Sunday, December 21, 2008

Just a Theory

I'm no insider, but if I had to envision Microsoft's checklist by which they evaluated Vista's success I imagine it would look something like this:

1.) Implement unnecessary pseudo 3d alternative to alt+tab to satiate stockholder anticipation and give marketing something to play with
2.) Prevent Explorer from being able to handle more than 10 or so windows no matter how much RAM/virtual memory the user has available
3.) Do everything in our power to deprecate the creation and editing of Doom levels

If I am right, then bravo Microsoft; you are the very apex of accomplishment.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Games Aren't Elevator Pitches

So I had a dream last night, about a video game. Specifically, I was going through a crazy sequence of events and realized (felt), during the dream and immediately upon waking up, that these events and the setting around them would make for a cool game. The last time I had a game-dream so visceral and structured was about a Doom level that I ended up making into a Doom level the next day with satisfying similarity.

The “Plot”

In the beginning of the dream/game, I am a young journalist who is called, via connections through my father, to fill in for a local news anchor that recently took his own life (or simply vanished, I can't remember). In this context, “local” refers to a submerged city located directly off the coast. Yeah yeah, like Bioshock. I never said my dream was original, just that it was “cool”.

During the prologue, I am walking around throughout the city and finding my way to my new living quarters. While doing so, I end up taking a written test for my new anchor job. One of the questions asks how I would lie to make an example news story more interesting, and I try to figure out how to write that I wouldn't though such an option seems left out of the multiple choice answer suite. I meet some girl in the living quarters, I think she is a typical “childhood friend” character that I haven't seen in a while because there is some unspecified, positive familiarity that I feel toward her. In other words, she is there to give emotional validity when shit eventually goes down.

And down does the shit go. The dream skips ahead in time, during which I am somehow aware that there is more to the original anchor's death/disappearance than the news station lets on (when is there not?). Before I know it, the girl and I are running through the city, which is filled with Rapturesque glass tubes connecting buildings at the bottom of the sea as well as mammoth caverns carved by man into the coast. Predictably, there are monsters, and we are shooting at them, myself in the first person. I don't really know where these monsters came from, but that's okay because neither does my character.

We come to a particularly large cavern, about the breadth of a city block and high enough to store a handful of two story buildings. We are walking down a road when suddenly a huge mechanical scorpion climbs out of its resting place. Think the first boss in FF7, but ten times as big. We run around a building while the scorpion mech shoots at us with a rapid-fire gun. We manage to find the entrance to the building, which consists of two large metal doors that slide left and right. We run inside and close the doors, finding ourselves in a single room warehouse with a catwalk running around the edge.

The scorpion mech is not through with us. It walks around the building, shooting through glass windows on the first floor. We need to maneuver out of its sight to avoid getting hit. At some point, the scorpion brings its excavator-shaped tail down through the roof, hitting part of the catwalk and knocking it down to create a ramp to the second floor. The gamer inside me knows that I must go up this ramp to progress, and the designer inside me appreciates this pace-keeping hint.

From the second floor, we manage to get some better shots and better hiding angles, but it looks like the scorpion mech isn't going down from pistol fire alone. At one point, it brings its tail down through the roof again and gets it stuck in some large metal casing on the catwalk. Pulling the casing off reveals four large green cubes which I recognize as explosive mines. I tell the girl to get back, throw a mine out the second story window at the scorpion, then run back myself. The mine explodes, clearly damaging the scorpion, but not destroying it. I position myself and throw another mine, dealing more damage but failing to destroy my opponent.

Tired of this stalemate, the scorpion wants in. It uses its large claws to try and pry open the door. The girl and I each grab a side of the door and push back (explicit teamwork mechanics), somehow managing to force it closed. I assume the door's hydraulics are working with us. The scorpion backs up, and I somehow know that it is about to jump through the roof. Not taking the time to explain this clairvoyance, I lead the girl back up to the catwalk for an escape (I guess the door is broken and the first floor windows are barred or something?). Sure enough, the giant mech crashes through the feeble roof into the center of the warehouse. The girl and I jump out the hole that it created with its tail earlier.

While the scorpion is stuck inside the warehouse, we run in the direction we were heading before it interrupted us. We run down hill and enter a small cave that the scorpion could probably fit in, but not comfortably. There is a trailor up a hill, but it is in direct line of sight with the scorpion were it to find its way out of the warehouse. Instead of exploring the trailor (which probably has some interesting items due to its vulnerable location), we veer off to the left and run down hill and out of sight of the large cavern. We meet a woman who we both know somehow, a scientist of some sort. She presses some buttons on a terminal and we watch through a window as the warehouse explodes, an explosion much larger than those of the previous green mines. The warehouse itself is vaporized, but the scorpion still stands. While the machine charges up for another blast (however that works, I didn't question it at the time), the girl and I fight off some weaker monsters that inhabit the cavern.

Waking Reception

Despite only getting five or six hours of sleep, I couldn't fall back asleep after waking from this dream. I kept thinking about it, how for a sequence of random neurons firing in my head, it had so much cohesion to it. I wanted to make this game. I don't now, now that the magic of having just experienced it in true first person has worn off, but at the time I did. I was thinking about how I would go about convincing my company to make it, how I would differentiate it from Bioshock, how I could add colors to avoid the typical gray/brown criticism that most FPSes deservedly receive, how the companion AI could operate to be an asset instead of a liability. I started thinking about the boss fight, what would happen if the catwalk fell on me or the girl after the tail came through the roof for the first time. Would that be a game over? Or, more interestingly, would one of us be pinned down while the other tried to find a way to save them? In the dream, I knew when the scorpion was going to jump through the roof simply because it was my dream. If the player was caught off guard by this and got crushed, it would be an unfair death. How would we communicate this to the player? I pictured a huge array of lights resting against the cavern wall just outside the warehouse, perhaps to brighten the cavern. If the scorpion could not jump but had to climb up the wall, and subsequently the array of lights, then the scorpion's shadow through the windows and roof (if the roof was glass) would serve as a fair and frightening indicator of what it was trying to do.

Let Me Tell You What You Think About That

Or at least, what I think you think.

You think this is a generic FPS that I have an inflated opinion of because it came from a dream that I had, right? Of course you do. I feel that way too, now that the post-dream magic has worn off. But that is because you did not experience it, you merely read about it on a blog. What you experienced was a linear story, what I experienced was a dynamic world that responded to my actions, a unique challenge that was life-threatening yet fair. Perhaps because my subconscious was specifically tailoring the excitement for me, I dare say the pacing was perfect.

This brings me to the main point of this post: games aren't elevator pitches. You can not, Can Not fully appreciate a game without playing it. This is the inherent flaw in text reviews and image/movie based previews. It is also the flaw with the elevator pitch mentality that publishers have with game proposals. The strong point of any game is not the visuals, though unfortunately that is what gets marketed too often. Nor is the strong point how well the hindsight story reads when written on a blog. It is the interaction, of course. No, it is the full experience; interaction, immersion, and all. This is game design 101 here. Or 1001, if your college numbers their courses like mine did.

The Catalysts?

It's kind of odd that we are creatures that spend 1/3 of our lives vulnerable, unconscious, and hallucinating, amirite? Being an introspective person, I often wonder where my dreams come from. Consider this an addendum, if blog posts must be so formal in structure.

Obviously, I have played Bioshock and Fallout 3, both of which appear to have influenced the design of my dream-game. There is also a bit of Half-life 2 influence, as the girl can be compared aesthetically and mechanically to Alyx Vance. And interestingly enough, my friend was playing Final Fantasy 7 while on the phone with me and describing nostalgically his encounter with the first boss, just a couple of weeks ago. Finally, I was reading another person's blog last night where they described a dream they had. Finally (for real), I have been working on pitching a game design at my company, which may have primed the mentality needed for that dream to flourish.

How About You?

Have any cool dreams where you are playing a new game or new levels for a game that exists? Is it ever as cool after waking up as it was while you were experiencing it?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

There Are No More Holy Days

That I have mustered any small amount of faith in general humanity can likely be attributed to time spent with friendly colleagues and a reclusive home life. I find it hard to maintain such faith right now.

The short of it, if you don't feel like reading the article, is that an employee was trampled to death by a large group of customers when their store opened on Black Friday. You can find the store name and location from the above link if it really matters to you.

I am not purchasing any gifts this year. I will not accept any holiday gifts. I will accept and read cards, and may or may not send some of my own (I'm not good at that sort of thing, so probably not). Please do not include money in any of these cards if you send one, as that is a gray area that I would rather avoid. I will be coming home for Christmas, unless we miss our deadline and need to work through the holidays - and even then, I will give bountiful weight to a family that has always been there for me over an industry of amateurish practice and poor scheduling that abandoned me during a crisis.

If you know of someone considering purchasing a gift for me, please send them a link to this blog post or describe it to them so they can comply. I promise you I will not accept material gifts. If you end up presenting me with one, I will reimburse you for the cost and give it to charity or a friend, or throw it away if it is perishable. I am insisting on this as a means of communicating my belief that love, when I can believe in it, is non-seasonal, not tide-locked to the rhythm of excessive capitalism.

I will think no less of anyone who decides to exchange gifts among themselves. I do encourage you to ask yourselves the following questions, or at least to skim through them.

1.) Why am I getting gifts for people around me? What am I trying to communicate, if anything, to those people (your intended "message")?
2.) Why am I doing so at this time of year, as opposed to other times of the year?
3.) Is my message any less true at other times of the year?
4.) If you are religious, how does giving gifts in an annual manner coincide with your beliefs (if at all)? Would giving gifts at another time of the year lessen this connection? Does giving gifts now muddy any spiritual aspects of the season?

If nothing else, perhaps holding off on gifts will prove relieving in our current economy. May you have better Holidays than the family of Jdimytai Damour...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Systemic Stability dressed in Statistical Sensationalism

While playing Fallout 3, I found myself marveling once again that we have not totally annihilated ourselves as a species. In fact, I am still amazed that nothing came of the cold war. The fact that a nuclear attack on any country would result in an equally devastating counterstrike seems like an easily dismissed concern in the eyes of a psychopath with determination, no sense of self preservation, and the right connections - or so mass fiction would seem to hint.

But it hasn't happened yet. I live in what is undoubtedly the most hated country in the world, and the largest aggression-based atrocity we have had to weather lately involved a four digit death toll at the receiving end of some planes, or possibly some explosives, because those steel beams in the wreckage looked shopped and I've seen quite a few pixels in my days.

A coworker presented me with an interesting probabilistic thought experiment in the field of reliability. Let's say you have a somewhat complex system of 100 parts, and any given part is 95% reliable (it will work appropriately 95% of the time and fail the other 5%). Let's say this is a touchy system; if one component fails, then the entire system fails. The probability of the system working is 0.95 raised to the 100th power, which is 0.00592, a little over half of a percent. There is over a 99% chance that such a system would fail. Though each part is almost completely reliable, the fact that each part is necessary toward our goal of success makes the system holistically unreliable. If we can increase the reliability of every component to 99%, there is only about a 37% chance the system would work. We need to ensure about a 99.3% reliability rate on each component to even get the odds of a coin flip.

There are approximately 6.7 billion people on this planet. If we consider each person to be a component of the system we call humanity (or if we want to be a little less egocentric, the system we call planet Earth), I wonder what we can estimate our component reliability to be. If there was "only" a 5% chance, per person, of that person launching a nuke and instigating our final hours (95% chance against), the odds of us surviving another day are too low for my windows calculator to display. The same can be said if the odds of pacifism are 99% per person. Same for 99.99%.

Assuming we can't have 100% odds against a nuclear holocaust, what percentage would you feel comfortable with? Would you feel comfortable if the odds of such an Armageddon happening tomorrow were only 1%? Let's see what level of component reliability we have to have to obtain that goal. If the odds of every human being behaving and not finding some way to trick a few nations into playing fallout volleyball was 99.999999% per person, would you feel safe? I wouldn't, as 99.999999% raised to the 6.7 billionth power is 7.98e-30, or 1 in 125,236,359,038,394,908,283,678,232,890. Playing poker with a new hand played every minute, you're just as likely to be dealt a royal flush each hand for 366,720,740,041,699,000 years (about 26 million times the established age of the universe) as you are to avoid witnessing a nuclear winter tomorrow if that's the only per-person reliability we can expect.

Tacking on another couple of 9's, giving us a per-person reliability of 99.99999999%, puts us at the halfway mark. Heads and you can sigh in relief, tails and you should be signing up for lodging in a vault, preparing to drink gallons of Nuka Cola to replenish health with relatively low radiation poisoning, and practicing your melee skills since post-Armageddon low-levels have to be so close to raiders and mutants to use their guns effectively that they just as well utilize the extra damage that a readily available sledge hammer offers. Also, only music from the 1930's will survive the explosions, and don't expect anyone to find time over the next two centuries to write new songs.

If we want to reach our original goal of a 99% chance of avoiding a nuclear war tomorrow, we have to up the odds in our favor slightly more - to about a 99.99999999985% pacifism rate per person. That's quite a high component reliability that we must maintain for our system to work isn't it?

But wait, there's more!

The above figures will only get us through the next day, remember? I don't know about you, but I would like the world as we know it to last a little bit longer, at least another year. If we assume that a 99.99999999985% pacifism rate per person guarantees us a 99% chance of surviving for the next 24 hours, we can calculate that the odds of surviving for another week are about 93.2% (99% raised to the 7th power). Still pretty favorable, though perhaps not as much as we would like as we are talking about the largest death toll of our species in like, ever. But raise that 99% to the 365th power (366th if it's a leap year, but we'll aim a little lower for now) and the odds of the human race lasting the next year become 2.5%. Let's spoil ourselves a little and aim for successfully surviving a half a century of such risk; that puts us at the abysmally low survival odds of 2.2e-80%, even ignoring an inevitably increasing population (to be fair, I have been including infants in the 6.7 billion population estimate - the fun of sensationalism!). If we can assume an even stricter 99.99999999999999% cooperation rate per person, then we can almost guarantee a 99% chance of surviving the next half a century (assuming we make it through 2012). We've already made it over half a century since Hiroshima, so perhaps we are getting close with our presumed per-person cooperation rate.

Voodoo math aside, it just seems amazing to me that no properly motivated terrorist or corrupt/bored government has decided to end it all for our species. Perhaps we are a more tranquil species than I thought?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Cost and Benefit of Introspection

One of the interests that I have developed over the years is understanding the differences and similarities between computers and the human mind. Finding many flaws in modern programming, and being too stubborn to admit that they may just be flaws in my own habits, I have steered this interest toward creating a development environment that is more “natural” to use. I have been operating under the assumption that it will be easier to change the near entirety of modern programming as we know it instead of changing my own instincts. I've never worked so hard to maintain my laziness.

As the years have passed and I find myself forced into more mundane programming tasks through college projects and work assignments, I find myself wondering if I am not chasing yet another pipe dream. The ideals that I chase include elevating most programmers beyond viewing their code as a set of files and directories that turn text into arbitrary memory addresses, yet I myself keep stumbling into other abstractions, equally arbitrary and unnatural. The fact that I can't even define what I mean here by “natural” and “unnatural” is perhaps the cementing alarm that what I seek is unattainable. My habit of chasing the unattainable leaves me yet fruitless in my side-project endeavors — but man have I been having fun these past few months just trying to revolutionize programming, even if it is an impossible goal.

The Dealio

I called this project “Rational Thoughts” when I first devised it, as my goal was to create a development environment (back then a mere language) that was more “Rational”, closer to how the human mind perceives things, and thus hypothetically easier to work with. This was a mistaken direction. Human beings are, by and large, hardly “rational” thinkers; we are actually quite emotional*. Even at my most philosophical, when the voices in my head are reminding me that I can't prove my own volition and that there is no faithless evidence for a god or an afterlife, there is an even louder voice causing me to feel sorrow, and a yearning for when I was younger and kept happy by my own naivety about such matters. Likewise, it is perceived happiness that drives us to flourish intellectually, more so than it is our intellect that drives us to be happy. Modern computers, and thus I argue the programming languages designed to interface to them, are already much more rational than we have ever been, and I sure as hell don't want to try and implement emotions in my programming language**.

In case it has not been made obvious, this is not an admittance of defeat. This is an attempt to organize my thoughts and get some feedback on a project that has become so large I can not perceive its entirety at any given moment. Specks of it drift past my eyes, goals from the past, yet I can no longer keep track of which of these goals are compatible and which are mutually exclusive. I have a particular goal on my mind, which I will present soon. But first, I want to talk about introspection.

* ever find yourself cursing at your compiler for generating a compile error, as if your unrestrained outburst would intimidate it into compiling?
** I am perhaps operating under another false assumption, that rational thinking and emotional thinking are somehow opposite each other. Perhaps a topic worthy of another article? Until then, or until it comes up in a comment, I shall continue operating under that assumption…<_< >_>


It has been my greatest tool in designing this project. How can I fathom something that operates analogously to the human mind if I can not fathom the human mind? So I desire to study the human mind, and it just so happens that I have one with me at all times.

The first problem with introspection is the observer effect. By using mental processing to consciously look at your — uh — mental processing, you are limiting the amount of mental resources you have to do the observed processing, similar to the framerate drop you get when debugging a game. It is because of this phenomenon I have started to wonder about the direction I am heading. I was once a person who believed that self-introspection, or doing more things consciously and less things subconsciously (or at least being more aware of what the subconscious is doing), was the path to “enlightenment” (a cliched word, but I can't think of any better) and free will. Now I am beginning to think that many things are done subconsciously for optimization reasons, as if the subconscious was running assembly commands through the low level bus that drives our processors. If we started taking more and more mental processes out of our subconscious and doing them “ourselves”, wouldn't we slow down in the same way that an assembly program rewritten in unoptimized Java wouldn't perform well?

The second problem with introspection is avoiding a corrupt memory state, which I believe we humans are still calling “insanity”. If you are not used to it, constantly asking questions such as “why am I straight instead of gay?” or “would I be as evil as Hitler if I was born into his exact world state?” can cause discomfort. It seems from my experience that doing this enough can cause less discomfort via emotional “callouses” that form in your brain, which I can only assume operate by allowing the “rational” part of your mind to continue processing ego-threatening thoughts while the “emotional” guy sits on the sidelines believing that love is about romance and not hormones, or whatever it is that keeps him happy***. I believe that taking this process too far will result in a psychopathic mindset, so handle with care.

It is my obsession with introspection that gives me guidance when working on Rational Thoughts, but it is also what holds me back at times. I desire a programming environment where any question the user asks may be answered easily: “What was the value of this variable seventeen frames ago?” “Why is this variable negative here?” “What will the value of this thing be in two years?" Of course, these questions can be answered through multiple invocations of a program and debugging, but I want an environment that is able to look into its own “mind” and help out on a level closer to how the human mind views things. A development environment that is not so much rational as it is “clever”. But after so many years, I am beginning to wonder if I am any closer to understanding how my own mind works. After all, mightn't it take more processing than a mind has to understand itself, an inescapable paradoxical property of intelligence?

***I like that guy, he comes up with witty asides to lighten blog posts that reek of technicality and emo-philosophical hogwash

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Of Baptist Funerals

So my grandmother is dying. She could be taking her last breath as I type this. It is not a complete surprise; she has been a heavy smoker since long before I was born and has been told several times by medical professionals that she should quit or face death. She has been in the hospital before with the medical staff not expecting her to survive much longer. This is one of those times. They have placed her in what is known as a "hospice", which as I have learned is a rather nice extension of the hospital for those that do not have long to live. Interestingly enough, my mom told me recently that she has not asked for any more cigarettes, and seems to be at peace.

My dad called tonight, a few hours ago, to tell me the news that this is probably her last night. It was a moment I expected for at least a couple of months, a moment I dreaded, a moment I rehearsed, keeping myself up at night - but not for the reason you probably think. I dreaded it because he is a religious person, and I am not.

A Little Background

I am currently living in Santa Clara, California, a technology hub in a liberal state. Silicon Valley. I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a modest sized city with a strong Baptist community. The Bible Belt. When I was a kid, I was a "Christian" - meaning, that was what I said my religion was if anyone asked, and that was my religion because it was my parent's religion and thus I "inherited" it. This was before I realized what Christianity was. Heck, I still don't really know what Christianity is, it seems to be some composition of beliefs centered around the base idea that God had a physical son who can bring us salvation, though the denominations seem to differ significantly on the exact implications and details of this base belief. Since these beliefs are contradictory among denominations, Christianity as a whole comes off as a confusing mess.

When I was young, I did not go to church sermons, but I did attend day care at a church. Through that and my parents and perhaps television, I learned that God lets good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell, and he can do this because his awesome son died by crucifixion, the details of which are (censored for such young children). And since I was a "good" person (I knew this because I made good grades in school and generally did what my parents told, and I was not a murderer or a thief or what have you), I was going to get to go to Heaven. Yay! Lucky me! I even have memories arguing with my friends what Heaven was like. One of my friends agreed with me that Heaven would become like whatever you want it to, our logic being that living in Heaven is supposed to be the happiest experience you've ever felt, so whatever you fathom that would make you happier would already be true. My other two friends said that that was silly, that Heaven was what it was and we could not change it, believing that nothing we could imagine would make us as happy as Heaven already is.

Time passed, stuff happened, I turned fourteen and my parents started taking me to church for the first time. Turns out now that the whole "salvation by good deeds" bit that I blindly believed wasn't "really" how it works - although why they expected me to start blindly believing a new unproven system when the one they had been feeding me for fourteen years was a lie is beyond me. Hitler could be in Heaven if he accepted Christ, while an atheist who gives her life to save a school bus of burning children could be in Hell if she never did. Christianity sickened me, and Christians disappointed me for believing such garbage. I started to realize that there never was proof for anything religious I believed, and though I can talk with relative clarity about the topic now, the transition was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Much worse than the recent layoff, heart surgery, and loss of my grandmother that I have had to deal with this summer - and trust me, this hasn't been easy.

Not knowing how to handle this newfound information (misinformation?), I started getting grumpy at church. My parents did nothing to try and figure out why I was grumpy (honestly because I didn't know what to say or do, but felt that I must try something); instead, they got mad at me and scolded me, making me feel even worse. I was a rational outcast in a land of fools, and no one - not even my own parents - would listen.

What Happened Tonight

It was with these horrendous memories that I have spent the weeks thinking about how I would tell something to my dad when the time came. At my other grandmother's funeral last year, the pastor took time toward the end of the service to ask everyone to hang their heads in prayer and, if they hadn't already, ask Jesus Christ into their hearts. I was not expecting this, and my anger reached about as high as it had ever been. Here is a guy whose profession depends on the belief of others using my grandmother's funeral as a commercial slot for his religion, trying to nab people at their weakest moment for conversion. It was outright disgusting, lower than I ever expected he would sink, and I spent the rest of the funeral in paralyzing rage.

I wanted to tell my dad that I would not go to another funeral if it was going to be held by a Baptist pastor. I feared doing so, as my dad is a Baptist, and has never shown much patience toward my feelings on the matter. But he seems to have mellowed as he aged, so I was hoping for a somewhat calm reception of my statement. Tonight I was tested; I got the news that there will be a funeral soon, and after several minutes of hesitating, making small talk with him about how I could fly out and back without missing my first day at my new job, I finally told him how I felt. Know how long it took before he made an angry retort? If you guessed right after I finished explaining things, you give him too much credit. He actually started before I had finished stuttering my ideas out, as if he knew where I was going after just a few words. I won't repeat what he said here, as he later apologized for saying it and explained that he was just stressed out (an apology that I appreciate, but which may not be enough for forgiveness - I haven't decided yet). I just needed to vent, and I wanted to lead into something very important to me.

The point

In case it hasn't been made clear, I am not a Christian. I am not religious. I don't know if I am an Atheist or an Agnostic, and I don't understand why I have to blanket myself under one of those labels - do you call yourself a particular phrase because you do not believe in Santa Claus? I am not sure why, but I feel pain that my father has always shown such indirect anger toward me for this. I thought by now I would be strong enough to not care what he thinks, and it honestly baffles me that I apparently still do.

I want to have a "believe and let believe" attitude toward Christianity, under the assumption that they have a right to their beliefs and are not causing me harm. But how can I have such an attitude when I feel such pain, when I have been told that I deserve the worst punishment possible no less than history's worst villains by those I love at a fragile age? How can I feel complacent when Christians vote, yet their beliefs are bound to and constructed from an unproven, unscientific, unethical, self-contradictory book that was written hundreds of years ago by a far less educated society?

How can I feel calm when I can not escape this hell on earth, even at the funeral of my relatives?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blogging Atrophy

I've been away for a while, and it's always hard in these situations to get back to updating a blog. For me, the problem is always exacerbated by the indecision about how to write that initial return post; I can't just act like nothing has happened, but I don't want to come across as too much of a forgiveness beggar. I don't owe anyone constant updates, but I do want to keep those that find interest in my musings well fed. I also hate blog meta-talk, common in all first blog posts and most return posts, and I hate even more how I can only communicate that hatred through blog meta-talk.

The Ol' One-Two.

The obligatory set of friends that read this blog already know this, but in the event that someone I don't personally know has stumbled across this blog in the backwoods of the internet, I should explain that I have had a lot piled on me lately. Bluntly, I got laid off the exact same day I found out I would soon have to have open heart surgery (I turned 25 this April and got good performance reviews, wasn't really expecting either). Every time I pictured writing a post to describe these events, it sounded too whiny or too angry, so I backed off. Don't feel sorry for me or anything, the surgery is over and went fantastically, and I have an offer for a new job (still in the game industry) that I have accepted. Barring the unexpected, I will begin work soon, postponed only by a few formalities.

The topic of the layoff could be put into its own post if I feel like it. I most certainly will have several posts describing the heart surgery. Both have done an incredible amount to strengthen my character, despite my initial complaints. I guess. I dunno, that just sounds like the keen thing to say. At the very least, both events should provide excellent anecdotal ammo for future discussions.

Back to blogging.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Grand Theft Agency

"Open World", "Sandbox", "Playground" - these are all words that we hear thrown around in gaming parlance to describe a design trend that only increases in popularity. The promise is that players will be put in a fully simulated world, guided into plot-specific missions but generally free to do whatever they want. Time and time again, we fail to fully deliver this promise.

I had rather high expectations for GTA IV, I really did. In fact, I am enjoying the game a great deal - it's not quite as fun as Mario Kart Wii or Brawl, and I have even been putting more time into the under-appreciated Professor Layton, but GTA IV is a much more immersive experience. Yet despite the perfect atmosphere and engaging side-quests, I am really disappointed that the latest torchbearer in the series that defined the open world experience, a title that has even become the fiscal leader in launch success, earning more than any launch event in any medium of entertainment in history, still drags me around on a very short leash through the main quest.

I'm not very good at GTA IV. I've never been good at the series. As such, I have failed quite a few of the early missions. I don't really mind this, as all of the failures seemed fair - but I am extremely disappointed in how they are handled. From my experience, if you fail a mission for any reason, you are forced to do it again until you get it right - even if you didn't die. This has happened to me several times in just a few hours, and each time I feel my immersion crash faster and harder than Niko in that embarrassing little incident when I handbraked into a cop car stopped at a red light.

The latest incident, the one that caused me to shake my head in disappointment and add another crufty entry to my blog o' complaints, occurred in an early mission where Vladimir ordered me to spook up a laundromat owner for "insurance" money. When I arrived, he got scared and took off out the back, hopping in a van and fleeing. I hot wired a car and sped after him; a pretty fun experience. I managed to knock the sucker off the road into some trees. He wouldn't get out of his car, and kept trying to escape, halted by my t-boning him into more trees. After a couple of minutes of this, I got tired of his antics (and unsure of what to do to trigger the mission progression) so I got out of my car and shot him in the head. He fell onto his horn; that and the gunshot must have been heard by the police, for the area was immediately bathed in blue lights dancing to the tune of sirens. I hauled it out of there and gave Vlady a call.

He was not happy, claiming there was no way to get insurance money from a dead guy. Okay, so I blew it, I figured I would do a better job with the next "client" - and perhaps word of the laundromat owner's uninsured death would make future clients more compliant. I returned to the discrete bar to talk to Vladimir once more, and as I entered I was faced with an all too familiar cutscene.

I had to start the mission over again. I had "failed" it.

Feeling my frustration wax and my immersion wane, I headed back for the laundromat - only this time, to speed things up, I thought I would be clever. I knew the owner was scripted to run for it, and I knew which car he would use. I was using my foreknowledge from a previous mission attempt to game the game. My immersion already spent, I decided to break the forth wall myself, a wall that Rockstar apparently built out of hay and elmer's glue. I went around back and tried to break into the van to drive it far away. The door was locked, but Niko has street smarts and knows how to break a window with his elbow. To my surprise, when I do this I see a message saying that the laundromat owner got scared and escaped out the front. Niko pulls out his cell phone to tell Vladimir the bad news.

I had failed the mission again.

Similarly, in an earlier mission, I let a loan shark get away. My cousin complained at me and told me that now we would be up to our necks in loan sharks trying to get revenge. I was excited, naively thinking that my failure had thrown me down an exhilerating narrative branch. But it didn't; Rockstar took the weakest copout they could and forced me to play the mission again. I'm not asking for an exponential branching tree at every mission to give me a game with 1024 unique endings, but I also don't think it would be terribly hard to allow the player to "half-pass" missions by performing suboptimally, giving them less of a financial reward but letting them continue the game. This mentality of "you can play however you want as long as it is the one way I thought of" is still holding back modern game design. Time and time again, developers promise everything in the kitchen but the sink, and when we accept we find ourselves in a room with dust-covered counters, bare cupboards, and a fridge with a spoiled smell so nauseating that we are loathe to open it.

There is a phrase called "next gen" gaming. It is basically a horrible marketing ploy/misnomer used by Microsoft and Sony to make you think you are getting more out of your games than you really are. Firstly, this is not the "next generation" of gaming, it is the "current generation". The "next generation" will be the, well, "next" generation of consoles (or equivalent "large" step forward). It hasn't arrived yet. Secondly, I would argue that we haven't really left the generation of games that we've been in for about a decade now. Sure, the graphics have improved, and we have begun to realize that not every gamer wants to die five times per missions, but, well... we still have missions and death and failures leading to retries structuring almost all of our commercial titles.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a fun game. Really. It currently has a score of 99/100 on metacritic formed from several dozen reviews, which is simply phenomenal. It saw launch week success surpassing that of Halo 3. In many ways, GTA IV is the pinnacle of current gaming, if not in quality alone then in the attention that it will hold for years to come. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel as if Rockstar has given me a mic and a stage to say whatever I want to say without them listening, only hearing what they want to hear. The sandbox is large, but the sand itself is low quality, too dry, and all my castles fall to dust within moments of divination.

I'm through venting. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go tear up Liberty City in my stolen taxi, save my cousin's debt-drowned ass, and take Michelle to the bowling alley while contemplating solutions to this treadmill the industry walks perpetually.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

They Don't Teach This at MIT

If you are a game designer, you owe it to yourself to read this blog. It is a journalistic recording of a "non-gamer"'s first time playing the original Half Life. I find it illuminating that one of our medium's pinnacle titles fails in many ways to communicate itself to players who haven't developed a subconscious appreciation of, or blindness to, common tropes. In defense of Valve's masterpiece, it could be said that the confusion that the player must feel when evacuating an underground research facility suddenly infested with alien creatures is in phase with Gordon Freeman's own disorientation. It could also be said that a majority of the human race would not think to look for conveniently placed air vents just large enough for a full grown man in a hazard suit to crawl through at every dead end.

I found myself in a big elevator, got the message that I was entering the "office complex" and entered that area. I found a medical pack on the ground, at least I thought it was this as my health went up a little bit. A laser type thing came down from the ceiling and immediately zapped me.

I stopped here because no matter how I tried to get around that laser I kept dying. Crouching and running, running fast, jumping ... nothing worked. So I stopped.

I'm not grasping the big picture of where exactly I'm going in this game but I hope I'm not backtracking. Wasn't the office complex where this all started? We'll see if I can figure my way around this next time and figure out where exactly I'm going.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rant: Speeding

I was driving back from McDonald's earlier today when it happened; someone else turned onto the road behind me, driving in the same direction as me, in the same lane. Okay, this is a pretty common and innocuous event, but I always feel a bit of angst in this situation. Angst over what, you ask? That this person will get in the other lane to pass me.

I know, I know, it's a pretty silly thing to get angsty about. It's just something I've been noticing lately, something that I've been consciously looking at, because I am a self-conscious guy. Whenever I see a vehicle take up a certain portion of my rear view mirror, I suddenly focus enough mental effort on said vehicle to bring it up into my conscious awareness. I play a game with them. The game is called, “Are you going to pass me?” What I do is I check my speedometer, and make sure I'm going precisely the speed limit. If these people get in the other lane and travel faster than me for an extended duration, then they are speeding and they lose the game. That they don't realize they are participating in this “game” is beside the point; it is just a rhetorical device anyway.

More people lose this game than win it. I play it on small streets where there is little other traffic to affect the outcome, not on large highways or interstates. I have even started upping my speed to five miles per hour over the limit in an attempt to lessen the temptation and possibly get more winners. As far as I can tell, this has had very little effect. In my utterly unprofessional, poorly defined, unrecorded samples of this “game”, it seems that people are about as likely to pass me when I am going five miles per hour over the speed limit as when I am going the speed limit. And this pisses me the fuck off.

I'm not sure why it does, it just does. Somehow, every time a vehicles passes me, it's like they are saying that their time is more valuable than my time. That increasing my own speed seems to have no effect on this bizarre conspiracy only worsens the emotional impact by implanting a sense of helplessness into my mind. This is utterly irrational on my part, it's more of a reflex emotion than a rational response. After all, it is up to me to decide how valuable my time is, and spend less time driving (by driving faster) if I feel it is worth the ticket and safety risk. That others have a slightly different evaluation function for their driving habits should not bother me, except that it somehow does, on a subconscious level that I can't seem to breach without sufficient effort (effort that my own evaluation functions have yet to justify).

A surprising development!

Of course, it did not take too long for me to realize a certain bias in this “experiment”, namely that for these people to pull up so close behind me in the first place they must already be going faster than me, so of course they are likely to want to pass me, finding my current speed insufficient. The people who wouldn't be likely to pass me (because they are going at or below my current speed limit) will never catch up with me to even begin playing the game. So unfortunately, I have developed a little game that is a bit inclined to attract the type of people who would lose it. Perfect for casinos, but a little unsatisfying for my causes.

To account for this, I began playing an advanced version of the game. I go the speed limit, and when I notice someone pulling up behind me I speed up somewhat gradually to about five miles per hour over the speed limit. Thus I have enticed a larger variety of drivers into this game while adjusting the difficulty in their favor. And still, still, still they fucking pass me, so very often. I began to wonder if they even realize that I am speeding up for them, or if they already got it into their head that they are going to pass me and have gone into autopilot, have reached the point of no return, unaware that I am going a little faster, perhaps even as fast as they were before they caught up with me. I wonder how much faster I have to go before the majority of drivers will notice what's going on and stop auto-drafting me. Might be worth experimenting with, except that I fear this level won't be reached without flirting with dangerous speeds.

There's a point to this?

Eh, I would be stretching things to say that there is. There really isn't a point to any of this, at least not a good point; that's why I labeled it a rant. But I am curious; if anyone reading this habitually speeds, may I ask why?

Why do you speed?
  • Is it because you feel the posted speed limit is actually lower than the logistical "safe" speed limit?
  • Is it because you feel that you are a better driver than the average person, and thus "deserve" to go a little faster than the average driver since your skills and reflexes will make up for the lost safety?
  • Is it because you live nearby and know these roads better than the average person, so driving a little faster is reasonable?
  • Is it because you notice that most other people speed? If so:
    • Do you speed because it feels "more dangerous" to go slower than everyone around you?
    • Do you speed because you are scared you will anger people behind you who want to go faster?
    • Do you speed because you want to anyway, and seeing others do it means you are less likely to be singled out and ticketed?
  • Is it to save time? Or because you often find yourself running late (somewhat related to saving time)?
  • Is it because you don't think you'll get caught?
  • Is it mostly just because you went this speed yesterday, and the day before, and it's just easier to keep doing it as long as it works?
Why do you not speed, or if you do speed, why do you draw the limit where you do?
  • Safety?
  • To avoid getting ticketed?
  • To avoid negative social reaction from your peers or those around you?
  • Moral objectivism (it's just the Right Thing To Do)?
  • Is it mostly just because you went this speed yesterday, and the day before, and it's just easier to keep doing it as long as it works?

Friday, March 14, 2008

“Friendly Takeover” is an Oxymoron

Maybe you've heard already that EA is interested in purchasing Take Two. Essentially, EA offered to purchase Take Two for about two billion dollars about a month ago in what has humorously been called an attempt at a friendly takeover. Hey, that's a nice term, and it certainly seems to fit, right? EA is just thinking about Take Two's stock holders and saving them from the uncertainty of a non-monopolistic industry, how selfless of them.

Now I try to be mature and unbiased and not reflexively jump on the “Evil Empire” bandwagon whenever some news comes up involving EA, but—man, just read that article if you have time and see if there isn't something subcutaneously chilling about it, like an otherwise calm movie scene utilizing infrasound for effect, or a porcelain doll that looks so perfect it's eerie—or like this. You will find little explaining how this acquisition can help the quality of games or the gamers that buy them, and much talk about shareholder benefits. What is going to happen to GTA if EA gains ownership of the franchise and Rockstar walks out? If competition forces franchises to strengthen to avoid extinction, what is going to happen to EA's sports and racing games when they own Midnight Club and 2K Sports, cutting off one of the most major competition channels in each genre?

Our strong preference is to conduct a private negotiation. If you are unwilling to proceed on that basis, however, we may pursue other means, including the public disclosure of this letter, to bring our offer and the compelling value it represents to the attention of Take-Two’s shareholders. - John Riccitiello, letter to Take Two's Executive Chairman on Feb. 19, 2008, made public shortly thereafter, copied from Gamasutra (

Along with the above letter, a summary of Riccitiello's stance on the matter can be found here.

But Wait, There's More!

So on Februrary 19th, EA made an offer to buy out Take Two. Strauss Zelnick, Executive Chairman of Take Two's board of directors, turned down the offer, wanting to wait until after GTA IV shipped to continue discussions. John Riccitiello, CEO of EA, made good on his promise to publicize the offer in an attempt to stir up the shareholder hivemind and add internal pressure to the external pressure in hopes that Zelnick would be rushed into making a poor decision. I call this “bullying”. Come on John, GTA IV is set to ship on April fucking 29th. I think that it is reasonable to expect a company valued in the nine digit range to take a couple of months to decide if they want to be on the dying end of a corporate merge.

If that was all, I might not have found it worth my time to blog about this. There is indeed more, but before continuing our little story, I want to take an aside to point to this article in which a representative of Wedbush Morgan explains his opinions. I think, intentionally or not (hint: not), he hits on the main problem of this acquisation, as well as the main problem with the game industry, with this quote at the end: “Ultimately, we think that Take-Two shareholders will embrace a deal, as virtually all of them will profit immensely and immediately.” The video game industry is not run by designers, programmers, artists, producers, or anyone who loves video games. It is run by executives, business majors, and ignorant, reactionary stock holders who care nothing of the art and everything for the stock game: entering at the low price of a company during risk and development of a title, and leaving at the high end after a game sells well, profiting off of the risk and hard work of those who actually design and implement said games, an underpaid industry majority, in a relatively risk-free manner without having to get their own hands dirty. Tell me why, left and right, I see analysts and representatives of both companies discussing stockholder benefits, yet not once have I heard an appeal to the benefits of the employees or the gaming populace. Because we don't matter, because we're just an annoying causal bump in this money-making game that is the stock market? This needs to change. This needs to fucking change.

As another aside, it becomes clear that EA is trying to eliminate competition in the sports genre from this acquisition. It is speculated that, failing to buy Take Two, EA will cut the price of its sports titles, taking temporary losses to hurt Take Two's profits this year. This is also known as predatory pricing, which, subjective as it is, is generally illegal. I like how much effort EA is putting into hostile takeover attempts (let's not kid ourselves here) and price adjustment instead of putting that focus toward improving the quality and ingenuity of their games. This needs to change too.

Moving on.

So a couple of weeks have passed, and Take Two has maintained its stance that the initial offer undervalues its worth. I hope that they are also considering the ramifications of this decision on the quality of games produced as well as the quality of work for their employees when making this decision, though either way I believe it is the right decision. In any case, the publicity of this offer has already started to affect Take Two's stock, as stockholders are fickle, greedy, and reactionary beasts (I know, it's the nature of the game and all…). Shortly after the public announcement, stock prices actually began to rise. However, according to this March 11th article on Gamasutra, Take Two's two largest shareholders have already begun selling a large portion of their stocks. And the big bomb is this, from March 13th: that EA has begun offering to purchase Take Two stocks directly from shareholders at an inflated price in what is officially viewed as a hostile attempt (because it hasn't been hostile from the very beginning; right…). Take Two has replied encouraging stockholders to give them two weeks to make a decision, much sooner than the original intention to wait until after GTA IV ships.


I believe that this incident shines a magnificently bright spotlight on the main problem with the video game industry: that it is an industry at all. The creative efforts of thousands of marginalized and nameless designers, programmers, artists, and sound engineers are funneled into the Wall Street machine. The industry has become a dark place, and it is clotting the otherwise healthy blood flow of the art form. Games are designed by a committee of untalented (game design wise) marketers listening to the chattering of the even less educated stock holders, with designers only given the ability to decide at the micro level how the next unnecessary sequel is going to be shoveled out the door in time for Christmas. Yes, in a very real sense, game design is dictated by an ignorant, nebulous public mass of people whose stakes are short term as well as their interest in the company. Innovative titles are shot down constantly to keep all hands on deck for making the next stale FPS, RTS, or RPG. The main questions that drive game design are “How can we fatten the wallets of our CEO and stock holders even more?”, not “How can we make the world a better place by advancing the art of game design?” or “What genres have we yet to explore?”.

We low-level members of the industry are the prime group responsible for combating this, and corporations see this. They resist; they combat us back. We need to communicate with each other to come up with a solution, yet NDAs seal our lips, hindering our ability to fully communicate details and examples of common issues. We complain about being forced to work on a movie-based title or seventh sequel in a dying series or unnecessary port, but when we try to work on something creative in our spare time (perhaps as a jumping board to start our own, creatively-driven private company) we are shot down by non-compete clauses, nasty little corporate snipers placed to allegedly protect the company from, heaven forbid, employees adding competition to the market without asking why an employee would want to do so in the first place. And guess which side gets to decide if your game “competes” with theirs? Yes, video game companies own you and have a say over what you can or can't do in your own personal time. And if you try to start your own game company while unemployed, or working at another job so as to avoid this non compete bullshit, you still have to walk through the patent minefield. So even if you can escape the stockholder leeches that suck the creativity from your blood, you still have to watch out for the lawyer vultures that give even less of a fuck about the pursuit of the art.

I hate spending too much time pointing out problems and too little time providing solutions, but I really need to think about this one. It's time for things to change. I've had insomnia lately (hence my writing this post from 2am to 6am when I have to get up at 9:30am); Maybe I can come up with something after some rest, but probably not on my own. Stay tuned, as this will not be the last I talk of this issue.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Open Question: Chomsky versus Turing, Round 1

What it is

I find writing blog entries from time to time to be a very pleasant source of output. However, one aspect of blogging that I hope not to overlook is the incredible ability to receive feedback in the form of comments. Therefore, I have decided to start making posts that explicitly grasp at feedback. To formalize these posts, I will put the important questions in bold with some framing statements interspersed between them; see below.

Basically I am highlighting issues that I am not quite certain about in hopes that other peoples' insight can help fill in the holes in what would otherwise be a declarative piece of swiss cheese.

The Question(s)

Why do we consider words to be part of a natural language, but we often consider methods and classes as “external” to a programming language? Why do programming languages seem to have such an immunity, save for keywords and arbitrary functions that find their way into the “standard library”? I find the spelling of the word “weird” to be a flaw with the English language, yet if I come across a method written for a C++ project that I feel uses Hungarian notation incorrectly (using Hungarian notation at all is a flaw in my book, but I digress) then I will blame that programmer and not the language itself.

Part of the issue is that we tend to view words as atoms in natural languages whereas with programming languages we label such things as primitives and operators (including keywords and perhaps some wrapper methods in standard libraries) as atoms. In this way, natural languages have a much broader palette of atoms than programming languages, though programming languages maintain the strength of being simpler to learn and understand. So my original question, comparing user-created objects and user-created methods to words, is a bit flawed and might be more accurate if I was comparing them to sentences; we can certainly blame an individual for sentences that don't fit the grammatical rules of the language. But wait—isn't that what syntax errors are the equivalent of?

So if keywords and operators are analogous to words, statements are analogous to sentences, syntax rules are analogous to grammatical rules, and type errors as well as certain run time errors (null dereferences, incorrect array indexing, invalid casting) are analogous to illogical utterances (“Losing is the reddest flatulence.”), then what is the natural language equivalent of the user-created class or method? Is it simply more words (neologisms, portmanteaus, etc.)? Maybe the atomic nature of class names and methods names is illusory; are they more like phrases or sentences?

If this seems like typical internet philosophical tallywhacking so far—then I'm doing my job as a game design blogger ;). But seriously, I do have a concern that legitimizes this post, if you will but take a moment to walk down a side road (it will loop back to the main street if I don't fall asleep first).

Wreaking Havok

I dabble in the Havok physics engine at work, and one thing that I have had to deal with recently illustrates a problem that I see with saddening frequency in the programming world. I wouldn't call it “reinventing the wheel”—perhaps just “reinventing the tread”. Anyway, the problem occurs when working with two libraries that have their own internal representation of the same concept. The concept in this particular example happens to be vectors; Havok has its own internal struct for vectors, and we have ours. Meaning that when I am doing vector math that crosses library boundaries I have to bloat my code with conversion function calls. For the uninitiated, vectors are used a lot in 3D games, in my experience more so than any other non-primitive data structure (save for perhaps containers). The concept that Havok vectors tries to encapsulate is the same as the concept that we try to encapsulate with our vectors, so it is unfortunate that compilers can't make this connection unaided. Worse, we can't expect Havok to get rid of their vector structs, nor can we get rid of ours and solely use Havok (what happens if we decide to let our Havok license end and pursue another physics solution?).

So something as common as Vectors seems like a nice concept to promote to some level above us and Havok. I'm not sure where, the language or the standard libraries? Ignoring this particular blemish, I would like to summarize this problem and what I believe to be its cause. Basically, with such a limited, domain-agnostic approach to programming languages, reinventing the wheel at the class and method level emerges from the design. I have been thinking a lot about improving programming languages lately, and one of the key issues that I tend to steer away from is redundancy. So is there a real problem here, and more importantly is there a solution?

I say “Yes” and “Yes”

I have two solutions, one of which needs more thought before I put it online. I will go into detail on the more reasonable, less risky one.

I believe that this problem arises from languages constraining their atom palette to be as generic as possible. I believe that the game industry would do well to get together and generate such a language. I also believe that this will never happen, so we as hobbyists and enthusiasts will have to continue to experiment in isolation until something takes off. I'm working on it, but trust me—we can benefit from someone far more educated in the field of programming language design than I solving this problem. If no one else steps up to the plate, I'll eventually finish my amateurish, patchwork solution and release it to the world—then you'll all be sorry!

Even a domain specific language for video game design runs the risk of becoming stale with how rapidly game development changes (though I see this slowing down as Nintendo consoles, cellphones, and more focus on casual/indie games draw us away from inventing new shader technology). We could make vectors, matrices, and quaternions primitive, but what do we do when some MIT prodigy discovers a better way to simulate bouncing breasts using a crazy new data structure called a xerbaton*? For such a domain-specific language to truly evolve with an evolving domain, we would have to work to standardize such things into the language itself in real time instead of us all creating our own xerbaton structs and management functions. I believe this implies being less strict about the size of our atom palette (the easy part) and more open to viewing the game development community as a team (think a WoW guild) as opposed to a bunch of competing teams (think football). The latter is the hard part.

So what do you think? Can programming languages learn from natural languages and improve by exposing their atom palettes (keywords, operators, standard classes and methods) to the public and encouraging open extension? Is this dangerous? Could this work for game development? Will it provide benefits by minimizing wheel/tread reinvention? I can think of examples of phenomenon like what I am proposing, but not exactly. For example, Java's libraries are modified and added to with nearly each major release, but this is more of a committee decision with a somewhat democratic input system and is by no means geared toward game design. Lisp takes a different route seen in the form of different dialects, but this is community extension at a different layer. The natural language equivalent would be if we decided the English language should start using periods instead of commas to separate digits in large numbers, or if we decided that adjectives should come after the nouns that they modify. Both of these examples seem to happen at a slow pace, in large steps by individuals or small groups of people. Could we as a community moderate such extension by an anonymous mass and come out ahead? Could we convince compiler and IDE vendors to play along to add syntax highlighting to new keywords (a dangerous concept for backwards compatibility in the first place, but I'll let that can of worms be opened in the comments to keep this from getting longer) and include new standard library files by default? To do this right seems to require something somewhat revolutionary ala Wikipedia. Or do you know of any project that already does what I have been describing in this post?

And the all-important meta-question: Do you like this open question format?

* picture a damped spring with a “sensuality” modulator, and please keep your hands out of your pants while doing so.


So I started downloading Call of Duty 4 today via Steam. At over 9 gigs in size, I wasn't sure if it would be finished by the time I got home from work. But in the hour that it had been downloading before work it had already reached about 25%, so I figured I was set to play when work ended.

Why I am writing this and not playing CoD4

You can imagine my surprise when I got off from work about ten hours later (got a little bit of Soul Calibur in after hours) to find that the download had only progressed to 26%. This is the second game I have downloaded via Steam, and both of them had this problem. Looking online, it appears I am not alone. Closing and opening Steam, then restarting the download, seems to fix the problem—but then what's the point of using Steam in the first place if I have to be at the computer to hold its hand through the entire download? I could have gone to work, went to the store afterwards, and installed the game off of five DVDs or whatever in less time.

I remember being disgusted to the core when Steam was announced as a means of distribution for Half-Life 2, largely because at the time I did not have an internet connection for the computer I would install it to and thus could not authorize the game even if I bought it from a store. As much as I loved the original Half-Life, I would come to be so turned off as to not purchase Half-Life 2 until The Orange Box came out. Fantastic game, by the way; awful business model.

After The Orange Box, I decided to start giving Steam another try. There are many, many areas in which it should improve, questionable download reliability aside (torrents for stability and bandwidth dispersion protected with authentication-based DRM, anyone?). Launching games through the Steam client takes longer than launching a standalone game when you must wait for the Steam client to load, and don't be surprised that Valve takes this opportunity to wrap advertisements, driver notifications, and survey requests around your gaming time-slice, like a sandwich made of stale bread that you don't really want to eat but must to get to the delectable meat inside. And every time I try to purchase something (three times now, just grabbed an indie game), I have to re-enter my credit card number, expiration date, name, and billing address. Every time.

I honestly don't know enough about Steam's achievement system to make a clear call, but I believe what I believed when I found out about the 360's similar system: that a game distribution channel should not have such direct creative control over the development of what games go through it. This is less of a problem (though not quite no problem) if achievements aren't explicitly mandatory, though I shudder to think what boils and tumors an achievement-driven market will start injecting into games. I spent a little time looking into it and could not conclude whether or not achievements are mandatory for Steam, so please take this criticism/commentary as conditional; and if you happen to know more details, please drop me a comment (remembering that I admitted to ignorance before flaming ~_^ ).

Does Steam Do Anything Right?

Well… I still have some faith. Valve has provided an admirable distribution channel for indie developers, and I think it is absolutely fantastic that they are giving away Steamworks, a set of tools to aid in stat-tracking, net play, and beta testing. I think it would be even fantasticer if Valve took this momentum and created a full-blown open source community; code, forum, and external volunteer tech support. Let's wait and see.

I have also noticed that the price for somewhat old games seems to drop faster than one might find at a walk-in retail outlet, though for some reason new games launch at the same price. Maybe the cost of distribution (*cough* torrents *cough*) online regains whatever discount we might get by skipping the steps of burning DVDs and shipping trucks full of products to stores; perhaps they are selling games at this price because the market is not yet encouraging them to lower it. I would personally like to see more of a discount, as happens with music download services (the legal ones, silly). On the topic of skipping traditional distribution channels, I believe that centralized online distribution can provide a barrier of protection over the artistic integrity of games. Wal-Mart might have to give in to the pressure of ignorant soccer moms when an M-rated game becomes controversial, but does Valve?

I hope not.

To Sum It Up

Online Distribution of video games provides an opportunity to eliminate certain corporate middlemen from the equation as well as a way to reach out to indie game developers and offer them a spot in the distribution spotlight next to industry giants. It also provides an opportunity for intrusive background services, DRM that punishes honest customers more than pirates, and unclear information gathering. Though there are many independent distribution sites, casual channels, and independent channels, Steam comes to mind as the premier model that bridges the gap between “industry” and “independent” distribution. I hope that Valve shoulders this responsibility well and sets the bar high, qualitatively and ethically, for future models.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Case Study: Dead Rising

I finally got a 360 a couple of weeks ago, and one of the first games I got for it was Dead Rising, a title I had been looking forward to playing as a guilty pleasure since before it came out. I can't say I am completely disappointed as I have completed it and plan to play through it again at least once more, but there are a few key areas where it fell quite short of my expectations.

Small text on standard def TVs

This is a big deal, and really my main complaint with the title. The text is so small, and notoriously so, as to be illegible on standard def TVs. The excuse for this is that Dead Rising is intended to be one of the first true “next gen” games and so doesn't need to waste its time on pathetic fools like myself who don't have a television set priced in the four digit range. But there is no voice acting outside of cutscenes either, so don't expect aural clues to help you out if you find the text too small to read. I guess “next gen” isn't as concerned with sound quality….

To make matters even worse, most of the guidance in the game comes in the form of textual phone calls that you will receive, likely while fending off dozens of zombies. These phone calls do not pause the game, so while you are squinting trying to read the tiny text at the bottom of the screen to figure out where to go next you better keep your avatar moving away from the horde. And you better squint-read fast; the phone dialog advances automatically, with no extra time padding for standard def setups.

Identity Crisis

There are two main types of horror games, each appealing to different types of players and providing a different experience. The first type is the survival sub-genre, pretty self-explanatory: think Resident Evil before RE4, or the Silent Hill series. In these games, the horror element really stands out as nearly every encounter is a challenge and constantly trying to avoid an easy death gives the player an appreciation for life that makes every victory in combat (including running away) feel significant. Naturally, enemies are sparse in these types of games to keep tension up.

The second type of horror game is the action sub-genre; think Doom or Quake, or even RE4, which went in a different direction from previous Resident Evil titles in terms of controls and enemy density. Action horror games are all about empowering the player; scaring them with hideous humanoids and demons, sure, but giving them powerful weapons and Olympic-caliber running speed so they can take on dozens of foes with ease. Action horror games induce adrenaline in the player, but for different reasons. Survival horror games are flight, action horror games are fight.

The problem with Dead Rising is that it tries in too many ways to be both. Instead of elegantly straddling the fence like Resident Evil 4, it just ends up feeling fragmented. The basic premise of the game, being trapped in a mall with tens of thousands of zombies and being able to use almost anything in the environment as a weapon, lends itself perfectly well to the action horror genre. However, the player starts the game with only four health, and it isn't terribly rare to get grabbed by a group of zombies as you run by them and lose one (or more) health. Replenishing health and saving slow the pace of the game down (you can't just save anywhere), and each boss fight feels overly difficult considering how early in the game you can run into said bosses, long before becoming comfortable with the controls.

*spoiler, but frankly: mild*
And don't get me started on the cultists, groups of enemies that wield knives and can dash at you or even blow themselves up. No, I will get myself started. These enemies appear early in the game in a time-release manner (from what I can tell). And when you trigger the cutscene that causes them to appear—a cutscene which is triggered by returning to a part of the mall that you have to run through many times to get back to your security room “base”, ensuring that you will trigger it— you will suddenly see cultists all over the mall until you find their base and kill their leader. They will respawn when you leave and return to the area, just like regular zombies. On top of their knives and suicide bombing technique, cultists also have a gas attack. If you get hit by this, it is not an instant game over—but at low levels, it just as well be. You will wake up in the cultists' hideout, stripped of your clothes and weapons, and have to fight through just as many cultists with no equipment. This will happen regardless of how much health you have when hit by the gas, from what I could tell. Fun times to be had.

Normally I would be ecstatic about this sort of alternative to a game over, which I think is a healthy direction for game designers to keep exploring. However, the proper theory behind game over alternatives is to provide the player with a second chance at a problem by challenging another set of skills that they may be better at—stealth would be a good example here. Unfortunately, the cultist gimmick merely challenges the player in the same dimension—the dimension of combat—and even removes their weapons, making it even harder. It tries to be a neat gimmick, but with how often the cultists use this attack it really only takes one or two occurrences before it gets old.
*end mild spoiler*


Some people laud the difficulty, saying that it makes you appreciate the effort of planning and staying alive. Yet how much finesse can you expect your player to work with in a game with so many enemies you can mow them down like blades of grass? Most of the justification that I can find for this game's difficulty comes from people explaining how easy it is once you know how to get this weapon, or where these healing items are. Unfortunately for new players, they don't know the mall like the back of their hands, and the bosses and tougher enemies are not going to wait for them to learn it. And what few clues the player is given come in the form of illegible text that the player must read during said difficult combat.

Dead Rising sets itself up to be an adrenaline ride, an empowering killathon. Unfortunately, overly difficult enemies and a strict save system tend to cause initial playthroughs to feel sluggish, nearly ruining the promised experience. With all of that said, I still enjoyed the game enough to beat it (the 72 hour mode at least, which is far less than 72 real time hours), and look forward to going back and trying to complete more case files as well as the overtime and infinity play modes. I get and respect what Capcom was going for with the strange and strict save system (only one save at a time, save points somewhat scarce), I just don't think this was the game to plug that into.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pick Your Poison

So I got a tetanus shot yesterday. "Why not?" I figured; it was offered to me while I was doing a physical and talking with my doctor about finding a specialist for my severe mitral valve prolapse (my God, I'm falling apart...). So I got this shot because it was offered to me, I hadn't had it in a while, and "lockjaw" is perhaps as irrationally terrifying and controlling an argument as "9-11" when faced with such a decision.

So I don't feel good today, and looking online confirms that my symptoms are resemblant of a mild reaction to the tetanus vaccination. Nothing terribly serious compared with some of the examples I've seen online (fully swollen arm?? Crying nonstop for three hours???), but I am not yet sure I feel like going to work. With all the long symptom lists I have to sit through watching medicine commercials, I wonder why doctors aren't legally responsible for explaining the more common symptoms of something like a vaccination when they ask if you want to take it. In fact, that no symptoms were explicitly mentioned to me (I did ask if I would be okay to type at work afterward, and the doctor said I should be fine -- and was right) was a fairly large factor in my decision to get the shot in the first place.

Had I known how I would feel the next day, would I have taken the shot? I don't know, maybe. Or maybe I would wait until a weekend so it wouldn't affect me at work, or wait until I injure myself on a piece of metal (I honestly have never heard of anyone contracting tetanus without such an associated injury, though I'm sure it happens). The point isn't really whether my decision would have been affected, but that I was put in a position to make a decision without sufficient information when sufficient information should be easily provided. I suppose I should have asked what the odds and severity of such a vaccination were, and I certainly will from now on.

It would be unfair of me to criticize this occurrence if the odds of negative symptoms are one in a million and I just got unlucky. However, it seems that negative symptoms to such a vaccination are not uncommon. Okay, so I experienced soreness at the injection site (1 in 4); big deal. But I am also experiencing a mild fever (1 in 4), tiredness or loss of appetite (1 in 10 for either, but I feel both, and somewhat nauseated), and I guess I'm feeling fussiness (1 in 3) since I'm complaining on a blog.

Seriously, fussiness?? Is that even really a "symptom"?

Okay, so it's a moderate deal, I'm going to be late for work today if I even feel like going in at all, but it's worth it because lockjaw is such a big deal with a 10 percent fatality rate even if treated properly. Except that, supposedly, there are less than 100 cases of tetanus and only 5 deaths per year in the United States. And I bet most of those cases involve people who work with sharp tools and machinery day in and day out, farming etc. Now, I'm not a large proponent of internet statistics, and I am certain there are many inaccuracies in the sources I have linked to, or in my own interpretation of them. However, I am not trying to proclaim that tetanus vaccinations should never be given; I am simply claiming that maybe patients should not have to opt in to find out the risks of a vaccination they are about to receive and that such information should be offered up front when there is no immediate threat of such a disease (once again, I had not injured myself on any dirty objects) so the patient can decide whether or not they want something injected into their bloodstream in a more educated manner.

I was going to tie this information-hiding into game design, but I don't feel like typing anymore. Gonna leave that ellipsis as three periods and that dash as two hyphens, and I think you can read the quotes even though I am using the incorrect and ambiguous ascii version. Might fix these things later.

Time to ~_~zzz

Friday, January 4, 2008

2008, Step Up to the Plate

It's hard not to say that 2007 was one of the best years for video games, art and industry. Every direction I looked—hardcore, casual, and indie—I started to feel a certain emotion for the art that I thought I would never feel again. It's a light, pleasant burning in my chest, I believe it's called pride but it's been a while so forgive me if I am wrong. Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the reasons I enjoyed 2007 as a gamer and why I look forward with unusual (yet hopefully not unwarranted) optimism to the art form's evolution as a game designer.


A year or two ago, I was watching X-Play with my friend when a preview video of a game came on. It was from a first person perspective, and obviously FMV. Some guy was chasing after a little girl with a wrench for some reason, not sure why, and then this bigger guy in a diving suit with a drill for a hand came and kicked his ass. I yawned, thinking about how typical it is that they would show an FMV instead of gameplay footage, completely unimpressed.

Flash Forward to fall of 2007, and everyone's talking about this awesome new game called “Bioshock.” My interest is caught, but come on; it's just another first person shooter, right? I mean, I've gunned down ignorant humanoids in narrow corridors in Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, UT, GoldenEye, Halo, F.E.A.R—how impressed can I possibly be with yet another entry into the fray? Boy did I call that one wrong.

It isn't the high level storytelling that Irrational has gifted us with—games have a looong way to go in the interactive narrative department, regarding breadth, depth, and quality, if we still think the only dramatic dichotomy worth pursuing is that of choosing to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’. But pay attention to the narrative undertone, the story that emerges (Crawford, forgive me) from the gameplay mechanics as you explore Rapture. It's wonderful. Your flame plasmid sets the doctor on fire, but he just runs into the nearest flooded room to put it out? Not a problem, just shoot him with an electric buck and watch him twitch helplessly to the tune of irony. Tired of fighting altogether? Hack security bots, confuse big daddies, or send a swarm of hornets to do the job for you. Okay, so it's all combat- and resource-oriented, which is a sorta taboo topic among those wishing to elevate video games/electronic entertainment/interactive entertainment into a more diverse narrative sphere, but what did you expect? It's just another first person shooter.

And what another first person shooter. Game Industry, would you kindly take notes?


I couldn't praise Bioshock and not find room to equally laud Portal. I probably put a good 30–40 hours into Bioshock the first time through. Portal took only three hours to beat, and was just as fulfilling. I could talk about the novel puzzles allowed by the mechanics of this “shooter” or the fantastic dialog of GlaDOS and the magnificent voice acting of Ellen McLain, an opera singer who exhibits more talent than she has any right to. But what I feel is most important to learn from this gem is the fact that it proves that non-casual games can still be successful in small bites. 80 hours of gameplay for another Japanese RPG? No, my friend, it may take you 80 hours to complete said RPG, but I can guarantee Portal has more real ‘gameplay’.

I actually called this one somewhat correctly. I was anticipating Portal up until its release, and that faith was well-placed—in fact, the quirky story told in a non-intrusive style that Valve still holds the golden key to pushed the quality of this game above my already high expectations. Portal is so incredibly important to the art of game design because it reminds us that, like with any art, game design is just as much subtractive as it is additive.

Super Mario Galaxy

I called this one wrong too, and not because of Sunshine. No, Sunshine did not impress me much, but what was even more disappointing for me was Mario 64, which left me with luke-warm feelings toward any future 3D Mario. I know, I know, I'll let that sink in, even restate it here for clarity: Mario 64 was incredibly overrated and disappointing. I am obliged to say that I enjoyed the game thoroughly, even took the time to get all 120 stars, but it just wasn't as enjoyable as the 2D Marios. I always felt that it was a bit rushed, just the victim of a small era in video games when companies were first making the transition from 2D to 3D and did not quite get it. It's hard for me to really knock M64, as it did most things pretty well, but it certainly lacked the tightness and polish of its 2D predecessors. The controls were, understandably and yet still disappointingly, more difficult to utilize in 3D, and I found many jumps artificially hard as depth perception can falter when watching an avatar from a distance try to navigate oddly shaped terrain. Likewise, the pacing was not quite up to what I would expect from the series; 2D Marios streamline enemies, items, jumps, and excitement at you, while in 64 I found myself having to look for said excursions. I will never cease believing that the 3D in Mario 64 was more of a marketing necessity than a necessary addition to the Mario formula, one which Nintendo failed at the time to convince me they had gotten right. And yes, I do get a knot in my stomach every time I am reminded of its general popularity. I attribute this popularity to the probability that most fans and reviewers that elevated it to this level are too young to fully grasp the quality of the unquestionably superior SNES Marios which don't even appear on such charts; after all, it certainly can't be my opinion that's wrong ;).

Regardless, considering Mario 64 left a less-than-stellar impression on me and I had to put up with years of fans hailing it as one of the best games of all time (Hello—SMW? Yoshi's Island??), it is easy to understand why I had no excitement held in me for Galaxy. But where Mario 64 felt like a premature release of the “Mario enters 3D” concept, a C-section perhaps spurred on by the craze over 3D gameplay at the time, Mario Galaxy feels like a sculpture whose artist poured his heart and soul into it, adding here and removing there until only an ideal realization remained. If you have not yet played it, there is really very little I can say to make you appreciate how good Galaxy turned out. I will say that it did away with most of the problems I had with 64; the planetoid level design makes this the only 3D platformer that I have ever seen to successfully capture the streamlined adrenaline of 2D platformers without losing the exploratory freedom one can enjoy in a 3D realm*. Game designers, aspiring and veteran, I implore you to ponder this with the sincerity and wonderment of a group of chemists reviewing a recent discovery that water and salt can be mixed to create oil.

The game did have its flaws. With many different avatar control schemes, from riding on the back of a sting ray to floating around trapped in a bubble, there were times when I found myself facing an artificial difficulty in mobility. The worst offender of this is swimming: Why does my analog stick behave differently when I am on land than when I am under water? Even worse, why does it behave differently when I am swimming under water than when I am swimming at the surface?? But it's hard to fault the game too much for a few questionable control decisions and the occasional iffy camera placement when it presents 120 of the most innovative and well polished levels in video game history in a non-linear manner. Don't like swimming? You can beat the game without ever getting your feet wet**. Super Mario Galaxy is possibly the most important game that was released this year, for it shows that a cash cow sequel can still be a fantastic and innovative title by its own merits if the developer truly wishes it. Though their comfort zone coincides a bit too much with the space of established franchises, Nintendo shows us time and time again that they get this—so let's start showing that we as an industry get this too, okay?

Nights: Journey of Dreams

I have a small set of games that are so good, yet so incomparably different from each other, that they are tied for first place as my favorite games of all time. Nights: Into Dreams is one of them. I always wanted a sequel to this game, not because I was naive enough to think that every good game would benefit from a sequel but because the first, wonderful as it was, was so short as to leave me with an appetite yet. I hear that if you stop eating a meal before you are full, your stomach will eventually stop sending hunger signals to your brain as it realizes that no more food is coming. In the same vein, I eventually moved on and stopped longing for a sequel to this magical title. When I heard about JoD in March, I was swallowing my excitement and prepared to slap someone (an innocent bystander or coworker at the least) if it turned out to be an April Fool's joke.

It wasn't, I avoided having to attend a seminar on workplace assault, and Journey of Dreams was released in December of 2007. It was not a disappointment, but nor was it a soul-entrancer like the original—essentially, it was what I expected, and I was very pleased. Sub-par platforming levels and too few dreams (as many dreams as the original, though each dream has a lot more content) prevent this game from being particularly respectable. But JoD is a spectacular tribute to its predecessor, and if you played the original and did not smile and chill up with nostalgic goosebumps while playing the Bellbridge dream in JoD, you may in fact be an android.

I generally like my sequels to be large enough steps forward to warrant hiding behind the safety of its predecessor's fame. JoD did not really manage this, though I don't think it was released in a manner to take advantage of the original's cult success (11 years is an awfully long time for hype to wear thin). JoD managed to improve graphically (so you can see more than 10 feet in front of you before polygons start bailing) and was a little longer with a little more gameplay variety. Unfortunately, not all of the variety was as enjoyable as the pure flight-based formula that Nights was built on. The music was just as fantastic as the original, and even the non-remix tracks overflowed with nostalgia. Nights can talk now, for better or worse—the voice acting is well-done even if the script is a little laughable at times, but where did my silent avatar go? My conclusion is that if you enjoyed the original or are looking for a fun, quirky title and own a Wii, you can't go wrong with this game. I wouldn't say it has done much for the artform or the industry, but it did a lot for me—which is also what this list is about.

Picross DS

Okay, I'm going to wager that I took most of you by surprise with this one. As I just said, this list is also about games that gave me something, and for a simple logical puzzle game it is impressive that I found the time in my busy schedule of personal projects and industry crunch to put dozens of hours into it. I absolutely loved Mario's Picross on the Game Boy, and had no idea this game was released until I spotted it on a store shelf. It's rare to get two decade-late sequels to games that you really enjoy in a single year; but such is the magic of 2007.

Picross is a clever and addictive game based on the concept of nonogram puzzles, which in my opinion are lightyears more enjoyable than sudoku puzzles, assuming enjoyment can be measured in astrological units of distance. Here is a description of these types of puzzles, and here is an online example of such puzzles. Perfect as a DS game, no? I think it's fantastic that we are starting to see a valid place in the commercial spotlight for games like this***.

California Overtime Reform

No, this is not a video game title. There has been some reform in California that enforces overtime pay for certain positions in the game industry (and the software industry in general). I think this is important for the game industry because video games are, believe it or not, made by human beings and not machines. Human beings need variety in their life to be fulfilled, and doing something 80, 90, 100 hours a week is not healthy even if it's something you enjoy in smaller doses. Perhaps people outside of the industry don't see this as a problem, thinking that video game development is ‘easy’, ‘fun’, or gosh ‘not even real work’. I don't know where they get these ideas, but video game development is a real job with real challenges and real stress.

There are things I don't like about California (as there are things that I don't like about any state that I have lived in), but I do admire this initiative. Good games are made when talented people are treated like people and allowed to let their hearts guide their minds to create something wonderful and unique. Not-so-good games are made when talented people are worked like slaves and forced to shovel out a movie game in an unreasonable time frame because they didn't get the license until August and the movie is showing in May. Admittedly, I don't know many details of California labor laws, or any labor laws for that matter, and I will study them in the near future as it seems a topic worth my time to become educated on. But we as an industry need to realize that we are not a group of peons whose only purpose in life is to shovel out market-driven games, unnecessary sequels, and poorly planned movie titles to fill the pockets of filthy rich stock holders who haven't played any game more complex than Windows Solitaire and who get a majority of the profits and bonuses while putting in a fraction of the work to produce a given title. It's really a damn shame that this sentiment is not ethical common sense in our industry, and it is probably due as much to us escalating to promise the stars then finding that we can only deliver the moon as it is to unadulterated greed. But if the law must step in from time to time to try and shift us in the right direction, then I am glad that it is doing so, and I hope that we can capture this momentum instead of backsliding. Maybe someday we will mature to do the right thing without the law holding our hands.

I entered the industry

This last entry will not make much of an impression on any of you—yet ;)—but on February 20th, 2007, I finally accomplished a dream that I have had since I was five years old and drawing Mario levels on the back of my year book instead of getting it signed by classmates; I entered the video game industry. It has been a hard road, much harder than I imagined, and near the end I started to realize that this is not the first step nor the last step—it is just a step, one of oh-so-many along the road of fulfilling my true dream of becoming an accomplished designer of interactive entertainment and advancing the artform at an unprecedented rate.

2007, you falsified my jaded pessimism twice and tickled my nostalgia bone twice, unexpectedly. Well played. And 2008—it's a tough act to follow, I know, but what do you have? I can't wait to see.

* Sonic Adventure came damn close, but failed for having overly twitchy controls.
** I think—point is, you have a lot of variety in which levels you choose to get the 60 necessary stars, ala Mario 64.
*** Despite being a solid title, the original Mario's Picross was not much of a commercial success, probably because it did not present 150 of something to collect and trade with school yard buddies.