Previous month:
March 2007
Next month:
May 2007

Play with Fire on Bytten

The review on Bytten for Play with Fire is probably the fairest to date. Their criticisms are apposite, and the reviewer appreciates the game for its strengths. Overall they give it 75%. Patrick has some commentary on the review here.

I'd like to briefly respond to a few points. Yes, the menu options and so forth are not up to grade, alas. In the latter stages of development there was no money and little time, and sadly this meant we didn't get everything in the framework up to spec. This reason does not excuse this problem, of course. Also, I completely agree that the minimum spec is too high for the game. This is the development aspect I'm least happy with - the programming team rebuilt the engine three times in development, and each time the foot print got bigger. I would have much preferred to polish up the early development build that ran on a much lower spec machine, but this isn't what happened.

Lastly, on the subject of the lack of burning sounds. The reviewer comments:

I imagine it would grate after a while if background crackling was present, but silent burning is strange and almost unnerving

Well we did have these sounds, and we did have them running at one point. There were two problems with it, though. The first was that it ate up memory to have this much sound generated in the environment and it would have been difficult to scale this efficiently in the time we had. The bigger problem is the one the reviewer alludes to above: with the burning sounds all switched on the game was cacophonous. No-one could have listened to it for long. I much prefer the final result. Is it unnerviing? I prefer eerie. It's was an aesthetic choice, and I'm happy with it.

My thanks to Andrew Williams for the review!


Proem for the Ethics Campaign

The Ethics Campaign will begin on Thursday 17th May 2007.

This follow up to last year's popular yet rambling Metaphysics Campaign will continue my peculiar philosophical investigations in public, with the help and hindrance of whomsoever wishes to participate. Why do I call it 'a campaign'? This is in reference to my characterisation of this blog as a non-fiction role-playing game. I will not be "campaigning for ethics", per se, simply exploring the subject area in a manner dictated in part by my own will, and in part by the dialogue that will take place with the other players in the comments of the relevant posts.

I have not studied or written about moral philosophy before, and thus this is very much a new area for me. I only started reading about it late last year. As a field, I locate it somewhere between metaphysics and political philosophy. It is not my intent to delve too deeply into the political at this time, although some forays this side of the border will be inevitable. Similarly, we will have to nip back into metaphysics here and there, but my hope is to stay focussed on the issue of ethics - and personal ethics in particular.

We will be sailing close to philosophy of religion (since I see ethics as part of the domain of religion), and I will inevitably take some side excursions into philosophy of science and language as well. As ever, I find these regions tend to diffuse into one another... I don't have a specific course charted, but I have something of a map, even if I lack a definite destination.

I'm going to be largely assuming that everyone reading will fall into one of the following rather broad camps:

  • Someone with a priori ethics, for example, someone who identifies a religion with an explicit ethical stance such as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism.
  • Someone who derives their ethics from reason, for example, a Humanist, or an atheist who does not identify a religion.
  • Someone who is not clear about their own ethical stance, but believes they have one, or at least would like to have one.

Importantly, I don't want to get too bogged down addressing issues peculiar to ethical nihilists who do not believe in ethics. Just as a I largely ignored solipsists in the Metaphysics Campaign, I intend to largely ignore nihilists in the Ethics Campaign.  You are free to choose these philosophical dead ends if such is your wish, but in doing so you are inherently choosing to live alone, and there is no reason we should be interested in what you have to say. Why not try a different belief system for a while? It could be fun!

For reference, I fall mostly into the third camp above. Although some a priori belief systems have greatly influenced my ethics, especially the teachings of Jesus (which I grew up with and still greatly value) and the teachings of the Buddha (such as I interpret them), I am largely uncertain of my own ethical stance except in the broadest of strokes, and am looking forward to clarifying it.

I hope you will enjoy the posts to come on the subject of Ethics, and I greatly look forward to the discussions we will have together on matters both abstruse and provocative.

Are you intending to be a player in this campaign? Feel free to share some thoughts on your own ethical background in the comments!


Hummingbirds & Groundhogs

Finally, my wife and I will be completing our move to Knoxville this weekend. As a result, there will be further disruption of the blog this week as we tackle packing and so forth around my rather full work schedule. However, within a few weeks of the move everything should be settled down and we can get back to nonsense as usual. Which reminds me, I'll be announcing the start date for the Ethics Campaign shortly. 

I have enjoyed staying here in the countryside outside of Nashville, though. There's a groundhog who has moved into a hollow under a tree next to the high-tech log cabin where we are staying, and the hummingbirds flit around the porch swing in an entertaining fashion. We have neither species in the UK, and both are entertaining neighbours. Still, it will be nice to get into a place of our own again.


Stories: Films versus Games

Question_mark_1Consider the following proposition: "In commercial terms, the cast is more important to a film than the story, since big name actors and actresses contribute considerably more to the money making potential of a movie than an interesting or original story. Conversely, in videogames, there is no cast of celebrities to attract interest, and hence the story can be a more effective draw, generating word of mouth and positive specialist press reviews, which lead to greater commercial prospects."

How valid is this hypothesis?


BBFC Audience Report

The BBFC (British Board of Film Certification) have published a report entitled Video Games and subtitled Research to improve understanding of what players enjoy about video games and to explain their preferences for particular games. You can read it here.

I haven't had time to go through it in detail yet, but it seems to frequently reach conclusions based on majority positions that  would not be reflected in a more differentiated model. It would be nice if researchers looked at the work that was already done before wading in, but I guess every new study adds something of value.

A few interesting notes:

  • They sensible note that 'Generalisation is hazardous because of the variety of behaviour' (point 7), but still make a lot of generalisations.
  • Stories: They seem to be confused about the importance of story to games, believing because many players are involved in the process of solving the game problems that this creates a disconnect with story content (point 18): 'For most gamers, but with emphatic exceptions, storylines appear to be a relatively weak element in the overall appeal of games.' Other studies contradict this claim, and division of the audience into clusters also breaks down this claim.
  • Crying: Further evidence, if such was needed, that games already make people cry (point 19 and p55 - not p54 as quoted in the report).
  • Humour: They dismiss humour as a conspicuous draw for games (point 21), but recognise that this factor is present. Probably, this is key economic factors (fiero/excitement/immersion et al) drowning out important secondary factors.
  • Violence: Some of the best commentary in the report is on this subject. 'We need to note that many games, including some of the most popular, do not contain any violence at all' (point 24), and 'gamers seem not to lose awareness that they are playing a game and do not mistake the game for real life' (point 27). It is also nice to see comparisons with other media handled: 'most gamers are not seriously concerned about violence in games... [and] think violence on television and in films is more upsetting than violence in games' (point 33). Finally: 'Gamers exonerate games of any responsibility for real violence because they are so confident that their own propensity to be violent has not been affected by playing games' (point 34).
  • Unreality: on children losing touch with real life, I was amused by this comment: '[Parents] complain that children who play a lot of games become monosyllabic and unsociable, emerging from their rooms pasty-faced and zombie-like after hous of incomprensible engagement with a fantasy world' (point 38).
  • Age Classifications: This is a key area that the BBFC is interested in, and another strength of the report. As has been observed before: 'Some parents simply ignore classifications' (point 43), but additionally: 'Many parents seem inhibited about exercising authority in this area' (point 44).

If you check it out, be sure to let me know any thoughts you have!


Future Homeward Bound

Off to Knoxville today, and for most of next week, so limited blog service until further notice. On the plus side, we will be househunting, which means the Ethics Campaign is perhaps not too far away now, perhaps we might even start in May. Have fun everyone!


Short Thoughts on cRPGs

Matt Barton has returned to complete his epic history of cRPGs on Gamasutra with The Platinum & Modern Ages. (I wish the whole thing was available as a pamphlet instead of 36 seperate webpages!) He concludes his piece:

My guess is that the next big revolution in CRPGs is just around the corner, though it’s impossible to tell from which company it might arise, or what form it might take.

Hopefully the next big revolution in cRPGs is Reluctant Hero, but you know what they say about chickens...

I just wanted to take task with this comment he makes:

...and an undisputed masterpiece  like Knights of the Old Republic is still enough to win over  old fans and introduce hordes of new gamers to the genre.

It's certainly a highly successful consensus classic, but "an undisputed masterpiece"? Now I haven't played it myself, but I know the people I work with gave up on it completely, and at least one of them was full of ire at the haphazard way the identity of the licensed materials had been mishandled. I'm not sure 'undisputed' is the operative word. I personally suspect the popularity of the source materials skews the popularity of the game quite considerably, although it clearly has many devoted fans.

Let's run a short test.

  • 'Loved KOTOR' returns 5,720 hits on Google.
  • 'Hated KOTOR' returns 981 hits on Google.

That's about an 85% approval rating, albeit crudely derived. So let me throw this over to the audience: Do you think Knights of the Old Republic is a masterpiece?


Reluctant Hero: Story Mechanics

It’s been a little over four months since I last looked at the dynamic narrative design of Reluctant Hero, our next computer role-playing game project with 3D People. The last post on Dramatic Role Proxies summarised my position at the time, and the issues I was dealing with. Before proceeding, it is worth going over some of the (tentative) decisions I have made in the interim: 

  • The game will be narrated by the player character, provided we have the budget to record both a male and a female voice over.
  • All the game dialogue will be delivered as narration, although not all will necessarily be recorded.
  • The narration will be written as if it were a journal entry: “I made it across the mountains” or “He told me where I could find the bridge.”
  • We will likely use a role proxy system of some kind, but probably less extensive than previously outlined. In particular, the key Enemy (Nemesis) characters may be set and selected from a pool of options – generic foes run the risk of being narratively insipid.

The purpose of this post is to get straight in my head some of the main issues of the story mechanics, in order to lay down this framework of the game. Let us start at the top and work our way down, as top down design tends to be more robust. 

 

Chapters & Paths

Any game of Reluctant Hero is divided into a certain number of Chapters, according to the game length the player has chosen. Each Chapter must necessarily have its storyline – that is, each Chapter begins with the activation of a particular Scenario (or, if you prefer, Quest). This is vital: the player is free to do what they wish, but for players requiring instruction, there must be a general path for them to follow. Therefore, one of the first tasks is to establish the answer to the question: how are Scenarios selected?

(Why Scenario and not Quest? For a start, the term has greater RPG antiquity, but more importantly visiting your sister is a viable Scenario, but it doesn’t sound like much of a Quest!) 

The answer to this key question depends in turn to how the Scenarios can be grouped, and in particular whether or not there is a distinction between what we may call Arc Scenarios (those that form part of a wider story) and Incidental Scenarios (“one off” quests or stories). Let us presuppose this distinction, for we can surely eliminate it later if it becomes troublesome.

Arc scenarios must then be grouped into Paths, of which I can see four options: 

  • The Adventurer Path is explicitly chosen when the player chooses to run away from their arranged marriage. It favours seeking lost relics and tomes, and the ultimate goal of finding the artefact that your father could not.
  • The Noble Path is explicitly chosen when the player chooses to go along with their arranged marriage. If favours a more domestic life, trying to invest the family fortune in suitable businesses and defend them from the attacks of brigands, monsters, and the pitfalls of misfortune.
  • The Family Path can go in parallel with either of these paths, and relates to the story of the protagonist’s Sister.
  • The Parent Path can go in parallel with any of the other paths, and relates to the problems that will be encountered should the player try to conceive children.

From these four Paths, all the Arc Scenarios can be selected. (Note that the player can still find the relics and artefacts of the Adventurer Path as a Noble, and can still run businesses as an Adventurer; they are just not asked to do so). 

Additionally, we require Incidental Scenarios to fill the gaps between the Arc Scenarios. Most will doubtless be “Monster of the Week” stories, but there are certainly other possibilities such as journeys and curses.

But how will these many different Scenarios be sequenced? 

 

Acts

The easiest way to solve the sequencing problem is to specify an Act framework. Act I represents the story up to the point that the player either accepts or flees from their arranged marriage. Act II through IV are the main part of their life. Act V is about their death and, if they should cheat death, Act VI is about their life after death (where tragedy surely awaits). 

Act I, I already know, has 3 Chapters in it. The final Acts (V and VI) should be similar in length, although this has yet to be determined. It follows that depending upon the number of Chapters the player has chosen (i.e. the game length) there will be different numbers of Scenarios in each of the other Acts, as follows:

  • The shortest possible game is 12 Chapters (3 in Act I, 2 in each middle Act, 3 in the final Act or final two Acts).
  • With 3 Chapters per central Act we get 15 Chapters (3:3:3), with 4 we get 18 Chapters, with 5 we get 21, with 6 we get 24 and with 7 we get 27 (3:7:3).
  • Finally, the longest game has 8 Chapters in each central Act for a grand total of 30 Chapters.

(It should be noted that the player will select the game length and approximate number of Chapters – some latitude may be inevitable.) 

On this schema then, the shortest game consists of just 2 Chapters per central Act. I have to wonder if 3 central Chapters (one each per central Act) will be enough to develop the main Path stories, or whether we will need all 6 central Chapters (both in each central Act) to get a reasonable story… More narrative design is needed to answer this question.

At the other end of the scale, the longest game will consist of central Acts of (say) 2 Chapters from the main Paths, 1-2 Chapters from the side Paths, and then another 4-5 Incidental Scenarios. That requires at least 5 Incidental Scenarios for each central Act, but on the other hand almost all of these will be quite simple to implement. 

It strikes me from examining this that we can have broadly linear sequences of Arc Scenarios (with some parallel or contingent elements) that occur at the start of each Act, and then again near the end of each Act, if there are two per Act. The Arc Scenarios from the side Paths can be randomly allocated to the central Chapters in each Act, with the remaining Chapters filled with Incidentals.

Incidental Scenarios can be chosen more or less at random, although some contingency as to the nature of the player’s current Location (and the Culture they are living in) along with the Act should be taken into consideration. A minimum of 15 are needed; I suspect we’ll make more like 45-60 or more (although many will be variants of one another). The important thing is that there needs to be enough to allow every game to be sufficiently different. 

(I’d also like to give some Incidental Scenarios “sequels” in later Acts, as I suspect players would enjoy that).

This should all have the desired effect of making each game of Reluctant Hero something akin to a season of a TV show, with a mix of long running and “one-off” stories.

 

Chapter Prologues 

Before looking at the Scenarios themselves, an aside on the prologues is in order. Each Chapter will need to begin with dialogue (strictly speaking, monologue) that sets the scene. The Scenario that is chosen can specify either a Domestic Prologue or a Peril Prologue, which in turn will vary according to game state, the season or the month.

A Domestic Prologue might be something like: “I have not seen my sister for some time now, and I wonder how she is doing,” or “My son has grown so much these past few years”. 

A Peril Prologue might be something like: “Spring has brought fresh tragedy,” or “I guess it was too much to hope that Summer would pass without incident.”

These would then follow with the Scenario introduction. I need to plan this out some more, but this isn’t the place to do it. 

 

Scenarios 

How are the individual Scenarios to be specified?

Firstly, each must specify a Problem, which becomes an entry in the Journal, and also a topic for conversation with other characters. The Problem may be “How do I open the gate to the Reliquary?”, “What can be done about the blight in Corwenth?” or “What is attacking the merchants on the west road?” Without getting too sidetracked, this token can be used to initiate conversations which in turn will guide the player to a solution through perseverance and finding the right people to talk to. 

But below this, we need to specify the atomic elements of the story.

 

Events 

Anything that happens, from a line of dialogue to the setting up of a future battle can be considered an Event. Events can be in three essential states – inactive, active and occurred. Only certain Events are active at any given time, the others are inactive (haven’t yet become active) or occurred (have already taken place).

Events will need to consist of the following elements: 

  • A unique ID that identifies this particular Event.
  • The Condition that triggers the Event (if any). When an Event is activated, it will sit in a “watched list” until its Condition is fulfilled; then it ‘occurs’.
  • The Line of dialogue (if any) that plays when this Event occurs.
  • Any Actions that take place when this Event occurs (such as the placing of new monsters, the addition of locations to the map and so forth); probably a LUA script.
  • The Next Event, that is, the ID of the Event (or Events) to activate (enter the watched list) after this Event has occurred.
  • A Deadline (when applicable) that determines when this Event expires (becomes inactive again).
  • The Expire Event, that is, the ID of the Event (if any) to activate after this Event expires.

Note that sometimes the Next Event will be ‘Chapter End’, that is, the current Scenario is concluded, and that many different Events may lead to ‘Chapter End’.

Without getting into too much detail, looking at the Conditions will help clarify how Events will function: 

  • Unconditional Events just take place automatically
  • Destination conditions initiate a Event when the player goes to a certain place.
  • Persona conditions initiate an Event when the player goes to the place where a specific Persona can be found, or begins talking to said Persona.
  • Item conditions initiate an Event when the player acquires a specific item.
  • Practice conditions would initiate an Event when the player uses a specific ability (currently known in the game as ‘Practices’)
  • Neutralise conditions initiate an Event when the player befriends, kills or causes to flee certain Monsters or Personas.
  • Wait conditions initiate an Event at a specific juncture, such as dawn, dusk, or the start of a particular season.

We are now ready to explore these ideas in practice. 

 

Example Scenario 

Let us take for our example something very simple, namely an infestation of parasitic hexapods near a farmstead (a type of vicious insectoid critter peculiar to the Heretic Kingdoms). Initially, the player will not know what the cause is, they will only find out the nature of the problem, which in this case is that the crops are being eaten by something.

The Problem is “What is eating the rye?” 

The first Events to be activated are as follows:

  • An unconditional event creates new hexapods and places them into a Lair (a type of Site in the game world) near the farmstead. This in turn triggers a Neutralise event (see below).
  • A Destination event is activated for the campfire in the field at the farmstead. If the player camps at this point, it will trigger an event that waits until the early hours of the morning and moves some hexapods into the field, and updates the Problem to “Where is the hexapod lair? (This simulates the player camping out to try and catch whatever is responsible).
  • A Destination event is activated for the Lair which updates the Problem to “Eliminate the hexapods”. In effect, if the player discovers the Lair (which they may do by exploring on the map), they deduce the critters are eating the rye and they become the new focus of the Problem.
  • The Neutralise event for the hexapods has as its Next Event ‘Chapter End’. If the player eliminates them by whatever means (including hiring someone to do so), that will suffice for this Chapter. This event has a deadline of one year, with an Expire Event which waits until the next winter and kills them all off in a harsh winter frost. (All Chapters must end eventually).

This is a simple example, and omits the details of how the player could also investigate in dialogue (as this concerns the dialogue engine, not the story mechanics), but it demonstrates how this Event system can be used to build Scenarios. 

 

Conclusion 

The dynamic narrative system proposed here is not especially ground breaking; certainly more ambitious and impressive proposals could be conceived. But it is a realistic proposition to implement such a system, it should be comparatively robust, and it is not much more work to execute than a conventional static quest system. Yet it does allow for some dynamic narrative, and any amount of this that can be placed into a cRPG without excessive development overheads is, I believe, worth considering.

Much of what will make it interesting will be the nature of the Scenarios themselves, but I will need to pin down the mechanics confidently before this work can be done, and I need the okay from 3D People on the basic approach. Oh, and naturally I won’t be sharing the main story details on the blog, of course – you’ll have to play the game to find out the whole story! 

Naturally, I welcome discussion in the comments. Let me know your thoughts and opinions!


Will the Market Segment?

Can the videogame market be segmented, and still generate cashflow? It’s a question I find myself asking more and more frequently. Put another, more specific, way the question becomes: is an indie games market a viable commercial possibility, or simply the place where those who love games sacrifice themselves on their vanity and dreams?

The question comes down to whether the economics of videogames can be made to work on a smaller scale, or whether we are locked now into what we might call Moore’s Law of Gaming: the demand for ever more impressive games drives the demand for ever more complex hardware, which drives increasing retail costs, which in turn requires bigger and more impressive games, which in turn require ever more expensive development budgets.

The upper market – the place where the games we’ve all heard of exist – thrives on giant game budgets, now routinely exceeding $10 million for development, and the same again on marketing. Lost Planet, for instance, cost $20 million to make and $20 million to promote according to an article on Kotaku. And most of these games make a loss. The top 3% of games are responsible for roughly 25% of game industry revenues; the top 7% of games are responsible for roughly 50% of that revenue. Publishers only survive by having portfolios, as I have discussed before. 

Money is like mass: when enough of it accumulates, it creates its own gravity well. It’s inevitable when you’re dealing with a multi-million dollar development that it generates its own necessity, and that in turn attracts more promotional money which drives the process, like a white dwarf star sucking in the mass of a red giant companion. This financial gravity seemingly cannot be resisted. The specialist press increasingly appears to exist for the sole purpose of servicing the PR departments of the larger publishers; devoted satellites caught in the orbit of the industry’s gas giants… they yearn to report on the next big thing, and to do so they obsequiously dote upon the upper market.

A viable indie market depends upon successful segmentation of the market – it must be possible to divide a certain amount of money into smaller portions, to make games on smaller budgets, and ultimately to still see a return on that investment. It doesn’t have to be as large a return as the most successful videogames – but there must be a return of some kind, or else the indie market is nothing but a sinkhole, the blackhole of wayward developers, who are sucked down into oblivion. 

Is it possible? Certainly. Is it probable? Much harder to say.

We could use to know how many “boutique” MMOGs survive, and how many indie games make a loss on their implied development budgets (remembering that even a game with no formal budget has an implict budget proportional to the time spent developing it). Even if these figures are not too depressing, it won’t be quite enough. The indie market necessarily needs its own self-sustaining portals – it’s own centres of mass. Manifesto are valiantly trying. I fear they may need more capital to make it work. 

And that’s where it all comes back to: money. It takes money to make games, and in a capitalist society money flows to where more money can be made. If indie games are to survive, they must prove their profitability – not as individual titles, but as a successful market segment.

I believe the market can be successfully segmented, but I am concerned that the stable slices will be all-too familiar. On the one hand, the extremely simplistic “Casual” game, as epitomised by PopCap – games for people who think they don’t play games. On the other, those videogames that suit the core gamers who have been cast aside by the spiralling greed of the upper market (Type 2 Managers by DGD1, Strategic players by Temperament Theory), epitomized by Introversion Software, the self-styled “last of the bedroom programmers”, making the games programmers enjoy for players with the same tastes. 

I love that both these niches exist, but I naturally wonder if these segments can support more companies, or if these lucky few are merely anomalies in an otherwise bleak independent wasteland. But more than this, I hope that there are more niche markets out there, waiting to be discovered. We can but dream.