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Monthly Archives: April 2013

BlackAs I continue developing my personal game project, a little worry keeps on nibbling at the back of my mind– and, at this point, it’s probably had enough time to chew away a substantial portion of my brain stem, which is unfortunate because soap gutter sandwich fishpipe copal mignant farmeuse

Sorry. That happens sometimes now. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Coming up with a title. Titles are hard, am I right guys?

What makes a good title? Or, for that matter, a bad one? First, most obviously, it needs to differentiate one’s game or film or book or what-have-you from everyone else’s. It’s like a serial number, except if you get one tattooed on you people think it’s stupid instead of terrifying. This is why shorter, and therefore easier to remember, titles are generally considered better. This is also, tangentially, why using the same name as a completely different project is dumb.

But there’s a bit more to it than that– because, you see, the title should also communicate something about the content, and sometimes it’s hard to do that without using a name someone else has used before. Even if the thing they used it for has nothing to do with the name and they picked it just because it sounded cool, you have to live with the consequences of their poor decision.

No, I ain’t bitter, shut up.

thebusthatcouldntslowdown

Damn them!

Really outstanding titles are rare, and they are made really outstanding by the same mechanism that makes other titles really terrible: They evoke something. The question is whether what they evoke is a) desirable and b) suitable to the piece in question. Thief is a great title, because it tells you exactly what you’re going to be doing in the game: Stealing shit. Conversely, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP is, I’m sorry, a wretched goddamn title. First, it’s super long, which wouldn’t be that big a problem if it was also really distinctive and memorable and usefully evocative. It’s not. Superbrothers suggests some kind of superhero story, and Sword & Sorcery is a cliche and suggests a hack and slash game completely different from the actual gameplay– the only part that fits is ‘EP’, which communicates that it’s a musical experience and probably not all that long.

A really good pair of examples within the same series: Amnesia: The Dark Descent is useful as an identifier but quite generic, especially the subtitle. Together, the title and subtitle manage to suggest mystery and horror, but not to evoke it very strongly. However, the in-development sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, has an incredible title. It makes one uncomfortable just to say it out loud, or even just think it.

Supposedly shorter is better. Easier to say, easier to remember. These are certainly worthy advantages, but it’s difficult to be very evocative with a snappy one-word title. Games with really good single-word titles are quite difficult to think of– the only really outstanding ones that come to mind are Portal and Thief. It doesn’t get much easier if you expand out to other media. The bulk of single word titles which are, if not necessarily excellent, at least sufficient, are mostly taken by character names. Hamlet, Shaft, Milk, etcetera. Wow– that got suggestive fast.

shaft

This is great, normally someone tells me to shut my mouth when I try to talk about Shaft.

Place names are also popular for titles, though these are seldom one word: Silent Hill, Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard. These are usually sufficient titles for much the same reason that these are sufficient place names, they serve as adequate unique identification to help people remember which creepy movie is which. However, these titles tend to tell you very little about the content. Yeah, it’s about Hamlet, or yeah, it takes place on Sunset Blvd, so what? These names are memorable because we know them now, but as a title they are, at most, functional.

Context is important too. Starcraft would be an abysmal title if it hadn’t been the spiritual successor to Warcraft. If you start your title with ‘World’, ‘Age’, or ‘Lords’ everyone will assume it’s a strategy game or an MMORPG. If it’s one manly sounding word, like ‘RAGE’ or ‘DOOM’ or ‘PECS’, it’s a run and gun first person shooter. Vast swaths of words are basically off limits now because they’re so associated with particular games of franchises: “Duty”. “Craft”. “Shock”. “Cry”. “Portal”.

I think we all must love the bizarre titles we see on Japanese games– we’ve gotten used to a lot of them but, let’s face it, Metal Gear Solid, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, these names don’t make any sense. These are words that don’t go together. It’s magnificent! And, what’s even better, more often than not they somehow end up writing a story where these names actually do end up making sense. It’s like video game Madlibs.

mgsrv

And, like Madlibs, more often than not results in tragedy

Gibberish names have a way of working out. When we’re trying to be creative, when we’re trying to think of things that have never been thought of before, the last thing we need is to be constrained by the cliches of language. If people like the piece we’ve titled, the title becomes its own force and has its own influence to shape other titles. A new title, even if it’s nonsensical, represents a new idea, and has to be taken on that merit. It might not be good marketing, but maybe its good art. Give it the weird title, the title that expresses the weird idea at the weird heard of your weird game, and just go with it.

It will probably work out– unless it doesn’t. But, either way, it will be entirely your own. And, if that’s not important to you, then why are you creating in the first place?

EveHeader

Unfortunately, as the primary design phase of the project comes to a close and I enter the engine programming phase, I worry that the devblog will become commensurately less enjoyable for the general populace to read. While I forge away from fables and rhymes into somewhat dry technical discourse, I worry that the sudden precipitation might just be the tears that I am now boring everyone to.

So be it.

Once I get the project a bit further along I can see about recording some footage. I suspect seeing the engine in action will be a great deal more entertaining than reading about the details of its creation– unless, perhaps, you’re a programmer, but probably even then.

So: What specifically have I been working on, you might be asking? After I sketched out a technical specification for the project– one which I’m sure will require a tremendous amount of reworking and updating as I find mistakes and notice omissions– I picked one task out of the many left to be done to focus on next. The task I chose was particle effects. I chose these for a few reasons: I enjoy graphics programming, it’s closely related to the last major section of the code-base I worked on (the level details), it will look awesome once I get it up and running, and, most importantly, this is probably the single most likely component to murder the game’s performance on slower machines. Getting it done early means more time for optimization and workarounds if there’s a problem with the effects I have planned.

I spent the last 5 days or so working on this (the first couple of days were for working on the technical specification): As of today, I have it kind of sort of running. But not really. But kind of sort of.

What I mean to say by this is, it’s completely unintegrated into the game-engine at large and a whole lot of the features are not yet operational (scaling, rotating, coloration changes, blending between graphics, non-bitmap particle types, z axis, parallax scrolling behavior, etcetera), but I can test it out and it works more or less like it’s supposed to and no longer gives me compiler or run-time errors.

SnowflakesTest001

So yay.

On to week thirty-two. First order of business is obviously to get all of that stuff that I just mentioned as being non-functional functioning, then fully integrate these particle effects into the engine. After that, at some point here, I’m going to need to integrate them into the editor as well, but I’m probably going to be saving developing the editor for a bit further down the road, when I have the fundamental components of the engine further along.

Let’s see. My shoulder’s been hurting less since I started drawing on a different surface with a better angle, so I may get back to animation at some point. Breaking down a list of the music I’ll need for the game and the basic sound I want for each section would also likely be a good use of my time. I may see about pursuing one or both of those over the course of the week, as well. And, of course, there’s still a few design tasks left to be done… I should definitely put some time into actually figuring out what those are, as well, since I never think of them when I have the kind of free time that is useful for that kind of work.

So many possibilities! So overwhelming! So magnificent!

storm

I imagine it to be raining. The drops tap against the panes of glass and I can imagine the cold wet outside and I savor my imaginary cold-weather melancholy. I have an affinity for the melancholic: It reaffirms my instincts about sadness, which is a comfort. My instinct tells me that sadness is eternal, that it is unmoving and unmoved, that it is the ocean. Sadness is at the beginning and the end. We like to stop our stories just before we get to the sad part but it pokes out like nipples through a thin shirt on a rainy day. There are no happy endings because immediately underneath the happy ending is a sea of tiny tragedies waiting to seep out, waiting to wash our black and white photographic memories until they’re all just a flat expanse of gray.

And that’s the world.

I imagine it to be raining even when it isn’t. It’s easier to imagine it at night. It’s easier to imagine that the taps of my fingers on the keyboard are the taps of the drops of water on the glass.

I worry that I am self indulgent. I worry that no one wants to read my raw primordial brain stew. The rain washes this away as well. I want to be myself harder than anything has ever been anything. I want to be the lighthouse guiding my existence, a bright shining invisible beacon of myself, to myself. I want to blind people with my invisible radiance and incomprehensibility. I want to exceed the language I have available to describe myself. I want to be the rock so heavy that even I cannot lift it. I want to consume the world, earth crumbling against my teeth as I chew the scenery and swallow dust washed down with salty salt sea. Or, perhaps, rather than consume, to subsume, to supersede, to override the existence of everything with myself, to spread out impossibly thin and become a part of everything.

This is a piece of myself. All of my writing is a piece of myself. Will I run out of pieces?

No. This is how I am infinite. My conception outruns existence. If it exists I can imagine it, and imagine more beyond it. I am without scope and without scale, I am infinite and infinitesimal, I am a drop in the ocean, I am the ocean and I will erode this fucking mountain day by day, I will slam my body and my mind against the impossible and erode it day by day, I will erode the foundations of things that do not exist and cause the non-existent things to collapse and leave only things that exist behind. I am a reverse tsunami and I will leave construction in my wake. I will destroy nothingness. I will be a second life built on top of the first, a third on the second, and so forth. I will tower. I will do more than control, I will conceive of a world on top of the world. Control would be redundant.

Suck a dick, Walt Whitman. This song is all about me.

Stonecutters

Adaptive difficulty is a game design concept that held a great deal of traction for a little while but has seemingly fallen out of favor recently. “The player should be challenged at all times,” is the ideal, “but never actually fail.” “The game should be balanced such that the player is always exerting herself to the utmost of her skill,” is what they say, “but under no circumstances find that skill insufficient.” This is the premise behind Adaptive Difficulty, the idea that the game adjusts its challenge level as you play to match your skill, to present a maximally compelling experience.

It’s kind of a crock of shit. I’m glad that designers don’t seem to take it seriously as a concept any more, but I suspect that that has more to do with a shift away from single-player being the primary mode of game consumption than the concept being actively debunked. So, hey, let’s take a little while to debunk it here.

To explain why this is a silly idea, let’s take it to its logical conclusion. Let us envision a game that perfectly, moment to moment, adapts its difficulty to what the player is doing. Such a game would be impossible to lose, because the moment you make a mistake it would adapt to make it a non-fatal mistake: We can actually imagine taking this to somewhat hilarious conclusions as the world, cartoon-like, warps itself to account for what should be fatal mistakes. Maybe the spikes are rubber, or gravity reverses, or your lucky bulletproof bible takes the bullet. Whatever. The wall of resistance normally proffered by difficulty becomes a thin fabric, unable to resist our touch in any way.

Kool-Aid_Man_breaking_wall_1978

Resistance just makes him more delicious

In its most extreme form adaptive difficulty is, effectively, no difficulty at all.

Of course, that’s an impossible and largely undesirable ideal. Most games that experiment with adaptive difficulty have some form of inertia built into the system, so once you fail the difficulty lowers itself and when you succeed it raises itself and hypothetically achieves some form of long term balance this way. This really doesn’t do much to prevent the kinds of choke-point issues that normal static difficulty presents, and also, once a player is aware of it, tends to undermine any sense of achievement they would get from beating a difficult game.

“What, you mean you let me win?”

These ideals exist for a reason, though. The big issue with most older games is that you choose the difficulty once at the start, if at all, and are stuck throughout with a game which is probably too difficult or too easy for the player’s skill level. We can allow the player to change the difficulty after the start of the game, but this then restrains us from using certain tools in order to craft a more difficult experience– for example, if the primary method you use to set the difficulty of the game is to limit the player’s starting resources, you can’t really change that on the fly. Many games aren’t even hospitable to difficulty changes at all– what would an easy mode in Super Meat Boy even look like?

supermeat

Fire the meat cannon!

It is assumed that it’s a problem with the game if it is hard enough that a player has genuine difficulty completing it. Most players don’t complete the games they play, regardless of difficulty, and can lose interest just as easily because it is too easy as because it is too difficult. It is assumed that frustration is necessarily a fault with the game. It is assumed, in effect, that players would rather have drama masquerading as challenge than the drama of a genuinely challenging experience.

What you have to remember about people who play video games is that if there’s one thing that games have taught them it’s how to dissect game systems. You can’t expect to give them a system that adapts the difficulty to their performance without them noticing and without it affecting their reaction to the game in some capacity. Or, at least, you can’t if you frame it like that…

But what if, just as an example, you added a system to your game where it gets steadily easier as the player plays it? And what if, in this purely hypothetical example, the content of the game got harder and harder over its duration, but the harder content and the easier play were in rough parity such that, as the player progresses, the difficulty remains more or less constant– perhaps a bit harder if the player is progressing quickly, a bit easier if she’s taking her time, but fairly consistently regardless? And all of this is made completely clear to the player, so she knows exactly how powerful she is and approximately where that stacks up relative to the enemies and, if she’s feeling overmatched, she can willfully hang back for a while to build power to progress to the next phase?

Yes, it’s my revolutionary new adaptive difficulty system, and if you pay me $500,000 you can license it for use in your own game. I call it: Experience Points.

This isn’t all experience points have been used for. I could write a whole other piece about the many game design problems which this premise has helped to solve, and probably another of equal length on the problems it has introduced. Nor am I claiming they are a perfect solution to this problem– but they are a solution, and one which doesn’t require us to posit alternate easy and hard realities for our worlds, one which doesn’t require us to convert our mighty monsters to paper targets to satisfy a player’s narrative urge. The effect is similar, but the context is different.

rabbit

Could we then posit leaks from one world into the other? Hmm…

Instead of making the world smaller, we’ve made the player bigger. Maybe everything works out about the same, but in the end the experience is as much about its context as its content. There’s a difference between a system which implies “of course this is easy for you, you’re the main character” and one which implies “of course this is easy for you, you’ve mastered the Thousand Blade Strike of Master Vividalfofo over 5 years of training on Monster Mountain.”

Without that kind of context, what remains of the narrative they gutted the game’s challenge to showcase? They have undermined themselves by giving narrative supremacy over the systems of the game instead of using one to reinforce the other. And, in the end, they have made nothing at all.

EveHeader

Well! I’m probably way behind my non-existent schedule on this, but progress is progress. I have, now, a complete outline of the game. All of the levels, all of the enemies, all– well, okay, most– of the secrets, the bosses, the writing. It’s all here.

Finishing is just starting. On a project of this scope, this just just scratching the dust on the surface of the outer layer. Still, it feels good. I did something.

Now: What now?

I’ve started breaking everything down into tasks so that I can proceed. The first priority is to make a technical specification, something noting all of the things the engine will need to be able to do to create the game I’m imagining. This will take a couple of days, but should help prevent me from doing any unnecessary work on the game engine and getting completely sidetracked. Once I know exactly what the engine needs to be capable of, I can focus on getting that up and running as fast as possible and, from there, start making something playable

After I have the technical specification done, as well, I will be a lot more comfortable with building the other task lists. Until I get this most fundamental part of the project nailed down, I can’t be too confident in anything built on top of it.

In the meanwhile, if building a list of engine requirements gets tedious, I still have a fair bit of design work left to do. I need to collate all of my design documents into one master document and add in ‘stage directions’ —  notes on which story is told where in the game, what other lines are told where. Basically, just converting the notes I’ve taken into a more complete and coherent form so that, in addition to conveying the basic shape of the game, the design document also conveys specifics.

I suppose this is a kind of milestone. Which reminds me, setting milestones is also something I should be doing, isn’t it? I suppose that, once I complete the technical spec, achieving everything that’s on it will be the next major milestone.

The end is the beginning. Time to get to work.

EveLogo2

A cat walked through the crack of the door
the space between frame and the floor
he couldn’t quite choose
between the two rooms
so he walked through the crack of the door

A cat walked in the between
into places he’d not ever been
no one thought to make them
for no path could take them
to the places just this cat was now seein’

A cat walked into its mind
its body was left long behind
It found its own history
and solved its own mystery
but there was no path back home to find

A cat walked in its old home
took its old seat with its old great aplomb
But things weren’t the same
In its life it remade
its new world was reframed
by the roads it had laid
no one called out its name
and it hurt when it stayed
when the cat walked in its old home

A cat walked through the crack of the door
the space between frame and the floor
sick of debates
between two like fates
he walked through the crack of the door

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cavestory

Cave Story was an important game for me. It was playing Cave Story, 6 or 7 years ago, that made me realize that I still liked games– that, in that respect at least, it wasn’t me that had changed, but it was the games that got small. Or, rather, that got bloated and self-important and tedious. The more convinced games became of their own cultural relevancy the less relevant they became to me, a trend that continues to this day.

Next time you see someone defending games’ place in the culture by citing sales numbers, you can safely ignore everything they have to say.

I had been studying programming and art with the intention of going into game development at the time, but the more I heard about industry practices (this was around the days of EA Spouse), and the more uninspired I was by the games, I saw the less certain I was that this was actually something I wanted to do with my life. Realizing that I could still love a game, love the strangeness and the mystery of being someplace impossible was… powerful. Like nostalgia in reverse, the realization of beauty and potential in a future I had started to give up on.

Cave Story tells a story but does not exist in servitude to a script. It looks pleasant but doesn’t dazzle with spectacle, and pays tribute to older games without worshiping them unconditionally. It is exactly as ambitious as it needs to be to be what it is– and what it is is a cute, charming, mysterious little adventure. That’s all. I suppose it might seem a bit strange that I’d talk up how important it was and then use that to transition into how unambitious it is, but that’s also kind of the point.

Cave Story showed us we don’t need to be big to be good.

It showed us that we can do what we want as long as we do it well. That you don’t have to make the biggest fanciest game with the most complicated or compelling script or make some huge new gameplay innovation that makes all the other game designers drop their jaws in envy.

Just make the game you want, and follow through.

Make no mistake, that’s still a lot of work. That’s possibly more work than just trying to concoct the biggest and most bombastic recipe for success one can conceive, because it requires having, recognizing, and applying personal standards rather than just marking off a checklist. The creator of Cave Story, nicknamed Pixel, spent 5 years of his life creating it as a hobby alongside his day job, and was apparently as surprised as anyone when it became as tremendously popular as it was.

Though he felt it, I don’t think he understood the ubiquity of the hunger with which people missed games like that.

Unfortunately, as always happens, many people learned the wrong lessons. People emulated the form instead of the approach, and a rash of games with similar graphics styles and gameplay appeared. Remakes of Cave Story have also since shown up with unnecessary ‘improvements’ to the sound and graphics which, while they achieve nothing but to mute its simple charm, do at least serve to introduce a beautiful game to a new audience.

However, there is a deeper lesson which people have learned, though they perhaps don’t remember where they learned it: Back then, Cave Story was the thread that pulled together the now-burgeoning independent game movement, and even today we all hear it’s call.

“Make the game you want, and make it good.”

A Bold Bluff

Recently, games-wise, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from my usual artsy and the pretentious indie fare to play a bit of Poker. Poker Night at the Inventory that is– what, did you think I had the money to play for real? I’m afraid not.

I keep on being startled by just what a fantastic game Poker is– at least the Texas Hold ‘Em variant (I am not particularly familiar with other variants). Surprisingly, or at least surprisingly to me, the video game experience which I am most reminded me of is FTL.

In FTL, you play the captain of what is usually a skeleton crew manning a Federation cruiser, jumping between stars just a few steps ahead of a pursuing Rebel fleet. With each jump, you use a bit of fuel and a bit of time, both of which are limited resources. And, with each jump, you make a series of decisions which can either help you, such as providing another crew member or a weapon for your ship, or harm you, such as leaving you a skeleton in a burning husk of a ship drifting through an eternal black void.

We're in a ship made of metal in the middle of a vacuum. WHY IS OUR SHIP ON FIRE?

We’re in a ship made of metal in the middle of a vacuum. WHY IS IT ON FIRE?

It’s a great game for as much time as it takes to explore the many different exotic scenarios, find out what the expected returns on each play are, and which particular resources are necessary to complete the game– at which point it becomes a tedious slot machine. That took me about 40 very enjoyable hours, though, so I would highly recommend checking it out.

Playing Poker, the flow of the game is much like that of FTL. Each hand is dealt, and our limited resource pool dwindles, and we are presented with a scenario. From here, we must determine what approach is most likely to lead to long term success based on a statistical analysis.

It’s funny how many games, when you get right down to it, boil down to statistical analysis– this lends some credence to my earlier arguments on the main difference between work and play being context, but I digress.

However: Unlike FTL, Poker never becomes a simple slot machine. Despite the fact that the parameters and inputs of the game are vastly more limited than in most strategic games, and the undeniable role that luck plays in the outcome, Poker never becomes a simple game of pat choices the way that FTL does once you understand it. For one thing, the number of possible outcomes for any given hand are far more nuanced and intricate than determining whether I have the armaments necessary to take out an enemy ship or which unit I should use to augment my forces against the army I have scouted out.

There is no calculus that can tell me whether, if I double his bet, my opponent will take the bait or be intimidated into taking his money away– a mind game entirely separate from the statistical analysis of determining whether I probably have the stronger hand in the first place. It’s almost like two separate games, one played with numbers and one played with wills and wits, woven together to form an intricate whole.

Poker Night at the Inventory

Opening the path for non-conventional tactics

Nevertheless, I suspect that it won’t be long before the AI in this game starts to wear thin, before I see through the thinly spackled dividing lines between the baits they’ll take and bets they’ll fold to. Which is not to say that people don’t have their own quirks that a player can learn and exploit– quite the contrary, they probably have more– but they also have learning and inquiring minds that seek out the player’s own weaknesses, bad habits, tells, and turns them against that player.

Computerized opponents never learn about us, but oh we learn about them.

We always find the limits of single player games eventually. Any game made to be enjoyed by a single player is limited in a way that allows the player to account for all given inputs. Any randomized numbers can be accounted for and averaged out to create an optimal play. Single player games, particularly those which don’t rely on physical coordination or reflexes, can invariably be solved to provide, if not consistent victory, the highest consistent chance of victory.

And thus it shall always be, until we create AIs who learn about us, and begin to outguess us. Of course, then we might start feeding them misleading information about our behavior and game them that way, but then perhaps they’ll become smart enough to account for that behavior as well and– how many layers deep will we have to go, do you think, before we cease to be able to outsmart our machines? How much deeper past that before they begin to find us tedious and predictable?

RobotSanta

Pictured: Inevitable long-term consequences

It’s another kind of Turing test with more immediate applications. And, really, once we near that point, are these even single-player games any more? The distinction begins to blur. As technology progresses, as games become more connected and AIs become more advanced, there’s going to be a trend of convergence between single and multi-player games. This won’t be absolute, of course– What would be the point of a multi-player Braid?– but games which we tend to think of as single-player will become multi-player, as players drop in and out to take up the mantles of NPCs in these worlds, and games which we tend to think of as multi-player will become single-player, as our allies and enemies rage-quit and are seamlessly replaced by bots who have learned to emulate their behavior.

Or perhaps not. I am no futurist (in that I do not demand exorbitant speaking fees to share my predictions). And maybe the lines I’m drawing here are drawn in the sand at low-tide, and maybe as our understanding of the world and of what games can be in it progresses they will all become laid bare as predictable, as tedious, as uninteresting slot machines that can only play on our compulsions.

I hope not. But if it be so, I hope that these insights will help us to build newer and better games, games so sophisticated that even we cannot break them.

Someday. Someday.