What I've been up to

Cleaned out the garage.

Beat Dragon Age: Origins twice.

Having some fun with League of Legends.

Gave up on partnerships and started programming Ronin Beat myself in XNA.

Started playing Darkfall.

A lot of drawing that I decided not to keep.

Sleeping, lots of sleeping.


This caught my eye.

main road|post showreel 2009 from Arman Yahin on Vimeo.

Primary Source care of Abduzeedo

Showreel from a group named road|post


The Sound of Gaming

An Argument for Studying Music in Relation to Gaming Rather Than Film

Get ready for some heavy listening.

Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Bunny Hop
In the clip above Julie Andrews character is teaching the children using a system called solfège. The notes are sung aloud at the proper tune using a solfège syllable, do, re, mi, etc...

Unfortunately, game design doesn't seem to have any direct analogue to solfège, though any individual genre within games could probably create something close. Fighting games especially, fore, back, left, right, punch, kick, block, jump. Indeed, if you open up the dojo in Virtua Fighter 5 you may see that very notation attempting to teach you the various combos.

At it's core, solfège exists to give voice to the fundamental basics of musical graphing and notation.

A concept not wholly unfamiliar to game designers.

Bare Metal Mechanics (Ludology)
Any time we attempt to discuss games in relation to films or novels we are immediately caught in discussing the narrative(narratological?) issues of games. While not necessarily a heinous act, it creates a problem quite similar to discussing music purely in terms of lyrics.

For instance, if you watch the first couple minutes, of the next two videos, then the third for at least the first four minutes or so, you'll notice something about the relationship of lyrics to music.

The narrative of a game has, I believe, almost exactly the same relation to games. In music, the tune of a song can be expressed through the voice as an instrument, or the lyrics can simply be a layer applied over top of whatever music is playing. Similarly the narrative of a game can be built with interesting choices, becoming itself part of the game, or can be layered over the existing game play as something completely separate.

I'm not saying that lyrics are bad, it's just that as lyrics are not in and of themselves music, narrative is not in and of itself a game.

What's more music is, at it's core, an abstract set of rules applied to sound to create something our mind recognizes as more than simple sound. A game is much the same, an abstract set of rules applied to a space such that our mind recognizes it as more than simply a space. What's most important, I think, is the abstraction. To use a somewhat famous example, a film can show you a peach in detail, a book can describe it in detail, but a piece of musical notes cannot go into detail about the peach. In order to express a peach in musical notation, you must call upon the emotional underpinnings, on connections in our ontological basis. So it is with games, the rules of a game cannot describe a peach in detail, so it must attach itself to the mechanical and emotional associations of how we interact with a peach.



A Brief Intermission

While I'm trying to think some things over, we can have a quick intermission.

Gotye: Hearts a Mess

C Block - Vladimir Kooperman of Sheridan College


The Specific Problem of Game Ecology

The UO Ecology Problem
First Raph Koster's posts on the ecology system planned for UO, first, second, third. Now the problem is, I think, best summarized by a commenter named Derrick over at Hardcore Casual. Let's take a quick look at what he says.

... You see, the reason these things don’t work on the large scale is, quite frankly, that the players ruin them. People suck.

In these systems, from a player/armchair designer perspective, it’s easy to say “This is what I’d like to see”, to design a masterpiece of a virtual environment.

The reality, though, is you need to be absolutely cognizant of “How can a large group of players, acting out of nothing but pure malice, cause this system to fail?”...

This problem is one that needs answering in the conceptual "NPC ecosystem" I implied in my last post.

Why Not UO Ecology
Our friend Derrick gives a very specific reason why the UO system of ecology fails against griefers. "The fundamental problem is one of consequences. Until a game is designed in such a way as to remove anonymnity and the lack of real consequences, people will act like utter asshats." Well, in this instance, I actually don't think the flaw lies with the players. Rather, I think there is a very fundamental flaw with the resource ecology itself.

The UO ecosystem was an open system. Things entered the system and exited the system, even worse players were given control of one of those opening. It was such in an attempt to mimic real life ecosystems, but that doesn't mean that our game, Skies of Mondea, needs to attempt something similar. In fact we can fairly easily close off the vast majority of the system.

Our System
For the sake of simplicity we'll start with a five layered social system top to bottom, with three resources and one currency. The social layers are detailed in this image. There will be a finite number of NPCs, a finite amount of money, and a finite amount of one of the resources. This third resource will be essential to the construction of Superheavies. One of the remaining resources will be fuel, which can be sold to NPCs, but the NPCs will automatically gather enough of to meet needs if not. The last resource would be aluminum which is required for all construction projects, again NPCs will gather enough to meet their own needs if they haven't already bought enough from players. In both of the latter cases, the NPCs will pay less for anything beyond their needs, and once filled to carrying capacity will simply stop buying all together.

Now the social hierarchy is self perpetuating, to get a taste of it, let's look at the original example of a flight deck attendant.

Our theoretical attendant exists on the labor strata so long as he makes between 20k and 50k. Now if he does not receive tips and drops to 20k he immediately search for another opening in labor level jobs that does not match his current one, same job different ship or different job on any ship including the same one. Failing that he falls into the poverty class. That sounds awful, but if the regulars of his region tip him decently there isn't any reason a bunch of random griefers would be able to force him to drop. So long as his regulars still pay him enough to stay above 20K, the griefers actively not tipping is no more damaging than all the players who've never seen them passively not tipping.

Now if he raises above 50k, he will move up into the pilot/crew strata. At this strata he can become a transport pilot delivering between carious shops, be a shop pilot opening a special shopping ship up near the initial ship, or get a job as a crew in another superheavy ship. His job on the deck will be filled either by a job hunting labor or be filled by someone from the poverty strata. If the pilot/crew strata is saturated and they cannot maintain enough sales from a shop, enough traffic in their transport and/or there are no open crew positions then they will soon fall back into the labor strata and seek a job there. Failing that they move down into the poverty strata. So if griefers were attempting to instead promote our flight deck attendants, they could only really effect those individual attendants without a truly massive effort across the board from nearly all players which would end the instant they ran out of money.

The system will always defend itself. There can only be so many wealthy, so many middle class, so many pilots/crews, so many laborers, and no matter how large the disruption, others will enter to fill the vacuum, or simply and inevitably fall to the bottom. By this mechanic the system cannot be gamed to cause significant problems for other players. On the other hand, on the level of an individual NPC players can do irreparable harm or exceptional good.

However, on the systemic level players as a total force are capable of removing the bottom of the strata. In order to increase the need for crews and laborers you can build superheavies, however these are based on one of the limited resources meaning you can never build enough to leave no labor for anyone else. (It also means any time an account lapses to the point of deletion, is permanently banned, or for any reason deleted, the superheavies associated with it will be taken and put up for auction.) The sheer difference in money between the rich and everyone else, though, means that while players could technically destroy it as a strata, by making only players rich and then "tipping" it all off to the lowest stratas, it would take a concerted effort of an extremely large proportion of the players and could only really "damage" those actively taking part.

Oh and I've already thought of player based inflation. Have a number of slots for player characters on the server hard capped. Then make an equal number of positions with a code tag of "young pilot" that do nothing but fly around all the time. When a player joins, you remove one of the young pilot positions so that they fall back into the laborer strata and drop an npc in the poverty strata (starved to death, how sad). Whenever a player is deleted a position opens in the young pilots, is filled by a laborer, and a new person comes of age in the poverty strata. When the number of total player positions on a server is stressed, it's time to open a new server and probably think about closing off access to that server all together.


Airways and Ethics: Skys of Mondea

Back on the Bus
So here we are, my first return post to MMO design. Before I get too far into this, the goal isn't to "make a game". At the end of the day this is a glorified thought experiment, but the constraints one might apply to a real design are a useful set of constraints for this thought experiment.

This is not intended to be a wholly solitary endeavor. I'm accepting not only constructive criticism, but also brainstorming and design collaboration. If you see some way it could be improved, just throw it out there. No guarantees it'll make it into future discussions, but then I tend to never guarantee anything.

The Foundation
Title: Skies of Mondea
Base Gameplay: Flying Airships
Core Conceit: Players/Player Characters as Moral Agents
Constraints: No quests/writing. In other words, no content design.

So lets take this from the top.

The landscape that makes the most sense to me is to simply not employ a ground level at all, meaning no method of landing or transversing the ground, to the point of keeping land hidden below a cloud layer at all times. Instead the landscape design will be one of drafts, updrafts, down drafts, east/west/north/south drafts, which apply directional motion to the player. In other words to sit in a north draft will cause an unmoving ship to always drift north, will increase the acceleration and maximum speed of a ship moving north, will apply a northward drift to a ship moving east/west/up/down, and decrease acceleration and maximum speed of a ship traveling south.

Ships come in 3 classes, light, heavy, superheavy. Lights are fast and maneuverable but are heavily subject to drafts. Wandering into particularly turbulent areas will typically cause extreme loss of control, these areas should be clearly marked. Heavy are slower ships that see less effect from drafts, capable of ignoring all but the strongest, but also not particularly benefiting from complimentary drafts. Superheavy ships ignore all drafts, in fact if dynamic drafts are supported they would create drafts around themselves. A Superheavy is actually capable of moving quite quickly, but has terrible maneuverability and takes a particularly long time to slow down.

Lights are capable of leaving colored smoke trails, and can drop smoke cannisters to mark resource deposits hidden below the cloud layer. Heavies are capable of resource acquisition, permanent marker buoy deployment, hauling, and are an ideal platform for diving competitions as they can fight updrafts and acquire downward speed more easily. Superheavies function more as home bases with lots of storage, a place to park yourself, and can move swiftly across vast distances. Certain heavies can also act as modular attachments to Superheavy ships, providing services such as player housing.

Ships can never run out of fuel so as to be completely stranded, they can only enter a state at which their speed and maneuverability suffer severely. Weapons are not currently planned, sorry sky pirates.

Moral Agents
A moral agent must fit a certain set of criteria. They must be able to make choices, they must form an opinion on the morality of those choices, those choices must be what game designers would call interesting, in other words they cannot be foregone conclusions. Interesting choices implies scarcity, for instance there is no ethical choice in deciding whether or not to steal a resource if that resource is infinitely available in infinite quantities. It also implies soft rules, there is no ethical decision in not stealing resources if there was never an option to steal resources. And finally it implies consequences, as there is no ethical choice in stealing a resource if doing so has no consequence to any party involved.

When players interact with each other, they are always acting as moral agents, that's the good news. Our job then is to make them interact with NPCs and the game world as moral agents, a significantly harder task as the NPCs themselves cannot be moral agents. However, the non-player characters can be used to simulate the behavior of moral agents. Alternatively they can be used as a quite literal "voiceless and powerless" population, which has ethical implications I won't go into here.

For now there are two major items that must be removed from the table, the win state and the unnamed instance. There can be no win state because having one makes winning the overriding moral imperative within the context of the game. The unnamed instance is also, by it's very nature a non-entity, a pure object to be used as befits the current goals since it's existence is limited purely to the context of those goals. An example of an unnamed instance would be any mob or npc that is considered not as an individual, but as merely an identical instance of a particular archetype.

This does not have to mean that every NPC needs to have a full life simulation, but they need to have some persistence both as an object within the game world, and as an engine of choice. Say for instance we gave players the ability to tip NPCs with variable amounts of cash, then a flight deck attendant who was regularly given very large tips would eventually leave the flight deck and reappear in a higher status in society that required some starting cash, such as a shopkeeper. Alternatively, a flight deck attendant who is never tipped despite having a salary that relies on tips will soon disappear and reappear at some similar level in society, while their job will likely take longer to fill due to being unprofitable.

Ethics is, at it's core, a complex subject. It cannot be our goal to define what Ethics are, or what is/is not ethical. The goal is to create the depth of field and necessary conditions for there to be issues of ethics and morality at all. This is why I began not with what a moral agent is, but rather what is required for one to exist. However, if I were to lay out a heuristic for what sort of choices would be needed in order to have interesting ethical choices, I would avail myself of two kinds of decisions first and foremost. Decisions of short term loss for long term gain versus short term gain for long term loss, and decisions of personal gain at others expense, versus others gain at personal expense.

I'm not going to go into specifics in this post, there will be plenty of opportunity to expound upon this in later entries.

Why No Content?
I choose to add a constraint against content design in this in spite of the fact that it is actually very useful for our purposes. The problem is that it's more likely to be used as a band-aid than as an actual fix. Once you have a band-aid solution in place, problems begin to rise from it and you eventually find yourself arguing in circles about something that isn't terribly important to an actual working model.

In this case, I'm really looking for a ludic solution. Once you have a ludic solution in place, we can then began to create deep, rich content that takes advantage of it. Without that solution though, your content will almost always be ineffective and will largely be chaff to be ignored as people play "the real game".


CO Free Weekend - A Critique

An image of my main hero, Arare, from the login screen.

The Free Day Or So...
So Champions Online had a free weekend, which I found via Steam. It had intrigued me earlier, but not enough to actually buy sight unseen, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I downloaded the client through Steam on Friday afternoon, Sunday morning I was done patching and had a chance to get in and play around.

Yes, that was over a day of patching. The total patch size was 2 gigs, my pipe can handle that in about an hour or so, therefore I can only assume they were pretty hammered for bandwidth at the time. Not to be too much of a Monday morning quarterback just yet but... why did they advertise it on Steam without the ability to have them handle patching? No offense to the people at Cryptic but Steam's account numbers most probably dwarf theirs by a significant margin. I understand the concept of wanting to get lots of people to try out the game, but I don't think slashdoting yourself is really all that helpful overall.

The Point: Irony
Thing is, after one day I'm pretty well convinced that Cryptic has managed to land me in an ironic situation. Truth be told, the game is a blast to play so far. In fact it's so fun that if they had a free trial to begin with chances were I would have bought the game, but since I recently bought Borderlands, I'm now too broke to afford the initial $40 $35.

So what is it that Champions does oh so very well? Could it be their itemization makes Diablo players salivate? No. Do the missions create those same sorts of free form, randomly RPing groups that CoH did so wonderfully? No. Well does it tell an epic one of a kind story that grips you by the nadgers and won't let go? Hell no. The place where Champions really shines, above all else and in a way that puts most MMOs to shame is... playing the god damn game.

Seriously, that picture up there is of an acrobatically inclined, beast stance, guns akimbo hero. I spend the entire time madly jumping and running around my enemies spraying them with bullets and then closing in for the occasional "gun ballet" kick to the balls. Equally as fun is one not pictured here where they have dual swords for their energy gain power and a psychic sword for their real damage output and are also acrobatic.

What More Is There To Say? Plenty.

Yes the game is fun to play... at least up to level 11. Within that sentence was contained what seems to be Champions greatest flaw, character levels. The great Achilles heel of their design is that they begin with fun game play and then level people out of it. My main gunslinger is already suffering from a major stats problem. Their recovery stat is falling behind a laundry list of other important stats meaning that my energy bar is getting to the point where only about 25% of it is capable of regenerating outside of combat. I've found ways of dealing with it so I'm not a cripple but without a few other fortuitous decisions my character would likely have already found themselves a hopeless gimp.

It leaves me wondering time and again, why? Why does this game have character levels at all? There are plenty of other forms of progression they could have gone if they just wanted stickiness, supergroup levels, alignment with various organizations, storyline, equipment, nemesis levels or even a sort of "gotta catch em all" for powers and costume bits. So why, with everything they already have and everything they could have done just as easily, did they choose to make the game with character levels? This is an honest question by the way, I sincerely do not see any way in which that decision assisted their design. In fact the more I look the more ways I see that it hinder it.

And The Rest...

While levels may be the designs fatal flaw, performance in general tended to be a rather thin line. Considering I only had one day in which to experience it, there certainly was a lot of rubber banding and just straight up lag. Never quite to the point of being enough to quit over, but enough that over time it would certainly grate on the nerves.

Level 10 PvP had a certain binary quality to it the few times I tried it. Generally one team was fairly well organized and moved as a group completely dominating the other group with extremely low, or no, casualties. I wouldn't write off the PvP completely, it is still interesting to see how different powers mix and compete, but I wouldn't rate it as more than a sideshow. Also I only saw the "cage match" style so perhaps the other style is a significant bump up.

In Closing
I can only repeat what many other internet commentators have said, "lots of potential but fatally flawed." Somehow Cryptic managed to take some of the magic little bits of CoH, like that first time you fly, and turn it into truly fun game play. Then, in the same breath, they managed to grab some of the very worst parts of RPGs in general and mixed those right on in. The great tragedy of it all is that while it's initial potential completely blows you away, the fatal bits are so fundamental that it's simply far too late to change.