Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spritz

I'm not the world's fastest reader. Maybe it's because of too much stuff like game rules and technical material, and not enough light reading, but my style is very plodding. Good comprehension, but for me reading a novel is like 'wait, what color were the drapes? Did he peer around them or past them? Was he tall and gaunt, or gaunt and tall??'

Well apparently I will soon be able to read 1000 words per minute, and so will you! The Spritz app is a piece of software that has apparently been in development for a couple of years, and makes some lofty claims. 1000wpm is more than four times(!) the average reading speed, and it means you could devour the average novel in around 90 minutes. What's more, retention allegedly improves. The app will supposedly be available soon and could presumably be embedded with articles, or as an app to paste things into on your smartphone (I assume).

I was definitely skeptical at first, but then I tried their demo and found myself able to read 600 words per minute no problem with no practice. They won't let you crank it up to 1000 yet, but definitely check Spritz out if you haven't already. I know this reads like a sponsored advertisement or something, but it's not every day I come across something that strikes me as a legitimate game changer.

Of course this raises a few important questions. Do you actually WANT to read your favorite novels at 1000 words per minute? Will our ability to read normal words on a page atrophy until trying to read the old fashioned way is physically painful? And what will happen in a future where nerds everywhere suddenly have way more free time? I'm concerned they might take over the world and force every movie to be about comic books.

Monday, February 24, 2014

*Donations Wanted*

My friend and colleague Sen-Foong Lim made me aware of a facility opening this year called the Be Brave Ranch that will be dedicated to the treatment of child sexual abuse victims. As part of therapy, they plan to use boardgames to help children and their families interact. If anyone who reads this is looking to trim their collection and help an important cause, you can mail new or used games to:

924 91 St SW
PO Box 53548
Edmonton, AB T6X 0P6 

Ideally these games should be non-violent and suitable for children ages 8 to 14.

Games may also be purchased and donated from a local source.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled twaddle.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fail Faster

This week's Extra Credits knocked it out of the park. Totally obvious once you have any experience designing games, yet it's a truth nobody seems to grasp. In fact the mantra of pursuing and embracing failures is a good general rule for life I think.

Interestingly, when I saw the title "Fail Faster" I assumed they were going to talk about making the player's failures in-game quick and spectacular rather than drawn out and painful, which is another design cornerstone. (The exception being something like Cold War: CIA vs KGB where watching your opponent trying to fruitlessly dig themselves out of a progressively-more-hopeless quagmire is half the fun. (for you.))

By "spectacular" I mean that failure is generally much more frustrating when its visceral feel is muted. A great example of quick and spectacular failure can be found in Super Meat Boy. When you die, you literally explode in a shower of blood (which arguably less distasteful when you consider that the protagonist is after all made of raw meat) and then instantly respawn and try again. A few dozen attempts (that would be frustrating if not for their brevity) leave the stage completely coated in the gory allegory of your own incompetence, and it is glorious.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

48 Hour Global Game Jam #2

Just went to my second Global Game Jam and had an even more awesome time than last year. Great fun all around!

I had quite a balanced team this year, with two artists, an SFX guy, and three coders (though one of them mysteriously vanished after the first day. Local grues are being questioned).

Our game is called 80s Tycoon and I did design, writing and music. Check out the sketchy video I jury-rigged out of outdated gameplay footage in 20 minutes! We want to polish it up and eventually give it a proper release.

I also did a bit of music for another game called Bring the Light. You can check out their trailer here!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Voting Systems

If there's one thing I've learned from designing games, it's that if you want different outcomes in a system involving human participants, you can't just expect people to start behaving differently/better, rather you need to modify the system in which they are behaving. The way people behave tends to be fairly predictable mostly as a pursuit of self interest with some psychological quirks thrown in. This view puts me at odds with some who discuss politics by lamenting the greed and corruption of man (possibly with the implied undercurrent that "things never change"). In my view, the 2008 housing crisis was not cause by "a bunch of greedy bankers" but rather a bunch of rational actors sensibly taking advantage of a system which heavily rewarded dealing in highly questionable mortgages while offering minimal risk of punishment (unless a 700 trillion dollar bailout can be considered punishment). Relatedly I don't blame someone for exploiting a dominant move in a poorly balanced fighting game. Don't hate the player, fix the game.

In most cases I feel the best fixes would involve simplifying law, language and procedure since a highly complex and arcane system ends up being understood only by those who can profit by exploiting it. It's hard enough to balance a system with five players and ten pages of rules, let alone one with millions of players and enough rules that one can earn several degrees simply by trying to learn them. However there's one area of policy for which I believe the beautifully simple and elegant way of doing things is in fact horribly misguided, and that's the First Past the Post voting system. I delivered a speech at Toastmasters a while back on this subject, and since I made some cute slides I figured I'd throw it up here as well. (A shout-out to CGPGrey's excellent YouTube videos on the subject for inspiration.)

 Since most concepts are better explained with anthropomorphized letters, we imagine a fictitious election involving three horrifically mutated animals: Alligator, Bear, and Cat. How shall we elect a leader from this sorry bunch? (And we're disregarding any system that results in a coalition government; two carnivores aren't going to be able to share an office. Single winner required.)

At initial glance the ubiquitous First Past the Post system seems simple and obvious: have everyone vote for the person/thing/outcome they want, and the one that gets the most votes wins. If there are only two candidates, this method is wonderful. More people like Bear, Bear wins, no problem (until Bear inevitably goes drunk with power and delicious honey).

Problems arise as soon as with introduce a third candidate. Even though voters #4 and #5 hate Alligator and everything he stands for, Alligator ends up winning the election because the majority, who prefer warm and cuddly rulers, found their vote split by the "spoiler effect."

The spoiler effect is a very real thing that happens. There was a quiet little town in Ontario that decided it would let its citizens vote on what it should be named. The ballot included three options: "Lakehead," "The Lakehead," or "Thunder Bay." Of course they used First Past the Post and the final result looked like this:

The Lakehead - 8,377 votes
Lakehead - 15,302 votes
Thunder Bay - 15,870 votes!!!

If this vote were held semi-annually, it can be assumed that the people who liked "The Lakehead" would quickly jump on the "Lakehead" bandwagon. This spoiler effect, and the reactionary bandwagoning, is why nobody bothers voting for Ralph Nader (or the Green Party), and why all political system that use First Past the Post are doomed to devolve into a two-party system where everybody votes for the side they hate the least.

Enter my personal favorite solution, Instant Runoff Voting (aka "Alternative Vote"). In this system, voters order their candidates in order of preference, and then when the votes are being tabulated, candidates are "eliminated" if they have the fewest ballots rating them highest until only one candidate remains. In the above example, only two voters rated Cat highest, so he is scrubbed off everyone's ballots as though he never existed. Voters #5 and #6 are left with Bear as their highest rated candidate. Five people now rate Bear highest with only four preferring Alligator, and so now Alligator is eliminated and the fur-lovers have it. (Note that this system does not require voters to cast multiple ballots. All the elimination and recalculation is done during tabulation.)

As much as I am a fan of Instant Runoff Voting, it's not perfect (although literally no system is. Stay tuned.) In the above example, the majority of voters have a preference for Cat. Some hate Bear, some hate Alligator, but everyone thinks Cat is a pretty cool guy. Unfortunately under this system he is immediate eliminated because not enough voters listed him as their highest candidate (though it's worth noting that First Past the Post has exactly the same problem).

A way to alleviate this issue is the Borda Count Method. With the same set of ballots, candidates are assigned points based on their ranking on each ballot, the points are added up, and the highest total wins.

Alas this system is also imperfect. In the above example, a majority want to elect Bear, but those slimy Alligator voters have purposefully put him at the bottom of their ranking, thereby allowing Alligator to eke out a victory.

So clearly voting systems are more problematic than one might assume. How does one construct a one that gives fair results in all situations. Short answer: you don't.

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem is a mathematical proof that all voting systems imaginable are, in some instances, horribly flawed and unfair. The criteria given for "fairness" are:
  • If every voter prefers alternative X over alternative Y, then the group prefers X over Y.
  • If every voter's preference between X and Y remains unchanged, then the group's preference between X and Y will also remain unchanged (even if voters' preferences between other pairs like X and Z, Y and Z, or Z and W change).
  • There is no "dictator": no single voter possesses the power to always determine the group's preference.
I won't try to go into the mathematical proof that a system that satisfies all three criteria is impossible (since frankly some of the math is over my head). As a briefer means of illustrating, consider the following:

How do you solve that?? You don't. All three candidates have equal claim to victory. The only reasonable solution is some sort of caged death match. No voting system can sensible deal with this result. But it's important to keep one thing in mind.

Even though no voting system is, or can ever be, perfect, that doesn't mean all voting systems are created equal. First Past the Post is strictly worse than Alternative Runoff Voting because it doesn't solve any of the latter's problems, and it is plagued with the spoiler effect. Its only real advantage is that it's easier to explain and looks more logical at first glance.

So remember, the next time someone complains that both the Democrats and the Republicans are terrible and yet no other party will become a serious force in American politics in the foreseeable future, the problem is not that politicians are corrupt and greedy scum who have created a stranglehold on the nation via their control of the media or what have you, the problem is that First Past the Post is a terrible, terrible voting system.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Bus

I'm not up on the career of Paul Kirchner. What I know is that he is a heck of an artist, and that he did some things with Heavy Metal magazine, one of which was a monthly feature simply titled "The Bus." You can and should read it here. It is brilliant, bizarre and wonderful.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dreams of the Dead vol 1

My good friends Clayton and Cat just put out a short horror anthology ebook with a cool lovecraftian/fairytale feel and delightfully creepy illustrations. Hopefully it will be the first of many collaborations so go check it out or take a look at some of Cat's work on deviantart.

~GoOo NoOwWw!!!~

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Golden Age

Wow, I've been a longtime fan of the boardgame reviewers at Shut Up & Sit Down, but Quinns really hit it out of the park with this talk reaching out to non-boardgamers and he nicely sums up many of the things I love about the hobby. The only thing I'll add is to stress that Descent and Twilight Imperium are the exception; most modern boardgames play within a reasonable time frame and in fact require much less of a time commitment than most modern videogames.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Stale

I'm generally not a stickler for movie logic. Generally I think it's more important that a movie hang together thematically and emotionally, and if telling a good story results in some plot-holes then so be it. But I thought Man of Steel was, while reasonably entertaining and well put together, a little bland and unengaging, so I'm going to go ahead and explain why I'm fairly convinced that the central plot actually makes no sense. (**Major spoilers ahead obviously**)

One aspect that differentiates this film from previous tellings of Superman's origin is that a great deal of time is spent on Krypton before Jor-El fires his son into space. General Zod also realizes that the planet will be destroyed and is staging a military coup that involves chasing Jor-El around on pterodactylesque things. This whole escapade adds a much needed breath of fresh air, but why is Zod after Jor-El you ask?

You see in this continuity Kryptonians have long ago taken to genetically engineering all of their offspring to fulfill specific societal roles. Zod and his friends are designed to protect Krypton at all costs, and he's of the ideological position that certain other genetic lines should be discontinued when they find a new home. Jor-El's very unhappy with all this genetic engineering stuff (and in fact his own son is secretly the first child in centuries created through some good ol' fashion Kryptonian lovin'), so he refuses to work with Zod and instead steals "The Codec," an artifact that houses all the data for future generations of Kryptonian test-tube babies, and inexplicably destroys it by encoding the information onto his sons "cells" before sending him off to Earth to start a new beginning.

Jor-El's strategy raises several questions. Seeing as it can be safely assumed that humans do not possess the means to create a new generation of Kryptonians using the Codec (assuming they would want to), it's puzzling that Jor-El seems to think that sending his son off with it will somehow lead to a new beginning for their race. But even if Superman somehow obtained the means to utilize this Codec, all that it would let him do is create a bunch of genetically designed Kryptonians that Jor-El is seemingly against to begin with. Indeed when Superman discovers a hologram of his father's consciousness on Earth, Jor-El gives no indication that he wants Superman to create more Kryptonians, and he certainly doesn't mention that "by the way, you have a bunch of data written on your cells that is the last genetic record of your people!"

Which raises the question: why did Jor-El go to all the trouble of stealing the Codex in the first place? If he merely didn't want Zod to have it (and just felt like dooming his entire race), would it not have been a lot easier to simply destroy the Codec? And if he only wanted Superman to have the Codec (for whatever inexpiable reason) presumably Kryptonian technology is advanced enough to maybe have a copy-paste feature that could avoid destroying the original (and likely his species' only chance at salvation)? It would seem that if Zod was engineered to protect Krypton at any cost, Jor-El must have been engineered to provide the villains with a MacGuffin at any cost.

But the madness certainly doesn't end there. After Zod and his pals show up on Earth, they discover that the Codec is written on Superman's cells and that they must capture him dead or alive to retrieve it, despite the fact that they make this discovery after having taken a sample of his blood! Or do you need all of his cells?! One might assume that a hidden message would want to be written in someone's DNA or something, seeing as cells have a habit of dying and replacing themselves. The only conclusion I can come to is that perhaps Kryptonian cells do not die and that Superman has retained each individual cell that the Codec was written on when he was a baby. Perhaps when he decided to (somehow) shave he was unknowingly committing genocide!

Assuming that retrieving Superman's body will be no trouble, Zod sets about terraforming Earth so it can be a new Krypton, which will have the unfortunate side effect of wiping out all human civilization. No particular reason it needs to be Earth though. You would think that perhaps he could choose an uninhabited planet to terraform (seeing as Earth would be de-inhabited anyway) and Superman might even help out by turning over the Codec (i.e. himself) in order to save not only the Earth but his own race as well! Presumably there would need to be something preventing Zod from simply choosing another planet since this would lead to a rather unexciting climax (or maybe Zod just really hates human for no reason), but this solution is never even proposed or mentioned by anyone.

Zod's right-hand woman named Zodalina (maybe) does tell Superman that morality has been "evolved out of" Kryptonians, which is a fantastically stupid statement for three reasons:

1) "Morality" is an evolved trait that allows us to live and work together in groups. Lack of morality is a trait of lower lifeforms (for example, slugs are total wankers).

2) Nobody with the goal of creating a perfect society populated by superior beings would ever intentionally engineer them with no morality. Psychopath Land is not even a place you want to visit. (Psychopath Land might be L.A.)

3) They clearly do have a morality. Their extremely central moral precept, which they will do anything to follow, is to protect/reestablish Krypton at any cost. That is their moral imperative. The only character in Man of Steel with no discernible morality is Jor-El.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Basic Tips for Game Designers

Good tips here for anyone who wants to start designing boardgames, or videogames for that matter (although someone stealing your videogame idea after it's released is a little more plausable).