Software: The Disservice Model

Note: the author’s copy of Adobe Illustrator 10.0.3 hung twice while being launchd during the writing of this piece, which may explain a few things.

A friend of mine has a theory that if Microsoft ever produced a version of Word that actually worked, it would go out of business. (A lot of Macintosh users think that as of version 5.1 they did, and have never upgraded since, hence the theory.)

New versions of Word are usually notable for additional “functionality” that most users don’t want and can’t figure out how to turn off which slow it down to the speed of the previous version on much faster hardware. Recent versions do “helpful” things like prevent you from making points (a), (b), and (c) … because (c) must be a copyright symbol, or superscripting the “th” in “4th” whether you want it to or not. By far the majority of Word users do not want these features and cannot switch them off.

Meanwhile, Adobe has incorporated some kind of dynamic update service for its various flagship programs (such as Photoshop and Illustrator) which is presumably intended to make sure that if Adobe finds and fixes a bug, it can be seamlessly fixed before you necessarily notice it. Of course, the dynamic update service is the single worst bug in their software, and they don’t seem to be interested in fixing it.

Beyond this, there is a general trend towards switching from software licenses (which work kind of like ownership) to software subscriptions (which don’t). It all started going “pear-shaped” when Microsoft (for example) decided to refer to versions of its software by model year (like cars and evening gowns) rather than significant revision.

The software “service” model wanted to make software products less like appliances (such as your telephone) and more like services (such as your telephone service). Most people I know are happy with most or all of their appliances and loath and despise most or all of their services. E.g. wireless phone services and cable TV services are the two most despised classes of business in the USA (according to consumerreports.com).

It may not seem so bad to only have to pay for Word when you want to use it (which is probably what Microsoft realised when it stepped back from the brink). After all, most people get a version of Office with their computer and then don’t use most of it (how many businesses pay to put a copy of Access on every PC?), and forget they own it when they give the computer away or drop it into landfill. But imagine getting a monthly “Office Service” bill and having all your documents deleted (or just inaccessible) should you fail to pay it; this is the kind of “service” such companies would like to provide.

It’s funny how language evolves. Imagine what the word “service” will mean in a few decades.

The March of Folly, continued

The government policy which immediately sprang to my mind as I read “The March of Folly” was (obviously, I think) the US invasion (or, if you prefer, liberation) of Iraq. In fact, I often felt as I read the section on Vietnam that entire paragraphs and pages might be taken as accurately describing Iraq if only the word Vietnam were replaced with Iraq throughout.

After finishing the book, however, I second-guessed myself. Was the invasion so clearly a folly in hindsight? Was not the war justified solely on the grounds of removing Saddam from power? Were we clearly going to fail? (After all, a correct policy incompetently pursued is not a folly at all, either by Tuchman’s definition or in common parlance.)

I was quite staggered, however, to read the latest Atlantic Monthly feature story, “Blind into Baghdad”. The upshot: almost every problem encountered by the US in its occupation of Iraq was predicted (and in many cases workable solutions proposed) by organisations inside the US government (e.g. the State Department, USAID) and NGOs before the invasion took place. Their advice was wilfully ignored by the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which went so far as to forbid the participation of Pentagon officials in crucial meetings.

It is important to point out that critics of the war — especially politicians — have focussed almost solely on (a) the way the US went into it alone without gathering allies, and (b) the fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction (the ostensible justification for the war) were not found. The first is not an argument of justification but of means — if the war was just then the US’s lack of allies does not make it unjust and vice versa. (French and German participation in a war are hardly indicators of its being just, and yet almost all such criticism would have been squelched had they been involved.) The second is not as important as you think: many wars are not fought for their stated reason. E.g. we did not fight WWII simply because of Pearl Harbour or the Civil War simply because of Fort Sumter.

Neither of these criticisms (if they were accurate) would qualify this war as folly. The real questions we should be asking are: (a) was the war in our interest? and (b) has the war been conducted competently? Unless the occupation turns into an absolute fiaco of Vietnam proportions or another vicious tyrant takes over Iraq as soon as the US leaves it may never be possible to answer the first question definitively. As to the second, it seems quite clear that the rift between the Bush II administration and the State Department (or indeed any sources of information not wholly in agreement with its wishful thinking) has seriously degraded the quality of US policy.

The March of Folly

I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” at the moment. The basic point of this book is that nations can be as irrational and dysfunctional at a policy level as individuals are in managing their own affairs. To this end she cites the Trojans (in their war with Greece, and particularly in bringing the horse into their city against the dictates of caution and prophecy), the Renaissance popes, England’s handling of her American colonies, and US involvement in Vietnam. The book was written in the context of the arms race with the Soviet Union just prior to Perestroika (I hope I spelled that correctly), with the hardly tacit implication that this was the Great Folly of that time.

Tuchman’s definition of Folly is very precise. It’s much more specific than simply “a really stupid thing to do”.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. … third … the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual leader.

These are quite exacting criteria. The first means that there must have been a reasoned outcry against the policy at the time. The second that reasonable alternatives were put forward. And the last that the whims of individual fools are discounted.

It’s easy to look at government policies in today’s world of which one might disapprove (I’m sure you can think of several) and, on the assumption that they will fail, mark them as follies, but it seems to me that in any reasonably free or democratic society, there will always be arguments that a policy is “counter-productive”, and many “feasible alternatives” (such as doing nothing) tabled. As such, almost any failed policy of a modern democracy will qualify as folly by Tuchman’s definition.

For democracies, it seems that to qualify as folly a policy should have nearly overwhelming public support (rather than merely being pursued by a group) at least at its inception. Sadly, the examples I’m thinking of easily meet this criterion as well.

It’s my birthday, so it must be time for the new Lord of the Rings film

The only upside to having a birthday near Christmas, as far as I can tell, is that good movies often open on or near my birthday in order to make it out in time for the following year’s academy awards. (The fact that when a movie comes out has a significant effect on its ability to win Academy Awards is a good indication of just how fair they are, but that’s another topic.)

Warning: spoilers.

In any attempt to make a film version of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King would seem to me to be the easiest of the three books to get right. More happens in The Return of the King than both other volumes combined, it’s the shortest of the three books, and one third or so of its pages are taken up by appendices and post-denouement subplots of no interest to sane readers (indeed, I find one such subplot actively offensive). In other words, unlike the turgid first book, and the deliberately paced second book, Return of the King is pretty exciting.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed the trilogy will already be somewhat annoyed by the character assassination of Faramir in The Two Towers movie. In the books, Faramir is pretty much the only intelligent man in Gondor, and he’s an unconventional hero: a would-be scholar turned warrior, performing covert operations to buy Gondor time. He’s also important in that Gondor’s only other representatives among major characters are Boromir (evil) and Denethor (insane). It seems a good idea for Gondor (the thing everyone is dying to preserve) to seem to have someone in it worth saving.

Peter Jackson, oft-quoted for his love of the books and desire to keep stuff as close to the books as possible and belief that when he has a problem with the script he just moves it closer to the books (gotta love DVD “special features”, huh?), seems to have thought it necessary to make Faramir into an chinless, ineffectual, indecisive, whiney, weak-willed, fool. All in an effort to dramatise his relationship to his dad (because, of course, we’ve never seen that done in a movie before).

(No-one in the story appears to have a mother.)

It seemed to me that perhaps Jackson wanted Faramir to redeem himself in the final film, and that by initially portraying him so unfavorably, his redemption would be all the more impactful when it happened. Instead, he has Faramir help defend Osgiliath with utter incompetence (example: in defending against an amphibious attack he waits for the enemy landing craft to make it ashore and disgorge all their troops rather than harassing them while they’re still in the water), flee back to Minas Tirith, accept a pointless suicide mission (against Gandalf’s and others’ good advice), be dragged back to Minas Tirith by his horse as the sole survivor of the battle, and finally spend the battle of Pelennor Plain (such as it is rendered in the movie) unconscious. All this heroism and cleverness is rewarded by his appearing to gain the love of Eowyn, the only strong female character in the story (either the film or the book).

Aside from pace and plot (which always need adjustment for film), if there were any global weaknesses in Lord of the Rings which I would attempt to address in filming it, they would be racism and sexism. Jackson’s caricatured Maori orcs and flaxen-haired fellowship made it clear from the start that his blindness towards (I assume not approval of) Tolkien’s racism was complete, so it is no surprise that in Return of the King the human allies of Sauron are turbaned and/or dark skinned, while the “men of the west” are entirely “fair” (a word Tolkien consistently uses both as a racial and moral description), but in the sexism department Jackson made a promising start by merging Glorfindel (the deus ex machina who saves the hobbits from the Nazgul on their way into Rivendell) into Arwen (the beautiful and insipid daughter of Elrond whom Aragorn plans to marry).

I don’t know of a single fan who objected to this change. (In the horrible earlier attempt to film these books, the Ralph Bakshi animated feature, Glorfindel was merged into Legolas, which was actually more objectionable since Glorfindel is very powerful and having him around for the rest of the story unhinges the plot.)

Beefing up Arwen seemed like a big step in the right direction. Now, Aragorn would have a bride as formidable as himself, rather than a colorless maiden who has no notable virtue beyond her looks. An obvious next step would be to merge the “sons of Elrond” (who do a great deal in the third book) into Arwen and really turn her into a major player in the story. But it was not to be. Arwen does nothing much in the third movie except collapse from an unknown sickness after persuading Elrond to reforge Narsil — implying that he was planning not to, because this would only give the good guys “hope” — is Elrond supposed to be a sympathetic character, or not?

Jackson’s more subtle abomination in the second film was to portray the elves as bailing out on the “men of the west” before the battles had even been fought. The few elves who help are massacred at the bizarrely rendered Battle of Helm’s Deep, the “sons of Elrond” don’t show up in Gondor, but instead Elrond has to be coaxed into reforging Narsil and is able to conveniently pop up and hand it to Aragorn just before he has to go get his army of undead (if Elrond is able to make such journeys so easily, why was it such a struggle for the Fellowship?)

Speaking of Jackson’s rendering of battles, he seems to be captivated by visuals to the point of being crippled by them, while having no skill with fight direction. In his efforts to make armies of orcs look formidable, he makes them look impregnable. When they are decimated by cavalry it looks like an impossible sleight of hand (the orc formations at Helm’s Deep bristle with pikes, making them exactly the worst kind of enemy for cavalry to charge, yet when the cavalry strike we see no sign of pikes being used as intended). Similarly, Minas Tirith’s walls are impossibly high and appear utterly impregnable. Fortunately, Sauron’s seige engines are ridiculously powerful and utterly accurate, destroying entire stone towers with a single hit. The same problem occurs in the one-on-one fights. The only way to interpret them is as some kind of cinema rendition of a Dungeons & Dragons battle, in which the hero is somehow able to be stabbed in the head ten times without dying, while the monster has no such luck. Legolas is more skateboard punk than archer. The fights have no heft, weight, or flow to them. Armies charge into each other, take enormous casualties, and then someone wins.

I’ve written thus far without checking what reviewers have had to say. A quick check reveals that the herd has given The Return of the King a big thumbs up; I will have to wait for the New Yorker, perhaps, to see some real criticism (Stephen Whitty, of the Star-Ledger, had some reasonable things to say, particularly on the film’s racism). I’m sure that the herd will give it great box office, and Peter Jackson will probably get his Oscars, at last.

For me, most of the really annoying stuff was at the beginning of the film, and once it got going I started to enjoy myself, only really getting restless with its multiple false endings (a lot of nothing happens at the end of the book, and not all of it is omitted from the film). The rather crude use of fades to and from black during the multiple near endings is grating. Oddly enough, the use of a map-tracking shot to explain the return to the Shire is a device that really needed to be used more in the film. I doubt anyone seeing the film without having read the books has the faintest clue as to the geography intrinsic to the story (which is lucky, given Elrond’s travels in the movie).

Studio execs, of course, will probably take The Return of the King as a sign that “sequels can make a ton of money” and ignore the fact that it was based on a solid work of literature rather than being spawned by the desire to make more money off a tired concept that worked well last time (the way most sequels and prequels are).

ForeSight Revisited and the Theory of Fun

It seems that after a long time in the wilderness, ForeSight is going to be published (or republished, depending on how you look at it) and so the history of this project has been turning over in my mind.

ForeSight was originally designed in 1984. It was first used outside my circle of friends for a small role-playing tournament in Armidale (a small town in northern New South Wales) in early 1985. One of its key design constraints from day one was that it be easy to pick up and play.

I designed ForeSight as a direct consequence of the “death” of SPI. I had just spent nearly six months writing a sourcebook for SPI’s UNIVERSE, which I considered to be the first Science Fiction role-playing game to be worth playing. I thought UNIVERSE suffered from not being generic (or as I would later put it, “transparent”), in that it tacitly assumed, within its rules, that the setting worked in a particular way (e.g. psionics existed and were required for interstellar travel). In effect, UNIVERSE was like a Science Fiction equivalent of RuneQuest, only without any explicit information on Glorantha.

I thought that UNIVERSE’s background setting needed to be explicitly documented to allow players and gamemasters to make sense of the rules, and so I designed a very detailed setting that was consistent with UNIVERSE’s implied setting (insofar as that was possible: in UNIVERSE an admiral’s annual retirement income was not enough to rent a “common” household robot) along with rules to fill yawning gaps in UNIVERSE’s existing rules (e.g. rules for building your own spaceships that didn’t have gaping loopholes).

Now, I was young so perhaps my naïve belief that the world’s (then) largest game company would even consider publishing a supplement to its science fiction RPG that defined its setting without having consulted the designers of that game (who presumably had their own setting) may be forgivable. (Certainly, Chaosium would have laughed at anyone attempting to write a complete description of Glorantha having read only RuneQuest 2nd Edition, but as I say, I was young and naïve.)

In any event, SPI was not long for this world, and before they had time to reject “The Gamemaster’s Guide to UNIVERSE”, TSR had taken them over via means described thoroughly elsewhere (look for Greg Costikyan’s blog using Google). The last thing TSR would be doing any time soon was reprinting SPI’s RPG rules or new supplements for them. (Eventually, Ballantine reprinted UNIVERSE, with a very useful skill summary table, and DragonQuest 2nd Edition, with a few errors corrected. Years later, TSR would publish an incompetently bowdlerized DragonQuest 3rd Edition for reasons that escape me.)

So I found myself with a pretty nice science fiction setting and no rule system to use it with. (Traveller, like UNIVERSE and RuneQuest, tacitly assumed a background setting, but in its case a background setting that made no sense. Furthermore, it was missing an experience system and pretty much missing a resolution system. It seemed to be inclined towards combat but its combat system was terrible.)

One day I had one of my usual arguments with a bunch of friends who played AD&D, my position – as usual – being that AD&D was so awful that it would be hard to deliberately design something worse, and was told – as usual – that if I were so smart I should design my own game system. Given my “need” for a good Science Fiction role-playing system, this time I decided to do so.

ForeSight was not the result of any kind of “not invented here” syndrome. I was perfectly happy to use DragonQuest or RuneQuest for fantasy gaming. My friends used Champions and other Hero System games for superhero and pulp games. I’d used UNIVERSE because it was the best system available, but it was in desperate need of reform, and between all twenty-odd of us we had three copies of the rules, and two belonged to me.

UNIVERSE had several key shortcomings that had to be addressed immediately:

  1. Its resolution system was entirely special-case driven. There was no general rule on how anything worked, instead you got a formula and modifiers to cope with each individual circumstance. (D&D 3rd Edition has just managed to attain this level of imperfection!)
  2. It was not “transparent” in that if you looked at your setting through the “window” of the game system, what you saw was grossly distorted. (No RPG is perfectly “transparent”, although GURPS at least tries. D&D is perhaps the most egregious example, in that it has all kinds of ridiculous assumptions in its rules that aren’t even intended to reflect the settings the designers had in mind when they designed it.) Setting-based assumptions were ingrained into every single game system, starting with character creation.
  3. Its character representation rules were ugly. Most characters had the maximum possible human strength, one attribute was on a different scale from all other attributes (for no good reason), while another attribute (Aggression) frequently dictated a character’s behavior and wasn’t something he/she chose during character creation.
  4. A lot of its systems were complex and inflexible. UNIVERSE was designed by war gamers and you could tell. The encounter system, for example, assumed characters (and the parties they encountered) were pretty much automatons.
  5. Key rules, e.g. starship design and robot design, were missing. Why would I want to design new rules for a “dead” game system?
  6. Playing the game required a lot of bookkeeping. E.g. you needed to track experience points separately for every skill.
  7. Playing the game required frequent references to the rules. Some common procedures (e.g. encounters and reactions) were simply to complex to remember. And the special-cases in the skill system always needed looking up. (Even the Ballantine edition’s two page summary of all the skill special cases was only a partial solution.)
  8. Some of the game design was just plain bad. E.g. the number of experience points needed to improve a skill’s level increased linearly with level. So far so good: rules that create laws of diminishing return are, in general, a good thing. But the benefit obtained from a skill level increased linearly with level, which in effect simply meant that skill improvement became choppier with level, and there were no diminishing returns. In summary, the skill system was complex with no end benefit.
  9. The combat system (even if you don’t use it, it’s nice to know it’s there) was both ugly and poorly designed. In part, this was because UNIVERSE tried to cope with vehicular, personal, melee, and fire combat with one set of rules. In part, this was because UNIVERSE owed a lot to tactical board wargame design ideas SPI presumably had “lying around” (it’s almost certainly no coincidence that SPI’s single-man tactical combat games, Patrol and Sniper, used the same scale). In part, I just don’t think the designers really thought it through. The single worst feature was simply this: combat was resolved on a 5 metre hex grid. A game that doesn’t differentiate between grappling with someone hand-to-hand and standing three metres away is, in essence, not a role-playing game. Or to look at it another way, the most popular kind of weapon in modern and science fiction is the handgun whose accuracy diminishes from very high to very low between zero and five metres. (I won’t even go into how bad Traveller’s combat system was, but let’s remember that I think UNIVERSE was the best set of rules then available.)

So, at the very minimum, my game would need to address these key shortcomings. Although I didn’t necessarily articulate all these ideas at the time, ForeSight’s design principles were clearly a direct reaction to my problems with UNIVERSE, and thus I wanted to be sure that:

  1. ForeSight should have one resolution system for all purposes.
  2. ForeSight should be transparent.
  3. ForeSight should be able to represent any realistic fictional or historical character.
  4. ForeSight’s rules should be as simple and intuitive as possible. It should be obvious how and when to ignore and adapt them.
  5. ForeSight should include all the key rules systems a player would reasonably need for a science fiction campaign. No expensive supplements required to build spaceships or play a mercenary.
  6. ForeSight should require little or no bookkeeping.
  7. ForeSight should be playable with all the rules you could remember.
  8. The intention of ForeSight’s rules should be clearly explained, and its rules should implement these intentions.
  9. ForeSight’s combat system needed to kick ass (and shoot ass and stab ass). It needed to cope with the key situations in action/adventure stories, such as hostage situations, ambushes, and negotiations turned sour. Most RPG combat systems (adapted, as they were, from wargames) tacitly assumed that you will almost always fight a meeting engagement (military units move into range of each other). Anything else is more or less ignored, or handled by “surprise” rules. Adventure stories almost never involve meeting engagements. So this is a big problem with almost all RPG rules, but it’s truly appalling when combatants have firearms (or magic spells), and the first shot often decides the outcome.
  10. ForeSight should be easy to learn.

This seems like a nice set of nearly mathematical axioms, but where does “fun” come into all this? Does fun, somewhat like humor, disappear when carefully examined? Fun is something that eludes theory but can be handled practically. Simply stated:

  1. One designs a game one imagines will be fun. (This is a creative process, and defies theory.)
  2. One plays the game.
  3. One enhances or leaves alone the things that were observed to be fun, and changes, removes, or streamlines the things that were observed not to be fun.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This iterative approach essentially paraphrases the approach taken by Valve in producing their highly successful and widely acclaimed computer game, “Half Life”. Another comment by a computer game designer (I forget his name, but he worked for Electronic Arts at the time) to the effect that a good [computer] game is, in essence, an enjoyable activity combined with an excuse for repeatedly engaging in it, effectively constitutes a usable theory of fun.

A lot of considerations that impact fun are implicit in the considerations above: looking up game rules in the middle of play is not fun and should be avoided. If it were fun, then things would be different. (Paranoia, for example, is far more fun to read than play, so this principle can be turned on its head.)

I owe a lot to the people who tested and criticised ForeSight in 1985 and 1986. I don’t have a list of them all anywhere: they included players in tournaments, friends of friends, and members of ASGARD (our role-playing club). This group was unusually diverse, intelligent, and (crucially) critical.

Unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was designed from scratch and not essentially something that evolved as a “mod” to an existing game system. Some ideas, notably the resolution system (which is derived from that of Victory Games’ James Bond 007), were adapted from existing game systems, but this was done with a great deal of care (and usually after considering alternatives including entirely innovative systems).

Also, unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was thoroughly play-tested and blind-tested. I won’t go into what I think of the standards of testing that go into most commercial RPGs.

When it was finished, I sent letters to the three game companies I admired most (given that SPI was gone). Victory Games sent me a horrifying waiver of rights that I had to sign before they would even read my letter. Chaosium said that they were designing their own Science Fiction RPG, “Known Space”, which would be an expanded version of their lamentable “Ringworld” – they didn’t want my game as a whole but they might like to cannibalise it. West End games wanted to see my game. I sent it to them and eventually it was rejected. Greg Costikyan (whom I spoke to) cited some aesthetic issues (it had too many skills – although it had far fewer than their own game Paranoia and covered vastly more ground, and they thought that giving atmosphere compositions in terms of their effect – e.g. “poisonous” – rather than chemical makeup – e.g. “chlorine” – seemed less scientific), but mainly they felt that Science Fiction games were unmarketable. As evidence, he cited disappointing sales of his game “Web War”. So it goes.

I eventually ended up publishing ForeSight myself in 1987. The total cost for printing 200 and binding 150 copies of the rules was $900 (Australian dollars). I sold every copy bar two (which I kept for myself) for $12-15 wholesale (RRP was $25). I also had a small number of copies hardbound. One of these copies has been stolen, and a game collector somewhere has been trying to buy it from the thief for some time. So it goes.

I eventually updated ForeSight. The result, ForeSight Enhanced, was a considerably less professional or satisfying product (it was staple- rather than perfect- bound for starters), which sold fairly well. ForeSight Enhanced’s improvements to ForeSight were largely successful, although most players prefer the treatment of Fields of Knowledge in the original rules, and prefer the way the combat rules in the original rules were presented, although they prefer the way the newer rules work. Probably the single most significant improvement to ForeSight in ForeSight Enhanced was replacing the superficially compelling idea that “older characters have more skills” with the far more useful idea that “characters with more interesting backgrounds have more skills”.

Some aspects of ForeSight have been found, over time, not to be fun, and these need to be changed, streamlined, or removed. The main example of this is spacecraft design and combat. My approach is simple: vehicle pursuit and combat has, over time, been found to be fun, so why not treat spacecraft as other vehicles? This is not realistic, but if I have learned one thing from designing and playing ForeSight, realism should always inform game design, but never dictate it. Another key component of the game has fallen out of synch with scientific thinking and observation (Star System Generation) and also contains tacit background information. This, too, needs revision.

Given the hundreds of players and nearly two decades that have passed since this game was originally designed, the new ForeSight should be a truly robust set of rules. If you’ve read some of my ramblings, you’ll know that I am very disappointed by the tack that game design – paper game design in particular – has taken over the last fifteen to twenty years, learning nothing from what has preceded it (except perhaps how to squeeze more money out of teenagers). I hope if nothing else, ForeSight can serve as a marker for where the State of the Art could and should be. Oh, and I hope that it’s even more fun than the original.