Saturday, 4 January 2014

Lore of Geeks

Achilles Heal

We all, I hope, have characteristics which when used to define us to others, would completely scupper what little social aspirations we have. For instance: if others knew the amount of time I have spent in single sittings browsing the Warhammer 40K or the Halo wikis, people might skirt my company more than usual.  My weakness is for the bombast and hyperbole of such things. Maybe I need a support group.

You know what's interesting about
 the Flood combat form?
For the uninitiated (where initiation seems to be expressed in the outlay of both money and time) the Halo and Warhammer 40K settings provide the scenic backdrop for a video game series and a table top miniature wargame respectively.

Neither game actually needs the vast, vast, lore that each possesses. The actual player actions revolve around killing, dominating and winning. Chess has done fine without a backstory.

But it's more exiting when there are 7 foot tall space marines striding into battle in power armour. When stakes are galactic, when whole worlds fall or stand in one desperate moment as the inhuman hordes advance. When the ordinary troops can't survive in the face of the onslaught, and things even look desperate for your super human troopers: sacrifices are made, grim determination is a feature on every face, and ammo runs low.

Oddly though the above works for both settings. And that's what's got me thinking recently. Fine all of this is sugar and drama for games which would function fine without any of it. They might lack spectacle, but the actual mechanics from a players point of view would be unchanged. Why the similarities?

Lore of  the World

While I kissed goodbye to everything Warhammer 40K decades ago - everything that is but the wiki -  I am still an active video game player. And this is my story.

No! Sorry, dealing with this stuff and the tropes just take over. Recently I've finished Halo 4 (the adventures of Spartan II Super Soldier John 117 and his sassy naked AI sidekick Cortana) and Mass Effect 3 (the adventures of Human super soldier Shepherd and his sassy naked AI sidekick EDI) because of my achilles heel, I can't stop thinking about the lore of the world!

The look changes, the clothes don't
Why wouldn't a robot have boobs?

Monolithic Forerunners

It's all gone a bit War of the Worlds
First stop - history: Mass Effect has it's Protheans, Halo has its Promethians (forgive me if I muddle them up). Each is a spacefaring civilisation no one will blame you if you stop reading now that are extinct by the time the player's character starts killing things.

Both meddled in Human evolution. Both seem to have only had one style of architecture, one culture, and they seem to have spent their entire time burying MacGuffins everywhere!

Everything you could ever want is in some alien ruin. But they all look the same. And it's always a super weapon of some sort, just like real life archeologists find in those Roman digs all the time. Often it still works, but no one can understand why. In fact, as a rule, whatever you have, it is nothing compared to what a long dead alien civilisation had. Their panini were out of this world. Yet they're all dead, so what's with that?

In fact, on that subject, in both cases, both races got wiped out by a team of extremely good forensic scientists who knew how not to leave a trace! Shame they didn't do the dinosaurs in, we could have spared ourselves some fruitless controversies.

Human ineptitude

Both games have a love hate relationship with the human race (don't we all?). One area where they really lay it on thick is when it comes to technological advancement. Too often for my liking I go to the future and find out it's built on the ruins of an ancient civilisations whose technology we've stolen, yet not eclipsed. In fact all our future cutting edge technology is currently buried underground, on Mars. Makes sense, Star Wars was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Alien archive - geddit?
Sometimes I half expect them to announce that the recipe for pizza was found in the some half damaged Prothean/Promethean archive. And these archives are huge! What's wrong with a USB stick? In fact on that note, why is it that we only ever seem to find plans for spaceflight and laser weapons in these places (and/or the MacGuffin that dictates the direction of the remaining quest). 

It's kind of weird isn't it? We've managed to innovate and develop fine so far without alien ruins, but somehow we'll never make the next step in these games if we don't find an alien artefact. It might be more fun actually being a space age Indiana Jones tracking down these artefacts before space Nazis get them! 

I wonder whether some of these writers are sitting there searching for proof that Microwaves were invented by aliens. Maybe SETI receives and disseminates all the plans? Maybe Steve Jobs was a grey?

If Microwave Ovens aren't secretly based on alien
 technology stolen by Percy Spencer, I don't know what are!

Perhaps it just an easy way of explaining how we got to be all advanced: aliens buried it in the ground.
"How come we got space guns?"
"Shut up Jimmy! Aliens buried them in the ground!"

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and find plans for convenient household appliances"


The lore and background to these games are probably only interesting to me and a few million other fans. But every act of creation communicates something about its creator and those to whom it appeals. And I'm curious as to why our fantasies of the future, at least in these mainstream video games, have so much in common. In part probably because the writers have common interests - books, shows - that influence them. But that doesn't answer the question. Why do we buy into these visions of the future with our time and money? Maybe it's just meaningless guff that colours the ludological action. But maybe it's successful at being that guff because it expresses or channels our lazy, default view of the world. 

Perhaps the world seems so complex and set in its ways to us that the only real change we will buy into is one that originates from an alien ruin found in Nebraska.  

Photo Credits:
[martin] via Compfight cc
Victorian_lady via Compfight cc
zoomar via Compfight cc

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Price

There's a great deal of beauty in honesty: the cracking of the voice, a scratch in the transmitter that steels us for a complete breakdown in signal; the skew of the pitch towards static; the flush of the face; the breath; the welling of the eyes.

As the truth leaves someone, sometimes it takes the facade as it goes. It's hard even for the speaker to predict when that might happen. Words, which echoed harmlessly inside their head, spoken, leave them exposed and vulnerable when uttered. The process of forming the vowels, going through the cycle of turning warbling internal monologue into structured speech is an act of creation. When that creation expresses our emotions it resonates both with the speaker and the audience, sometimes creating an uncontrollable cascade.

The facade comes down because what is coming out is doing precisely that: it is coming out through the facade. The facade is only supposed to hide what is behind it, not accomodate it. A lot of what we create, say and do is about maintaining the facade, which is of no benefit or value to anyone else.

What I have to Offer from Eliot Rausch on Vimeo.

"What I have to offer" has a lot of honesty to it. The delivery is honest. Kaufman is honest with us, both about himself and us. He talks of wounds, he talks of fears. The signal threatens to break, the pitch skews.

Kaufman's honesty is coming from within himself. He makes the effort to set aside his desire to please or be accepted, to maintain or build up the facade. He digs within himself. He delivers. And it resonates. The facade cracks.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

... i'm afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.  
In someway they are at odds: Kaufman argues against selling. Fitzgerald considers it necessary. Both agree that what is of value comes from the heart. Kaufman goes further though, he argues that only by changing our emphasis from maintaing our facade can we produce something that meets the genuine needs of others.

He sees a starving people. A famished mass, they will eat anything to satisfy themselves. They lack discernment too. When I was a child I did not know fastfood was unhealthy. I just loved it. Now I know. Are those that sell unhealthy food to those who do not know better reprehensible?

Kaufman's thesis hangs on a thread. Perhaps we assent that all humans have an inner wound. Perhaps we assent that creation that comes from our emotions is more powerful. Do we assent that such creation will satisfy us? I eat all food, good and unhealthy, and tomorrow I am still hungry.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Joy of Flattery Part 1

This is the first of 2 posts on flattering the player. The 2nd part will be up before the week is done, or else!

The joy of random rewards
A happy rat
It's long been known that the random rewards excite mammalian brains. Give a rat a nut and he'll be happy for a minute. Give a rat a random function that may or may not produce a nut and he'll be happy all day - even to the point of drowning himself in nuts. Random rewards have been shown to produce addictive and perhaps even destructive behaviour in individuals.

The joy of Bejeweled
How's this work out in games? Slot machines and gambling aside, games like Bejeweled have long bewitched us with their flashy lights, random rewards and lever operated mechanics. Talking of Bejeweled, it's easy to slip into slot machine (or one armed bandit) metaphors. After all, it's a game where you're faced with inaccessible wealth, your almost trivial inputs are charged with the potential of huge rewards and you just can't face walking away from all the money you've already put into it.

Bejeweled exemplifies that classic mechanic found in so may other cabinets; Peggle is probably the best other known example of it: the chain reaction. Half-life kickstarted a revolution in narrative drive with a chain reaction (or at least popularised it, and that's what the history books record). Bejeweled doesn't use one to kick a series of events into play; the entire game is a chain reaction! At any point a tiny move by the player can unwittingly kickstart a reaction that will see the coins flooding around their feet! Any move could be the winning move (if you could win that is).

It's that tension, the expectation that the biggest plays in the game are out of your control and could have nearly unbounded consequences, that makes Bejeweled such a fascinating game to the human brain. I'm sure rats would love it too, if only they could see past their giant pile of nuts.

This is not just limited to these games though - Burnout's Crash Mode is another example of this: hurl your vehicle into oncoming traffic and set off a chain reaction to gain points. In fact one could argue that the main gameplay of Burnout falls into this category too: a racing error could cause a pile up that will envelop the competition and prove fortuitous.

Game of skill
If it wasn't obvious, the talk of Burnout, a racing game, brings our prejudices to the fore: there's a matter of skill. Randomness in gameplay is locked in bitter emnity with skill. The more random a result is, the more likely a player with less skill can triumph.

Two short observations on that matter: the randomness of a chain reaction in the games described is actually deterministic (or at least it would be possible to make it deterministic). After all it runs on a computer and producing truely random data on a computer is a challenge. It is simply that the side effects are beyond our mortal minds - and in that much they represent real life rather well. My other point is that there is skill and wisdom in setting off a good chain reaction - these games are not without some skill component.

Flattery my dear
Lots has been said on the merits of random elements in games: they act as a leveller, always giving the underdog a chance to win; random rewards are compulsive (cue World of Warcraft trailer) and keep people engaged. Another aspect that is often overlooked is that they flatter the player. They credit the player with success they had no chance of anticipating. And notice: they do not credit the player with failure they had no way of foreknowing. This blade deliberately only cuts one way.

Flattery done badly comes across as manipulative or sleazy: clearly the flatterer is a deceiver and deceivers are to be avoided. But since the Garden of Eden we know that the best lies have an element of truth: your move started the chain reaction which evolved into a 1 billion point 32x combo that melted your eyes in a visual spectacle foretelling the collapse of the sun, why not take the credit too? You must be great at this game!

Good random reward gameplay is compulsive, it is so compulsive, so flattering that you can be enjoying a game where you doubt whether your skill is actually a factor in it. More on that next time...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ch.. Ch.. Change

Some times one needs a little change in life. Some times one needs to do things oneself. Some times one needs Frogzilla!

Recently I got a bit bored of fixing bugs in the iPhone game I'd been working on for months - while I still intend to fix it, I thought: "What better time could there be to develop a game called 'Frogzilla'?" 

Allow me to hype this one a little bit:

If you feel a lingering dissatisfaction with life, a sense of purposelessness, lack of pride or self-esteem, Frogzilla will be for you.

Frogzilla whitens shirts better than the next leading brand. Frogzilla contains no calories and is recommended by GPs as part of a balanced and healthy diet. Frogzilla has no known side effects and will make you a more potent, a more powerful, a more irresistible man, woman or child.

Frogzilla charted as the highest grossing movie, video game and non-fiction book in all of the places you regard as cool and/or cutting edge. Frogzilla is endorsed by individuals you respect and Frogzilla is supported by 5 years of double blind scientific testing. Frogzilla has been nominated for 14 academy awards, the Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Frogzilla is proven to add 5 years and 3 months to your life expectancy, reduce the early onset of wrinkles and make your children more attractive. Frogzilla will fill your friends and family with envy.
Thirteen major faiths, science and astrology all predicted the coming of Frogzilla. Frogzilla validates you and proves that you and only you truly matter. Frogzilla respects you for who you are. 

Frogzilla comes in Home and Pro versions. Frogzilla Home comes with a slimmer, more attractive, more attentive spouse who understands you and cares for your needs. Frogzilla Pro provides protection against all future financial crises, civil unrest and acts of terrorism at home or abroad. 

Frogzilla will debut for 59p on the app store July 21st.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Experimental Review: Music Catch

I typed this up the other day when I was thinking about applying for the position of Joystiq's UK Editor. Admittedly being an editor might imply some skills I probably don't have, but I thought it was worth a shot. 

I never applied. I decided that I probably didn't want to be a games journalist, for lots of good reasons. Anyway... here's the game Music Catch they wanted reviewed in under 300 words. Below's my review! Why waste it?


It’s always wonderful to come across a game where the rules can be explained in about 3 sentences which take up no more than 20 seconds of your time.
The game is pretty simple: drag your cursor around the screen collecting shapes which spew out in plumes like seed from coral reefs in time to the music. The louder the track, the more violently the shapes erupt forth. Yellow shapes grant you point multipliers and make your cursor bigger while the red shapes (typecast as usual) steal the boons given to you by the yellows. 

Unlike Canabalt, one of the eternally great 30 second thrills, Music Catch’s attractiveness is hampered by its dependence on Music. That catch is well and truly in the title.

This is a game of 3 minute thrills, and the quality of which is really going to depend upon your familiarity with the track. When do I need to hoover up the points? When do I need to shrink back from the fanfare? It’s all too much like a musical Pac Man, as you greedily gobble the spirits of the tune, but the power pill has been put into the hands of the conductor!

While this powerlessness can be a bit frustrating, it works well with the risk reward process. High fat yellow multipliers engorge your cursor, increasing the number of points you can collect, but making you more vulnerable to the low-fat joy stealing red shapes.

As your cursor grows, and its multiplier swells, your instinct is to protect what you’ve got. Don’t let those nasty reds distribute your multiplier to the masses! Cling to what you’ve got! Of course that is exactly the point at which, like some bloated bumble bee you must plunge into danger, collecting the nectar of the notes.

Throughout the online version, I found myself wishing for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Enough of this piano warbling! When will the guitars kick in? But then this is, or perhaps should be, a 30second thrill.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Dirty Words

If one more game called [Super First Strike]: Armageddon [Reloaded HD] gets released I am going to campaign for some EU regulation in gaming nomenclature!

Does your game genuinely seek to recreate an officially sanctioned image of the Armageddon as outlined in a religious text, or is it just a series of loud explosions with men shooting one another? No armageddon in the game, no armageddon in the name. See it's simple, no?

Once we get over that Mount Hyperbole, we still have to cross that great expanse of water filled with the tired names of every game that ever featured the words "Super", "Hyper" or "Ultra", let alone, and God forbid, "Pro".

Who is going to buy Super Apocalypse: The Reckoning? Even were that an apt name for your game it's just so tired. I actually fell asleep while typing it. Pro Super Apocalypse is an almost fatally boring title! You could kill men with it! And that's before we've decided to slap Cataclysm, Evolution or Reloaded on the end of it!

Nonetheless nothing is quite as bad as prefixing your title with the word "Battle". Battle: it reeks of mediocrity. "Battle" is like the plain brother of the salacious "Babes". I've never yet encountered a game which tolerates the company of either in its title that has persuaded me to part with cold hard cash for it. As if Battle Robots were somehow slightly less boring than just Robots. Bring on the Battle Apocalypse! Or better yet Cataclysm Babes!

I've been scanning over the 2010 list of video games and just noticed a few trends. Perhaps based on which publishers might not want to use these tired words in the title of the next AAA game. Unless they want their title to sound like it belongs in the bargain bucket on the day of its release.

To protect your sensitive feminine senses I've added my own suggestions to spruce them up, so that like me, you don't just become weary and depressed before you reach the bottom.

Battle for the [Mystical Mana Fern]
Battle of the [Potted Plants]
Battle [Nappies]
Lord of [The Battle Nappies]
Last of [The Air Guitars]
Lost [Trout]
Hope of [Historians]
Guardian of [Pure Mathematics]
[One One One] Zero
[All Star Enema] Reloaded
[Dodo] Evolution
[Player A] vs. [Player B]
Pro [Extreme Laser Eye Surgeon]

If I may, a small word in your ear. None of the above are actually terrible, nor is it necessarily silly to use the word Armageddon in the naming of your game, but what's the point in doing it when everyone else is doing it? Why wear these words and phrases out until like tired voters they barely register?

Friday, 22 April 2011

Them Vs. Us

Unrelated Image
Last time I wrote a bit about how getting players to wave their phone around like ninnies wasn't surest approach to create great games.

This week I thought I'd try to write a bit about the creative process of coming up with a game idea. Or rather, to be precise, as I don't have a process, to discuss what happened (as opposed to rolling my face around on my keyboard and posting the results).

However, before we go any further, lets back up. You may be reading this expectantly, as is human nature, assuming that this bread crumb of game design meanderings will lead to pot of gold. It wont. It'll be a pot of tin at best.

So despite my promises (which, politician that I am, lie broken at my feet) we reenter my game design process at a juncture where I still hadn't given up on making players wave their phones around like ninnies.

My Kindgom for a Game Design Document

One of the struggles with this project has been working out exactly what I want to make. Another struggle has been to figure out how much I want to compromise or deviate from my original vision.

The first thing I wrote originally was a simple test which allowed me to toss a square around on my phone. I spent a while trying to get the feel right, measure the forces involved, and come up with a system that tossed the square when a player deliberately jolted the phone, and not when the feeble shaking of their hands triggered it.

With that out of the way and proven (technically), I had to sit down and assess the tech, my ability and my chosen control mechanic, and work out what I was going to make.

Sticking to what you know

One thing I discovered was that when working from base principles like that, my mind quickly harks back to what I've already created. I'm like an Igor, constantly rooting round in the graveyard of my past projects looking for useful components I can add to the current corpse to make it live.

Some of my first ideas resembled the first game I ever made, which itself resembled Arkanoid crossed with Space Invaders, with some basic physics and a wrecking ball. While admittedly promising on paper, I never really managed to make the most out of that one.

A match-three-of-a-kind game
What followed next looked a lot like my first commercial game for Jagex: Geoblox.

Last post I mentioned a concept for a platformer, steered by motion controls (tossing the phone), in which the character would witness or visit historic or important moments in world history running as a video collage in the background.

My main concern with that project - other than that people might have been upset at having the Crucifixion or the Civil Rights movement appear as the background for a mobile game - was that the motion controls lacked sufficient precision. I felt that a platformer which might require precise controls would just be to frustrating. Plus I might be stoned.

Hating what you know

Button Moon
The problem with missing a jump in a platformer is that it either results in death, or worse it requires players to retread old ground repeatedly. I wanted to have a game where being slightly off wasn't going to be the source of frustration - instead it need be only a nuisance the player would have to take into account as they progress. Geoblox was all about shapes hitting a disk. They never miss the disk, instead they might land in the wrong place, however you can make amends later down the line. I started to think about throwing shapes at a disc instead.

Something that is never far from mind is Button Moon, which really has one of those "does what it says on the tin" titles. I love the setting and, though it's not something I intend to pilfer for this project, it caused me to quickly fall for the notion of making the disk a planet. A planet with gravity and other things that planets have.

When Tetris block attack...
Thanks to Button Moon's impact on my childhood the Geoblox clone quickly morphed into a concept about planetary space colonisation!

I already had prototypes where the player could chuck a square around, but now the square took on a new significance. It became an apartment block. Just toss 'em down and build 'em up was the new mantra.

Each block would contain a social group: jocks, goths, geeks, well adjusted people etc. The geeks would love to be next to other geeks and not like living near jocks. The location, both in terms of neighbouring blocks and scenery, would determine the points you got for the block.

homogenous society 
It's an idea I still love. As I look out my window, it seems clear to me that society is gradually becoming more homogenised. As we're able to commute to work, to our hobbies, to our friends, we don't have any need to socialise with people who are not like us. Those unlike us hold conflicting views, have or don't have faith, they value different attributes, eat differently, talk funny and probably smell.

Why make the effort to talk to your neighbour when they probably don't agree with you and it'll be such effort to make a connection. Plus they're probably an alien anyway! You don't need to talk to your neighbour, instead you go to work full of people who were hired for having similar background and attributes to yourself. When you go home you can chat on your computer to people with whom you share a common background or you can go out to your interest group where people all like the same things you do.

Maybe you disagree violently with me one this, but lets face it: you're wrong just like everyone else not like me. It says so on the wiki page about you.

I still have a desire in me to make a game about social groups and how I think they interact. However it's an idea which I've had to wave goodbye to. More on that another time.