Thursday, February 21, 2008

Player Storytelling in Single-Player Games

In games that are rich enough to have stories, there's basically a continuum of player agency inside a story. At one pole are the choose-your-adventure scripts, where the player simply picks the next plot point that was pre-written by the storyteller. And at the other end are Will Wright's "software toys," where all storytelling power is abdicated to the player.

Somewhere between these two alternatives are the big games like Half-Life 2 and Deus Ex and Grand Theft Auto. In these games there is a specific story written by the game's developer from which the player may not deviate short of simply abandoning the game. But in between each of the predetermined plot points, players are pretty much free to do as they please -- wander around, break stuff, play mini-games, take NPC missions, solve puzzles -- whatever they like within the constraints of the game. Warren Spector has made a career out of producing games like these, and is still doing so at his new Junction Point gig, because people seem to like this middle way that offers both a compelling literary experience (a well-crafted story) and exploratory freedom.

(Also, Chris Crawford has been working on something like this for years now. Storytron is the latest product based on Crawford's work that offers some interesting possibilities in player storytelling.)

Is this freedom an illusion? If you're thinking only of the main story, then yes -- you the player are on rails. But what about in between the plot points? Is the freedom inside a "sandbox" game like GTA also illusory?

Here's what I wonder: Is there a sweet spot between the literary game like a Deus Ex or BioShock (or Half-Life) and the software toy like The Sims or Spore? Is there any way to let players tell more of their own stories, to create their own literary content, while still supporting the story the professional writers at the game development studio are trying to tell?

In other words, is player storytelling incompatible with developer storytelling?

Is this merely a technical problem that can be solved with (say) faster computers and better AI/graphics/sound? Or is it a fundamental limitation of literary entertainment that there is room for only one storyteller in a game, period?

Should the player who despite everything chooses to trust an unreliable narrator be able to discover -- or create -- his own emotionally satisfying story in the same game as the player who decides he's been betrayed and goes looking for some heads to bust?

Would that still be the "same" game?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Portal-ized Object Names

Because there weren't enough silly names for random normal objects in Portal:

Aperture Science Photostatic Image Replication System (photocopier): "The unauthorized application of exposed gluteal regions to this device shall be grounds for immediate termination... of your employment with Aperture Laboratories."

Aperture Science Visio-Social Display (overhead projector): "The hygienic operation of this device is required under Section Nine, paragraph 4(b) of the Enrichment Center Principles of Operation. Appropriate sanitary facilities are scheduled for installation at this site in ..." *BZZTZcrackle* "... sday."

Aperture Science Remote Signaling Unit (telephone): "Use of the Aperture Science Remote Signaling Unit has been discontinued until further notice. Should you inadvertently find yourself operating this device, please report at your earliest convenience to the nearest Enrichment Center Decontamination and Retroviral Decommissioning Pod for absolution."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Casual MMORPGs? +

Gamasutra reports that veteran game designer Steve Meretzky, speaking at GDC 08, discussed casual games.

Considering all the discussion here when that word "casual" came up with respect to Star Trek Online, I thought it might be interesting to mention Meretzky's thoughts here for comment.

He began by defining casual games in terms of who plays them: "A game intended for people for whom gaming is not a primary area of interest." By this definition, a "core gamer" would describe gaming as an active interest, while a casual gamer would not. A casual gamer would thus be someone who's mostly interested in other things who just happens to play a game.

So what about that? Is that player-centric definition enough to capture the distinction between casual and core?Meretzky then went on to identify the key features of the typical casual game:

  • Low barriers to entry - no long download time, complex installs, necessary tutorials, or long tail to the fun.
  • Should be forgiving - should give hints and reward error with only minor setback.
  • Short play times - should be able to be taken in bite sizes. Even long story games are divided into levels or tidbits of 5 minutes or less.
  • Highly replayable - if a game is going to be played in five minutes, it needs to be replayable to justify the purchase.
  • Depth of gameplay revealed gradually - new elements can be introduced to the gameplay, but they have to be revealed and explained slowly and carefully.
  • Non-violent themes - no shooting, hand to hand combat, racing, zombies, or apocalypses.
  • Inexpensive - it's been proven that the audience will pay for games, but they have a greater resistance to price point than the hardcore users.

How about these? Do these make sense as a definition of a casual game? For example, could a game that typically takes an hour to play be considered casual?

What about how these might apply to a MMORPG generally, or to a Star Trek MMORPG specifically? Would you play a Star Trek MMORPG that satisfied all these constraints as long as it satisfied your other interests and preferences?

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

It's not fair to expect anyone working in the Star Trek universe to be perfectly faithful to canon. That's impossible, and for multiple reasons:

  • the canon itself isn't perfectly consistent
  • programmers/artists/writers/directors/producers are human, and humans make mistakes
  • TV shows, movies, and games have limited budgets; there's not enough time/money to check everything
  • new people working on a franchise product want to put their own creative mark on the franchise
The thing is, breaking some trivial bits of lore because you can't help it, or inadvertently, or to help tell an important part of a new story -- that's one thing. Breaking some important franchise facts because you just don't care, or because you think it's cool and you believe your creative rights trump what anyone else wants... that's something else entirely.

The concern of some Star Trek fans is that Abrams & Co. are going that latter route, that they're changing things just to be different or out of laziness or out of hubris, that they're compromising the established history of Star Trek when they don't have to.

This does happen. Directors certainly do take liberties with franchises -- look what David Fincher did in the third movie of the "Alien" saga.

But is something like this happening with Star Trek XI? I don't know. Abrams and his minions could be respecting the lore or desecrating it; I have no idea which is the case. I'm not personally expressing any warnings that the new movie will suck in this respect because I don't feel I have enough information at this time to come to such a conclusion.

All I'm saying is that the concern some fans are feeling right now is not irrational. They may turn out to have been wrong, but at this moment in time, given the information available, their concerns are not unreasonable. Hollywood people have legendarily strong Reality Distortion Fields operating....

Is the same true of the designers and producers of major MMORPGs like Star Trek Online? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Deus Ex

I've been an unabashed fan of Warren Spector's work ever since I brought home Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss in all its 3D glory, and System Shock after that. I'll buy any epic game he produces.

So I expected Deus Ex to be good... but even I was surprised that it was that good. I still play it every year or so as well, just to remind myself of how high the bar is set for all other games.

The thing that still amazes me the most, however, is how remarkably even-handed and thoughtful it was (and still is) on a subject that could very easily have been turned into a political soapbox. I've played games where the developers (who as a group tend to be left of center) obviously thought it would be funny to drop some gratuitous political cheap shot into the text. (I remember one bit of canned commentary from Sierra On-Line's Outpost as being obnoxious in this way.) When everyone on the development team thinks the same way politically, who's going to object to mocking the other guys?

But Deus Ex never goes for the cheap shot from any political direction. There are three or four places in the game where J.C. can have an extended conversation on liberty -- and the lengths to which one should be prepared to go to defend it -- with NPCs. It would have been easy (and must have been tempting) to write these as Socratic dialogues where one side is obviously "wrong." Instead, each position in these conversations is treated fairly and without any rhetorical stacking of the deck. The player is left free to think and decide for himself.

What's particularly astonishing about this is that Deus Ex was developed in Austin, Texas, which prides itself on being more politically liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word) than most of the rest of Texas. For game designers in Austin to have produced dialogues that the thinking person of any political stripe can appreciate... I still regard that as one of the most jaw-droppingly satisfying accomplishments in the history of computer gaming.

Deus Ex proved that it is indeed possible to feature smart, sharp writing on a touchy subject in a game that also offers plenty of problem-solving and conventional shoot-'em-up action. It's hard to imagine that we will see its like again any time soon. (And I'm including the upcoming Deus Ex 3, being made in Toronto, Canada, in that pessimistic guess.)

Any "Best Computer Game Ever" list that doesn't feature the original Deus Ex in at least the top ten is clearly broken beyond repair.

Dang. Now I want to go play it again Right Now....

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Better Living Through Genetic Engineering

Originally Posted by OpDDay2001:
Kind of hard to watch, but it's an example of selective breeding. It's not evolution but it's the closest man has come since the domestication and breeding of the dog. The creation of a breed of "super cows". It's really quite interesting, at the same time disturbing.
Originally Posted by 128hoodmario:
One of the reasons we have time to play and talk about computer games is because we (and most other people in the West) are no longer forced to work on a farm to grow enough food to survive, which was the case only some 100 years ago.

The invention and adoption of farm machinery is a large part of the reason why the West is no longer in survival mode where food is concerned. But another important factor is the ongoing -- and, especially since the 1950s, scientific -- breeding of new and better kinds of food, in particular "high-yielding varieties" of cereals. We have in fact been so phenomenally successful at increasing crop yields through methods including selective breeding that only 2% of the U.S. population in 2002 was directly involved in farming (USDA fact sheet) while still supplying not only its own population with more food than they can eat, but supplying much of the rest of the world as well.

There are valid concerns about this process. Relying on a few high-yielding varieties of foods means increased difficulty if one of those varieties falls prey to pests, disease, or climatic variation, for example. There's also a question of whether having more food available may increase world population beyond sustainable levels. There are hard questions that need to be asked about the patenting of the biological results of genetic modification -- is it proper to allow the ownership of entire new species? What about the dangers of creating new lifeforms that we can't control? And any reasonable person can be concerned whether our technological abilities to create new kinds of life are outstripping our understanding of whether it is wise to do so simply because we can.

All of these could be the basis for a principled objection to modifying the genes of some lifeform. But to issue a blanket statement that "genetic engineering is wrong" is to completely ignore the realities of what our lives would be like today without improving food breeds over thousands of years (perhaps starting with the domestication of emmer).

Using technology to move beyond food-based survival is what has allowed humanity to accomplish wonders in the arts and sciences. We ought to be able to acknowledge that.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gordon Freeman's Epitaph

The question came up: What words would (will?) be written on Gordon Freeman's tombstone?

My first thought was a Buffy-esque "He saved the world (a lot)."

But on reflection, I like this better:

My name is Gordon Freeman
An ordinary man
An HEV suit on my back
A crowbar in my hand.

I did my part for liberty
With good friends brave and true
The free man perseveres through all
And so, my friend, can you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

Let's think about the upcoming Star Trek movie for a moment, and consider how it's going to treat the canon. For me, canonicity is a matter of respect.

This upcoming Star Trek movie is J.J. Abrams's movie, but it's not his world -- he's just being allowed to play in it. So while we need to cut him some slack as someone with his own artistic vision and commercial requirements, I think it's also fair to expect him to show respect for the fans who've kept this franchise alive for nearly half a century.

And he can show that respect by not willfully ignoring aspects of the Star Trek universe that no one questions, such as the look of the NCC-1701 Enterprise. Fidelity to canonical information like this isn't just some slavish adherence to meaningless rules -- it's a respectful acknowledgement to those who have given their time and energy before him to help build this universe, and whose contributions do not deserve to be casually ignored.

I can live with some minor changes. I did not like some of the changes that Peter Jackson and his two co-writers made to Tolkien's story -- the inflation of the roles of Arwen and Eowyn, for example, and the elimination of "The Scouring of the Shire" -- but I coped because I understand the artistic and commercial interests involved, and because the core of Tolkien's story and many of its details were respected.

Likewise, I will not be pleased if Abrams & Co. take too many liberties with established and undisputed details of the Star Trek universe. There's no need to change those things even to stamp his own "vision" on the franchise. But if there are some changes made that clearly serve specific artistic or commercial needs -- they are required to tell and sell the story -- then I can probably cope.

As long as Abrams shows respect for the fans by respecting the canonical knowledge (which encompasses not just what the Enterprise looks like but the characters and the stories as well), I think Star Trek XI will do OK. Some fans will complain no matter what, but most are smart enough to know when real respect is being paid to their concerns.

Needlessly change too many things, though, and even the casual Star Trek fans will (rightly) feel abused. And then this movie will have a problem.

And -- my larger point -- that goes for a Star Trek MMORPG, too.

Voluntary Game Labeling vs. Government Control 2

For me the most interesting aspect of the content control question is how the tension between expressive liberty and child safety is addressed in different places. Western nations are pretty similar in that they all consider both of these things to be desirable. We all want to be free to express our beliefs, whether political, artistic, or religious. And we all want our children to be able to grow up safe from harm.

But having acknowledged these similarities, there are also significant differences not only in how we define some of these terms but in the legal traditions and rules we apply to them. And I suspect there are a lot of people who don't know about some of those differences, which leads to faulty expectations, which makes it harder to have a productive discussion.

So here are a couple of points for discussion and some questions about them.

1. A lot of Americans wrongly believe that "freedom of speech" is some kind of global right. In fact, the U.S. is one of the very few places on Earth in which a right of citizens to criticize their government -- which, I think a good argument can be made, is what "freedom of speech" is really all about -- is protected by their fundamental document of law, the U.S. Constitution. Other nations, including the United Kingdom, have no such constitutional provision protecting a right to free expression. Yes, as a practical matter Britons and others do enjoy substantial freedom of expression, but it's not a constitutionally-protected right. Public sentiment aside, there is no legal impediment to the U.K. or other governments restricting some form of expression should they choose to do so.

So Americans first need to understand that the expressive liberties they enjoy are not equally protected in other places. Arguments defending "free speech" don't apply outside the U.S. border. If the British government wants to say that a particular game's representation of sex or violence or drug use or anything is impermissible, then it can -- there's no "First Amendment" preventing that government from restricting political or artistic or religious expression on whatever basis it chooses to apply.

I think we should be free to consider the ramifications of assigning that power of censorship to government versus expecting private entities (game publishers, retailers, parents) to self-censor as in the U.S.. I'm not making any judgement here; I can see value and danger in both approaches. I'm just saying it could be an interesting and worthwhile discussion.

2. "Child safety" is indeed one of those things that's turned into a convenient tool for politicians everywhere to do whatever they want. But are they entirely wrong? It's absolutely valid to want our kids to be able to grow up physically/mentally/emotionally healthy. That's an appropriate goal for all members of a society, including those with no children of their own, which may make it an appropriate concern of our political representatives.

But to what degree? When government officials and parents disagree about how to raise a child, who should win? Either way, what precedent is set for other disagreements between government and families?

Furthermore, how the heck do we decide what things put a child's physical/mental/emotional health at risk? Does a swat on the butt scar a child for life? Some people are convinced it does; others are equally certain it doesn't. Does the artistic depiction of violence cause emotional damage to a child? Some, looking at gore-filled violence done to images of humans, are sure it does; others point out that if this were true for all such depictions, anyone who saw Wile E. Coyote repeatedly falling off a cliff when chasing the Roadrunner would be a basket case. Do violent games "desensitize" children to violence, leading them to shoot schoolmates? Or do violent games provide a useful outlet for aggression so that it's reduced in real life?

If we have so much trouble answering these questions, how can we justify using "child safety" as a reason to censor video games, whether voluntarily in the U.S. or by law elsewhere? At the same time, isn't trying to protect children from inappropriate material a responsible act?

But what's "inappropriate?" Do we need scientific, peer-reviewed proof that some game element produces measurable damage of some kind to kids before we may fairly condemn it? Or should we be free to act on the suspicion of potential damage because the cost of being wrong is so high?

Which brings us back to the question of who gets to decide. Whose responsibility is it -- whose responsibility should it be -- to determine what games children should not be allowed to see? Parents? ISPs? Teachers? Game publishers? Government ministers or unelected bureaucrats? Retailers?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Voluntary Game Labeling vs. Government Control 1

The possible release of the long-delayed Duke Nukem Forever has some folks wondering if it's possible in today's cultural climate to sell a game with all the sexism and violence of the original Duke Nukem games. This has led to questions about content control -- who should be in charge of deciding what games should be made, or sold, or played?

In the U.S., game publishers voluntarily agree to have their games labeled for content by a private advisory board, and some retailers (like Wal-Mart) voluntarily choose to restrict to adults the sale of some games rated as containing highly mature content. Control of content is distributed; publishers, retailers, and consumers all have some say in what's available. No one is completely satisfied, but the system seems to work for the majority of games.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the U.K. government is reviewing plans to label game content itself, and to use this rating system to make the sale of games it considers inappropriate to anyone under the age of 18 a criminal offense. (The British government is also said to be talking with ISPs about imposing standardized filters on web content.)


This isn't intended to be some silly "U.S. vs. U.K." (or " U.S. vs. anyone") troll-bait. The point is to contrast voluntary labeling versus government labeling and criminalization of game content, because there's a serious difference of approach to be considered here.

Who do you want deciding what kind of games you can buy?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Real-Money Transactions in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by BLZBUB: is reporting on the pairing of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) and Live Gamer Service (LG) to bring Real Money Transactions (RMT) into the EverQuest2 Station Exchange (SE) service, formerly provided alone by SOE.
Before we get too bummed out by this, it might be worth noting that (other than the two EQ2 servers within Station Exchange), SOE and the other developers -- Acclaim, Funcom, GoPets, Pingo, and 10tacle Studios -- are all dedicated these days to making games based on the microtransaction model. (SOE is getting into the business with their console-driven MMOG The Agency.)

In that kind of game, a "secondary market" might make sense; in fact, because RMT is really a requirement for those games, a third-party provider might actually help those games.

The problem would come if LG or similar entities were trying to sell gold/items/characters for the more self-contained gameworlds typically built (in the West, anyway) on the subscription model. In those games, breaking the "magic circle" by going outside the game world to make transactions about things inside the game world is badly disruptive. Any moves by SOE to approve LG or other resellers to do outside sales of in-game assets of these games would, IMO, be the real harbinger of doom for immersive fun.

Legitimizing RMT for microtransaction games is one thing. Legitimizing it for subscription games would be something else, but so far (again, other than the two existing Station Exchange EQ2 servers) that doesn't seem to be the case.

Those of us who care about immersiveness in our online persistent-world games should hope this line isn't crossed.

This far, and no further!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Similarities Between Half-Life 2 and John Christopher's "Tripod Trilogy"

[NOTE: Minor spoilers related to the story of Half-Life 2 follow.]

I can't help but notice certain similarities between the story of Half-Life 2 and the wonderful "Tripod Trilogy" written in the late 1960s by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd):

1. In the trilogy, humanity has been enslaved by conquering aliens, but there is a resistance movement. In Half-Life 2, humanity has been enslaved by conquering aliens, but there is a resistance movement.

2. In the trilogy, the landscape is dominated by menacing three-legged "tripods." In Half-Life 2, one of the most dangerous enemies is the three-legged "strider." (Of course both of these may simply be referencing the tripods from H.G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds.)

3. In the trilogy, the first book is called The White Mountains, which is the location of the main human resistance organization the heroes are trying to reach. In Episode 2, Alyx points out White Mountain to Gordon, the landmark for the human resistance base (the White Forest Rocket Facility) that they're trying to reach.

Coincidence? Or a nice homage?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Let Sony Publish Star Trek Online

I've expressed my own criticisms of Sony Online Entertainment's (SOE) game development choices over the years, in particular:

1. Releasing products before they are feature-complete and essentially bug-free.
2. Adding new features before fixing bugs.
3. "Fixing" minor balance problems with wholesale replacement of major systems.
That said, I don't think SOE is the mysterious replacement for Perpetual Entertainment as the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG. So, whoever does wind up developing this game, there's still the question of whether SOE is accepable as the publisher of Star Trek Online, specifically through SOE's Platform Publishing service.

I like the idea of a service like this. By cutting deals to give smaller developers access to Sony's significant online customer base, the developer gets their game published and seen by lots of gamers, SOE gets a piece of that action, and gamers see a game they might not otherwise have tried. That's a win for everybody concerned.

So I'm a fan of the Platform Publishing service. But what about the perception that SOE insists on control over a game's design in exchange for publishing it? (And that when they get that control, they honk up the game?)

Here's what Rusty from Flying Lab Software (devleoper of Pirates of the Burning Sea) said about meeting with SOE to consider a deal whereby SOE would publish PotBS. (I'm quoting several paragraphs so that it's clear I'm not taking anything out of context.)

... we weren't going to work with anybody unless we kept control of the game development and the community. That eliminated a lot of potential partners right off the bat. Let me tell you a few things that are different about working with SOE than with the other MMO publishers we talked with:

1) We keep complete ownership of Pirates of the Burning Sea.
2) We have no interference from SOE on the development/ideas of the game.
3) Because we financed Pirates ourselves, we keep most of the revenues so we stay strong and independent.
4) The contract they gave us actually says what we agreed to verbally.

Pretty basic stuff, I know, but we talked to maybe a dozen other development houses and MMO publishers, and many of them had one or more of the following in their relationships and contracts:

1) Publisher takes ownership of the intellectual property.
2) All sorts of verbal promises that never appeared in the contract.
3) Publisher approval over the game’s design.

All of this is why negotiating with SOE was such a breath of fresh air. I kept tensing at various points, expecting them to pull off the mask of humanity and say "Puny humans, our superior alien contract will take control of your game!" But thankfully for both us and all life on Earth, that never happened.
I'm not suggesting by posting this that I think a Star Trek MMORPG's new developer should definitely use SOE's Platform Publishing. Maybe the new guys'll think that a Star Trek MMORPG has a chance to score WoW-like numbers, and thus some other publishing deal with different terms might be more appropriate.

Regardless of which way that goes, I think the example of how SOE dealt with Flying Lab does tell us that signing with SOE as a publisher is not the kiss of death to a game's content. If a game blows, it won't be SOE's fault.

This time.

Starship Production Times in Star Trek +

Originally Posted by Hyper:
The Dominion War itself only lasted two years, so it's inconcievable that a ship as sophisticated as an Intrepid could be designed and produced quickly enough that it would actually be able to participate in that war (and some did).
Only Grand Nagus Zek is permitted to say "Inconceivable!" :)

It's unlikely, I'll grant you, but a combination of design genius and engineering/manufacturing experience -- spurred by the pressures of fighting to win a war -- can produce some pretty remarkable results.

Consider the Wikipedia entry for the P-80 Shooting Star, designed by the legendary "Kelly" Johnson of Lockheed as the U.S.'s first operational jet fighter:

The first prototype [of the P-80] flew on 8 January 1944 with Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier at the controls, just 143 days after design work commenced, which was a full 37 days ahead of schedule.
I don't mean to imply that an Intrepid is of the same level of complexity as a P-80 (although it might be fair to say they had similar levels of complexity for their time). But the example of the P-80's design-to-flight schedule does, I think, suggest that we shouldn't be too quick to discount what creative, experienced people are capable of accomplishing when properly motivated.