Tag Archives: game design

Machines That Tell Stories: SXSW 2015


March 18, 2015 at 2:51 pm (One Comment)

Last Saturday at SXSW Interactive Jon Lebkowsky and I curated a Core Conversation titled Machines That Tell Stories. I proposed the topic as a book project to Jon last year, and we put together this discussion as a stepping stone. Software storytellers are in the air. There were over a dozen sessions at SXSW this year on storytelling systems, and that kind of consensus usually heralds a new wave about to break. We’ve setup a twitter and tumblr for this project, if you want to follow along.

Machines That Tell Stories PlacardsOur argument: Software is moving beyond raw data and into narrative.  First it will help you weave the tales you want to spin, but soon it may be telling stories better than all but the best human storytellers.

The conversation was all over the place, and I don’t think anyone recorded it, but here are some notes and references that could be helpful…

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  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: “A story is how what happens affects someone who’s trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how she changes as a result.”
  • Wired For Story Takeaway: Story is about mechanics, the trappings that you think of as important aren’t as critical as hitting the right beats that resonate with the human brain.
  • The Future of Storytelling Conference – Great speaker videos
  • Dwarf Fortress’s Legends mode, Procedural Poetry Analysis (Leave the creative imagination up to the user. Provide concrete, easy to procedurally generate elements, and let the brain fill in the rest.)
  • Weavrs as storytellers
  • The Nest Home Report monthly email as a machine-generated story
  • Collaborative human/machine storytelling at DARPA
  • Machine data into text reporting at Automated Insights (1 billion articles for 1 person each, instead of 1 article for 1 billion readers) More at CNN
  • Games by Angelina – Procedurally generated videogames, played through brute-force to see if they’re solvable. Potentially compare play throughs to known-pleasing physical interactions (progressively more complex button presses and movements)
  • Mechanical Turk as a part of a story machine, using human filtering to produce more compelling procedural content
  • Turing in The Imitation Game: The question isn’t whether machines will think like humans, it’s whether machines will think like machines.
  • tmbotg – Random TMBG tweeting bot, sometimes interacted with by humans due to serendipity
  • Talk PhotoWhy limit to text? Is software that generates a song based on your day’s quantified self data creating a story?
  • Shadows of Mordor’s Nemesis System as a storytelling engine – characters continue to exist when you aren’t looking, maintain the thread without you
  • Games as half-way points: PROCJAM’s The Inquisitor as procedural murder mystery
  • NaNoGenMo – Software generated novels
  • Eugene Goostman – Chatbot & Winner of the Loebner Prize.  13 year old Ukrainian boy personification: more constraints (space on twitter, language barrier with Eugene) result in increased credibility
  • Deus Ex Machina interactive theater project in Austin, sms polling to a web UI to allow for story decisions
  • Communal entertainment as a cultural touchstone: In a world where everyone gets personalized entertainment, does it become harder to relate to other people?  (No more watercooler conversations?)
  • Storium as a story generation human/software collaboration system

We had a great crowd for the conversation, and even managed to be “Hot” in the schedule.  Thanks to everyone who was able to make it!

Schedule-Hot

Games That Play Themselves


February 19, 2015 at 12:36 pm (One Comment)

A few days ago a new iOS app called Dreeps landed in my news feed, heralded with headlines like Maybe The Laziest RPG You Could Ever Play and A Video Game That Plays Itself. Dreeps is an app where a little robot boy goes on an adventure, Japanese RPG style.  You set an alarm to tell him to rest, and that’s it.  When the alarm goes off, he gets up and gets on with his adventure, fighting monsters and meeting NPCs.  There’s pixel art and chiptune audio.  Dialog is word balloons with squiggly lines for text.  It’s all very atmospheric.  You just don’t do anything, really, but watch when you want and suggest he get up when he’s resting after a fight.

Dreeps is a lot like Godville, a game I talked about in a post about Pocket Worlds back in 2012.  They’re games that (appear, depending on the implementation) to be running and progressing even when you’re not around.  While Godville does its magic with text, Dreeps has neat graphics and sound.  They’re essentially the same game, though.  A singular hero you have slight control over goes on a quest.  In Godville it’s for your glory (since you’re their god), in Dreeps it’s to destroy evil (I think).

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Both Dreeps and Godville are passive entertainment experiences, they’re worlds that are all about you, but not really games you play.  They’re games you experience, or perhaps we need a new word for this kind of thing.  While books and TV shows and music (although not playlists, as we’ve seen with Pandora) are hard to create for just one person’s unique enjoyment, games are great at that.  They can take feedback and craft an experience just for you, and as we built more complex technology and can access more external datasets, they can get even more unique.

Imagine a game like Dreeps where the other characters (or maybe even the enemies) are modeled algorithmically after your Facebook friends (or LinkedIn contacts).  Take their names, mash them through a fantasy-name-izer, do face detection and hue detection to pick hair color and eye color, maybe figure out where they’re from (geolocated photos, profile hometowns or checkins) for region-appropriate clothing.  Weather from where they are, or where your friends live, maybe playing on an appropriate map.  You could even use street view and fancy algorithms to identify key regional architectural elements and generate game levels that ‘feel’ like the places they live.  That starts to get pretty interestingly personalized, though much less predictable.

261308-animal_crossing_screenMike Diver over at Vice posted an article about Dreeps titled I Am Quite OK With Video Games That Play Themselves, where his main point was that he’s figured out that he’s actually bad at games, and it’s nice to have something where you can enjoy the progression without working about your joystick skills.  Maybe Mike should spent more time with Animal Crossing, a game series I think Dreeps shares a lot of DNA with.  In Animal Crossing your character inhabits a town that progresses in real-time.  You can go fishing and dig up treasure and pick fruit and talk to the other inhabitants in your little village, but the world keeps going when you’re not playing, so if you leave it alone for a long time, you come back to a game that’s progressed without you (with the game characters wondering where you’ve been).  Dreeps is like that, but without the active user participation.  It’s like a zen Farmville.  Take out the gamification, add in some serenity.

It feels like Dreeps could be a really fantastic lock-screen-game, if that’s a thing.  You nudge your phone awake, and see your guy trudging along.  He’s always there, in a comforting, reassuring, living way.  Maybe Samsung or someone with some great cross-vertical reach could implement lock-screen or sleep-screen as a platform across TVs, phones, tablets, fridges, etc.  That’d be something.

ant-farmI was talking to a friend of mine about these kind of games yesterday, pondering where this is headed, and I mentioned that the experience almost feels like an Ecosphere.  Ecospheres are those totally enclosed ecosystems, where aside from providing a reasonable temperature and sunlight, you’re a completely passive observer. There’s something nice about walking by and peeking in on it every once in a while.  Something comforting about knowing that even when you’re not watching it’s going on about its fantastically complex business without you.  But there’s also a spiritual weight to it, because it’s a thing that could cease to exist.  I could cover the Ecosphere with a sheet or leave it out in the cold, I could delete Godville or Dreeps from my phone, or have my phone stolen, unable to retrieve my little robotic adventurer.

It isn’t a huge weight now that we carry with these sorts of things.  In fact, I stopped checking in on my Godville character a few months ago, after over a year of nearly daily care.  Sometimes you just lose the thread.  But these systems are going to become more complex, more compelling.  They’re going to have more pieces of ourselves in them.  How would I feel if a friend of mine was a major character in Dreeps, always showing up to help me out, and then he died in real life?  What if Dreeps decides to shutter their app, or not release an upgrade for the new phone I get after that?  Would I leave my device plugged in, forever stuck at iOS whatever, just so the experiences could keep going?  The Weavrs I created for myself back in 2012 are gone, victims to this onward march of technology and unportability of complex cloud-based systems.  I’m fortunate that I never got too attached.  Droops is an app, but there’s still a lot there outside of my control.

GodBenderI’m particularly interested in where this stuff intersects with physical objects.  Tamagotchis are still out there, and we’re building hardware with enough smarts to be able to create interesting installations.  There’s an Austin Interactive Installation meetup I keep meaning to go to that’s probably full of folks who would have great ideas about this.  Imagine a pico-projector or LCD screen and a RaspberryPi running a game like Dreeps, but with the deep complexity and procedural generation systems of Dwarf Fortress.  Maybe a god game like Populous, with limited interaction.  You’d be like Bender in Godfellas, watching a civilization grow.  Could that sit in your home, on your desk or by the bookshelf, running a little world with little adventurers for years and years?  Text notifications on your phone when interesting things happened.  A weekly email of news from their perspective?  As it sat on your desk for longer, would it be harder and harder to let go of?  When your kids grew up, would they want to fork a copy and take it with them?

4 years ago there were no low-power GPU sporting Raspberry Pis or globally interconnected Nest thermostats or dirt-cheap tablet-sized LCD screens or PROCJAM.  Minecraft was still in alpha, the indie game scene hadn’t exploded, the App Store was still young, procedural content generation was a niche thing.  Now all those pieces are there, just waiting to be plugged together.  So who’s going to be the first one to do it?

Dwarf Fortress, Facebook, Big Data and the Search for Story


June 14, 2013 at 11:00 am (5 Comments)

Last night after driving home from the Austin PyLadies meetup, my wife sat in our driveway for 20 minutes listening to the end of an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab.  Later, after we’d headed to bed, she spent another 20 minutes retelling the story to me, minus Radiolab’s flourish and production.  The story was still interesting second hand, and comes down to this (I’ll wait if you’d like to go listen to the episode of Radiolab, I’m sure it’s excellent):

Two people discover hundreds of letters from WWII on the side of Route 101.  They’re from soldiers replying to a woman on the homefront.  The soldiers call her mom, but she isn’t their mother.  The two ask around, no one knows anything about them.  One of them, a creative writing professor, ends up using the letters as projects for his students.  He gives them a letter, and their task is to create a story around it.  A soldier, a woman stateside, an unlikely connection.  The other discoverer wants to track down relatives, she wants to uncover the truth.  She ends up discovering it, but he’d rather not know.  He wants the possibilities.

Even told second hand, the story stuck with me on a meta-level.  There aren’t a lot of things that would make my wife sit in the car in the driveway for 20 minutes listening to the radio, but a good story is one.  We love stories, we love it when they’re well crafted and well told.  But we also love the possibilities of them.  Sometimes we don’t want the truth, we want magic, we want to dream the dream of what could be.  Sometimes the truth can’t exist, and the closest we can get is a dim outline of it.  Sometimes the dream is better.

The Promise: Stories that Tell Themselves

A few days ago I ran across a blog post by Tynan Sylvester, a designer on the game Bioshock Infinite.  It’s all about the dream of simulations for game designers, how we think that by creating more and more complex systems, we might eventually build a system that is complex enough to manifest stories.  Austin Grossman’s latest novel, YOU, is about that, in a way.  The protagonist is a game designer and the antagonist is just a manifestation of some long-running game rules.  As game designers, we want to design games that surprise us.  That’s the ultimate payoff, to build a game that entertains you, and not just a twitch game that is enjoyable for its mechanics, but a game with stories compelling enough to sit in the car in the driveway for 20 minutes at 9 o’clock at night.

Lots of game designers have tried to do this. Tynan talks specifically about systems in early versions of Bioshock where the player would have to play autonomous bots (splicers, gatherers and protectors) off each other to progress.  They hoped that amazing, emergent gameplay would be the result.  In the end it didn’t work, and the game moments that they’d hoped would happen spontaneously ended up being heavily scripted.  Players crave story, but that story can’t be left up to their persistence and chance, especially when creating a commercial title.  In that environment, a great story has to be guaranteed.

Dwarf Fortress: Madness in Text Mode

There are a few notable exceptions to this principle, and they’re mainly smaller games driven by singular minded creators.  The best example of this is Dwarf Fortress, a massive and inscrutable simulation game where the the player takes on the role of an overseer, and the titular dwarves are simulated autonomous entities inhabiting the world.  Dwarves have names and hair colors, what Tynan calls Hair Complexity, things that add perceived simulation depth without effecting anything else.  (When was the last time you played an RPG where a plot point hinged on your hair style?)  They also have more integrated systems like hunger and social needs.  They have personalities, they get sad, and sometimes they go crazy.  The dwarves live in a randomly generated world, so your game isn’t like my game, and even my second game won’t be like my first.

Dwarf FortressDwarf Fortress has a very dedicated core following, and one of the reasons is that it really lives at the edge of apophneia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns emerge from random data.  At the core of Dwarf Fortress is a collection of rules governing behavior.  A dwarf without food will eventually starve.  A dwarf without personal interaction may eventually go crazy.  Dwarves are scared of wolves.  Dwarves exist in a world generated fractally, a world that feels real because it mirrors patterns in nature.  Therefor, as more and more rules get layered on, and more and more people play more and more games and get better and better at creating experimental mazes for these digital rats to play in, stories begin to appear, or so we perceive.

Two of the most famous stories to come out of Dwarf Fortress games are Boatmurdered, the tale of an epic game played out by members of the Something Awful forums in 2007, and Bronzemurder, a beautiful infographic-style tale of a dwarf fortress and a terrible monster.  Go read it, it’s great.

Dwarf Fortress didn’t generate these stories, though.  People played the game, sometimes hundreds or thousands of times, and while gazing into the mandala of the game, they nudged and pulled the threads of the world and created stories based on the events that occurred there.  Dwarf Fortress isn’t a windup toy, it’s a god-game, and the players impact on the game world is more than negligible.  The stories generated there are as much created by the players as by the game.

I Fight For the Users

While my wife was out at PyLadies last night, I coincidentally watched TRON: Legacy.  It occurred to me as I was thinking about writing this post, that it’s a movie about this possibility: The dream of a world inside a computer, a world created by a brilliant programmer, a world that once set in motion can create stories, unexpected events and enthralling narrative.  The creator steps aside, and no longer controls the game from the top-down.  The creator becomes a god among men, watching things unfold from their level.

Tron: Legacy - Quorra

In TRON: Legacy, the magic of digital life comes in the form of Quorra, the last of the ISOs, Isometric entities that appear spontaneously from the wasteland of the computer.  Digital DNA, digital life.  Enough rules, enough circuitry, enough care and magic happens.  That premise is exciting, and to programmers it’s intoxicating.  For those of us in the digital generation, that’s the dream we live with.  That’s what we keep trying to make happen wherever we go and whatever project we work on, be it big data or software bots.

But the lone programmer, no matter how brilliant, and working for no matter how long, can only produce so much code.  Stories from one person only grow so far, only change so much, and rarely surprise and enthrall.  Dwarf Fortress as a dwarf isn’t a game most people would play.  It’s hard to see the overall story, and the game isn’t good at presenting it.  But if there were more players…

EVE Online: More Interesting to Read About Than to Play

If it’s possible (albeit insanely difficult) to have stories appear in a single player game, it must be easier for stories to manifest in a multi-player game, right?  Games like World of Warcraft have largely fixed, planned out stories.  It comes back to the challenge that Bioshock had, complex systems are exciting to designers, but players want immediate story gratification.  Complex systems take dedication to understand, dedication most players don’t have.  When new multiplayer games are announced they sometimes hint at players making a real impact on the world, but those systems usually fail to live up to the hype.  The latest game to promise this is The Elder Scrolls Online.  We’ll see if they can do it.

One game that does this and thrives is EVE Online.  EVE is a massively multiplayer online space combat simulation, one that spans an entire universe.  It’s possible to play EVE as a loner, but it’s also possible to align yourself with a faction, and have your small efforts merge with hundreds or even thousands of others to build armadas and giant dreadnaught ships, to control entire solar systems and even galaxies.  The designers and administrators of EVE take a largely hands-off approach.  They don’t want to kill the golden goose, so they design the game for balanced conflict, and let the players sort it out.

EVE-Online-Battle-of-Asakai-3Every once in a while something epic happens in EVE, either a massive fraud, an invasion a faction planned for months, or a random accident that led to a game-rebalancing war.  There are battlefield reports, and once the space dust settles, people start to put together a history, and an accessible storyline appears.  Here are a few great EVE stories.  More people probably enjoy the reports of epic battles in EVE through these stories than actually play the game.  To quote a MetaFilter comment thread: “This game sounds stressing as hell if you really play it and not just dither around. Fascinating to read about, however, almost like news from a parallel universe.

You could say that EVE is a computer program for generating stories, and in fact the’ve even made a deal to do a TV show based on player stories from the EVE universe.  Except again we find that that EVE isn’t the thing generating the stories, EVE is just a place where the stories happen.  To a player only experiencing the events inside the game it may seem mysterious and amazing, and it certainly is to those of us who read about the events afterwards, but it’s really just a sandbox.  People play pretend with enforceable rules, but you can’t separate a story that happens inside of EVE with the real life stories that happen outside of it: The scheming that happens on IRC or in forums, the personal vendettas, the flexible allegiances  and the real-world money that flows through the system.  There’s no way to watch something occur inside of EVE, and even if you had perfect clarity on everything that happened inside, have any way of knowing for sure what really caused it.  If you take away the players, the legions of dedicated fans scheming and plotting, you just have an empty universe.

Facebook and the Timeline of Truth

I think a lot of web developers secretly wanted to be game designers.  Becoming a game designer is difficult, there aren’t as many jobs and the hours are terrible.  Instead we build web sites, but we’re building systems too, and we want to tell stories.

I joined Facebook back in April of 2006.  I had a @swt.edu address from Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University) from an extremely brief stint (sub 1 day) as an IT staff-member, so I got in a few months before they opened it for everyone.  Getting into a new, exclusive social network is a bit like finding a new simulation.  We hope the software can tell us new stories, that it can make some sense of the data it has.  With Facebook the promise was that if it collected enough information about us, it could tell us that magical story.  That’s what Timeline was supposed to do.  Give Facebook enough photos, enough checkins, enough friend connections, enough tagged posts and it would be able to tell the story of our lives.

Facebook Timeline

In the end, though, Timeline doesn’t tell you a real story.  It reminds you of stories you’ve heard and experienced, but Facebook is only a dumb algorithm working with imperfect data.  It’s smart enough to target ads, but it can’t understand the meaning, and it can’t remix the data in really compelling ways.  It can’t be Radiolab.  Most of the time the prioritization it comes up with I just want to turn off.  Its attempts at story are so bad I’d rather use my own organic cognitive story filters.

With every new Facebook feature announcement, with Google+ or the next thing that processes all your activity, the promise is that the system can get better at telling those stories.  We want to believe it will happen.  We want to believe that a couple thousand web developers and a couple billion dollars could create a story machine, but I’m not sure it can.  I was reading an article about HP’s R&D budget the other day that said Facebook invests 27.5% of revenue in R&D, a larger percentage than any other company they tracked.  You can bet a good chunk of that is going towards the search for story, in some form or another.

Weaving a Web

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Weavrs at this point, since they are essentially digital actors that derive stories from the mess of social media.  Weavrs are designed specifically for apophneia, they produce content one step up from random, and rely on our desire for patterns to throw away the things that don’t fit.  We project stories on to them, and for a project with the limited resources that it had, it’s exceedingly good at it.

My weavr twin is posting about HP Moonshot servers.  That’s almost eerie, but it’s also posting about hockey tickets.  The story makes sense if I’m picky about the things I include, but it isn’t an internally consistent narrative.  The narrative is impressed on it by the people who see it, like reading digital tea leaves.  Your story of my weavr is different than mine.

With enough resources and time, weavrs might become a real story machine.  That’s a moonshot program, though, and I don’t know who’s going to step forward and make that happen.  Investment follows money, and right now the money is racing towards big data.

Autonomy: Billions and Billions

The lure of story, the promise of meaning from the chaos of data isn’t limited to games or the social web.  It’s the romantic beating heart of big data.  It’s the stories about Target knowing you’re pregnant before you do.  It’s what lured HP to spend $8.8 billion dollars more than it was worth to acquire Autonomy.

Autonomy’s main product is called the Intelligent Data Operating Layer, or IDOL (symbology, ahoy!).  They call the processing of information with it Meaning-Based Computing.  From what I’ve heard it’s certainly good at what it does, but while it promises Meaning from Data, and that promise separated HP from 9 Instagrams or 2,500 Flickrs, there has to be some apophenia at work here.  Just like watching solar system battles inside of EVE gives you a piece of the story and playing hundreds of games of Dwarf Fortress will result in games worth telling stories about, the system data is never the entire picture.

Screenshot_6_13_13_11_52_PMI really like Stephen Wolfram.  Stephen believes in the fundamental computability of everything.  While I love reading his blog posts, and I am interested in and admire his idea, I have to wonder how far the hyperbole is from actual execution.  Given enough computable facts and enough understanding about the structure of narrative, a perfect Wolfram|Alpha should be able to tell me stories about the real world.  But it can’t.  They aren’t even trying to approach that.  Wolfram|Alpha isn’t creating Radiolab.  They want answers, not stories.  You know what tells stories? Dirty, messy, all-too-human Wikipedia.

A Different Kind of Magic

My friend Matt Sanders works for a bay area company called Librato.  Librato is a big data startup, having pivoted from some other work to running a service that collects vast amounts of metrics and provides dashboards on top of it.  With Librato Metrics you can feed data points, set alert triggers, create graphs, and watch activity.  It’s big data without the prediction.  It promises no magic, but relies on our own.  It optimizes data for processing by human eyeballs.

The 3 pounds of grey matter between your ears is still the best computer we have, running the best software for deriving stories and making sense of data.  Librato works because it doesn’t try to be what it can’t.  Google Analytics tries to offer Intelligence Events, but more often than not, it can’t offer anything more helpful than that visits are up from Germany 34%.  You would think that by combining traffic source analysis with content changes and deep data understanding Google would be able to tell you why visits are up from Germany, but most of the time that basic percentage is the best it can offer.  It still takes that 3 pounds of meat to pull together the data and interpret it into a story.  While computers may be generating articles on company reports or sports games, they’re not creating Radiolab.

Wrapping Up

I think there’s still a lot of room for innovation here.  The Archive Project I dreamed of long ago is essentially a system for telling stories and discovering meta-stories.  Maybe someone will finally build it.  Maybe the next Dwarf Fortress will be a world that runs persistently in the cloud, a world where our games interact with other people’s games, where crowdsourced Hair Complexity snowballs until you can get lost in the story if you want to. A game where if you want to turn off a random path and follow it down to the river you’ll find a fisherman who will tell you a tale interesting enough to make you sit in your car for 20 minutes, enthralled by a narrative.

Maybe the framing of a story is what big data needs to become personally relevant.  Maybe that’s its magic trick.  Maybe narrative is the next great big data frontier.

Future Past

iPad

I sometimes wonder about the generation of kids growing up today, in this big data, analytic-driven, always-on world.  I wonder how they will embrace it, like we embraced computers and connectivity.  I wonder if they’ll have the ability to hear the prognostications of the computer, to listen to the story from the machine, and consider it a kind of truth.  To internalize it, but also keep it separate.  To know the machine knows a truth, but not necessarily the absolute truth.  Maybe that will be their power, the thing they can do that those of us from the generation before can’t. Maybe that is where the dream finally comes true.

Book Review: YOU by Austin Grossman


April 22, 2013 at 9:39 pm (No Comments)

YOU Novel Cover

Austin Grossman has a new novel out.  It just hit last week, and it’s called YOU.  YOU is like Ready Player One and Fight Club having a baby while making an Ultima game.  If you’ve read both of those books (or watched the movie, in Fight Club’s case) and liked them, do not pass go, do not go to your cave and find your power animal, buy this book and read it.

YOU is a book about making computer games, about making the Ultimate Game, a game where you could be anyone and do anything and the world would still work, the story would still unfold completely naturally.  Austin has worked as a writer and designer on some of my favorite games, including Deus Ex and Thief: Deadly Shadows.  His experience in the games industry really shows, and you can see bits of real games peaking through the imaginary ones.  There’s a section in the book about a demo at E3, and it sounds exactly like they’re playing Thief, scrambling over rooftops, firing flaming arrows at torches, evading the city watch.  Austin’s latest game is Dishonored, which is sitting on my shelf, and has now risen much higher in the next-to-be-played list.

The story of YOU is told through a prodigal protagonist.  Out of options, he returns to the game company his friends started after high school, after they all built a pair of RPGs together.  He gets a job as an entry-level game designer, and proceeds to unravel a mystery about friendship and adolescence and being a nerd.  The game shifts between its present day of 1997 and the 80’s years of high school, the story unfolding through flashbacks and dives into the games the company created.

If you read REAMDE and enjoyed the parts in the MMO, or if you enjoyed Daemon, or Ready Player One, or Tad William’s Otherland books, you’ll like this book.  It’s obvious he’s writing from experience when he introduces a game, and while some of the details may be embellished from what was possible then, they play like we want to remember them.

The ending of this book doesn’t land as well as it could, it doesn’t leave you with a particularly warm sense of accomplishment, but it isn’t bad.  The macguffin is resolved, but the mystery sort of peters out.  This isn’t a book you read for the ending, though, it’s a book you read for the journey, for the time warp back into high school, into games on floppy discs and BBSes and a million possibilities inside the magical machine that no one over the age of 25 understands.  As an ode to that bygone era, it is unmatched.

VallisMOO: A Game Designer Is You!


April 22, 2013 at 11:49 am (No Comments)

The world is a scarred shell of wind and sand and heat.  Whoever had their finger on the button finally pressed it.  There’s only one safe place left, a tiny, sheltered valley between two giant mountains.  To the south is the ocean, to the north, the wasteland.  A magical gate keeps the monsters out, and keeps the valley safe.  We live well here, in our little sea side town or deep in the forest.  We roam the grassy plains, dotted with bald hills.  We hunt, and forage, and build.  Sometimes we fight, because what’s worth fighting for more than the last good place on Earth?

YOU & Me

A couple of days ago I read a review of Austin Grossman‘s new book, YOU, by Cory Doctorow, and decided to buy a copy.  Austin’s a game designer, and he’s worked on System Shock, Clive Barker’s Undying, Deus Ex, and Dishonored.  He’s now an author, with his first book SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, and now YOU.  YOU is a book about a directionless 27 year old who gets a job at a game company started by some of his high school friends.  While designing a new role playing game, he delves into the mystery of what happened to his friends and their dream of the ultimate game.  A game where you could be and do anything, and the story would unfold before you naturally.

I haven’t finished YOU, but it’s been bringing up all kinds of memories.  I got my first internet account in early 1994, dialing up through Real/Time Communications in Austin.  R/T hosted a game, a text-based Zork-ish virtual world game called Ghostwheel, or GhostMOO.  I’ve talked about GhostMOO before in my Pocket Worlds post, but I had forgotten an interesting chunk of GhostMOO history, and my own stab at multiplayer game design.  My own dream of the Ultimate Game.

Ghost^2

In 1997 GhostMOO was on the decline.  We’d had a big rush of users in 1995, but many of them had graduated from college, and user numbers were down.  The two main drivers of the game, Quinn (lead programmer) and Razorhawk (content creator) were busy with other projects, and without strong direction, GhostMOO was stagnating.

scribbleA couple of GhostMOO programmers, including Matt Sanders (who I’d go on to start Polycot and then join HP Cloud with) and I decided we’d start a spin off.  Quinn had been gracious enough to release the core of the game, the bits and pieces that made up combat and non-player characters and monsters, out into the open as the GhostCore, so we had a good place to start.

We were thinking of creating a Ghost^2 or Ghostwheel 2.0, if you will.  Similar core concepts, but different execution.  Ghostwheel was all over the place thematically, we had monsters cribbed from Princess Bride, Alien, a whole community of Dragons straight out of Pern, a quaint japanese island, basically whatever a programmer was really into, they built.  Even the name was cribbed from Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.  In retrospect what we had was a mashup, we were just ahead of our time.  Ghost^2 was an attempt to wipe the slate clean, to start with a core concept and theme that would be internally consistent.

Like all groups starting with a blank sheet of paper, we wanted to create the Ultimate Game, and we had the audacity to think that we could create a better game than the ones that had come before.  We wanted to create a game where if you wanted to play a blacksmith, you should be able to do that all day, role play with other people, and generally succeed and feel progress.  If you wanted to fight monsters, great, but that wasn’t the only path.  Years later the first Star Wars Galaxies game would do this in MMORPG form, only to be neutered and turned into more of a combat grind in an attempt to compete with WoW.

Terrain Zones

One of the really interesting things that Quinn built at GhostMOO was the Terrain Room.  GhostMOO was a MOO, a text based game, kind of like a multi-player Zork.  In a game like this as you walk around you’re presented with room descriptions, which include the objects in the room (furniture, people, monsters, etc) and the available exits.  Like so:

The R/T Round Room
Eight walls for each point of the compass, each with an open doorway.  The
 floor is tiled with checkered perma-linoleum; little matching octagons.

                    N   
        NW        Lounge       NE
      Austin        |       Hot Tub             UP
             \      |     /                     Helipad-
               \        /                         Austin
    W              YOU             E              Jizo Island
 Library -----     ARE   ----- Infirmary          Ghostwheel Plain
                  HERE
               /   |    \                       DOWN
        SW   /     |      \    SE               Ground floor-
     Obsidian               Greenroom             Exit to Wasteland    
                   S                               Guest Chamber
            PX/General Store
The center desk is empty of all personnel.  Someone must be on an extended
 coffee break.  An electronic sign-in pad is bolted to the desk.  A monitor is
 bolted into the desk.  Nobody's sitting on the floor.  Alongside the east
 wall is a queer little potted tree, a tallish leafy husk with a, uh, snout?
Contents:
 Bulletin board                                             
Obvious exits include down (d, trapdoor) and Up (Helipad, u).

Each of these rooms is dug by a programmer from an existing room, like mining through the digital aether.  That new room then has an exit back to the room you were in before.  (Here’s a map of the main house and grounds of LambdaMOO, for comparison.)  That style of design makes for very detailed, interesting areas, but the overall area tends to be small, because every room needs to be described individually.

Quinn created something called a Terrain Room, which lived inside a Terrain Zone.  In a Terrain Zone you insert a little ASCII map, something like this:

        @qedit me.tmp
        # ############
        #    # #     #
        ###~~#~#~~~#~#
        #          # #
        ############ #
                     #
        ##############
        .

This map defines what kind of rooms there are and what the layout is.  In this case the pound signs (#) may be walls, while the tildes (~) may be rivers, and the blank spaces grassy fields.  With this lovely hack Quinn transformed the Zork style MOO into a player-perspective Rogue-like.

The cool feature of the Terrain Zone is that it only creates the rooms if they need to exist.  In a MOO everything takes up memory space, and back in the mid 90’s memory wasn’t as plentiful as it is now.  If you’re standing in a terrain room, the terrain zone can look at the rooms around you on the map, and tell you what’s there.  “To the north, east and west are open fields.  To the south is a stone wall.”  Those rooms don’t actually exist.  Once you decide to walk north, the Terrain Zone creates that room, moves you into it, and destroys the room you were standing in before (unless you dropped something, or there’s some other reason for the room to still exist).

By operating like this you could create huge areas without actually digging and describing every room yourself, and the memory consumption would be a lot smaller.  Your monsters and other non-player characters could also know about their “home” terrain type, so they wouldn’t stray from the grass or river.  You could also let the player “travel north” and they would keep walking through rooms until they hit a room that was different than the type they were already in, or contained something unique.

In Ghost^2, we decided to use a Terrain Zone for our world, since it let us create an overall map that had consistent distances and spacing.  I sketched the map out on a sheet of paper (above), and then started drawing it in a paint program on my Mac (below).  I had a program that let me convert graphical images into ASCII art, so I was able to go from a map directly into the MOO.  This is the last version of the Ghost^2 map, created in October of 1998:

terrainimage5

The map is 1,000 pixels by 1,000 pixels, so our game would would be 1,000 rooms by 1,000 rooms.  In the orange spots where there were towns we could dig out special rooms for houses and buildings, we could dig out special dungeons from the fields or forests.  In this map light green is grassland, dark green is forest, gray-green is hills, blue is water, yellow is roads, and grey is rocky terrain.  The outlines around large sections are edge types, like the edge of a forest, a beach or the base of a hill.

It was a really cool concept, and thinking about it still gets me excited.  The idea of adventuring in that world, exploring the bustling cities, verdant fields, dark forests and dimly lit caves sounds like a lot of fun.

VallisMOO

Game design isn’t easy.  It’s easy to dream about, but it’s hard in practice.  I’m about 1/3rd of the way through YOU, and the main character’s starting to realize that he has to enumerate every kind of object in the world, in every state it has.  We reached a similar place with Ghost^2, which eventually became VallisMOO when interest waned among the other developers.  We decided not to create a sister-MOO to Ghostwheel and I kept working on my own, and that MOO became VallisMOO.

I appreciate the stamina exhibited by the Adams brothers, the team behind Dwarf Fortress.  They’ve been working on that thing for years, but that level of dedication is really hard to maintain.  I got to a place with VallisMOO where I needed to begin populating the combat system with weapons.  I heard that Steve Jackson games was working on a Low-Tech book, due out “any day now”, and instead of forging ahead (ahem) and making do, I decided to wait till it came out, and use it for reference.  That was 1998.  GURPS Low-Tech finally shipped in 2002, and by then I was on to real paying projects and VallisMOO was only a memory.

Legacy

I went digging through my project archive and found a directory full of VallisMOO code and to-do lists and graphics.  It even had some logs of conversations where I discussed the ideas for Ghost^2 with some friends, things I’d long forgotten.

I thought I’d share the design documents with the world, so I’ve uploaded them to github with a Creative Commons license.  There are files of character types, races, locations, maps and all kinds of crazy things.

If you thought this post was interesting, and enjoy 90’s era game design, you’ll probably really like Austin Grossman‘s YOU.  I finished it last night, and once I get a chance, I’ll write a more complete review.

Agents vs Operatives (aka Spy Break)


February 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm (No Comments)

spybreaklogoBack in 2008 when I was a managing partner at Polycot, we had an idea for a Facebook game.  I’ve always loved the spy genre, and it didn’t seem well represented, so we spent a few months of idle time writing up specifications, prototyping screens and mapping out how the application would work.  After it became obvious we didn’t have the budget to develop or launch the game, we shelved the project.  In the spirit of sharing ideas, here’s a glimpse inside the first phase of a game project.

Back Story

Agents vs Operatives, or Spybreak as it might have been known if it had reached the light of day, was a Facebook game.  Our setup was that players had been recruited as either Agents (good guys) or Operatives (bad guys) by competing cold war era organizations:

GALAXY – Global Alliance Limiting Aggressive Xenophobic sYndicates

and…

KOSMOS – Kommitte Over Sabotage and Mayhem, Overseas Services

Our design theme was inspired heavily by the early Bond films, the Flint films, Get Smart, and the fantastic game No One Lives Forever.

The Game Experience

UI Comp

User Interface Comp

The spy genre gives us a nice set of tools to make a game with.  There’s a spy (the player), bad guys and traps (obstacles), cool items (inventory), and exotic locations (setting).  I’d played a lot of Kingdom of Loathing, which has a similar set of elements, though KoL is an extremely silly parody of the fantasy genre.  We wanted AVO to be wry and funny, but not silly.  Like NOLF in theme, but KoL in experience, if you will.

When you’re developing a game you have to think about how people will play, and design a game to suit it.  Facebook games need to be playable in small chunks, though you may have a lot of time to burn, not everyone does.  We wanted a game you could play a mission or two of over your coffee break, and feel like you’d accomplished something.

We had three classes in the game: Muscle, Tech and Spook.  Tech characters would be able to crack security systems and take shortcuts while spooks would be able to use disguises or sweet talk their way around bad guys.  Muscle characters would just fight their way from one end to the other.

We decided on a mission setup where the player worked their way through a random arrangement of rooms (a dungeon) populated by randomly generated but thematically appropriate bad guys (monsters), trying to get to a goal, be it a safe with documents in it, a piece of stolen technology, or what have you (treasure).  We wanted to have at least a selection of classes available who would have different experiences, so we added the idea of optional routes that you could only get to if you had certain skills.  Here’s what we were shooting for with our random dungeon generator:

Test Dungeon Outline

When you started a mission you’d be dropped in a mission start area, like a square outside of a museum or a back alley behind a warehouse.  We had a selection of areas, in which we’d create some generic room types.  For instance the museum area would have a loading dock, an atrium, a long hallway, a display room, a break room, etc.  The game would put together a random arrangement of these areas when the mission was started, so each mission would feel a little different.  We also wanted some thematic variety, so we came up with the idea of having theme sets for areas.  For a museum you might have a cephalopod museum, a historic losers museum, a doll sized furniture museum, etc.  We’d differentiate these by substituting description phrases in the generic room descriptions, so the room might be:

You’re standing in yet another hallway. Marble columns arch from floor to ceiling evenly along the length of the hall. Security cameras sit high in the corners %instance_variable. The floors are spotless, shining in the glow of incandescent lamps set into small alcoves. A threadbare rug extends the length of the hall.

There is %roomlib_title here.

Assuming this was a Cephalopod Museum, into that we would substitute an instance variable like ‘above seashell sconces’ and the roomlib title would be ‘an angry-looking octopus’.

Those who have money do art, those who don’t have money do text.  Fortunately with layered graphics we figured we’d be able to create generic room backgrounds and then drop unique sprites on top of them as we had money to pay artists.

The rooms would be populated by thematically appropriate bad guys, and to proceed through the room you’d need to defeat or incapacitate them.  You’d get equipment for completing missions or helping out your friends, so you’d have leveled guns or grenades or disguises, if you were a spook.  Get through all the rooms and you successfully complete the mission.

Mission SelectionAs a Facebook game, you need to limit the amount of content and progression players can burn through in a sitting.  Otherwise, assuming your game is fun, they’ll burn through all your content in one sitting and then be done with it.  We planned on doing that by limiting the missions available to players.  We’d have low-value missions available regularly throughout the day that were only available for a set time (like the next 3 hours), and daily missions that were high value that were available all day.  You’d be able to help out your Facebook friends who were playing the game by sending them access to mid-value missions.

We also had the concept of multi-player missions, so the reward wouldn’t unlock unless all of the players who agreed for the mission completed it within the set time.  Since we were allowing good guys and bad guys, you’d also be able to PvP with other players, though we didn’t prototype that too heavily.

Over time you’d level up, gaining the ability to go on multi-player missions, go on missions in cities other than your home city.  We’d differentiate cities with unique areas and unique variables, so Paris might have a Stinky Cheese museum and cathedrals while Los Angeles might have a Plastic Surgery Parts warehouse and movie sets.

A Tragic Fate

In the end we didn’t get beyond a simple web demonstration without enemies that Ethan built in rails.  As a consulting shop we’d have had to finance it with profits from other projects, and since everyone had bills to pay, those profits never stayed around for long.  Not having a graphic designer on staff also meant we’d have to pay other folks to do a lot of work, which became a major stumbling block.  We probably could have repurposed this idea for an iPhone game, but by the time that platform was ripe we had other ideas to try.

I’ve uploaded a bunch of design documents to github, if you’d like to check out more.  Maybe someone will take the idea and run with it.  It’s still a game I want to play.

Fiasco: Bad Beans


January 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm (One Comment)

Most gamers I know tend to collect unplayed games.  We buy them with the greatest intentions, but then they sit, unplayed, often unread.  Fiasco is a great game, a collaborative storytelling game about people with powerful ambitions but poor impulse control.  We finally got to play it tonight and had a great time.  For your enjoyment, here’s a rundown of our little adventure in Beatrice, Nebraska.  It was a real fiasco.

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