Choose Your Own Adventure

“Choose Your Own Adventure” was a series of paperback “interactive” stories published by TSR in the 80s. The basic idea is you take a story which branches (based on reader choices) and then scatter the pieces into a book, but put the starting point first. When the reader is faced with a choice you tell them which page (or paragraph in some cases) to go to next.

This idea did not originate with TSR (of course), and in fact TSR’s books weren’t even close to the most interesting expressions of the general concept. I’m hardly an authority on the subject, but there are two standout examples: GrailQuest and Alone Against the Dark.

GrailQuest

The idea in GrailQuest is that you’re a knight in search of the Holy Grail. Arthurian England is navigable by following paragraph links (and it manages to be something of a “sandbox” game despite comprising a meagre 132 paragraphs. This is because GrailQuest allows you to learn the landscape and move around in a consistent manner, and provides meta-rules for using the content, including things like random encounters, and assumes you’re willing to administer the combat rules yourself (which works just fine). In fact the rules content of GrailQuest is larger than the content itself — there’s a lesson to be learned here.

Amazingly, GrailQuest not only worked as a multiplayer “headless” scenario (i.e. you could play with friends and no GM) but I actually ran it as a Chivalry & Sorcery 2 campaign. I simply changed the encounters to match the new ruleset and embellished the descriptive content. It’s truly a remarkable piece of work. (Who knows? Maybe the author will see this and feel warm inside for a minute or three. Every time I get an email about Prince of Destruction it makes me happy.)

Alone Against the Dark

Alone Against the Dark is simply a tour-de-force. I can only assume that it (along with the nearly-as-good Scorpion Hall) made very little money (or was incredibly hard to write) because there were never any follow-up products. AAtD manages to recreate the spirit and flavor of a Lovecraft story, perform the neat trick of embedding a detective story in a solo adventure, and break all kinds of new ground in terms of solo game design, and offers many interesting lessons for game designers. I can’t remember the arc story — you’re tracking down a missing person or something and then it’s like every Lovecraft story — relics, cults, ancient gods, death, insanity.

To begin with, AAtD manages to have sandbox qualities to it, although unlike GrailQuest it isn’t one large sandbox. Instead, AAtD has an overall arc structure that’s basically one-way, and then individual areas are sandbox-like (such as when you’re essentially free to “explore” cities). True to Lovecraft, there’s ample opportunity for your character to die or go insane and then be followed by another investigator (who is assumed to track you down via diaries, etc.).

The key mechanic that AAtD introduced beyond GrailQuest‘s sandbox + arc structure was to provide essentially open-ended exploration of large areas. You might find yourself in a city (Arkham, say) and be told that there are a bunch of points of interest and you can either visit them or phone them, and be given paragraph entry points for doing so (and a time cost for doing so).  E.g. you might decide to phone a place to save time, but then end up having to visit it anyway because the phone call is so unproductive (or suspicious).

Indeed, a big feature of AAtD is the introduction of time-tracking and giving the player a huge sense of urgency. (The bad guys are plotting to destroy the world, of course, and you need to stop them. The slower you are the deeper the shit you end up in.)

Please bear in mind that I am writing all this from memory, and I haven’t looked at my copies of either of these games for at least fifteen years. GrailQuest I played in high school (the C&S2 campaign was in college) — so that’s over 25 years ago.

Writing a Solo Adventure

One of the things I really admired about Victory Games’s James Bond 007 rules was that they included a pretty good solo adventure intended to help introduce the game’s core mechanics, and it was not only fun to play but instructive. So, one of the first things I did after finishing my ForeSight rules was produce a similar solo adventure for ForeSight — Solo on Simiolus. (I see some references to Solo on Simiolus online, but no-one seems to have scanned it for me. I have soft and hard copies coming out my ears so maybe I’ll post it here I’ve posted a bare bones version with no illustrations here.)

Solo on Simiolus was smaller than but structured similarly to GrailQuest/AAtD — there’s an overall sandbox structure and lots of entry points. The idea is that you’re a consular official working for the Federation (part of my ForeScene: The Flawed Utopia setting — think of it as being like a less powerful version of Iain Banks’s Culture) when the planet you’re working on collapses into civil unrest, and your job is to track down some missing personnel and get them to the “enclave” (think “Green Zone”) ASAP. You can simply do the minimum (rescue the two missing people) or you can poke around and figure out who’s behind the unrest.

The way I wrote Simiolus was simple enough. I just wrote a “node”, decided what the reasonable options were, and inserted placeholders for each one. I kept going until I was done. And then I randomized the nodes and renumbered them. I did all of this in a long evening (and then spent a couple of weeks fixing mistakes). I don’t think I wrote a masterpiece, but it’s not bad and — I think — better than the James Bond 007 adventure at least.

Lessons for Modern Game Developers

If you were to represent a “quest” from a modern RPG as a solo adventure it would probably have at most 10 nodes and perhaps three branches. (Most nodes would simply be something like, “You ride your horse to Olduvai Gorge, kill twenty albino cheetahs, and skin them. Go to page 7.”) Quests in WoW or EQ would have no branches at all — you’d need to go to a truly outstanding and original game such as Fallout 3 to actually find a quest that can have more than one outcome.

I’ve quoted (or paraphrased) this line many times, but some guy at EA defined a good game as being “an enjoyable activity and a reason to keep doing it”. It’s one of those definitions I found instantly irksome and then liked more and more as I thought about it. Sure, some games have more than one enjoyable activity and/or more than one reason to keep doing it and blah blah blah but yup, that’s it. In an MMORPG the “enjoyable activity” is generally “killing stuff” or “dressing your doll” or sometimes “exploring”. The reason to keep doing it is sometimes story, but more often than not it’s “getting prettier things to dress your doll with”.

My ideal is for “story” to become a major component of CRPGs (massive or not).

Thus far, story tends to fail in single-player games because the story is static and more-or-less linear. In MMOs it fails completely because there’s so much time to fill and since players are focused on level and gear that they become frustrated by any attempts at inserting story and route around it (e.g. by reading spoilers or just skipping it). The latest incarnation of WoW so greatly facilitates story skipping (e.g. by mapping out the places you need to go to finish quests for you) that it’s often a rude shock to actually have to read quest text to figure something out.

GrailQuest is a stunning example of how a very simple piece of content can function as a huge “reason to keep doing it”. But in order for story to become important it has to become a player goal — if the player doesn’t play for the story, why have a story? And players will only play for a story if the story is interesting. And, by and large, a story will only be interesting if the player can actually impact it. And for the player to impact a story, it has to be able to change based on player actions.

The Gold-Plated Tunnel of Fun

One of the major reasons for linear plots in games is the cost of creating assets. It goes something like this: you want the game to look good because graphics sell games. But it costs money (and time) to create nice graphics and you only have so much. It follows that you want to create a game that looks as good as possible for as little as possible, and you want players to see as much of the good stuff you’ve created as possible — otherwise the time and money are wasted. It follows that any branch in story will lead to unseen content and is thus a bad thing.

Perhaps the most surprising case-in-point is WoW. When WoW “classic” first shipped it had two continents and two factions. It was perfectly possible, and in fact highly likely to go from level 1–30 with one character seeing one set of content, and then play another character of the same faction and see a completely different set of content. (It’s quite common to encounter veteran players who’ve never huge swathes of classic content.) But as more expansions came out the options narrowed, until both factions would get channelled through nearly identical content.

Today, a typical level 60-85 “zone” comprises a bunch of common quests along with a Horde base and an Alliance base (and maybe some Horde, Alliance, and neutral quest givers). Anyone leveling in that zone will basically do the same quests — Horde or Alliance. Indeed some of the newer zones are so linear that everyone does pretty much exactly the same set of quests in exactly the same order. And, not coincidently, the most offending such zone has the most cut scenes in it.

None of this is a new phenomenon. I’ve always found games where memorizing levels is the most important skill in getting good at the game to be stupid, and there are many such games. Others clearly disagree! (Interestingly enough, my favorite old school video games were always dynamic in content — e.g. Time Pilot, Q*Bert, and Elevator Action.)

Aside: a Twitter comment suggests that Elevator Action is static in content. I strongly disagree. The building layout is fixed, true, but the location of the red doors (which you must visit to collect secrets and complete a level) is dynamic and so is the behavior of enemies (unlike, say, Xevious or 1942, where everything basically flies patterns). In fact, the random door positions have such a strong impact on gameplay that it was quite a while before I realized that the building layouts were static, and when I mentioned this to a friend (we used to sit and play Elevator Action solidly for hours on end) I had trouble convincing him of the fact.

(If you’ve ever played Elevator Action you’ll almost certainly recall that if the door that’s alone in a small room and accessible only by escalator is red this becomes as hard to deal with as rest of the level by itself. Similarly nastily placed doors in the final “all elevators” section of the building.)

I don’t think anyone would have any trouble recognizing the static nature of WoW quests and dungeon content. Even those minor random elements (e.g. some WoW dungeons had random “rare spawns” in them) have virtually zero impact on gameplay.

Randomly Generated vs. Static

I’m not arguing for “randomly generated content” games. (I just discussed some of these thoughts I’ve been havingwith a WoW-playing colleague and he raised Minecraft as an example.) Ultimately, those are every bit as annoying as completely static games. The key is compromising somewhere in between, rather than going the easy route. To put it simply: GrailQuest manages to produce a highly replayable and satisfying role-playing experience with a little over a hundred paragraphs by adding a few pretty simple “meta-rules”. A little bit of randomness added to a whole bunch of static content adds a huge amount of replayability and interest — it leverages the effort of all those expensive game designers and artists and keeps players paying subscriptions.

EverQuest’s “Lost Dungeons of Norrath” expansion was the best part of EQ despite having many obvious (and easily fixed) flaws. Basic idea: you go to a quest giver who says “I need you to go to some place X and kill some stuff Y | get some stuff Y | rescue someone Y” where X is a randomly selected static dungeon map (with static population), and Y is a randomly selected target, thing, or named NPC. I think I had more fun playing in LDONs than any other EQ content despite their “afterthought” quality. If even a small amount of attention had been paid to making it more interesting (e.g. better/more/randomized maps, better/more/randomized content, more variations on objectives, and more care on doability — low numbered collects were usually impossible) it could have been absolutely awesome.

The first two “Elder Scrolls” games were Arena and Daggerfall. Arena had a huge world with static “high level” detail (e.g. city names and locations, overall geography, a few NPCs) and all the detail randomly generated. There was one arc quest line and then all the other quests were randomly generated. Daggerfall was essentially the same but with horribly confusing dungeons. Both games were, modulo graphic quality etc., more fun to play and far more replayable than anything Bethesda has done since (at least relative to the time of release). It’s easy to imagine Arena scaled up to modern computer capabilities being an absolutely compelling game even without improving on its pretty silly random quest generator (“Go to the [Thieves’ Guild] and kill [10 rats]”).

The amazing thing to me is that no-one seems to go the extra yard and try to produce random/dynamic content that’s just a little bit interesting and just a little bit tied to the underlying game world. Here’s a really straightforward example: in the latest WoW expansion there’s a quest line you have to enter in order to visit one of the new zones (Uldum). At some point a little ways into this quest line you need to kill a bandit. He’s basically sitting on a camel in the middle of the desert (helpfully marked on your map — I shit you not).

This is a classic WoW “assassinate” mission. I very much doubt that one in ten WoW players will read the quest text, know who he is or why he’s being killed. You literally run up to a quest hub, click everyone with an exclamation point, then check you map and start running to the different nodes and killing/looting whatever the game interface tells you to. So this guy appears on your map, you run over, kill him, yellow completion text appears and a new question mark appears on the map, you run over and get some money and xp.

How might such a mission be improved by adding a small amount of randomness? I have to ask: how could it not?

Instead of there being one static target there are N options. Each player gets given one of the N as the target.

Instead of there being one static target with a fixed name, each player sees the target as having a unique name.

Instead of there being one static target with a fixed name, each player is given a unique name and the game engine has a chance of deciding that certain enemies will have been the player’s quarry after the player kills them (and the player is given clues as to whom to go after). This mission might be possible to fail (if someone else gets the target first) or the game engine might create new targets until the player is able to succeed.

Final Thoughts

Clearly there are plenty of people happy with mindless static content. There’s no reason for game designers to ignore them. You can put dynamic and static content side-by-side in a game and create both in-engine and organizational feedback loops to decide how much of what to put in the game.

(It occurs to me on reviewing this post that there are a tiny number of somewhat random quests in the game, e.g. the craft dailies, and perhaps these are sufficiently unpopular that Blizzard feels dissuaded from trying anything more challenging. Unlikely on both counts, though.)

E.g. imagine if there’s a “Thief Taker” in Stormwind who gives out daily quests for a fixed static wanted guy and a dynamic wanted guy, the second requiring more time and attention but providing a concomitantly greater reward. You could measure to see how many players choose to do one vs. both. You can dynamically change the awards based on how much time players seem to take to do the two quests. And finally, at an organizational level, you can start allocating development resources to dynamic quests if they generate more player engagement per hour of development and testing.

It’s not like WoW is a static game engine. The random number generators are hard at work determining AI behaviors and resolving combat outcomes. I don’t think that carefully adding dynamic aspects to content is going to make the game logic stupendously more complex or hard to test.

Different people play games for different reasons. I’m sure that one reason WoW has a pretty high level cap is that many players are trying to get to max level as their goal (either with one “toon” or as many as possible). For some players “reaching the level cap” is the game. For others being the best arena player or getting achievements or having the best gear or whatever is the goal. I’m an old school role-player which means that for me the journey is the reward. It follows that I want the journey to be interesting and — thus far — the journey in CRPGs, and MMORPGs in particular, is pretty awful. As far as I’m concerned, having a lower level cap would actually make the game more interesting because it would mean that more content would be available “a la carte”.

Imagine if WoW’s level cap were 20: then pretty much everything except starting zones could be accessible to players in “the end game” and there’d be no “oh it’s just a level 60 dragon, ignore it” nonsense. This begs the question as to whether having such a low level cap would lose players who were fixated on reaching “max level”.

WoW has something like 13 million subscriptions. It dwarfs its predecessor, EverQuest, at its peak by a factor or 20 or so, and as far as I know it dwarfs any single player RPG (at least in the Western world). Unless you count The Sims. (And what’s The Sims’s level cap?) So, I can understand if WoW’s developers think that they’ve found the “sweet spot” of the market where they can please the most potential players with the least investment in content. Let me suggest, however, that a lot more people watch TV or read books than play WoW, and most people don’t watch TV or even read books because they want to get to the end.

Figure out how to make the journey interesting and you might just beat WoW by a factor of 20. In any event, you don’t need to get a huge proportion of WoW’s 13 million players to justify investing in a truly better game. Currently a lot of people are hoping Bioware’s The Old Republic might be at least marginally less stupid than WoW.

P.S. similar thinking can be found here.

Dragon Age

I’ve been playing Dragon Age moderately obsessively for the last few days (since I found it selling for $40 at Target just after I finished Liberty City Stories).

Dragon Age is virtually a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a little sad because Bioware has been struggling to escape from the D&D vortex, on and off, for over ten years. Given that they’d prefer not to pay Wizards of the Coast royalties for a D&D license when most gamers buy stuff for their logo first and foremost, they have designed their own game rules — essentially an even more annoying variant of the Mass Effect game rules with a fantasy “skin”.

If you like Mass Effect (I did) you may like Dragon Age (I do) — although Dragon Age is considerably uglier in most respects than Mass Effect (I suspect that, at a low level, the current generation of texture compression schemas available for console programmers is not as sympathetic to gritty detailed “fantasy” textures as it is to the cleaner “Star Warsy” graphics in Mass Effect). Personally, I loved the look of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic and think that when Bioware jumped up to the next level of graphic quality (NWN2, et al) they made the mistake of going for too realistic a look, and have never recovered. So far, of the “current generation” Bioware games, only Mass Effect doesn’t look like ass. At least with Bethesda — their games have always looked like ass.

First of all, Dragon Age is pretty hard (and I’m only playing on “normal”) — in both the “challenging” sense (a lot of the bad guys can do a lot of area effect damage really fast, and there are lots of stunning and immobilization effects) and, unfortunately, the “annoying and tedious sense”. The combat system is very fast paced (it’s exactly the same system as in Mass Effect, and conceptually similar to everything Bioware has done since Baldur’s Gate), and I would frequently find myself pausing every second or two and going through entire fights character by character making sure everything was OK. For one fight — so far — I switched down to “casual” difficulty because it was such a pain to win (I think I made the mistake of attempting a specific side-quest way earlier than the designers intended). A few fights I’ve had to repeat half a dozen times to get through. One fight I’ve been unable to win and set aside for “later”. (Hint: it involves a dragon.) And it doesn’t help that many potentially deadly fights tend to be against humans, and it’s hard to tell whether the four thugs you’re fighting are a nuisance or Death Incarnate. Once you get past the early quests you really can’t afford to treat any fight casually.

Unfortunately, I’d say that much of the time the reason combat is difficult is that the UI is often infuriating (e.g. when you target a lot of spells you drop out of command mode — argh!) you can only control one of your four party members at a time and the Artificial Stupidity is pretty damn strong (e.g. the AIs have absolutely no cognizance of AoE spells, and will cheerfully charge at enemies sitting in the middle of earthquakes and lightning storms; similarly, they will cheerfully walk into marked traps the moment a fight starts — which often means hitting “Load Game” immediately as half your party goes down in a fraction of a second). In essence, the only way I’ve found to win tough fights is to switch to “hold” and micro-manage everyone’s positioning, which slows fights to a crawl (even though in “real time” most fights are over in very short order — very much not like D&D). A micro-managed group is around 2-5x more effective than just letting your idiots fight on their own.

Unlike Mass Effect, money has so far been very tight, which means I can’t afford to deck my characters in cool equipment. That said, there seem to be far fewer gear upgrades than Mass Effect, so the endless shifting around of gear because you found a slightly better assault rifle has been substantially reduced (also, gear is much less interchangeable, so the fact that Bob got a new mace doesn’t tend to have so many ripple effects). And, yes, it’s another case “try to save the world while cobbling together enough cash to buy healing poultices”. At least, in this case, the reason most people are selling you gear is that they don’t know the world needs saving.

One thing I really like is the idea that a character taken out during a fight is “injured” rather than “dead”. Once the fight is over, they get up again — somewhat the worse for wear. (They need special healing to recover — well you need to click an “injury kit”.) This avoids the conceptual morass of the guys who’ve been raised from the dead thirty times in the course of their careers — but would play better if the game really treated them as “injured” rather than dead (not representing them with a skull icon would be a good start). Frankly, I’d have preferred the fights to be a little bit easier, but the consequences of injury to be much worse (e.g. you might have to go to a special healer to get patched up). In one dungeon I ran out of injury kits and each injury became a serious problem (well, at least conceptually — I didn’t really detect any major downside to carrying injuries) — if the entire game felt like that, then fights could be hard without frequent wipes being nature’s way of telling you those guys were pretty tough.

Second, while Dragon Age is no more conceptually advanced than Bioware’s first RPG (Fallout) the setting is — by fantasy standards — pretty original, the writing good, and the quests interestingly designed. The voice acting is merely OK, though. Long-distance travel in Dragon Age is handled exactly as in Fallout (enter world map, click on destination, dot moves across map — zoom in to small generic location for random encounters).

In terms of quest complexity and moral gray areas, Dragon Age is perhaps the worthiest successor to Fallout that I’ve played (including Fallout 3). For example… Spoiler Alert! (Select to read.) I’m currently less than half-way through (as far as I can tell) and I’m currently trying to get the dwarves to join my alliance, but to do this I need to solve their succession crisis (which appears to have at least two possible outcomes) — and I’ll need to figure out which guy I want to back and then how to back him. (I usually tend to be “goody two shoes” in RPGs, and I’m trying to play selfish and ruthless, but the dwarvish caste system is irking me so I may end up erring on the side of niceness yet again — although, interestingly, the guy most likely to tear down the caste system appears to be more of an asshole.) The point is, this is not a distinction with no difference, and the setting is engaging enough for me to care which path I pick. End Spoiler Alert.

Third, as I have already implied, Bioware have done themselves no favors in the game design department. As in Mass Effect it’s very hard to figure out exactly which skills are useful, and unlike Mass Effect there are way more of them (instead of having one skill with N levels which gives you special benefits at certain levels, you get sets of four distinct abilities which are thematically related, but each completely independent), so you tend to waste a lot of skill points. (And I don’t particularly want to read “guides”, use cheats/walkthroughs, or restore from save constantly.)

There’s a huge amount of repetition and flavorless redundancy in the spells and abilities (e.g. shield pummel vs. shield bash vs. overpower vs. assault — all basically the same thing with different cooldown timers — I might add that the abilities often seem to have effects that make no sense relative to their name, e.g. “riposte” is that another “whack + stun” ability, not a counter-attack following a parry). Often you’ll be motivated to get a new ability not because it adds anything new but simply because it’s just like some other ability you have, but on a different cooldown timer — which is just stupid since you’re already limited by stamina/mana and execution time. (Why is it faster to cast two lightning and two freeze spells than four of one or the other?)

And finally, unlike Mass Effect which had three orthogonal character classes (soldier, tech, and psy) and then three hybrid classes, Dragon Age has ditched the “hybrids” — you just get warrior, rogue, and mage (i.e. the same classes with a fantasy skin) — and you can specialize each class to resemble pretty much any typical fantasy cliche you like — rogues can be bards or assassins, mages can be healers or shapeshifters (no necromancers though), fighters can be paladins, berserkers, etc.. I do like the fact that there’s one caster class that can be anywhere on the dps/buff/heal continuum you want, rather than treating the healer and mage as distinct and then giving them a huge overlap, but I don’t see why fighter and rogue couldn’t be similarly blurred (especially since it’s exactly what I will play in virtually any RPG when given a chance).

On the whole, I’d say that the original Fallout had the best game design (especially for character development) Bioware has done thus far. The problem with the system devised for Dragon Age is that it’s way too complex and non-orthogonal to grok given the time investment. (It’s not like an MMORPG where you’ll be playing the game for six months and (a) have the desire to figure out whether it’s better to spend a point on “slam” or “smash” or “butt-whack”, and (b) you probably have some mechanism for switching your points around if you change you mind, and (c) a bunch of game designers are employed full-time to keep things balanced.) To provide a simple example: you will often have the choice of several different spells which all do single-target damage, but no clue as to which one does more, is harder to resist, has longer range, or stuns as a side-effect (and each opens up a new spell which makes choosing even harder). For a more complex example: you will often have a choice between reducing stamina/mana costs, increasing stamina/mana regeneration, or getting a whole new ability with a different cooldown timer. And then there’s the “mode” system (you can be in one “mode” at a time) which makes everything even harder to analyze.

Contrast this with Fallout et al where you could opt to “be tougher”, “shoot faster”, “shoot more accurately”, etc. (And there’s nothing remotely like Fallout’s “perks” which were one of my favorite features.)

You do get a wide variety of NPCs to play with and can at least sample what’s possible — it seems to me that a lot of the replayability (if there is any) will be out of a desire to create a character with a less fracked up skill tree the second time around. It is also annoying how specialized a character has to be — if you want your fighter to be a tank you’ll need to burn so many skill points in shield skills that you can’t switch to a two handed sword and wreak havoc when the mood takes you. (At least not at level 12.)

As an aside, I’d have to say that the obsession with specialization in RPGs — it started in computer RPGs but has bled back into paper– really ticks me off. I’m sorry, but a good fantasy story doesn’t involve a guy who is so specialized in tanking that he can’t use a bow. Gandalf wore chainmail and wielded a sword (as did Turjan of Mir). Conan could sneak and climb walls. Fafhrd could dual wield and the Gray Mouser could cast spells. How did we get from this inspiration to guys who obssess over threat generation, mitigation, avoidance, and hit points? And it’s not even a game balance issue since you can’t use your shield skills when you’re wielding a two-handed sword, and when you’re sneaking or climbing it doesn’t really matter that you’re a kick-ass musician.

If you’re a computer RPG player the chances are you already know you will or won’t buy Dragon Age because you either do or don’t like Bioware’s stuff. So the bottom line is that — relative to other Bioware offerings and adjusting for time and technology — it’s up there with Fallout in terms of back story, writing, and plot, but the game mechanics are annoying and the graphics are meh.

The Crate

While visiting cracked.com (which is occasionally good, but usually not so much) I finally found a link to an article I read years ago making fun of crates in computer games.

Anyway, the first link is to A Gamer’s Manifesto, another article I’d read before and liked (or was it something similar on somethingawful?) and here’s my summary:

Better AI: actually I don’t think that AI in computer games is too bad so much as too single-minded. The best AI I’ve ever seen was in the 1985 game Elevator Action. It was actually “Artificial Stupidity”. If a bad guy was able to move to you or shoot at you in a really obvious way then that’s usually what they did (after a certain delay based on current difficulty). Otherwise, they just “did stuff” — like go in and out of doors, pace back and forth, or stand around smoking (well, that’s what it looked like). They didn’t run directly towards you, bump into an obstacle, and jerk spastically — nope, to do that you need 4GB of RAM, a quad core CPU, and a 24 core graphics card.

I keep getting into discussions with folks about the A* algorithm, etc.. A* is great for automating movement orders in wargames — I want my armored division to take the crossroads, thank you for assuming I want to take the shortest route and showing it to me. What it isn’t useful for is shooters and RPGs. Even genius security guards do not keep perfect mental maps of the buildings they guard in their heads which they then create optimal paths through and update on the fly. All you need is NPCs who will try to attack you (when appropriate) if doing so is fairly obvious and (b) do something vaguely reasonable (or which looks vaguely reasonable) otherwise.

Bullshit Game Graphics: it’s annoying and an easy shot to take, but who cares? I remember being annoyed as a kid that comic books would have these really beautiful covers and then the comic inside would look worse than my doodles. That’s the “free market” (“perfect information” doesn’t even extend to comic books, that’s how broken its assumptions are), get over it.

Mature Themes: mature themes will always be a huge deal for the critically minded, and never terribly popular with the unwashed masses. See previous point. (This is why possibly the best TV show created by NBC in the last ten years had the lowest ratings they’ve ever seen. And this is no surprise, it screamed “cancel me” from the first five minutes.)

Less Stupid Sexism: of course I agree, but there’s plenty of non-stupidly sexist games around, and there’s plenty of stupid sexism in every other media type (SpikeTV?).

Bullshit Difficulty: stupid mazes, ammo starvation, and idiotic quest requirements (yes you must kill 14 orcs and 6 orc sergeants, not 13 orcs and 7 orc sergeants, and no we don’t care that the town will still be surrounded by orcs afterwards) are all just bad game design, and plenty of games don’t have them.

Bullshit Game Features: see Bullshit Game Graphics, above.

Loading: market forces demand game developers compete on vividness, and vividness pushes the hardware and software. It’s nothing to do with copy protection, it’s technical simplicity, QA simplicity, time to market.

No More Save Points: sometimes save points work well as a game design feature, but when they’re an excuse for lazy programming, I agree.

Immersion: this is a big one. Good games feel unrestricted, even though they may be very restricted. E.g. Tetris is extremely restricted, and so is Chess, but the restrictions are established at the outset and not violated. The first example the writer gives — snowboarding — is another thing entirely. A game designed to provide the experience or illusion of snowboarding that has you run into invisible walls is clearly violating the established concept, which is very, very bad. There’s nothing wrong with FPS games where you can’t jump, unless the games are filled with puzzles that could be trivially dealt with by stepping over small obstacles. It’s not the lack of some ability that ruins immersion, it’s the lack of some ability combined with having your face rubbed in it that ruins immersion. Again — the Tim the Enchanter (or Fred Mightythews) questing for the key to open the rickety wooden door is a beautiful example. World of Warcraft is full of this kind of ridiculous quest — yes, I can kill three dragons single-handed, but I can’t get this outhouse door open.

And while we’re at it: this is just crazy talk. Games are products that need to be designed, built, tested, sold, and supported. Putting in “arbitrary” restrictions is a necessary prerequisite for shipping the damn thing.

And while we’re still at it: overstated, but on the right track. Telling someone they have a total of 9435 hit points but they’re currently at 6705 is just stupid, stupid, stupid. To the extent that you need to provide feedback to players and some of it will be visual when in real life it would be visceral, OK. But treating a person like some kind of space shuttle is just wrong, and it creates completely the wrong kind of game experience — unless accounting was really what you were after.

Get rid of the crates: yup. See above.

Stop the short-sighted business bullshit: OK more crazy talk.

Don’t use online capability as an excuse to release broken games: what excuses should we use? Let’s face it, game development is expensive, broken games will be sold in a desperate effort to recoup losses, and any available excuses will be used to cover collective asses.

No more jumping puzzles in FPS games: humbug. Just do them right or don’t do them. Same for everything.

Vertical consoles: shrug.

In the end, there’s quite a bit of pointless or unrealistic whining fleshing out what could have been a great article. But, food for thought. Do take a look at the barrel article — it’s science!

Fruit of the Poison Tree

In my recent unemployment, I’ve been playing a bit of World of Warcraft’s latest installment, Wrath of the Lich King. As ever, Blizzard has provided a highly polished and often entertaining experience, although it seems to me that like most such games it carves out the rich middle of the market, leaving nothing but scraps for designers with more interesting and challenging ideas. In other words, it’s an inevitable result of free market capitalism and none the less depressing.

It’s interesting to trace the extremely annoying qualities of World of Warcraft to their roots — Dungeons and Dragons — but here’s the rough version:

In D&D you don’t create the character you want to play, you create (a) a member of a character class who is (b) horribly underpowered. So, from the outset, forget any ideas of playing a storybook character of your own devising. You’re playing a rigidly constrained character of — if you’re lucky — a game designer’s devising. More likely, you’ll end up playing something that is an accidental outcome of bad rules.

In D&D there are (rather bad) rules for combat, and almost no rules for anything else. It therefore falls to combat to resolve all major plot points.

In D&D, you progress in the game by gaining levels and (more importantly) equipment. If you’re lucky (and probably not very imaginative) at some point you’ll end up playing the character you originally wanted to play, but soon you’ll progress beyond that and get an overpowered parody of that character who scoffs at normal challenges and instead has to slay five dragons before breakfast to work up an honest sweat.

In D&D story is — at best — driven by location. (Often story is merely an accident created by location.) If you want a story involving A, then B, then C, then you place A in room one, and a corridor to a room containing B, and so forth. Ideally, the room containing A has a locked door which can only be opened after A has occurred satisfactorily. It is therefore crucial that geographic constraints be absolute. No magic can open the door to B before A has transpired. Indeed, A might be thought of “quest to get the door to B” and B might be thought of as “quest to get the door to C”.

In D&D armor is a Good Thing. The heavier the better. In fact, the only reason you wouldn’t wear Gothic Plate, say, everywhere and all the time is that you’re simply not allowed to by virtue of your character class. (Admittedly in very late model D&D there are some very minor disadvantages to the heaviest armor.) This rule provision is so ingrained that no-one has even sought to discuss (a) how the Universe enforces it or (b) how it might be transgressed. E.g. suppose you needed to keep a wizard safe from assassination… might you dress said wizard in Gothic Plate and suffer some disadvantage (no spell casting allowed, for example?)

All of these poisonous (and just plain stupid) concepts have made their way from Dungeons & Dragons, originally released in 1975, to World of Warcraft, originally released in 2004.

So, in World of Warcraft you are restricted to a character class. You start (slightly) underpowered but soon find yourself so powerful that you will casually undertake a half hour quest to — with no assistance — kill 12 dragons or perhaps a minor god. Every story point (with miniscule exceptions) is handled through combat (indeed conversations afford no player choices at all). “Instances” are literally a series of rooms where you must kill the denizens of each room in order. And the only reason not to wear heavy armor (which is always better in every respect to light) is that you aren’t allowed to.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a little progress? To begin with, we’ll need to pick a different tree. The RuneQuest tree, or the Champions tree, or even The Fantasy Trip tree.

Capcom aren’t bad people, they’re just idiots

(Apologies for the preroll ad. Click here to go direct to be original post.)

The perennial question of racism and sexism in computer games can easily be answered:  yes, computer and video games are racist and sexist. But then so is everything else. Video games are way too easy a target, there’s no game I can think of that even comes close to not being stupidly sexist and/or racist, unless it has no human characters at all. But how many current network TV shows have a central character that is non-white where their non-whiteness is purely incidental, i.e. they just liked that actor, or whatever?

My favorite TV show right now (and since I started watching it) is House, which has a not-quite-central character (Foreman) who is black, and another (Kuttner) who is a classic urb (“uncertain racial background” — a term I coined in 1990 which doesn’t seem to have taken off) — perhaps because urbs have almost become subsumed into “white” in the US. In House, House frequently makes ridiculously racist remarks. In the unlikely event you haven’t watched the show, House is an equal opportunity offender, sexually harassing a coworker one minute then using racial slurs and stereotypes the next.

A randomish sampling of shows: The Office — white (some minor/guest characters are non-white); Bones — white with a black woman boss and an urb woman artist, both improbably attractive; Battlestar Galactica — white with minor non-white characters; CSI — white with a black guy who has gambling problems and grew up in gangland; Castle — white; Saving Grace — white with black woman boss and native American detective (not bad!); The Closer — latino, three black, and a Chinese major character; Damages — white; Dollhouse — white with black handler and Eurasian roommate.

The Closer and Saving Grace (both TNT cable shows) are the only examples that don’t seem contrived or just plain white. Along with House and Dollhouse this is about as good as it gets.

Oh and what is it about Asian (or part-Asian) actresses with Australian accents? They seem to be The Hotness in Hollywood right now (there’s one in Dollhouse and another in Terminator right now).

Sometimes you see the reverse, e.g. in a lot of police shows there is a heavy skewing towards white perpetrators, even when (based on where a crime takes place, say) the chance that the perpetrator(s) would be white is pretty small. It’s pretty rare to find a show like The Wire where the mix of race and sex seems pretty much realistic, rather than thoughtlessly white (Friends had two “Jewish” characters) or otherwise monoracial (like the all-black sitcoms of the 70s).

So, basically, we may have a non-white president, but we’ve a long, long ways to go.