Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not So Lively Afterall

I made passing reference in an earlier post to the fact that Google Lively (the virtual world from Google) wasn't usable, and elsewhere I've gone so far as to predict that it would straight-up bomb. Apparently I was right.

The problems with Google Lively are instructive: it drew a lot of attention, and even excitement in certain circles, but it simply wasn't usable. It was trying to sell itself as a "browser based" virtual world, meaning you could embed it in webpages. That sounds nice, I'm sure, but 1) it required a 10 MB download to work, 2) after the 10 MB download it took about 20 minutes to load a room (in my experience), and 3) it was a fully 3D world without any solid navigation controls. So if you require a huge download AND long load times for your app, it's not very effective as an embeddable widget, and if the user has to dedicate a huge amount of effort to moving their avatar across the room (much less around a corner, that was a nightmare), then it's not providing the kind of casual experience that users attracted to browser-based world were looking for in the first place.

In other words, this was an example of a world that tried to use features to compensate for lack of a driving vision or solid design of any kind. Did they even have designers on this project? I mean the menus are all enormous, the camera and navigation controls feel like they're from the early 90s when 3rd person 3D was a peculiarity at best, and chat all occured in bubbles that flew as far as possible from your avatar, with a thin line connecting them to the speaker. The point is that core usability cannot be an afterthought, but just about everything else they did include can be.

I feel a particularly inappropriate amount of schadenfreude when I see this graphic:
That's right: Google Lively was 70% hype and 30% loading screens.

-Silent Ellipsis

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


After the election, it's time for a political post! Everyone else is doing it...

So firstly, it's not at all surprising, but it's certainly heartening to see Obama elected. I'm not going to spend any time talking about the significance of a black president because you've read that fifteen times over - I just wanted to give him a nod before moving on.

Of course, more was decided than just the presidency. More than a third of the senate was up for election, and democrats expanded their majority in both houses of congress. I myself would have liked to see democrats get a filibuster-proof 60 senators, but I'm willing to concede that it might actually be just as well that they didn't (or seem certain not to at this point). Yes, I actually believe in pluralism and all that jazz, and bringing Republicans into the innovative "sane government" strategy is going to be very important to securing the future of American democracy.

But congress isn't really what I want to talk about, either. I want to talk about Proposition 8, the real downer of the evening. For those who don't know, Proposition 8 is a proposed amendment to the California constitution that would ban gay marriage. Even though San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the country, much of inland California is conservative, and many liberals in California are also religious enough to vote yes on proposition 8 even while voting Obama into office (who officially opposes prop 8).

As I suggested above, I am a pluralist, and I fully support the right of people to hold whatever beliefs suit their fancy. However, in this country marriage carries with it legal as well as social benefits, which makes it fairly clear that this is a civil rights issue - a minority of the population is being denied legal rights by virtue of personal characteristics that have no impact on the rights of the majority.

That said, there actually is another reasonable side in the debate - it's possible to be for gay rights without being for gay marriage, and it's a not a separate-but-equal copout. Part of the problem is that marriage is a religious concept for many people. A marriage is a religious ceremony, and typically takes place in a church (or other religious structure). Then isn't it fair to say that denying gays the right to marriage is itself a right - the right to freedom of religion? I say sure, but that carries with it a cost, for if marriage is a religious issue, then it isn't the role of government to be dictating who can and can't marry in the first place.

So the obvious solution (well, obvious to me) is to get rid of marriage as a legal status altogether. All of the rights now associated with marriage would be instead associated with domestic partnerships (or whatever we want to call them), all current marriages between individuals are immediately converted to such partnerships (so married couples aren't affected at all), and marriages are purely understood to be religious affairs, meaning that any church is free to decide who it will or won't marry (and can even offer special marraiges or super marriages if they want - I really don't care). While we're at it, we won't just define a domestic partnership to include same-sex couples, but to include any group of people who are close enough to extend rights concerning themselves to the other members - so if a pair of close friends or siblings lived together, they could function as a family unit like a husband and wife can. After all, why should a sexual relationship between partners be a prerequisite for what amounts (when you remove the religious terminology) to a legal contract about sharing rights and resources?

Of course, at this point I've gone far enough to be considered radical, even though I maintain that this solution should please everyone. Religious individuals get to hold onto their religious freedom, churches GAIN religious freedom by not having their right to perform religious ceremonies restricted by the government, and currently unmarried family units gain equal legal rights. If everyone gets what they want, what's the problem?

The problem is that anyone claiming that "religious freedom" is their reason for wanting to ban gay marriage is lying. They don't want religious freedom. They want theocracy. They're not voting for prop 8 to defend themselves from anything - they're voting for prop 8 to make the lives of other citizens worse (as punishment for their devious behavior). This will seem obvious to many, but it's also important to point out (again and again), because words do make a difference. It's easier to argue that you're "pro-life" than to argue that you're for throwing women who have abortions in jail. It's easier to argue that we should teach the flaws in evolution than it is to argue that we should teach religion in science class. It's easier to argue that we should "protect marriage" than to argue that we should "punish heretics."

We need to take hold of the language if we want to take hold of the culture. Here's a short list of terms we should adopt:

Liberal > Progressive
Conservative > Regressive
Global Warming > Global Climate Change
Intelligent Design > Creationism
Pro-life > Anti-choice
Same-sex Marriage > The Rights of Families

-Silent Ellipsis

P.S. To everyone who reads this for my posts on video games, consider posts like this "bonus posts," or if you prefer, "sidequests."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Waving Hands

I was recently exposed to Spellcaster, or "Waving Hands," and was immediately excited to try it out. The logistics prevented me from trying it for a while, until I found a site that hosts automated sessions between players at RavenBlack Games (I'm Ellipsis on there, so if anyone wants to create an account and send me a challenge, feel free). Now that I've gotten to actually play the game (a dozen or so times) I can say that my excitement was justified.

Spellcaster is a game about dueling wizards. Nothing terribly innovative there, seeing as how an entire gaming medium (the collectible card game) was spawned by a game with the same premise. The innovative part is how you cast spells - by making gestures with your two hands (usually abbreviated as letters you can write down in sequence), combinations of which create spells. Now, this is conceptually very cool, but that's not what makes Spellcaster a good game. It's the fact that the gameplay is very simple (just consists of picking a gesture to make with each hand each turn), but very strategically deep. We can be a bit more specific, though, in talking about what makes the game good:

1) Micro-goals with feedback: Each individual spell is made up of several coordinated actions and could be counterspelled or otherwise interrupted by an opponent. As a result, every individual spell that you complete gives you a sense of accomplishment (proportional to the difficulty of completing the spell).

2) Engagement Level: The game allows you to control how much time you invest in it. There is no time limit between turns, so you can take as long as you want to make a decision. You can check on the progress of the game every once in a while (or just get an email reminder when it's your turn) and play at work. Alternatively, you can spend time strategizing, trying to figure out your opponent's plans, etc, and this time pays off. The ability of the player to control how they play can be very valuable.

3) Balance: Sure, the big spells are flashy and do a lot of damage, but one interruption from your opponent spoils the effort you put into preparing that spell. Meanwhile, the minor enchantments only affect your opponent for one turn, but they're easy to pull off and can disrupt his rhythm. What particularly pleases me about the balance is that even though there are different play styles, every spell is useful to every player - sometimes, a situation just calls for "remove enchantment" or for "anti-spell" and this is just as true for a defensive player as for a fan of the big, flashy spells.

4) Dynamic: You will never succeed at this game by picking a "dominant" strategy and going through the motions. The game relies very strongly on predicting what your opponent is going to do (so you can counter their attacks and make sure they're unable to defend themselves from yours), and the result is that play is very fluid and often unpredictable (your opponent is working very hard to make sure it's upredictable!).

5) Come Backs: The game does not provide any means for the winning player to secure and easily hold onto his lead. If one player has 5 monsters out and is invisible and immune to fire, cold, and physical attacks, all it takes it one dispel magic to level the playing field. Similarly, even if you hit your opponent with a strong spell, they might have something up their sleeve that they've been planning for a while that will take away your advantage. The point is that I've had many games where I was clearly ahead and ended up losing, and many in which I was clearly behind and still pulled out a victory.

This post, of course, isn't just an extended advertisement for the game - these basic elements that make the game compelling are elements that should be included in any game that strives to be strategic, because they are the elements that create a rich play experience. To balance out the post a bit, I can quickly point out the major problem with the game: steep learning curve. The only people who play this game are those who committed themselves to learning how to play it, and who are willing to repeatedly look over the 40+ entry spell-list trying to figure out what kind of options they and their opponents have, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. If a game had this kind of strategic depth and was able to lead players in and teach them the skills they needed in a more incremental way, it would be the stuff of greatness.

-Silent Ellipsis