are almost inevitable in conversation; we build from things we know into things we don’t know.  It’s perfectly natural.)  Peeling back the layers of a story and its details, or a game and its subtle interactions between verbs and nouns, can be very satisfying.  I believe that the best stories and games foster this sort of depth, and gently entice the consumer deeper, even as they continue to move forward.  Might that not be one form of “immersion”, for that matter?

That said, it’s worth remembering that immersion can also mean obliviousness.  One would hope that there’s something there worth being immersed in, something worth learning whilst having fun.  With luck and care, the game designer/player conversation can be something more than mere Ferengi acquisition covered in Klingon aggression.

Oh, and this is what the 42 is about, and this is what the A113 is about.  I should probably get a Pizza Planet truck to put the plate on.

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XCOMeOn

As in, “come on, that’s just dumb” rather than a racy bit of textspeak.  It’s not like “XCOM, SchmeXCOM” would really have sounded much better, though.

Aaaaanyway, Gamasutra (sheesh, another innuendo-laced term) has a pair of blurbish articles up from the guys making a modern iteration of the X-COM IP.  (In finest literary form, they dropped the hyphen from the original, since that’s so BOLD and EDGY!)  Apparently, it’s supposed to be a shooter/strategy hybrid.

I had about the same reaction as Shamus.  It’s not quite a Darth Vaderish “Noooooooo!”, but pretty close.

Y’see, the original X-COM is a brilliant game from the golden age of MicroProse games.  (The era that brought us Master of Magic, MoO and MoO2.)  Even stuffy “journalist” types think it’s a great game, better than Half Life 2, the media darling.  To be completely honest, I played the sequel, X-COM, Terror from the Deep first and for longer, but it’s pretty much the same game anyway.  It’s a rock solid strategy game setting the player as an intrepid disembodied commander of a band of elite cowards enlisted to save the Earth from little grey aliens and their nasty attendants and technology.  In many ways, it still hasn’t been topped (again, like MoM and MoO) by modern games, largely because the gameplay is brilliant.  (Despite the severe lack of pixel shaders and polygons.)

So, naturally, when making a sequel using the IP, what do you do?

You focus on the “emotions” of the IP, “while changing the game fundamentally“.  (Quote ripped directly from the article, my emphasis.)

Newsflash, guys:  X-COM Interceptor didn’t do to well, and that was from MicroProse.  X-COM Alliance (Looky!  A first person shooter!) got cancelled.  Fans of the original don’t want a totally new game, they want a bigger, better version of the original.  That said, the original is still playable, so topping it is a tall order… especially if you don’t know what made it tick in the first place.  Those were the days when gameplay was what made a game great, and the visuals were icing on the cake.  Things have changed a little, both in the market penetration of careful strategy games (no, StarCraft 2 doesn’t count; “Strategy” and “Real Time Strategy” are different animals) and a bit more “style over substance” in the market.

So on the one hand, I almost feel bad for these guys.  I can almost look past the cash grab in using a beloved IP.  New ideas really do tend to be less sticky, and the X-COM name still carries weight.  I can almost look past the “look, another shooter!” mentality, since everyone else is doing it.  That’s not a good reason to do something, but that rarely stops people.  I can almost sympathize with wanting to do something other than what the original did, wanting to carve out a name for themselves.  I can almost sympathize with the devs not wanting to go too far out of their own skill set, having done BioShock and BS2, games that have met with some success and critical brownie points.  (Though, does that make them one trick ponies?  Ah, the balance between playing to strengths and getting stuck in a rut.)

And yet, if you’re adopting an IP to bootstrap your development and hype engine, hijacking it and running in a different direction isn’t really the way to either honor the IP or pull in the established fan base.  It might be more fun to develop, and it might be wise if you’re chasing market trends (itself a dubious idea, but it does look less risky than “blue ocean” strategies), but it’s not always good for the IP.

(Tangentially, this is why I loathed the Tom Cruise-infested Mission Impossible movie.  It took a beloved license then proceeded to stomp it into the ground in the first act, flirt with the fans in the middle, then spit on the corpse in the finale.  It could have worked as a nifty spy movie, but specifically as a Mission Impossible movie, it was a kick to the groin of the IP.  Working with an established franchise is a dual edged sword.)

On another hand, it really can be wise sometimes to spread an IP across multiple genres and even mediums.  (See:  WoW TCG, WoW Minis and WoW board games.)  That has a way of building a cohesive universe rather than a single-shot story, which allows for inertia to build in the IP, and opens doors for more projects and monetization.  All in all, that’s a solid long-term strategy, especially if quality can be maintained across the board.

So, while I do not have any interest in actually playing this new iteration of X-COM, I am at least academically interested in what it winds up doing.  If it’s a solid game, and it may well be, it might resurrect the X-COM brand, eventually paving the way for a real sequel to the beloved classics.  (X-COM Apocalypse was passable, but also easily passed up.)  If it winds up awful, it still won’t really tarnish the original and TFTD, and I can go back and play them.

I choose, then, to view this as a Good Thing, at least until proven otherwise.  It takes some effort to do so, since my reflexive reaction is one of incredulity and annoyance… but I think I’ll give them a chance.

…at least it’s not a 4X game, I guess.  That would have overloaded the innuendo meter.

But I still want a great turn-based strategic/tactical sequel.

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Dear Kings Isle,

Thank you.

It’s nice to think that someone listened, even if it was just a coincidence.

You’ve also earned some money from at least one fan, and maybe another.  *waves at the good Cap’n*  This is effectively a lifetime sub for all current content, almost a Guild Wars sort of purchase.  I love that business model, and I really like Wizard 101.

Sincerely,

Tesh

(Scot Silverblade, Balance/Death Wizard, still enamored with Marleybone but now chasing elephant demons in MooShu)

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I happened across an interesting article from a few years ago that made me wonder again a bit about this thing that gamers call “immersion“.  Please read it, as it suggests thoughts more profound than this particular tangent I’m exploring:

Pearls Before Breakfast

Might not the commuters be considered to be “immersed” in their daily routine, but simultaneously oblivious to their surroundings?  What price do we pay for immersion?

What I found particularly saddening was the death of a homeless man… that none of the commuters noticed.  Missing out on a singularly spectacular musical experience is one thing, but missing out on possibly saving a life, that’s another.  Maybe nothing could have been done, as Bill Murray’s character so painfully and poignantly learned in Groundhog Day as he tried to save a homeless man, but it’s not always the ends that matter.  Sometimes, it’s what we learn and why we act that are important, as they build our character.  Perhaps we fight against entropy not because we will win, but because it makes us stronger, and because it makes life worth living.

As much as I wish these MMO game worlds were more interesting places (one of my earliest articles was on this, and it’s been a recurring theme), do I really want to be immersed?  No, not if it means I’m missing something more important.  The quest for progress can obfuscate things that really shouldn’t be ignored or left behind.

Even some of those nutty RPG game designers don’t want to tread the MMO path.  Yuji Horii, Dragon Quest creator, had this to say about potentially taking the DQ series into MMO territory:

What we always inspire to do with each new Dragon Quest is to not make it an all-virtual world, we try to make sure we keep the gamer connected to the real world, and not to have them disconnect completely. There is a phenomenon in Japan called ‘Haijin,’ these are people who just play the game and disconnect completely from reality, and that is something we do not want to do with the Dragon Quest series.

I know, I know, games are escapism, and escapism can be healthy.  I certainly consider it valuable in my own life.  Sometimes, though, it’s wise to poke your head out of the immersion and see what you’re missing.

Or who.

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Hat tip to sid67 on the PLEX angle:

You want risk in your game?  Something that can really kick you in the head for failure?  Play EVE and try shipping some PLEX.

I’ll pass on that one, but as sid67 notes, this seems to play right into the EVE playerbase, and may well be sound business on CCP’s part.  It hurts to fail when you’re involved in risky behavior, but some players like that.

I’ll also point out that this was something that the player chose to do, not something that the system imposed (a crucial difference).  Sure, PLEX units are now destroyable, which is dev-imposed, but choosing to risk it was something that the player did.  Also, the pirates risked the destruction of the PLEX (which ultimately occurred) with the ship’s destruction.

Player-defined risk, playing with dev-created toys.  Interesting stuff, if you’re so inclined.

Speaking of piracy, though, the Machinarium guys have a “Piracy Amnesty” sale going on for their game.  It’s available for $5 until the 12th.  Apparently, 2DBoy (World of Goo, annoyingly pirated rather extensively) isn’t the only indie developer team to have trouble with pirate scum.  So, if you’re up for a good adventure game and don’t mind tossing $5 at some guys who do good work, drop on by the Machinarium site.  Is it a perfect game?  Nah, but it’s worth it.

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