Archive for November, 2013

The Problem of Scale

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Scale is a common problem for games that deal with space exploration. It’s not a problem specific to games, either. Any medium that wanders in the direction of spacey science fiction is in for a doozy when they contemplate the actual size of this void we find ourselves in. And to keep their fictional worlds comprehensible, they fudge the numbers and ignore the big picture. Because our narrow mammalian brains don’t particularly care about the fates of millions. No, we just want to cheer on a tiny band of plucky heroes as they defeat the villain and save the galaxy. This is all too obvious in something like the Mass Effect series, where your little group of three super soldiers fights off a few thousand enemy aliens over the course of a game, and ultimately decide the fate of billions. Which should really be trillions at the very least, since we’re talking about a populated galaxy here.

The same problem appears in film as well. Star Wars and Star Trek both blithely ignore the inconvenient facts of scale. In the former we see the standard trope of a small band of heroes challenging the evil sorcerer and his minions, ultimately saving the kingdom. Except the kingdom in this case is an entire, inhabited galaxy, supposedly containing billions of stars and planets.

Sometimes Star Wars does have some fun with scale, as in the case of the Death Star, but then completely fails to follow through on the implications. Just for starters, the Empire could construct hundreds of billions of TIE fighters with resources of the Death star. Luke’s force-empowered piloting skills might begin to struggle with that challenge. Even with limitless ammo and the hopeless aim of stormtroopers, Luke would still die of old age long before making his way through them all.

But this is all supposed to lead to games, isn’t it? Well, here we go: I’d like to see a game that properly represents the vastness of the universe. How could this be accomplished? You can’t really put billions of stars or planets into a game. Neither computers nor brains can possibly manage that. In practice, the only way to approach it is by employing different scales, much like the old Powers of 10 video. Start by depicting a planet, then a star system, then a small star cluster, a large cluster, a galaxy, a group of galaxies, etc. Or perhaps just limit yourself to a galactic scale to limit the number of minds imploding. This way you can have billions of stars conceptually without directly representing them all. That lower detail information is generated procedurally as you zoom into a region, within the constraints given by properties existing at the higher level. Only upon observation do the details of the galaxy come into existence and get stored. Of course, you need more than just stars and planets for things to get interesting, so let’s throw in some cultures and lifeforms spreading through the galaxy, forming one enormous ecosystem. At the high levels you may see broad parent cultures and meet ever smaller ones as you dive in. Kind of like taking ‘Earth culture’ as a whole and then zooming all the way into the subculture of one specific neighborhood in Kansas.

Only a vague simulation at this point, to be sure. Certainly far from a game, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d want to make anything like this, but it is an idea nonetheless.


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Games and Evolution

Monday, November 4th, 2013

I’ve been playing some Starcraft 2 lately, and it’s reminded me of an argument I’ve heard a few times. Broadly speaking, it goes like this: genres and game mechanics are continuously evolving into better experiences, but some old die hards haven’t moved on with the times. Starcraft 2 is apparently one of these ancient behemoths, sticking to its antiquated roots, while new and innovative games like the Dawn of War series blaze a whole new trail. A recent post on Kotaku said more or less this exact thing. I also heard it from a Dawn of War 2 developer a little while back, which might not be too unexpected, but it still seems worthy of a response.

Just to set the record straight, I do believe in evolution. Both of the biological and the gaming kind. Without a doubt, developments in technology have transformed the face of gaming since its early days, which is unsurprising given the radical advancements in both software and hardware. Evolution really is a great analogy in this argument. Life on Earth started from small, simple organisms and over time developed into the variety of large, complicated forms we have now. However, the simple things never actually went away. The Earth’s ecosystem is still founded on micro-organisms that haven’t changed much for billions of years. They haven’t changed because they don’t need to; they’re already perfectly adapted to their chosen niche. A similar thing has happened in games. There is greater diversity and complexity out there now, but you can always go play Space Invaders if you want, which some people still do.

So this is the lesson to take away: any improvement there might be is always relative to the chosen environment and role. A new feature is a sign of progress only if it makes the organism more successful in its particular niche.

In the gaming world the environment is cultural. That complex, human tableau of behaviors and attitudes is a far more volatile landscape than any natural environment. Culture is constantly diversifying and changing in unpredictable ways, as people respond to social and technological developments. While there are some broad trends in culture, there are also holdouts and counter movements running against the stream. In an environment like this achieving any kind of definitive progress is difficult. Even something as universally appreciated as advances in graphics is not an automatic improvement for games. More pixels and polygons are usually a good thing, but there are still cases where simple representations work better. Architecture and graphic design are very familiar with this principle.

This argument isn’t really about graphics though. It’s instead about game mechanics, a field where progress is notoriously difficult to find. Just discovering a game mechanic that is actually new and not just a reformulation of an existing concept is hard enough. Discovering one that will definitively improve an existing genre is harder still. What we actually see in new features is typically either a push for greater realism (generally pushed on by new tech) or some type of mixing of mechanics in search of an unexploited niche. This is what Dawn of War 2 has done. In its campaign mode it’s taken a page out of Diablo by adding levels and gear to all of your units. It also removes all base building, allowing players to focus on managing units. The result is different enough to be interesting, and the game has enough polish to make it worthwhile, but that doesn’t make it the next step in RTS games. This is really more of an RPG-RTS hybrid. It’s neither superior nor inferior to the previous model. It isn’t so much a step forwards as a step sideways. It’s a foray into a new niche in the hopes that it will prove richer than the old.

But that old niche is still there, waiting for someone to fill it. This is where SC2 has chosen to stay. It is not a dinosaur, long dead and buried. It is more like a shark, so successful at what it does that no real change is necessary. So go ahead, praise DoW2 for its bravery in exploring the horizons, but don’t discount the significance of the tried and true. Starcraft 2 is virtually the last of its kind, so perhaps its chosen niche is going out of fashion. But on the other hand, it has sold millions of copies, in addition to being a national sport in one particular Asian country. Clearly, the right predator can still thrive in these old waters.


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Emergent Stories

Monday, November 4th, 2013

It’s awfully easy to classify games as just one more medium in a long line of other storytelling methods. Just one more reason to lay back on the couch. Where once we just had music, books and movies, we now also have games. But if you take a good look at the breadth of modern gaming, it becomes clear that there’s more going on here. Games could be more accurately described as a type of interactive super-medium, able to encompass the forms and strategies of other media, and a sizable host of other abilities besides. The umbrella of modern gaming covers vast variety of tools and experiences. Everything from a glorified chat room to a technical flight simulator can be considered a game. Interactive movies, elaborate fictional economies, and virtual worlds can all be categorized as games.

One of the most interesting consequences lies in how narrative and meaning can be constructed. Not only do games utilize the same techniques as movies and books, but they allow entirely new forms of storytelling as well. Unlike traditional narrative, games are not limited to delivering linear, pre-written stories. While they can still do that quite well, they’re also capable of generating emergent narratives. These interactions between the player-and-game-system, as well as player-and-player, are much like how stories get built in the real world. The story of your life emerges as a function of the environment, your own actions, and the actions of those around you. But we live with a lot of constraints in real life, so many of these stories aren’t that interesting. We are stuck performing many monotonous tasks out of necessity that can conveniently be skipped under a virtual ruleset. This is why Nathan Drake will never need to cook breakfast, ride the bus, or use the bathroom.

So what if you could ‘live’ under such a ruleset? What kind of stories could you build as a another person, in a different kind of universe, following a different set of physical laws? A thousand flavors of The Matrix on acid? Okay, that might still be a little ways off. The truth of the matter is that emergent narrative is still in its infancy. Even as graphics are beginning to brush up against photo-realism, we are nowhere close to representing the dynamic relationships that make natural and social systems tick.

Existing examples of emergent narrative are mostly limited to MMOs and some epic strategy games like Civilization. In the case of the latter it is a tale of nations vying for supremacy, discovering technology and waging wars against one another. Buying into this grand organic narrative is why people play these games in the first place. It would be much less engaging if you fielded armies of green cubes instead of war elephants. But it does take a considerable ability to suspend disbelief, as the constraints of the system are rather obvious. You may end up conquering many cities, but despite them having different names they’re all awfully similar. Same goes for the soldiers and generals under your command. You can choose to research many technologies, but on every playthrough you discover the same ones, arranged in the same order. You can never develop a technology or weapon that hasn’t been pre-defined. You don’t even have the option to stop your research, or to abandon the things you’ve discovered. This is a universe with a limited set of possible actions and objects, repeated ad infinitum in different combinations to create the impression of distinct experiences.

I don’t mean to disparage the Civilization series; they’re excellent games for what they are. I’m only saying that something much more complex is possible. Imagine, for instance, a Civilization-style game where each citizen of your empire exists as an individual entity with basic behaviors. Every hovel they inhabit is an independent object, and city layouts can emerge in accordance with the surrounding terrain and your imperial directives. Then, if you allow your individual citizens to carry a basic set of properties and behaviors, you end up with an exponential increase in possible outcomes. Let your people communicate ideas and attitudes and all of a sudden you might end up seeing the emergence of new religions and political factions. Let people pass on their properties onto their offspring and eventually you’ll see lineages and cultural groups emerge. So, is all this possible now? Maybe not, but I do feel like we’re getting pretty close. The point, however, is this: the finer the detail where the rules of your game world take place, the greater the number of possible outcomes. Define your Civ world at the scale of cities and you’ll just end up with differently shaped borders. Define it at the level of individuals and you’ll end up with different kinds of cities, religions and political parties. Define it at the level of genetics and you may end with different species.


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Monsters in Training

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Among other ideas, I’ve been thinking about making a monster training game. This concept was born a while ago from a bit of nostalgia for the old PS game Monster Rancher. There is just something appealing about raising a cute little critter, and then training it into a machine of pure destruction. Pokemon has of course capitalized on this, but it tends to be fairly light on the virtual pet aspects.

Perhaps the most immediate challenge is to specify what sort of monsters we’re talking about. Take a broad swathe of creatures as in Monster Rancher? So, everything from herbivore-like animals to mythic monsters to robots. If breeding is to be an element of the game, then a particular species or species-equivalent might make more sense. As an added benefit this would also help to reign in art requirements, as many assets could be reused or interchanged.

With little doubt, dragons are the most popular sort of monster in town at the moment. And they’ve probably held that spot for much of human history. There are already a number of games about dragon breeding and training. There’s Dragonvale, Dragon City, and even Dragon Up from East Side Games might qualify. So, maybe something that hasn’t been seen much? Something that’s both ferocious and cute? Yetis? Sea serpents? Or simply something new, perhaps based on real world animals?

For the sake of argument, let’s stick to dragons for the time being. How would a dragon breeding system work? I really like the concept of raising a line of dragons, with each individual inheriting traits from the generation that came before it. While your dragons would eventually die, some of their precious abilities could be passed down the line. And you could mix different breeds of dragons to produce unorthodox results, as some dog breeders do. Rottweiler + Chihuahua? Might not be easy, but why not? Similarly, fire dragons and water dragons might be incompatible, but given the right circumstances they might just produce a beautiful litter of steam dragon babies.

One thing that stands out about this type of game is how well suited it is for micro-payments. Eggs taking way too long to hatch? Just place them in the hyper-incubator and get your dragons immediately! Obstinate dragons refusing to mate? Just apply premium love potion and any match is guaranteed! Dragons aging and dying too soon? The fountain of youth will take care of that little problem!

Does all that have the potential to be exploitative? Yes, absolutely. Which is why this micro-payment line of thought makes me a little uncomfortable about the whole concept. There’s a slippery slope here that leads to Zynga levels of cynical, formulaic parasitism.


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