Dawngate is in beta!

I did the early design work on Dawngate, before I left to help finish SimCity.  Hunter Howe and the team did an excellent job bringing Dawngate to life, and I recommend you check it out, particularly if you’ve tried MOBAs in the past.

Engineering: Quality of Organization

I’ve always believed it’s hard to judge code, because the criteria changes by the context.  Is comprehension or speed more important?  Well, is it high or low level?  How about debugging, memory, first-time-to-complete, iteration time, modularity, etc. etc?  All depends where and why (and who) is doing the writing.  These tradeoffs form the basis of software architecture, and software system design.

Fair enough.  Today I think I found a new measurement.  My new metric is “organization” – how spread out the relevant code is from related systems, and how often you have to go modify and tweak the original system to get what you want.  Renderers tend to be very “organized”.  Component architectures, not so much.  It’s similar to modularity and extensibility metrics, but on the receiving rather then the giving end.

Why is that important to me?  Because I typically work at a very high level, where I’m adding small pieces to 5 or 6 different things and then calling them from somewhere else.  And the closer together those things are in physical space, the easier it is to understand what’s going on.  When you’re extending or iterating on lots of systems that are spread out, it’s significantly harder then if all additions are made in one place, organized under a common, well used API.

I think it’s one of the reason scripting is so effective.  Note organization is not unique to scripting – you could certainly organize a C++ gameplay interface this way.  But we usually don’t make the time.  Scripting constrains you, forces you to devote the time to make an organized way of writing very high level code, and that organization makes understanding and adding/modifying code much easier.  If you want to avoid scripting, it might be a good idea to provide a similar benefit in your very high level gameplay architecture.

That and hot reloading.  Man, I love fast iteration times.

Iteration: Fun with Game Designers

Amongst my designer friends, it seems like there’s nothing more fun then to redesign a game.  Stone reintroduced me to one of the best way to do this: the Game Design Lunch.

A Game Design Lunch requires ingredients.  Take one board or card game.  The most important thing is it has interesting pieces.  Multiple copies, or even multiple games are encouraged, so you have lots of pieces to play with.  Game Design Lunch takes this game and evolves it into a marvelous dish.  Add in some fun designers, and dive in!

There are some basic decisions to start out with.  Starting pieces?  Starting positions?  Which pieces?  Win condition?  Just pick something simple and intuitive.   Choose a basic shell of a game to start your lunch with (War, Dominion, Rummy, Chutes and Ladders).  You can use the basics of the original rules if it’s not very good, but we’ve found that choosing a new direction helps the creativity.  Then pick a first player and go!

There is only one rule in Game Design Lunch.   On their turn, each player may make a rule.  Any rule.  It takes effect at the end of their turn, unless every other player votes against it.  The goal is to take the barebones of the pieces and mechanics and discover an exciting game.

What’s interesting about Game Design Lunch is not only is it fun, and enlighting, but it’s extraordinarily fast.  It’s one of the fastest collaborative iteration methods I’ve ever seen.  One lunch is usually plenty to discover a game’s potential.  Games with potential tend to come back for multiple lunches, for refinement.   There are lessons for any design team in collaboration and speed in practicing Game Design Lunches.   Give it a shot!

Designer Voice

I’ve been working on my Designer Voice.

I think every designer has an inner Voice, a style or muse that surrounds their work.  A unique identity.  A Voice of instinct and experience.  Priorities and considerations that drive their games in a particular direction.  In the end, something that makes their work unmistakably their own, like a mental fingerprint.

Consider Will Wright.  His work, spanning from SimCity to SimAnt to SimEarth, The Sims, and Spore all has an identifiably “Will” quality to it.  All simulation, playful, realistic (to a point), construction games, concerned with complex systems emulating part of real life.  His games even “look” the same: top-down, zoomed out, different levels of scale.  Mechanics are also common across all of them:  the acceleration of time, autonomous agents, and heat maps.   These elements aren’t unique to Will’s games, but combined together they form a kind of fingerprint.  A Voice we would expect any future work of his to derive and expand on.

I see fingerprints wherever designers serve as directors.  Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Zelda 2, Super Mario Bros 2, etc.), Dustin Browder (C&C Red Alert 2, C&C Generals, LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth, Starcraft 2), Warren Specter (System Shock, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey), Jenova Chen (Cloud, Flow, Flower), or George Fan (Insaniquarium, Plants vs. Zombies).  Warren’s Epic Mickey might seem like a shock, but consider his constraints.  He’s had over 5 years to grow in new directions.  And if you were Disney and asked Warren to make a game for the Wii, what would you expect?  A designer’s Voice shines through design constraints.

A designer’s Voice isn’t inherent.  It’s formed out of my mentors, my influences, and something inside oneself.  It grows through practice and reflection and more practice.  It is a result of 10,000 hours of apprenticeship.  In George Fan’s Voice I see the game we met on, Diablo 3.  Can you see it?  His experience both reflected and shaped his Voice, and his games-at-the-time-unmade.  My games and my little parts of games will always be different from others, because my background and influences are different.  My Voice will be my own.

I’ve been working on my own Voice.  Very hard.  Voice isn’t something I just have.  I feel as if I have to deliberately run from the path, lose myself amidst the trees, and see where I ended up.  And then get lost again.  I have no guarantee a quality Voice will form.  No guarantee, just a will to hear it myself.  My Voice has been almost a gate, a barrier.  Without one, I am forever a student.  With it, I have something to share.

I didn’t even comprehend there was such a thing as Voice until I started to see it in my friends and mentors.  I thought Voice was business-driven, not designer-driven.  It was only through independent work on my own that I began to see how it was possible to share one’s Voice through game design, how my colleagues were driving their own destiny through the rapids of corporate constraints.  My Voice is still weak compared to theirs and I will likely never catch up.  But it is not a competition.  Each Voice, in its own way, brings beauty into the world.

Sometimes designers come to me struggling with their Voice, and it’s been enlightening.  Sometimes they are trying to rebel, to not rely on old tricks or expectations.  Other times they are exploring, curious, getting lost.  These struggles are necessary, leading to self-growth or innovation.  But at times these struggles become prolonged and misdirected fights.  Not futile, but ill-advised and unnecessary.  A designer’s Voice seems to be a guide home rather then a trap.  Something to embrace more often then to ignore.  Yes, there are great designers to admire who do wonderful things, but their Voice is great because over and over they delved it.

And yet one’s Voice, even when well developed, remains incredibly nebulous and hard to see.  I greatly admire Roger Ebert’s repeated engagements of the game community about the existence of game “art”.  Most recently, he put forth that great art must have a recognizable author, and that he could not see one in games.  I suppose this stands as an unintended rebuttal.  It has taken me a decade of full-time practice to hear even a glimmer of a Voice.  It has taken decades for designers to have the practice to create a Voice, the resources to exercise that Voice fully, and the body of work to make that Voice recognizable.  The artists behind games are, and will remain for quite some time, very hard to see.  But they are there.

Games and the History of Fine Art

Odd. Has anyone noticed how the arc of development of games seems to be paralleling the history of Western painting, rather then the traditional movies or books? I’m not an art history expert, but my understanding is paintings began with retelling one myth over and over.  They started with the Christ legend or the Hero’s Journey, and then going into more humanistic and impressionistic elements, followed by the beginning of abstract expression. It seems like the early, recent, and upcoming phases of game design map to these very precisely, particularly in their stories – around the 90s (Zork, Final Fantasy), the 2000s (Half-Life 2, Planescape: Torment, Call of Duty), and recently, “art games” (like Passage, Braid, Flower, Portal, Blueberry Garden, etc.) What’s going on here?

AIIDE 2008: Day 1 Live-blogging

AI IDE 2008

(I’m editing these notes a week after the fact, just making it readable, but I’ve left the original voice in this piece and roughness intact because I feel the live-blogging depth is more useful then a concise, thoughtful analysis would be. I’m happy to answer any questions people have, though, and I encourage you to contact the original presenters as well for more thorough details.

I’ll be posting Thursday and Friday’s notes shortly. Enjoy!)

(links to my Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 conference analysis posts)

I’m at the Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference 2008 (AIIDE) as I write this.  Here’s the program.   I’m not sure what the conference etiquette is here, but I’m planning to live blog as the event continues. The big push this week seems to be into proceduralism and “Drama Management”, what I’ve been calling Encounter Management, so I’m looking forward to that tomorrow. I cover a lot of ground in the notes here fast, particularly on the more interesting talks, so please give a more leeway on the editing, etc.

Panel Discussion: Realistic Human Characters with Borut Pfeifer (Project LMNO), Michael Mateas (UCSC), and Richard Evans (Sims 3)

I just caught the end of a panel on Realistic Characters. The questions were wide-ranging and wandering, as much about proceduralism as about AI or behavior. There was an interesting question about having 2 human reactions rather then just one. As in, if you tap someone on the shoulder, there’s 2 reactions – the “reptilian brain” jump and then the spin around “huh”. Usually we do this with one animation, but maybe it should be 2 separate states. The procedural animation discussion focused on if you could blend code as opposed to just animation data, unfortunately only raising questions. Also, some discussion of player-human interaction – once characters get real in games, shouldn’t the player’s verbs get better? Shouldn’t the AI be two-way? This was an interesting point, and one that surfaced a couple of times through the conference. Continue reading

Market turmoil: Design style

I poked my head out of my badger hole Thursday and discovered the worst week in the Dow Jones history.  I’ve spent the whole weekend researching and thinking and not panicking and trying to decide what to do.

First, of course, the disclaimer – I’m not an economist, I’ve never taken an economics course, and I’m not an expert.  In fact, I heartily endorse you not listening to me and listen to someone else instead.  But I’m a game designer, and I balance systems and player psychology, so of course I have to take a pass at the financial crisis.

Here’s what I’ve learned after reading too much:

  • Something in the system was really really rotten.  Unbalanced, broken, divergently manipulatively rotten.  My gut says the issue was actually bad money in politics.  Most of the crash comes from a few laws that were passed a while ago, coming from unaccountable close political ties to businesses that would otherwise have been regulated.  Fixing this corruption will go a long way to preventing this from happening again.  Not that anyone cares about that right now.  Likewise, these business weren’t incentivized for the long term by their shareholders, most of which don’t have a meaningful vote, and so the businesses were only really representing short-term greed.   I want my shareholder vote back!
  • People are scared.  This has two effects:  businesses are scared because they don’t trust each other, and citizens are scared because they don’t trust the market.  This fear has led to credit and stock contractions that are largely out of proportion with their actual value.  Things are not as bad as the news suggests.
  • Things are not as bad as our stock has come to suggest.  There have been lots of crashes since the 1930s, and we’ve gotten a lot better at handling them.  Case in point, look at the Europeans actions this weekend, banking on knowledge about the Swiss crash.  Plus, everyone recognizes that many stocks are way undervalued at this point, relative to their yearly earnings and assets.  As they say, the fundamentals of the economy are sound.  See fear, above.
  • The only really bad thing that could drive stocks to the 1970 or even 1930 levels that people are worrying about the Federal Treasury goes under.  All the bad news we’re hearing – banks in trouble, wheat unsellable, prices plunging, states not able to get loans – is small potatoes compared to a government.  The Federal Government is and will underwrite the bank issues.  The question is whether it can afford to.  Given the size of the banking industry, it looks like it can, as long as we don’t let it go much further.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that some people shouldn’t be scared.  If you’re overleveraged, or you were taking on more risk then you were comfortable with, then this is not a good time.  But from a system’s analysis point of view, there is hope.

It reminds me of the Glock Bomb, described recently in Game Developer by Soren Johnson.  Counter-strike tried a floating economy to price its weapons, but as the meta-game optimized, the “best” weapons were quickly driven to expensive highs, while marginally okay weapons went unpurchased and ended up at $1.  The Glock went “bankrupt”, and started getting used for all sorts of exploits.  Soren makes the point to show that free markets in games are dangerous.  With game economy balancing, just like market balancing, some of the emergent behavior can be unexpected.  But looking at the data you can see exactly what went wrong, debug, think about it, tune, and try your system again.  Use your industry instincts, and avoid the fear that’s punishing the markets.

Of course, this could all just be everyone’s realized Pokémon cards are dumb.

Designers: Makers vs. Verifiers

Are designers Makers or Verifiers?  Every studio seems to have a different answer.

I think of Makers as programmers, artists, creaters of the code and data.  I think of Verifiers as the reviewers of the that work, quality assurance, looking at the finished sections and decided where to go next with it.  Both are equally important – I’ve served both within my time.  I think most of us have.  But I’ve primarily been a Builder, and I know a large part of the quality I’ve accomplished is due to great Verifiers who’ve helped me.

Most apprentice Makers believe they don’t need Verifiers.  Or we just need them to find bugs, but not to help with actual quality.  They look down on Verifiers.  But Makers need that outside point of view.  They get too close to the work.  They try and take shortcuts where they think they can get away with it.  They make assumptions.  That’s why they can’t check it on their own, they’ve already decided the result ahead of time.

Many Verifiers look down on Makers.  Because there are fewer of them for the larger picture, they tend to feel anyone can Build, but it is the Verifier who truly creates the ultimate product, by directing.   But Verifiers need the Makers, not just because they can’t do it themselves, but because Verifying is reactive – directing can only happen by building on what already exists.  They need Makers, to truly translate the thoughts into actions.

Designers in many places fill both of these roles.  We don’t think we need designers who only sit around and verify – that sounds silly or would be too expensive.  On the other hand, we can’t have designers just build stuff – then they couldn’t verify, and besides, they’d likely no longer be called designers anymore, maybe programmers or scripters or UI artists, fair or not.  And calling them both gives the extraordinary power, to the point where it becomes a status above their other peers.

Everyone does both, but Maker or Verifier in a studio is always well defined.  Except for designers in the game industry.  Designers are the only industry role that leaves it undefined, almost from person to person.  Because of this, understanding the role of designers in any company before you start there is key to understanding how that company actually works.

What do you do?  What do you think they should do, day to day?

Procedural Storytelling 5: Chunks

The basic unit of a procedural story is a chunk.  I define a chunk as a set of content that can be defined by the narrative symbology and a role in the game space.  Think of a chunk as the bones in procedural animation that are moved through time and space, and the narrative symbology as the constraints on the bones.  Except you’re moving events through time.  Like a wizard.

So chunks can be pretty broad.  Take Farcry 2. To quote Patrick Redding:

Figure out the right way to break content down, for a dialogue, or for an animation, or for a scripted event, so that we can reuse as much of that content as possible and make sure that it can be used in lots of different locations with lots of different NPCs. And that’s really the nuts and bolts of it.

Continue reading