Gravity In Progress

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Still doing occasional work on Gravity. I’d been blocked on the art style, which greatly slowed things down on that side and affected motivation for the rest of it. The original idea involved a rocket ship, but I didn’t want a typical rocket ship design. The eventual inspiration is rounder and more toy-like, as you can see here. Still a work in progress; the textures are only half-done.

The Shape of Mastery

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Super Hexagon has a lot of features that would ordinarily frustrate me. Your survival depends on split-millisecond twitch action. When you die, you are sent back to repeat everything from the beginning.

The trick is, the progression in the game isn’t really measured in the levels, it’s measured in your skill as a player. Sure, there are difficulty modes to unlock, but those are just milestones on your development as a player.

This is the same reason why I like roguelikes: your decisions have consequences that you have to live with, but the game is designed around that. As long as you are still alive you can keep going in the event time, gradually gaining the player skill that will let you repeat your feat later. That’s why the randomness in roguelikes works: getting lucky once won’t win you the game, it’s what you do with that luck time and time again that turns you into a player who can beat the game.

The relatively short length of the game helps with this—and, more importantly, the game is designed so that progression in the event time doesn’t matter once that brief experience is over. There are countless larger, longer games that don’t have permadeath but which are far more frustrating, because they require you to negotiate the save-reload cycle to mitigate the fact that there is no soft recovery from failure. Permadeath makes this obvious, and designs the game around it.

Another significant experience is the way that the learning process facilitates all of this, by turning the earlier, mastered patterns from challenges into performances. Once the epiphany of how to navigate a particular pattern has been integrated into your skill set, it becomes second nature and you end up reflexively performing feats that you previously were convinced would be impossible. You are relaxing and executing the maneuvers; it feels like a rehearsed musical performance, but you are reacting to dynamically changing situations.

This a pleasure that is quite different from the pleasure of achievement—that happens at the end of your experience, once you pass into unmastered territory and really start to sweat. In contrast, the feeling of executing a performance of a mastered skill is relaxing.

Combine the two feelings and add the punishing difficulty, and every achievement in the game, every new time record reached, becomes a feeling of incredible achievement.

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Failure Equals Game Over

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One of the most powerful moments I have had in gaming came when I thought that the game was over. It was in Deus Ex, of course, as so many things are. It was a classic scenario: one character was wounded, and begged me to go on without him. Well, I was already deeply immersed enough in the story that I decided that I wasn’t going to leave him. I was going to make a last stand right there. I made a quick-save and prepared to hold off the assault.

I lost, of course. There were too many of them. I was shot, and collapsed, and the screen faded to black. And just as I was preparing to see the ‘Game Over’ screen, my character woke up. He’d been captured. The game wasn’t over. I could have walked away, but I chose to stay and fight and the game respected that decision.

This example was especially powerful because of the subversion of expectations, but the general principle of interesting failure applies. A ‘Game Over’ screen is a judgement on the player, one that demands immediate historical revision, literally altering simulated history, as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time makes explicit. But this only softens the blow, making quicksaves into a accepted part of the gameplay. It’s much more interesting when we can accept the player’s decision, whatever the result.

A few games have made this connection explicit. In Burning Wheel Revised, for example, the DM isn’t supposed to let the players roll the dice unless the explicit failure result is stated: usually a complication that makes things worse for the players and skews them off in an interesting direction, but very seldom are the stakes “Game Over”.
Roguelikes and Ironman modes are one approach to address this, where the harshness of permadeath forces every choice to remain meaningful and keeps the player cautious. But this has a niche appeal. And the game still comes to an abrupt end.

Crusader Kings 2 takes a different approach to failure. Your character is going to die, sooner or later: the game lasts longer than even the longest lifespan. But the player keeps going, with that character’s heir. A similar approach informs the rest of the game: you’ll never conquer the whole world, and even the most massive of empires tends to collapse under its own weight. The scoring system doesn’t necessarily even reward most warfare, since you’re only allowed to hold on to those titles that you can prove a legitimate claim to. So by most games’ terms the player is continually going to be confronted by failures, as each character dies and their heirs see their legacy unravel. But the game keeps going, keeps throwing interesting challenges at the player.

Odd as it may sound in a game about European nobility, Crusader Kings ultimately eschews fulfilling the player’s power fantasies. This is a game that is as much about failure as it is about success, as much about the king who died after a month as it is about the king who reigned for sixty years.

Players respond to the feedback the game gives them. Game Over is a death of feedback, a cessation of meaningful interaction. If a game can support a player failing but then still continue, with meaningful things for the player to do, interesting goals to strive for, and new challenges to be overcome then that game can continue to engage the player.

Game Over is an execution. It’s a temper tantrum that emphasizes that the story wasn’t supposed to go that way. Game on is an affirmation that even if the player made some bad decisions, they can still be redeemed, still find closure.

Unity3D and Lightwave

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NewTek has an official tutorial that explains the basics.

When Unity asks for the location of Lightwave, point it to the root Lightwave folder (probably “Lightwave11.0”) not the /bin or any of the other subfolders.

Unity can seamlessly import animations from Lightwave, including from rigged and skinned models. This took me by surprise, as I was planning to bake the animations. Baking turned out to be unnecessary, as the automatic FBX export apparently handles it.

End-of-Summer Updates

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In lieu of posting about my unfinished Ludum Dare 24 game (which, although a learning experience, isn’t really very playable) I’ll instead mention that I also put some work in on Gravity.

In other news, DayZ is way over a million players at this point.

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It Was Never About the Zombies: DayZ

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The creator has called it a “mature Minecraft”. He’s also stated that he’s aiming for “an authentic experience” rather than realism. He’s called it an “anti-game”.

We’re going to see more games like DayZ. There’s been a lot of talk about innovation over the years, and the current indie scene has really proven that there are a lot of unexplored ideas. We’re starting to see critical mass build to support even multiplayer experiments, like Realm of the Mad God. DayZ can be taken as yet another example of this phenomenon, though its roots are quite different, coming out of the hardcore sim experience.

As I understand it, in the past month DayZ has gone from 500 players to 70,000. And, since it’s a mod, it’s sent Arma 2 to the top of the sales charts across the board. the servers are not quite up to the challenge yet, especially when night falls on part of the planet and players flock to the nearest daylight servers: the game’s real-time clock is synced to the server location by default, so if you want to play in sunshine you’ll have to find a server that’s in the right timezone. (Some servers are time-shifted, but by design they all keep the 24-hour clock).

As a feature in DayZ, this is pretty much par for the course. The latest update added temperature to the list of survival horrors the players need to keep track of. Get caught at night in the rain with no matches and the zombies will be the least of your concerns. This is approaching Dwarf Fortress level of intensity (though not the fractal detail, yet).

Of course, even in sunshine the zombies aren’t the worst things lurking on the servers. The other players are the real monsters of this apocalypse. Killing another player subtracts from a player’s humanity score, but the latest patch removed the only visible sign of this loss of humanity, causing the servers to descend into shoot-on-sight paranoia.

There are two reasons this experience is so powerful: permadeath and persistent characters. This is the first-person-shooter roguelike MMO success that we never expected. Spawning into the world, each player arrives on the beach with a new, minimally equipped character and turned loose to try and survive. Characters tend to have a definite arc as they gather equipment and become more capable, only to be inevitably brought down. All progress is lost when the character dies: only the player’s humanity score persists.

But the other important feature is that during their brief lives, these mayflies are the same on every server running the game. Each server essentially acts as a shard in a world of persistent characters. This one change sets it apart from the majority of shooters and the majority of MMOs.

So, we’re going to see more things like DayZ. Not just more persistent roguelike survival shooters (though those would be nice too) but we’re going to see more crazy ideas that would never get approved for funding or make a Kickstarter, but nevertheless find their niche and become insanely popular and impossible to ignore.

The Garden of Forking Paths: Why Comprehending Games As Systems Is Important

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In Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths, a book is described: a an infinite book, a book that is a labyrinth. Instead of portraying one timeline of choices and consequences, the writer has simultaneously created all possible alternatives. And sometimes the alternatives converge—the same event may have startling different antecedents, and thus startlingly different meanings:

“With slow precision, he read two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches into battle over a desolate mountain pass. The bleak and somber aspect of the rocky landscape made the soldiers feel that life itself was of little value, and so they won the battle easily. In the second, the same army passes through a palace where a banquet is in progress. The splendor of the east remained a memory throughout the glorious battle, and so victory followed.”

So, too, with games. Even a very linear game has many possible paths between the fixed points, events that happen to one player and playthrough and do not happen to another. In a game designed to have choices a the macro level, the possible paths approach infinity.

Borges mentions two men meeting in a garden, with two different results: “…in one of the possible paths you are my enemy, in another, my friend.” This exact situation has been encoded in many games, where the non-player characters the player meets have no way of knowing at the time of compilation if this time the player will be their friend or their foe. The designer must prepare for every possibility, because the meta-narrative the characters exist within needs to contain every probable scenario and configuration.

Now, it’s obviously impossible to write or design these scenarios by hand, adjusting the story to the player’s every possible move, without having the designer in the game loop itself: Dungeon Masters in roleplaying games, and the Storyteller in Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death take this route. This is possibly as close as you can get to writing as a performance art.

But what about every other game, the ones that can’t have a live human writing the outcome of every situation? Either the designer must account for every possible outcome, or the designer must create a system that generates the outcomes from the player’s input. In practice, these two solutions overlap: it’s impossible to write everything, and even if it was, there must still be a way to choose between the possible alternatives.

So a game has a system, a process for taking an input and turning it into an output. And the process can sometimes take two radically different stories and generate the same event, because they were close enough on the dimension being measured to result in the same output. Therefore, games cannot be understood apart from the processes that drive them. Two games or two playthroughs of a part of one game, may have the same visual appearance, the same plot, the same structure, the same fabula and syuzhet—and yet have occurred through entirely different means and have completely separate antecedents. In the same way that the Kuleshov effect can give cuts in a film startling different meaning, the underlying processes can give two games that are visually identical entirely different meanings, meanings invisible to the eye but made distinct through the underlying mechanics.

To understand a game requires an understanding of the systems and processes that make up the game. This is complicated in video games by the game usually existing as a black box, the inner workings hidden and only the input and outcome exposed. The mechanical processes of board games makes them more open, and easier to analyze from an outside perspective, but in both cases the importance of the process in the meaning of game is difficult to underestimate…and can be completely invisible from a purely visual or literary analysis.

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Spectrum of Agency: Microagency & Macroagency

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Because they are interactive, most games have some form of player agency. But not all agency is equal. Some games take the player’s input and translate it to every twitch of an avatar, but still constrain the player to follow an exact sequence of events. Others abstract the player’s input, but every decision made shapes the course of the entire game.

We can term these two levels of player agency as microagency and macroagency, respectively. Microagency deals with the player’s small moment-to-moment decisions, macroagency is about the player’s ability to shape the larger course of events.

Microagency is more closely connected to immersion, with the player’s physical actions often mimicking the avatar in rhythm or unconsciously mirroring the avatar’s pose. Microagency is present every time the player chooses to turn slightly to the left rather than the right, to jump at this particular moment, turn this particular piece, or otherwise manipulate the environment or the avatar.

Macroagency is more concerned with the overall picture. How can the player shape the condition of the playspace? If every session features predictable events, with the player given little control over the result, there is little macroagency, even if the player is given lots of control over when and where to jump. In contrast, if the space is rhizomic, a web of possibilities with many possible results and no defined ending, there is a lot of macroagency.

They are not mutually exclusive, rather they are opposite ends of a spectrum. Tetris gives the player a lot of microagency, while Civilization and Chess are largely focused on macroagency. But Tetris also has a lot of player choice in where the pieces go, creeping upwards towards the middle of the spectrum, while the final condition of every Civilization game is built out of thousands of tiny actions that coalesce into a whole.

In both cases, the meaning of the agency is still important: irrevocable choices carry more weight than reversible choices, and choices that affect other choices multiply their importance. If there are many ways to traverse a space, but the order does not make a difference to the experience, then the choice of order is largely a false choice. But in most cases the order is important, even if just emotionally, and the changed context does have an effect.

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Gravity 0.08

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Gravity is progressing. So far I’ve implemented the wrapping space, recording the player’s flightpath, playing back the flightpath with the planets, and the flocking words. It’s interactive, but there isn’t any gameplay there yet. Not 100% sold on the name, which is walking the line between forceful and generic. “Groovy” doesn’t quite sell it.