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).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shadow of the Eternal Darkness

I've previously expressed my great admiration and love for Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem so I was extremely excited to learn that the same team that developed the original is currently crowdfunding a freaking sequel!!!

Okay technically it's a "spiritual successor" in that they won't be able to use the same name, and it's unclear how closely they can hew to the original inanity mechanics given Nintendo's absurd patent, but there's gonna be a new Eternal Darkness guys! Holy crap!

Or at least there will be if it gets funded, so go make it happen! And while you're at it, go show Double Fine's Humble Bundle a little love too. Mantarok commands it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Five-Point-Exploding-PR Technique

For the second year running, EA has been voted the “Worst Company in America” in a poll by the Consumerist. Is it possible that publishing bad videogames is in fact a worse sin than ruining the economy, murdering sea life or giving millions cancer?

Aside from the sample bias that people participating in online polls are more likely to play a lot of videogames than they are to own equity, swim in the Gulf or watch MTV respectively, EA's problem isn't actually an inability to publish good games. Seeing as they own half the industry's AAA developers at this point, a great many of the games they publish are in fact excellent. No, their problem is largely one of PR.

When SimCity failed to be playable by many at launch due to always-online DRM and dodgy servers, what was their immediate response? We made our game so fun that too many people just couldn't stop playing! (See, it's totally your guys' fault!)

In similar fashion, the response to the consumerist poll includes a beautifully laid out list of reasons why in fact you are stupid (and homophobic) for hating them. So enlighten us EA. Let's go through this sucker point by point:

-Point #1:
"Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It’s not. People still want to argue about it. We can’t be any clearer – it’s not. Period."

Except that it totally is DRM. If the online features were not merely implemented to combat piracy, there would have been an offline option for the billions of people who do not have internet connections, sort of like every other SimCity game ever. (SimCity is not an MMO and never has been.) I also like how they're dubbing it the “Always-On function” since it conjures images of a product that is always ready to go when you need it rather than the complete opposite of that.

-Point #2:
"Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam. 45 million registered users are proving that wrong."

You know what? I'm a registered Origin user. You know why? Because a ton of EA games require you to register and be logged into your account in order to play them (thanks to that lovely Always-On function). Do I use Origin for anything else? I suppose I gripe about it in blog posts. Admittedly that's a service Steam hasn't provided me yet.

-Point #3:
"Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming. Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games."

Tens of millions of people also love Hollywood movies, but that doesn't prove that they all need to be teal and orange.

-Point #4:
"We’ve seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really… "

Initially I actually agreed with this point... until I saw the new Madden NFL cover:

Disclaimer: not actually the new Madden NFL cover.

-Point #5:
"In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games. This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America. That last one is particularly telling. If that’s what makes us the worst company, bring it on. Because we're not caving on that."

Thank you EA for championing equality and inclusiveness by having 99% of your games star straight white male protagonists (along with the rest of the AAA industry, sadly).

I know times are tough financially EA. I understand that it's not easy being the most hated company in America (it's quite impressive actually when you consider the competition), and I sympathize that you feel the need to take extreme measures to combat piracy, but I feel like both might be resolvable were you to show a little more humility, benevolence and good faith and perhaps, just a thought, try to include features that make your games better than the version the pirates are offering rather than worse.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Teabagging for Cthulhu

Okay so I know it's not hip to care or talk about Halo anymore, but check it:

-As a small child, I played the Macintosh game Pathways into Darkness in which you navigate an ancient ziggurat attempting to defeat a slumbering Lovecraftian god. (I thought the dead Nazi lying out front was a turtle.)

-Shortly thereafter, Bungie released the Marathon trilogy in which you play a reanimated cyborg who may or may not have memories which resemble the events of Pathways into Darkness (which also happen to be summarized in garbled form in a computer terminal). Also more Lovecraft.

-Half a decade later, Halo descends from the heavens containing countless connections to the Marathon series. For example, both games feature a company on Mars named "Misriah." (Also the Marathon logo is plastered all over everything in sight.)

-Which leads me to the inexorable conclusion that the Halo franchise is in fact part of the Cthulhu Mythos. (In fact I'm certain there's a bit about the Flood in the Necronomicon somewhere.)

This connection also melds the Halo-verse to quit a few other things including Conan the Barbarian and uncomfortable racism. (Though of course it could all just be in Tommy Westphall's imagination.)

I guess what I'm saying is, if they ever do make that Halo movie, and they cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Master Chief, it wouldn't be out of place is all.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Last Door Chapter 1 Review: Beyond the Veil of Crowdfunding

Good horror games have been a bit thin on the ground ever since the AAA industry apparently misplaced the recipe, but in inadequately-dark times like these one need only turn to the indie scene for delicacies like The Last Door. I've always been a big gothic horror fan, and the sensibilities of Poe and Lovecraft are put across strongly with retro-minimalist graphics that leave most of the horror to your twisted imagination.

In chapter 1 you receive a cryptic letter from an old friend and decide to pay a visit to his creepy mansion because you fear something is amiss. (Spoilers: something is amiss.)

Gameplay is standard adventure game fare. Puzzles are fairly basic and logical, but the emphasis is on mood, which is made all the more chilling by an excellent musical score that contrasts pleasingly with the otherwise retro aesthetic. The horror is more subtly chilling than panic inducing. There are a couple of jump scares, but they are deployed effectively and used as a spice rather than a crutch (to mix old and limp metaphors).

Mostly I'm posting this because I want to spread the word for selfish reasons. Currently they need about 6k in donations to make Chapter 2, and I want to find out where the story goes dagnabbit!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Gamifying Education

Someday I want to teach game design in an academic setting, so I've been doing Toastmasters to get better at public speaking and presentation. Here's video of my 10th speech, which I'll be giving again at the Calgary area contest next week.

I took the idea of reverse grading from this Extra Credits video and the baseball analogy from this excellent TED Talk. Thanks also to Iris Talbot for her coaching, support and camera.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tomb Raider Review: Baptism by Fire

Ms. Pac-Man may have kicked things off with her audaciously gender-specific bow and sassy single honorific, but ever since Lara Croft's debut (trudging up a snowy monutain in short shorts if I recall), Tomb Raider has been the central talking point for how women are portrayed in videogames. And although this has tended to overshadow other discussions of the series and has undoubtedly influenced successive videogame heroines, it's never been settled whether the portrayal has been a positive or a negative one. On the one hand, Lara Croft is a strong, independent woman who can kick ass with the best of them, which set her strongly apart from the gaggle of damsels in distress dominating the medium prior. On the other hand, her wardrobe and proportions (and marketing) present her as a sex object right from the start. So is Lara a feminist vanguard, or a demeaning symbol of the old guard? (or not a type of guard at all?)

I think an important thing to keep in mind in all this is that “sexism” does not exist in a vacuum. Lara's cold femme fatale attitude undoubtedly had more clout back before it became the go-to method for ensuring that female characters be regarded as more than just eye candy while not having to actually give them much character (because making your female character a real person is also dangerous, as we will see). In the same vein, there's (in my male opinion) nothing wrong with creating a female character intended to titillate; the problems come when all female characters in a medium seem to be designed to be most ergonomically ogled. It's all about context, is what I'm saying.

So now we come to the gritty reboot/prequel ambiguously titled Tomb Raider in which we find a very different Lara. Rather than an idealized sex toy, we find an attractive but realistically proportioned human. And rather than a hard-edged femme fatale(/cold-blooded killer) we find a realistically scared young woman in over her head. And yet her thorough transformation has done anything but allow her to escape the realm of gender politics. The controversy kicked off when an early trailer showed a scene in which Lara is threatened by a group of ruffians with what could without too much imagination be construed as rape. This, combined with a statement by the developers that the game would make players want to “protect” Lara, unsurprisingly provoked a Himiko-level storm of internet backlash.

So is the new Tomb Raider sexist? Having played through the story, I can say that the “rape” scene barely registers as a thing, though rumor has it that it was toned down in response to the fan outrage. Admittedly I have never personally been in a situation in which I feared being raped, so perhaps some might find the sequence more disturbing (though were I marooned on an island with a gang of murderous cutthroats, I imagine I would be more worried by all the shooting and knifing directed at me that by a little suggestive pawing). Failing the associated Quick Time Event actually results in Lara being choked to death rather than being raped, so that's better(?) As for Lara's characterization, I can unequivocally say that Lara is a more engaging and fleshed-out character, and certainly more well-rounded despite the smaller cup size (*badum tush*). But depth alone does not determine whether a characterization is sexist. Again I would say it's largely a matter of context. I do not see anything wrong with casting Lara as scared and inexperienced, and tasking the player with protecting her. If the concept took off and henceforth every heroine in gaming (and only heroines) became scared and inexperienced and in need of protection, that might start to become troublesome.

As it is, the dynamic feels fresh. The most obvious comparison is with the Uncharted series (which as others have noted is an ironic comparison, seeing as the Uncharted series clearly took inspiration from the Tomb Raider series to begin with, and yet improved upon the formula in enough areas that the flow of inspiration has seemingly reversed, at least for the time being), but in Uncharted the player is never “protecting” Nathan Drake. Here, through an impressively realized combination of scripted and emergent narrative, voice and visual cues, and yes probably cultural issues surrounding violence against women, the game does an impressive job of making you feel bad about allowing this poor girl to come to harm, and cheering her on in the occasion that she doesn't. The experience elicited an impressive number of squeamish “egad” moments from me after a slip of the controls would doom Lara in some brutal fashion, often impaled through the neck by something metal and sharp (with enough consistency that an armored scarf would be an extremely useful wardrobe upgrade). Even the regenerating health, of which I'm often not a fan, serves this aesthetic purpose. Whereas it always felt a little jarring for Gears' Marcus Phoenix, hardened convict/soldier, to find himself huddled in a corner sucking his thumb and waiting for his health to regenerate, Lara hiding scared in a corner with gunfire all around fits the characterization and doesn't feel like an interruption of the action.

Yet despite this “protection” dynamic, Lara is anything but a delicate little flower. In fact she goes through more punishment than probably any videogame character I've seen, to the point where it starts to become kind of silly. Tomb Raider's gameplay mechanics are commensurable to those in Uncharted, but I feel that the cinematic style works less well here. Where Uncharted's tone purposefully evokes an escapist Hollywood blockbuster through and through, Tomb Raider's tone has strong leanings towards gritty realism, and it starts to be a problem of wanting to have one's cake and drop it off a waterfall too. The game desperately wants us to feel like Lara's a real person in real danger, yet it also heaps on so much spectacle that Lara would most likely be a quadriplegic within the first 20 minutes of gameplay. I'm not saying videogame characters can't do unrealistic things in a game with a realistic tone, but I'm not sure the unrealistic things should also be emphasized with frequent “look how crazy and over-the-top this all is” cutscenes.

The frequent mini-cutscenes bring forth another issue that I feel plagues a lot of recent games. When the old Tomb Raider games would introduce something new, it would just sort of be there and consequently would be much more surprising. Tomb Raider II introduced spiders of unusual size (S.O.U.S.s) as an enemy near the end, but rather than heralding their arrival with an introductory cutscenes, you just sort of ran into them while exploring a dark cave, making them extremely unnerving and memorable despite their being animated with about four polygons. Conversely, modern games throw all sorts of well-rendered and novel threats at the player, but their consistent introduction by flashy cutscenes completely undermines their impact. Not only am I expecting something “craaazy” to happen whenever a cutscene starts, but because videogames are an interactive medium, I know that for as long as my control is taken away Lara is in no danger, so for the entire three-second sequence in which the roof starts to collapse or the wolves first appear, I jarringly feel less tension than when I had control and was doing something mundane. If Tomb Raider II were remade today, there would be a little cutscene introducing the spiders with a horde of them crawling out of something in all their many-polygoned glory, and I would be sitting back calmly waiting to play again. At least in a movie there is some miniscule chance that the character might get eaten by the spiders while you are passively watching, but with a game you know you're safe until the cutscene ends, or at least until a quick time event icon pops up. Indeed one of the few moments in the reboot that gave me genuine anxiety was the one time a new enemy was introduced without a cutscene. I'm not against cutscenes in principal, but too many games nowadays are using them to try and amp up tension in a way that does the exact opposite. Stop it!

Aside from that, I found a lot to like in the new Tomb Raider. Combat feels tight and transitions from stealth in an organic way, and enemies behave in a believable fashion. The bow is really fun to use whether you're picking off confused enemies from the bushes, shooting ropes to traverse the environment, exploding/igniting things, or murdering various animals (which feels more justified with Lara as a hungry castaway rather than merely an eccentric tourist). The “survival instincts” ability works nicely. It functions much like Arkham Asylum/City's “detection vision” to highlight important features, but because you can only use it while stationary, you aren't incentivised to ruin the pretty graphics by simply keeping it on at all times. The leveling system doubles as a sort of built-in tutorial as you learn various skills, and it doesn't feel shoehorned in *coughangelofdarkness*. And I like the way that tombs are integrated as optional side-puzzles since it makes you feel clever for finding and completing them.

Overall my impression is mixed, but I feel this is an impressive first go at reinvigorating a waning icon. (Certainly I'm more optimistic of Lara's future than Sonic's.) I'm excited to see where this reborn franchise goes, and I'm pleased that it contains a reasonably fleshed-out protagonist regardless of gender. Really I'm happy they didn't just make her a female Nathan Drake.

"Wakka wakka."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sifteo Cubes

Ever since the boardgame Operation debuted in 1965, it's been clear that hybridization potential exists between electronic and non-electronic games. I've been excited for the possibilities ever since Microsoft unveiled the original 30" Surface, but the $10k price tag put that a little outside the mainstream market.

Well a new challenger has appeared. At $30 each, these Sifteo Cubes still aren't quite at the level where you could expect every customer to already own a set (or include a few in the box), but I could imagine quite a few interesting ways you could combine these with boardgames.

The tipping point draws near, folks. Some day all this stuff will be cheap enough that every boardgame can have electronic components up the wazoo and every videogame can have tablet support and action figures, and instead of distinguishing between videogames and boardgames we can just refer to them all as bideord games or something.

Or maybe that's a bad idea and none of that will happen because it's actually more fun to just tackle your friend while holding a PlayStation Move.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Darkwood Pre-Alpha

Procedural generation seems like a natural fit for a genre that depends on the element of... SURPRISE *cough* Anyway this indy-horror Darkwood game looks very promising. (Don't trust the creepy ghost-child. Pianists are sketchy.)

And if you're already in the market for a game with a lot of procedural generation, I heartily recommend FTL. Not really horror, but lots of accidental suffocation. Remember to close your airlocks, people.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Power of Implicit Goals

This is an addendum to my post a while back about explicit vs implicit goals. I've been thinking more about the issue, and it strikes me that not recognizing the validity of implicit goals can have a deleterious effect on various aspects of game design.

It's natural to think in terms of explicit goals where players have to complete a particular task like dodging the fireballs or finding the key in order to succeed. The problem with explicit goals is that there is definitionally some possibility for failure built into the game. Maybe the player can't find the key or manage to dodge correctly and the narrative grinds to a screeching halt because they are unable to proceed.

As a brilliant example of an implicit goal, I submit the tutorial for Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. The game is genius in many regards, but I find the initial introduction particularly genius. Shortly after selecting “New Game,” the player finds themselves trapped in a room with an endlessly spawning horde of emaciated zombie-like creatures and armed with a shotgun. The player then discovers how to aim and discharge said shotgun into the mob for a short while until they awaken in a cold sweat to discover the combat tutorial was a dream all along!

This sequence is brilliant in terms of pacing in that it immediately grabs the player's attention for the following expository cutscene, rather than like most games where the player would impatiently sit through this cutscene waiting to be allowed to kill something. (It also does a good job of immediately humanizing the protagonist, which is also something a great many games struggle with.)

But what is pertinent here is the fact that shooting the zombies is a wholly implicit goal. There is no health bar introduced yet. It does not matter how effectively one deals with the zombies. The player could get completely mobbed by them, or she could dispatch them with ease and efficiency. But it doesn't matter. Mechanically speaking there are zero stakes; the heroine awakens in a cold sweat regardless. And furthermore it doesn't matter that it doesn't matter. The player isn't thinking “I don't see a health bar so I'll just let the zombies maul me,” she's thinking “Ahh! Zombies! Get away! Take that!”

Were there no consequences to zombie-mauling for the entire game, it would quickly lose its horror-aesthetics and feeling of challenge. But the purpose of the tutorial is not to provide challenge, it is to put across the basic mechanics in a way that also serves the narrative flow. (Also no player is going to replay the tutorial and be annoyed that they can't lose, because at some level they recognize what the tutorial's purposes are and aren't.)

Another example of this idea is the indie game Dys4ia, which attempts to put across the designer's experience of going through a sex change procedure via a series of often-abstract minigames which serve to convey various emotional circumstances. While there are some points at which an action must be performed by the player in order to proceed (making them explicit goals imposed by the mechanics), in each of these cases the action is both easy and glaringly obvious (e.g. press "up"). In any minigame in which there is actually some challenge posed, such as when the player deflects hurtful comments with their shield, there is not actually any penalty for failing to do so. Perhaps this is because we are all ingrained with games like Pong (which at one point maybe did require its failure penalties to teach the correct play dynamics), but it in no way detracts from the intended experience that the player cannot fail, and in fact having to retry a minigame would completely ruin the artistic message. The game isn't trying to tell you "if someone's comments hurt you, just keep listening to them over and over until you are able to deal with it." (Of course the unintended message of most games is "if you fail to defeat this world-ending threat, don't worry, you can just keep trying until you inevitably succeed," but that's another discussion.)

The point is that player behavior is guided by more than explicit goals, and additionally having an explicit goal can actually ruin the intended experience. Would it be a good experience for the player to fail the tutorial in Eternal Darkness and have to try again? No! It would be annoying, feel "gamey" and also vastly reduce the menace of the zombies when they are reintroduced much later. Luckily there is no need to make failure a possibility in this case because the player will behave as intended regardless, and the sequence loses no excitement or impact.

If we assume that players' behavior is guided only by what is mechanically defined as success and failure, we hamstring our ability to craft certain experiences. For example, escort missions are almost universally hated in games. This is because the goals of these sequence tend to be too explicit in the sense that if the character is not escorted properly, the player fails the sequence and is forced to go back and try again. On the opposite end is Telltale's The Walking Dead game (which in my opinion is one of the best games ever made) containing a couple of sequences in which you are trying to "protect" a character, but where failure is actually impossible (in one, you cannot make it to them in time, but another character steps in). These sequences work because it is unclear when the player is in danger of being penalized for failure, as well as being unclear what the ramifications will be (sometimes it means trying again, sometimes it means a beloved character is permanently dead). Secretly mixing between these three types of sequences (ones where you can't fail or it's almost impossible to fail, ones where you can try again, and ones where the effects of your actions are permanent) allows the game to ambiguate player assumptions in order to craft an experience (or rather, a set of possible experiences) which successfully puts across the intended emotions.

We can argue about whether The Walking Dead is really a game or an interactive story (it's both, and to varying degrees all games are also interactive stories), but the answer is irrelevant. What matters is that, through a combination of story and mechanics, The Walking Dead is successfully putting across unique emotions and experiences that no other game has managed, and so is Dys4ia, and they are doing so by subtly challenging longstanding conventions about how games, and gamers, work.

Monday, February 25, 2013

48 Hour Global Game Jam

So there's this little thing called the 48 Hour Game Jam that I participated in last month for the first time, figured maybe I should give my impressions.

Basically it was awesome. I met a bunch of great people, sang along to The Final Countdown several times, and just generally had a blast being in such a productive climate. I helped brainstorm some ideas and offered feedback here or there, worked out some basic for a trick-taking card game with my good friend Tom Sarsons, and composed the music for two games: Pump up the Jam and Bullet Cell (links over there ---->).

I guess what I'm saying is, if you're interested in any aspect of videogame production, this is absolutely an experience I'd recommend.

Last year GGJ won the Guinness World Record for largest "game jam," and from what I heard it was even bigger this year, but I'm not sure whether 2013 set a new record, so I may or may not have helped set a Guinness World Record, but I will still aid in the production of any novelty oversize foodstuffs just to be safe.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Surrogates Review: Determinedly Pointless

I saw the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates a while back and it frustrated me. Enough so that I intended to write a post on it, but doing so has taken me several months because I wanted to gather my thoughts it was sort of unmemorable and I forgot about it.

Surrogates is the most frustrating type of movie because it is not straightforwardly bad such that one can simply mock it or discard it, rather it is quite watchable and competently constructed, yet falls drastically short of what it might have been. This is mostly because Surrogates has quite a strong and socially relevant premise.

The idea is that it's “the future” and humans, rather than living normal lives in our flawed meat-bodies, have adopted perfect android bodies as “surrogates” (title drop!) through which they experience and interact with the world from a neural interface at home. Not only is it more fun to be a physically perfect meta-human, but it also makes life a whole lot safer when anything bad that happens to your surrogate can be solved by, worst case, going out and buying another one. However, FBI agent Bruce Willis discovers the existence of a weapon which has the ability, when a surrogate is shot with it, to overload its system in a way that kills the real-life person operating it.

This all sounds dandy until one realizes that the last bit completely undoes everything about the premise of the film. What makes the world of Surrogates intriguing is the idea that one could live as an immortal avatar of one's self, which could have interesting ramifications for an action thriller of this sort. For example, how can you stop a terrorist who cannot die? To what lengths might someone go when they are in no physical danger? And how does the average hooligan behave when their actions can't physically harm others or be effectively traced back to them?(see: The Internet) None of these ideas are properly explored because the plot's central devise precisely nullifies all of the potential of its premise, and we are left with a standard action film in which people are shot and then die as a result.

On top of this, the film has one of the dumbest moments I've ever seen. Bruce Willis discovers that his boss might have been working with the bad guys all along (as one does in these sort of movies), so he wanders into FBI headquarters after getting suspended (as one does in these sort of movies), gets his boss alone in his office, and proceeds to stab him (or rather, his surrogate) in the back of the head so he can paw through his computer and transfer some incriminating files to a USB. After the download completes, he causally walks back into the main area just as one of his co-workers receives a call from an angry boss complaining about a stabbing incident and suggesting rather vocally that perhaps someone should stop our hero from leaving the premises. Then we cut to him driving away. Wait, what?

It's been clearly established previously that when harm comes to a surrogate, the user is instantly booted back to reality, and the boss is shown to still be sitting in his neural interface chair while he makes the call. This means that in order for the scene to play out the way it does, the boss finds himself at home having been “murdered,” then decides to wait a while and give our hero a fair chance, or maybe hunt around behind couch cushions to find his fairly large phone and then go back and sit in his neural interface chair, and then make the call. Meanwhile our hero casually walks through an office building full of employees who have just been informed that he killed their boss and should be immediately detained. No reason to show how that played out, just cut to him driving away. No, it's fine, no need for an action movie to show how its hero escaped from what appeared to be an inescapable situation. This is one of the few instances where showing our hero jump out a plate glass window or single-handedly fight off a bunch of trained FBI agents actually would have made more logical sense.

Aside from the largely wasted premise and some sprinkles of idiocy, Surrogates is actually decent. It mostly fails as an "ideas" movie, but as a straight action thriller it's moderately engaging, and it does at least get some mileage out of the concept that one doesn't know precisely who one is talking to when interacting with a surrogate. For example, this review was actually written by Ron Perlman.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Resource Economy of Super Mario Bros.

It is my contention that virtually any game can be better understood by viewing it as a resource economy and determining what the resource conversions are. To illustrate this, I've drawn up a (perhaps not exhaustive) resource economy for the original Super Mario Bros. and labeled the less-obvious conversion methods.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fan Film Fanfare: Super Mario Busters & History of the Soviet Union Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris

Videogame-related fan film production quality has become ridiculous lately (and I'm not even speaking of Freddie Wong).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Tesla's Revenge Soundtrack

I am pleased to publicly announce my upcoming game Tesla's Revenge soon to be released on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch! I'm proud to be the first indy title of Codito Development, makers of the iPhone versions of several illustrious boardgames including Tigris & Euphrates, Tikal, Ra and Puerto Rico.

Maybe "soon" is a strong word. I'm still in the thick of designing levels, and though most of the game is 'built,' we haven't even started beta testing yet, but in the meantime the game's soundtrack is now available on iTunes to tide you over, though it's cheaper if you get it from CD Baby.

(Description from CD Baby:)
Tesla's Revenge is a light, electrifying strategy/puzzle game for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch from Codito Development. This recording is the high-quality versions of the music for a game that's flowing with potential. We're positive you won't be able to resist! (Amped up with four bonus tracks from the iPhone game ThreadBound)

I'm extremely pleased with how this soundtrack came out. Much of the credit must go to my friend Peter D'Amico who is a proper music and sound producer guy (he did my mom's CD with the Allegra string quartet among other collaborations with her) and who graciously offered to produce the music for Tesla's Revenge for royalties, foregoing the usual studio rate (which wouldn't have exactly fit the game's budget, by a few zeroes). I wrote the songs, he found the noises, effects and professional mastering, and together we created something I'm rather proud of.

The game itself is shaking up nicely too. You can read (and see) more about it in our first press release over at

Friday, January 18, 2013

Implicitly Explicit Goals

Over the years I've come across numerous opinions that games like Sim City, The Sims, and most recently Minecraft, are not actually "games" because they do not have a goal. I would like to posit that not only is this position wrong, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how games work.

Or, if Minecraft's not really a game, then neither is World of Warcraft.

The misunderstanding comes from a belief that gameplay dynamics are more fundamentally defined by a game's explicit goals than they really are. If I drop you in the middle of a beat-em-up, you're going to start punching people not because you want to save your virtual girlfriend, not because you want a high score, not even necessarily because you don't want to die In fact you might have no knowledge of those aspects of the game No, your natural approach to gameplay is going to be to punch people because every aspect of the mechanics is centered around the act of you punching people. The action button makes your character punch, all the other people seem to want to punch you, there's a satisfying 'thwack' when your punches connect and an even more satisfying 'uaagh!' when they dramatically collapse and disappear after being punched by you enough times, and manipulating distance and time to land that finisher is a tantalizing mix of frustration and satisfaction. This is where the "game" resides because this is where the fun resides, not on a leaderboard or a credits screen, but in the mechanics of a virtual alleyway, a simulated ant farm, or an endless playground of voxels.

Now of course if I offer you an achievement that requires getting through my beat-em-up without any punching, only throwing enemies and barrels, this effects the game's dynamics a great deal, assuming (importantly) that you take up the challenge and decide to impose a rule on yourself that you won't punch. Interesting goals can change gameplay dynamics dramatically and potentially create interesting gameplay situations. Reiner Knizia has based many of his games primarily around an unusual scoring mechanism. But an interesting scoring system or achievement is not a requirement of games. You do not jump on the Goombas in Super Mario Bros. because of an interesting scoring system. It's also important to note that in our fictional generic beat-em-up, most of the achievements and scoring systems thought up off the top of one's head won't impel the player to stop punching people because that's what the game's about, irrespective of the "goal."

My favorite definition of "game" comes from Bernard Suits' underrated book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. It reads as follows:
"To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

We have the concept of "goals" here in the idea of "bringing about a specific state of affairs." Maybe this state of affairs is defeating the other player, maybe the state of affairs is making all the thugs on the screen go 'uaagh!' and disappear, or maybe this state of affairs is mining enough diamond to craft diamond armor. The key point in all this is that this "state of affairs" does not definitionally have to be chosen for you by the game itself. In fact, at some basic level the game cannot choose your goal for you, because you must consent to play (or continue playing) the game in the first place. If I'm choosing what to play, and I decide to mine for diamonds in Minecraft rather than shoot Nazis in Medal of Honor, it hardly matters that I could have chosen to build a castle (or any number of other things) in Minecraft instead, whereas there weren't a whole lot of other things I could have chosen had I booted up Medal of Honor; these are all, at some level, goals I'm voluntarily taking up.

Now you could perhaps argue (and I have seen it argued) that Minecraft is in fact a suite of games including "the mining game," "the building game," "spleef," etc. and that Minecraft as a whole entity is not a game. I find this position more sensible, but also wrong. By this logic, Ocarina of Time is not a game, but rather a collection of games which include "the horseriding game," "the swordfighting game," "the orcarina playing game" and "the accidentally restarting explanatory text game."

But perhaps you take issue with the Bernard Suits definition of games and insist that games require an explicitly defined goal. In that case I present World of Warcraft. Oh sure, you can compete on various leaderboards and win internet fame in the same way that Minecraft allows you to build insane things like this and win internet fame, but WoW doesn't have a goal as such. There are at least four main reasons for playing, but there's no way to "win." Many have remarked that endgame play is merely a cycle of "get better loot to kill more stuff to get better loot," and at no point did an NPC even state that your mission was to get the best loot, just like no NPC in Minecraft stated that your mission was to portal into the Nether or build a giant pair of breasts on the side of a mountain or whatever your proclivity. Yet nobody argues that World of Warcraft, or others of its ilk, aren't real games. It's right there in the genre title: MMORPG case closed.