Chinese Internet cafe
On Friday, after we got back from the countryside, we met up with Sushu's very nerdy friend Sherwin. I said that I was interested in seeing one of China's famed internet cafes, so he took me to one.
We played three games of Starcraft. I was very surprised when my first Zealot came out and instead of "My life for Aiur" it started speaking Chinese in a high, feminine voice. We quickly discovered that this was a hacked version of Starcraft, where many of the Zerg and Protoss sound effects had been replaced with Chinese movie clips and song quotes.
Zerglings made barking dog noises, Dragoons sang marching songs, Hydralisks spoke in a seductive tone, and best of all were the Overlords, which sang a happy song in a drunken Chinese old man voice.
I wish I had a way to share Hacked Chinese Starcraft with you guys, because it was really, really amusing.
Sherwin beat me all three times, but then he gave me some really good tips for improving my game.
Sushu surprised me by bringing home one of the Track Packs for Rock Band the other day. (She's reeeeally into Rock Band!) It was the Country Music track pack, so along with Joanne (Sushu's visiting best-friend-from-college) we rocked out to songs like "Gunpowder and Lead" and "The Gambler" and "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy".
Which stretches the definition of a game called "Rock" band... or does it?
After all, even the core Rock Band 2 game has songs like "Ramblin' Man" by the Allman Brothers, which is... well, what is it? Listen to it and it makes a mockery of genre lables; it's just a great song. "Southern Rock", says the genre tag, unhelpfully.
What is the difference between rock and country, anyway? Both are based on drums/bass/guitar, they both evolved out of blues, they both use similar rhythms and scales and melodic concepts and the same verse-chorus structure. I don't notice any difference when playing the drums. The "country" songs seem to on average have more "square" 4/4 drum patterns and faster tempos compared to the "rock" songs, but given a fast 4/4 drum pattern without the song title I'd have a hard time guessing whether it came from country or from punk rock.
So whatever the difference between rock and country is, it's not in the fundamentals of the music. It seems to have more to do with the singer's accent and whether they're wearing cowboy hats on the album cover. I daresay it's a cultural distinction, not a musical distinction. Rock lyrics are mostly about establishing your identity as a youthful rebel; country lyrics are about establishing your identity as put-upon rural folk.
I think a lot of so-called musical genre labels are really just cultural labels: they don't describe music, they describe the subculture of the people who listen to or perform the music. Not all genres are like this: jazz, for instance, refers to a concrete and identifiable musical thing even without its cultural markers. There's worlds of difference between jazz and rock/pop/country; it even takes different skills to play it.
I think there should be a Hikaru-no-Go-type anime about the lives and rivalries and passions, and rises and falls, of professional Korean Starcraft players. Think about it. It would be awesome.
So you're telling me there's now an entire genre of video games recreating the experience of losing at Warcraft by turtling?
Play This Thing
I've got a new favorite website. It's called Play This Thing. It's reviews and criticism of "non-mainstream" games: freeware computer games made by hobbyists (like Cave Story and Dwarf Fortress); retrogames and ROM hacks (like Megaman vs. Ghosts and Goblins); artsy conceptual "message" games (like Gravitation); modern interactive fiction (that is less about solving puzzles and more about, um interacting with fiction) like The Baron; Euro-boardgames (like Race for the Galaxy) and even indie tabletop RPGs (like My Life with Master).
This site gets me excited for four reasons.
First of all, I'm excited that all of the above are being covered in one place, because I've long felt there's a similarity between the indie RPG design movement and the modern noncommercial IF movement, for example; they are the same spirit, separated only by an incidental difference in medium, and Play This Thing brings them together again under one banner, making the connection explicit.
Second, I'm excited to find a gateway to an underground where simple, innovative game design lives on. I used to be a hardcore gamer in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but in the late 90s / Playstation 1 era I started drifting away from video games; either they were evolving in a direction I didn't want to go in (e.g. adventure games died, FPS became the dominant genre of action game) or maybe because my tastes were changing and video games weren't changing with them (you can only attack/attack/heal/use fire spell on ice-themed boss/buy better sword/watch cutscene/repeat so many times before you realize Japanese console RPGs are a colossal waste of time).
Basically I dropped out of video games when video games started turning into Hollywood: every game had to be this huge slick production with 3-d graphics and voice acting and cutscenes, with an interface that requires a tutorial to master, a story full of sturm und drang, and gameplay consisting of incremental mechanical tweaks on an established genre.
What happened to simple games, games where you can get started, learn to play, and get to the meat within the first thirty seconds? What happened to games with a sense of humor and a cartoony visual style? Most of all what happened to innovation in gameplay, games based on presenting new gameplay concepts and creating novel experiences?* For the most part they went away when game development changed from something done by a team of 1-5 people to something done by a team of hundreds with a million dollar budget. Just like Hollywood, the space for individual creativity got squeezed out and blockbuster sequels became the safe thing to do.
(* To be fair, these things still have a niche on handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS, and a Katamari Damacy still comes along once in a while, but still.)
Third, I'm excited because the games featured on Play This Thing represent a veritable Cambrian Explosion of new ideas and contents that I've never encountered before. A game about bringing peace to Israel and Palestine? Games focusing on social interaction instead of combat? Games that are all about getting different endings depending on moral choices you make for your character? Games that use game mechanics as metaphors to express the author's views about the human condition? Sure, a lot of the new ideas are kind of gimmicky (a game where death is permanent - once you die you can never play the game again, cuz you're dead) but that's OK; a creatively bankrupt mainstream demands a vibrant indie scene, and a vibrant indie scene demands that we indulge people in some high-concept pretentiousness and some creative dead ends as the price for discovering the good stuff.
Fourth, I'm excited because I could totally make a game like one of these. I've got the tools, I've got the know-how, I've got the ideas, and now I've got the inspiration. All I need is a little free time...
Beatles Rock Band
Sushu and me finished Beatles Rock Band the other night. I enjoyed it a lot. (I was basically sold on it as soon as I heard the name, and I was not disappointed. If you got excited when you heard "Beatles Rock Band", then you should play it. Simple as that.) It's the first rhythm game where 100% of the songs are by a band I like! As opposed to, oh, 25% or so in Rock Band 2.
The song selection is pretty good. They've got a good mix of super-famous and relatively obscure songs, including some I'd never heard before ("Dig a Pony"? What?). Amazingly, they do not have "Yesterday", which is maybe the single most famous Beatles song, or at any rate it's the one that every single Japanese salaryman knows how to sing at karaoke. I can't believe it's not included. Maybe they're holding some stuff back for a sequel or expansion pack?
In the story mode, you start as mop-top teenybopper Beatles in Liverpool, and as you progress through the levels you gradually evolve through the Sgt. Pepper's phase and into the psychedelic hippie guru Beatles. Along the way the game does lots of fun stuff with both the between-level animations and the during-song graphics (the one for "I Am the Walrus" is appropriately disturbing). There's also some obscure audio and video clips from the archives that you can unlock, which are somewhere between pointless and fascinating depending on how much of a Beatles trivia maven you are.
I was kinda hoping that the game would end with John Lennon getting shot, you know? Sadly it does not. The last level is the impromptu rooftop concert, and the song selection merely hints at the confusion and jadedness of the Beatles in their break-up phase, without dwelling on it; I guess that would be inappropriate for a game that's really all about celebrating the mythology.
Personally I think the giant elephant creature in the awesome intro animation represents the juggernaut of fame, you know? It's this mass of audience expectations that the Beatles summoned up and then couldn't control and it carries them to the edge of the cliff, you know?
Anyway, if they're gonna do single-band editions, you know what I wish they would make? QUEEN Rock Band!! How awesome would that be?
I recommended Scribblenauts to Aleksa as soon as I heard of it: a game where you can create any object you want by writing the name? How cool is that? I hadn't actually played it myself until yesterday, when Aleksa showed it off to me.
This is the kind of game where, seeing a cat trapped on top of a roof and a girl who wants it back, you can do the obvious thing and make a LADDER, or you can do what I did - light the house on FIRE and watch the cat jump down in a panic. You get credit for completing the level either way.
Scribblenauts isn't much of a game, per se, but it's an amazing toy. There are so many ways to amuse yourself with it, even if few of them have anything to do with completing the stated goals. For instance, you can summon various creatures and force them to fight their mortal enemies in a single elimination tournament: COBRA vs. MONGOOSE, NINJA vs. SAMURAI, VAMPIRE vs. WEREWOLF.
Another popular activity is to try to figure out the most twisted thing that the game will let you summon. You can't summon CANCER, but you can summon EBOLA. You can't summon LEPROSY but you can summon a LEPER. Poor guy.
Coincidentally, I unlocked an "achievement" called BIOTERRORIST. Can't imagine why the game saw fit to call me that...
Aleksa, putting her ultimate power to far more constructive uses, used a RAINCLOUD, KITE, and KEY to re-enact the legendary Ben Franklin experiment. She discovered that if you drop a CAR into the ocean it won't work any more - unless you jumpstart it with a GENERATOR. And that if you GLUE some TAFFY to an APPLE, a MAN will eat the whole thing, glue and all.
She also used the level editor to create an insanely sadistic level where it's nearly impossible not to get eaten by snakes or die in pits of lava, even if you equip yourself with a JETPACK and a MACHINE GUN. I finally decided to take off and NUKE the whole level from orbit; it's the only way to be sure.
Compared to the massiveness of the Scribblenauts noun database, the vocabulary of verbs - how the nouns know to interact with each other - is somewhat lacking. It's impressive that you can use ROPE (or WIRE or, for that matter, FLOSS) to tie things together, GLUE to stick things onto other things, that people and animals can get angry or hungry or afraid or desirous when presented with appropriate stimulus, that you can light appropriate things on fire, blow paper around with a fan, and so on. But try putting a MARSHMALLOW on a STICK to toast over a FIRE, and you just can't - the game has no concept of impaling things or cooking things. It's exactly the same problem that text adventure games have been struggling with since before I was born; feels awesomely open-ended until you run headfirst into the limits of the simulation and are jerked right out of your immersion.
A Very Nintendo Halloween
To follow up on last year when we went as a Pokemon and a Pokemon Trainer, me and Aleksa wanted to do another group costume.
I suggested being Mario and the Princess, since I didn't have a lot of time to work on a costume this year, and I already had overalls and a fake mustache.
Here we are!
I wore my Mario outfit to work on Friday and guess what? I couldn't believe it - there were two other people also dressed as Mario. Yes, three Marios. What are the odds? John Lily was like "I'm very disappointed. Not one person wanted to be Luigi?"
Some people joked that there were 3 Marios because Mario has 3 lives. This gave me an idea for an anime convention skit: You have three Marios off stage; one of them runs on, does some stuff, gets killed. Play sad Mario-dying music. First Mario lies on the stage pretending to be dead. Second Mario runs on, does some stuff, gets a little further, gets killed... you get the idea. Maybe you could have a person representing the "player", holding a controller and cursing every time Mario dies. Then maybe the third Mario doesn't want to die so he goes over to the player, smacks him around a bit, and grabs the controller away. Discuss.
Aleksa just got Smash Brothers for the Wii. I have always hated Smash Brothers games; my friends always used to play it on the N64 and the Game Cube (holy moly, did you realize we've been playing Smash Brothers for ten years now? Discuss.) and I felt left out of the fun because I couldn't figure out how to really play (half the time I can't tell where on the screen my character is, let alone understand anything else that was going on).
So I resigned myself to randomly mashing buttons just to make Aleksa feel like I was playing with her. But this time, something finally clicked, and I finally figured out how to play and enjoy Smash Brothers. Huzzah, a personal breakthrough!
I think it was because we started out with two-player fights, on simple levels, with no items, which simplifies things down to the point where I could finally grok the basics. Then when we ramped up to more complicated fights, I was still able to follow along. Before, with N64 Smash and Game Cube Smash, I always got thrown into the deep end with huge crazy free-for-alls so I could never cope with the learning curve. I wish I had thought to start with stripped-down two-player matches ten years ago.
(Interface gripe: Smash displays damage as percentages, which is wrong because it's not actually a percentage of anything. Nothing particularly happens at 100%; it's just another number. Thus the percent sign is misleading and makes the game harder to learn.)
Aleksa is disturbingly adept at Smash Brothers, and usually beats me. She plays as Peach, Lucario, or R.O.B. We invited Googleshng to join us in a networked game (the wonders of modern technology!) and did some three-player fights. Aleksa won most of those, too. She's hardcore.
Real-life Smash! Of course we had to act it out. Me and Aleksa, we act out everything cool.
It occurs to me that there's a connection between why kids love acting out their favorite cartoons and games, and the reason kids love holiday rituals like trick-or-treating or decorating a tree. It's this sense of enactment, where you already know how everything is supposed to happen, and you're bringing it to life through some kind of bodily motion. To adults, this kind of activity is boring because there's no challenge or surprises, but kids seem to need to go through these motions as part of learning how to do things.
On Halloween, I made this question block, which I used to hold candy, and this jack-o-lanter, which was made to look like Wario.
A close-up of the Wario jack-o-lantern. I was trying to do that cool thing where you carve away different thicknesses so the light shines through with different colors, but it didn't work out the way I hoped - getting the pumpkin shell thin enough without having the thin areas fall apart completely is really hard!
The camera got moved while it was taking this picture of the decorations on our front porch. The result is unexpectedly awesome.
Alis, criminal mastermind
Googleshng wrote this, which is hilarious if you know the plot of the Phantasy Star games.
Creators of Super Mario Bros.
A fantastic interview with the creators of the original Super Mario Brothers: Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata, Takashi Tezuka, and Toshihiko Nagako.
They talk about the early history of the NES, the origin of Mario's character design, the creation of Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Super Mario Bros., and the newest Mario game for Wii (where they finally got to implement ideas, like multiplayer, that they've been trying and failing to do for twenty years. Holy moly.)
It's long, but worth reading from beginning to end. You'll find out why Mario has a moustache, why Koopa Troopas come out of their shells, why there are pipes everywhere, and the many tricks they used to squeeze things into the limited NES memory. (The clouds and the grass were the same image, just with the colors swapped!)
It's clear that the greatness of the Mario games was no accident. These guys are really, really smart. They show a deep and nuanced understanding of all kinds of subtle social and psychological factors that affect how players will approach games. This is most obvious when they discuss the design of the first part of level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. It's the first thing the player sees, but it was designed last, and they kept tweaking it right up until the game was released in order to make it the perfect in-game tutorial.
Like, the first pipe is there to make the mushroom from the first block turn around and come back towards you. And since there's a roof over your head, it's hard to jump over. So you'll end up getting the mushroom even if you try to avoid it (which some players do, thinking it's another bad guy). They wanted everyone to get the mushroom and discover that it's a good thing. There's bricks over you at that point so that as soon as the mushroom has made you big, you'll probably break one by accident with your next jump, and discover what you can do. It's a very clever arrangement to make the basic game mechanics easily discoverable by trial and error. Like I said, these guys are smart. Their talent for designing easy-to-use software is just as impressive as anybody at Apple or wherever.
It's also fun to read because these guys are obviously great friends with each other, and love their jobs. I've noticed this pattern: if you look behind the scenes on any really good art/entertainment/creative projects, you always find a group of smart, driven, creative people, who respect and enjoy working with each other. If you look behind the scenes of something mediocre or crappy you find people bitching about management and money and pinning blame on each other, or else they sound like they've given up on life, or they treat the whole thing as a joke. There's a qualitative difference there. Good stuff doesn't happen by accident.
Flixel is a free Actionscript library for easier development of Flash video games. The page also has links to documentation and, this is important, to free tools for authoring Flash files so you don't have to pay Adobe $700. It's basically everything you need to get started making Flash games in one place.
I love how the technological barrier to making your own games keeps getting lower and lower. It's super awesome! Like, Googleshng, who has tons and tons of game design ideas but isn't a programmer, finally has the ability to implement playable games. Huzzah!
WARNING addictive Flash game
I had plans for today, but then I found a link to Fantastic Contraption, and before I knew it I had wasted the whole day. So be warned.
It's a 2-d physics engine puzzle game. Each level has a pink ball that you're trying to get into a goal area; there are five very simple pieces which you can use in unlimited quantities to get it there. (Three kinds of wheels, two kinds of sticks). Everything behaves according to mostly realistic physics, and half the fun is watching your plans go awry as objects tip over, collide, get flung, slide off of edges, roll away, etc.
Unlike other physics-engine puzzle games (yes, this is a genre now), Fantastic Contraption doesn't limit your piece supply or score you based on the complexity of your solution, and levels have no single right answer. So your creativity can run wild. It's up to you whether you want to find a brilliantly elegant solution using a single falling stick positioned just so, or whether you want to use 300 pieces making a giant walking spider bot with back-mounted trebuchet to deliver the pink ball in style. There seems to be quite an active YouTube community posting videos of their proudest achievements.
How (video game) RPGs Lost Their Way
How RPGs Lost Their Way - an editorial by Googleshng.
He's talking about video game RPGs, and from the perspective of a hard-core genre fan (i.e. someone extremely familiar with and skilled at a particular game genre, who craves a good challenge).
But it's got a lesson that can be applied to pretty much any form of game design:
When making a game with mechanics inspired by, or based off of, an existing game or genre, be careful of "innovations"! The reason the original game worked was because all of its parts interacted, probably in some pretty subtle ways, to create a certain experience. If you start adding, removing, or changing subsystems without understanding how those subsystems fit into the big picture, you may end up breaking what made the original game work.
E.G., to use one of Googleshng's examples: it's frustrating to die at a boss fight because you were worn down by random encounters! Let's put a free healing / save point right before each boss! Yes, it solves the frustration, but it also nullifies the resource scarcity which was the root cause of all interesting strategic decisions in older games.
Relevant to tabletop RPG design because most tabletop RPGs in history have been basically hacks to D&D that were made without really understanding how all the subsystems in D&D worked together. (I doubt even Gygax really understood them all.)
Anyway, read the article, and take it as an argument for why craft in game design is just as important as "innovation".
Sleep is Death
Well this is certainly an unusual approach to game design. (Link is to a slide show using the game engine itself to explain how the game works.)
Does it even really count as a "game" or is it more of a communication tool? Answer: Who cares? I've thought about something like this for years and I'm glad that somebody's finally making it.
Gamer girls rule! Plus: A rant to video game companies
My mom writes:
Here's Aleksa showing two boys, ages 8 & 10... boys who do not allow ANY other girls in their space... how to win at some sort of game. She is a game Goddess, thanks to you! :)
I had to share this, cuz Aleksa is so cool. |;-D
Now, while I'm on the topic of gamer girls, a rant:
Dear Video Game Industry: Girls play your games. This should not be news to you but apparently it is, so please see above for photographic evidence. Aleksa loves having imaginary adventures and, although she'll be Mario if that's the only choice, she not surprisingly will almost always pick a female or non-gender-specific character if one is available. It would sure be nice if I could introduce her to more games with female protagonists who 1. have adventures (Cooking Mama don't count) and 2. don't dress like freakin' strippers.
The 8-bit era had Alis (Phantasy Star) and Samus (Metroid), and Super Mario bros. 2 at least let you play as Peach. New Super Mario Wii has Mario, Luigi, and... 2 toads? Why the heck is Peach not a playable character in this game? Are we actually moving backwards?
The new Mario Kart has what, like 24 unlockable characters but only 2 girls, and both of them are "help! rescue me!" characters from 25 years ago. Is it that hard to think of new heroines, Nintendo?
The really mind-boggling part is that companies are losing money every year by ignoring half their potential audience. Look at how much money Final Fantasy has made. This is a game series with multiple interesting heroines per game (even if some of them do dress like strippers, sigh). I know lots of women who play and love Final Fantasy games. Also high on the best-sellers-of-all-time chart are The Sims and Pokemon, both of which let you create your own heroines. I don't think this is all a coincidence.
One would think that cold, ruthless greed would compel game companies to pay more attention to Aleksa's demographic, but apparently perpetuating sexism is more important than making money, which for a capitalist society is pretty amazing.
Suggestions are welcome for games that buck the trend, especially for anything that Aleksa and me could play together.
A friend from work offered me an invitation code to the beta test of Starcraft 2.
You may have noticed I haven't been blogging or posting any comics lately... now you know why. Because I MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS!!!
The beta version I have doesn't have any of the single-player campaign or story mode in it, or even a computer AI to play against. It can only be used to play online against other beta testers, to test out the stability of the game engine (I've had 2 crashes so far) and the game balance.
(If you have the beta too and want to play me, my screen name is "Jonomancer").
I don't think Starcraft 2 is a better game than Starcraft: Brood War. You can't improve on perfection, after all. It's just with different units, some minor UI improvements, and much higher system requirements. (3d graphics add absolutely nothing to the Starcraft experience, but all the advancements in hardware power since 1997 have to be soaked up somehow, don't you know. That's why Windows uses 2G of RAM now.) None of the changes are anywhere near as big as the changes from, say, Warcraft 2 to Warcraft 3. There's no heroes or new races. It's still minerals and vespene gas, still ground units, flying units, cloaked units and detectors. You can still get Zergling rushed, or lose your mineral harvesters to siege tanks that snuck onto the high ground behind your base.
In fact, it's practically the same game. Lucky for me that happens to be a game I love, so a simple change to the unit mix is enough to get me excited about it all over again.
As you know if you've ever tried to play any of Blizzard's RTS games online against random people, they are brutal. Random internet people devote a lot of time to their game of choice, they only care about winning, and they will destroy you.
I'm not very good yet; I'm "Bronze League" in Blizzard's new online matchmaking system, that attempts to put you against players of similar skill. It started me out with some "practice" matches that don't count, then gave me five "placement" matches; I won 3 out of 5 so it put me into the Silver League, where I immediately started losing really bad and dropped me to Bronze League. So it's clearly still got some issues, but at least it's better than the one in Warcraft 3.
I seem to have found my right level now, and I feel like I'm improving quickly. The built-in replay feature is very, very good. After I lose, I can go watch exactly what happened in fast-forward or slow-mo, including seeing everything my opponent did. So rather than being pure frustration, every loss is now an opportunity to watch and learn from your opponent's tricks.
I've learned the hard way about the cheesiest new ways to lose, like this here:
Terran attacks with an early Reaper, that can shoot my harvesters while continually jumping out of range of my Zealots... rar! Come back here, you!
(The way to beat this, by the way, is to build Stalkers before Zealots when playing against Terrans. Of course, good Terrans will expect that... so you have to scout their base with probes right away to see what they're up to.)
Some of the balance changes are very subtle. Expanding to new resource areas seems to be a lot less important than it was in Brood War. Every time I've gone for an early expansion I've lost badly to an opponent who just cranked out units. I've done much better since finding out that I can comfortably run like four gateways and a robotics facility continually off of a single base.
I feel like Protoss have a bit of an unfair advantage in the current version of the beta (patch 11). And I'm speaking as a Protoss player so this isn't just whining. I feel like I meet a lot more Protoss players than the other two races, and beating them is generally harder.
We Protoss can speed up our early game production with Chrono Boost (a new Nexus ability that tells another building to hurry up whatever it's doing). We've got the Sentry, an early game "spellcaster" that can throw down temporary indestructible force fields; a Sentry and a handful of cannons or Stalkers can hold a ramp against a vastly superior ground melee force.
(Heh heh heh... impenetrable defense!)
Our new ship type the Void Ray can come out relatively early game and pose a serious offensive threat (something Scouts were never any good at) or outright win the game if the opponent doesn't have anti-air defenses.
(Nooooo! My poor probes!)
The new Robotics Bay units the Immortal and the Colossus are both totally sick; the Immortal for killing heavily mechanized armies and the Colossus for killing swarm armies.
As if all that weren't enough, we can turn our Gateways into Warp Gates which allow created units to be placed anywhere in Pylon range. And we've got a Warp Prism that can shine Pylon light anywhere it can fly to. But you don't even need the Warp Prism; just sneak a Probe somewhere in back of the enemy's base and drop a Pylon there, and you can start building up for a massive sneak attack.
(Mwa ha ha... he'll never expect an attack from the back of his own base!)
Zerg and Terran get some new tricks of their own, but I don't feel like anything they get is a match for the strategic advantage of a Protoss player blocking their base off with force fields while warping their army straight to the enemy's backdoor.
The Zerg seem to have suffered really badly - they lost the Lurker, a unit of tremendous strategic value, and they lost both the Queen and Defiler while gaining only a mediocre new "spellcaster", the Infestor, to replace them. (There's a Queen in Starcraft 2 but it's a completely different unit - more of an upgrade to your base.) The new Nydus Worm (which can pop its head up anywhere you have vision, not just on creep, and channel ground units through) is pretty scary, but other than that they don't have much that's new and exciting.
I could be wrong; I haven't played Terran myself yet, and maybe the Gold League and Platinum League are dominated by expert Zerg players. But from what I've played so far I feel like Blizzard is showing a little bit of Protoss favoritism that they ought to reign in for the good of the game.
No more Starcraft!
As you've surely noticed, my blogging ground to a screeching halt once I got a key to the Starcraft 2 beta.
Man. That game.
I'm not normally a super-competitive person, but Starcraft is one of a few games that really brings out my competitive side. (Go is another, as was Magic: the Gathering back in the day). Losing at Starcraft makes me want to get better than whoever beat me. What makes it such a great game with such long-term replay value is that there's always more to learn. Every defeat teaches you something, and every opponent shows you new tricks that you can then turn around and use on others.
I'm kinda glad the beta is over, though, so I can get the rest of my life back. Catch up on blogging, drawing comics, playing accordion, studying Chinese, and all that. Starcraft is all-consuming, because BattleNet ensures there's always a ready opponent, and because the individual games are so short it feels like there's always time for one more. A dangerous combination. I'm kind of dreading the official release of Starcraft 2 at the end of July.
Wizard 101 - Focused Like a Laser
At ten years old, Aleksa is already a serious gamer. She discovered an MMORPG for kids called Wizard 101 and asked if I would play it with her. I don't normally like MMORPGs, and Wizard101 looked like a total Harry Potter knock-off, but I thought it would at least be fun to have something we can play together when she's in Illinois and I'm in California.
It turns out that not only is it a great way to play together long-distance, but Wizard101 is actually quite a fun and well-designed game in its own right. The more I discover about it, the more respect I have for the game designers (a small Austin, TX company called Kingsisle, with about 100 employees).
They have over 10 million players - in other words, Wizard 101 is only slightly smaller than World of Warcraft! Given that, I don't know why we don't hear more about it. I suspect it flies under the radar due to the fact that it's "freemium" rather than subscription and the fact that it's aimed at 6-14 year olds.
But under the bright, cartoony exterior, Kingisle have made a pretty serious game, with hundreds of hours of content and surprising tactical depth for obsessive optimizers to explore. Years of polish have gone into this thing.
This is going to be another lengthy post, since I think Wizard 101 has interesting things to say about game design and I want to delve into them.
1. The designers learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering.
First of all, the core game system is a turn-based collectible card game; all combat is done by playing spell cards, which makes it feel quite different from the typical aggro-based MMORPG combat system.
There are seven schools of magic: Fire, Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Myth, and Balance. You can pick one, or you can take a Sorting Hat -esque personality test, but either way you are then locked into your choice. (I took the test and got Death School. Awesome, I'm Slytherin!)
You'll be able to learn every spell from your main school if you reach the right levels and do the right quests. But you also get Training Points as you level up which can be used to learn spells from other schools. Training Points are rare, and better spells have prerequisites, so the decisions are tricky. Focus on a single secondary school, or pick and choose cheap utility spells from all over? What will combo well with the big spells from your main school? The possibility for customization means that no two wizards will play exactly the same, even in the same school.
Since everybody is wizards, obviously there isn't the typical set of character classes. Each school has its own specialties -- Death loves life-draining effects, Myth loves summoning minions, Storm has mega-damage with low accuracy, etc. etc. But every character gets enough damage and self-healing spells to be soloable. You don't NEED to form a party of tank/healer/nuker; everybody's a generalist.
Between battles, you can customize your deck. You can put in up to three copies of any spell that you know; you start each battle with a random hand of seven cards. Like Magic: the Gathering, each school has color hosers against its enemy schools, and monsters are often resistant against one school, so there's good reason to tweak your deck based on the enemies you're facing. Unlike Magic, you can discard freely and you always draw up to 7 each turn, so there's little penalty for including very situational cards as you can always cycle them.
Each spell has a "pip" cost equal to its mana cost. You build up pips one per round. That means you can cast a 1-mana spell every round; or you can pass three times and then cast a 4-mana spell, for instance. There are also 0-cost spells, which typically don't do damage but instead buff and debuff, cause or remove conditions, etc. So you can cast 0-mana spells for three rounds and then cast your 4-mana spell. Much of the fun lies in choosing 0-cost spells that will set up effective combos for your big spells, so that you can do something useful while charging up.
The pip system accomplishes something similar to the land system in M:tG (but without mana screw): gives you a reason to include a mixture of low-cost and high-cost spells in your deck, and ensures that the basic cheap spells you learned at the beginning of the game always remain useful and are not eclipsed by the bigger, costlier spells you learn as you level up.
(PvP is allowed, but only by mutual consent within a special PvP arena. I haven't tried it out yet.)
2. Grouping is low-cost, low-committment
Battles take place in a magic circle, clearly visible to others; if you enter it, you join the battle. That means that if you're running by and somebody calls for help, it's very simple to pop in and help them out; if you don't want to fight, you just avoid the circle. Joining the circle generally causes another monster to join the circle as well, keeping the encounter balanced at about the same difficulty level no matter how many players are working together. If you're collecting monster drops for a quest, *every* player who participated in the battle gets the item; that means there's no fighting over loot. Finally, everybody's a wizard -- in the absence of the usual healer/tank/nuker paradigm, anybody can make a useful contribution to any group.
All of these design choices add up to an environment where helping out a stranger is a very casual, low-cost decision. Nobody ever has to wait around town spamming "L32 rogue LFG"; you don't have to stop playing when your healer signs off for the night. You just start soloing your quest, and while you're battling maybe you run into someone else on the same quest and help each other out; when the quest is done you might friend each other or just say thanks and go your separate ways. Easy breezy.
3. No Death Penalty
When you reach 0 hp, you can't fight anymore. You have the choice of fleeing, or waiting around in the battle for a friend to heal you (any healing spell will put you back in the fight). If you click Flee, or if you die alone, you instantly respawn in a safe location with 1 hp. You lose nothing but the time it takes to recharge your health. Health regenerates while you're in safe areas, so you can do some quick run-around-talk-to-NPC town quests and earn XP while you're waiting. Or you can drink a potion for an instant refill; potion bottles are a tightly limited resource, but you can refill a bottle by paying gold or playing minigames. The minigames aren't bad (they're mostly re-themed versions of old arcade classics), they're a nice change of pace, and they give you mana and gold too.
You can always teleport to anyone on your friends list, so if you have a friend in the dungeon, you can heal up and then rejoin the quest instantly. Sometimes you can even rejoin the very same battle that killed you! "Hey, I'm back, what did I miss?"
So the worst you ever suffer from dying is having to play a round of Dig Dug or Tetris Attack. Think about how not frustrating that is compared to typical MMORPG design: No corpse runs, no equipment damage, no XP penalty. Obviously, when you're aiming at kids it's important not to be frustrating. But ask yourself: why do we think "serious" games need harsh death penalties? Wizard101 proves that treating death lightly does not, in fact, ruin the rest of the game. So why do game designers feel the need to punish players?
4. Cool Setting
The game's multiverse, called "The Spiral", is pretty cool. The spiral is a collection of floating-island worlds which reflect different mythologies. The first world is Wizard City, built among the roots of the World Tree, and serving as this game's Hogwarts / Diagon Alley; I've also unlocked Krokotopia, an ancient-Egyptian world of talking reptiles, and Grizzleheim, a Norse world of bears and wolves. I hear rumors of Marleybone, a steampunk Victorian London of cats and dogs, and other worlds like Dragonspire and Celestia. It's almost like a cartoonier version of the Planescape multiverse or something.
The initial "wizard school" setup is extremely Harry Potter-ish, true, but as the story goes on it draws on a wider range of fantasy tropes and inspirations. It's not exactly the most original thing, but so what? Some of it may be old hat to us jaded oldsters, but the implementation is pretty good. And for the target audience, it may be the first time they've seen some of these tropes in action.
5. Seamless First-Run Experience
The technical implementation is amazingly well done (aside from only running on Windows, cough). They made the path to start playing as seamless as possible. You can start playing without paying anything. You can start making your character using a flash app on the website. While you're doing that, the game installer starts downloading in the background and installing the absolute minimal data to start playing. By the time you're done making your character, the game client has your information and is ready to go. It dynamically downloads the rest of the game content while you're playing around in the starting areas. Mad props to the programmers who pulled this off; it's the kind of achievement that sadly most people won't even notice or think about -- except when they play another game and wonder why it takes so long to start.
The slickness continues once in the game. The tutorial quests do a really smooth job of teaching you the interface and basic mechanics while introducing you to the main mentor and villain NPCs (aka "Definitely Not Dumbledore" and "Definitely Not Voldemort") and the main storyline. You can break off and explore at your own at any time, but if you just follow the dotted line of the starting quest chains, they'll take you through the first few levels while teaching you everything you need to know. This is pretty important for getting new players into such an open-ended game.
6. No Subscription Needed
The pricing model is "freemium", i.e. you can start playing free, but certain features cost real money. Payment is in "crowns", i.e. you pay (or get your parents to pay) like $10 on the website for 5000 crowns or whatever, then you spend them in-game to unlock stuff. Certain areas of each game world cost like 1000 crowns each to unlock, but once you buy them they're unlocked forever. This ties the cost to the progress you've made rather than to the raw number of hours you've spent.
It works really well, as parents can control the total spending while allowing the kid to make the decisions about what they want. You can sample the gameplay before committing to anything, and there's no feeling of a time limit -- it's not like you're "wasting" money if you don't play for a couple weeks.
Or, if you prefer, you can pay a monthly fee to unlock everything. Whichever makes more sense for you. Kingsisle is happy to take your money whichever way you want to give it to them.
You can also spend crowns on vanity items like flying broomsticks, rare pets, fancy hats, etc., and to "respec" your character (i.e. buy back all training points).
7. Focused Like A Laser
If you read interviews with the designers, it's obvious that they had a very clear vision for Wizard 101. Most of them had just come off of working on a very dark, violent, M-rated, hard-core MMO called Shadowbane (which died in 2009), and they wanted to do something different. They saw that there was an unmet demand for an online game that families could play together, i.e. something kids could play, but with enough depth not to bore adults to death. So they focused like a laser on that concept, and threw out everything that didn't fit.
I think this is one of the most important things for a designer to do; there's so much temptation to put in everything you can think of and try to please everybody, but it doesn't work. In Wizrd101, every decision they made supports their vision of something that the family can play together. Everything from the art style to the interface design to the combat system to the chat filter, like it or not, exists to reinforce this concept. The final product has a level of coherence and consistent feel that you wouldn't get any other way.
Stuff I don't like:
Not everything is roses, of course. Aside from the standard MMORPG gameplay flaws ("Oh how exciting: another kill-ten-rats quest. Sigh...") there are a few "features" that I could really do without.
1. Long attack animations
Every non-trivial attack spell in the game uses a Final Fantasy-esque summoning animation. These animations take.
They're fun the first or second time you see them, but by the tenth time I played a Ghoul I wished there was a way to fast-forward it. And your enemies are also attacking with summoning animations. So the battles move quite slowly. It's good to have someone to chat with while you're fighting.
2. No item trading
With the exception of Treasure Cards, items can't be given to or exchanged with other players, which is lame. You can give items to alt characters on the same account, so I don't think it's a technological limitation; it seems to be a conscious design decision. Maybe they didn't want to worry about kids getting ripped off in unfair trades and then complaining? I find a lot of item drops that I can't use, and it would be more fun to give them to players who could use them rather than just selling them to the auction house.
3. Inaccurate magic names
This is a really minor pet peeve, but the names some of the magical specializations are just wrong. Necromancers and Pyromancers are exactly what you'd expect, but then they go and call Storm wizards "Diviners". What? They're not diviners! Diviners use magic to predict the future and learn secrets beyond mortal ken! Storm wizards don't see the future, they just summon lightning sharks!
And Ice wizards are called "Thaumaturges"? What the heck? "Thaumaturge" is Greek for "Miracle worker", and it's been used for a lot of different kinds of magic in various fantasy fiction, but I've never heard of it being associated with ice or cold in any way.
You're abusing my obscure fantasy vocabulary! NERD RAGE!
4. Severly restricted text input
You can't name your character freely, for instance; you have to mix-and-match morphemes from a list. That's why my character has such a twee name (um... "Corwin Lotusweaver". Ahem.) On the plus side, this does mean nobody's named things like XxX_N00B_sLaYeR_XxX... but it is kind of boring how many Stormcallers and Dragonfires there are running around.
Chat is primarily menu-based. (Thankfully, the menus contain names of items and quests you might be looking for help with...) It's nice for kids who haven't learned to type yet. There's also text chat if it's enabled in the parental controls, but even there, any word not on their whitelist is blocked. That's right, they don't use a blacklist, they use a whitelist.
I understand why they did it that way, but it's still unpleasantly draconian. (I bypass the whole thing by running Skype in the background so I can talk to Aleksa with my actual voice.)
The terrifying future of game design
If you haven't seen this yet, you should:
It's a talk by a guy named Jesse Schells, at the DICE 2010 game designer conference.
It starts kind of slow, but watch the whole thing. The first half is about how the computer gaming industry got totally blindsided by the unexpected success, in the last couple years, of games that extend into the real world in one way or another, as well as games that exploit human psychological flaws to keep people playing and paying.
The second half is what I really want you to see, though. He lays out a vision of the future which is all-too-plausible, horrifying, and yet strangely attractive at the same time. "It's coming", Jesse says, "Because what's gonna stop it?"
The talk about "achievements" also reminded me of this lovely thought experiment: What if Super Mario Bros. had been designed in 2010?
Video game anti-nostalgia
So we all rightly know and honor the great video game classics. The Zeldas, the Metroids, the Final Fantasies, Chrono Triggers, etc. etc. Many websites have expounded at great length about how awesome they were and what made them so fun.
There were also a lot of fun games that remain lesser-known - hidden gems like Crystalis, Zillion, Alex Kidd, etc. They haven't been analyzed to death as much, and it's fun to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about those with anyone who remembers them.
But an honest retrospective of one's video-game-playing youth, sans rose-colored glasses, I think reveals that we didn't spend most of our game time playing those classic games.
We spent a lot of it playing crappy games. Games we would rather forget about. Games with unresponsive controls, nonsensical obstacles, unfair instant death, and long tedious grinds through copy-and-paste level layouts.
After all, it's easy to recognize the classics in retrospect. At the time - especially since it was a time without Internet reviews to warn us what to avoid - you had to trust Nintendo Power (with its vested interest in making everything sound good) or else pick up games off the shelf and, horror, revulsion, judge them by the blurb on the back of the box. Which always lies. Holding the box of say, Bubble Bobble in one hand and, say, Milon's Secret Castle in the other hand, there was no way to know a priori that one of them was a box full of precious childhood memories yet to be formed, while the other was a box full of anguish and pointless frustration. Now which one is which?
I get a queasy feeling thinking about all the hours I spent playing games that were, quite frankly, not fun. I wish I hadn't. There were a lot of better ways I could have spent that time, and now I'm never getting it back. Let me list off a few:
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- not the multiplayer co-op beat-em-up from the arcade; the first NES game. Yeah. Where Donatello could kill most things with impunity by poking them from the other side of a wall, while Michelangelo and Raphael were only good for taking hits to save Donatello's life points. And that horrible underwater level where you had to swim through the electric seaweed to defuse mines? And if you ever beat that you'd find yourself on a huge city map with no idea where you were supposed to go?
- 7th Saga -- sure an RPG where you can pick one of seven characters, each with their own storyline, sounds really cool. And three of the choices are a demon, an alien, and a robot? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the differences between the storylines are trivial, and it's not like you would want to replay it to see them, anyway, since the gameplay is little more than "grind levels until you can survive the dungeon, beat dungeon boss, go to next town, repeat".
- Sonic Spinball -- an inferior and gimmicky spin-off of the Sonic series, with only four levels, slow animation, and a frustrating lack of control. You spend most of your time in the air, hoping to land somewhere useful. I never finished it; the last level essentially required too much luck to be beatable.
- 3D World Runner -- the "3d" didn't work and gave me a headache, and the game is just a dude running endlessly forward across a featureless plain while you swerve to avoid fire pillars and disembodied heads, long-jump over bottomless pits with zero margin of error, and shoot at dragon bosses that take way too long to die. The music is REALLY obnoxious, and you get power-ups by smacking face-first into green columns.
- Phantasy Star 3 -- the worst of the series, with boring battles, little to no freedom of exploration, personality-less characters, and a plot that is little more than a chain of filler quests. And yet I probably spent more time playing it than any of the others, trying to get all the different endings. (PROTIP: all the endings were equally lame.)
- Zombies Ate my Neighbors -- Had a cute theme, a lot of levels, and co-op mode, but the basic gameplay model was wandering around a top-down-view map of the neighborhood, shooting at things with a variety of gimmicky, ineffective weapon. And there's just not much you can do to make that fun. Plus the hit detection sucked.
Why did keep playing these, I wonder? They were obviously not so unplayable that I would throw them across the room and never pick them up again. They all had some kind of cool concept, at least, something interesting enough to make me start playing them in the first place. And my family didn't have a lot of money, so whatever games I owned, I had to wring the most possible entertainment out of. After I've beaten and finished all the games that are actually good, what's left to do but to put in a still-unfinished mediocre cartridge and make yet another attempt at finishing it off? It still beats doing homework or going outside to play, even if just barely. In fact, the more frustratingly impossible a game was, the longer it remained unfinished, and therefore the more I would end up playing it.
Anyway, I want to hear about your anti-nostalgia games. What crappy-in-retrospect games do you wish you had spent less time playing?
Work for a game company? No. Start my own? Hmm...
I got contacted by a recruiter from some Facebook game company called Kabam. She wanted to see if she could lure me in for a job interview. I politely turned them down because I'm not looking for a different programming job. And because, Facebook games? eww.
I did a little bit of research on this Kabam company and found a hilarious quote:
"Unlike Zynga, Playfish and other social gaming juggernauts, Kabam doesn’t focus on the millions of casual gamers that permeate Facebook. Instead, the development firm is honing in on 25- to 35-year-old males who are looking for a deeper and more competitive in-game experience."
Oh yes, because 25-to-35-year-old male gamers are SUUUUCH an under-served audience, amiright?
Anyway this was kind of interesting because it's the first time a game company has reached out to me. It reminded me of how badly I wanted a job making computer games, back when I was a teenager. It got me thinking about whether I would still want to do that.
I think the answer is "yes, but...". I wouldn't want to join an existing company to toil away in their coding dungeon on somebody else's game idea. Pretty much the only way I would do it is if I started my own company to work on my own game idea. Hmm. I guess I could do that, but building a startup company is an incredible pain. I've been through that once already and it's totally life-consuming.
Also, it seems like most successful startup companies don't end up making the product they were founded to make. Or rather, to be a successful entrepreneur you need to be willing to drop your original idea as soon as you spot something more profitable. Aza tells me that venture capitalists call this "pivoting". I'd make a terrible entrepreneur because I would care more about developing my idea than about chasing the most profitable thing. As a startup company, you don't have the luxury to do that.
Still, "Start a game company" is kind of floating around in the back of my mind right now as a scary but intriguing possibility.
The True Sandbox Game
Minecraft is brilliant. It's the best video game I've played in years. It's my new favorite.
It's absolutely amazing that this game was pretty much written by one guy - a mysterious Swedish dude who goes by "Notch" - as a labor of love.
It's still in beta. There are bugs. Especially in multiplayer. Multiplayer requires running your own server or joining somebody else's server. There's no canonical Minecraft world, but a multiverse of personal worlds. It's like IRC or other early internet protocols before everything got centralized all to hell.
Running the server involves allocating like 1.8 gigabytes of memory to the Java virtual machine. Yes, it's in Java. The answer to "have there been any good programs written in Java" is now "Yes, one".
Above: Sadly, I can't make my socks two differnet colors as there is only one leg texture, repeated twice.
Anyway, there are bugs, but the bugs are part of the wierd charm. Players invent machines based on exploiting bugs. Boats float to the top of waterfalls instead of being pushed down by them as you would expect. So players build boat-and-waterfall based elevator systems. If the bugs were fixed now, they would break everything people have made. So it's not so much that the game is buggy as that some of its best features were discovered rather than designed.
I'm slightly surprised Minecraft isn't open-source. I bet a lot of people would be thrilled to be able to submit patches to the project. Also, Minecraft costs 15 Euros. What? Paying money for an unfinished game? Crazy, I know, but even in its unfinished state it's well worth 15 Euros.
Above: CREEPER IS WATCHING YOU SLEEP.
Minecraft is similar to Dwarf Fortress in many ways: a vast, randomly generated world, simulated in great detail, with minerals at various depths that can be mined out and turned into useful tools for technological development.
But Minecraft is far more accessible than Dwarf Fortress. Partly because the graphics are more, shall we say, representational. Partly because you interact with the Minecraft world from first-person, with your avatar's own hands, whereas you look down on the Dwarf Fortress world from above while issuing suggestions to a bunch of stubborn beardy guys who may or may not be in the mood to do what you say.
But also because Minecraft has a very simple set of verbs: walk, jump, hit/mine a block, put a block, make an item, use an item. That's it! Everything you do, from digging an iron mine to building an elaborate roller coaster, is composed of those verbs. Dwarf Fortress has as many obscure commands as a Linux shell.
Above: I left my door open when I left my house. I came back to find a cow, a sheep, and a chicken partying on my bed.
Here's what Minecraft doesn't have: Quest chains. NPCs who assign you repetitive jobs in exchange for paltry reward. Deadlines, milestones, incentives, checkpoints, prerequisites, carefully balanced power curves, deliberately designed progressions. Screens of statistics. Management interfaces. All the stuff, found in hundreds of video games, that makes them feel like work.
Minecraft is play. Not in the sense of "playing" a game, but more like the play that children do when they play outside or play with toys. You were a kid once (or maybe you still are). Remember how you used to play in your backyard? You explore, you build cool forts, you chase animals, you run away from "monsters", you make "swords" out of sticks and wave them around, you dig holes, you hunt for "treasure", you play house, you try to find neat things to put in your "house" to make it special. If it's been a while since you played like that, Minecraft will bring it all back to you.
Above: zombie mosh pit!
Forget Grand Theft Auto. That's not "sandbox". That's merely a mission-based game that happens to have a large world and a lot of optional sidequests. Minecraft is the real sandbox. Almost literally - you could flatten out the land like the sand in a sandbox, or dig a giant hole and use the resulting blocks to build a mountain.
Minecraft is fun to the extent to which you set your own goals. If you didn't set your own goals it would get boring very fast. Luckily I have no problem setting my own goals, not when the world of Minecraft seems so rich with possibilities. In fact I usually have three or four goals at any one time: right now I want to find a wolf and tame it to be my pet, I want to perfect my two-way minecart transport system, I want find enough diamond to make a suit of armor out of it, I want to grow enough sugarcane to make a bookshelf (paper is made from sugarcane, go figure) and I want to build an awesome undersea base with a glass dome accessible by tunnel.
While pursuing your goal, you'll run into all sorts of memorable and hilarious misadventures:
Getting ambushed by suicidally explosive Creepers. Making a corpse run without any torches to try to recover all the sweet loot you dropped. Digging upwards from a mine and accidentally poking through the sea floor. Getting lost outside at night and not being able to find your house. Digging downwards and breaking through into a magma lake. Finding diamond and not being able to get it because you just wore out your last iron pick. Trying to start a fire and burning down a whole forest. Having your minecart tracks blocked by cows. Having all the ingredients but one for that item you want to make and scouring the land for that last piece of string or whatever.
Sushu had a skeleton archer take up ambush position in her basement once. She couldn't go in the house without getting shot to death. And all her weapons were in there. My first few attempts to rush in there and kill it, armed with a wooden sword made from a tree, were failures. By the time I finally killed it the ground was littered with wooden swords.
I myself managed to collect enough gold to make a solid gold block, which I put up on the roof of my house to show off. Then I decided I wanted to move it, so I tried to collect it with my bare hands... turns out I could have used the pick in my inventory to collect the block, but by trying to do it with my bare hands, I made the block break without dropping anything. My nine gold, wasted because I punched it to death!
These misadventures are oddly satisfying. And they all emerge organically from the game systems; none of them were planned. Once I start playing Minecraft, it's hard to stop, because I have so many different projects going on in-game and something interesting is always happening. I always want to play just a little longer because there's one more thing I want to try.
Have game designers been doing it all wrong all these years? Trying to make all these goals and storylines and levels and linear progression mechanisms? Maybe all we ever needed was an open-ended environment where we could make our own fun.
Will Wright knew this. I remember many years ago, reading his description of SimCity as not a "game" but rather a "software toy". Minecraft is in the same spirit as those sim games, from SimCity to The Sims. Mess around. Set your own goals. Tell your own story.
The biggest flaw in Minecraft's game design as it stands is that it's not self-contained. Without reading external documentation it would be nearly impossible to figure out how to craft anything or even how to survive the night. No hand-holding tutorials in this game. Thank goodness for the Minecraft Wiki. I do feel like it spoils some of the discovery. But I'm not sure how I would ever have stumbled on some of the more obscure crafting recipies without reading the spoilers - the number of possible crafting combinations are astronomical, only a tiny sliver of them produce anything useful, and nothing in the game gives you a hint what those combinations could be.
I feel like it would be a stronger game design if it was self-contained, if it was possible to discover the game without spoilers or walkthroughs. But I'm not sure how they'd even do that without compromising the crafting system or cluttering up the game world with tutorials and breadcrumbs and hints and recipe books. I quite like the fact that when you start the game thre's no intros or tutorials; no intermediation. Just your bare hands and a giant wilderness. It's very primal.
Above: There are five creepers in this scene. Can you find them all?
That's because the fifth one is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
Minecraft is a great game. Let's define that: "A great game" is not merely one that induces you to play it for long periods of time. That's merely an addictive game. A great game is one that's addictive and that also teaches you new ways of thinking while you're playing it. The way playing Tetris for a long time makes you mentally rearrange furniture and buildings to form complete lines, or playing Katamari Damacy makes you look at things and calculate how big you'd need to be to roll them up. Minecraft makes you want to harvest cubical chunks of your floor and put torches everywhere to hold back the darkness. Even better, it teaches you to think of your environment as raw materials to make cool stuff out of. As an approach to life, that one's not bad.
HTML 5 Game Development Course
The course page will be here (still very incomplete).
I know some of you readers will be interested in this topic (Googleshng? Aaron?), so I wanted to give you early notice about it. There is a prerequisite task which you should try to do on your own before joining the course. If you're interested, you should try to do the prerequisite task on your own between now and April 25 so that everyone joining the course will have the same minimal level of understanding.
Happy Birthday, Minecraft style
Aleksa turned 11 on Saturday. Instead of sending a card I made this sign.
(I built a scaffold at sea first, set up a bed and slept out there for the six in-game days it took to finish this thing.)
I didn't tell her about it, I just let her log in and find it ;-)
I love Minecraft so much.
OK this really needs a name. And a domain.
I've done a bunch more work on that platform game. Now at evilbrainjono.net/platformer; the old link won't work.
I've added background music and sound effects, background images and platform textures, and the ability to customize any of these things plus customize your own character animations just by pasting in a URL to an image or sound file. There are monsters now, which kill you in two hit points, there are Pointless Trinkets to collect and a couple of rudimentary power-ups, new types of platforms, and numerous physics improvements.
I ran a hack session at the Mozilla Festival and got some really amazing contributions to the game from participants -- new monster graphics, animations, moving platforms, physics tweaks, jumping monsters, a button that opens a trapdoor, and more! One guy even adjusted the control scheme to make it playable on his iPhone in about 15 minutes. (This is the really great thing about making games on the web: you don't have to care what operating system your players have and you don't have to care about app-store approval. The platform is no obstacle.) All of this in about 2 hours; it was a nuclear chain reaction of creativity. You can try out most of these new contributions in the level editor.
I folded all the new stuff into a demo level and showed it off on stage in front of 600-ish people during the closing session. I talked about using it as a vehicle for teaching kids game design, animation, and (once I get the monster/power-up/obstacle source-code-editor working) programming. Doesn't have to be kids, either; it can be for anybody who's new to these things.
The reaction was way more than I expected, and after the presentations were over there were like three different people who wanted to interview me for their blogs and podcasts. Anyway long story short this project is suddenly getting a lot of incoming attention and I need to put it on a real domain instead of hanging it off the side of evilbrainjono.net.
So, like, I really really need to pick a good name now and register a URL. I need your help! The following URLs are all unclaimed as of today. Do you like any of them? Or do you have other suggestions?
New instance of the platform game builder is now up and running at runjumpbuild.com.
I've set it to report errors on login failure, so if your login is rejected, could you please mail me with the error message? It will help me debug whatever the problem is that keeps people from logging in.
I have made the physics constants (gravity, friction, acceleration, jump power, and max speed) editable in the level editor. So you can make the low-grav moon level or the low-friction ice level or whatever. If you tweak these numbers and come up with something you think is better than the default set in terms of the feeling of control over the character, let me know and I can make it the new default set!
Oh, and if you're tired of being a sticklyman, try setting your avatar image URL to elf.png or running_petunia_frames.png. You can also set the tileset URL to tileset.png which will apply some textures to the platforms and trinkets.
Startup or Pokemon?
I made a simple quiz game. It's called Startup or Pokemon?. Can you tell which ones are which?
I just added a Japanese language option to RunJumpBuild. This is important because I'm going to be demoing at the Mozilla Vision 2012 event in Tokyo next week.
We'll be using RunJumpBuild as well as Hackasaurus and Scratch as part of a workshop where we teach kids to make games. I'm pretty excited about this. So many of my interests combined in one activity! It will be like a reunion with my 2011 self.
Grognard Capture, or "Why Sushu Can't Jump"
Watching our friend Chris play Mass Effect 3, me and Sushu were like "hey this looks like a cool choose-your-own-adventure story, too bad it keeps getting interrupted by these shooter levels". I'm kind of interested in the story but not interested enough to play shooter levels, which I suck at and don't enjoy. I would rather have a choose-your-own-adventure visual novel, you know?
"But", Sushu asks, "Would it still be a game without the shooter levels? If it was just dialogue choices?" Eh, maybe. I've got no interest in arguing about the definition of "game" but I would "play" something like that, whatever it is.
What I think is interesting is how the economics of video games effctively prevents a major game company from making a game that's just dialogue choices with no shooting. Indie games could do it (and they have). But in the realm of "AAA titles", game budgets continue to get higher and higher, development teams continue to get larger, and to recoup their investment they need something that gamers will pay $60 a pop for. So every AAA game needs to have a zillion hours of gameplay, insanely detailed 3D graphics, professional voice acting, numerous granular and highly crunchy subsystems, cutscenes, achievements, and other bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the core gamplay mechanic.
Like, Mass Effect apparently has a whole intricate weapon-customization subsystem with a zillion different kinds of high-tech guns? Chris kept picking up all these scopes and silencers and ammo clips and whatever. Why? The story's about the fate of galaxy-spanning civilizations, right? Do we really gotta spend this much time focusing on the exact kind of gun one particular person has?
I'm guessing market research shows that gamerdorks prefer games with detailed gun stats to games with less detailed gun stats, therefore AAA game economics require developers to put in more gun stats whenever possible.
Designer Greg Costikyan coined the phrase"Grognard Capture" to describe a process that all video game genres undergo. Fans of the genre complete lots of games, master the basic skills and demand more advanced challenges, more detail, etc. Later entries in the genre target those advanced players, skipping over the basic stuff. Eventually the genre evolves to where new games are completely unplayable to newbies.
I can observe the effects of grognard capture every time I watch Sushu try to play a game that involves jumping. She finds it frustrating and not fun at all. She fails repeatedly at jumps that I wouldn't even notice. This isn't her fault: it's the fault of game designers who assume everybody is good at jumping, because they've been playing jumping games since the 80s and have mastered every possible permutation of moving platforms and low cielings and overhangs and whatnot. Go back and study the level design of the original Super Mario Brothers and see how the first few levels hold your hand through the most basic types of jumps, gently teaching you the skills you'll need for later. It was an entry-level game; it assumed no prior experience. Too many of today's game designers seem to have forgotten how to do that.
And is it just me, or have (AAA) video games been getting more and more indistinguishable from each other? Action games, RPGs, and Adventure games used to be distinct genres. Now everything's a first-person 3D action game with character improvement mechanics and halfhearted puzzle quests. If AAA games are all one genre now, maybe this whole sector of the industry is undergoing grognard capture, turning into something that only appeals to a smaller and smaller group of hard-core "gamerz", and abandoning the much larger market of casual gamers (e.g. anyone not a 16-25 year old boy).
Braid, and "art" in game design
I just finished Braid today. (Found it for $10 in the Ubuntu Software Center. It runs on Linux now!)
It's a fun and original puzzle game, where you solve puzzles by rewinding time. The story is intriguing, the puzzle design is ingenious, the controls are tight, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's nonlinear enough that you can try a different world if you get stuck, and there's no filler. It deserves the praise it gets for being well-designed.
But unfortunately, through no fault of its own, Braid has been blown way out of proportion by gamers who want to prove that Video Games Can Too Be Art!!
I hate the argument about whether games can be art. It's tiresome and pointless. On one side we got people who are ignorant of video games, and even proud of being ignorant. Like the author of this Atlantic interview with Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow. (The interviewer introduces Blow's upcoming game "The Witness" as "what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history" ...then goes on to describe a game very similar to Myst, in a way that makes clear he's never heard of Myst.)
On the other side we got people who don't give a fig about art, but they long for video games to have artistic legitimacy so they can, I dunno, feel better about their hobby or something. (See, e.g., the commenters arguing with Roger Ebert.)
The art people don't understand gameplay, but they understand storytelling. They know how to analyze that, so that's what they analyze. And they point out, correctly, that most video games stories are violent, trivial cliche-fests. Then the gamers are like No! Wait! Look at this game over here! It's got an amazing story! VALIDATE ME WITH YOUR CRITICAL RECOGNITION, I BEG YOU!
Braid is one of a handful of such games regularly held up as candidates for Art. With its ambitious story, painterly graphics, violin music, etc, Braid has the aesthetics of something artistic. More significantly, there happens to be a metaphorical connection between the theme of the story and the main puzzle mechanic. This guy Tim, he's got regrets. He wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Most video games are strictly representational, so the use of metaphor is unusal. Also, the ending is really cryptic! (Cryptic endings = Art, right?)
But the actual game is just a side-scrolling puzzle game with a neat gimmick. Braid's story talks a lot about forgiveness. But note that the game is played by pushing a "jump" button, not a "forgive" button. If you're trying to win, you spend all your time thinking about how to line up that monster so you can bounce off its head and get the key, not thinking about how Tim's relationship with the "princess" went wrong.
The story of Braid is not the game of Braid, despite their metaphorical connection. There's one part, at the end of the last level, where the story and gameplay mesh in an interesting way. Other than that, the story is just some cryptic snippets of text presented between levels. They're very easy to ignore if you're not into them. You won't miss anything gameplay-wise if you skip reading them.
This is why I think looking for the "art" of a game in its story is a gigantic red herring. Say you made a game with story cutscenes so amazing that they rival the greatest works of film artistry. That still wouldn't make it an artistic game. It would make an artistic movie that keeps getting interrupted by a game. It doesn't tell us anything about whether the game parts would be artistic or not.
The essence of a videogame is a player making decisions about how to interact with a system in order to get closer to a desired outcome. Its effect on the player is via the thought processes the player has while trying to achieve the objective. Whatever the game asks the player to do to win, that's what the game is "about".
Braid - "Learn to picture yourself moving backwards in time"
Portal - "Imagine the possibilities of warping space"
Civilization - "Success or failure of societies depends on how their leaders choose to allocate resources and respond to crises." (The 'Great Man' theory of history.)
Adventure games - "Explore your environment thoroughly; you never know what might be useful!"
RPGs - "Put in a lot of time leveling up on easy stuff so you'll be strong enough for the big challenge when it comes". (also, "go into people's houses and take anything you can pick up".)
Action games - "Be quick or be dead"
Minecraft - this is an interesting one, since there's explicitly no goal. Minecraft says to me, "Life is what you make of it."
Non-video-game example: Chess. It's about outsmarting someone by predicting their reactions, several moves ahead. "To beat someone you must put yourself in their shoes".
Is chess "art"? Who cares? The question is meaningless to me. Would chess be art, if we painted the pieces beautiful colors and attached a narrative and a soundtrack? That's basically what the "are games art" argument is about. I hope you can see why it's a silly question.
Instead of "Is chess art?", how about: "Is chess an invaluable contribution to human culture which enriches the lives of those who choose to engage with it deeply?"
Most video games aren't very culturally significant or personally enriching, but I can think of a few that are. And unlike "making art", "significant/enriching" describes goals I can imagine how to aim for, as a game designer, through the gameplay itself.
How do we do that? Design gameplay that expresses something original and interesting, and not just a repetition of "be quick or be dead"? That is what I want to hear more about.
Two weeks in Illinois
Just got back from 2 weeks in Illinois. Since I'm
unemployed "in a pre-revenue startup", I can't afford to fly home for every holiday like I did in past years, so I went for a longer visit at Thanksgiving in exchange for not visiting at Halloween or Christmas. Mom is disappointed, of course, and so am I. The underlying unhappiness here is the unavoidable result of marrying someone from the other side of the country, so there may be no good answer, but I promised to do weekly video chat and to come visit again in June.
Fun stuff I did in Chicago:
- Hiking in the autumn woods at the Morton Arboretum and at Starved Rock with Mom & Dad
- Cooking with the family! After a trip to the Korean grocery store I made tom yum, green Thai curry, miso soup, and braised daikon/lotus root. Of course we made Thanksgiving dinner together too; they did a brined/smoked turkey on the grill, and I hand-braided a pumpkin pie crust
- Meeting Cat, Kent, and Jonathan in Hyde Park for board games
- Learning to play "Always" (the song from Robot Unicorn Attack) as a guitar-accordion duet with Stephen, and meeting his gonzo Homestuck-fan roommates
- Hanging out with Atul again at our old favorite tea-house, talking Mozilla Foundation and having great Russian food with him his dad
- Meeting Jon's roommates and girlfriend, tossing a Frisbee around and playing a Magic: The Gathering "Commander" free-for-all that was a total nostalgia trip
- Passing the Wiimote back&forth with Aleksa to beat Zelda: Twilight Princess together. (After a year of Minecraft being our main game, it feels weird to play a game that's always telling us where to go and what to do! What is this, a job?)
- Helping Aleksa figure out how record screencasts and how to get started modding Minecraft, which might just be the thing that gets her into programming
- Watching Adventure Time and talking like Lumpy Space Princess
- Finding out that Kristin's been doing work for the Onion's video production arm, and watching their videos together (like their spoof of TED talks and spoof reality show Sex House).
How to run Minecraft on Ubuntu
Minecraft used to just work out of the box on Ubuntu, but a recent update (could have been a Minecraft update, Ubuntu update, or Java update) broke it. When I tried to launch I got an error message like this:
Exception in thread "Minecraft main thread" java.lang.UnsatisfiedLinkError:
cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
I tried reinstalling liblwjgl (a Java graphics library that Minecraft depends on) but it was already installed. Followed advice about making sure I had the Oracle version of Java (not the OpenJDK version). Tried a bunch of other stuff and nothing worked.
The solution I found, which I post here just in case anybody else is having the same problem, was to write a small shell script that sets the environment variable LD_LIBRARY_PATH. Apparently the problem is that the Java virtual machine by default looks for shared library files in the wrong place on the Linux filesystem. Setting this variable to the place where the shared libraries actually live before launching Java fixes the problem.
Here's my shell script, which you're welcome to copy and use - you may have to modify the path to match the actual location of the Java installation on your computer.
java -Xmx1024M -Xms512M -cp minecraft.jar net.minecraft.LauncherFrame
Just copy paste this text into a file and save it as minecraft.sh in the same directory as your minecraft.jar, then make it executable. Type minecraft.sh when you want to start Minecraft.
I'm happy I can now play my favorite game on my favorite OS, but dang this was way harder than it should have been. Computers! They still kind of suck!
Zelda backtracking as an educational game design principle
Zelda games are always showing you cool stuff just out of your reach. Like, a treasure chest up on the side of a cliff, or blocked by some weird statue, so you can't get to it. If you've played any of these games, you recognize it as a backtrack situation. "Oh, I can't get there yet, but probably later in the game there's an item I can use to get past that obstacle; I'll come back later."
Usually, making the player backtrack would be bad game design: it's boring and wastes time. You might think, if the player needs a hookshot to get that chest, why not put the chest after the hookshot? It's functionally equivalent but with no backtracking involved.
But in Zelda, backtracking is part of a really clever game design. I'd even say it's essential to the fun.
Because showing the player something that they can't get until later motivates them to keep playing. The player thinks "Oh man I can't get that yet... but if I had a hookshot, I could! GOTTA FIND THAT HOOKSHOT!".
Also, it rewards the player for remembering where they saw stuff, for exploring thoroughly and backtracking instead of just always pressing on to the next required plot point. Which reinforces the theme that Zelda games are about exploration.
And when you finally get the hookshot (or whatever item) it's much more exciting because you already know several places to use it. You've been itching to get your hands on it, so when you finally get to play with it you feel like a million bucks.
Then you backtrack through earlier areas collecting goodies with your cool new tool, and the old enemies that used to give you so much trouble are now a breeze, which makes you feel like a badass. Games based on a power progression have to keep upping the challenges, which sometimes makes the player feel like they're barely keeping pace, like running on a treadmill. Giving them a reason to backtrack lets them step off the treadmill and just enjoy all the power they've earned.
So if Zelda-style backtracking is so great for motivating players to keep playing, is there a way to apply that to the Studio Xia Chinese game?
Maybe if we show the player a situation that they can't solve yet using the Chinese that they know (for some meaning of "situation" and "solve"), they'll be motivated to keep playing in order to learn the Chinese they need? And then backtrack and apply their new knowledge to solve that situation?
The important point here is that the new grammar pattern / vocab word is the Hookshot, i.e. it's not the obstacle, it's the way of overcoming the obstacle. Most educational games are crappy because the educational material is mapped onto the gameplay role of "monster" -- defeat this endless series of identical Octorocks with math problems on them, or whatever. You just want them to stop coming. We need to make the educational material feel like tools instead, like power-ups, so the player's excited to get a new one.
But if you need 1,000 words for even basic conversational fluency... well, how do you design a game with 1,000 distinct, interesting power-ups? That I haven't figured out yet.
What Mega Man can teach us about fairness
I LOVE Mega Man games, especially 2 and 3. Mega Man X is pretty great too.
I wasted way too much time recently reading this forum thread about level design, which goes through every Mega Man game in great depth analyzing what makes each level fun or not fun. Since the Mega Man games are so similar in basic mechanics, the level designs (and weapon selections) make all the difference. You can learn a lot about very subtle points of game design from analyzing the level designs.
Key among these is the difference between a difficult-but-fair challenge and a "cheap shot". A cheap shot is when the game hits you with something you had no way to see coming. Either it's not dodgeable, or it's dodgeable only if you died to it once already and you know it's coming up.
The latter type of cheap shot is no fun because it makes the game into an exercise in memorization. When something's not dodgeable without prior knowledge, it feels like the game is cheating.
I want to examine that feeling, because it gets at a sort of implicit "social contract" between the player and the game designer. The feeling that the game cheated means that we as players feel a rule has been violated, even though that rule is not written down anywhere. What would that rule be? Obviously there's an implicit assumption when we buy a game that the game is completable, otherwise it's broken. But more than completable, an action game such as Mega Man should be completable without damage, at least theoretically. Every danger should be dodgeable with enough skill. A hypothetical infinitely-skilled player should be able to complete the game on the first try without getting hit.
We want that to be the social contract, because somewhere in our minds we want to feel like we could, if we practiced enough, become that perfect player.
The Mega Man games uphold this contract reliably enough that the exceptions really stand out. (E.g. I think the last boss of Mega Man 7 is technically impossible to beat without using an E-tank.)
When that contract is being upheld, you get hit and go "Oh, that was my fault, I should be ready for next time I see one of those". It makes you want to get better at the game so you can take less damage. When you get hit with a cheap shot, it breaks the spell a little. You go "Hey, no fair! How was I supposed to dodge that? Why am I even playing this game if it's just going to cheat?" It makes you care less about playing.
A lot of the fun in games comes from improving your skill (Raph Koster's theory is that fun is intimately tied to learning). So it's important to always hold out the hope of improvement to the players. Show them a path to improve. Give them a situation that says "this looks hard now, but if you were a little bit better you could be totally awesome at it".
For that, there must be the promise that the game is playing fair, and improvement is always possible. Challenges should never be designed just for the sake of making the game harder! (You listening, ROM hackers?) They should be designed to give the player the thrill of victory when they are at last overcome.
The application to educational game design should be obvious.
Rocket Science Games - a tale of corporate hubris and epic failure
When browsing the web today I found a retrospective by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank about a failed startup company he started 20 years ago, and the lessons he learned from its failure.
The company was called Rocket Science Games.
Wait a minute... I think I've heard of them. Back in 1993-94 I saw some magazine article about how they were going to revolutionize gaming by fusing Hollywood with Silicon Valley and bringing cinematic storytelling to games, or some buzzword-laden hype like that.
What this meant in practice is that they released a few desultory CD-ROM rail-shooters and Myst clones packed with horrible grainy video clips and lousy gameplay, then disappeared without a trace.
Here's a Wired article about them from the time.
It's fascinating to read the inside story directly from the CEO responsible for this fiasco. He admits his hubris led to their destruction. Rocket Science thought they were hot shit because they built cutting-edge video compression tools to stream FMV off of a CD-ROM faster. They spent millions of dollars building a cool office in San Francisco and hiring all these hotshot Hollywood scriptwriters and cinematographers. But nobody was in charge of game design. It's like they didn't even know game design was a thing. The CEO never even asked to see the gameplay of the games they were making!
He obviously didn't know the first thing about video games, and from his retrospective it seems like he still doesn't. He can barely conceal his contempt for gaming and gamers (neither can the author of that Wired article). He talks about gameplay like it's just some button-mashing to be grudgingly included in between their beautiful video clips. Everybody involved had this attitude that gaming was a terrible adolescent boy pastime about mindless violence and they were going to come in and elevate it with their highbrow focus on Story.
It certainly provides some insight into why the CD-ROM game craze of the mid-90s happened, and why most of the games so quickly ended up in the bargain bin; they were funded by people riding a hype bubble who didn't particularly want to be making video games at all and lacked the curiosity to try to understand what they were making.
If your prime directive is "must use all these video clips" and nobody's in charge of game design then you're going to turn out rail shooters and Myst clones by default (two of the shallowest, most boring, most mindless game genres).
A company that's 100% focused on the technology gimmick they're trying to push and 0% focused on what their potential customers actually want from a product will, unsurprisingly, make things that nobody wants.