March 8, 2014

Bad End: You can’t trust game writers – Dragon Age, Fallen London, etc.

First, a simple example to get the idea across.

Daggers of Darkness is a gamebook, part of the classic Fighting Fantasy series. (I’m afraid there will be some spoilers, but oh well.) It’s a very elaborate book, with many paths, but they all lead to one confrontation (or death, but, well). After going through more than 50 sections and a number of dice-rolling battles, you find yourself at a final choice: The villain is already seated on the throne, and attacks you with ogre guards. You can fight back, or you can put your weapon away and simply walk to the throne.

If you attack, a mystical voice proclaims that no weapons may be drawn or used in the throne room. You and the villain both die. Game Over. If, however. you don’t fight back, then the villain and ogres die and you successfully take the throne. Victory!

The point is that even after all those sections and battles–even after going through about 95% of the book–you can still get an insta-game over on what could be considered a coin flip, instantly destroying all the work you did to get to this point.

(Of course, for gamebooks, most players leave a finger on their current section and flip to the next section to peek and see what happens. Flipping to a new section without any record of where you previously were is the gamebook version of “hardcore difficulty”.)

So recently I finally started playing Dragon Age: Origins. There are a number of different character paths you can go through; I chose the mage. (What did you expect me to be, a fighter?) Every path starts out with a sort of prelude before you get to the main story, so first I went through a test in the dream world, then I was wandering around the mage tower…But then I got to something interesting. Part of the Dragon Age setting is that magic power is considered dangerous, so the mages have formed an organization to police themselves. Mages that don’t follow the rules are forced to have a sort of magical lobotomy, or they’re just hunted down. To assist in this process, the mage organization keeps a vial of blood from every mage, to use in sympathetic magic rituals if they go astray.

The point is, you eventually meet an apprentice mage who feels constrained by the rules, having fallen in love with someone he isn’t supposed to, or something. So he wants you to help him grab his blood vial and escape.

Now, when I play games like this, I’m always ready to help people escape unjust authority. However, with everything I’ve seen, the mage organization is shown to be quite powerful and competent. It seems likely that if I tried to help this guy, I would be found out and punished, probably resulting in a Game Over before I even got to the main story. Then I’d have to start all over again.

Would the game writers do that? Would they cut my playthrough short because I made one wrong choice? Of course they would.

In theory, there are ways to mitigate this problem. Saving often, of course, and having the wiki open while I play the game. (I’ve learned that a smartphone is good for consulting the wiki for a game that takes up the full screen.) In practice, of course, trying to figure out the right choice has made me lose interest in the game.

Those strategies aren’t always available, though. For example, if you have a long conversation and cutscene, it can be really tedious to play through it multiple times to make sure you get the right choice. Like in Mass Effect, the choices are designated by rather vague phrases, so you have to think very carefully about each and every conversational decision. And if it’s an online game, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, you really only get once chance per playthrough. And sometimes there isn’t even a wiki available, which means it’s a good time to talk about Fallen London…

Fallen London has certain storylines that can only be played through if you buy access with Fate (basically the currency you can only get by paying real money). I think this is a great idea, because it lets me reward a game I like by paying for something that doesn’t help my in-game situation–it doesn’t let me cheat, in other words, it just lets me experience more cool stuff. However, the Fallen London developers have a policy that Fate-locked content can not be recorded on any wiki, in order to preserve the incentive for people to pay for it. I do respect that idea, but…

One of the Fate-locked storylines is “Uncovering Secrets Framed in Gold”. (I’m going to try to be vague here–I mean, I’m quoting stuff for purposes of criticism, so I’m not worried about infringement; I really do want to preserve the mystery for players who might want to go through the storyline.) There’s some preliminary stuff in the storyline, and then you need to find a certain character in the game to help you. I had never encountered them before, but the wiki definitely helped me here (since finding the character was something you could do at any time, not tied to this storyline). It turned out I had to be thrown in prison again in order to find them. That was pretty tedious, because of the way the mechanics of Suspicion worked (although now that I think about it, nowadays it would probably be a lot easier to get thrown into prison).

So after going through these preliminaries, the basic structure of the storyline is: As you proceed, more horrible stuff happens, so you have to decide how far you want to go. I, of course, shrugged off the consequences and kept going–until the end. The final choice of the storyline has this character telling you several things:

  • This is the final choice
  • If you choose to go forward, you will not get anything of interest or value
  • If you choose to go forward, the character will go away and you will never see them again

Now, the second and third things seem to contradict each other; why would they be freaked out about “nothing”? Is it possible the character is lying? Well, yes, in Fallen London there’s a lot of deception about. But I felt inclined to trust the character. Not only that, if they went away and I needed them again, I’d have to go through that whole rigamarole of being thrown into prison again, groan. So, the clear implication is that if I “go forward”, I get nothing and I lose something.

Would the writers really end a storyline with a “Ha ha, you were stupid for choosing this, you get nothing”? Of course they would.

So obviously I chose to “cut my losses”; as a result, my character got a mysterious message saying “Thanks for not taking that too far, here are a few valuable items for your trouble”.

Sometimes I think it would be cool to have a game where you were comfortable choosing crazy options and not worrying about the consequences. But, oh well.


Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Critique, Game Design, Role-Playing Games, Web-Based Games | Autor: JohnEvans

November 3, 2011

Practice = Performance = Practice

What’s the difference between “practice” and “performance”?

Just to throw out some basic definitions for the purpose of this post: Both words refer to performing some sort of activity that requires skill. It could be playing the piano, writing a webcomic, programming, whatever. “Practice” is when someone performs an activity primarily for the purpose of increasing their skill. “Performance” is when someone has another specific purpose in mind—Perhaps this activity is something they do for money, like a professional musician playing at a club. Perhaps it’s a skill exercised as part of their job, like a software developer writing a program, or perhaps they are creating some work, like writing a novel. (Notably, creating something is a “performance” that results in a tangible product, like a story that may be sold.)

How does one practice a skill? By performing it, mostly. Sometimes there are drills or exercises that are used for practice but are unlike performances; pianists will play scales, for example, which are boring to listen to. More interesting are creative endeavors, like writing. One practices writing by writing…and every time you write, you end up with a piece of writing.

There may be value in these bits of writing. Not that this is anything new; I suspect most people who get into writing assume that everything they write is ultimately intended for publication. Is it possible to write “exercises” that are never intended for publication, but only to increase one’s writing skills? Of course; it’s probably even a good idea. And yet…One of those odd bits of writing just might be worth something to the right journal. Every bit of practice is also a potential performance.

Let’s look at this from the other side. Let’s imagine someone writing with the intent to sell what they’re writing. Do they learn, do they develop their skills while performing this activity? Of course they do! Every instance of performing a skill results in that skill being improved. It’s easy to see this is by reading the archives of a newspaper comic strip that has been drawn for decades by the same person; the improvement in art over the years is obvious. However, I’m not saying you should simply expect your work to get better and better with no slipups; it’s probably more valuable to stretch yourself and try things that might not work. Every creative work attempted by an artist increases their skill, even if it ultimately turns out to be a failure. Especially if it turns out to be a failure! Every performance is also a practice session.

My conclusion, therefore, is that you (yes, you) should look upon performance and practice as the same thing. Create things, stretch your skills, try out new ideas, create things. Any project you create can stand on its own as a work of art—and it can also be viewed as an opportunity to develop, a set of lessons for your skills. Don’t be afraid to embrace all these possibilities. Go forth and create!

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Creativity | Autor: JohnEvans

October 6, 2011

Just another clique

Human society nowadays has a lot of groups. A group has both an inside and an outside; even if you define a group as people who are included, you also define people who are excluded.

I suspect a lot of people take pride in their groups, without realizing how much exclusion is implied. For example, many ravers supposedly follow a credo summarized “Peace, Love, Unity and Respect“, but this only applies to people within their own group—people who know where raves are, how to dance, and all the social cues that allow to be considered part of the in-group. Similarly, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” helps Lady Gaga fans feel accepted and better than everyone else.

Another good example comes from computing; if you buy an Apple computer, you’re buying an idea of style, coolness, a culture of elites. If you a buy a Windows computer, you’re buying…a computer. (And don’t even get me started on Linux.)

If you’re responsible for creating or administrating a community, it might be worthwhile to spend some time considering…What are you doing to help people become part of the community? What are you doing to let outsiders know they’re allowed to become part of it? Are you just another clique?

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Sociology | Autor: JohnEvans

April 9, 2011

Creativity: Creating Worlds

I’ve been thinking about what’s appropriate for this blog. Should it be solely about games and game design? The subtitle says “Explorations into game design and creativity”…and I think that’s the answer. Creativity is important to me, and game design is one of the most important expressions of creativity for me…but it’s far from the only one. The truth is that games, books, comics, movies, they all merge together into one big ocean of creativity in my brain. And this happened even before stories that spanned multiple media.

I Enjoy Worlds

I enjoy media that create worlds and allow me to imagine things within them. To put it another way, I enjoy media that encourage me to be creative. Growing up, I watched cartoon shows—with toy lines that encouraged kids to play out their own adventures. Whenever I read a novel, I often imagine small scenes of myself meeting and talking to the characters; It’s not like it’s a huge part of reading, but it’s always there.  Comic books, mainstream US comic books at least, are designed to accomodate any number of characters and storylines. A story goes from start to finish; a world can engender any number of concepts.

Creating Worlds—The Secret Hobby?

Then, of course, there are tabletop roleplaying games. Perhaps more than any other type of work, a tabletop roleplaying game expects the reader to expand upon what’s given.

I’ve read quite a few tabletop roleplaying game books in my life. I’m sure that’s had some effect on me. Some of these books are written with the expectation that it’s the author’s responsibility to pass along the “true” information about the fictional world; many a supplement has been released detailing some corner of the world or some arcane sub-society. However, other books exhort, even require the reader to fill in the blanks along the way. I don’t want to judge one thing as bad and another good; the one point I want to make is that detailing a fictional world, and detailing how a reader can expand upon a fictional world, are two different skills.

Roleplaying is a hobby that encompasses many different skills, many different activities; world-building is only one of them, and it’s one that’s often glossed over in the books. (Perhaps the most notable exception is Universalis.) And yet, you can find accounts of people who love building worlds, who pursue it in their spare time, to obssessive ends. It seems like worldbuilding is something that’s assumed but not talked about. Perhaps this is a market that’s underserved.

Computer Games

Computer games can evoke worlds in a way no other medium can, by allowing the player to explore them in real time. This was particularly evident in early arcade games, such as Zoo Keeper; it always seemed like there was more to the world than was actually shown. As computer technology improved, it became the norm to portray game environments much more realistically. One could argue that increasing realism made for decreasing mystery, and thus less engagement in the process of imagining the world; I believe there is a fair point there, but I also believe that it is entirely possible to have an intriguing and mysterious world rendered with great realism.

Procedural Generation

It’s possible for programs (such as Dwarf Fortress) to generate well-nigh infinite amounts of internally consistent worlds. However, what knowledge can we gain from these worlds? It depends on how hard we look at them; just look at the case of Tholtig Cryptbrain, Dwarven Queen. Programs can create any amount of data, but meaning comes only from human thought.


As I see it, the process of creation is a neverending loop. Someone creates a work, and that work inspires others, who inspire others in turn—often the original author as well. In some cases the loop is tight, in others it’s more of a cascade; in any case, the tools helping us with our creative efforts are only getting better.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Creativity in Games, Fiction Writing, Game Design, Media | Autor: JohnEvans

March 22, 2011

Game Design: The missing player type

Many efforts have been made to divide computer game players up into different types, in attempts to better understand why players play games, and thus how to make computer games that players will enjoy. One of my favorite attempts at player classification is Mitch Krpata’s A New Taxonomy of Gamers (this link goes to the third in an eleven-part series). The important insight that I want to talk about occurs in the section I linked to; this is the distinction between “Skill Players” and “Tourists”. In a nutshell, Skill Players play the game in order to achieve some form of mastery over it, while Tourists play in order to experience all the high points and cool bits of the game.  (Please read the article for more detail!)

A similar article is Mark Rosewater’s Timmy, Johnny and Spike Revisited.  This article is from the perspective of Magic: the Gathering design, which has several interesting features.  New expansions are released several times a year, each with more than 100 cards; therefore, a lot of cards must be designed on a regular basis. The gist of Mark Rosewater’s article is that he and his team have created several psychographic profiles which encompass the reasons for which people play M:tG. Each profile represents a type of player, but more importantly a reason to play M:tG. Once again, read the article for more detail! And once again, in a nutshell:

“Timmy” plays to experience something, whether it’s something amazing happening within the game, something completely new or just some fun times hanging out with friends. In my mind, this ties in well with the “Tourist” player type from Mitch Krpata’s articles. The focus of this player type is on experiencing something cool that happens within the game.

“Spike” plays to prove something, usually skill, by winning. Of course, M:tG encompasses several skill sets, so there are Spike players who focus on very different parts of the game; finding new deck types, tuning decks or mastering play tactics. This ties in well with the “Skill Player” appellation, seeking mastery over the game.

And finally, “Johnny” plays to express something. These players usually focus on deckbuilding; their decks can contain innovative card interactions, or the decks can be constructed in offbeat or themed ways. This ties in with…wait.

The missing player type

It seems to me that Mitch Krpata has missed an interesting point here. But he’s in good company, as I haven’t heard this idea discussed very often.

There are computer game players who wish to express something with their play. Here are some of the ways they do so:

Some players create things which are meant to be artistic, using the game as a medium. The Dwarf Fortress Map Archive allows players to submit and rate maps, showing things they have created in Dwarf Fortres—tunnels, walls, fortifications, living quarters, treasure rooms, magma fountains and so on. (The most popular map is Flarechannel—Be sure to zoom in to zoom factor 1, actual size, then drag the map around and go to other levels!) Minecraft is also known for this sort of appeal.

Some players will play through a game and make a record of their actions, calling it an “After Action Report” or a “Let’s Play“. These transcripts can be written in the form of a narrative, as with GuavaMoment’s X-COM Apocalypse/Interceptor Let’s Play, or Porkness’ Uplink: Trust is a weakness Let’s Play. Sometimes the narrative emerges through play, as with Boatmurdered. (And I have to say, while Boatmurdered is probably Not Safe For Work with tons of profanity and occasional gore, it’s also hilarious and astonishing.)

Dominions 3 is a fantasy strategy game with a staggering amount of possible unit combinations and strategies. One of the best players goes by Baalz; he’s spent a lot of time playing the game (I hesitate to speculate exactly how much), and he’s good at coming up strategies for just about any nation. The interesting part is that he writes guides to these strategies, which are in themselves quite fun to read! Baalz is really able to express his personality with these guides.

I would also argue that players can express themselves through character customization—not just picking clothes, but also choosing equipment and strategies. And there’s an entire “Narrativist RPG” idea I haven’t touched on. But I think this is a good starting point, at least; that creative expression can be an important part of games, and it will only become more important in the future.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Creativity in Games, Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

March 19, 2011

Game Design: Flow and difficulty locks

Flow is a term that gets bandied about every now and then in game design. For a good overview, there’s Jenova Chen’s MFA thesis. I’ll provide a very quick summary:

If a game is too easy, the player can feel bored.

If a game is too hard, the player can feel frustrated.

In that zone of “just right” the player can enter a state of intense concentration called flow. Many people seem to find it pleasurable. Of course, it’s probably not appropriate for every game experience.

Let’s assume for that moment that flow is a good thingm that we are designing a game in which we want to guide the player into a state of flow. One of Jenova’s key ideas is that the player should be able to adjust the game’s difficulty level at any time.  If they’re frustrated, they can “step back” and make things easier; if they’re bored, they can seek out greater challenge.

One problem with changing the difficulty level is that it often has no in-world explanation. Difficulty level is a concept about the game, an expression of game mechanics, not something that happens in the game. It’s tough to come up with a reason for the player to be able to change the game’s fictional reality in such a fundamental way and not in such a way as to let them win the game instantly.  Kingdom of Loathing is the only game I know which provides justifications for the player changing the difficulty level.

Difficulty Locks

Some games implement an idea I think of as difficulty locks. The player reaches points in the game where they may attempt harder challenges, or they may stay at their current level and continue playing until they feel ready. Many computer role-playing games use this model; the player may wander around and fight random monsters, acquiring loot and “experience”, until they finally decide to take on the next boss.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is an interesting example in that it tests both player skill and time (as I’ve written about before). The player may wait until they have a character powerful enough to definitively defeat the boss, or they may rely on their skill to win the fight. In other words, if the player finds a fight that is too frustrating, they can wander around the areas just before it until they become powerful and/or skilled enough to progress.

Dwarf Fortress: Delving Too Deeply (minor spoilers)

Dwarf Fortress contains an interesting set of features in this vein (pun intended). Playing Dwarf Fortress, you start with a settlement of dwarves on the surface. You can direct your dwarves to dig into the ground to construct rooms and hallways. From the surface, your fortress will most likely be attacked by goblins, and perhaps wild animals like wolves or elephants.

Digging deeply enough will bring you to an underground cavern layer. Here you will find more valuable gems and ores, but you will also find tougher monsters like cave crocodiles. Delving still deeper will yield entry into a second cavern layer, then a third, each with progressively more powerful denizens. Below the three cavern layers lies a magma sea. And below that is something DF players obliquely refer to as “Hidden Fun Stuff“…in other words, something really bad.

With this set of features, Dwarf Fortress allows the player to take on additional challenges whenever they feel up to it. It’s not as finely grained as it could be, but it does have the advantage of being completely justified by the world’s setting.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans

February 22, 2011

The future of anime

Starting up iTunes and visiting their Anime News page, you notice that TV Tokyo has finally licensed Nurse Angel Ririka SOS for digital download. Having heard good things about it, you buy the first episode for $.99 and choose an English subtitle track from the several available. After watching the episode, you decide the show is worthwhile, so you pay $29.99 for the first season. Looking at the subtitle pack, you see that it was translated and timed by a group based in Wales; you consider trying out subtitles offered by some other group, but this one seemed quite serviceable, so you pay the $4.99 for the first season subtitle pack and write a good review on the fansubbers’ profile page.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Media | Autor: JohnEvans

February 7, 2011

Toroidal-wrapping square map distance function

The smallest distance between two points on a square map whose edges wrap like a torus.

So there are two coordinates, x and y (I don’t have any idea what a 3D toroidal mapping would be like, but it’s intriguing, huh?).  Let’s say that x goes from 0 to w-1 (“width”), and y goes from 0 to h-1 (“height”).

We can consider x-distance and y-distance independent of each other.  (Let’s call them Δx and Δy.)

Let’s assume that the two x coordinates are x0 and x1, and also that x0≤x1.  There are two possible values for Δx: x1-x0 and (x0+w)-x1 (looping around).

The same argument holds for y0 and y1.  (Note that the two points could be (x0,y0) and (x1,y1), or they could be (x0,y1) and (x1,y0)—doesn’t matter!)


Δx = min(x1-x0, x0+w-x1)

Δy = min(y1-y0, y0+h-y1)

And finally, our standard Euclidean distance:

d = sqrt(Δx2 + Δy2)

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Mathematics | Autor: JohnEvans

December 23, 2010

PHP inclusion tricks

I just figured out a couple of things in PHP, so I thought I’d share them.

PHP has a useful include statement.  (This is a language construct, not a function, as the PHP documentation makes sure to mention!)  Within one PHP file, you can include another and execute it.

Recently I started wondering: Is it possible for PHP code to know whether it’s being included, as opposed to executed directly?  In a word: Yes.  PHP has myriad predefined variables that hold information about the environment.  In particular, $_SERVER[“PHP_SELF”] holds the relative path of the file being executed.  Here’s some code.

# If our file is then our relative path is:
$relative_path = "/php_stuff/php_file.php";
# Note the leading slash. This is how it works on my system; I encourage you to use the useful phpinfo() function to find out how your system works.
# So, above we defined the relative path that we are expecting. Now we test the PHP_SELF variable to see if we've been included.
# (Note, the strcmp function returns a 0 if the strings are identical. I found I had to use this function instead of an operator. Test and see what works for you.)
if (strcmp($relative_path, $SERVER["PHP_SELF"]) == 0)
$included = false;
$included = true;
# And now the $included variable holds a value telling us if we've been included.

I’m sure there are other ways to accomplish this, of course.  For example, you could have the including script set a variable; if the variable is not set, the file has not been included.  However, in that case you have to make sure every including script sets the same variable; With my method, the included script has all the information it needs.  The only caveat is that the relative path must contain the current location of the script—if the value is outdated, the script will always think it’s being included.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: PHP | Autor: JohnEvans

December 15, 2010

Game Design Basics: Gaming the system, cheating and exploits

Games are systems of rules.  Many games have a goal or object that is not a single event, but rather a continuum or score.  In other words, in many games the player is attempting to maximize some score or value.  Looked at this way, the players have this goal in mind as they play: “My job is to perform actions within the game rules that give me the highest score possible“.

However, game designers intend games to be played in certain ways.  They usually expect players to perform a certain series of actions—but players can discover otheractions that provide higher scores.  This might be an example of an exploit.

An “exploit” is a strategy that is permitted by the rules but has some sort of “unfair” advantage.  By contrast, cheating is a strategy that goes outside the rules.

What makes an exploit unfair?

This is the real difficulty.  The things I’ve been talking about are vague and subjective: “designer intent”, “unfair advantage”.  As I mentioned, designers intend games to be played in certain ways—but players don’t necessarily know what the intent is.  The game itself is the medium by which designers convey their intent.  It’s entirely possible for players to disagree about what strategies are exploitative vs. fair.  We could be cynical and say that players benefiting from strategies are less likely to consider them exploits…and other players, feeling slighted, would be more likely to call them unfair.

Is it a player’s job to figure out what strategies are unfair and avoid them?  Strictly speaking, the answer is no.  A player’s “job” is only to take actions that are within the rules of the game—whatever actions they see fit.  On the other hand, some people are willing and able to make judgements about the unfairness of strategies.  I think of antitrust law as an example of this; At one point companies hit upon strategies that made them a great deal of money, but the strategies were considered unfair by society at large.  (An economic system is not a game, but it does share some characteristics with games—namely, it’s a system of rules with a score system.)

I believe that games are becoming a larger part of society as time goes on.  With that in mind, more people have experience playing and designing games.  Perhaps society will develop a greater awareness of rules systems and a greater willingness to judge strategies on the grounds of fairness.

Comments Comments Off | Categories: Game Design | Autor: JohnEvans