Friday, 31 October 2008

NaNoWriMo 2008

I've registered for NaNoWriMo 2008, and will be attempting an entry again this year. Last years attempt failed miserably, because I forgot about the competition until the 25th of November. I'm a bit more optimistic about this year, but I'm not promising completion, as I'll be on the road for about 6 days of the month, which may impact my ability to write.

In the meantime, as a warm up, I've written another science fiction short story 'Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory', that has been kicking around in my head a little while. It took about two hours to write, as soon as I realised the nationality the protagonist needed to be. It's on my writing blog, which I'll be updating regularly this month. Have a read.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Two post-mortems of interest

A post-mortem of why Spore didn't feature more science.

And a game related event I attended recently.

My apologies for the lack of blogging - a regular service should resume shortly.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Results for 'Which Spore phase did you find the least fun?'; new poll

Thanks to the 68 of you who voted.

Cell / Tidepool
7 (10%)
Creature
5 (7%)
Tribes
8 (11%)
Civilisation
6 (8%)
Space
7 (10%)
Spore: The DRM
23 (33%)
Losing your save game
7 (10%)
The crushing disappointment
14 (20%)
Adolescence
2 (2%)
Spore!?!
11 (16%)
Stat gain
6 (8%)

Next up - something from that 'Design a Magic System' guy...

Friday, 17 October 2008

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

ISK vs. ISK

I suggested in a science fiction piece I published here recently that the GDP of Eve Online was going to surpass Iceland's by 2012. The unique financial position Iceland finds itself in at the moment has encouraged me to look into this in a little more detail.

The last figures I can find for the GDP equivalent for Eve Online are the Gross User Product for June 2007, which was 50 Trillion ISK, with a projected growth of 5% to 25% per month. At a lower bound of 5% growth per month, this gives us an estimated GUP for October 2008 of 110 Trillion ISK. It is considerably harder to find a good guide to the Eve Online ISK to USD exchange rate: an Ebay answers article suggests an exchange rate of about 11 million to the USD.

The main ambiguity in the EVE GUP figures is the definition of the term trillion. I'm going to assume that Eve is reporting on a short scale trillion (10 to the power of 12), which implies Eve Online has a GDP of approximately USD $10 million.

The real world Iceland had a GDP of USD $19,510 million in 2007. That suggests that Eve Online is currently equivalent to a handy 0.5% of Iceland's 2007 GDP figures, and growing at a rate that will surpass Iceland's GDP by 2019 (It may have already surpassed Iceland's population).

I was surprised to find that, despite having it's own economist, that there is not more current figures available. So is it possible to find other figures that confirm that 5% growth per month estimate?

It turns out there is. This article provides an estimated GDP per capita of 100 million ISK as of June 2006 and this press release indicates CCP are confident of hitting 250,000 subscribers by Q2 2008. While from different time periods, we can do a back of the envelope calculation - noting that the per capita GDP growth has only been going upwards in the earlier chart - and estimate the Eve Online GDP as of March 2008 as of 25 Trillion ISK. That of course grossly underestimates the figure given in June 2007 - suggesting that the per capita ISK figure has grown by at least double in 12 months (more because there are were less in game players at this time). A more recent press release puts the figure in November 2007 as 450 million ISK per person - a fourfold growth, or at least 100 Trillion ISK GDP in November 2007.

What this suggests is the 110 Trillion ISK figure I gave earlier is an underestimate, and a higher total should be used. Note that every time we use a higher figure, Eve Online's GDP increases proportionate to Iceland and the rate of growth increases reducing the number of years required to reach Iceland's 2007 GDP figures reduces. And with the economic problems Iceland currently has, it is unlikely to expand the 2007 GDP figure for a while. In fact, I'd suggest as a sound bite, Eve Online has undoubtedly exceeded 1% of Iceland's GDP. The fact you haven't heard about it, is because the larger Eve Online gets, the more exposed it is as a non-national entity to manipulation by outsiders.

The fly in the oinment of course, is the estimate of Eve Online ISK per US dollar. I don't have solid figures for this, and the currency itself is not freely tradeable. But then again, neither is the Icelandic ISK. Luckily the figure I used is a black market price, which is far likelier to represent the true conversion rate than a fixed official exchange rate.

So what is a truer figure? Sans better Google searching, or some official figures, I'm going to wildly speculate for a second. Let's assume a subscriber base of 300,000 at this point in time, and a per capita figure which doubles every six months. Extropolating from the 100 trillion November 2007 estimate gives us an estimate of 480 million ISK November this year, or USD $43 million: 2% of Iceland's GDP, quadrupling per annum. That means without a population cap, Eve Online will exceed Iceland's 2007 GDP in approximately three years. I may have underestimated a little in my science fiction think piece.

The other argument of course, is that Eve Online doesn't produce any commodities and therefore a GDP figure is meaningless. If you've read Prince Charming you'll know my counter argument: Eve Online produces CPU time. And that should be enough to change the world.

Review: World of Goo

John Riccitiello awoke, sweating between the sheets, caught on the shores of a dream like a Cretaceous lung-fish slipping from the mud.

The pipes in the house were clanking and shuddering. He lay there, listening to the bad plumbing, grasping at the last fragments of fugue clearing from his head. The metaphor was obvious, of course, alluding to the release of Spore, whose half-formed legs had stumbled over the gaming public, knocking the critics off perches and planting its seed in the minds of those who played it. With the expansion packs, that seed would grow. Will Wright had done his best work – or had he?

It was the ninjas he worried about. Goddamn ninjas. They scuttled around the Maxis office like beetles under a rock – he avoided the place as much as he could with its fetid stench of stale smoke bombs, and programmers prone to wedging themselves in cracks on the ceiling or hanging clock-like in zen stances on the walls. He’d had to hire them: no one else had the development chops to pull that kind of game off. And they owned Japan - as Microsoft had learned at great cost.

Darker images came to mind – the sewers under Tokyo. He had been there in ’98 to try to arrange the release of the Wachowski brothers. His private security force had warned him against it, but the meeting was near the warzone, and they had skirted a few of the skirmishes. Black clothed bodies lay strewn amidst the wreckage of MSN DirectXdroids. Things, he shuddered, had peeled open people’s heads like grape fruit to get to the hypothalamus. And the consequences? The Xbox releases crashed against the shores of Fortress Tose and failed to get a foothold.

The brothers' documentary about the war gave him flashbacks, sent him from the cinema shuddering like a vet from Saving Private Ryan. He’d anesthetised the sequels because of it: sieved the scum of possibility from the surface of the second. And the third. Robots versus guns? What use was a gun against a thousand Vista servolets drilling into your cortex?

That’s why he needed the ninjas.

It was all about the API – of course. The only way to reprogram the pleasure centres of the brain. Microsoft dominated the landscape, with the warring houses fighting a losing rearguard action against them. Sony and Nintendo held out one hand of hope and slapped supplication away with the other. He knew the capabilities were there. The early iterations of Spore in the EA Advanced Weapons Labs had showed the way. But the cost... they’d had to nuke an escaped Brian Crecente on the corner of 4th Avenue and Broadway. Only a clumsy Gawker clone and a Sims expansion pack which wiped the knowledge of that intersection from the public mind had ensured the cover up. His favourite noodle house had been on that corner. Really great noodles.

He could go to Valve again, hat in hand. But EA had surpassed the brain shunt technology Gabe had defected with – it was only the distribution mechanism that needed perfection.

He sat up, his throat dry. There’d be water in the kitchen.

Sony. Goddamn Sony. The numbers were big – LittleBigPlanet big. He didn’t know how they’d done it: apparently some kind of molecular technology that bound directly to the neural sheaths. They’d looked at chemical procedures before. But rumour had it that Sony had the technology to extract the resulting cocktail directly from the adrenal gland, multiplying its potency a thousandfold. It was something open source. ODE, OGL... irrKlang? He couldn’t remember the acronym - some biotech cooked up in a home laboratory by an enthusiast amateur.

He had his eye on the second tier. Apple, naturally, but their recombinant DNA tech had let them stumble into the game without understanding the rules. Adobe was selling its Flash solution to the highest bidder: another battle front in the making but one that could only deliver in fifteen minute increments. He wondered if he should arrange another attempt on Stephen Totilo – the wounds from the Desktop Tower Defense debacle were still fresh. But it was the little guys who were causing the real problems: penetration attacks from TIGSource were getting more common every day and Stallman still lived, protected by the xkcd mafia, despite that outrageous price on his head. He could feel the sand slipping through his fingers like goo through a pipe. How could he identify the next big thing if he couldn’t even see the potential in his own staff?

He looked down at the glass of water in his hands. The liquid seemed to resolve for a second into a thousand perfectly spherical droplets, each shimmering like an iridescent pearl. Tired – he was too tired. He should get back to sleep. The mind makes mistakes when overstressed – like the time he let Tim Schafer peek at his therapy transcripts. Another waste of time and effort: the only successful graduate of the the Psychonauts program had just been disbarred. The brain is a battleground and only a fool lets his guard down.

He drank deep. Funny. He thought he could hear faint cries of UNATCO as the water trickled down his throat.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Designing a Magic System - Part Twelve (Progression)

(Although this reads as a standalone article, it is part of a larger series on Designing a Magic System. After reading this you can go back to parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven).

I feel like I've stumbled into a justification for classes backwards: dismissing arguments about using skills, talent trees or other game mechanics without preparing the ground as well as I should. Stephen Totilo recently argued that the defining characteristic of role-playing games is playing a role; and by that definition, included LittleBigPlanet, Guitar Hero and Spore as great role-playing games he had played recently. I am forced to disagree with Stephen's definition: while semantically correct, he is disingenuously expanding the computer genre to encompass most, if not all games, because with the exception of the Eye Toy and 'Brain Training' style self-improvement games, the player is forced to interact with the game through the proxy of an in-game avatar or character. What defines a computer RPG is progression - and at the same time, there is nothing more greatly abused in RPG design.

The grind, the treadmill, leveling up, mudflation, scaling difficulty of opponents, are all tropes of RPG progression and, as you can tell from the negative connotations of many of those phrases, few concepts have had more loathing heaped upon them, particularly in the MMORPG space. Progression, in the worst sense, can be the crutch of a lazy designer: Progress Quest typifies the ever escalating scale of identikit enemies and equipment, in which no distinction is attached to the ever increasing numbers. But the RPG progression is powerfully compulsive and increasingly adopted by other games: achievements feature increasingly in other games such as first person shooters, unlocking additional weapons, equipment and game types.

What do I mean by progression? There are at least two distinct types of progression in computer games, which I’ll label player progression, and character progression (narrative progression is arguably a third). Player progression is the increasing aptitude of the player in mastering the game: whether through learning and understanding the technical rules of the game (surface play) or the implications of those rules (deep play), better control over interaction with the game (hand-eye coordination, clicks per second) or rote memorization of in-game patterns (short term and long term memory). Player progression, while a fascinating topic in its own right involving human computer interaction, theory of game design and psychology, is not the focus of this article – instead, the poorer and often abused step-child character progression, is the intended target.

Character progression is the unlocking of additional rules of play, or altering the existing rules, by choices or actions within the game. The most common unlock is the ability: an additional in-game interaction that the player’s avatar can choose to do. But scaling upwards existing abilities is just as common in the RPG space. And sometimes, particular once the whole set of game abilities has been unlocked, or at the conclusion of the game prologue, abilities can be removed – usually through the convention of capturing the character, or having them narrowly avoiding death.

Bound up with the concept of progression, particularly in the RPG space, is choice. As the character progresses through the game, the player may be given the opportunity to choose which of several abilities to unlock or scale up. A fascinating alternative suggested here would be to create a game featuring inverted progression: where the player is forced to choose which of a starting complement of abilities to lose as they move forward in the game.

The difficulty with choice is that it makes the game design harder, as the designer is forced to provide alternate solutions or balance game-play for each choice or combination of choices that the player has made for their character’s progression. This can be mitigated by ensuring that the different choices have limited or no real consequences to game-play, simply coloring the in-game aesthetic, but this trade off can make the choices less interesting to the player. Spore has received much criticism for this decision: while the many in-game design tools allow a fascinating array of different creatures and objects to be created, the vast majority of creative differences have no impact on game-play. Only the mouth part, which dictates whether the creature is a herbivore, carnivore or omnivore, and a limited set of abilities in the creature phase provide real customization options.

Character progression can be neatly tied into player progression through the tutorial phase of the game. In this phase, the player is only given a limited subset of the total game abilities, and has to demonstrate mastery of these abilities before unlocking more. The tutorial phase extends until the full set of abilities is mastered: at which point the ‘real’ game begins.

The difficulty with the tutorial phase is that is implies a linear progression of abilities which does not sit easily alongside the choice component of game progression. The tutorial is usually gated, in the sense that the player cannot progress until mastering the ability, which may be outside their game play aptitude – leading to frustration at the tutorial element. And the pacing of the game may be affected, particularly if the tutorials have to be interleaved with the larger game play. The Zelda series of games are good examples of mixing tutorials and game play elements: it is possible to explore the overworld at almost any stage, but mastering of abilities gained at specific times is required to unlock dungeons which further test these abilities. The whole game design supports this character progression – it may not be appropriate for genres such as real time strategy games or first person shooters, where mixing intense action and tutorials may result in game play pacing problems.

If the elements of the tutorial are interesting enough to be expanded to a full game, it is possible to control character progression through introducing new abilities in later game levels or higher difficulty levels. This divides the game play up into sub-games, each of which is of increasing complexity; allowing the player to master simpler strategies before moving onto the later levels. Darwinia features this progression technique through each of its levels; and many Real Time Strategy games take this approach in their single player campaigns. The difficulty is to ensure that abilities introduced early are still relevant later in the game, and that the game is still interesting even with the more limited ability sets: otherwise levels will end up with a mismatched difficulty or under utilization of skills learned earlier in the game.

Abilities can be also unlocked once a player has mastered a particular section of the game, to make re-traversing the section less of a challenge. The early 2d Metal Gear Solid games featured this, where an initially unarmed Snake would be forced to evade guards using stealth, but after equipping himself with weapons later in the game, he could shoot his way through the same screens far more quickly. This is not just limited to geographic traversal: if a player in Resident Evil 4 has difficulty with a particular boss monster, they can purchase a one shot rocket launcher at considerable cost to bypass the monster in question, and in Spore the initial difficulty of fighting enemies in the Space phase is much easier once the player has acquired higher level weapons, made available by defending sufficient attacks at the more difficult early stage of the phase.

The acquirement of abilities can either be directly linked to actions within the game, which results in a puzzle-like structure to game play, where certain prerequisites have to be met in order to open up or make easier later parts of the game, or indirectly, by providing a resource that the player can then spend on abilities directly or indirectly. Classes, talent trees and skills are all mechanisms for controlling character progression in various ways and guiding player choices as to which abilities to acquire or improve. The class structure is the most limiting framework, where the player makes a single decision, usually at the start of the game, that fundamentally colors the game experience. Talent trees and skills allow smaller, incremental choices to be made - the difference between the two being a matter of degree rather than kind, where talent trees implies a few, spaced out decisions as to which abilities to acquire, and skills implies a more frequent investment of time into the decision making process, with abilities improving on a scalar basis with the occasional break point which introduces a new ability or opens up a new skill.

Divorcing the ability acquirement structure from the game simplifies the design requirements: you are no longer forced to ensure that the parts of the game where an ability is required fall after the parts of the game where that ability is acquired. However, the mechanic for acquiring new abilities becomes more important, and here it is very easy to end up in a position where the mechanism (experience points, money, power ups) is available without bounds in a region, even if a fraction of what is available later in the game. It then becomes possible for the player to continue to acquire new abilities in a low risk environment by trading off time instead of playing skill: in other words, to grind or farm the game. This implies that you should put a ceiling on the acquisition resource, and regularly change it as the player moves through the game and masters sets of abilities ('Your dubloons are worthless here, you need McGuffins to buy things this side of town'). Spore's achievement system implicitly does this by making the rewards for defending planets different to the rewards for terraforming them: and each reward set makes the particular task that contributed towards it much easier in future. It is easy to visualize a game of tiered abilities where each new tier requires a new resource and only a limited number of the possible abilities can be learned per tier.

But none of this answers why, as designers, we feel the need to reward the player with new abilities moving forward in the game: particularly when those abilities make parts of the game easier or irrelevant. Is the progression of player skill and narrative not sufficient to inspire the player to keep playing the game? Does the game lack depth or complexity that we should trivialize it by making the game easier and easier, as opposed to harder and harder, the more the player plays it? Or are the rewards we give purely cosmetic, the enemies scaling up as fast as the player does, so that the same sword swing at level 50, despite the gleaming blade, and cacophonous impact, change the world in only the same way that the timid stab of a level 1 character against a giant rat does?

To an extent, we are making the game more complicated, by providing more choices through progression. But when the range of choices are mastered by improved player understanding, is game progression a dressed up Skinner box? I think, and unfortunately many games shy from this, that progression must mean that the stakes are higher as well. You must risk more when you fail, which is why permadeath in roguelikes is such a powerful solution to the progression dilemma. Of the classic games, Chess and Go don't feature progression in the sense that RPGs do: the one to come closest is Poker, where your stake is built up as you play the game, and those at the table around you withdraw. In the final hands, if you manage to stay at the table, the money you have staked is the highest, the rewards the greatest and the failures the most painful. Mat Williams compares Hinterland to Poker, and although he doesn't say directly, he must have been conscious of this acquisition strategy and how risking all is the direct counter to progression's woes.

More to come in part thirteen.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Review: Egoboo

Whilst reading through the Roguelike Developer FAQ, I stumbled across mention of a 3d roguelike Egoboo. Intrigued, I downloaded it, and was stunned by the beautiful art style, Zelda-like 3d graphics and my complete inability to play the game.

(I hate these kinds of bitchy reviews - particularly when I get one about Unangband, but I've discovered that public bitching seems to get a reaction, so bear with me).

I've included some of the art to the left. The in game graphics look intriguing, stylized and professional. But, frustratingly, my experience with starting to play has been completely negative.

It has a Windows installer, which works smoothly (but doesn't put a folder in the Start menu). My first experience of running the game on Vista, was an error message, telling me that Adobe couldn't load the game manual. Not a big problem - I'll get onto that later.

While lovely, the feedback from interacting with the menus needs to be improved. I'm unable to tell if I've clicked an option or not: it appears that there are several delays loading or generating new menus, but you'd never guess, because there is no change in either the button you click, or the mouse pointer, to tell you that it is processing.

Tip 1: Never build your own GUI. Use a tool kit that supports the game framework you are using.

Nonetheless, I battled through the menus, picked the Elf, and started the game.

I could see the UI, but the whole screen was frustratingly dark, and my elf, who I can barely see, is clearly capable of attacking, but fixed in place. It was only after I read the spoilers on the wiki, that I realised I was trapped in prison, and had to jump out of the hole I was in.

Tip 2: Don't ever start your game in the dark. Tip 3: Don't ever start your game with the character unable to move, unless it's during a cut scene.

Since the Elf was one of the 3 choices on the starting screen, I can only assume that one third of people who download Egoboo are going to stop playing in disgust. It didn't help that I ended up in the Audio menu option, which I could not exit, and had to kill the game process to exit.

Tip 4: Make sure that each of the menus in the game can be easily exited.

I restarted the game, configured it for windowed mode, picked the Adventurer, and started to play. Only to find that I couldn't move.

I had to at this point load the manual, to try to figure out the command set. But the command section in the manual only discribes how to remap commands. It doesn't tell me the basics, like how to move a character, how to attack, how to get my torch when I accidentally switch it off, like I did while pressing keys at random on the keyboard.

Tip 5: Have the commands listed at the start of the manual, with the keys required for each command.

I could get my character to vaguely wobble around the screen, but not move in satisfying way, and certainly not in a straight line for more than about five feet.

It was while reading the manual I realised something. The developers have never considered the fact that someone might play the game on a laptop using a mouse in windowed mode. (Whereas they've had the decency to provide joystick support for those people still living in the 80s).

As a result, mouse movement is sort of supported, but not in the classic sense of clicking somewhere to get the character to move in that direction. Instead, you roll the mouse in a particular direction to move them that way. This of course means I need an infinitely big window to move the character around the large and impressively drawn overworld map, or to keep picking my mouse up everytime I get near the edge of the window, as the mouse pointer ends up outside the window.

Tip 6: If you support mouse movement, it has to be point and click, with the screen automatically centering on the player as you move. That is how a mouse works.

As for the fact I couldn't move using the keyboard, it is because I don't have a numpad. So I'm immediately cut out from being able to interact using the keyboard. Which because of the mouse movement problems, is the only way I can play the game. (I realise I can remap the keyboard to numpad, but that'll cut out whatever commands are on those keys in the keyboard).

Tip 7: If you use the numpad for movement, ask if the user is running a laptop first, and provide a usable alternative.

I look forward to the above issues being addressed, and will provide a much more positive review in the future.

Friday, 3 October 2008

MAngband

I didn't realise it, but it looks like MAngband is still going strong. MAngband is an online multi-player version of Angband. The latest release is 1.1.1, and looking at what's new, it looks like the interface and game play has been brought up to Angband 3.0.6 standards.

What are you still doing reading this? Download the client and play. (You might want to read the server rules first, unless you're hosting a server).

(Thanks Arj).