Sunday, July 30, 2006

Excerpts and Asides: An Intermission.

(before you ask, no, we don't actually type out perfect sentences and long monologues. The timestamps offer the perspective of how off-the-cuff this was.)

[21:08] Jordan: I just wrote about it in that blog I have in fact: I'm no programmer; I'm no artist... I dunno.
[21:08] *****: You're just a bum with good ideas, heh.
[21:08] Jordan: It's like, I feel like I have this talent, this knack for stuff, and I can't figure out how to turn it into a marketable skill I so I can make money.
[21:08] *****: More like the need to create.
[21:09] Jordan: Yeah, it's like, I feel like I have this time in my life, to nudge civilization a little further along, and that I have the means.
[21:09] *****: It's not something that one produces for money.
[21:09] Jordan: But I've got to pay the bills, and it feels like a real contribution to society is one that's worthy of paying for, you know? You pay to be entertained, and so it feels like, "Yeah, that entertainment, it's not frivolous; it enriches those lives."
[21:10] *****: Heh... Yeah, you should find a job that you love. You may have to take a few crappy ones to begin with, though.
[21:10] Jordan: Yeah, I'm looking for a minimum-wage thing... But it's hard to see where I'm going, because I look at all these careers for a while, a year, maybe two, and it doesn't pan out and I always go, OK well what else is there, but now I'm running out of [doors].
[21:11] *****: You claim it's art that you're going to create
[21:11] Jordan: I think all entertainment is art; I think they're really synonyms even though people don't usually think of it that way. [blog note: If art is science and entertainment is art... What's my point? I'm defining science as human understanding of the universe, and I strongly believe that entertainment and art relates to it.] I never thought of myself as an artist, but art is what interests me. I think I could be a good engineer; I think I could be a decent teacher; But, those don't feel like what I want to do. I would probably make a great film-maker, a writer or director; I have this kind of instinct for the delivery. But it's not what I'm really into.

This is getting a little heavy for a blog supposedly about video games. You owe it to a 30-second loop of Boards of Canada's Over the Horizon Radar, which I found on the site of sites, YTMND, long ago, and can no longer find (sorry). I just sort of remembered it and dug it up, and it's really an amazing piece I think, in how it has a sense of fulfillment and foundation, but also some bleakness and melancholy (attributable to the subdued timbres and the wind sound effect, respectively). If you don't know what I'm talking about, google up a free sample; Boards of Canada is very repetetive and ambient, so any sort of sample's fine. So ambient in fact, that I can't imagine many people who don't smoke pot buying the album. I know I never did.

Anyway, the entry. My situation right now is proving to me that in every game, in the right circumstance, you can find a good analogy to life. Many have hypothesized that it's the only reason we play games at all. So, how's my life like a game, you ask? In many ways it's a little like an online RTS game, right at the start. I have no army (skills or job) to rely on and the whole world is blanketed by the fog of war (uncertainty of the future). I feel a little like I did seven years ago, give or take, when I couldn't bring myself to play those games online. It seemed like a lot of work and I didn't feel like I could do that well... but eventually I did play games online, and it turned out that, it didn't even matter if I won or lost. I think my life is a little like that. Right now it feels as if my life hangs in the balance, but it probably doesn't matter.

Or maybe that was just an excuse to turn a monologue on (predominantly electronic) gaming into a fucking diary. I'm trying to get a post in every 5-7 days minimum, but the muse hasn't struck me so... This post serves to keep the blog fresh in my mind, so I know to write here.

In other news, I recently realized that were I able, I might be a mathematician, but I don't have the mind for it. It's an odd thing to hear, isn't it? But it's true; I'm not very good at math but I love to hear or read others explain it. Some proofs, presented properly, are a thing of grace and beauty. Perhaps even of art.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

DRM is bullshit.

Digital Rights Management, is what it means. It's bullC.R.A.P.

I want to take 20 seconds from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for a YTMND site. This is technically illegal, but is of no real consequence (in fact, I specifically rented it - and hence got the inspiration for a YTMND - because of the clips used on YTMND).

A long time ago, DRM was more commonly known as copy-protection, and was fairly unobtrusive, unless you wanted to do something illegal and didn't know what you were doing. The problem is, lots of people did know what they were doing. The result is an arms race and an escalation of hostilities which has spilled into the streets of innocent users like me, who want to do a trivial but unorthodox thing with their content.

So, I have to download the movie illegally. The problem is, most illegal downloaders are assholes that don't give a shit about the creators or their pay, so I can't even find the movie alone; just the entire Indiana Jones trilogy. So I want 20 seconds of video, to be modified and released without profit (and if others are like I was, increased profit to the right people), and thanks to DRM, I have to illegally download three entire films.

YTMND is hilarious and has only boosted rentals of films like Finding Forrester and Indiana Jones, both of which I never would have rented without YTMND as an influence (remember, rentals pay royalties to the film companies). Because of this ridiculous arms race, people like me have to resort to questionable methods to do harmless (even beneficial) things with the content in our hands.

YOU CAN'T WIN, guys. Obviously your DRM doesn't work because someone foiled it and I can download the films on the internet, even though I can't get them from a video capture from my DVD player. And you know what? It never works. DRM is always foiled in a ridiculously trivial amount of time compared to the effort you guys put into setting it up. It's now invading innocent people, like iTunes users and people who put CDs from sony into their computers, which installed rootkits. It's got to stop guys.

Art like music, film, games, alledgedly frivolous stuff like that... Yes, people should get paid for it, but it's not a necessity. If you go out of business because you have no profit margin and/or buying it is so much harder than stealing it, boo hoo you're out of business; don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.

I will make one exception: Steam, from Valve. Steam is awesome. Instead of restricting my use, Steam expands it by letting me download my games to any computer in the world, without a disc or text code. This is a DRM that works especially well for online games, and is prevalent in single doses in many MMOGs already. It's the way of the future.

So, there's a bright side to everything.

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On MMORPG "endgames"

The WoW endgame was the whole point, or so they said before the game released. The idea was, yes you take a long time to reach max level, but once you do that's when the huge majority of the game opens up to you. It sounded fishy at the time and from what I've heard here and there, it indeed is.

I mean, if someone reaches 60, they're addicted to the grind. That's a new game waiting for them, one they likely don't want to play, and no one else can; another example is serious PvP in Guild Wars. It just doesn't make a lot of sense. Meanwhile, Spore will potentially allow you to jump to any game you want (presumably after reaching it once), if the latest e3 demo is any indication.

I'm very familiar with the whole issue as my brother is a record-setter for grinding (reached 60 in WoW far faster than anyone in his huge guild could name), and meanwhile I'm only about 4/5 max level in City of Heroes after more than 2 years (the general concensus among grinders being that it takes =< 2 months). I've concluded that, if you give someone a game and they play it to grind, it has to logically end or peter out somewhere, and then they're done with it, and they move on. This isn't necessarily a bad thing even for subscription-based games, as most people will eventually get bored of any game, and it adds a degree of predictability to when that occurs, allowing you to better plan your expansion release or whatever. But what you shouldn't do is presume you can add a bunch of content and say, "hey there's an endgame guys!" There's no such thing as an endgame to a grinder; make a game where the endgame is only accessible to grinders, and no one will ever stick around for the endgame.

Since non-grinders are likely on-staff saying, "yeah that endgame sounds sweet!", it gets implemented, but the target audience just doesn't want it, even if you hand it to them on a silver platter. This doesn't mean that nobody appreciates the endgame of a given MMORPG - in fact, a lot do - but from a cost/benefit point of view, you have to be extremely wary of working too much on content there, rather than making repeating the grind from level 1 increasingly rewarding, or moving on to a new game project.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Time: the ultimate RTS resource

Do you know the greatest reason that most people lose at RTS? I don't mean on a professional scale, I mean among the proletariat ranks of newcomers. It's time. Either they do roughly the same thing, only more slowly, as their opponent, or they can't control their units quickly enough in the heat of battle, or they can't spend all of their income before they are defeated.

It comes as little surprise; when Civilization feels a little like Chess, people play real-time strategy for the action. Still, wouldn't it be interesting to see a RTS where micro-management speed has little value? It's been tried, of course, generally by taking control of the battlefield away and leaving the player with the clerical work of the production... hardly engaging for most people.

In the end, I think stances and formations are the key. In mainstream RTS, stances and formations have never failed, not once, to only increase the complexity of micro-management. What if you were to add that layer, then strip away the norms? Could it work?


Saturday, July 22, 2006

On doubts

Why do people doubt themselves? Is it a self-protection mechanism?

Lately I doubt myself daily. It's not something I ever did, once upon a time, when I was wiser. Lately though, all the time. If I should relent to my doubts, I will fail both myself and the world, and consign to a life of mediocrity. Where is the protection in that? I've long decided that I do not live for that. I live to enrich the world. My avenue is games.

Ah, but there's the problem, you see: I can't much contribute to games. I mentioned earlier that game design is a career. There's 3 problems though:

  1. Designers have paid their dues in another avenue of the industry.
  2. Designers are usually payrolled for a blend of design and other talents.
  3. All the jobs are in California.

For your convenience I've ordered them in descending insurmountability. My main issue is, how do I get in? I've tried and failed to learn to program, I've tried and failed to gain true insight and interest in graphic arts, and I've tried and failed to have the patience for a university degree (more on that another day). I've never been one to be discouraged by failure, but to quote Max Payne, I'm running out of doors here.

Given enough time, the pieces of a pocketwatch - shaken together in a box - tend to miraculously end up a fully assembled pocketwatch. Yet my mind continues to doubt.

A lack of control of one's mind is an intriguing concept. I wonder if it could be transformed into a game mechanic of more depth than existing examples, as per possession or MMORPG crowd control. Maybe a literal switchboard of synapses, resulting in unpredictable reactions to the environment? i.e. A minigame wherein you literally switch the poorly-labelled connections player->enemy and NPC->friend, and presto, you have a squad member.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Jordan's Computer Day

I hereby declare July 17th "Jordan's Computer Day". True, the effort spanned 2 hours into the 18th, but the spirit is the 17th.

On this day, I have powered-on a computer I built myself.
On this day, I have overclocked said computer.
On this day, I have run Far Cry with all the settings maxed out on 1280x960, at full frames.

And it was good.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

The dichotomy of publication

You can say anything you want about the gap between big-budget games and "indie" games, but the fact is, it's about to get worse. Not because of a lack of avenues for indie games, but an increasing and less-populated gap between big-budget publication and underground hits.

You might be optimistic about the future of indie games; I don't blame you. The PC has long had the internet as a viable distribution on the cheap, and it's coming to all the next-gen systems. The XBox 360 has exploded the possibility for games with a high fun-to-kilobyte ratio to be sold at a reasonable price.

But, what about the moderate games? What about those games which are hit or miss, the non-blockbusters that are still decent and come in a box? The people have spoken: Americans have more money than they do time. They only have time to play either a quick fix or the best of the best. The middle-range might be dying soon, and I'm still undecided on if it's a good thing for the art.

Console prices are way up for the sake of graphics, meaning that there's fewer consoles per home. To sell a game well, it has to be ported on both the 360 and the PS3 (Wii is forging a new niche market and so I expect the same game-isolation as before between Nintendo and other systems). The indie games have low production cost and can be distributed via the interwebs. The big games can port across platforms. The middle-range doesn't have the budget. They'll scale back to indie level or go big into debt to get on both consoles.

One might argue that this is an inevitable step near the end of the cycle that separates big-time publication from indie; you can claim it's more or less what happened in music, movies, magazines/newspapers, books, etc., but I don't know if it's necessarily something we should accept. In some cases this has worked out great, as movie sets are expensive. In others, such as music, it's killed creativity and it's harder than ever to find quality music. Since more people are trying to make it in music than there's a market for it, companies only sign 1 band per "sound", and you miss a lot of good similar stuff. But, there's an entire post in that, and I still haven't gotten to my strategy game thoughts.

I'll leave you with this idea: Art, all art, anywhere, everywhere, is science. It is the most empirical of sciences, true, but science is all around it and in it. Science as we normally think of it is very rational and has a more visible pay-off, but just look at say, the last 300 years of music, and then tell me that we aren't approaching a better understanding of ourselves. Art's a roundabout science, to be sure, but in little ways it pays off... And I have a hunch that someday, long after I'm dead, it'll pay off in a few big ways.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Many things indeed.

Boy, do I have a lot to write about. My cousin got an Xbox 360, I've caught wind of a bunch of gaming news, and to boot I've been doing lots of thinkin'.

Well, to start, I should say that the supergroup didn't work out. No one else of the dozens that joined the group knew quite how to handle it, so they did the opposite of what I do: they stayed out of it. they just kept playing like the SG didn't exist. Like a language that only I speak, no one else was in on it, so no one did anything with it. This much confirms my hypothesis that if I made up a language in Endless Forest, no one would bother figuring it out. Artsy types that might like the program don't see a synthetic language as artistic most of the time, the hypocrites.

I've been playing some Civilization 4, since I just noticed the big patch. It got me thinking about tech trees that don't have bottlenecks and are very open-ended: how do you provide a very accessible interface for such a tree? Civ IV did it by limiting all techs into a simple data structure: a AND (b OR c OR d), or something such like that. Thus, no tech requires more than 2 other techs, and one tech is alone on one side of the AND, meaning it can be displayed differently in a reliable fashion. Diablo II on the other hand, just did away with telling players anything most of the time, hoping it sufficed to say that a "recieves bonuses from" b. That sort of a solution works for an RPG I guess, but for a strategy game I need more concrete numbers. I have more on strategy games, but I'll save those for later.

The 360 is a very nice machine, but as I said before, the business plan suffers, and it shows. Marketing a "core system" box was a big mistake on their part, I think. Yeah, they'll sell more units, but it hurts the brand by confusing the market as to what they're building their games for. That's for the PC world; consoles are supposed to be simple.

Something is amiss in the gamerzone/reporting systems. Gamerzone is an awkward system since I play with all 3 mindsets at one time or another (the excluded one being "family", which is a generic zone for non-swearing and kids). Do I change my gamerzone every time I turn the system on? They don't make it particularly easy (you have to manually go into your profile settings and hunt it down in a menu), so I doubt it. Maybe MicroSoft knows something I don't; if I ever understand why so many people can play just one or two games obsessively (as opposed to games in general like myself), I will probably know all there is to know about game design... and maybe that is reflected in the gamerzones which cordon off my many moods into different "zones".

As for reporting, our favorite thing for me and my cousin to do is to introduce an unexpected element in the game, i.e. a totally unexpected form of mic spam. Yes, this annoys people. Occasionally, some people love it, and we still have a great time exploring the concept, so it's not just about pissing people off and ruining their fun; it's about challenging what the players of a given game can do in the game-space to have fun, and as it happens, that usually pisses those people off. Anyway, we were playing call of Duty 2, and one game we managed to get everyone to fight only with pistols, which was cool, but in one night we got reported 7 times, which is probably a record for us (maybe CoD players are more uptight than HALO players). The reason I bother mentioning this at all is the content of the reports:

We are always polite and nice, if annoying, when we do these things we do. Sometimes to rile people up, when they swear at us, we will be overtly verbose about how rude they are. Very high-society you see. We don't insult people and we don't get mad. Yet somehow, of the 7 reports only 2 were for being disruptive. 1 was for trash-talking (ironic since we were in the trash-talker gamerzone), 1 was for swearing, and 3 were for being "agressive". How report-worthy aggressive play in a FPS differs from trash-talking and swearing, I'll leave to you the reader to figure out.

My point is, if people don't understand how to use the reporting system properly, but do know how to report people, what sort of community can we expect when all the open-minded - if eccentric - people have been banned, in favor of people who persistently and explicitly describe the fellatio that others perform routinely? (And no, those people won't be banned, because it was the majority - we were trash-talked and sworn at by more than 50% of the people with microphones.)

We owe it all to Mr. Gabriel's GIF Theory.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Social Engineering, Part 1

This is not a game per se so much as a 3d chat client which only has emotes. I think it's an interesting idea.

(The Endless Forest)

I think we do think of our work mostly as games and not so much as art, but in the sense that art film makers consider their work to be cinema first and foremost. We have a similar attitude: we make games, yes, but they are artistically more interesting than most commercial games.

Basically they're batshit-insane artsy fartsy types who don't know the first god-damn thing about games. It's mildly interesting as a show that people are continuing to stumble about the unlit corners of the medium, which is heartwarming. "The medium" being interactive 3d technology, not games. I've seen this thing described as an MMORPG, and one way or another the creators insist on calling it a game. Accidental misnomer though it may be, I'm tempted to feel insulted, that they would call this a game. This is to games what a song is to amplitude; it's all well and good, but please don't call it a game. Yeah, you can interact with it, just like you can pause a song, or play it backwards, or at half volume, or whatever, but games need objectives, at least implicitly. Even all the Maxis games have implicit objectives.

So anyway, naturally as soon as I got my bearings, I wanted to totally destroy the "game" mechanics (in this case that would be to socially engineer), so I figured, "well what if we had chat, wouldn't that be hilarious?" I'm thinking of a few methods, most easily decipherable being a morse-code-like system of stringing emotes together.

The problem is that the player base doesn't seem quite big enough to have a few bad apples to spoil everyone's fun, even fewer ones who will go on the forums and see a guide I post which might be deleted, or figure it out for themselves. In the end I think I can have more impact on City of Heroes, and here's how:

I've made a hero called The Leader-Guy (just Leader-Guy to / commands) on Virtue. Once he hits 10, I start a supergroup with a name implying chaos and/or randomness, then I invite everyone I see, all the time. Everyone who joins will be immediately made into a random rank, aside from #1 - which will be mine alone, at least at first, so I can observe the supergroup.

True, I will miss the many folks who decide to /gignore me outright, banishing my account from ever playing or speaking with theirs, but after 2 years I figure I'm on enough people's shit-lists.

Every day or whenever, I'll totally change the permissions of what ranks are allowed to do what. People will be randomly promoted/demoted/kicked. I need to set up a full system that works on d2 and d6 (the in-game number generators), and I will follow it rigorously.

I have no idea what to expect from this, which is why it interests me. I'll let you know how it turned out, and what lessons I learned, if any.

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