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Monthly Archives: October 2013

hearthstoneI’ve been playing the beta for Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming online collectable card game. It’s actually difficult for me to justify this as time well spent. It’s not that it’s a bad game – quite the opposite, in fact. I am extraordinarily impressed by how elegantly they’ve streamlined the mechanics of a game similar to Magic: The Gathering while still allowing for a wide range of nuanced options. I’m completely engrossed while playing it, often playing for several subsequent hours in a day, which is unusual to my recent gaming habits.

And, afterwards, it feels like a waste of time.

That’s what’s interesting to me: I play a lot of Team Fortress 2, and after playing I sometimes feel angry and frustrated, sometimes feel rejuvenated and energized, but I never feel like that time was a complete blank. In fact, the last game I felt this way about was FTL, after spending 40 hours mastering all of the systems, which implies something very strongly: My brain is no longer learning anything from Hearthstone.

This is not as damning as it may sound, coming after less than 10 hours of Hearthstone play. I knew a fair amount about the game going into it: I’d watched coverage of it on Youtube channels, read an article or two about theories of optimal play – and, most importantly, I had hundreds of hours of experience playing Magic, which is in many respects a very similar game. I basically had the entire deck stacked in my favor going into this, so to speak.

Now, I don’t mean I never lose a game or anything like that. Nor do I mean to imply that I have reached the theoretical maximum level of skill. What I do mean, however, is that when I am playing the game, I rarely feel challenged: Either I draw the resources I need to win or I do not. I make occasional misplays, but recognize them quickly after the fact – this happens sparsely enough that I do not perceive myself to be learning.

The component of the game I would find most interesting, I suspect, is deck construction – formulating strategies, rather than merely executing them. This is still a path which is  largely blocked off to me due to limited amounts of cards. Even if I could build my deck without obstruction, I can’t help but suspect that it would quickly become tedious testing it against the few statistically determined ‘best’ decks that must inevitably dominate the higher leagues of the game.

Looking back on what I’ve written here, this is apparently a review. I had no intention of writing one, but that appears to be what I have written. So let me sum up this review: If you want a game that’s like Magic, but formulated to work particularly well online in real-time, this is probably about as good as you’re going to get. If you are tired of Magic because it has become tedious for you, you will probably find this game tedious as well.

Not bad, perhaps – just not exciting.

… All that being said, I’m probably going to continue playing for a while yet. Arena, a mode which forces the player to construct a deck from a pool of random cards, keeps the strategic game fresh and interesting for me, and it’s always cool to learn how to play the deck you found yourself tied to. Given how not-great I tend to feel after playing, I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with it, but…

Well, I’ll say this for Blizzard. They sure know how to make it painless to keep on playing a game.

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he-is-error

Admitting that I don’t really know who I am has made my life so much easier. Admitting that I do not know the extent to which I am fundamentally unknowable has made my world so much simpler. Admitting that my desires and motivations, though they have roots in my history and the narrative I’ve tied to it, also have roots that go deeper and darker, roots which will forever refuse to be dug up and exposed to light, makes things so much more straightforward.

A personality is something that spans time, cobbled together from each individual act, be it cruel or of charitable, and we can only perceive its shape by the bits that jut out from the surface and prod us. No matter how well you know someone, you barely know them.

Why it’s important to acknowledge this: If you pretend to know yourself, you only constrain yourself. If you know who you are and how you behave, that is all you can be or do. If you know your limits and never test them, you will never be a better person than you are right now. It is so incredibly easy to become trapped in history, to become a slave to the person you believe yourself to be – admitting you have only the vaguest idea why you do the things you do and say the things you say becomes a form of empowerment.

This is not avoiding accountability. It is the opposite: You cannot hide behind some traumatic personal history, some origin story, some demographic pablum, to justify behavior. All of that is still important, to you, to us, as history and as narrative, but it cannot be the justification for current behavior.

I suppose this message is trite. I suppose that surviving misfortunes is what we expect of our protagonists. Yeah, we talk so often about surviving the misfortunes, but sometimes it’s the fortunes that destroy us: The lottery ticket money-wave tsunami that wipes away the poverty personal identity around which a life was constructed, washes away friends and family, eradicates life-goals – the prestigious partnership that demands 12 hours a day, 12 hours sitting at a desk knees aching and eyes going weak and nearsighted, say it over and over, “I want this, I want this, I chose this, I chose this” – the big break, becoming the hot new act, and there’s drugs, and there’s girls, and everything is loud, and THIS IS WHAT A PARTY IS THIS IS HOW FUN IS HAD THIS IS WHAT THE BIG BOYS DO WHEN THEY MAKE IT BIG THEY MAKE IT LOUD–

The fate which eats you could come from anywhere. It could be a dream or a nightmare. It could be a car crash or a promotion, a mugging or a tax refund. Any one of these could be the first word in an erroneous story of who you really are.

How long will it be before you realize? When will you see that the story of you has gone all wrong? Or will they just write it, under your name and above a little poem, on a slab of granite, in a field, someday?

EveHeader

My major accomplishment this week was getting game entities set up so they can be exported to and imported from xml files. This is the culmination of what I’ve been trying to achieve by breaking each entity down into a set of discrete behaviors and parameters – it is now possible to drop any entity or set of entities, crafted from any arbitrary set of behaviors, into the game, while it’s running, and have them function as intended. This lays the foundation for creating an Entity Editor, one which allows real-time modification of entity parameters and which allows those created and placed in this way to be saved alongside a level. It’s a big step.

I have also been experimenting with entity interactions. These are relatively simple and straightforward in structure, but the specifics can be tricky: For instance, in trying to solve the issue of how to make attacks effect enemies, it’s now easy to make it so that when the player attacks an specially constructed attack ‘process’ tests itself against all entities: However, I still have no method of testing whether or not an attack hits, nor any infrastructure for making such a test. This is something I’ll have to work on over the next couple of weeks, since I haven’t quite decided how I want to approach it yet.

After I stalled out on the coding work, I started getting into the additional animations I’ve decided I need. First up, for simplicity’s sake, is the animation for sliding down slopes – in this instance, I use the term ‘animation’ loosely, since each of these are really just one frame.

EveGrabSlope01LSlopeR EveGrabSlope01RSlopeL EveGrabSlope01RSlopeR EveGrabSlope01LSlopeL

I have these all implemented now, and they seem to work fine, but they also expose some minor glitches in the collision system, making the player flicker on and off the surface of the slope as she slides down, which I will need to address at some point here.

This actually raises a new question: If the player attacks while sliding down a hill, what attack animation plays? Does that change based on whether she’s facing into the hill or out of it?

Regardless, for the coming week I will be pursuing these tasks: A) Creating a neutral jumping attack animation, B) Creating a harvesting animation, C) Improving collision detection, D) Creating a system of melee attack interaction, E) Creating moving platform/destructable wall entities that interface with the collision detection system, F) Creating the framework for an entity editor. Obviously this is a lot of stuff, and I don’t intend to finish all of these, or even start all of these, over the coming week, but it’s useful to have a short list of things to work on next. I’ll pick these up and work on them in the order they take my fancy.

Thanks!

wallaceandgromittraintracks

It is often observed that playing games and making games are different activities. This is kind of obvious, but whatever the technical college advertisements might have you believe, there is more involved in developing a game than playing through it whilst wiggling the diganalog funpad gamestick to tighten up the graphics on level three. However, there are numerous points of intersection, ways in which we can learn more about making games by playing them – or the reverse.

Some of these are obvious: For instance, it’s quite evident that Minecraft has a lot to teach about constructing an environment to serve a purpose, concepts which could easily be useful for any aspiring game designer. Additionally, it only makes sense that, in games reliant upon a delicate balance, such as Starcraft, extensive experience playing the game makes one innately more qualified to speak on balance issues that exist within that game – and, quite often, within others as well

There are points of intersection which are less obvious.

When playing a competitive game, the greater part of victory frequently lies in the ability to get inside your opponent’s head, understand what he wants to achieve, anticipate it, and counter it. As one becomes more advanced, this progresses to controlling what your opponent wants to achieve by feinting and presenting false openings, allowing one to predict with a greater degree of certainty how the opponent will respond. And, of course, these predictions stack, in a classic game of “He knows, and I know that he knows, and he knows that I know that he knows – but does he know that I know that?

All of which is a very similar process to designing a game for an audience. Now, granted, it’s a little bit more immediate and intimate: There is a particular opponent you are facing against and, in an extended match or over repeated matches, you can learn what lies they’re suspicious of, what will tip them off, and what lengths they will foolishly go to in order to call you on your bluff. Most of that is information that is difficult to access as a designer – hypothetically, you could create an algorithm to read your ‘opponent’ audience’s behavior and create a suitable reaction, but in practice this turns out to be unnecessary. It is made redundant because we, as designers, control the horizontal and the vertical: We control, not only how the game reacts to the player, but the scope within which the player is able to act upon the game.

If we want to make the player look at something, all we need to is make there be nothing else to look at, or place an immediate threat there, or even shift where the thing they’re supposed to be looking at to where they are looking. If we want to make them do something, all we need do is constrain the space of possible options down to that one thing – ideally without making it obvious that that’s what we’re doing.

We are so powerful, constructing these narrative dioramas: Why is it that we fall short so often? Why is it that games so frequently force their players to act in ways they don’t want to, rather than constraining the space of what the player might want to do? Why is it that they take away the player’s ability to act, rather than funneling their actions towards a desired result? Is it easier? Is it just more obvious?

The point is, the game itself is irrelevant, what is important is the experience created by the game. You are not designing a game, you are designing that experience. You are communicating with a player. Any time you shut down the player’s means of interaction, you shut down their ability to engage with the experience. It is unnecessary, and it is destructive to what you are trying to achieve.

You have all the power, here. It’s up to you to use it intelligently.

Caffeine might help.

SotN Game Over

Endings are hard. Endings are weird. Our effects as humans, as entities and processes, will outlast our lives, never ending but blending instead seamlessly into each other, on and on, forever. Our stories will outlive the process of our bodies, our lives. Our stories will outlive our species, all species, the concurrent processes of all life on Earth. Our stories may outlive our universe. Each scar we leave on each other or on our world, each tree we plant, each lesson we teach, will outlive us in some capacity. The story of us is unending, but the stories we tell must end, because we cannot tell them forever.

Endings are artificial. They are a purely aesthetic contrivance, a delicately engraved cap we put on the grotesque stump where the long tale was amputated. We judge our art – harshly – on how well that ending covers up the intrinsic deformity of a story cut short.

What about death? Doesn’t everything come to an end, somehow, at some point? True, processes do end. The fire goes out, the rock rolls to the bottom of the hill, the heart ceases to beat. The process is never the story, though: Stories seldom begin with a life’s beginning and end alongside it, closely following that single process – and, even when they do, they tend to focus implicitly upon the long-term effects of that life, the changes wrought by a remarkable person. The ending is, generally, about how the end of the story is not the end of the effects this life has had.

We find it reassuring to think that our end is not the end. It doesn’t have to be an afterlife, it just has to be after our life. A surprising number seem to reject that reassurance in favor of hollow cynicism – while I and many others abjure belief in an afterlife, I sometimes I wonder just how many really believe that the world will continue on without them at all.

The_Big_Red_Button_(3085157011)

Whereas I know for a fact that it won’t continue on without me

I think it’s useful here to define a distinction between the ‘ending’ of a story and the ‘end’ of a story: All of the stories we tell must come to an end. The end is the extent of the objective and definable scope of that story – that is, the period of time, whether real time or fictional time, that it contains. However, just because a story must end doesn’t mean that it must have an ending: If someone is interrupted in the middle of telling a story, their story ends, though they never reached the ending. The ending is the choice of a satisfactory conclusion, the choice of how to present that conclusion, the artistry of presenting an arbitrary point, at or near the end of a story, as being the logical resolution of everything that has come before.

The End is a fact: The Ending is an art.

Games take this delicate art and upend it. When you fail, when the ‘Game Over’ screen shows, it is an end but not an ending. When you reach the conclusion, defeat the world-devouring beast, watch the credits sequence, and then start a New Game+ it is an ending but not an end. Some games have many endings depending on your actions. Some have no ending, and are instead intended to be played perpetually, until you are no longer interested in engaging with the process of the game and instead wander off to do something else.

We have found a way to make one of the most excruciatingly difficult aspects of narrative art even harder. Good for us, I guess.

Is it possible to systematize a satisfying conclusion? To ensure that the end of the game, whenever it comes, brings closure to the ideas presented by the rest of the game?

It’s tricky with games with a strong narrative arc. One of the weakest aspects of The Walking Dead was its tendency to end unceremoniously when the player failed a quick-time event: Though these events, and the motions and emotions they require, are a powerful tool to draw the player into the game, the failure state they required introduced jarring and incongruous narrative dead ends – particularly into a game so thematically based around living with your choices and your failures. Only the final ending is an ending as such, one where the developers properly tie up all of the story threads they have crafted.

poochiedied

There. Done.

This may be a strange analogy, but what this problem reminds me of is jump animations. In order to jump, a human being must bend her legs and lower her center of gravity before tensing and pushing up to propel herself upwards. This takes a non-trivial amount of time, which we tend not to think about when actually jumping because we prepare for it subconsciously. However, most games demand instantaneous reactions when we input commands, and it would be very frustrating for most players to have a one second delay before jumping. It becomes impossible to have responsive controls without compromising the fidelity of the the jump animation or vice versa. In this way, tying the plot strings together to form an impromptu ending is extremely difficult: Either the player’s control must be delayed for the story to resolve, or the story resolution has to happen rapidly and without preamble and seem less realized. In order to shoehorn endings into most existing game designs, the developers would be required to write and create a series of special-case endings to provide resolution at arbitrary gameplay intervals – but, even if they did put in that effort, it will still seem like a weird and disjointed conclusion compared to the game’s ‘true’ ending. Worse still, it would delay the player’s progress in reaching that true ending!

That said, gameplay-focused games like Spelunky or FTL often have a quite satisfying narrative flow, where tiny mistakes congeal and snowball and overwhelm the player, creating a narrative thread that logically results in a narratively satisfying, if perhaps somewhat infuriating, conclusion. Now, admittedly, there’s not much of a narrative arc as such – it’s really more of a narrative line, with consistent tension throughout, and a sudden ending at an unspecified interval – but it is internally consistent and frequently surprising. It is an unusual narrative aesthetic: Interestingly, the recent film Gravity had a similarly flat narrative arc, wherein any of the many hazards could have plausibly ended the main character’s life and created a solid resolution to the film.

theendiguess

Maybe we should see what’s playing on the other screens?

By establishing this flattened narrative arc, we do create a story where ending at any moment could be plausible – we feel that the rules that keep main characters alive, despite the odds, no matter what, may have been suspended. This ensures that, no matter the outcome, the narrative, such as it is, is consistent and satisfying. Another reason why these games tend to be narratively satisfying is because each play-through is discrete and self-contained: Each is its own story, similar but distinct from each other, rather than a single story drawn hesitantly with eraser marks and stray faded lines.

Is there a path to creating a story as multi-faceted and rich as The Walking Dead with an arbitrary ending point? Or to creating a surprising and satisfying experience like Spelunky with deeper and more resonant themes? I hope so. However, it will require that we rethink how we construct and integrate these stories into our games: It will require us to abandon arbitrary game-overs in favor of finding worlds where death still has meaning. It will require us to actually integrate plot elements into our game systems in ways which we have never thought to before.

This isn’t the end. This is a new beginning.

EveHeader

The trip ended up taking a lot out of me. I’ve been feeling rather tired. Progress on the project is still happening, but it’s slowing down a bit while I figure out when to fit each task into my say and calibrate my systems to get those tasks accomplished. I also currently need to divert a bit of my focus into more immediate problems, such as money, rather than long term goals like Eve.

Thus: No big leaps of progress this week, but instead a number of small nibbles around the big problems I’m getting to.

Firstly: Animations. I think it’s more or less settled in my mind at this point that I’m going to need to have some degree of body-part breakdown to get this character animated, but I haven’t decided yet how far to take that philosophy. Is an arm one object, or is it three (base, forearm, hand)? When do I decide to draw out a pose? How do I keep them from seeming canned? I still haven’t settled on any decisive answers yet. If I could think of any games with similar animation I would ask the artist how it was achieved, but I can’t really think of any other game with a style like this.

I guess now I know why.

Second: Collision. It’s still not quite perfect, but it’s getting very close to what I want. Behaviors against surfaces are in general far more predictable and solid-feeling than they were before. However, there’s currently a bug which I’m reasonably confident I understand the source of but which I haven’t decided on a fix for yet, wherein collisions are tested against the wrong surface and result in an ugly bouncing reaction.The choice is between somehow altering the algorithm so it detects these cases (hard, but robust) or changing the shape of the character so that they rarely/never happen (probably less hard, less robust). I’ve kind of tabled it for the moment due to being tired of working on collision detection, but hopefully I’ll glean an insight on how to approach it at some point here.

Third: Entities. I started putting together the bones of a system for managing entities and allowing them to affect each other – a rather important feature for a game. The system of interaction itself looks like it will be super simple, but the trick will be in using that system to have entities interact in a manner that doesn’t break the game.

Those are where my effort has been going this week. Over the next week, I’m going to continue nibbling at those tasks, but also hopefully get in and start animating the additional animations I’ve identified as necessary (just more reason to figure out an efficient method for creating finished animations). These include: A standing/pressing on slope animation, an air attack, and an animation for harvesting lost spirits – long story.

So that’s this week. Not too bad, but it certainly shows that there were a couple of days where I couldn’t really get anything done mixed in. So it goes. Here’s hoping for bonus productivity this coming week!

Ghost-Train-Crossing-Canada-Photos-by-Jeff-Friesen

We are the things we do.

Taking a break is so strange. I still feel basically intact and like more or less the same person, but bits of my mind seem to wander. When we do the same thing every day it begins to become part of who we are, what we are. I’m home now, but a bit of my mind is still on a train, being rocked gently back and forth, trying to sleep as the sun’s light seeps through the cracks between the velcro-sealed curtains. A part of me is still convinced that the next time I get up it will be to sit next to a stranger on a hard seat in a dark coach car.

There’s an inertia to identity. We are the things we do, and the things we do are us: This is one of the things that makes changing behaviors that have become habitual so difficult. If you are a smoker, your smoke breaks are the land marks by which you navigate your day. Quitting is not only a matter of overcoming that chemical addiction, but in replacing those nails by which you hang your daily schedule.

Changing the things we do changes the people we are.

It’s a kind of brainwashing. How often do we deprive ourselves of sleep, blast ourselves with sound, make ourselves repeat the phrases over and over until they become true? It is not easy to change the inertia of a person, but there are time-tested methods. Sometimes it is not enough to ask nicely of ourselves, sometimes we must be coerced.

Even now though, the sounds of the train begin to be replaced with stock sound effects. The coach car, the lounge car, the cafe car, the impossibly narrow corridors leading between bathrooms and luggages and sleeping passengers, are all beginning to be replaced with cardboard props. I’m still there, but the there I’m in is hollowing out, the piece of me that’s there is fading, and soon I will be entirely here again.

I’m sorry if my thoughts are disjointed. I am split between two locations, I am split between departure and arrival, and the room keeps swaying back and forth, and I can’t get my legs quite comfortable…

This is why I make sure I get something done every day, even if it’s not much. This is why I constantly strive to move forward, even if I can only crawl. If I stop for too long, this reality too will begin to fade, this person I am will begin to shift, and I cannot know what will come to replace them.

Some folk have the advantage of a life that forms a mold around them. They cannot change that much because of the shape of their world, the weight of the forces that have coalesced around them to hold them into their place in life. I do not think at this point that I have many such restraints on the shape of my character. I have broken my own mold.

I believe I can become anything.

It is not nearly as reassuring a belief as many would like to claim. The vast majority of things one could become are quite undesirable.

When we are freed of the expectations of the world, when we flow freely like water, it is far too easy to merely splash against the surface and have no effect. Carve a channel for your life to flow through – before you are dried up, before you are subsumed by the sea.