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Taking Stock

Today marks the end of my first three months of blogging. I was going to pause and take stock after the first month... but I guess I got carried away! It's been good on the whole (Binky not withstanding) and I'll certainly keep at it for the time being.

This is a good opportunity for people to influence my choices of topic, if they'd like. Anything I started talking about and never finished? Anything at the fringes of discussion that I could bring into focus? No guarantees, but I'm fairly malleable when it comes to rambling! I plan to stay on games and play as my central topic, but I will inevitably stray into religion and philosophy of science from time to time.

Some thanks. To Corvus for being the first person to make me feel welcome in the world of blogging, James O for equal parts insight and mild irritation (it's the itchy sand in the oyster that makes the pearl...), Dhruin for being a longtime supporter of my work (possibly the only one!), Richard for much needed offline moral support, Kim for unquantifiable but heartfelt reasons, all the people whose blogs' comments I pop up in from time to time - and especially those who reciprocate here - and lastly to Matt for bullying me into doing this in the first place.

Oh, and to all the people who helped make the book #263,372 in Books on - it seems like just the other day that it was at #1,442,531! :)

Microsoft versus Nintendo: A Marketing Battle

For some time now I've been surprised at the number of people in retail who talk about how Microsoft did much better than Nintendo in the recent console war. This has always somewhat amused me, as when they started saying this the two consoles were on largely similar unit sales. It's a great example of just how good Microsoft's Marketing department is when they're on form.

Nintendo made a profit with the GameCube (I think). Microsoft made a $4,000 million loss. (Why not $4 billion? The UK and US 'billion' are different numbers! Figure from Forbes, but thanks to Video Game Media Watch).

There's no doubt Nintendo would have liked to do better, and there's no doubt that Microsoft was ready to haemorrhage cash to gain market share - which they have achieved, on both accounts. But I suspect Microsoft's war chest for this endeavour wasn't planned to be quite that large.

Wild Justice & Play

For the benefit of anyone else with an interest in animal play, a couple of references. Firstly, a recent post on Collision Detection about flying mobulas with its implication that fish may play. Secondly, I feel I should promote Marc Bekoff's work,  in particular his piece Wild Justice, Cooperation and Fair Play. And also from Marc, this apposite Darwin quote:

Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members woud flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring. (Charles Darwin [1871]1936:163)

Note: I didn't put this in Science, as I'm going to avoid that category from now on. I believe that posting into Science was what attracted the attention of Binky, the materialist tropism who flamed me. I'll stick to Philosophy for my philosophy of science pieces.

To Save, Or Not to Save

Disk_5How much control should the player be afforded over save games? Is this an area of game design in which the player should be fully empowered, or an element of the architecture of games which should be abstracted away to sit seamlessly in the background?

Although Ernest and I work as part of the same company framework, we mostly interact virtually, and only face to face at numerous conferences and speaking engagements throughout the year. We have very compatible views on the games industry, but still there are always some disagreements. In his recent Bill of Player's Rights (inspired in part by Peterb's  piece), Ernest suggests the following right:

The Right to Choose Not to Save the Game. Some games give the player only one save point, and the game saves to it automatically. Occasionally, the game does this beyond a point at which the player will inevitably lose the game—which means the previous save is lost and the current one is worthless. This is evil, bad, and wrong. Besides, a good many players like to establish an extra challenge for themselves of making it through a tough spot without saving. Players should be able to save when they want, and should not have to save until they want.

I disagree with this. Not the spirit of the clause - obviously the player should never be able to get into an untenable situation - but I do not support the player's right to choose not to save (at least, not in games which hope to reach the Casual market).

Let me pause briefly to point out that I am wholeheartedly in agreement with Ernest's "Right to Quit, Pause, Save and Resume the Game". I believe that a bookmark save is an essential element these days - the player should be able to stop playing at any point. But, crucially, I do not believe that the player should be able to resume play repeatedly from that save. Bookmark saves that delete themselves after use strike me as a perfectly legitimate measure.

Why dispute the player's right to not save? Firstly, because a Bill of Rights must be something which all games should adhere to. But games such as Animal Crossing are undermined if the player can avoid saving (this particular game takes amusingly elaborate steps to chastise the player if they try and go against this!)  Therefore, the right not to save could potentially act as a barrier to play invention, which I cannot support.

However, there's a bigger issue in the context of player needs. The game literacy of Casual players is considerably lower than the typical core gamer - save games can be a confusing element of some games, and a potential barrier to Casual play. For instance, when I play games with my wife (who is quite game literate) she will still have no part in decisions about how and when to save - because she wants to be playing the game, not playing the game of when to save.

I suspect the reason that Nintendo has settled upon its system of offering a save slot which is then automatically saved to is that their user testing has shown than anyone can deal with this system. I freely admit, however, that this approach does count out certain styles of play - in particular the logistical quick save style of play.

This, for those not familiar, is how a player goes about completing a game that is badly designed, or designed specifically to be completed in this manner, or at the very least open to being completed in this way.  In essence, you play for a while, then when you detect you are temporarily 'safe' and have made some progress, you quick save. Gradually, you optimise towards a solution for the level. Saving and loading, in this regard, has become a game in itself - albeit a game which can only be enjoyed in a strategic-logistical fashion.I don't believe we can or should stop the above form of play, since it seems there are players who actually do enjoy playing this way. But this style of play is completely anaethmatic to the Casual audience as far as I can tell.

Gta_bikes_1Additionally, there is the problem of creating the implicit obligation to reload. This happens when a game creates a situation from which a reload is by far the best option. For instance, in GTA, you generally lose all your weapons and equipment when you die or are arrested, hence there is often an implicit obligation to reload. Similarly, if a game allows you to place big gambles, there is an implicit obligation to reload for any player who wants to continue to make progress in the event that they lose. Note that in both these instances it is not that the player must reload - it is that there is significant advantage to do so. And we should expect many if not most players to take any course of action that gives them an advantage.

In the case of GTA, the game design team presumably decided that there had to be a cost to failure. Hence, a small fee and loss of weapons. Except that much of the time, what they did was create a very different cost to failure: the implicit obligation to reload. In this instance, I don't believe they needed to add to the cost of failure - since the player already has to travel to the mission initiation point, and so has acquired a cost in terms of travel, and a psychological cost in terms of having failed in the first place. This was sufficient. Adding the additional costs just created an implicit obligation to reload.

In the case of gambling, the aleatory play of Juiced fails to some great degree as many players work out that they can remove their memory card to prevent the autosave.  As a result, an implicit obligation to do so emerges for many players - instead of creating a game which captures the essence of gambling on car races (which probably wasn't a good idea to begin with, to be honest) they create a game which many players are forced to spend some of their time physically interacting with their hardware instead of enjoying the game itself.

I don't believe in implicit obligations to reload. Where possible, I believe that they should be factored out. This is because I don't see the play associated with saving and loading to be as engaging, rewarding or interesting to most players as the actual play of the game - although with certain badly designed games, it can get quite marginal!

Ernest's viewpoint is underpinned by his belief that the game designer shouldn't take steps to force the player into a particular course of action, on the grounds that the player bought the game and should be able to do whatever they want. I sympathise with this viewpoint, but I have always somewhat disagreed. (Ernest is slightly more liberal than me, perhaps!) I have seen first hand that when players find a way to take advantage of a game, they will do so - even if exploiting this flaw or imbalance destroys what is enjoyable to them about the gameplay. The drive to progress or conquer is so strong in many players, that it trumps any notion of 'fair play' - after all, one's opponent isn't another person worthy of honour, but just the computer.

I think that one of the reasons that Ernest and I are in slightly different camps with regards to save games is because Ernest primarily plays PC games, and I primarily play console games. Player control of save games is much more relevant for PC games, where a hard-drive gives you the capacity to store effectively infinite numbers of save games, than on a console, where memory for saves is at a premium. (In this regard, the original Xbox might perhaps be considered a user-friendly PC). That consoles may eventually acquire hard-drives as standard is, I believe, besides the point. Consoles are the home of the mass market of games, and they need to reflect mass market issues in the design of their games.

I believe it is reasonable to take away the player's right not to save, but in exchange the game should offer the player the capacity to opt out of save games entirely. Indeed, for the mass market, I believe that games should be designed to minimise the extent to which saving and loading of games impinges on the game itself. Mimicry, ilinx and alea can all be undermined by player control of save games; only agon (competition) can seem to benefit, and then only tangentially.

I believe that Hardcore gamers have become accustomed to treating save games as part of the play of their games - but that mass market games should not make the same mistake. We should focus on the play of the game itself, not on the play inherent to the state space mechanics of saving.  We should be sensitive to a Casual player's desire not to be burdened with decisions at the meta-level, about when and how and whether to save, but rather to lose themselves in the joy of the game they are playing, and have faith that we the game designer have taken care of their needs invisibly, without them even knowing what we have done.

Splash_sunsetI'm sure we've all got ourselves into trouble with games that give us control of save games - saving the game in a situation which is completely or partially untenable. It happened to me only last month with Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, when I inadvertently saved at the foot of the final boss with inadequate provisions- thus destroying the save which could have saved me. I already had the right not to save, though - I just made a strategic mistake because I did not know what was about to happen. Isn't this always the case? That because we do not know what is coming ahead, we can never solve the problem by simply giving the player the right not to save.

Games like The Legend of Zelda series, which have save slots, do not ever present this problem - but they do obligate the player to tackle the design issues that result from an automated save mechanism. Although this implies some work on the part of the game designer, this is the sort of challenge every game designer should be willing to shoulder.

We are still free to make games with player-controlled save systems, but these games should perhaps be niche market titles. Perhaps we can even make games which default to automatic save management but which have the option for the player to take control, if that's what they want, although I'm uncertain this is necessary.

Let us aim to have the mechanics of saving become part of the seamless architecture of mass market games, and accept the design obligations this implies.

We Blog in Peace

Is there a trick to blogging in peace?

Finally got my first really visceral flame - on a par with what I used to see on Usenet, many moons ago. I've been expecting it at some point - just a matter of time - and it's kind of heartening that it's in response to an older essay and not something recent. Still, it's a touch disappointing, as all I was looking for was some friendly discussion on a topic that it's really hard to find people to talk with... I thought, apparently erroneously, that Blogs might be a good place to achieve that goal.

My question to experienced bloggers is: what steps should I take in order to maximise my chances of blogging in peace? Of attracting friendly discussions, and minimising flames and other outbursts of anger and cognitive dissonance? I don't really want to be precluded from blogging on religion and philosophy of science (which, as is probably apparent, I view as quite closely related topics) from time to time, but I don't really want to have to deal with unexploded people either.

Any friendly advice welcomed!

Moving Beyond Darwin

Moving Beyond Darwin

MbddarwinThis essay was first published six years ago in a very obscure publication. Since it has only been read by at most half a dozen people, I have decided to post it here where we might make that up to the full dozen. It's about 6,000 words, and has nothing to do with games.

I have always had the unshakeable feeling that there was something wrong with our perceptions of evolution, but since biology has been my ‘neglected science’ until recently, I haven’t really been in a position to expand my viewpoint until now.  I once said that I felt the modern view of evolution explained matters of biology as well as Newtonian physics explained the physical world.  A good friend countered that, to a reasonable degree, Newtonian Physics was a good approximation for the physical world.  Two years later and I can confidently report that Newton fudged his results to get his version of gravity accepted by the orthodox scientific community.  It is fair to say that for terrestrial engineering, Newtonian gravity suffices. 

But in evolutionary biology, where the battleground is largely ideological and not pragmatic, rigid adherence to neo-Darwinian beliefs seems less acceptable.  Science, or at least the patient, agnostic investigation of what passes for reality (which is what I hope science represents), has very little to do with what the establishment sometimes attempts to pass off as truth.

So what am I about to say?  That Darwin was Wrong?  Of course not.  He was no more Wrong than he was Right.  He had an idea, a brilliantly insightful idea, certainly, and an idea that has helped many other people have brilliant ideas.  But Darwin’s idea no more perfectly explains biological life than Pythagorus or Euclid’s ideas perfectly explained mathematics.  It was the first step on a long road.  I’m going to tell you my current view of that road on the understanding that this is just my perspective.  Walk the same path and you may well see different things.  But this is what I see.

In the beginning…

We don’t know how life began.  We probably never will know.  Likewise, we will probably never know with any certainty if terrestrial life started in pools on Earth, in the black smokers of the deep oceans, on Mars, or in the deep voids of space (all of which have been suggested by various people at one time or another).  One thing I can say with confidence is that at this point in time, all these possibilities and more are at the very least plausible.  It is fair what Lynn Margulis says, however, that moving the origin of life off the planet doesn’t get us any closer to solving the question of how life started, but frankly what little evidence we have at this time no more points to Earth than it does to space.  The origin of life remains a question of faith.

However, it seems probable that the first step towards life was some kind of self-replicating chemical construct.  Once such a chemical existed it would only be a matter of time before all available raw materials in the putative primordial soup would be converted to this replicator.  Once you have self-replicating chemicals, the way is open for more efficient replicators to develop, and certainly as time goes by, these replicators have the opportunity to become more complex.  Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize winner who for once almost certainly did deserve praise, showed how increasing complexity was an almost inevitable by-product of dissipative systems (such as living organisms) which means essentially that whilst the rules of thermodynamics suggest everything will fall apart, life is playing by a subtly different set of rules.

So we have our so-called prebiotic replicator, and somehow, by some mechanism, we end up with a genetic code.  Probably a whole set of different genetic codes, actually, but somewhere down the line we get DNA and RNA and the raw materials of life as we claim to know it.  Most of this early view of life is undisputed in so much that no one has anything but broad guesses as to what could or might perhaps have happened.

MbddnarnaAnd here comes my first break with conventional thinking.  The establishment claims that whilst the creation of self-replicating molecules is monstrously unlikely there were enough random encounters between chemicals that it became highly likely, if not inevitable.  Fair enough, as a belief.  But one can hardly claim that such an approach is any more sound than claiming that God, Goddess, Whimsy or Magic caused the origin of these molecules, because either way the hypothesis is untestable and comes down to what you, the individual, choose to believe.

I personally believe that it makes no great shakes as to how we choose to see the ball being set in motion.  What’s far more interesting is the fact that we are here now and able to waste our time speculating about such things, if we choose to.

Unwitting Co-operation

MbdprotistaSomehow, we get to the earliest single celled organisms.  Whatever else we can say about them (and we can’t say much with any confidence) they were good custodians to the planet.  They looked after it for four billion years without batting an eyelid, because quite frankly, the first eyelid wouldn’t evolve for quite a while.

I suppose the conventional view of this time before multi-cellular life was a host of different competing organisms, savagely fighting for the available resources and with only the strongest surviving. 
Eventually the fist single celled organisms were so advanced that they became multi-cellular and took the battle onto a whole new playing field.

Nothing could be much further from the apparent truth of the matter.

Firstly, nothing short of Divine Intervention could have created the cells from which all multi-cellular life springs using only the Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection. Even the orthodox scientific community has been forced to concede this (although like all defeats, the news is slow in travelling).  The biological requirements for multi-cellular life are such that randomly shifting nucleotides is just not enough to make the leap.  Later, we will look at just what was required to make that advance possible at a cellular level, but first we have to look further afield.

Biologists, generally speaking have been reluctant to pay attention to the atmosphere, despite the fact that nearly all life depends on it as a complex conveyor belt of raw materials.  Interestingly, geological evidence suggests that the composition of the modern atmosphere is essentially the same as it has been since the early days of life.  The reason this is so interesting is that the composition of the atmosphere, whilst apparently stable, is a long, long way from equilibrium. 

In case I am losing people’s attention, let me restate that as follows: if all life on earth was somehow made extinct, say by a drunken God, inadvertently pushing the biological self destruct button, the atmosphere would very rapidly change a very different mixture of gasses.  The only reason the atmosphere stays the way it appears to be is the action of the biosphere (and some related processes) constantly removing some gasses and pumping others into the air.

Mbdearth_1I won’t dwell on this for too long, because if you are interested you should go and read James Lovelock, who knows the material far better than I do and writes with both charm and insight.  The bottom line is that one thing that had to happen in the four billion years before multi cellular life began to flourish, was the establishment of a homeostatic control mechanism that could regulate the environment and keep it within tolestable limits.  Lovelock calls this mechanism Gaia.

The outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins calls Gaia “wrong and dangerously wrong”.  I find his attitude surprising and disappointing.  Homeostatic control mechanisms – such as that which keep your body at a constant temperature – certainly evolved in multi cellular life.  It is not at all clear to me why anyone should consider a large collection of unicellular lifeforms, to be subject to wholly different rules to multi-cellular life, except that the former has even more room to maneuver.

No one is claiming that the organisms that first came together to make Gaia were aware of how their co-operation was creating a stable environment for life.  It is merely the case that whatever helps life persist will in turn be encouraged to persist, just as implied by Darwinian natural selection.

And despite Dawkin’s protestations, the geological, atmospheric and biological evidence points unerringly towards Gaia.  Without it, even the small yet steady rise in our suns out put of radiation would have rendered the Earth a lifeless rock many aeons ago.  Without it, the build up of certain gasses would have made multi-cellular life impossible.  When Lovelock first proposed Gaia in the 70’s it was just an insightful hypothesis attempting to explain some pretty gigantic gaps in our knowledge.  Today, Gaia theory has gained a considerable degree of legitimacy.

I will take a moment to explain why this essay seems to be attacking Dawkins so resolutely. It is important to understand that the orthodox scientific community, being essentially a power block of old ideas, has surprisingly little variety in its perspective. Because of this, any one spokesman is as good as any other. Since Dawkins willingly accepts the mantle of what might be characterised as the current (or currently retiring) paradigm, I have no qualms at directing my criticisms towards him as a representative of that which will eventually pass into history. (This runs on Thomas Kuhn's proposition that all scientific paradigms eventually shift).

I should also say I have great respect for Dawkins' work; the idea  of ratcheted progress in evolution is a powerful explanatory  device, for instance. The problem in my view is his lack of  perspective. Dawkins himself admits he lacks a grounding in  philosophy, and this sadly lets him down. His concept of a meme is  a valuable metaphor, for instance, but when he writes about memes  he steps out of science and into philosophy, and his subsequent  attacks on religion are both intensely biased and quite  unreasonable.

The Earliest Communes

With Gaia in place – a huge selection of different organisms and processes that, through changes in population and similar mechanisms regulate the terrestrial environment – multi-cellular life was a possibility.  Animals, as we know them, require a high level of oxygen in the atmosphere to act as fuel for their high-octane metabolisms, but the oxygen could not be allowed to rise too high or everything not underwater would be wiped out in a spectacular conflagration the moment lightning first struck. (Oxygen is dangerous stuff - we forget this because we need a certain amount to fuel our bodies. But a culture of non-oxygen breathing creatures would probably be quite disturbed by our relationship with such a dangerous gas).

The stage was set.  But our actors were still just single cells. Hamlet one suspects would be less impressive if performed by bacteria.

SET, or Serial Endosymbiosis Theory, has struggled for acceptance for much the same reasons the Gaia theory has.  Anything that even remotely resembles holistic thinking has been anathema to the current paradigm.  However I am proud to report that all but one of SET’s claims has now been grudgingly accepted by the orthodox scientific community, and Margulis remains by her own admission stubbornly optimistic that its final (and from my perspective, least important) claim will eventually be vindicated.

It intrigues me, but does not surprise me, that Margulis has been involved in two of the scientific theories at the forefront of the new paradigm, Gaia theory and SET.  Call me a sexist if you will, but women strike me as far less likely to get trapped in the closed minded territorial tub-thumping of Neo-Darwinist fundamentalism.  I have high hopes that the near future will finally put pay to the hideous old boys club that served so effectively to keep women out of scientific research in the nineteenth century and before.

But what is SET, and why is it so important to multi cellular life?  In essence, what it claims is that the components of eukaryotic cell (those cells that make up multi-cellular life) are the product of symbiosis between single-cellular components that were to become the nucleus, the ribosomes and the mitochondria. They started out as single celled organisms in their own right and ended up inside the cells of modern life, possibly as a result of a failed attempt at digestion.

MbdeucellSET is practically unrefuted at this time (although the issue of whether flagella are also the result of endosymbiosis remains a live one).  Every cell in our bodies is the modern descendent of the earliest communes in existence, and just as Gaia represents macro-symbiosis, SET represents micro-symbiosis.  It is becoming more and more apparent that the history of life is not just the story of competition between differing life forms but also of co-operation.

The co-operation of the separate organisms that make up eukaryotic cells provided the raw materials for life to 'go multi', so to speak. With function differentiated inside the cell, each cellular component could become more efficient at what it did, because it could rely on its allies to carry out those tasks that it wasn’t good at.  So mitochondria concentrate on being efficient at handing energy whilst the nucleus learns how to store protein designs safely, and to co-ordinate the construction of these proteins.

Now we have a stage, some actors and (for those who choose to believe in such things) a director.  All we are missing is a script.

The Impotence of Being Earliest

MbdprecambrianThe earliest multi-cellular fauna we know about are found preserved in Pre-cambrian strata and are known collectively as Ediacara. They appear essentially to be large, hollow pancakes, with very little differentiation.  We don’t know if their cells were eukaryotes (i.e. cellular communes) or not, but we do know that they didn’t last long, geologically speaking.  If they represent multi-cellular life’s first script, they are more an episode of Days of Our Lives than Hamlet.

A lot of questions remain unanswered about both this early experiment in Growing Big and the more successful experiment to follow.  I am particularly interested in how cell differentiation came about.  Without it, you couldn’t be made of bone, muscle, blood, brain and the other components that make up how you are.  Without differentiation, you would presumably be a hollow pancake just like the Ediacara.

In essence the problem is the issue of design.  There is little doubt that DNA represents the blueprint for all the proteins in an organism.  But one cannot build a house from a list of building materials.  A plan or design of some kind is required.  I am greatly troubled by my inability to find any evidence that the scientific community has taken this issue seriously.  They just seem to assume that the DNA does it somehow.  If this is the case – that the establishment view rest purely on assumption – then it is a deep embarrassment to a supposedly scientific perspective.

Informally, I was able to convince myself that it was theoretically possible for an organism’s design to spring from the result of a branching instruction, coded in the DNA implicitly.  But I could not find any evidence to support this hypothesis.  Indeed there is more evidence to support Rupert Sheldrake’s suggestion that an animals shape is controlled by morphic fields than to support the purely reductionistic approach.

Not that I am saying Sheldrake is right.  We just can’t be sure right now.  But as I once said to friend, his work is most valuable because he is asking the right questions.  Sheldrake, of course, has a very holistic perspective on biology, but many of his questions may have reductionistic answers. Indeed, elements of Sheldrake’s work appear to be explicable by epigenetic programming (a recently discovered Lamarlian inheritance mechanism).

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Sheldrake was influential in reopening the issue of Lamarkian inheritance (the idea that changes to an organism can be passed to its offspring). In that area, his courage has been an asset to the research community, especially those outside of the narrow confines of the conventional thinking. There is now little doubt that there are Lamarkian inheritance mechanisms that supplement classical Mendellian inheritance and allow organisms a greater degree of adaptability to changes in local conditions on time scales too short for conventional evolutionary mechanisms to operate.

To return to the point in hand, it is not at all clear how organisms end up the shapes they do, and neither is it clear how the early cellular communes developed the ability to take on these shapes. The one thing that is clear is that as soon as life learnt how to do it, there was no turning back.

Lights! Cambrian! Explode!

MbdcambrianThe Cambrian explosion, as it is affectionately known, is the name for an extraordinary period of time roughly 545 million years ago. It is so named for the profusion of life that seemed to just explode onto the scene in what is (in geological terms) just a clock tick. Thanks to the infamous (to paleontologists at least) Burgess shale, we have a surprisingly detailed record of early multi-cellular life.

We will probably never know what bridges the gap between the first eukaryotic cells and the fauna found in the Burgess shale, but we can speculate. It fascinates me that there should be such variety of body plans in such a short period of geological time. It implies a rate of change vastly more rapid than any other that the fossil record points to.

Perhaps multi-cellular life occurred simultaneously from many different sources (which makes sense from the perspective of Formative Causation/morphic fields, but makes very little sense from an orthodox perspective). Perhaps the early co-ordination mechanisms were so sloppy that early organisms just couldn’t reproduce accurately, and random design was the order of the day. Perhaps some condition that triggered multi-cellular life somehow triggered the change in many different eukaryotic cells at the same time. We can only speculate.

When I first came to look at the Burgess shale, I had been told that there were a vast array of different body plans, far more than exist in the modern world, and this intrigued me, as I have always been suspicious of the apparent lack of variety in the general design of creatures. Why should bilateral symmetry be so universal, for example? (Bilateral symmetry essentially means that an organism has a line of symmetry from head to tail – which if you think about it is true of the vast majority of multi-cellular organisms that are capable of movement).

My most biologically literate friend suggested that bilateral symmetry might be an inevitable part of design for an organism that moves; ingest food at one end, excrete waste products from the other. Very convenient as you can then move towards food and away from your own waste. I would tend to agree with her, but since bilateral symmetry was already the norm by the time of the Cambrian explosion I have to be sceptical about this idea.

Given the rapidity at which bilateral symmetry became the norm (bearing in mind that there are many other ways of putting together a hypothetical organism, including radial symmetry such as in starfishes and asymmetric plans, as in plants) I have to question any appeal to Darwinian issues in the establishment of bilateral symmetry as a prevailing scheme. Dawkins might claim that bilateral symmetry represents such a good engineering solution that it was inevitable that it would predominate. But one has to ask how we know it represents such a good engineering solution, and Dawkins answer might be that it must be a good solution because it predominated so rapidly. Having reduced his reasoning to a mere tautology, we have no choice but to reject it, at least on scientific grounds.

MbdtasmanianwolfI have met the same argument when dealing with convergent evolution in other places. The Tasmanian wolf is almost identical in design to other canines, including the domestic dog. And yet the Tasmanian wolf is a marsupial, genetically removed from dogs and their kind by such a huge degree that they are effectively not related at all. (And there are many other examples of convergent evolution, such as ichthyosaurus and dolphins). The conventional attitude seems to be that there must be a limited number of solutions to the problems of animal design and hence it is not surprising that many animals find the same solution. This is not wholly implausible, but it is entirely unsupported by any specific evidence. One might just as well say that Goddess/God/Aliens designed the genetic code to produce such similar animals for some spiritual purpose. It argument would hold about the same weight.

Someone once said to me, as I was arguing that there were important questions to be resolved regarding convergent evolution: “But convergent evolution does happen.” This is a wonderful statement, because it seems to miss the point entirely. Of course it happens. We can see that it happens. But that doesn’t put us any closer to understanding why it happens.

I have no solution to this question of bilateral symmetry, although I feel it is of some considerable relevance. If the common assumption about body designs resulting directly from DNA is validated at some future point, perhaps it will be revealed that bilateral symmetry is the most information efficient way of designing an organism that is going to move. Who can tell? For now, the issue is an open one.

The importance of the Cambrian explosion, in my opinion, is twofold. Firstly, the person who discovered the soft-bodied fauna completely missed their relevance and tried instead to classify them in terms of modern animals. One can hardly blame him. He was unable, as so many scientists are, to see his find in any terms other than those he had been taught and had lived with comfortably for so long. What a mental breakthrough it must have been to suddenly realise that what he had discovered was something that completely overturned conventional thinking on life! The Burgess shale represents a wonderful illustration of how excessive belief in currently orthodox ideas can block the acceptance of ideas that more accurately model what we choose to call reality.

Secondly, the Burgess shale represents reasonably convincing evidence that the classical Darwinian perspective of survival of the fittest is erroneous. Why? Because no-one, not even the most learned biologist, could look at the fossils of the Cambrian explosion and say with any confidence which species were destined to evolve into modern life, and which were destined for extinction.

Experts have been able to identify which species were the likely ancestors of modern life, and they look no better adapted to their environment, or superior in any other sense, to many of the other forms around at the same time. Indeed, only the tiniest fraction of the body plans around in Cambrian times survived to the modern day. And as far as we can tell, more by luck than by superior design.

The message from the Burgess shale appears to be quite straightforward. Evolution is not a record of progress (as was believed for quite some time – and indeed, is still believed in some camps) but a record of the adaptations made by various creatures to survive at various times, and who survived to the present day in part by a whole lot of luck.

Stephen Jay Gould talks of the Wheel of Fortune as a metaphor for the way that many species become extinct – extinction by lottery. Whilst some are no doubt made extinct by competition from better adapted organisms, the vast majority die out for no reason other than random chance. With this in mind, any idea of evolution as a line with single celled organisms at the bottom and man at the top (the so called "ladder of progress") is insane and ridiculous. Our position is no more privileged than any other life form around at the moment. Our chief difference seems to be that we have evolved a sense of arrogance far outstripping the rest of nature.

Where Did All the Giants Go?

MbdmegladonI find it curious that all the truly gigantic animals have become extinct. Whale sharks and blue whales aside, modern life is practically miniaturized compared to the standards of the Mesozoic (crudely, the Dinosaur Era). We all know the Big Lad dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus rex, and apatosaurus (brontosaurus), but if you have a good look around you’ll find huge birds, giant snakes and enormous sharks have all gone by the wayside. (Megladon, a shark the size of a whale, makes the great white shark look like an anchovy by comparison).

All extinct.

Now you may wish to claim that these animals were just not efficient, or that they were out-competed or something similar. But the fact is, the environmental conditions than existed in the Mesozoic were essentially identical to modern conditions. And these creatures existed for millions of years, with substantially no changes at all if the fossil record can be believed.
Megladon teeth, for example, are one of the most abundant fossils around.

I would hazard a guess that the reason that there are no giant creatures around at the moment does not represent the superiority of ‘smaller’ animals, but merely the prevailing trend for the current conditions. People often forget that the environment that an organism adapts to is made up not only of the inanimate, but of all the animals that co-exist with it. It seems plausible to me that the web of Mesozoic life supported these giant predators, whereas our current days where speed rather than size seems to be more important cannot support such enormous animals.

But times will change. At some point, the playing field will shift again and no-one can say what will predominate when it does. This is one of the great messages of evolution, that what dominates now will likely be extinct at some future point.

MbdammoniteTake one of my personal favourite animals, the ammonite. These nautilus-like creatures dominated the oceans in the Mesozoic, but when the Cretaceous came to an end, they, like the dinosaurs, were wiped out. I have seen no better explanation for the extinction of these shelled creatures beyond bad luck. The asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous (an event for which the geological evidence is largely in support of – the iridium deposits found in post-Cretaceous strata lack any other reasonable explanation) may well have been the cause of the mass extinction that robbed the world of the dinosaurs and the ammonite.

The ammonites gave way to the fishes. Not because the fish were superior, but because the ammonites were unlucky. That seems to be the way it goes.

This leads to the concept of punctuated equilibrium, the theory proposed by Gould and Eldredge which suggests that rather than a steady, continuous process, evolution is marked by periods of stasis (in which very little evolutionary change occurs) followed by sudden periods of change. Animals alive today owe their survival only in part to superior adaptation, and to a very great degree to being damned lucky.

After much investigation, I can only conclude that Gould and Eldredge have hit the nail on the head. At this point in time, the only arguments against punctuated equilibrium that I have heard result from trying to use classical evolutionary reasoning to explain something that now seems far more complex than simple Darwinian reasoning can deal with.

For example, a sensible complaint is that punctuated equilibrium implies evolution only takes place at certain points in time, whereas as we understand the Darwinian methods, it should be taking place constantly. This is a reasonable point to raise, and like many reasonable questions it exposes the problems in orthodox thinking.

Darwinian thinking goes something like this: organisms mutate, superior organisms thrive, inferior organisms die. Hence, evolution constantly improves organisms, adapting them to their environment. This view in the extreme is what is known as adaptionism.

However, let us take task with the first point, that organisms mutate. I am prepared to accept that there are indeed methods by which changes to organisms occur (after all, evolution is dead in the water without it). But despite the common claim, no evidence exists that new genetic variation occurs spontaneously. Although we have seen natural selection at work in our time, we have only seem selection work on genetic features that were already present.

MbdblackmothFor example, many people know about the moth that, with the advent of the industrial revolution, began to be increasingly found ‘dressed’ in black rather than its natural beige. The black moths could hide on the soot-caked trees and walls of the post-industrial world better than the beige moths, and hence had a selective advantage. However, the genes for the black colour were already present in the moth. The genes did not evolve in our time.

Indeed, there is a substantial problem with evolution by mutation, in that 99% of mutations (or more) are detrimental to an organism’s chances of survival. Most mutants die. The orthodox scientific community responds by claiming that, yes, most mutants die, but over the time scales of evolution enough mutants occur that a small number are ‘fitter’ and hence survive. There is nothing wrong with this argument, but there is no evidence for it.

Conversely, there is evidence that natural selection actually slows the rate of change in genetic material. This apparently contradictory claim was first suggested by Kimura, and has since been demonstrated to be factual. The rate of change of nucleotides in the parts of DNA which are not expressed (intron DNA) compared to those parts that are involved in coding proteins used by the animals (exon DNA) is radically different: and it is the introns ("junk DNA") which changes faster.

It actually makes a lot of sense. If most mutations are detrimental, then most changes to exon DNA will cause the creature to be inferior and hence to be less competitive than its non-mutant peers. Conversely, changes to introns produce no effect to the individual creature and hence the rate of change of sequences in intron DNA can be much faster than in exons where the watchdog of natural selection limits the amount that the code can change. It is called the Neutral theory of genetic change, and it has been broadly validated by research.

In fact, I even have a hypothesis as to what the ‘purpose’ of intron DNA might be. Viruses occasionally copy sections of DNA to different parts. Often these changes are dangerous or fatal, but at times the substitution effectively codes for a new and exciting protein. This may well have happened recently (geologically speaking) with the Antarctic cod. Genetic evidence suggests that its ‘anti-freeze’ glycoprotein occurred as a result of a transposition of intron DNA into an exon. Given that intron DNA can mutate far faster than exon DNA, it seems plausible to me that evolutionary novelty might happen as a result of intron DNA’s freedom to mutate. I call this the Cut and Paste hypothesis, but at the moment I have no way to test it. If this hypothesis is true, intron DNA is a requirement for genetic novelty.

Moving back to the central issue of punctuated equilibrium, I do not find it at all hard to accept that evolutionary change is ‘stifled’ during long periods of history. This is, after all, exactly what is shown in the fossil record. Some scientists explain the same evidence by saying that there are many other animals, but they just aren’t recorded in the fossil record. (This is a bit like saying that the accused’s finger prints are not found at the crime scene because the accused never touched anything). There are going to be gaps in the fossil record, that is unavoidable, but one cannot deny that many animals span a vast period of billions of years in the fossil record.

MbdcretaceousmammalsOne can suppose that once a set of organisms have evolved into a reasonably stable set, the ‘room to maneuvre’ is so low that change can only happen on the most gradual of time frames. However, after a mass extinction, a whole new set of rules apply. The extinction of the dinosaurs and their kin made way for mammals to have a shot at being the top predators. Throughout the Mesozoic they had been tiny little scavengers, eking out an existence in between the lumbering thunder lizards. At the end of the Cretaceous, the rules changed and mammals got their turn at bat. Presumably, somewhere down the line, something will take out the mammals and give some other type of animal a chance.

It occurred to me, as I was devising the Cut and Paste hypothesis, that after a mass extinction, the pressure of natural selection should actually be reduced. With the well established predators gone (dependent as they are on the food web underneath them), organisms that previously would have been too poorly adapted to survive suddenly have a chance to show their stuff. Dawkins’ metaphorical ratchet is off, and for a brief period of time animals have far greater freedom to change.

This, for me, is quite a compelling argument towards punctuated equilibrium. Because when we look through the fossil record we find rapid change in the animals recorded in the fossils only in two types of place: one, at the boundary points representing mass extinctions (where the rules of the game were suddenly changed), and two, at the Cambrian explosion (where the rules of the game were being made up as life went along).

Changes do occur in between these times, stasis is not total, after all, and evolution still works in the long stretches of time in between. But the most radical changes to life happen in the wake of the mass extinctions, when life has a chance to make up a whole new set of rules. In our case, we’ve come into the game at a time when giant animals are no longer as effective as once they were. Who knows what the life that follows us will find?

MbdjupiterAs a final point before I put punctuated equilibrium to one side, it is worth understanding that if major changes in life can only come about by mass extinctions, then we may owe our much-vaunted intelligence in part to the fortuitous position of Jupiter and the asteroid belt, the arrangement of which causes asteroids to be thrown repeatedly into the path of the Earth. Perhaps this arrangement constitutes an ‘evolutionary pump’, shaking up the status quo frequently enough for evolution to achieve far more than it could in a state of constant stasis.

Then again, if it wasn’t for Jupiter drawing away many of the comets from the Oort cloud from the Earth’s surface, we might have impacts so frequently that life would never actually get much of an opportunity to recover from the devastation and we might have no multi-cellular life at all. We can only speculate.

And so… the Present

And so I have followed evolution from its shaky beginnings, through its questionable middles and now to its uncertain present. There are many questions that remain to be answered – more than I can adequately elucidate in a single essay. However, from careful analysis of the competing views I can only conclude the following:

Evolution consists of a large number of tools, of which mutation and natural selection represent only one perspective.

As well as the classical Darwinian and Mendellian processes, contingency seems to be a major theme of evolution, and life seems to utilize a high degree of symbiosis on both a macro and micro scale, as well as utilising other mechanisms, such as epigenetic inheritance, which we have only just begun to investigate.

It is far too premature to assume that we have found even a fraction of the answers to the questions that Darwin first raised.

I will leave you with one final thought. If you are not yet convinced of the importance of symbiosis to the history of life, consider that mammals are only able to give birth to live young by virtue of a viral invader which has integrated itself into our genetic make up. When you see a foetus develop, it is surrounded by little viral allies which do not harm the developing organism but rather have made live young a possibility by breaking the ties with the embryology of the past.

MbdmeerkatsCompetition may be part of life, but it is not the whole of life. Dawkins’ “selfish gene” metaphor may be a useful tool for allowing us to reason outside of the narrow confines of humanocentric thinking, but it does not follow that selfishness is the guaranteed norm. Indeed, without symbiosis, multi-cellular life simply could not exist. And I cannot help but find it ironic that whichever way you look at the “selfish gene”, life breeds out pure selfishness: any creature which cares only for itself must surely die out. Dawkins may see an organism sacrificing itself for the survival of its young as selfishness, but from the point of view of the organism I can see only altruism. An individual gene, after all, codes only for a protien and is scarcely in a position to do anything but persist if it happens to be useful.

In this, as in so many things, it comes down to which metaphors you wish to use, and how you wish to look at the problem. I now look on the current world genome – the complete set of all the different genes in use by organisms today – as a record of those genes which helped propagate life up to this point. Some of those genes may have principally benefited just an individual organism, and some may have contributed to wider mechanisms. But ultimately, all we can say about the genes in the world today is that they made it here somehow.

And what more can you say about humans other than that, somehow, we made it here.

Sony Understands

It's not every day that I am headhunted for Sony. I can't accept, even if I wanted to, as the positions are in London and my wife has expressely stated that she doesn't want to live there again. Still, it's nice to be noticed!

And, I'm very pleased to see that Sony understands what I consider to be the most important issue in game design right now. Every game design position has the following listed as a "Responsibility":

Be aware of the needs of the target audience & be able to deliver designs which satisfy those needs.


There's a Hole in My Game Bucket, Dear Liza...

LeakybucketPiracy, second hand games... the games industry complains about a number of 'profit leaks'. But they seem to have forgotten that the single largest leak from their profits is excluding a large proportion of potential customers.

Alice reports on how Mark Rein complains about second hand games stealing cash from his company, and it's well known that the Japanese companies have disliked second hand game sales for what seems like forever.

I have always believed that this is an incredibly short sighted view. When a player sells a second hand game (pre-owned is the more common US phrase), nine times out of ten they use the money to buy a new game. For younger players, with limited cashflow, this is the only way for them to keep buying  new games (and thus contribute to word of mouth). The money from second hand games isn't lost to the games industry - it is reinvested. Access to second hand games increases the user base, grows brand loyalty and market share from people who would not buy a game at full price, and is the lifeblood of indie retailers who are an important link in the chain to Hardcore evangelism of new games. I was very pleased when well coiffured  industry analyst Nick Parker publicly announced he held the same views last year at an ELSPA conference.

Then there's piracy. Possibly responsible for losses of about 10-30% of revenue for a typical project. Except, as Chris Anderson reported on his blog, zero percent piracy isn't necessarily good for business. He says:

I was chatting with a former Microsoft manager the other day and he revealed that after much analysis Microsoft had realized that some piracy is not only inevitable, but could actually be economically optimal. The reason is counter intuitive, but intriguing. The usual price-setting method is to look at the entire potential market, from the many at the economic lower end to the few at the top, and set a price somewhere in between the top and bottom that will maximize total revenues. But if you cede the bottom to piracy, you can set a price between the top and the middle. The result: higher revenues per copy, and potentially higher revenues overall.

Plus, of course, piracy actually builds you market share - at the cost of loss of earnings. But if the pirates wouldn't buy your game anyway, there's no loss. You need copy protection - because you want piracy to be restricted to just those people for whom the effort of being a pirate (it can be a lot of work, I understand!) is justified because of their personal lack of purchasing power. As long as these people don't then sell on the pirated software, there's very little lost - which runs very contrary to conventional thinking on the subject. (Note to pirates: be a rogue, not a leech - share files with other pirates, but please don't resell them).

I understand why developers and publishers become fixated on these apparent profit leaks - margins are close. Developers could go under any day. But for some arcane reason, most companies in the games industry don't plug the single largest profit leak - responsible for at least 50% losses in many cases - possibly even as much as a 900% profit leak in extreme cases: failing to meet the play needs of the audience.

Not being gender inclusive (as Sheri Grainer Ray puts it) is a potential profit leak larger than the two usual suspects. Is it worth cutting your potential market in half by not taking this into account?

Designing a licensed game with the potential to be played by a very wide audience with core mechanics which will appeal to a very narrow audience (I'd estimate 10% or less of gamers in some cases) is an even larger profit leak, albeit a trickier leak to plug. Is it worth cutting your potential market by a factor of ten by not considering the play needs of the audience?

It's just another example of how we would rather take arms against the problems we can see, no matter how small they might be, than wrestle with the bigger problems that are just beyond sight. There a giant hole in the bottom of the game industry's bucket, but we're more intent on plugging the tiny leaks spilling out the side.

Austin Game Writers Conference


For anyone interested in game writing, or digital narrative in general, please support the Austin Game Writers Conference, either by attending or by spreading the word to everyone you know. It's taking alongside the Women's Game Conference and the Austin Games Conference - registration for one event covers you for all three. For more details, and a list of the confirmed speakers, go to the Austin Game Writers Conference website.

Design Snapshot: Air Conflicts

AcdogfightclippedAir Conflicts is a small and obscure game project coming together via our Slovakian friends at 3D People. There's every chance that the only place you'll hear about it is right here in my blog, although I expect that it will get a small release in the US, along with its European and Russian release. We have been brought in to guide the design process; it's the smallest PC game project I've ever been attached to, and I'm finding it quite refreshing.

The game, as is readily apparent from the screenshots of the demo, is an arcade-style flying game set in World War II. The controls are purposefully simple, and even people who usually struggle with the spatial aspects of flight sims should be able to handle it to some degree. Yes, World War II is a much overused implicit IP (intellectual property) - but if you're going to make a small arcade flight game, it might as well have a decent shot at an audience.

The team, which Peter at 3D People has decided to take under his wing, as it were, have produced an arcade-style flight engine and some pleasing plane models. The design challenge for the game is how to add value to the product without adding to the cost. It's going to be on a tight budget, so there's no room for extravagance.

It begins with determining who the audience will be. Likely, this will come from two sources: Hardcore gamers with a penchant for WWII flight games (who may have expectations for the game beyond what it's budget may allow) and Casual gamers with a predilection for WWII who will likely come to the game as an impulse purchase. Realistically, the marketing isn't going to be there to hit a large percentage of the latter - but on the other hand, the cluster of players involved is large enough that even a small capture will pay for the cost of making the game.

The core gameplay is going to be based around two activities: simple dogfighting and bombing runs. Adding to these activities would be to seriously increase the development costs, so we needed a way to leverage the existing play, along with the the value of the implied IP. For once, play style isn't likely to be a key issue in getting the game to make back its costs, because it's likely to be an impulse purchase - so we're going to get a bit of a cross section of players.

The pre-development design meetings for the game focused upon how we were going to structure it. Structure is one of the cheapest elements of a game design, but it can make the world of difference to how the game is enjoyed. For instance, a colleague and I are playing through the NES version of the original Metroid (emulated on the Gamecube) right now, which we are enjoying for its retro charms. (If you didn't play exploration games in the 80's, and you don't have tolerance for fail-repeat gameplay, you'll struggle to appreciate it - but it has aged quite well). It's structure is years ahead of the contemporaries, albeit requiring a code to save (done automatically on the cube); it has progress mediated by the acquisition of new abilities, restart points at appropriate nodes and semi-ratcheted character development - all quite ground breaking for 1986.

Back to the design problem. The most common structure in games, and in flight games in particular, is fail-repeat. You must overcome the next challenge to continue. You must beat this mission to continue. If you fail, you must keep at it over and over again until you succeed. Not too much of a problem if you tend towards Type 1 Conqueror play - there's the emotional payoff of fiero (triumph over adversity) when you beat a tricky mission, after all, and players tending to this play style are highly tolerant of fail-repeat gameplay. But it can be a turn off to players preferring other play styles.

Acbomber_front_viewclipped_1The structure we decided to explore with Air Conflicts is fail-continue. Win or lose, when you take a plane out for a sortie, the war goes on irrespective of the outcome of your mission. We're by no means the first to use this structure - I think I first came upon it with Defender of the Crown back in 1987 (only a year after Metroid). It's very rarely used, and it has certain demands.

Firstly, if you're using fail-continue structure you are expressly expecting your player to go through the same chunk of gameplay (campaign, as it is for Air Conflicts) more than once - if only through replay. Therefore, that gameplay chunk needs to be short enough that the player can sit down and play a campaign just for the fun of it - under 60 minutes seems reasonable for a non-specific audience which includes Casual players.

Secondly, if the game goes on regardless of outcome, the game can't get significantly harder to play or win when the player fails - otherwise you have feedback which will mean you effectively force the player to give up (or reload) when they are failing.

Thirdly, the player needs to understand that the war goes on whether you win or lose. This is easier in a strategy game, where the narrative is maintained by the pieces on the board. Harder in a flight game. In fact, when the demo arrived on my desk last week, one of the most apparent problems that needs fixing is that we need some brief narrative material (state of the war reports, for instance) to underline to the player the passage of time, although we are fixing this by adding dispatches which summarise the player's achievements in the previous sortie along with the state of the war.

The way it works in Air Conflicts is that the player represents a particularly poorly supplied squadron, assigned to a particular campaign. For the demo, this is the RAF's North Africa campaign, from Operation Compass through to Operation Supercharge, with some of the Battle of Crete thrown in for good measure. You begin the North Africa campaign with 3 Spitfires and a Lancaster bomber. It begins in December 1940, and ends twelve months later - each sortie the player undertakes occurs in a single month. (I'm not very strong on WWII history, but I'm happy to research, and my brother has fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the era).

The player chooses an assignment from a list each month - either a key mission, like the Battle of El Alamein, or a minor assignment, like training Manoeuvres or a routine Patrol. They then choose a plane from their hanger - which can change the assignment. In a strategic bombing mission, for instance, if you choose a bomber you'll be hitting the objectives yourself. Choose a fighter, and you'll be escorting the bombers. To add a little more to this system, some sorties have emergent missions - a routine patrol could turn into a mission to prevent an enemy bombing, for instance.

If the player fails, and it's inevitable that they will from time to time, they lose the plane they were flying from their hanger. New planes are assigned to the player as they achieve successes on the battlefield. This is the essential tension of a single campaign mode - losing a Spitfire isn't a big deal, losing a Lancaster can be costly. With this in mind, the player is encouraged to withdraw from battle when the situation is desperate, rather than losing a plane. This is the sort of play a fail-repeat game simply cannot offer.

Progress is not achieved at the campaign level, per se, but rather in the rank that the player earns. You can work your way up to the top rank in each of three air forces - but you'll need to excel in the three campaigns that will be included for each side to make it to Marshal of the RAF, Reichsmarshall or Marshal of the Soviet Union.

I really enjoyed playing the first demo of the game. It was a lot more complete, and a lot more fun, than even I thought it was going to be. I play a lot of early demos in my line of work... most are, well, a long way from what most people would consider fun. You have to be able to see through the problems to see the value - but already, I can see the fun in Air Conflicts, which is encouraging. It supports fiero - because some of the missions can afford to be quite hard, since you don't have to beat them to progress - and it also supports simple mimicry.

Acbomber_rear_viewclippedIn fact, I've played through the demo North Africa campaign, which takes about 45 minutes, more times than I can justify as work, which is a good sign. The bombers in particular are a joy to fly - they have little tail gunners that have a crack and enemy planes in your rear quarter. Sadly, a single frame of animation can't capture the simply joy of this, but it's a lot of fun just to watch. (I'm sure other games have done this too, but I haven't played them myself).

The team is refining the demo even as I write, and soon it should be ready to take to publishers. Apart from some tweaking of the missions and parameters, we won't have much more to do on the design until it is signed. However, one future design problem is troubling me.

Do we let the Nazi's win at the end of the Luftwaffe campaigns? The RAF and Soviet Red Air Force campaigns should be straightforward, but the German campaigns are more tricky. Other WWII games (independent of genre) generally shy away from changing the historical events, but we already have some latitude - the player's actions can change when a battle takes place, for instance. Most WWII games prefer to stick to the facts. Many Battle of the Bulge games end at the highpoint of the Nazi campaign, for example, rather than having the anti-climatic ending that would result from seeing the story through to the end of the war in Europe. I could use some external views on this subject.

It's still early days in this project, but it's already turning out to be a fun little game. It's going to be below the radar of most gamers, but hopefully it will find its way into the hands of a few players who will appreciate it.