Sunday, August 18, 2013

How System Shock Can Save the Computer Game Industry

The recent flap over Arkane/Bethesda/Zenimax taking over Prey 2 and possibly turning it into a "spiritual successor" to the original System Shock computer game by Looking Glass got me thinking: why does this matter? What is it about System Shock that makes this news important?

System Shock, along with Ultima Underworld and Thief (by Looking Glass) and culminating in Deus Ex (by Ion Storm), represented what I believe was a critical branch in the evolutionary tree of computer games. This branch of games took full advantage of the RAM in the PCs of the day to create worlds -- they simulated places filled with things expressing relatively complex interacting behaviors.

What this meant was that it was possible to create game worlds in which the environment itself allowed multiple viable solutions to gameplay challenges. The world of the game enabled different kinds of players to solve challenges in ways that satisfied their preferred play styles.

For example, is there a robot blocking your way? A game designed with the Looking Glass interactive-environment philosophy would let you solve that problem in many ways. Off the top of my head, you might:

  • destroy the robot by shooting it
  • destroy the robot by throwing an EMP grenade
  • sneak up on the robot to use your Deactivate Electronic skill to turn it off
  • toss a useless object to make a noise that distracts it to a different location
  • use your Hack skill to switch local robots to an offline state
  • use your Hack skill to make local robots friendly to you
  • use your Hack skill to activate a nearby forcefield that traps the robot
  • use your Hack skill to overload a power conduit that blows up next to the robot
  • lure some other opponent into the robot's range and let them destroy each other
  • bypass the robot by activating your Stealth skill
  • bypass the robot by crawling through a conveniently human-sized airduct
  • bypass the robot by crawling through the sewers
  • talk to a nearby human to convince them to give you the robot's shutdown code

Whether you prefer action, or conversation, or stealth, or exploration, the thing that distinguishes a Looking Glass-style game from others is that many or all those play style preferences are supported. The focus was on you, the player, and how you like to have fun.

That way of thinking about how to design computer games changed drastically after the emergence of the PlayStation and Xbox. Games after 2000 -- perhaps because of the RAM limits on the new (not-PC) primary target platforms -- started to sharply limit what the player could do. The gameworld got a little prettier but much shallower. You were given one path to follow and not much problem-solving freedom beyond one or two ways to just destroy everything along that linear path.

Modern games have taken away much of your creative liberty in an attempt to guarantee that you always know exactly what you're supposed to do next, and that you never need to introspect about how to do it because there's only one way available. We got fewer games encouraging real interactivity with a dynamic world, and more games consisting of a developer-dictated (and frequently overblown) story punctuated by long theatrical cutscenes. The player-focused System Shock was eventually stripped down to the showy and literally "on rails" BioShock: Infinite, and probably was the Marketing-driven source for the painfully dumbed-down Dead Space.

In short, AAA computer games became moderately interactive big-budget movies.

If you happen to be the kind of gamer who defines a game as a set of rules to beat, who hates not knowing what you're "supposed to do" to win as quickly as possible, and who enjoys action over thinking or feeling, then this transition was just giving you more of what you like. And there was nothing wrong with that, as far as it went. The action-oriented playstyle is just as valid as any other, and it is good that there were lots of games made that cater to it...

...but it was never the only valid playstyle. The only thing wrong with the shift to action games was that the gamers who do enjoy conversation and stealth and exploration -- solving problems by thinking and feeling -- got fewer and fewer of the games that they could enjoy. There certainly wasn't much publisher support for making Looking Glass-type games that were designed to support and reward multiple play styles!

Beyond Bethesda's open-world Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, and the occasional throwback (STALKER), the evolutionary branch of games implemented as systems generating emergent behaviors seemed to die out. And that was a huge loss to the whole game industry (and gamers) for the important reason that these games used the full power of the computer.

An interactive movie is an extended cutscene in which you have a little low-level freedom to make some tactical gameplay choices that won't affect the plot of the movie that the developer has decided you're to experience. The consoles have had just enough power to run games like that.

A true computer game is one that harnesses the power of the general-purpose computer to simulate a world, and then let you solve playful challenges in that world in your own way.

We need developers who will make more games in the Looking Glass style because those are the products that will distinguish computer games from different/older forms of entertainment such as movies. If computer games are ever going to be their own unique art form, they cannot just copy movies and slap a coat of mildly interactive paint on them. They need to use the full simulationist power of a real computer to create new worlds and unleash the creativity of players to interact in deeply human ways with those worlds.

It is important that Arkane/Bethesda/Zenimax appear to be ready to make a true spiritual successor to a Looking Glass game like System Shock because making player-centric games is the healthiest course for the whole computer game industry. This is the kind of game that, as other developers follow, will keep the industry alive by giving it its own identity apart from movies. Computer games that are highly responsive environments are something only computers can do. They are what computer games should be.

I hope Arkane can get past their self-inflicted PR wounds. I hope the next game from Arkane Austin really is the first of many true spiritual successors to System Shock and the other Looking Glass-style games.

Games that use the power of the computer to simulate dynamic worlds and free players to enjoy their own kind of fun in those worlds will save the game industry. Interactive movies won't.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Player Choices and the Jack-in-the-Box Effect

The idea that player choices in computer games can have consequences generated by the game in reaction to those choices is not a new or outlandish concept. In a way, that's the core of the feedback loop behind all computer games.

A choice and its consequence are usually jammed as closely to each other as possible. In first-person shooters, things start to happen on-screen as soon as you pull the trigger. The action/result loop can be even shorter in fighting games.

What happens, though, when choices and consequences are separated in time? What's the effect when the player performs some action or actions, and there's a consequence that pops up unexpectedly (but plausibly) from what the player did in the past?

A jack-in-the-box is a trivial example. The "jack-in-the-box effect" of older tanks bursting explosively after their ammunition was hit has a similarly short-term action/result connection. But computer games can make the jack-in-the-box effect more surprising. When a game presents the consequence some time after the player's action, the experience is less "I made that happen just now" and more "Hey, this game remembered what I did!"

Doing more to let games appear to remember player actions over longer stretches of in-game time is something I'd like to see used more often.

This could go in a couple of ways (or both).


One way is to let individual player actions be pretty trivial and pass without any special results, but respond to some preset level of accumulated related actions. Getting an achievement for shooting 500 opponents is an example of this, as is being granted access to previously gated content after raising "faction" with some in-game NPC organization. In this mode players usually know exactly what they're doing and what they'll get. And that works for conventional follow-the-rules games.

But wouldn't it be interesting not to reveal all the possible player actions that the game can observe and count, or the reactions of the game to certain combinations of accumulated player actions?

This might not be a good fit for conventional "you play it to beat it" designs -- players who enjoy those games will probably find surprises frustrating, rather than pleasant, and developers of such games generally don't like player creativity. Unexpected results for additive actions might be a very good fit, though, for a game where much of the pleasure is in the exploration of the gameworld and its internal systems.


The other way of "remembering" player actions is simply to set a flag for specifically detectable individual actions, then test that flag sometime later and trigger a consequence if the flag is set. This approach is often seen in computer roleplaying games. In Bethesda's Fallout 3, for example, the game plays out in slightly different ways depending on whether you choose to detonate the warhead in Megaton. A somewhat more exotic example is the way that your choices for Commander Shepard in the first and second Mass Effect games, as preserved in your final savegame files, are reflected in minor options in the second and third installments if you let them start by reading the previous savegames.

This mode of modeling memory could also be enhanced. Games could take important choices early on and deliver very different gameplay later on based on those choices. This is rare, but a very good recent example is in The Witcher 2. Your choice for Geralt toward the end of Act One dictates which of the two mutually exclusive Act Twos you get to play. (Not everyone was a fan of the specifics of that, but I think the idea itself was worth trying.)

The important thing about consequences for one-off player choices is that developers almost always want to plant big flashing neon signs around it: "Look! Important Choice Here! This Will Have Consequences!" That's not always a bad thing. In a typically mechanics-driven game where it's considered wrong to ever let the player be confused about anything, signposting an important choice simply meets player expectations.

Not flagging such choices might be OK (at least sometimes) in a more exploratory game, though. Part of the fun of exploration is figuring things out. This is why puzzles are common in games where the developers want to encourage exploratory play.

So in a game of discovery, maybe discrete player actions that have later consequences (minor or major) don't always have to be signposted. (There does need to be an obvious connection between the choice and the consequence, though. If the game doesn't clearly explain that the consequence flows from a specific action by the player, then it just looks random. In that case there's no value in implementing this feature. Realizing the connection is what makes a delayed consequence particularly interesting.)


In both of these cases it's a good idea to be up-front with players that choices they make may sometimes have important effects later on in the game, and players won't always know when they're making such a choice. Developers should be honest about this so that prospective players who absolutely hate not being able to control all outcomes understand that this may not be a game they'll enjoy. If that's done properly, then letting some actions have unexpected (but plausible!) consequences later could be a lot of fun for players who do enjoy interesting surprises.

Overall, I'm very happy to see games like Proteus and SoundSelf being made, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they evolve.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Where Did "Content Locusts" Come From?

The term "content locusts" came up today in a Google+ post by Richard Bartle discussing the direction of "free-to-play" online games.

This term content locusts has come into use as a shorthand way to decribe the phenomenon that, when a new computer game (especially a multiplayer online game) is released, there is a sizable subset of players who will begin playing that new game as soon as it's available, try to experience its primary content as rapidly as possible, and then move to a new game. The notion is that these players are like locusts -- they swarm a new game, buzzsaw through its content, and then fly away (often complaining that the game was "too short" or "too easy").

I remember having mentioned a few years back that the Achiever Bartle Type was most closely related to this behavior, mostly because the behavior seems keyed directly to the Achiever motivation that "game" means a challenge to be beaten.

That got me thinking: what was the earliest use of this term?

There are several forms of the basic idea. The earliest mention I could find of "locusts" in the context of computer games was a comment by "Wolfshead" (saved by Google on May 29, 2004) describing player guilds in EQ: "The EQ Devs were caught off guard by the tenacity of the uberguild phenomena. These guilds consumed content like locusts and in many cases actually tested major encounters."

The next mention showing up is by Mike Sellers at Terra Nova on June 13, 2005: "As far as I know instancing has been introduced to reduce the immersion-shattering practice of camping, lining up for spawn points, and seeing popular dungeons or hunting grounds having been essentially clear-cut by roving locust-like bands of players."

The first reference I can find that specifically links content, locusts, and Achievers was my "Will The Real Explorers Please Stand Up?" blog entry (inspired by the Terra Nova discussion of the same name from January through July of 2005): "Achievers tend to become bored quickly -- like locusts, they swarm to a new game, burn through anything resembling "content," then zoom off again to consume the Next Big Game."

According to Google, the first use of the specific term "content locusts" is in the "Time flies when you're having fun" post by Isabelle Parsley (AKA Ysharros) at the Stylish Corpse blog on November 24, 2009: "It takes work to provide a smorgasbord of content that the content locusts can NOM NOM NOM their blind hungry way through, but that the … let’s call them content slugs can enjoy much more slowly and completely."

Finally, the use of the term "content locusts" that ignited its widespread usage appears to have been the "Content Locusts Killed My MMO" article by the very same Isabelle Parsley at on January 27, 2012: "I like to blame the content locusts for this, at least to a large extent – that small percentage of players whose goal isn’t to experience content but to consume it as fast as possible as they race inexorably through a game."

Following that article, 2012 was littered with uses of the phrase "content locusts." And the design of SWTOR seems to have been directly related to how quickly the term entered general usage -- it's what most people who used the term were talking about.

Assuming anyone else is intrigued by this kind of linguistic archeology, can anyone else find earlier expressions of this idea?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Breadth and Depth in World Design

Let's say you've taken leave of your senses and have decided to create a computer game. More particularly, let's say this game you've decided to make will have as its setting a particular place in which things exist.

Congratulations! You've just decided to build a world.


Building a world means imagining and implementing stuff. The "stuff" of a new world consists of places, and of objects set within those places.

Having decided to create a computer game that exists as a world, you now get to decide what kind of world will best suit the sort of game you want to make.

If you want your newly-created world to emphasize action, you'll want most of the objects in your world to express rule-based behaviors like movement and damage status. You'll also want to provide ways for players to manipulate those behaviors, since having "verbs" that allow players to (usually destructively) manipulate objects is what allows them to feel active.

If you want your world to emphasize meaning, then you'll need to make some of your stuff look and (to some extent) act like people, or at least be artifacts created by people and imbued with emotional value. The appearance and characteristics of all places and objects should help to express their inner meanings.

If you want your world to emphasize interaction and problem-solving, then some of the stuff in the world will need to appear to have complex dynamic behaviors. These behaviors can emerge from simple internal behavioral rules, but they need to interact enough to create systems that have patterns but that can't be summed up in a wiki entry by the first person to encounter it.

These goals aren't mutually exclusive. You can have a game that emphasizes action and interaction (Minecraft), or meaning and interaction (Myst), or action and meaning (The Sims). It's even possible to build a world that provides all three of these modes of play. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is arguably a decent current example of this.

The pertinent thing about such multi-modal worlds is that they tend to be BIG. Big worlds are large places, and they are full of stuff... or as game developers like to call it, "content." How you choose to structure the content that defines the world of your game is the point of this article.


Most game developers choose to organize a big world either by breadth or by depth.

Breadth is about making a world whose navigable terrain is large relative to the player's character and that contains many objects. Open-world games such as Skyrim and Minecraft tend to feel like enormous places overflowing with objects.

A gameworld built for breadth will offer wide expanses of terrain and numerous "inside" locations with their own terrain. And all that terrain and all those interiors will have objects located on and in them (grass, rocks, plants, animals, furniture, tools, weapons, people, etc.). As a side effect of having to build large amounts of stuff, that stuff will mostly exist either as a static texture map (you can see it but you can't do anything with it), or as a usable item with a single, simple, predetermined effect.

Depth is about making a world whose places and objects have many details. Deep games don't have as many places or objects as in a broad game. But the places that are built are carefully constructed to feel lived-in like a family home in a Spielberg movie. And the pieces of stuff in these places will be tagged with highly relevant information, usually called "lore." The objects in a deep game will also typically be richly dynamic -- they'll have several "verbs," or different but plausible ways for players to interact with them as gameplay activities.

What most developers don't try to do is make a game that has both breadth and depth. They don't try to make a big world that's both very large (in spatial size and object count) and very detailed.

There's nothing that forces this as a design choice. But historically there have been two serious practical constraints: time and money.

Trying to make a big world that contains a lot of content is hard. Trying to make a big world that contains very detailed content is hard. Trying to do both (the thinking goes) doubles or trebles the required development time and money. So most developers of big worlds pick one structural approach and try to do it well.


Making either of these choices means a tradeoff.

Games that do breadth well -- they have physically large worlds filled with stuff -- are often critized as "shallow." Games that do depth well -- their places and objects are intricate and filled with meaning -- are criticized as inducing claustrophobia by not enabling the feeling of rapid and frequent motion.

Bethesda's post-Morrowind console-focused games (Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim) are known for their breadth. The traversable area of these worlds is enormous compared to the linear environments of most games. But this size means they're often condemned as being shallow. The action and meaning and interaction are almost entirely surface-only -- what you can see is pretty much all there is.

In a couple of ways, that's an unfair criticism. Developers of games that use Bethesda's engine do try to include some depth in their games, in addition to the massive amount of broad content that needs to be created to fill the outdoor spaces and interiors. Objects in rooms, for example, are frequently selected and arranged to tell a kind of micro-story about the person whose place that was. Terminals and books abound, giving some emotional depth to the world through tiny stories.

Also, while it's true that these are exceptions to simply having lots of stuff, the need to fit a very broad gameworld into the constraints of a console imposes limits on depth. It's simply not possible, even if there were time and money enough to do so, to tag every object with information and to allow every object to be usable in multiple ways. Consoles enforce simplicity, which favors zone-loading breadth over information-dense depth. (Obsidian's Project Eternity and Chris Roberts's Star Citizen are two Kickstarted games that are meant to be both big and developed specifically for the PC. It will be interesting to see whether the removal of the console limits allows these games to be both broad and deep.)

Those defenses noted, the reality is that there just aren't many games that do depth well, even as the design emphasis.


Adventure games used to try for depth. Things in adventure games had stories, and behaviors, that you could discover if you took the time to click on them. Exploring this depth was often a necessity, in fact. The depth was built into the core game design; you could not win the game (without cheats) except by reading and interacting with the details of the world.

But this structural choice -- gameplay through investigating a small but information-rich space -- means less sensation of movement. There is vastly less of a kinesthetic sensation of energetic action in a deep game. Most of the "motion" is in one's mind. Designing that kind of game takes a very different kind of effort than designing a broad but shallow world.

Sometimes this led to simply clicking on pretty pictures, as in Myst. Later adventure games were dismissed as "hunt the pixel games" when they tried to make interaction with objects more of a gameplay activity requiring a physical challenge, rather than following a path toward greater exploratory or narrative depth.

In addition to feeling constrictive for gamers whose main playstyle interest is motion and activity, the work curve in deep games feels more like a sequence of high stairsteps. Every new place that is created in a deep game needs to be constructed with numerous very detailed and active objects. These objects must work on their own, they must contribute to the intended purpose of that particular space, and they have to support the theme of the overall world of the game. That's not a mechanical function that someone can be trained to do -- you need someone who can feel, and who is creative, and who can combine those talents to make moments that other people can feel. So adding even a single new space becomes a major undertaking in a deep game.

Compared to the generally smooth slope of the work to be done for a game with breadth, with many similar objects scattered over a large area, development of deep content is simply harder to produce.


The practical result of these structural effects is that big worlds tend to be broad (but shallow) because breadth is easier.

A small but deep world, by its nature, requires hand-crafting. When there are only a few places and only a few things in those places, every place and every thing will be seen and assessed on its merits. For the game to feel right, designers and storytellers need to carefully stage all the visible pieces.

A broad world can be filled with content using programmatic tools, then given a relatively simpler hand-crafting pass or two. Large swaths of terrain can be sculpted using terrain generation tools; vegetation can be "planted" automatically according to exposed terrain type; buildings and dungeons can be selected from a few pre-built models; and so on. There's still a lot to do, but the broad strokes on the canvas can be filled in by code that applies generative rules.

Another important reason why breadth is easier is that depth is about meaning. Programatically "planting" a tree object in a particular location in an open-world game might have some meaning if someone takes the time to go into that space and tweak the location and type of the tree to give it meaning in that place.

But it's just a tree -- just a nice-looking texture. And there are many thousands of such nice-looking objects to be placed in addition to all the other objects that need to be placed... and trying to give all such things emotional value takes time that just doesn't exist. (And let's be honest, the number of people who enjoy and are good at choosing and placing gameworld objects in ways that express meaning to gamers is probably extremely small.)

It's simply faster and easier to make a big space with lots of things in it that don't have any particular emotional content.


Not everyone has given up on depth as a viable structural option in games, however.

Richard Cobbett recently made a plea for more depth in a Eurogamer article, Saturday Soapbox: Hollow Worlds - Looking for "Look At". In this piece, he laments what today's games miss by not including the "Look At" feature. This ability to learn more about the details of places and objects was once common in text-based and point-and-click adventure games. But games increasingly emphasized action and excitement and motion. As they did, the very idea of stopping the action to learn more about the nature of the things in the gameworld became harder even to imagine.

Assuming it's implemented in any serious way, designing a look-at capability into a game creates the opportunity for more depth than is found in most of today's games. Games with exploratory and narrative depth are worth making. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes up Cobbett's challenge.

Another example of wishing for games that emphasize depth is the "One City Block" concept, as evangelized occasionally by Warren Spector. This is a game that is deliberately designed to limit the existing space of motion in the gameworld to just a single block of a city. In place of constant action and new sights, the variety and interest in a One City Block game would be found in the people and objects existing in this small patch of reality and the deep connections among them.

A potential example of this kind of design may be found in Gone Home, currently being developed by the small team that created the "Minerva's Den" DLC for BioShock 2. As in the best of the mature adventure games, Gone Home promises to reward players not for using physical dexterity to "beat" the game as quickly as possible (which is a perfectly valid playstyle satisfied by many current games), but for engaging with the deep world of the game at an emotional and intellectual level. This doesn't guarantee it will be a good game -- but it will be a different game than most of what's released today, and a deeper game, and that makes it worth watching.


Finally, is it possible to have both breadth and depth in a single game? Are there any work-organizing processes and technical capabilities by which a gameworld could be created within some reasonable time frame (say a year or two) that is both large and detailed?

One step in a positive direction is procedural content generation (PCG). To have both breadth and depth, developers need help with one of those two forms of content so that they have time to focus on the other. Since it's so much harder to define rules for meaning-filled (depth) content compared to expansive (breadth) content, having lots of both would seem to depend on creating tools that generate lots of good content.

Really large (broad) games already do this. Huge chunks of land can be generated randomly to an arbitrary level of complexity. This can be done by the developers, then hand-tweaked, in order to create a world (such as Skyrim) that is common to all players. Or it can be done dynamically, as in Minecraft -- this approach restricts placement of large, detailed structures, but it requires less data storage if world details are generated only when the player actually approaches that part of the world.

Random generation of fixed content can help greatly with providing a large amount of physical terrain. Once the first and second passes through the terrain generator are done, developers can then edit this base structure to individually adjust the look of key locations. They can then add objects (many, many objects) for yet more breadth of content. Finally, they can tag objects with meaningful deep content.

This is basically how Bethesda creates its Elder Scrolls and Fallout open-world games. Bethesda come as close as anyone to the ideal of a game that is both broad and deep... but in an ironic twist, it is the very breadth of these games that points out the shallowness of the characters and objects relative to how many of them there are. If these games were considerably smaller, the many small details of object placement and NPC behaviors would be better recognized and appreciated.

The downside to this method for trying to have both breadth and depth is that it's still almost as expensive as making a big, deep game purely by hand. Although random terrain generation helps, it's not really enough to reduce the number of people needed to hand-tweak the thousands of places and objects and actors.

Games that dynamically generate content have it even worse. While this approach makes it possible to enjoy spaces that are very large and that have lots of naturalistic "stuff" in them (rocks, trees, etc.), not generating content until the player is ready to experience it makes it impossible for the developer to hand-edit that content to add depth.


Handling both of these cases seems to drive at one question: is it possible to programmatically create depth?

Programmatically creating breadth is valuable. The more breadth that can be added using automatic systems, the more time is available for adding depth.

But the degree of difficulty is lower for breadth-creation rules. That's not to say it's easy; it's just easier to define rules that determine where and how to plop down places and objects (including people-shaped objects) than it is to imagine and apply the contextually-plausible information that gives those places and things and people emotional value.

As a general rule, anything to do with simulating people and people-related artifacts is hard. Automatically generating a forest is (relatively) easy; it's terrain and plants. There are even third-party tools like SpeedTree that help with this. If you're feeling energetic, you might add animals as well, whose impact on their environment is generally negligible. You can tweak those content elements for aesthetic or simulationist value, but it's still reasonably simple to generate lots of them according to predetermined and encoded rules.

Add people, though, and now you have the task of creatively imagining and representing the effects of human intentions and actions -- for example: roads (what kind? how should they run?), buildings (architectural style? size? purpose? proximity to other buildings? clean or filthy?), tools (what kinds of tools would different cultures use? where should they be placed outside or in a home? does the owner take care of them? does the owner have special feelings toward any of these objects?), and of course people themselves (who are they? what do they want? how do they feel about other characters? what actions are they capable of taking? what actions do they take given specific environmental phenomena?).

In a very broad game, adding people-related depth is an epic undertaking. When you have a cast of thousands, what are the rules that will let all those people behave like unique but still plausible individuals? An army of developers could hand-tweak each NPC, but that's expensive... and what if you want your game to add new characters over the course of play?

Some developers are working with the physical aspect of supplying meaningful depth to human-related content. Miguel Cepero, for example, is already doing some very interesting work with procedural generation of architecture. I expect commenters can provide plenty of examples of other efforts along these lines.

And the good folks at Storybricks are still working on ways to allow interactive emotional connections and behaviors to be dynamically generated among NPCs. This remains very much a work in progress, but it's one of the steps in the direction of games that can be both broad and deep.

For now, though, the problem remains: how do you encode the creativity and aesthetics of game developers as generative rules so that the people and things in a game can dynamically produce their own depth?


I may come back to this in a future blog post. For now... suggestions and ruminations are welcome.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

All My Cyborg Friends

In appreciation of the wonderful System Shock 2 finally being released once again, this time by the good people at, I thought I would also re-release a bit of fan commentary I wrote at the time. This piece celebrated the setting of the original System Shock while looking forward to the new game.

This is from May 9, 1999.

(sung more or less to the beat of of Hank Williams, Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends")


Well, I woke up this morning with a pain in my head
All the crew on Citadel Station are dead
The messages they left make it plain to see
That whatever got them is gonna come after me

I'm heading down the hallways, picking up clues
Trying to survive while I assimilate the news
That on Citadel Station all the exits are blocked
And it looks like I'm gonna get my system shocked, uh-oh

We got humanoid mutants in the Medical bay
And the cyborgs in Research are headed my way
There's a crazy computer yelling for all she's worth
She keeps calling me "insect" and threatening Earth

But cyberspace is full of security codes
And the Reactor's linked to Shodan's processing nodes
If I find that the door to the armory's locked
I'll either open it up or get my system shocked, uh-huh

  -- bridge --

Maintenance, Storage, and the Flight Deck too
Are crawling with drones looking for you-know-who
They're in Exec, Engineering and Security
And what's in the Groves needs some DDT

Security robots are all over the place
And Edward Diego keeps getting in my face
So my Mark Three is loaded with the hammer cocked
If it gets in my way, it gets its system shocked, that's right

  (up a semitone)

Now it's forty years later and I'm back on the scene
As a psionic, hardware hacking, space marine
It's irrational to peer through the looking-glass
Instead of taking names and kicking cyborg ass

It's time to get moving, to get on with the show
And those security cameras are the first things to go
I'm on the Rickenbacker and I'm ready to rock
I had to come back again... to get my system shocked

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Central Problem of Computer Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games on a tabletop, where you and friends play characters having adventures in a gameworld, are a lot of creative fun. You can invent stories as you go.

Computer games, which can actually show you what created worlds look and sound like, are also fun to experience.

But roleplaying games on a computer? There's a problem. And it's a big one. And not many game developers seem much interested in trying to fix that problem, with serious consequences for gamers who want to play interactive stories where their choices matter.

So what's this problem I somehow think I can see that others can't?


Consider the following experience of playing a table-top roleplaying game (RPG).

You and your friend are roleplaying as a warrior and a thief, respectively. The character you're playing is a barbarian warrior who has been able to learn some magic spells. Your friend is playing as a thief who's remarkably good with a short bow.

Your two characters enter a dungeon that your other friend, the Game Master (GM), has prepared for you. Before you got together, the Game Master spent time mapping out all the rooms and secrets and filling them appropriately with enemies and puzzles and traps and wonderful loot. And the whole dungeon is just one segment of an intricately designed campaign that will involve you and your friends in a deep and engaging story.

As the barbarian and thief characters of you and your friend enter the first room of the dungeon, your Game Master has noticed that you (the barbarian character) are walking a few steps ahead of your nimble thief friend. He rolls a die, and tells you that you've inadvertently stepped on a trap -- and the room is now filling with smoke.

Being a relatively clever warrior, you announce to the GM that you are lying on the floor to see if the air is clear there. The GM wasn't really expecting that, but he rolls a die and tells you that, yes, you can see the mail-shod feet of what appear to be five enemies striding toward you.

This removes the element of surprise from the bad guys, and you and your friend are able to prepare for battle.

Out of the smoke, enemies attack the two of you. Despite your preparations, the dice are against you tonight and you both take a lot of damage very quickly. Your barbarian character, and the thief character of your friend, are probably about to die. It won't be the end of the world; you'll just roll up new characters. But it would be less fun than keeping your current characters.

You look at your friend, he looks at you... and both your characters turn as one, bolt from the smoky room, run out of the dungeon, and flee at maximum speed to the village down the road.


The GM looks a little puzzled that you've completely ducked the adventure he had designed for you. But he shrugs and lets you keep running. You fall over yourselves getting into the tavern, where the GM tells you that the locals and traveling patrons stare at you for a moment, then shake their heads and mutter "some heroes" into their mugs.

After a bit of quick dice-rolling, your Game Master friend tells you that you stick around the village for a day or so, with nothing much happening. The next night, though, while you're back in the tavern trying to drink away the memory of your brush with non-existence, a well-dressed stranger introduces himself politely, mentions that he couldn't help but notice that you both must have come from the nearby ruins -- "We get a lot of that here," he chuckles -- and suggests that he might have some easier work for you... if you're interested. Nothing dangerous, just a bit of guard duty for some merchants.

You and your friend accept. It turns out to be a set-up; you were hired because word of your flight from the dungeon got around and the stranger needed a couple of patsies who would run from a fight. Then he'd steal the merchants' goods for himself and blame it on you. Your characters are no longer welcome here, and you'll need to choose whether to fight to restore your good names or seek adventure elsewhere.

What's important to notice here is that the Game Master was able to adapt quickly and effectively to your surprising choice to bail on the dungeon adventure that he had set up for you. Your choices mattered, and had consequences, but because of the GM's creativity your actions in that individual story could still be worked into the overall narrative.

In a later adventure, you would learn that the GM used your unexpected actions (and the consequences) to deepen the emotional theme of the overarching story. That would never have happened without your choice of actions, even if they weren't what had been plotted out to start with.


Now consider an example of what it's like to play a Computer RolePlaying Game (CRPG), and in particular one of the variants of CRPGs known as a Massively Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game (MMORPG) that are played with lots of other people over the Internet.

You and your friend are roleplaying as a warrior and a thief, respectively. You're a level 38 Warrior, so you have the exact same warrior-specific skills defined by the developers for every person in the game who is playing a level 38 Warrior. Your friend is a level 33 Thief, with the same abilities as everyone else playing a level 33 Thief.

Your characters enter a dungeon that the developers have coded for the many thousands of people playing the game. You can't all play at the same time, of course; this dungeon like all the others is "instanced" so that you and your friend are the only players there. The dungeon is laid out as rooms filled with enemies and loot, and it's in a part of the map that's pre-defined as having a degree of challenge appropriate for mid-40-level characters.

You walk into the first room of the dungeon. You enter the range (hard-coded at 10 meters) at which one of the enemies standing there is programmed to detect a player character. All of the enemies in the room immediately attack you. You die. Then they attack your friend, and he dies.

You both respawn outside the entrance to the dungeon. You go back in. The dungeon is exactly the same, with the same enemies in the same room. You both die again.

You both respawn outside the entrance to the dungeon. You go back in, and get a little further in, then both die again. You repeat this several times, getting better at it with each run-through, until you finally reach the end of the dungeon and collect the nice loot.


Several days later, after you've both improved your characters a few times so that they're level 40-ish, you go back to this dungeon.

Everything is still the same. The same enemies are standing in roughly the same locations; the same kind of loot drops when you kill them (though more quickly this time).

You go through this dungeon a few more times, grinding without much risk through the now-easy enemies to collect loot and and earn experience points for leveling up your characters again.

The next night you go into a different prebuilt dungeon with somewhat more powerful enemies and slightly better loot. You grind through this dungeon, too. If there's a "story" to the elements of either dungeon, they aren't connected to each other in any way. Nor are the stories of either dungeon related thematically to the challenges that deliver the main story line, which you can only do in order. Also, you can't advance your character abilities past certain levels until until you've successfully completed these developer-designed core challenges.

Other people you know played the same dungeons and challenges, and had the same kind of stories to tell about them. You like that this common experience gives you something to share with all those other players. But you also find yourself wishing you had some stories to tell that were uniquely your own.

You've made thousands of choices. But they all resulted in your character experiencing the same story as everyone else who played your kind of character. Despite playing an interactive game, where the computer is programmed to detect your actions and change the world of the game according to encoded rules, your choices ultimately didn't seem to matter. And you wonder why.

If you're playing a unique character in an interesting world -- which is the promise a roleplaying game makes -- shouldn't what your character does have more effect on your personal story as it helps define the story of that world?


The obvious difference between these two scenarios is that there is no human Game Master in roleplaying games that are presented completely by a computer.

I believe this is the central problem in all computer-based roleplaying games developed so far. Every feature in a computer RPG is an attempt to program a computer to do some of what a human Gamemaster (GM) can do. And they're all unsatisfying compared to tabletop RPGs because there is no computer program yet written that can do what a human being can do.

There is no computer-based roleplaying game that can perceive what each individual player chooses to do and why they make that choice, that can understand the kind of game that each player wants to play, and that can respond to those unique desires by using their choices to help tell a good story for each player.

The computer game has not been written that can adapt any or all of its existing content elements -- or create new features on the fly -- to satisfy the play interests of one or more human gamers while dynamically weaving their choices and consequences into a larger story unique to that gameworld.

People still enjoy roleplaying games, though. And it would be great to be able to play these games even when a human Game Master's not around. Computers are the obvious solution to this wish. Let them handle the generation and presentation of gameplay features and events, and especially let computers do the tedious calculation chores for table-driven outcomes.

So computers have been programmed to do those things. They can generate pseudorandom numbers, and render pictures of places and objects. They can process inputs according to simple rules and select outcomes from lists or calculations. They can even cause objects within the gameworld to perform specific behaviors in response to a small set of player-activated trigger events.

As a result, there have been computer roleplaying games for years now. Some of them are a lot of fun. But none of them would claim to be as perceptive and understanding and creatively effective as a human Game Master, or as deeply satisfying as a game whose character-focused content is tailored on the fly to what a player enjoys by a responsive human GM.

Computers remain bad at portraying interesting characters who demonstrate human-like behaviors and communications. Despite the welcome recent interest in procedural generation, computers are still not good at dynamically generating new content that responds plausibly to a wide range of human player inputs. And they are almost completely hopeless at figuring out how to weave individual events into a logically and emotionally engaging high-level story.

The result is that for all the effort spent thus far, something wonderful has been lost in the conversion of roleplaying games from the tabletop to the computer. From the expressive richness of worlds that adapt to all your unique actions, we get play experiences that are simplified to one-size-fits-all movies with limited interactivity so that a computer program can deliver a story that has been predetermined by the developer.


There is reason for hope that this can improve. Some efforts have been made to allow more player choice, and to support consequences for those choices.

Unfortunately, there's some evidence that if you choose to make this kind of roleplaying game, you have to be prepared to give up the need to tightly control the full story. If the choices of the players don't really determine how the story ends, players will recognize that the limited interactive freedom you gave them is just an illusion.

I think this is precisely what we saw in the respose of many gamers to the end of the last game in the Mass Effect trilogy.

Players who were unhappy that the ending(s) of the final game didn't reflect the roleplaying choices of their character were both right and wrong. They were right that the player agency EA/BioWare implicitly promised -- by letting them develop the character of their Shepard through their gameplay choices -- wasn't delivered in the epic ending of the story. They were right to want and expect their choices to be respected, because EA/BioWare designed Mass Effect to solicit choices almost continuously throughout all three games.

But players were wrong to think that Mass Effect, which was designed from Day One as a world and a story created entirely by EA/BioWare, would ever permit an epic story to have a less-than-epic ending. What happens to the galaxy, and to Shepard, were built into the Mass Effect story from the very start because it was conceived as a developer-directed story.

The presence of choice-permitting gameplay mechanics (some of which were severely curbed in Mass Effect 2's RPG system, which should have been a heads-up) was never going to shift any of the core storytelling to the player. Mass Effect was EA/BioWare's story, and the conclusion to it had to be -- was always going to be -- dictated by the game's developer, not the player.

The relative absence of some form of adaptive/creative human storyteller in Mass Effect, either a real person or a computer simulacrum, meant that players were going to get a single predetermined core story designed for a mass audience. Perversely, it was EA/BioWare's attempt to allow a small amount of human storytelling adaptability in these games that caused the ruckus: having only the appearance of meaningful choice turned out to be insufficient.

The convention in computer-based roleplaying games has been that these games must tell an epic core story. This renders these games into books or movies that happen to offer some moment-to-moment interactivity. Mass Effect seemed to promise more; it broke with the games-as-interactive-novels convention by implying that the player's choices of how Shepard behaved in emotionally-weighted moments would change the story.

And ultimately the story of the world was affected. Multiple endings were keyed to Shepard's overall nature. But for most players, the story of their Shepard failed no matter what choices they had made within the Mass Effect CRPGs... and that was the story that mattered.

Players who care about story in a roleplaying game want their choices to matter for the character into which they've invested so many roleplaying hours. Without that personal responsiveness, computer-based roleplaying games will remain interactive novels. And even if they can't explain why, players will continue to feel puzzled and disappointed that that some vital and unique benefit of roleplaying games is missing from the computerized version, and that some part of the promise of interactivity is being wasted.

I think they are exactly right to feel that way. The central problem of computer roleplaying games so far is that they don't have the ability to respond creatively to the vast range of possibilities of what characters ought to be able to do in a gameworld.


So let's say you're willing to accept my theory that this lack of a responsive, interactive storyteller is the real source of the unsatisfyingness of today's computer-based roleplaying games. If that's the problem, what's the answer?

I don't know exactly. (If I did, I'd be doing that.) But I do feel pretty confident that there are a couple of design approaches that could improve CRPGs. They might be separate, and surely will be at first, or they might work together, but there are two paths I can see that lead toward better CRPGs:

1. Catalog and evaluate what human GMs do, encode many more of those abilities as rules that computers can process, and design CRPGs that can apply those rules.

2. Accept that sentient human beings can be really good at providing creative and adaptive storyplay opportunities, and design CRPGs that give some players powerful tools to act as GMs for other players.

Let's consider that second possibility first: how can a CRPG be designed so that real people can act as GMs for other players?


Obviously this isn't really optimal for a single-player CRPG.

Players may create and share content as objects, as Spore demonstrated. (And why hasn't any game developer followed up on the massive success of this aspect of Spore, which saw millions of creatures created before the game itself was even released?) But a single-player game has no one outside the player actively guiding the dynamic generation of immediate action or strategic story progression.

Integrating a person as a kind of GM is a more natural possibility for games that are designed from the ground up to be multiplayer games. Instead of spending so much time and effort trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate various human abilities to create and organize events, why not design the game to support human GMs doing what they do so well?

A hint that this is possible can already be seen in the Artemis Starship Bridge Simulator.

This is a game that allows several players, using personal computers linked in a local network, to play as the different roles (such as Chief Engineer, Weapons Officer, Communications Officer) aboard a Star Trek-like starship. The player in the Captain's role doesn't drive a computer, but instead gives direction to the other players, suggesting where to go and how to respond to the various pre-written encounters.

Currently there's little opportunity for the Captain in an Artemis simulation to generate playable content on the fly as a Game Master does in a tabletop game. Perhaps future versions will include some story management features that the Captain can select as an encounter progresses. Even now, though, this is still a useful step toward allowing an imaginative individual to dynamically guide gameplay for other players.


There's no reason why something like this couldn't also be done in an online roleplaying game like a MMORPG. Several online games already offer players the ability to script missions for other players as pre-constructed stories. Why not extend this with features that allow the mission creator to select and insert choices and consequences while a mission is being performed?

In a game like that, something closer to the example given at the top of this article might be possible. The story creator, faced with an unexpected choice by the players of his story, could pop up a screen allowing pregenerated NPCs to be selected. A slightly randomized Generic Person could be dropped into the bar, and the storyteller could either write text or actually speak to the players in character over voice chat.

While doing this, the storyteller could bring up a drop-down list of planned alternative adventures, and activate one that seemed like something the players would find more fun. He could then guide the players to this new play opportunity. To the players, all this would appear narratively seamless -- they would not know (nor would they need to know unless they wanted to) that this flow of events wasn't exactly what the storyteller had in mind for them from the start... just as a good GM in a tabletop RPG can do.

By designing a MMORPG to have real-time features for paging story elements (including NPCs, objects, and text/voice information) into and out of the local gameworld, players would enjoy an entertainment experience that is much more personalized to their interests.

Naturally there are practical questions to such a design. There would have to be enough people willing to be "virtual GMs" for all the players who just want to be entertained. The numeric progression mechanics would have to be controlled so that standings couldn't be manipulated by storytellers building "Monty Haul" missions for their friends or customers. The experience with current MMORPGs that allow static mission building suggests that these concerns can be overcome... but someone will have to try extending this to dynamic storytelling for us to find out if that scales.


But maybe it's not completely necessary to require a live human Game Master dreaming up content on the fly for a computer-based RPG to enjoy better stories. What about that first option -- what if computer code could be written that does a much better job of allowing stories to modify themselves to adapt in an enjoyable way to the unpredictable choices of one or many players?

The Storybricks team has talked about this possibility in a developer diary at [Note: I'm part of the Storybricks team and helped edit the source of this article.] To summarize it: why not design NPCs to have emotional states, and allow them access to actions that can detect and alter the emotional states of other characters?

The notion here is that "story" is about what people do for emotional reasons. By building emotion-altering mechanics that the characters of a game can use, the game itself can invent new stories for players to experience. As NPCs interact with player characters and with each other, player actions begin to have ripple effects -- friendships and antagonisms, alliances and emnities, come into existence and then change because of what players choose to do.

This effect is different than a game with a GM. It's not under one person's direct control. No one knows where the story will go. That's both scary and liberating!

This approach is also limited strategically for now. Although the current technology (like that of Storybricks) is getting better at the low-level story beats, weaving those individual moments into a thematically coherent saga still requires a human storyteller. Dynamically changing a story to achieve a unified artistic vision from the sum of many individual parts still requires the human touch... but there's no reason to think we can't start to come closer to that capability in computer RPGs as well.


Computer-based roleplaying games have reached a capability plateau. The graphics are excellent. The worlds are detailed. The core mechanics have been refined and polished. Now it's time to allow all that in-game activity to mean something, to let player choices really matter by making the story more of a collaboration between the developer and each player and the gameworld itself.

Giving creative players tools to adapt stories on the fly for other players is one way to get there. Building emotional intelligence into NPCs and letting them generate satisfying story opportunities is another way. There may be (probably are) other ways. What's important is to start.

It won't always go smoothly. The first steps are likely to be hard, as Mass Effect demonstrated. But it's the right direction to go. Computer-based roleplaying games need more emotional plausibility.

Computer RPGs are good enough now at letting characters fight each other. For this genre to survive and thrive, though, it needs to mature by letting gamers, acting through their characters, express more of the kinds of things we can do that make us human.

When game designers finally acknowledge and start to directly solve the central problem of computer-based roleplaying games -- the absence of some form of creative, adaptive mind interactively creating stories with individual players -- these games will begin to express their real potential as a distinctive and worthwhile entertainment experience.