Friday, March 28, 2003

Management by Nagging

Anybody can be a manager! It's easy. Here's how it works:

1) ask somebody to do something

2) come back later. ask them if they did it. if not, ask them if they could please do it

3) repeat step 2 until done

It's kind of sad. Despite the number of books on management and people skills I've read, it seems like in the end this is all I do.
Raph Koster says "Not depth, emergence." A better word than depth, I agree, although it may further muddy the distinction between A-Life emergence (an agent did something we didn't expect) and game strategy emergence (a strategy arose we didn't expect). Matt Matthews says maybe one word isn't enough; how about an adjective-noun pair? Hmm..."strategy emergence"..."interactive depth"..."emergent strategy"...I don't know...

Matt wanted to pin down whether I was talking about the micro game--the individual encounters, portions of levels, whatever--or the macro/holistic game. I was definitely talking about the micro game, something the player is going to repeat over and over, thus exploring the "emergent strategies." The macro/holistic game can have emergent strategies too..."get the fairy bottles early and the rest of the game is cake"...but most people are only going to play the holistic game once so I don't think the strategies are a goal, they're just a byproduct of the fact we want to make our holistic games nonlinear and interesting.

Getting together an E3 presubmit for Macrosoft today. This time, when the build broke, I took Draconian measures: I disabled everyone's write access to Perforce. Try checking in crap now, bitches! And, once the build was fixed, knowing that if everyone checked in at the same time it would be broke again in short order, I only let them do it one at a time. Now it's midnight, and the last of the day's changes are checked in, and...hooray...the build still works. An "I have the conch" system of check-ins is Chris Busse & Chuck Tolman's team did every day as a matter of course...maybe I'm dumb to save it for special occasions like this.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Innovation vs. Licensed Title Fallacy

I can't take it anymore. I had actually put this subject to rest in my mind a week or so ago when I tried to post here late and night and blogger ate my post. I'm sick of people making this improper "analysis" of our industry.

It is not a question of Innovation vs. Licensed/Sequel titles. There are 2 issues at hand and you all (Greg Costikian, Scott Miller, Jamie Fristrom, others) are mixing the two issues and coming to a false conclusion as a result of it. The two issues are Innovation vs. Lack of Innovation and Original Titles vs. Licensed Titles.

What is killing our industry is lack of innovation, NOT licensed titles. Yes, I fully recognize that the perception is that a lack of innovation tends to occur at a higher rate in licensed titles than it does in original titles. But to try and boil it down to just one issue is to sell our industry short of the single most unique and powerful tool it has at its disposal: Gameplay.

A game with good gameplay is going to be played and can sell well with proper marketing. Additionally, a game with good gameplay is going to continue to increase sales as that line of products moves forward and word of mouth spreads. A game that has good gameplay may even sell well in its current iteration (ala Diablo, Halo); but a true testament to how good a game was is really in how its sequel does (GTA3 > GTA3:VC) as well as how many "clones" come out later as well.

Good gameplay (and innovation of gameplay) can occur in either a original title OR a licensed/sequel title.

The problem, as I see it, is that many companies and developers are taking a short-term view look at things and not a long-term view; they all want to make the quick buck. Yes, profitability is paramount (unless you are looking to games as art, in which case expect to be making a lot of great games that people buy at shareware sites for $5). But profitability can be gained immediately or over the long haul. It has been the slash and burn tactics of many companies over the last 5 years or so that have really brought our industry to the creative nadir that it seems to be at now (I use companies because I think there have been both developers and publishers that are culpable in this matter).

The attitude to just get a game out now and on the shelves and "salvage" whatever we can from the investment, is what is killing us; because it brings the average quality of our titles down. If you have a game that stinks then someone needs to step up to the plate and kill it or sack up and spend more time and money to make it a great game. Continuing to put half-hearted efforts out there is only going to slowly drive the whole industry into the ground further and further.

But, what can you do as an industry worker? To steal from the green-heads: "Think Globally, Act Locally"

Make sure the game you are working on isn't tripe. Don't stand for it. Bitch to your Producer or Creative Director, or the Director of Development, or whoever will listen if your game is shite. Sure, making a great game is hard work, but if you don't do something about it, who will? The suits? They aren't going to make that call, its up to you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Why do people play games? I'd like an exhaustive list of reasons, because it seems like it would be a useful analytical tool. In particular, a game-design rule or guideline could be put within a particular context. Or tradeoffs could be discussed more clearly.

I'd like suggestions for additions to the list. I found myself asking questions like "Why did I put so much time into TFC?"(2,3,8,9,10,13,14), "Why do people cheat at online games?" (#9 + #10) and "Why is Jamie's wife still playing Animal Crossing?" (#13, maybe plus #12)

1. Testing myself against a system
2. Testing myself against others in a competitive situation
3. Operating as part of a team
4. Flavor of pretending to be in a situation
5. Seeing how a situation might play out
6. Having a pretext for acting differently
7. Pretext for socializing
8. Plumbing the depths of a system
9. Feeling of success
10. Gain esteem of others
11. Visceral feel
12. Passing time
13. Pride of ownership in an improved in-game state
14. Challenge of improving personal skills
15. Connection with certain themes

1. Puzzles, low-interactivity games (Princes of Florence), Single-player FPS & RTS
2. Multiplayer FPS & RTS, sports titles
3. Team-based FPS, sports
4. RPGs, Historical Simulations.
5. Historical Simulations, RPGs
6. Paranoia & other RPGs, Apples to Apples
7. Parlor games, Party games
8. Chess, Go, Bridge
9. Most games
10. Many competitive games
11. Quake, Starcraft, GTA
12. Minesweeper, Solitaire, any game once mastered
13. Everquest, The Sims, Animal Crossing
14. Any “testing self” or “plumbing depths” game, Poker
15. Railroads, History, War, Airplanes, etc.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Notes on Uplink

Ok, more on the Indy Game front. (Although Uplink may not qualify anymore, now that they've got a deal with Infogrames.)

I've only played it for a couple of days, and there's still a lot more to explore, but let me get some first impressions down:

Uplink simulates being a hacker, but it's even better than it sounds: it simulates being a good, cinematic hacker. Something we learned from Die By The Sword is that people didn't want to simulate swordfighting; they wanted to simulate movie swordfighting. They want to parry and riposte, and all that exciting stuff. The realism of Die By The Sword went too far. Uplink does not have that problem. When playing, you feel like the guy from Swordfish. (Side note: my friend Jon Ross actually knows a guy who does computer interfaces for the movies. Says he mocks them all up in director. Apparently most of the movie development houses work with this guy. Just a factoid I found interesting.)

Is simulation always good? Not necessarily. IMO, what makes simulation good is the immersion it gives, and the more accurate a sim is, gameplay can be improved because the sim will behave the way the user expects it to behave. Uplink succeeds in both of these areas.

When the game kicks in, it drops you straight into the simulation. You can almost imagine that you're a real life hacker, being given access to a hacking-server-farm somewhere on the internet. Elements that add to the immersion of the sim: there is a newsreel you can access. When the game begins, certain news items hint at a story, and show that there are other hackers at work doing the same things you're doing. When you start doing big hacks yourself, there are news items about you. Talk about feeling like you're in a world.

And I won't spoil them, but the elements of the sim that mimic real life allowed me to come up with strategies that actually worked.

Still, in Uplink gameplay trumps simulation: there are 'time controls' clumsily wedded into the interface which allow you to "get to the good bits" quicker, whether it's waiting for a mission to pop up, waiting for a stock price to change, or waiting for hardware to be installed on your hacker rig. And although sometimes the hacking is unrealistic so it can be more cinematic, mostly the hacking is unrealistic so it can be a better game.

(And moments of humor. "Government" is just another company, which probably simplified their coding slightly, and evokes Snow Crash And there's a Steve Jackson Games that has had their server seized by said government.)

One of Noah Falstein's 400 is "Provide Parallel Challenges with Mutual Assistance" and Uplink does this in a couple of ways; one by providing you with a set of missions, each one of which you complete earns you money which you can use to buy hardware to defeat still harder missions. Also, you can always hack additional systems to increase your chances for a given uber-hack. Another Noah Falstein rule is "Emphasize Exploration and Discovery", and Uplink does this as well. You can hack the systems that you're on a mission to hack, or you can explore a world of internet nodes, discovering as you go.

The fundamental mechanic of hacking is this: you have a certain amount of time to hack a system before you're caught, but all the software you can bring to bear on the problem takes time to execute. For me, the constant time pressure created actual adrenaline rushes, a level of excitement that is rarely acheived by other games.

So what about the 'breadth' and 'emergence'? The hacking in uplink relies on adding new elements as you go (you start with the password cracker, then the voice analyzer, then the encryption cypher, and so on) instead of taking what you've learnt so far and extending it, although you definitely can take some of the simpler systems and multiply them for added power. But, like Pikmin, the game is more about discovering how to use and deal with simple elements. Which means for it to remain interesting and challenging, the tutorial has to be sparse; the game is about figuring out how to play the game. Rather than being "Simple to Learn, Hard to Master", it's just "Hard to Learn". I'm sure some people like this aspect of it. (There were some flames on the Uplink forum against people who asked for advice, implying that figuring it out for yourself is what the game is all about.) Not exactly my cup of tea, but I'm willing to accept it, and it can still be worth many hours of attention.

To hack tough systems you hack a lot of smaller systems first. I'm reminded of digging lots of horizontal holes in Lode Runner to get deeper. This brings me to my big complaint with the game. Games can frequently be broken down into their micro and macro aspects. For example, a typical console FRPG will have the fight-with-monsters as the micro-game, and the resource management of your characters hitpoints, skills, and items is the macro-game. With FRPG's the micro-game often becomes tedious -- it crosses the gray area between 'game' and 'chore' -- and it's just the macro-game that pulls you along. Uplink has the same problem. It also has the same benefit; when you hack a system in seconds that used to take you a whole minute, it feels a lot like that party of orcs that used to be tough to kill but now only takes one fireball spell to eliminate; "I'm a badass now!" There are many games out there that prove that if you get the macro-game right, the micro-game doesn't have to be that involving: Animal Crossing and Diablospring to mind. (My wife still plays Animal Crossing and, frankly, I'm getting a little worried about her.) Uplink, for me, is right on the edge; when an uber-hack fails and I say to myself, "I've got to hack all those little computers again," I come pretty close to quitting forever.

Minor nice touch: someone who's name I forget wrote in Game Design Perspectives that Doug Church's "Perceivable Consequence" meant that the consequences of a game action should be severe -- severe enough to make a difference, anyway. It's not clear to me that's what Doug meant, but it may be true whether he meant it or not. Uplink's software economy has an interesting feature along these lines: version n of any given software package costs the same no matter what version of the software you already have. Which creates an interesting choice: do you hold out until you can afford the full deal, or do you accept the weaker software knowing that you're going to have to still pay full price later?

On superstitious learning: part of the game is you have to delete log files to avoid capture. When you get caught, you don't get arrested right away. Which causes a lack of clarity I don't particularly like -- "Why did I get busted that time?" -- but has a nice side benefit: (one is it gives you the opportunity to booby-trap your equipment, which is probably why it works that way) it allows us to think that there may be more going on inside the sim than there really is. In the forums, people seem to be split about whether you have to delete just the routing logs, or if you should delete everything.

They have a brutal save game system: when you lose, they delete all your progress. I'll skip the arguments for and against this, and point out that you can easily hack the save files. This may be a case of Introversion knowing their market, and understanding their metagame: the kind of people who like this kind of game will easily be able to figure out how to save their progress, if that's what they want.

Uplink is buggy, which may be an unavoidable side effect of being an independent game. No army of testers on a battery of computers. What can be done about this? Either indy game developers have to slow down and spend more time testing (which may speed them up in the long run, according to some studies) or maybe the indy movement could use some kind of indy testing community.

So there it is. Since I'd never played Hack or Neuromancer, for me, Uplink was a very fresh experience, and you should check it out if you're looking for something new.

On the topic of indy games, I noticed that there are supposedly 10,000 people in the Uplink forums. If they all bought legit copies, and they make a $20 profit on a $25 sale, that's $200,000. Supposing it took a year to develop (pulled that out of my ass), and there's about four of them...sounds like they're in the "barely surviving" stage. Hard to say. It's not much, but it may be worth it to come up with something fresh, where you own the IP. I'm sure they've acheived their 'minimum profitability', to riff off of Peter Drucker and Greg Costikyan. You go, guys.