Monday, October 19, 2009

Crazy Ideas for Crazy Times: Centralized Digital Distribution

Alright, I'll get right to it: amongst the many things that are being revolutionized in the world around us, distribution is a rather important one. There has been a lot of attention in particular to itunes, a music-player/mp3-store that has been the first successful attempt to capitalize on mp3 distribution, and on Steam, a game-server/game-store that sells Valve's products, as well as those of third-party companies. Amazon also recently entered the picture with the Kindle, to digitally distribute books.

So it seems like we're making a lot of progress on the digital distribution front, right? Unfortunately, there's a problem: each of these services is so much more successful than any competition in the same genre (itunes for music, Steam for games, Kindle for books) that they pretty much hold a monopoly of their respective markets.

Now certainly there are smaller distributors of digital goods, and in many cases individual developers of media can distribute their own files, but it's very hard to be a small distributor. In particular, smaller distributors have difficulty integrating effective DRM that users won't find overly intrusive (and in most cases, the overly intrusive DRM isn't effective anyway). Wizards of the Coast, for instance, has had so many problems with piracy that they've pulled all D&D .pdfs from their store (not necessarily a smart move, but then they just got $120k in a settlement with one particular pirate, so maybe they know better than I do, and in any case it shows that they at least perceive piracy to be a very dangerous problem). Steam and Kindle, however, are able to convince their users to put up with DRM by offering in exchange the convenience of a centralized library users can access from anywhere (something Wizards of the Coast can't offer, since they only have their own products available for download, and no advanced management software).

This suggests that digital distribution relies on centralization, to some extent, in order to gain traction, but since the companies that are capable of generating that kind of centralization are large and few, digital markets seemed to be destined for monopolization, and we're already starting to see some of the side effects, such as Amazon retroactively removing purchased documents from users' Kindles (would not go over well with consumers if there were an alternative product for them to defect to).

What could possibly be done about this? In my mind, what we need is to take the "hard" part out of the hands of for-profit organizations. If it were up to me, I'd create an international organization tasked simply with maintaining a database of users and which digital files they have access to. This organization isn't responsible for actually distributing the files - just keeping track of who owns what.

Once this is in place, private companies can gets permits to access the database and even modify entries for users for which they have the proper credentials. The companies offer services for connecting the user to files they own and to offerings for new things they can buy - basically what things like Steam do now. The difference is, now any other company that wants to can offer a competing Steam-like storefront that's capable of offering the same games Steam does. In fact, if you switched, in our scenario, from Steam to a competitor, you would still be able to access all of the games you bought on Steam from the competitor's application (because they're both accessing the same database).

In other words, the idea is that companies like Valve, Apple, and Amazon would be offering browsers - interfaces whose principal value is their user-friendliness, but users wouldn't be completely beholden to these companies for access to the items they purchased. What's more, the creation of a digital ownership database could speed up the shift toward digital distribution for things that aren't already available and possibly result in other advantages down the road...

There are a few more things that could be pointed out here, but that's the basic idea, so I'll stop there for now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Word If You Can Spare

Her eyes dart. There's me, left, below, and sometimes nothing. She's juggling, but doesn't think to catch her parts. They simply wait to hit the ground. Her face is focus, and wonder underneath. If you peel you find quiet fears with loud reasons. Her answers aren't clear but they are transparent. When enough words swell and battle to describe her, she fades, and in her absence, her emptiness speaks to me:

Newborn memory
You stand before me
And taunt me with
The arms at your side

Your blood makes me move
Your bones keep me still
I need your skin to keep me

But when I see through you
I do not see you
When I speak to you
My words do not travel

Where do they go, the things we hold in our hands?
How do we find them, the things we never lost?
When will we remember the things we never learned?
Why I do not love you

So I answer with my fleeing words and sounds, and all the things that emerge from my fingers, eyes, and sores. I answer with my unseen stares, my unwashed heart, and unwanted needs. In whispers to the world, and notes sacrificed before so many altars I say:

You cannot tickle your own foot
Though you might feel its scratch

You cannot frighten your own hand
Though it bows in its submission

You cannot yearn for things for you have
But might miss what you've misplaced

You cannot see yourself
Except before a mirror

I know no metaphor or trickery
I can only tell you what you are
A filled cup desperate to pour
A defiant falling

I have no solution, but am thoroughly immersed
I mistake double meanings for twice the words
Curiosities for desires
Wisdoms for truths

Love is not a thing you wait for
Come to
Or bring

Passion is not a paper trick
Of many-fold wonders
Hung by a string

And alone is not a number

They are the bubbling parts of your mind
The transformable parts of a world
And the means of my meaning

They are words

I'm writing them now, but may come back to hack off parts. What she has is still a mystery to me, but I know I have both longing and love. Freshly plucked with no jar to keep them. Her eyes no longer dart, but remain, and in her stillness her absence wanes. The earth is quiet again beneath me, but remembrances below me still flood with meaning.

I may be here for a while.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Categories: Gameplay Instance and Sequence

When trying to categorize and describe gameplay experiences, there's one huge difference in experience that I've been thinking about lately, which is the difference between an isolated and repeatable gameplay experience and between the long-term experience of progressing a game.

The former experience I think I'll refer to as a gameplay instance. Note that I'm making up these terms as I go along, so if someone has better ones for me to use, let me know. A gameplay instance includes the decisions involved in completing a specific task, usually in a single gameplay session - like "take the opponent's king" or "roll up the largest ball possible." As I'm describing it, gameplay instances are layered on top of each other - completing the task usually involves completing minor objectives along the way ("lure the opponent out of his defensive position" or "get onto that hill so I can pick up the stuff on top of it").

So with a definition of an "instance" that broad, what is left? The unspecific goal - "progress the game." Usually progressing the game involves completing specific tasks, but there's a separate experience that emerges out of these specific tasks that is more than their sum. In a Final Fantasy game, each battle is a gameplay instance, and navigating a dungeon is a gameplay instance, but then there's the motivation to see what happens next driving you even when you're tired of killing your 300th zombie dragon. That's the gameplay sequence at work.

So while most games these days include both kinds of gameplay experiences, they emphasize each to different degrees. Games far on the instance side include almost all board games, and games like Left 4 Dead that emphasize repeatable mutiplayer experiences. On the sequence-heavy side of things we have adventure games and interactive fiction. Between the extremes we have most modern games, which include overcoming challenges as part of an ongoing progress toward an uncertain final goal.

So I intended to say more, but I think I'll just stick to this for now and come back to it. Generally speaking, the point is that figuring out early on what kind of experience you want to provide and focusing on elements to provide that is important, and among other things you should figure out to what extent you want to emphasize a instanced or sequential experience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chess and Resource Management

My local Starbucks has a chess board sitting around, so I decided to play against myself. Since this gives me perfect predictive power about what my opponent is going to do, it obviously removes some of the standard elements of Chess, but there was one thing I realized when playing it: Chess is first and foremost about mobilization. That is, you begin with all pieces in play, but since most of them are behind a wall of pawns to start with, they don't immediately threaten your opponent. The way you gain options is by moving them into positions where they can form threats.

On reflection, this is more similar than I'd thought to modern strategy games and their treatment of resource management. Think of Magic, where I've chosen cards to place into my deck - the cards are there, but they're not in a usable state, they're not active threats, until I draw them (and have enough mana available to use them). Even if I play an RTS game, say Starcraft, I have a potential army that becomes realized when I gather enough resources to build it, and the question I constantly have to balance is how long I should spend mustering threats before I try to use them - if I'm playing well, I should attack as soon as I think I have a force my opponent won't be able to defend against. This is the same kind of strategy I'm using in Chess - I'm trying to move my units into a position from which they can simultaneously threaten my opponent, and as soon as I think I can launch an attack my opponent can't defend against, I will.

So revelation of the day: mobilizing units and building them are, from the perspective of their impact on strategy, extremely similar (as long as it takes a similar amount of effort). The big difference, of course, is that my units can still be used to defend in many situations before I've moved them at all. If you like, however, you can imagine these situations as my opponent bringing the units into play (like if my opponent plays a card that results in me drawing new cards, or allows me to respond by playing one). It also suggests a certain consistency between the way classic and modern games conceive of strategy.

Just thought that was interesting.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some Haiku

I don't know why in particular I've become interested in haiku, but I have. I post them from time to time on Twitter, but it occurs to me that they're likely being lost in the flood of 140-character posts, so I'm assembling them in one place, and may do so every few months if I produce them at a sufficient rate. These were all written this summer, and are in chronological order:

Summer sky beckons/An empty desk behind me/It's time for dinner

Shit-stained sidewalk/Ambulating down the hill/Cars pass on my left

Banana carcass/Its purpose perfectly served/Lies and stares at me

A "frappelatte"/An airport's quiet hours/And a slow-paced walk

Constant dull humming/With a book and a window/Sound of returning

In addition to the 5-7-5 structure, there are a few rules I tend to apply to haiku. First, they should describe a particular moment. Second, you should not only have 17 syllables, but really respect what it means for them to be different lines. That is, I don't think it passes to take a 17-syllable sentence and present it as haiku. In that case the haiku structure is nothing more than an inside joke, whereas if you respect the structure and what the limitations mean, they can force things out of you that you didn't expect.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Short Games: Canabalt

Firstly, I see that I've been away for a month now - a variety of tumultuous things have happened in my life recently, so I don't feel too guilty about it.

So anyway, from Raph's Website I just got the link to Canabalt and it got my thinking about short games. You see, the game is very cool - it procedurally generates levels, has nice art, and is capable of producing a "that's badass" experience with simple presentation and single-button interaction. However, it is also immensely unsatisfying, because once you get over the "ah, that's cool" reaction, there's not much else to the game. It's not simply that the game is too short or needs more features - by concept, the game cannot provide anything more than it does.

The issue here is that it takes time for me to fall in love with a game, and even when I like short or experimental games, I never really fall in love with them. This troubles me because I care about art, and I care about games, and I'd like these two concerns to overlap at some point, and it seems that experimental games are an important part of getting there.

Maybe it's just that no one has hit quite the right chord with me to make me fall in love with such a short game, but I don't think that's quite it. The problem is that games, I think, need to allow for exploration, and if I feel like I get it right away, then there's nothing to explore. Exploration here doesn't simply refer to having a big map to cover, though that can work (I'm looking at you, Bethesda games!). A player can explore a game mechanic, or different strategies, or possible narrative paths, or a single narrative path, for that matter.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from making experimental or short games, by any means, but I do worry that games that don't at least provide a couple hours worth of exploration (whether its by having a two-hour long linear path, repeatably simple gameplay with deep strategy, or just lots of stuff to discover in a virtual space) are ultimately limited in how deeply they can affect us.

That is, for games and art to converge, I think we may need to have larger-scale experiements.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Preliminary Eternal Poison

Because the only way to improve on an awkward title is to add more multi-syllabic words!

I bought Eternal Poison yesterday in a moment of weakness. I realized I hadn't bought a game in two months, which I decided was probably unhealthy, and the game had several solid points in its favor:

1) Nifty cover art. (see above)

2) It's put out by Atlus.

3) On the back, it advertises that you can bind enemy's souls. Pretty cool, but then it elaborates that afterwards you can "enslave" them or "sacrifice them for profit." Yeah, this is pretty much the exact same thing that made me buy Folklore (which I don't regret). It's almost like these crazy Japanese people have figured out the keywords that will make me buy anything they make. Almost.

So anyway, I've played about a half-hour of the game so far, but already have some commentary. Firstly, it definitely delivers on the promise on the back of the box - you play a witch who runs around binding demons into servitude, which is awesome. You also have an ally (familiar?) who is a magical wolf with antlers on cold fire. Somehow it doesn't seem quite as absurd when you see it, though.

The other side of the proverbial coin is that...the UI is kind of clunky. This is honestly kind of shocking from a moderate-budget strategy RPG. Maybe I've just been spoiled by the likes of Disgaea, but I feel like absolutely everything I want to do just has two-or-three-too-many button presses involved. What's worse, every time you attack an enemy, it cuts to this 3D environment and plays out the attack animation in close up. That sounds really cool, except that it takes a good 5 seconds to load the animation, another 5 seconds to load back the tactical map, and up to 10 seconds of attacking animation when all I'm just using a normal attack to finish off a mook. If it were, for instance, a special animation when I score a critical hit, or a special animation the first time I attack the enemy leader, then I'd be fine with that, but not every single time anything on the map does anything. That's just excessive. Fortunately, there seems to be an option to turn these animations off (I didn't know what they meant by "animations off" in the menu screen when I first ran across it, and certainly didn't expect that I'd want to actually come back and turn them off).

Finally, after each battle, it asks you if you want to save your game, and if you do, then it returns you to the main menu screen. This isn't a huge deal, since you can just load the game to continue, but the whole "save and continue" idea has been around long enough that failing to include it is kind of befuddling. It's almost like these design choices were made by someone in the early 90's who used an arcane technique to communicate with a modern team of developers.

All in all the clunkiness is outweighed by the personality of the game so far, and I'm definitely going to continue playing, but it boggles my mind that a game would ship in a condition where in a half-hour I can come up with a multiple-page-long list of obvious and easy improvements. Then again, I guess that's why I believe there's a market for people like me in the first place.

-Silent Ellipsis

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What is a Bubble? (Philosopher's Economics)

I've been thinking about economics a bit recently (I doubt I'm the only one), and a few things regularly creep back up into my mind. One of those is the question, "What is a bubble?" Now I'm not asking what people mean when they use the word - I know that much - I'm asking what it represents. In theory it's a disconnect between the perceived state of the market and its actual state, but I want to see what it is one level deeper than that. Where did the money lost go? Why is it that bad accounting results in our society being poorer?

Before we begin, full disclosure: I'm not an economist, and I'm not an expert on the intricacies of the market. In fact, I'm historically the kind of person that doesn't even like thinking about economics. In my defense, however, recent history has shown that many supposed experts on the market are nothing of the kind, and it's also forced many of us who would prefer to spend our time on other topics to think a bit harder about the economic system we live with. I'm also not going to try and explore the intricacies of the market here; we're going to be looking at fairly high-level concepts instead.

What I propose is a mental exercise: imagine, for the time being, that you do not know what "money" is, or quite what an "economy" is, and you are presented with our society ("our" meaning American society, here, but much of this will apply to other developed countries). You do know that the people in this society adhere to a complex codified system of behavior in order to allocate resources, which they refer to as "the economy".

So how does this system work? It seems to have a number of conditions and goals:

1) It seeks to produce value for the system as a whole. Unfortunately (very unfortunately, as we shall see), what qualifies as "value" is vague and isn't universally agreed upon.

2) The system needs to allocate resources so that they are spent on the projects best capable of adding value to the system (in order to fulfill the goal above). Note that just because a project contributes value today doesn't mean it will contribute value tomorrow, so this must be constantly re-evaluated.

3) The system motivates citizens to be productive by allowing those who create the most value to consume more of the value produced.

4) The system requires citizens to consume its products. This is for two reasons: first, the act of consumption is an expression of faith in and acceptance of the system. Second, and more importantly, it is a means of measuring the perceived value the system is producing.

So (4) ties back into (1) - it's how the system deals with the ambiguity of "value." If a citizen consumes or makes use of the products of the society, they are assumed to be getting value out of it (or else they would choose not to consume those products). Now you also have a way of measuring the productivity of projects - if their products are consumed, they are productive projects.

We have a basic idea of how this system likely works, now. When citizens produce value, they are rewarded by being able to claim or use up some of the value produced, and their consumption is an indicator that the producers of whatevever they consumed are contributing value, so these producers are also allowed to consume, etc. This is how it works once you "get the ball rolling", but how does the consumption chain start? Who is the prime mover, if you will?

In this case, it's financial institutions like banks that have the authority to declare that a citizen deserves to consume before they've proven that they're creating value. In theory this is because the bank has determined that the likelihood of this citizen producing future value is very high, and because the consumption chain needs to get started to keep the society as a whole productive. Since the objective is to have the rate at which value is created constantly increase, the rate at which value is consumed must also increase, so the purpose of these institutions is to bring the rate of consumption closer to the rate of production, so that the system gets more feedback.

At this point, things are starting to look pretty familiar, and we can see where the current crisis fits into this chain: bad predictions about how much value citizens are likely to contribute. However, let's step back and consider what that means.

In the case of a real estate bubble, we're talking about building houses. The financial institution is deciding that a citizen should have a house, but it turns out, eventually, that the citizen didn't create enough value to justify the consumption. In other words, the society has decided that the current house owner does not deserve the house. That's what the bubble means. The bubble popping is the large-scale recognition that house owners have not earned their houses, and the subsequent punishment enacted by the system.

Now you may not remember getting together with your fellow countrymen and having a vote where you decided to punish house owners. That's because there was no such vote - instead we have a tool in this system that automates the decision for us, called "money" (along with contracts and credit scores and such). If you remember, however, we agreed not to talk about money when describing the system, and there was a point: by giving ourselves a little distance we get a new view of the system. It is the same core system whether we vote to punish or not - money is just a means of implementation.

So back to the situation at hand: the system is punishing people, both house owners and financial institutions, but on a large enough scale that it has destructive consequences. When the financial institution loses sufficient authority in the system, it is no longer able to delegate resources, and the rate of consumption falls. This has a chain effect, or viewed another way, it interrupts the chain effect the system so carefully created. If you do not have consumption, you don't know where to allocate your resources (because you don't know who's contributing value), so resources will simply sit unallocated, and projects grind to a halt. In our society, this manifests in a rise in the rate of unemployment.

Now here's the weird part: at no point in this story was a problem caused by a decrease in the rate of value production. That's the result of the problem. The problem was actually too much value production, or rather, "unjustified" value production. Now we have nice houses, which carry a lot of value, just sitting around unused because we can't decide who should get to live in them.

From this perspective, our current situation is rather obviously absurd. As a society, we have the resources and infrastructure we need to be prosperous, but we're stuck in an extended period of indecision about how to allocate these resources. In order to fix the situation, you simply need to start allocating resources again (in fact, to a large extent it doesn't matter where you allocate them, as long as you enable consumption and get the chain effect restarted).

This makes recent proposals seem much more reasonable than they appear at face value to many Americans. Bailing out banks is, in this little model of ours, synonymous with "not punishing" those banks, so that they can continue to allocate resources. If (and this is a big if) you add well balanced regulations to the mix, you can force the bank to do a better job of allocating resources without interrupting its operation, and getting it to do a better job allocating resources was the whole point of the punishment feedback loop in the first place.

A stimulus package is an alternative of the same idea - but in this case you skip the institutions that performed poorly and have the government allocate resources directly. Again, as long as the policy enables consumption, we start getting feedback about value production, which allows the system to adjust resource allocation and slide back into an efficient state of operation.

Note that this doesn't say anything about how these policies are actually being implemented. Bailing out banks without adding regulation might reinforce their poor performance, and result in the chain effect starting back up, but at low efficiency. A stimulus might not allocate resources fast enough to effectively jumpstart the chain effect. Either way, the principles behind the policies clearly have some grounding.

We could go further, but I have to stop at some point, and going further into policy risks getting us too far away from the core concepts. So what's the takeaway? Well if you've gotten to this point and think that what I've said makes some kind of sense, I consider the post a success, but if there is one idea I want people to come away with, it's this: money is a means, not an end.

We were able to tell a perfectly coherent story about our economy without the concept of money being involved, and we can see where it fits in - it's the common unit of measure for the value of any product. Its purpose is to distribute the evaluation mechanism among all citizens in the system, which is important because, as mentioned before, our products need to be constantly evaluated to have efficiency in the system. In other words, dollar bills are evaluation tokens, or a mini-vote for a the value of things we consume. This is clearly not how citizens tend to think of them, however; since these tokens can be exchanged for items of value, we think of them as having inherent value, and treat them as property.

The first step to a more sane system might be recognizing what money actually is.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, August 3, 2009

Basho Translation

Nothing to do with videogames today. I spontaneously decided to post my own translation of Basho's most famous haiku to Twitter earlier, and I wanted to take a second to explain it a little (is that supposedly against the spirit of haiku? well it's not my poem to begin with, so I think I'm free to analyze it). The original, in case you know Japanese but don't know it, is:

古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音

furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

My translation is:

Back at the old pond
A frog leaps and dives within
The sound of water

So a couple things to note here. Firstly, I maintain the haiku syllable structure. Not all translations do, but haiku has the rule for a reason - it forces you to pick your syllables carefully. Contrast with this translation by Curtis Hidden Page (reference):

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

You can add a lot of detail by elongating the translation, sure. Conversely you can super-shorten it to just get the idea across very quickly, but the original poem is neither of these. It's just long enough to introduce a little personality into a thought, without being long enough to pin down and define the personality.

Ok, so secondly, the word "back" is nowhere to be found in the original, but the poem as a whole definitely gives the impression that the poet considers the pond a very familiar place, which the word expresses. Also, the wording maintains a certain ambiguity - it's not clear whether the poet is present at the pond or not. He might be back at the old pond, taking it in, when a frog leaps and creates a moment of awareness, or the frog-leaping might be occuring "back at the old pond" while he's elsewhere. I like the ambiguity, myself.

Thirdly, I use the singular "frog." In Japanese, there is no distinction between singular and plural, so kawazu is ambiguous. In English, we have to pick one, and my understanding is that Basho thought of it as a single frog (his painting to accompany the poem depicts one frog), so I went with it.

Fourthly, tobikomu is made up of two components. By itself, tobu means to fly, and the komu suggests being enveloped, thus I use two verbs to express the meaning of the multi-faceted word. This is apparently an unusual move - many people focus on the brevity of the haiku, but this word actually feels pretty long and considered to me, so I give it that time in translation.

Finally, "the sound of water" is a pretty literal and orthodox translation of the last line, but it's unusual that I lead into it with the word "within", suggesting the metaphor that the frog is becoming a sound. It does fit with the structure of the original poem, and it's a bit ambiguous, but it's fair to say that this is the second place (the first being the occurence of "back") where I'm taking some poetic license. I think it fits the impression of the poem as a whole, however. We don't know if Basho actually sees the frog, but in theory he does hear the frog. It's possible that he is surmising the existence of a frog based solely on the sound he hears. Either way, it is clear that Basho is leaving us with "the sound of water" as an indication that after the leap and the dive, the sound, and the impression of the action, is all that remains. It is in this sense that we might think of the frog as literally becoming a sound.

That's it for now. I seem to be on a roll this week with the posts. We'll see if I burn out soon from over-posting.

-Silent Ellipsis

Friday, July 31, 2009

FFIV: Archetypes; Also: Moon Expeditionary Party

Two posts in one day! Maybe I'm going crazy, or maybe I'm just listening to too much FFIV music.

So to follow up on the OC Remix post, I wanted to talk about FFIV generally. It has a couple qualities that are interesting, and to contextualize them, we'll consider the game's role in Final Fantasy history (and thus JRPG history). The game represents a dramatic shift - that is, a shift toward drama!

See the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games were almost like Western RPGs in that they really didn't have preset characters - the characters were just empty shells for you to move around and use in combat. In Final Fantasy you didn't even have to use any characters in particular - you could have a party of four thieves if you really wanted to (not that it's advisable...). These games had a story, but they were really about "look, you can explore dungeons!", much like the original D&D was.

Sequels started to add more established characters with established party roles, but FFIV took this to a new level, with a huge cast of diverse and in some cases multi-faceted (I know, shocking) characters, FFIV was the forebearer of JRPGs that focus on character development and convoluted plots.

So the interesting thing is the sheer number of genre-defining archetypes, both good and bad, that appear in this game. It's almost as if the developers realized that this was a direction all future games of the genre would be going, and decided to explore the possibility space in order to figure out what worked. The game includes betrayal, redemption, regicide, patricide, fratricide, genocide, suicide, love triangles, tragic star-crossed lovers, strippers, people who wear masks only to reveal that they're incredibly beautiful underneath, revelations about the origin of the protagonist and the antagonist, a captured useless girlfriend who ends up in your final party, characters who become substantially more powerful and useful just before they die, boss fights that you have to win so you can watch a cutscene where you lose, a last surviving member of a species that joins your party, instant adultification, interplanetary travel, vehicles that carry other vehicles, a sampling of every D&D class, and lots and lots of character death. This game has everything.

So if you want to know if a given story element will work in your RPG, a good rule of thumb is to think about when it happened in FFIV (and trust me, it happened in FFIV), and whether or not it made the game better. So moral dilemmas, yeah that was pretty sweet. Having your girlfriend spend a big chunk of the game tied to a chair not doing anything, not so much.

So the second interesting thing about FFIV is that it's one of the few FF games where I honestly believe that the characters in your party are special and are qualified to go save the world. FFVI is also ok in this regard, but otherwise...really, why is Butz (excuse me, "Barts") saving the world again? He's a random guy with a chocobo. Yippee.

So for the second half of my post, we'll be going through a mental exercise. Let's say you had to select a team to go with you to the Moon to battle an elemental force of destruction based solely on the character summaries I give here. Who do you take?

[warning: mild spoilers ahead]

1. Cecil (FFIV) - This guy is a half-lunarian who became a dark knight and captain of the elite fighting force the Red Wings. He eventually rebels against his own king's tyranny and ascends a legendary mountain to perform a purification ritual and become a paladin. That's right, he's both a dark knight AND a paladin, and his ancestors are FROM THE MOON. That's not only the most interesting background of any FF protagonist, it makes him a rather obvious choice for the mission to the Moon.

2. Rydia (FFIV) - She's the last member of a race of magical humanoid "callers", and a personal friend of Leviathan, the king of mythical creatures (on Earth at least). She can use both black magic and summon things. Also, she has hair that partially covers one of her eyes. Yeah, she's clearly going to the Moon.

3. Kain (FFIV) - It's not immediately clear why he's extraordinary, since his apparent backstory is simply that he's a soldier, but Cecil will vouch for him. What's more, he can jump really really, really this-is-a-good-technique-for-beating-bosses-with-a-countdown-timer-before-they-attack kind of high. He's in.

4. Rosa (FFIV) - Here's my big FFIV exception. Rosa's story is this: she's Cecil's girlfriend. Wow, that's special. She's also a healer, which makes her useful, but we can probably find a better one. You can see Cecil when he gets back.

5. Edge (FFIV) - He's a ninja. Pretty cool by itself, but in order to determine how useful that makes him, we have to apply the Law of Ninja Quantity, which states that the power of ninja is inversely proportional to their quantity. So how many other ninja are in FFIV? What's that, none? That makes this guy a maximally powerful ninja. Also, he can convince a paladin that it's ok to steal an airship because "the ship wants us to have it." Those are some skills we can use on the Moon.

6. Butz (FFV) - I think we covered this guy already, but here we go again. He ran across a meteor and decided to investigate, and somehow got caught up in a party that decided to save the world for no particular reason. He can only come if he's willing to wait inside the Fat Chocobo's belly.

7. Faris (FFV) - Now this character is more interesting - a cross-dressing pirate! Despite the inherent coolness of being a crossdressing's not obvious what they have to offer in particular, either. They're on the waiting list.

8. Cloud (FFVII) - This guy is a delusional terrorist who has somehow managed to convince himself that he was part of an elite fighting force when he wasn't. Yes, I know people think he's cool, but that's his actual backstory. Take your giant vegetable cleaver and go cook our heroes something, spiky-haired kid.

9. Barret (FFVII) - He's a guy with a gun instead of an arm. He's also a terrorist. That's about it. There's no explanation as to why this guy should be any better at saving the world than the mooks with guns you spend the game decimating.

10. Terra (FFVI) - She's a half-esper who was captured by the Empire and turned into a lethal weapon and a source of magitech research using a slave crown. She is the link between the human realm and the realm of magic, and the only non-FFIV protagonist to have a legitimate reason to be in a party that saves the world. She can also cast both black magic AND white magic, and wield swords, so we got our healer role covered in style. She's in.

11. Gogo (FFVI) - The other solid FFVI candidate, Gogo has spent an unspecified amount of time living inside an enormous monster. That's right, he literally knows what it's like to be in the belly of the beast. Also he can do everything...that's right, everything (he's a mimic by trade). I would definitely want to have this guy around as a wild card.

12. Locke (FFVI) - A good example of an FFVI character who probably doesn't have Moon chops. Don't get me wrong, Locke is very cool and stylish, but his background is that he's a thief (sorry, "treasure hunter"). Could be handy, but we already have a ninja, and when it comes time to fight an elemental force of destruction, what does he have to offer? Enthusiasm. He can join the ghosts that appear to cheerlead for the party before combat.

13. Squall (FFVIII) - He's a student at a school that's training kids to be commandos, or something like that. He also wields a gunblade, which is like a sword...with a gun inside it. I think the appropriate use for that weapon is to have Edge throw it at things. He's out.

14. Irvine (FFVIII) - Here's the depressing thing about this character: he's one of the more interesting characters in FFVIII. His backstory is that he's a sniper, but he doesn't actually like to shoot at people. I don't think we're going to be bringing someone to the Moon so that he can sit around and not shoot at things.

15. Zidane (FFIX) - This guy doesn't even have a backstory. He's a thief, like Locke, and his special characteristic is that he has a monkey tail. Why? I don't know! In theory that makes him non-human, but no one even seems to care that he has a tail, so I doubt it's an indication that he's part Moon-person. He's not coming.

16. Garnet (FFIX) - This girl is basically like Rosa, except she can also summon things and she's a princess. Those are nifty traits, but we already have Rydia on our team, who seems to be a lot more proficient, so this girl's out.

17. Tidus (FFX) - MAJOR SPOILERS [for remainder of Tidus description] Tidus is one of those characters that seems to have no particular reason to be important or part of the team, but is revealed at the end to have an inextricable connection to the force threatening the world with destruction. Also, he's a ghost. Potentially useful, but he's kind of specialized for the FFX world, and it's not like he has any special ghostly powers or anything. His special abilities include being good at Blitz Ball. I think we can move on.

18. Yuna (FFX) - Yeah, you'll never guess, she's another Rosa/Garnet. The main argument for her is that she's an important priestess of some religion. Again, kind of specific to the FFX setting - I don't see Zeromus really being intimidated by the ability to make people who are already dead rest peacefully.

19. Anonymous Hero (FFXI) - I believe the words I'm looking for are, "If everyone's super, then no one's super." This person is no better explained than the FFI heroes.

20. Vaan (FFXII) - He's an orphan who kills dire rats and dreams of being a sky pirate. He's not even a real pirate like Faris is. He's like Zidane, but without a tail, so we can be 100% certain that he's human and has nothing special going on.

21. Fran (FFXII) - She's a viera who wears completely absurd looking armor. That said, the outfit makes her very distracting, so she might be handy to have around as a decoy. She's on the waiting list.

And that's it. I didn't have time to cover everyone, but it's a pretty representative list of SNES-and-onward characters, and based solely on background story and powers they are claimed to have in the narrative, I really would choose the cast of FFIV (plus Terra and Gogo) to be my Moon Expeditionary Party. Apparently the existence of an explanation for how or why a given character is saving the world has been deemed unnecessary in recent FF games, which I think is unfortunate. Also note that just because a character didn't get to come with us to the Moon doesn't mean that I don't think they're cool (as in the case of Locke) - just that there's no particular reason to believe this character is qualified to save the world.

-Silent Ellipsis


First thing's first, it's my blog's birthday today! Happy birthday, Dreamscape.

Next on the agenda - I've been listening to the OC Remix of the FFIV soundtrack. You can grab it here. I don't know why they have Yang on the cover art and not Cid/Pallom&Porom/Tellah/Edward, but whatever. It covers the whole of FFIV and is pretty faithful (though obviously with more techno beats and electric guitars than the original had).

Personally, it's kind of hit-and-miss: some of the tracks are awesome, like Tundra of Dwarves, Evoking the Dawn, or Somewhere to Hide, and some are less awesome (I'm not going to name names). The Zeromus music seems to encapsulate this by being both awesome and bad at the same time. It's like they had a good song going, and then ended up cooking it too long and burnt it. There's also seems to be an implicit admission that the song has something wrong with it, since there's another version included by most of the same people (and a couple by other people). The second attempt is somehow worse, though. And by somehow, I mean because what passes for evil villain speech when executed with a death metal voice sounds simply absurd when executed with a voice that sounds vaguely human.

Despite my being frustrated with it, I keep listening to the Zeromus music, and it reminds me of something - writing good music is really hard. This might seem obvious, but every once in a while I do stop and wonder if I like the music I do simply because I gave it time to grow on me. This is more likely to pop in my head if I go for a while listening only to music I like (and thus have little standard of comparison). So I find it really fascinating to listen to things that are close to being awesome - the "less awesome" tracks here aren't really bad, they're just unbalanced in one way or another, and when I listen to them a couple times I feel like I can start to pick out exactly where they started going wrong.

Anyway, despite my having some reservations, I recommend you download the music (it's free, afterall!).

-Silent Ellipsis

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crazy Ideas for Crazy Times: Pre-Pre-Ordering

There's a very relevant and well-put article on Jeff's blog about funding for indie game development. The summary is this: the situation looks bleak. On most platforms, financially survivable options are surprisingly narrow. And yet AAA games are trending towards larger budgets and banking on blockbusters, which means there's very little room for "risky" development.

The article also addresses a recent proposal by Gabe Newell of Valve: public funding for games. Basically, instead of starting with publishers, the game begins with funding from the games community, that can choose what kind of games get developped and potentially get a return on their investment. Jeff doesn't think this sounds like a particularly viable option, pointing out, among other things, that if every player is an investor, they may have legal rights relative to the developer that would get, well, messy.

In my opinion, the public funding idea is really interesting, but it seems like the wrong part of it is getting emphasized - if I put down $50 for a cool game idea to be developed, it's not because I'm hoping for a return on my investment, it's because I want the game to be made! That's giving me my $50 of value - I don't also need to get my money back two years later (from what, selling copies to the fans...the one who provided the money to create it in the first place?)

The way to make an idea like this more viable is to focus on the part where players want cool games and are theoretically willing to pay to have them. Here's my variant: pre-pre-ordering. The idea is very simple, and similar to what was proposed above - players want to see cool games made, so they're willing to put down money to have them made, but trying to make it a standard investment relationship is messy, so instead they put down money just to own the game when it's made, on the condition that it actually does get made.

That is, the game developer comes up with a cool idea, maybe some concept art/writing/prototype mechanics, and presents them to the potential players. If the players want the game to be made, they basically agree "I will buy this game if it is made" (which is legally binding, like saying you'll pay for an item on ebay is). Now if a sufficient amount of "potential" funding is raised to make the game, then the players' credit cards are charged, and production begins. If not, then the players keep their money. Of course, once the game is completed, those who pre-pre-ordered get sent a copy without having to pay again.

There is still a question about what happens if a developer fails to deliver a game. In theory they would have to return as much of the money as they can, but it's theoretically impossible for them to return all of it, and this only needs to happen a few times for players to become disillusioned with the system. An alternative setup is that the players aren't charged anything until the game is actually released - in this case, the pre-pre-orders are used to secure immediate funding from another source (and in theory, it should be easy to do so if you're guaranteed a certain amount of revenue).

The second question is, do players who pre-pre-order get some kind of say in the development of the game? Generally speaking, I don't want players to be making major design decisions (for that matter, I don't want publishers making major design decisions), but I do think the model would benefit from giving players a vote in certain aspects of development. This could also be something that costs extra: you can pre-pre-order at the basic cost of purchasing the game, or offer more to be able to vote on community decisions, get guaranteed access to beta testing (or even alpha testing), get your name in the credits, etc.

So that's the idea, minus a marketable name.

-Silent Ellipsis

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Natural Funativity: The Rant

As part of Ian Schreiber's online course on game design this summer, I've just come from reading Natural Funativity, by Noah Falstein. I would like to preface this whole post by saying that the author seems like an intelligent person and that I agree with most of the general (rough, approximate, vague) points he wants to make about fun being related to skills that could be potentially useful (whether or not they in fact are).

Now that I've said that, I'll proceed with the short version of this post: ugh.

Longer version: Apparently the word "natural" means the same thing when applied to game design it does in all other contexts - from the African veldt! Falstein's argument is that what makes an activity fun today is that it was useful to our paleolithic ancestors. Not an absurd idea on its face, but Falstein proceeds as though this were a clear fact, despite providing next to zero evidence for it.

The evidence he does provide is generally in the form of hypothetical anecdotes or examples of analogies between common modern and supposedly common paleolithic activities. Now, as a student of philosophy, I'm all about hypothetical examples, but in philosophy we generally apply them to questions for which there is no way to gather empirical evidence, like "is determinism incompatible with free will?" or "how many people are on this chair, the one on which I'm sitting?" (if you think the answer is obviously one, you're probably not a philosopher or much of a party animal)*.

There are several reasons this bothers me. For one, I have a lot of respect for biologists and evolutionary theory, so when people start throwing around stories about our ancestors and pretending like they're facts and not fabrications of their imagination, it bugs me. Secondly, it creates some instant associations with evo-psych, which I'm not a fan of. Thirdly, I think it's wrong on some level. Fourthly, there's no real reason to go back to cavemen to explain these things.

Let's go back to thirdly - the part where Falstein is wrong. The hypothesis is that things are fun because they were useful to our ancestors, but not to us. Yet from early on in the article:

"So not surprisingly, when you really look at not only games, but all human entertainment, you see that at its heart it is all about learning about survival and reproduction and the necessary associated social rules and behaviors."

Yes, social rules. Falstein doesn't think we're operating with the same social rules we were x-thousand years ago**, does he? And yet this is immediately brought up as one of the first examples of things we learn from games and entertainment. Generally speaking, it seems that Falstein is completely forgetting that genetic evolution is only part of the explanation for our behavior. I'm ok with people leaning toward the nature side of the "nurture vs. nature" debate, but he seems to not even recognize that any such debate exists.

This brings me to fourthly again: we don't need the cavemen frame to understand what we're talking about. We just need the "human people" frame. For instance, Falstein attributes all collecting and gathering behaviors as being derived from the need to gather berries, as in:

"There are a huge number of popular entertainments that involve gathering. Casinos packed with slot machines recreate berry-picking, abstracted and refined into an RSS-related compulsion."

Why does it have to be about berries? I mean, isn't it just as easy to say, "people like collecting things because it results in them having more things"? It also lets me avoid the burden of having extra assertions to back up. I think this is an important point for anyone writing an essay, about anything. Examples are good, but each time you include one, you're also usually introducing a new assertion (at the very least, that your example is an instance of X). Thus, examples only help your cause when you can convincingly show that they support your main point. Otherwise, they're just one more thing for someone to object to (for instance, I think comparing casinos to berry-picking is a pretty bad analogy). Falstein seems to think that more assertions are always better.

On top of this "fun is about cavemen behavior" center there is an organizing strucural part of the essay, about how there's three kinds of fun activities: physical, mental, and social. My main objection here is, "doesn't that include the entirety of human activities?" I mean, it's presented as a practical tool for thinking about what kinds of activities might be fun, but if it includes the entire set of activities, I don't see what's practical about it. It's like saying "human beings tend to like the taste of just two things: organic things and inorganic things. For instance, they like both pig flesh and salt." Of course, not everyone eats pig flesh, but I'm pretty sure prehistoric people did, which is why we eat it today (see, I just used science)!

To conclude, I don't think I would have had any problem with this essay if it were framed as "I find that a useful thought experiment when designing a feature is thinking, what might a cavemen need to do?" Instead, Falstein feels the need to have his thought experiment carry the authority of fact, but without taking the time to convince us that it actually is fact.

And that's the rant (for now).

-Silent Ellipsis

*Or you're both an animal and an animalist. Shout out to all the animalists out there! By the way, I think your theory is ridiculous. Text me if you want a QED.

**The vagueness about timing also kind of bugs me. I mean, human societies have seen a lot of variety in a lot of places over the last 10,000+ years, but we're asked to imagine that there's modern man, and then before that we were all living on the African veldt since forever.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why MMO?

Massively has an article up about the trend in MMOs to allow for easier and easier solo play. This hearkens back to a post I made a while back on the same topic, but it still seems like most of the other arguments I'm seeing on the topic travel in the opposite direction of mine. The Massively question is: Given an MMO, why make it more single-player? For me the question is: Given a game concept, why make it an MMO?

I'm not uniformly against MMOs or anything - I actually believe that they have a huge amount of untapped potential. The keyword, though, is "untapped." The kind of gameplay we see in existing MMOs is, by and large, very similar to what you can get in a single-player game (or a merely-multiplayer game, like Neverwinter Nights, Halo, Mario-Kart, or anything that has less than 100 people in the server at once). However, in an MMO the content is more strictly gated, the space between levels is artificially extended, and you can't have any effect on the game world. So I guess what I mean is they're watered-down versions of single-player games.

So what I see isn't an evolution of MMOs, but rather a presumption that MMOs are the standard, causing them to open up to audiences that weren't originally interested. So again, if the game is trying to appeal to people who want to play solo, then why is it an MMO? The actual answer seems obvious when I'm in a cynical mood: because MMOs are trendy and offer high profitability. The profitability portion comes from the fact that you can make more money from each committed user in an online game than you could by selling them a traditional game for a set price - if addicted they'll keep shelling out. Also, online games are relatively immune to piracy, because in addition to a working, hacked version of the client software, you need an actual server to play on.

That said, MMOs are a very risky investment, for several reasons (ooh, time for a list, I love this part):

1) Since standard MMOs rely on being addictive, it's not enough to convince someone to play it - you have to convince them to live your MMO.

2) Since MMOs rely on being addictive, most players won't play more than one at a time. That means that most of your potential audience is already occupied playing WoW, so you need to give them a reason to play your game instead of another (whereas a player who bought Halo 3 can, and probably will, also buy Gears of War 2).

3) They're friggin multiplayer. Even though many of the developers at this point have a lot of experience making multiplayer online games, it's still no easy feat to make the game work properly, and this fact makes both programming and designing the game harder, which is final nail in the coffin of anyone who dreams of making a low-budget MMO.

And since they're so high-risk, clearly the publisher is going to try and minimize risk by insisting that the title is as similar to existing MMOs as possible.

So is the tradeoff worthwhile? It certainly is if you're Activision-Blizzard, but given the sheer number of MMOs in development, I can't help thinking that many of these developers would have been better off with a different strategy.

-Silent Ellipsis

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Japanese and American Hero Stories

This post is going to be about an over-generalization, but one that I think is interesting: a couple differences in popular representations of heroes in Japan and America.

Firstly, order of operations. I've noticed that one stereotypical anime/video game hero story in Japan goes something like this: There is a group of powerful/supernatural beings X, which threaten civilians/humans; one special member of X, who happens to also be unusually powerful, stands up against his group in order to protect the civilians/humans.

This "special" member of X is often half-human, or has a relationship with a human/civilian that is the foundation of their dissent from group X. The key part here is that group X exists prior to the dissent of its special member. Consider some examples (warning, some of the examples may contain mild spoilers, key word being mild):

Shikabane Hime - The recent anime that brought this to mind. In it undead creatures called shikabane terrorize humans, but one such shikabane (the title character) stands up against them in order to protect humanity.

Devil May Cry - Devils once freely traveled between their world and the human world, terrorizing humans, until the Legendary Dark Knight Sparda stood against his devil kin and sealed the gate between the worlds. Now his half-human son Dante has to maintain his father's legacy by killing devils that make it across to the human world and preventing cultists from re-opening the gate.

Vampire Hunter D - Vampires once freely traveled the world terrorizing humans. One half-vampires, however, stands up against them and protects common humans.

Vampire Princess Miyu - Shinma are supernatural creatueres that feed on humans. At any time one shinma (currently Miyu) is allowed to live in the human world as a "guardian", on the condition that they protect humans from any other shinma that try to pass into the human world. Awesome aside in this case: as long as Miyu protects humans from OTHER shinma, she's allowed to feed on their blood.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - Dracula's castle appears once every hundred years, but when it mysteriously appears only 5 years after its last disappearance, Dracula's own half-vampire son rises from a 300 year sleep to enter the castle and protect humanity from the threat it represents.

Rurouni Kenshin - In a time when swordsmen of skill are regularly deployed as a weapon of oppression, the hiten mitsurugi school was created with the following principles: owe allegiance to no one and protect the defenseless from those with power. Kenshin wanders around protecting civilians from other swordsmen that try to use their martial prowess unjustly.

Gundam - The Earth federation is threatened by the Principality of Zeon, which has at its disposal a "newtype" named Char. The Earth forces start to gain momentum once Amuro, who happens to also be a newtype, happens to pilot the experimental mobile suit Gundam and show a startling affinity for it.

Evangelion - Mysterious alien entities called angels descend upon the Earth and threaten humanity. Humans study them and create an angel-like being in their own image to protect themselves (note, though, that the "hero" status and Eva Unit 1 and its pilot become extremly ambiguous here).

Final Fantasy IV - The Baron's Army has begun aggressively attacking other cities in order to seize magical crystals. The Dark Knight Cecil, captain of the Red Wings, is overcome by guilt and turns against his king and the evil he has come to represent.

Kung-Fu Hustle - Not an anime, but the rule applies. The protagonist is a wannabe gang member trying to break into the famous Axe Gang. As the over-the-top martial arts being used to vie fro control of a tiny town continue getting more ridiculous, he must eventually face his destiny and become "the one" to save the town.

Ninja Gaiden, Trigun - These are two examples where the explanation might qualify as too much of a spoiler.

The point is that this a very prevalent structure. The hero arises as a response to some imminent or ever-present threat, especially if their own empowerment has a direct relationship to the threat.

Now the contrast: in many American hero stories, the hero arises first, and then a threat emerges as an implicit or explicit response to the presence of the hero. This structure is used largely for the nice narrative rhythm it creates (small conflicts are resolved by the pseudo-climax of the hero's rise, and then a true threat creates a greater conflict with a greater climax). Villains are supernatural or otherwise powerful, but are often represented as being poor derivatives or corrupt versions of the hero(es). Some examples that come to mind:

Spiderman - A guy is bitten by a radioactive (movie version: genetically modified) spider and gains spider-related powers. He starts cleaning up crime in his city until unnaturally powerful super-villains start emerging to threaten his crime-fighting work. In one comic, I believe written by JMS, attention is specifically drawn to the fact that so many of his opponents have also had a totemic relationship with an animal (such as Doctor Octopus, Lizard Man, etc.), but suggests they are all poor imitations.

Iron Man - In the movie version, Tony Stark creates a basic armor suit early on, and later creates a much more advanced model capable of flight. A villain gets their hands on the original suit's design and manages to create their own, evil version of it. They fight.

X-Men - As part of the natural evolution of humanity, some people are born with super powers (hey, evolution, stop slacking off and give us super powers already!). A backlash based on the fear of mundane humans causes some of the mutants to become bitter and cynical, and follow Magneto in aggressively and violently overthrowing the non-mutant controlled system.

The Power Puff Girls - Sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemical X create super-powered kindergarteners. Otherwise mediocre villains become highly annoyed and start accumulating power in order to thwart the super-powered kids. Their ultimate rival, Mojo-Jojo, was also created by Chemical X. As a super-hero parody, this show reflects the creator's perceptions of super-hero stereotypes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Four turtles and a rat living in the sewers encounter a chemical called "the ooze" and become pizza-eating ninjas that fight crime. Eventually Shredder, a discontent student of the rat's former master, has been finding street kids and training them to become his ninja army of the foot! (also a super-hero parody, as well as a martial-arts parody)

Harry Potter - A young boy discovers that he is a wizard, and spends half a book delighting in the joys of magic and broom-riding. He slowly comes to discover, however, that there is a lurking threat from the Dark Lord Voldemort, who repeatedly tries to use his mysterious connection to Harry to return to life (this one's British, not American, but who cares).

Ghostbusters - A group of paranormal investigating pseudo-scientists develop techniques that somehow actually work and allow them to capture ghosts. They start acquiring fame and fortune, but an alarming increase in the amount of paranormal activity in the area suggests the emergence of a powerful new ghostly threat.

There are obviously counter-examples, as well, but I'm not trying to demonstrate a law, just a trend. It seems much more likely to be the case in an American/western hero story for the heroes to be a boon to civilization, and for the evil forces they fight to have "eliminate the heroes" as a principal goal. In Japanese stories it's more common for the threat to exist and for the heroes to arise in an effort to return things to a state of normalcy.

Other trends in the Japanese stories include an increased likelihood that the hero is a subset of the threatening group, and an increased likelihood that the hero will retire or give up their power at the end of the story. The Japanese hero is more likely to be operating in secret (I don't mean with a hidden identity, I mean without normal people even being aware that a hero exists). Finally, the Japanese hero is more likely than the American hero to NOT be the protagonist of the story. If the protagonist is a hero in the Japanese story, they are often surrounded by much more supernatural/powerful allies. I'm not going to give a lot of examples for all the claims here, because this post is already way too long, but this last point is pretty prevalent, and I'll give a few examples of it in list form:

Tenchi Muyo - One normal guy surrounded by a half-dozen extraordinary alien women...who all want him.

Fushigi Yugi - One normal girl surrounded by a half-dozen extraordinary men from mythical China...who all want her.

Escaflowne - Hitomi is an average high school girl who can read tarot cards. Her two love interests both pilot giant semi-magical armored suits, one of which turns into a dragon.

Chrono Trigger - Chrono is so uninteresting that he literally never speaks. His allies include a spunky princess, a frog-knight, and a robot from the future.

Final Fantasy V, VII, IX, X, XII - Butz, Cloud, Tidus, etc. are fairly mundane guys with swords who have much more interesting people team up with them, including a cross-dressed pirate, a talking flame-tailed tiger, and a bunny-girl in a thong. (FFVI is notable for having the protagonist being the strange and powerful character, not to mention being female, and FFVIII is notable for having no interesting characters at all).

Metal Gears Solid IV - Seriously, why is Raiden like 800 times cooler than Snake?

Half the examples I gave before - In the following examples from the beginning, the story, at least at the very beginning, is focused on a mundane person who observes the hero, rather than on the hero directly: Shikabane Hime, Vampire Princess Miyu (in the OVA, at least), Trigun, Rurouni Kenshin (in the series). In Evangelion Shinji seems weaker than everyone else, but ultimately that's just because we see his vulnerabilities up front, while every other character takes a while to reveal their weakness.

Again, there are plenty of counter-examples, too, but there's a strong tendency in Japanese stories to have an everyman stand in and observe interesting and unusual heroes who, in the case of video games, have predetermined personalities you don't have much control over. In the American/Western game, this is highly unusual - the fan is obviously intended to fantasize about BEING the hero who's interestnig and unusual. In video games the American game tends to give the player more control not only over themselves, but over NPCs, as well, and how they evolve (at least in the case of RPGs).

I'm not going to jump to any conclusions about what this means about the respective cultures, since I'm already over-generalizing just in identifying these trends, but they're interesting trends to notice either way.

-Silent Ellipsis

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Content and Context

My friend has a brief post up about html, and the very concept of hypertext is no longer central to the way we use the web.

I think this has been part of the democratization of the web. Back when everything was hand-made html pages, there weren't that many sites (relative to today, I mean, which I suppose is an absurd comparison, but there it is).

But it's not so much that there are fewer html pages as that the rate at which other kinds of web content has grown has been explosive - content creation tools have been the real cornerstone of Web 2.0, and as the barrier to entry for content creation has dropped, the amount being created has skyrocketed.

Now the obvious part is over and it's time for me to start firing off into the dark. In my opinion, twitter represents the climax of the push toward content creation. The content itself is so simple that users are able to constantly post more of it, and no one can possibly keep up with the flood of information. The reason I call it a climax is because it's hard to imagine the content getting much weaker. The internet has been trending toward more, weaker content for a long time now, but it's not a sustainable trend.

I don't think that web technology will continue trending towards "more content" for long. Once the network is inundated with information, which it is, the push for context is going to become stronger and stronger. People will increasingly want rules - something against which to define themselves and their information. This is where virtual worlds can potentially be very powerful, but right now they're too removed from the rest of our internet activities to be really big.

So the list of contextual elements that I think are becoming increasingly important include:

Identity - This is probably something that would greatly surprise people 5-10 years ago, and which members of certain chan-related websites would like to deny, but the idea of being anonymous on the internet is rapidly going out of fashion. This is primarily the result of the internet becoming an increasingly relevant part of our society and our daily lives.

Space/Location - It looks like the main candidate to tackle this right now is augmented reality (AR). The basic idea behind AR is to associate virtual content or information with real-world locations and objects, instead of keeping them in a completely artificial space.

Legitimacy by association - This is something that happens to a large extent already, but I don't hear discussed much. The flexibility of html has also been a huge weakness - since one can create literally anything, you have no idea what to expect from a webpage. Contrast that with, say, a page on Wikipedia - sure, the content changes from one page to the next, but there is an inherent structure to the wiki page and it has built in controls (other people editing the page). When I search for something I'm suddenly curious about on google, and a Wikipedia page pops up, I'm more likely to click on it than another page, not because I believe it has the most informed or unbiased writers behind it, but because I know what the expect from the page. This is a direction that the web has been headed in for a while and will continue in.

That's about it for now. You have my official prediction that Web 3.0, whatever it is, won't be about yet even more content than we can produce now.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Rise of Magus: Big in France

Apparently French people respond well to my game. I noticed today a visit to the site that came from a search on, and I checked it out to find that someone had created and uploaded a 10 minute gameplay video on Dailymotion.

It also included a link to a forum discussion going on about it (in French), which included a request for a translation. Now, I'm confident enough in my French to post on there and say hi, but not to try translating dialogue myself. What's more, I don't think Game Maker supports accents or most foreign characters.

That said, if someone wants to translate the game into French or any other language, I'll try to plug the translation into the game and release an alternate language version.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rise of Magus Site Down

*Update June 25: The site is back up now at

Due to an issue with the server I'm using, and the main page for The Rise of Magus are temporarily down. The issue should be resolved soon, but in the meantime, the domain will redirect to my blog here. You can still play the game on YoYo Games here:

You can also download the game from any of these locations:


-Silent Ellipsis

Friday, June 19, 2009

Music Videos

I assume anyone who actually reads this blog realizes by now the kind of nerd I am, so I doubt my image will be tarnished much further by sharing these.

Last night I ran across a music video (an anime music video, no less) I made some years ago, and it occured to me that not everyone has seen them. If you have, you're free to stop reading, or to roll your eyes at me for making a post about this.

The first, which I made 2 or 3 years ago, is a fairly straightforward video of Final Fantasy VII Advent Children to Nightwish. This is not the most original combination of source material, but the editing and timing is exceptional, if I do say so myself. This was actually a collaborative project with UntoldForce, who came up with the combination, the outline for the video, and a couple key moments. Unfortunately, the original draft also included full minute-long clips of footage without any original cuts, which I found heretical. I gutted the video, left most of the outline in place, and recreated it.

Of course, it lacks anything resembling a plot, meaning, or purpose beyond "that was cool." In other words, I was very faithful to the source material.

My single favorite moment of the video is at 3:43, when the motorcycle bounces. There were plenty of well-timed shots, but that one was truly perfect. I crack up every time I see it.

Alright, second video. This one is a faithful to the source material. It's also one of my greatest high school accomplishments. This video was created in an editing frenzy not unlike the Vulcan Pon Farr - a ritual in which I could only expel the demons that possessed me through a primal act of creation, by completing the project in 48 hours.

Unfortunately, the concept will not be immediately clear to most viewers. Basically, I took the audio from a legendary scene in Transformers: the Movie (not the Michael Bay movie, the animated one) and edited it together with footage from the Escaflowne movie so that, I hoped, they would look like they were meant to go together. There's a bit of story behind its creation, but I'll save it for after the video.

Reactions to this video vary from "huh?" to "that was the greatest video I have ever seen." Your reaction was likely between the two, and may have tended on the "huh?" side.

Now the story. In my second year of video production in high school, we were all expected to complete an "independent project" in one quarter. I was making a highly pretentious video set to Philip Glass music, and had collected all the footage I needed, so I asked my teacher if I could borrow one of the editing machines (a G4 Mac) over the weekend so I could edit the project. He said ok, but unfortunately (or fortunately for those who liked the video above) I forgot to bring my footage home with me, and the video lab was locked.

Not wanting to show up empty handed on Monday, I decided to take advantage of having an editing machine for another, more dubious purpose. I knew immediately that I wanted to make a video that used the audio from Transformers, but I wasn't sure what to edit it to. I went through a list of candidate series and movies, considering what each had to offer, until I just stumbled upon the Escaflowne movie and discovered that if had everything I needed. I did sleep and eat food that weekend, but I'm not sure that I did much else.

Now, there's another piece of background I skipped. In my first year of video production, discussions about anime had derailed the class often enough that my teacher had declared all anime forbidden in his classroom. Additionally, my friend, UntoldForce, had dropped the class a week after school started, in a move that thoroughly disturbed my teacher. Knowing this, you can probably imagine his reaction when he came into class on Monday and saw my friend sitting in the classroom viewing my final product, which at first glanced didn't even appear as an edited project but simply a scene from an anime series.

I escaped punishment by convincing my teacher that it was impressive that he hadn't been able to tell it was something I'd edited together from two sources. He rejected my attempt to turn this in as my indepent project however, so I ended up finishing Pretention in 3 Parts (I don't remember what the original title was, but that works just as well).

I've made other music videos, but they do not appear here either because they're not in digital form (they're on VHS tapes in my closet - I really should digitize them), or because they are unspeakable horrors that were created in order to please other beings and not myself.

-Silent Ellipsis

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chrono Compendium Post (also: Jason Rohrer)

Today, when I went to check on traffic to, I noticed a sudden spike in the numbers, and subsequently that many of these new users were coming from Sure enough, my game, The Rise of Magus, had been mentioned on the front page of the site.

As I mentioned before (and as has been reported across the internet at this point), the main project for the site got shut down by a cease and desist order from SquareEnix about a month ago (in fact, it was posted on the very same day I intended to submit The Rise of Magus to be posted on their site), so I'd expected that in the immediate aftermath my game probably wasn't going to get much mention. I appreciate the fact that my game was eventually brought up (and in a positive light). Maybe now I'll get more feedback from people on it and feel compelled to add a couple bonus features that I didn't get around to.


In other news, I've been playing Jason Rohrer's games lately. He's essentially a crazy independent programmer making an earnest attempt at using games as an artistic medium of expression, and for what they are, they're very good.

Primrose is a very good puzzle game, though it lacks any implicit narrative that would give it the same impact as some of his other games. The game that struck me most was Passage, and Gravitation was also a fascinating game. Between didn't impress me as much, and I'll describe why below - these games largely depend for their effect on the player not knowing what it is they're supposed to expect, so I'm going to avoid describing them as much as possible prior to my spoiler warning tag:

SPOILER WARNING (for the remainder of the post)

Ok, so now that we're past the spoiler warning, I'll spoil your ability to properly experience the games I mentioned above.

Passage is a game that presents itself as being about perception and time. The game has a set time limit, and as it progresses, your apparent position on the screen shifts (while the room moves under you as you walk around), and you are only able to clearly see that portions of the screen closest to your current appear position. This is interesting, and it's kind of touching just to see your character grow old (possibly with a partner, possibly not), but I say that this is how it "presents itself" because I think what's really interesting is the implicit subject matter: games.

Passage includes a number in the upper right that grows as you move right and as you find stars hidden in treasure chests. It also allows you to explore freely, has maze-like sections, and presents new environments as you move right. Gamers will naturally take the number in the upper-right to be your score, but it's immediately unclear that getting a high score is actually your objective. It might instead be to make as much progress right as possible, attempting to reach an unknown "destination", or it might simply be to explore the maze-like areas in the hopes of finding something interesting.

Since you only have a few minutes to play the game before your character grows old and die, you cannot do everything in one playthrough, and each time you play the game you might play it very differently. This, it seems to me, is the real point - when presented with a set of rules and a virtual environment, our nature is to find a goal and strive for it, and Passage leaves your own psychology bare as you play it.

Gravitation is very similar, this time in platformer format. You begin in a room which you can only see a small portion of, and when you "warm up" you can leap straight out of the room and up to untold heights. Eventually, however, you will start to feel "cold" again and feel your power drain out of you (and sight limit itself) - you can gain boosts of warmth by collecting stars, but you'll soon find that you get cold faster and faster afterwards until you cannot progress. At this point, you can wait forself to slowly heat up, or head back down to the beginning to stand by the fire. If you go down, you will find blocks of ice that have appeared, and you can score "points" and warm up faster by pushing them into the fire. Once you're warm, you can continue exploring above yourself.

Here's the interesting part. I started realizing as I played that collecting stars wasn't actually increasing my score, and at some point I realized that the stars, which fell after being collected, were actually becoming the blocks of ice at the bottom of the level. That is, these items that we are used to associating with bonus points (or temporary invincibility) are being subverted, and now both help and hinder my progress. For that matter, it's not clear that I am making progress, because nothing ever indicated to me that I'm supposed to be climbing up - it just seems like the correct course of action.

The experience of having your own assumptions about what it means to be playing a game brought into question was really quite exceptional. So I decided to ask my friend to play the next game in the list, Between, with me (it's mandatory multiplayer). This game presents you with the ability to spawn blocks of three colors, and the ability to travel to different "worlds" by either going to sleep (the S key) or waking up (the W key), which circle around. There's a tower that can apparently be constructed out of your blocks in each world, but after minor progress you will see that the tower requires colors you cannot make. Then, when waking one day, you find these blocks you could not have made yourself, that allow you to continue building, and they are signs of another, who you cannot see.

This is the intended concept of the game, clearly, but it simply didn't work for me. The reasons for this are fairly simple. Firstly, it didn't work because I knew that thre was another person involved...the game is multiplayer by fiat! As such the "revelation" that there was someone else affecting my game was instead a sense of "is there any other way we can interact?" followed by a resounding "no." Secondly, the objective is too clear. Now, this is possibly the only game that I will ever accuse of having an objective that's "too clear", but it's true in this case. As I mentioned, what was interesting about the last two games was the fact that the objective was obscured, and you were never sure what counted as progress. Now, I have a very clear objective before me, but the consequence is the sheer amount of work needed to complete it is also clear, and I spent most of that time recognizing that I probably would get nothing for the effort in the end - and I was right. I completed the tower and nothing happened.

I'm not sure what exactly could have been done to make Between work better. I think it is an interesting idea, but ultimately one that probably cannot be properly made into a game. If nothing else, in a game this simple it's impossible to convince me that blocks appearing is proof of "another" because the game could simply be producing the blocks for me - in a world whose rules I don't already fully know, I cannot possibly know that those rules are being broken.

In any case, that's enough for now, I recommend trying the games out if you don't already feel spoiled (and you should, there was a reason I put that warning up there!).

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, June 1, 2009

Offline Browsers

My game, The Rise of Magus, is now available on cnet (aka, and has subsequently appeared on every other site that duplicates its content.

That aside, something has occurred to me as seeming obsolete, even though I use it every day – MS Office, and in particular, MS Word. Now I’m actually using the 2003 edition of this stuff right now, so it’s possible I’m naming a few things that are anachronistic, but from my experience with Word 2007, it’s not significantly different – they’ve just made the words “File, Edit, etc.” at the top of the app into icons instead (wow).

What I’m talking about is the fact that Office applications are little standalone apps on your computer that aren’t connected to the web. It seems archaic that when I see a hyperlink in a word document, I not only have to ctrl+click, but that it opens another application to display the content for me. It seems that given just how online our computer experience is overall, I should default, when I want to write text, to a tab in my browser.

Now Google docs theoretically could serve the function I’m talking about, but for some reason I’m just not a consistent user of the service. I guess it’s because I really do need to have documents available offline, and because Google docs emphasizes collaboration so much (so that’s what I use it for).

No, I’m imagining something a little different. When I hit ctrl+t to open a new tab in my browser, I want the url bar to be there for me to use, sure, but what about the page itself? Google’s Chrome uses this to display a list of your favorite sites, but that seems kind of redundant to me, because as soon as I start typing in a url, Firefox will tell me what I’m likely looking for about 3 characters in. What I would really like is to hit ctrl+t and in addition to the ability to type in a url, have a couple of options right there, like a word processor, a file explorer, maybe even games. By and large, I feel like my browser is the center of my computer experience anyway, so why can’t some of my offline content live there, too?

I suppose what I’m really suggesting is that we get more OS-like browsers (or maybe a browser-like OS), because it feels like the distinctions between my online and offline content are relics of a bygone era when going online was something special, not the default state. I don’t know if anyone’s already working on something like this, but I’d like to see it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

RTS Devolution

A very interesting thing happened in the last week - I picked up a copy of Starcraft, and with it a realization about the progression of RTS as a genre. Firstly, though, I feel obligated to defend myself for the terrible oversight of not having played Starcraft earlier. The reason I didn't pick up Starcraft when it came out was simple - it looked like Warcraft in space, and I'd played Warcraft, so Starcraft seemed redundant. In retrospect that was a very silly thing to think, but that's my excuse.

Anyway, I have since played just about every other RTS game I could get my hands on, so the experience of playing Starcraft has effectively been a way to return to what you might call the "core" of RTS games and understand the overall trajectory they've taken. What struck me immediately about Starcraft as someone who hadn't played it before is that it actually felt "fresh", moreso than some more recent RTS games, even though it's over a decade old. The races are more differentiated and well defined than in most other RTS games, and yet it's clear that every unit has been meticulously balanced. The gameplay is aggressive, chaotic, and micro-management intensive, and yet immediately more comprehensible than in many games that are less chaotic.

That's enough gushing about a game that's already got plenty of acclaim. The point is that I was expecting to enjoy Starcraft when I bought it, but I wasn't expecting to think that it was still better than most games in its genre made in the last decade.

So what's the difference? It's actual quite simple: what Starcraft has is fluidity. The game isn't about building up a huge base and teching up - it makes you branch out, build forward bases, and constantly skirmish with your opponents. There are a lot of small design decisions that work together to make this work, but there are a few that stand out as missing from more recent games (yes, it's time for a numbered list!):

1) Base defenses are weak. That's not to say that they're not useful, but they're ultimately there for support - you can't just build a couple photon cannons and then consider an area safe. This is even more true for the Terrans and Zerg, who lack a single anti-ground/anti-air defensive structure. All defensive structures are available very early on, and useful for repelling rushes, but by the end of the game they aren't really turning the tide of battle anymore.

Compare that to more recent games: AoE2 and AoE3 both have upgradeable towers AND castles (forts in AoE3) that can only be overcome by full armies. In Command & Conquer Generals, one general can build EMP missile defenses that disable any vehicle they hit, making a direct assault suicidal. Perhaps the most egregious case is Supreme Commander, in which you can cover your defensive turrets with energy shields to make an impregnable fortress.

Building powerful defensive structures is so popular that it's become its own genre of game (Tower Defense). While there's certainly a place for games that are about building towers that shoot things, effective base defenses have become an assumed in RTS games and I'm not sure most designers recognize the kind of effect it has on gameplay (hint: it's called turtling).

2) Resources are not infinitely reproducible. As far as I'm aware, it was Age of Empires that introduced farms and the idea of renewable resource gathering. Like effective base defenses, it has come to be an assumed part of many modern RTS games. This, more than anything else, enables turtling, because expanding your territory is always risky, if only because you have more ground to defend, whereas building more resource-producing buildings comes with no risk at all.

Getting past turtling economics in RTS games doesn't strictly require that resources in your base run out, however. It can also be effective to simply limit the rate at which resources can be gathered from a single base. In other words, the important thing is that you can't endlessly grow your economy without opening yourself up to risks.

3) Maps are full of chokepoints. This feature has more to do with level design than systems design, but it's clearly part of the overall gameplay concept. In most RTS games, you're building on open plains with occasional geographical features of interest, or else on islands connected by water. In virtually every map in Starcraft, your base is in a fairly small, defined area with 1-3 points of entry.

The significance of this is that it's what makes turret-less defense of your base possible. If you know that your opponent is going to come from one direction, you can concentrate your forces there and stand a good chance at repelling attacks. On open plains, no matter where you place your units, the enemy, if they scout ahead, will be able to go in a small circle around them and enter your base. To avoid this, you need walls or other defensive structures you can place around your perimeter to buy you time to respond to attacks...which leads us back to point 1.

So overall, it seems that in the last decade RTS games have become more about building (and thus about defense) than about fighting. That's not necessarily a bad thing (building is fun!), but the fact that I found Starcraft to feel "fresh" reinforces my belief that there are very few more recent representatives of the Starcraft model of tactical-skirmish-centric gameplay. I believe that Dawn of War II sees itself as being such a representative, but I find it kind of hard to get into the game for several reasons (forced Windows Live registration plus a CD-key even when you buy off Steam, it's laggy on a computer that meets "recommended specs", there's no real tutorial, etc.).

I'd like to see more RTS games taking some of these points into account.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Mission Architect and Creative Gameplay

So shortly after my last post on user-generated quests, Cryptic actually released a user-generated quest system for City of Heroes. The initial reaction was very positive, and Raph Koster gave a particularly rosy assessment of the situation by claiming that users were just as good at creating game content as the designers were (perhaps not surprising that he would take this stance, given the extent to which his own virtual world emphasizes UGC).

Then came the bad news: players were gaming the system, in this case by creating missions designed to provide the most experience in the least time. Of course, anyone who bought the game did so with the explicit intention of “gaming”, but there’s clearly been some confusion about what exactly that means. In the minds of the developers, the players are supposed to be contributing to and enriching a virtual game world. In the minds of the players, they’re supposed to be gaining power as quickly as possible.

So there are a few points to take from this:

1) Players will always try to game the system. You should always anticipate the most abusive way a player could use a system and then either decide that you don’t mind, or find a way to prevent the abuse. You certainly can’t just hope players will be reasonable.

2) If you want to introduce a feature that’s as fundamental to gameplay as user-generated quests, you should incorporate it into the game from the beginning. The thing that made the system abuse particularly harmful in this case was the fact that City of Heroes already had a carefully crafted set of quests that lead the player through controlled level advancement. If, on the other hand, the game had been originally created with user-generated quests in mind, other elements of the game could have been altered to accommodate it.

3) I’m afraid I’m going to have to radically disagree with Raph Koster and suggest that most players are, in fact, terrible at designing games (or levels/missions). The main reason for this is that it’s so different from what they do as players. Most games involve power fantasies on some level, and when a player thinks about what they want from the game, it’s colored by the fact that they, as players, wanted power. What does this lead to? Unbalanced design proposals.

For that matter, you might see this as a problem amongst the professional designers, as well. They started off as players themselves, and when it comes time for them to design, they're going to come to the table with "what would I want to see in a game I'm playing?" If they're used to power fantasies in their games, then the things they "want" in their game is, on some level, power. This can result in what I'll call the Dragon Ball Z effect. Stories and mechanics can become more and more unbalanced over time if the goal is to more perfectly serve up a power fantasy.

Balanced design requires a different outlook. Sure, you can make a badass main character and make the player feel special, but in order to do more than that you have to be able to think beyond "what would I want" and think about "what makes for a more interesting game?" Outside of game design itself, there are a few places to exercise this idea. One of them is being a dungeon master.

When you're the dungeon master in D&D, you have vast power. As the arbitrator of world events you can decide if the players live or die. With that much power, gaining power is no longer an interesting objective - the goal of being a dungeon master is to figure out how to make an adventure fun for the players (and if successful, yourself as well). This is what I call creative gameplay - unlike the players, the dungeon master doesn't have a clear goal to work toward within the confines of the rules. Rather, the dungeon master has a goal that exists beyond the scope of the rules, and has to figure out how to make the rules a tool to reach it.

So the point is, if we think that user-generated content is something we want, we should be encouraging creative gameplay on the part of players, something that is fairly rare in digital games.