Game Design Focus

Danc at Lost Garden wrote a bit about “throwaway content” and how procedural content may be a good solution for it.  An interesting implication in how he spoke about the design process was that core game mechanics and systems are not necessarily given the highest priority.  However, I guess the tough part is realizing when a component is (or has become) “throwaway”.  In some ways it can be personal.

It has alwasy struck me that the first and most important design task is to identify and design the core mechanics and all related sub systems apart from any particular world context.  The goal is to essentially look at all graphics, story, and specific skills and animations as “skinning” the core game you have designed.

When I think of “game design” it’s this core game mechanic design that’s the goal, not the graphics, environment, the character, the fancy specials, or even the backstory.

The Limits of Democracy

At what point does a democracy turn into “not a democracy”?

Heh heh, that question seems a bit silly.  It’s pretty easy to tell a “democracy” apart from something that’s not a democracy.  Valid voting systems, universal suffrage, etc.  However, even in a perfect democracy, there are inevitably groups whose opinions and desires are decided against.  There are segments of the population for whom the tax system is not representative of what they want.  There are segments of the population for whom social welfare programs are not representative of their desires.  So, does that mean those groups are being oppressed or exploited?

The glossary of terms at has the following definition of “dictatorship”, and I think it’s effective as an anti-definition of democracy:

Dictatorship means the imposition of a rule on others who do not consent to it.

I think there are some interesting principles that are brought to light.  The existence of a democracy is fully contingent upon the population consenting to the governmental decisions being made.  It only exists when the people on the losing side of a vote say, “Ok.  It was a fair vote.  You won, and we will support that outcome.”  If the losing side of a vote says, “We don’t agree with the outcome of the vote, and we will not support it,” then democracy is not in existence.  Interestingly, the existence of democracy can only really be identified in retrospect.

Are there issues that are of such importance that anything but a consensus vote will effectively result in non-democracy?  Does that mean that such issues should generally not be things the government can mess with?

Me and Tools

The following is not a completed thread of thought.  I’m publishing it in the hopes that it will spin off other thoughts that eventually result in further understanding.  Consider the concepts involved rather than the argument as whole.

My awareness cannot be used as a tool.  I can’t use my own will as a tool.  I can use my body as a tool.  I can use the objects around me as a tool.  I can even use other people as a tool.  But it’s my will that’s doing the using of the tools.

My awareness, my will, is to me the ultimate.  Everything else is external to me- everything “not me” is, well, exactly that.  It’s not me.  Even God.  Same deal with other people.

My awareness is quite good at identifying “me” and “not me”, itself vs. an other.  I suppose this ability to differentiate between “me” and “not me” is an elemental analysis that can be found in every single thought or decision one makes.

I think the point kind of boils down to this: if it’s not “me”, then I ask, “What can I do with that?”  We see every “not me” thing as a potential tool.

Really, the only thing I can be convinced of, or take for granted, is my own consciousness.  I am aware.  I have a will.  It’s the only appropriate thing to simply take as a given.  Interestingly, I can study another person’s will and awareness, and I can even get to the point where I have a vast understanding of how it works, how their awareness can come into being.  However, I can’t really turn that analysis around on my own awareness.  Regardless of how far I pick it apart I will always assume my awareness exists.  Edmund Husserl talks about this in “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology”, in case you want more reading.

How does this matter?  It’s truth.  It’s reality.  If you take for granted something that is not truth, then there will be problems later on.  If you make a decision based upon inaccurate information, that is “not truth”, then later on there will likely be problems.

Tying this esoteric stuff back to MMO game design, if everything in an MMO is a tool, then let’s simply build tools.  That’s how every system and sub system should be designed.  As a tool, first and foremost.

A Current Approach to MMO Design

I’ve become more and more aware of what I think may be a pretty widespread approach to MMO design.  In essence, it’s the same approach one takes to Dungeons and Dragons, that is, the game setting is ultimately the immediate design of the Game Master.  The player experience is immediately intended to be the way it is.

You can see this in the issues surrounding server shards, the heavy emphasis on quests and story arcs, and the issues surrounding instancing.  I think there is a general assumption that every player wants to experience the same legendary situation as every other player.  I’m not entirely in disagreement with the above assumptions, but I think they are and should be a subset of what is designed for in the game.  The context within which everything takes place is what needs to be most heavily designed so that it allows for instancing, questing, and other such parallel-universe type things, rather than specifically designing the virtual world toward the notion that instancing and defined quests are what make the content.

I’m going to revisit this topic in the future.  I have not quite yet wrapped my brain around the issue.

Impromptu Player Activity

An interesting thing has recently happened in Eve: Online.  The value of Scordite, a kind of raw ore you can mine from asteroids, has gone up quite a bit.  So lots of people have been frantically mining Scordite to make a decent bit of cash.

The interesting part is that the higher price of Scordite is purely due to a few players setting up buy orders for  so much Scordite at that higher price.  In Star Wars Galaxies there were occasions where the carnivore meat on Dantooine was of excellent quality so lots of people would rush there to get it.  In World of Warcraft in order to open “The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj” players had to contribute loads of various resources so players were a bit frantic about doing so.  The point is that in most MMOs any “eddies” in the day-to-day flow of player activity tend to be due to in -game events or other dev-generated content.  In the case of the high price of Scordite in Eve: Online, and the resultant player activity to take advantage of it, it’s entirely player-driven; it’s truly “impromptu”.

I Took the Plunge – Eve: Online

I’ve been playing Eve: Online lately.  Just last week I finally decided I needed to understand the game, especially the economy and the crafting system.  I had been a bit resistant for a while now because I’ve given the trial a go, but the game struck me as empty and a bit cumbersome.  I’m beginning to feel a bit differently about it now, but I’m not yet hooked wholesale.

One thing I can say is that I am feeling an excitement at possibility and meaning that I have not felt for quite some time.  Since most items in the game must be player-crafted in order for them to exist, I have the sense that even mindlessly mining matters.  When I take a load back to a station and hit “sell”, I am selling to some other player’s standing order for so much of such-and-such ore.  When I want to buy something, I am buying directly from another player who has posted that item for sale.

I don’t consider Eve to be ideal.  I think the user interface may be a bit cumbersome (though it could just be due to complexity and a learning curve) and the world still feels a bit empty, but the unique sense you get from the sheer size of space is pretty exquisite.  I think travel takes up a bit more time than I prefer, and there is kind of a lot of downtime.  Granted I’m still learning the game, and believe I’m still learning it, but these negative impressions are what kept me away from the game for so long.  I’m sure the same is the case with others.

I will mention various things about Eve: Online as I think of it.

Balanced Technological Development

My wife and I went to The Seagull performed at the Royal Court Theater near Sloane Square last night- great show by the way.  In fact, it was the first time I really wanted to talk about a theater performance afterwards, but that’s a tangential topic to the thought at hand.  In the Tube on the way there, a thought hit me regarding balanced technological growth and development.  I think there is something fundamental to be found in it.

Imagine the critique of a city slicker who may know all the best restaurants in town, and is a pro with his iPod, but if he finds himself out in the wilderness without electricity he’s utterly lost.  He has no clue what to do.  All his skills and interests are completely non-applicable in the wilderness/survival situation.  Now, imagine if someon developed some insane EMP device that effectively knocks out all electronic equipment.  The tempatation is the say that we’d all be screwed because since the development of electricity and computers, we’ve largely lost our collective survival knowledge.

However, we all know someone who gets a kick out of survival knowledge and what to do in an emergency.  In such an emergency that person’s survival skills would be quite relevant, though outside of that emergency his skills would be, well, as useless as the programming skills of an uber geek in a no-computer world.

In each person’s case- the survivalist and the uber geek- his or her skills have been developed because that’s what interests them, what they are passionate about.

I think everyone has a limited supply of “brain processing power”, as it were, specifically referring to one’s ability to “juggle” only a limited number of bodies of knowledge.  A good portion of this capacity is taken up by basic day-to-day existence- eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, bills, etc.  The remaining capacity is then available for one’s interests and what amount to hobbies.  I think it’s this remaining capacity that allows us to differentiate ourselves from others.  Interestingly, given each person has a desire to be unique, this would imply in a sufficient population size, any body of knowledge will have at least one person interested in it.  Of course, cultural issues like taboos can screw this distribution, which would suggest some interesting lines of sociological study.

About cultural issues messing up the even distribution of a population’s knowledge, that’s exactly the point.  If we do anything but simply let people follow their interests and passions, we end up with holes in the collective knowledge base.  If we “encourage <insert topic> development” there will be some people who will spend their time in that direction who are really more interested in some other topic.  If we institute social programs to influence behavior, then there will be people who will spend their time doing things they are not as passionate about as they would be for something else.  And, since the best discoveries and contributions typically come from people who are immensely passionate for whatever it is they were doing at the time of the discovery, then there will be less discovery and development precisely because there are fewer people doing what they are immensely passionate for.

This all hinges on the notion that a person gets the most accomplished when they are working in an area about which they are very interested and passionate.  Going by Strengths Theory from Donald O. Clifton, a person’s passions will likely entail a physiological “brain wiring” optimization for that specific passion.  As a person’s brain develops, it consolidates information processing into a smaller and smaller set of neural pathway “T1 lines”, if you will, until there are somewhere around 5 of them that are used most often for moment-to-moment processing.  Clifton calls these “strengths” or “innate talents”, and their development is largely determined by negation- things like bad experiences, thoughts of “I don’t want to be like that”, etc.  These optimized neural pathways are the easiest routes through which that person’s brain can process information.  “Doing life” according to these strengths implies either less mental effort to get through the day or getting more done during the day.

Tying back into the balanced tech. development thing, with our strengths and interests being [largely] determined by what we don’t want, we are virtually guaranteed that there is at least one person out there who knows what is criticial given any significant setback.  Also, since many of the greatest advances are made when advanced knowldege in differing fields is synthesized, we should be encouraging every individual to follow their true interests and passions because the more people we have doing things they are truly excited about the more bodies of knowledge will be growing faster, and in the end the more huge discoveries we will see.

The kicker though is that we can’t mess with people’s interests.  If we do, by way of wars, social programs, and even national technological initiatives, we will simply be making an off-balance technological advance front.  In the end, the overall progress will be slower than if we had just left it alone.  Interestingly, this would judge the 60s Apollo program to have caused more harm than good, but since the Cold War was its impetus and the Cold War was more influential on social development, one’s critic of the Apollo program would have to be significantly tempered.

Of course, the “follow your passions” call must be accompanied by “don’t be a jerk” and “don’t hurt others”.

This is getting too long.  I’m sure I’ll write more about it some day.  I’d be interested in what anybody thinks.

MMO Design Approach

I’ve been experiencing a recurring thread of thought on an approach to MMO design.  In short, system design should be thought of as creating tools with which the player can do stuff.  As opposed to “creating a game”, this approach has as it’s only conceit the setting of the virtual world, which includes, say, that players can do things like fly like superheroes.

It’s my impression that a virtual world is fundamentally different than a “game”.  Both are defined by rules, yes, but in the case of a “game” the players are asked to abide by rules well within the “horizon of possible actions”.  A virtual world on the other hand asks its players to abide by rules, but those rules define in and of themselves the “horizon of possible actions”.

While playing a game in real life one is quite aware of the limited scope of the rules.  In Settlers of Cattan, you could physically just place 4 extra roads.  It would be against the rules, and by breaking those rules, the game breaks.  In a virtual world such as, say, Star Wars Galaxies, the rules become the scope of what you can do, of what is even possible.  It’s not like you have a choice of whether or not to abide by those rules (EULAs and gold farming are a bit different).  In Settlers of Cattan, you have the option of abiding by the fundamental rules of the game.  In SWG, you don’t.

How does this relate back to  the “build tools, not games” bit?  I think humans look at their environment, maybe even everything, as composed of potential tools that can be used to do stuff.  That “stuff” is in a way not quite as important as the act of using tools to do it.  The satisfaction, it can be said and indeed has been said, comes from the journey to the destination; not in the destination itself.  As such, tools are what we all are looking for, and tools we will be drawn to.  Therefore, as an MMO designer, we need to make tools rather than conceits (read “games”).

HDD Crash… whee

I got up this morning to discover my hard drive had crashed, complete with that pleasant clicking noise.  I’m sure I lost a number of things, and I’m sure I will be wracked with regret at having not set up more backup processes.  I had not thought to back up the scripts I had been working on as part of the creature populations project, so I’ve experienced a bit of a set back there.  Since I’m in the UK and I am not keen on spending 35% extra for a replacement hard drive, I’m going to have to wait a bit for a friend to bring one from the States.  He just so happens to be coming out for a visit this weekend.  Or, maybe I’ll locate something here in the mean time.  Likely I’ll just get one here.  I’m impatient like that

Anyways, backup your stuff.  If you have a web hosting plan that allows for more storage space than you strictly need for a web site, I’d recommend SyncBack.  It’s a great program that will back up and synchronize in all kinds of ways.  I had several profiles set up to do daily backups to an FTP server.  I didn’t, however, have profiles set up for all the things I really should have.  To think how simple it was to do and I didn’t do it.  But alas, such is life, and at worst it’s just money lost and time spent.  I can guarantee you I will be a pro at data backup now.  Well, if not operating at a professional level at least I’ll do it 😉

update:  This is odd.  After looking around online for replacement hard drives, I decided to put this one back in and try it out- just for the heck of it.  And it worked.  Why, I don’t know.  It was making clicking and kachunk noises as the message “could not locate boot disk” showed up on the screen.  I don’t get it, but a few checkdisk programs didn’t even find any problems.  Whatever the case, I’m ordering a new one, but I’m counting my blessings.  And yes, I’ve backed up everything important and with SyncBackI’ve set up automated backups of the most important.

Math Problems

For the last 2 days I’ve been encountering what to me were absolutely baffling problems with my scripts to create a dynamic creature population system.  I felt totally broadsided out of the blue at more points than I can shake a stick at.

For a while things seemed alleviated once I discovered that Realm Crafter rounds down all decimals to the nearest integer.  Needless to say, this wreaked havoc on my circular coordinate-to Cartesian coordinate conversions.  After I dropped the circular coordinate plan and just went with squares, things seemed to move along a bit better.

But then more mysteries reared their ugly heads, and, long story short, I located their source:  the math order of operations was not consitent.  I clearly identified it and it is indeed a bug.  Granted, there appears to be a way to work around this bug (use paretheses like they’re going out of style), but it’s still frustrating how many hours I’ve poured into this project so far, many of which I felt an absolute moron, all because there was were two devious bugs.  Makes me further appreciate a really good QA staff.

At any rate, after getting a crude set of scripts to work that appoximate a crude vision of the creature system, I have set about re-writing everything from scratch.  I learned loads from the first set, so I’m sure this follow-up set of scripts will be better.