Monday, October 24, 2005

Sensitivity Training

As mandated by California law, we underwent training in our company's policy on sexual and other forms of harassment (I am not making this up). It occurred to me that framers of jokes might find themselves short of suitable material for jokes if they wished to be compliant with this policy, so I undertook to compose a strictly sensitive and legal joke. It follows:

Three web developers (of unspecified sex) walk into a bar. (1)
They are a PHP coder, a Cold Fusion developer, and a perl hacker. (2)
The bartender asks what they want, and they order beers...
The PHP coder orders a "Miller" because foreign names which may require Unicode support are frightening. (3)
The Cold Fusion developer orders dark beer because he (or she) likes to pretend it's Java. (4)
And the perl programmer drinks six Buds and has consensual sex with a goat. (5)

(1) Web developers are not a "protected minority" in this jurisdiction.
(2) Nor are any users of specific programming languages.
(3) Making fun of notably lacking features of a development tool is not illegal, at this time.
(4) People with inferiority complexes caused by using lame, high level tools are not a "protected minority" in this jurisdiction.
(5) Goats are not a "protected minority" in this jurisdiction.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Ribbon of Life Has a Powerful Beat

I've just read Jakob Neilson expounding the virtues of "Microsoft's" "New" "What You Get Is What You See" usability initiative in Office (versus Apple's "What You See Is What You Get" concept). Along with many in the Windows world who have been treated to betas of Office 12, he has swallowed a good deal of kool-aid and come to a bunch of erroneous conclusions.

1. This is new (it isn't; heck the "bold" button in Word has always been a bold b)
2. This is one in the eye for Apple (KeyNote, Pages, several iApps, do this kind of thing already, and they do it better)
3. It works

I can't be bothered going into detail here, but first of all this is a step further down the path of obfuscating more efficient ways of using software (e.g., in the case of Word, using stylesheets) in favor of wasting huge amounts of space on fancy toolbars and palettes.

Ultimately, the trend (for both Apple and Microsoft) seems to be to produce a word processor with icons that create an entire "fill in the blanks" document, produced by a "design professional". So Word's icons might have something like a "Moby Dick" icon, where you tab to the field containing "Ishmael" to rename the main character.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sony Online Entertainment to Act as Honest Broker for Item Sales

Sony has decided to facilitate the sale of in-game items for real-world cash in EverQuest II. While lamentable, this is hardly surprising. They argue that 40% of their support issues have to do with such trade or activates related thereto.

While this is an interesting development, and there will be much discussion of it on the level of "this is a bad thing", "this is a good thing", or "this is regrettable but necessary", as usual the root causes have to do with long held and unquestioned assumptions about what a "role-playing game" is, or aspires to be.

Leaving aside the fact that the only reason, in theory, you play an online game like EverQuest II is to feel some kind of empathy for your character, and that the concept of buying cool stuff using real world cash to make your character more uber so violates this concept that it makes you wonder why you'd play the game at all (or maybe for some people it's more like accessorising Barbie). E.g. why not simply pay Sony to make a monster you can't kill drop dead? Why not simply pay to make your character level 75 (or whatever the mostest highest level is)? This is entertainment, right? Would you watch a TV show where the hero escapes from scrapes by bribing the scriptwriter? Well, maybe if it were a comedy about the TV industry...

The root assumptions underlying all of this baloney are simple and can be explored by showing exactly how well the games industry (paper and computer) has utterly failed to provide the experience it has always aimed for in RPGs.

The quintessential source book for RPGs is The Lord of the Rings. The entire milieu of the D&D world and that of its imitators springs from The Lord of the Rings. This applies to assumptions about the way the world looks, people talks, who lives in it, and what they're up to.

In Lord of the Rings, someone who is basically a country gentleman, of no special skill, and his gardener, a stout fellow, together with two well-meaning idiots (all halflings), go on an adventure which involves a long arduous journey. Along the way they pick up a professional military scout of Royal Lineage, the world's second-most-powerful wizard (soon to be first), and three professional soldiers (human, elf, and dwarf). They are engaged in a number of battles, in which each contributes in some positive way making the best of both their training and natural abilities.

At the end, the gentleman is all but dead from his exertions, but all four of the halflings have gained confidence, and two have grown physically larger and stronger as a result of magical drafts. The world's second most powerful wizard has become top wizard owing to the fall from grace of his boss; he may or may not have gotten more powerful. Aside from that, the characters have not much changed as a consequence of experience besides having new stories to tell, and (in the case of the military scout) having gotten married and gained high social position.

Given this inspiration, what did we get?

A game where no-one starts play with a character capable of doing anything much. If you want to play Aragorn, you have to start as a level 1 wannabe.

A game where the only thing anyone ever gets good at is killing stuff. It's much too hard to make rules about herbalism, but we do have a LOT of different magic swords.

A game which can only represent one kind of hardship -- being attacked by monsters. When was the last time anyone cared about going hungry or freezing to death in your RPG?

A game where the content of the game mainly comprises getting more powerful by accumulating experience, items, and money (the latter two by stealing from the dead).

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Permadeath and MMORPGs

(The following originated in response to a posting on Lum the Mad's regarding permadeath as a way of improving online rpgs.)

Surprisingly enough, in the real world (where permadeath appears to have been implemented) people still (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time. In many paper RPGs permadeath is assumed, and people also (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time.

Bushido basically implemented the thing your wife suggested about 25 years ago via the concept of karma. Your character dies leaving a certain amount of "karma" -- derived from your character's level of advancement and manner of death (e.g. heroic death or honorable suicide to express a just grievance == huge karma). This lets you build a better character next time.

Actually I think permadeath is a good idea but only one side of the coin. The other side is the tacit model of character development (inherited from D&D but which most RPGs assume) which is "you start as a weeny, run on a treadmill in a desperate effort to make the character you want to play, and then if you're lucky end up as a super powerful atrocity that you don't want to play anymore, probably never having been the character you wanted to play in the first place."

In particular, a typical protagonist from a good story is not incredibly powerful, merely adequately powerful, and usually has a strange smattering of abilities without being a "combat optimized" horror. This is because the character has to make sense as a person with a history (other than "everything he did was with a view to being the ultimate killing machine").


1) Permadeath would be good thing.
2) Start with the character you want to play (more-or-less).

Finally, there's a question of implementing (1) without killing people all the time. After all, action adventures are often dangerous.

The way to do this is to deal with most potentially fatal situations in a non fatal way. E.g. instead of characters fighting (at full capability) until dead (another D&Dism), maybe make severe injury kind of debilitating. Then when someone gets hurt, they're out of the fight, but only if their entire group is wiped out or their opponent would rather finish off an incapacitated enemy than defend him/her-self against a live one, will the character die. Similarly, characters could find themselves imprisoned rather than dead.

Another is to occasionally allow people to come back from the dead via plausible excuses (the way they do in long-running TV shows) but only if the right groundwork is laid. (E.g. getting someone brought back to life might involve a complex quest).

All of this involves throwing off the mental shackles created by D&D.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Redmond Simonsen Passes Away

I never met the man, but he is probably one of the single greatest influences on my life.
Greg Costikyan worked with him for several years, and it's worth reading his blog entries on the subject. There's also a NY Times obituary.

One afternoon in 1979

Autumn 1979. I'm in high school in Armidale, a small town in Northern NSW. A friend has suggested I might like to stay after school and check out the wargames ... club. (There's no formal club, just a bunch of people who meet to play games after school, supervised by a teacher who shares the interest.)

My friend is no veteran of the group, he's heard about it somewhere. (Our school is only 500 or so students, so the fact that this group has escaped our attention for so long is actually pretty amazing.) We go there and are given a rather strange game to play, it's called "Napoleon at Waterloo" and it has a small board, which simply and clearly shows the layout of a famous battlefield subdivided into hexagons, on which we place pieces which, somewhat less intuitively, represent formations of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.

An hour later the game is over, and I'm hooked for life.

Unfortunately, for SPI the end was already near. Board wargaming had peaked, and already role-playing games and computer games were eating their market. Within a few years, SPI would be gone. Within 10 years the best "refugee" companies formed from SPI's designers would be gone.

(Now, I wasn't entirely new to this kind of game. I'd seen some people playing similar -- much less well-designed -- games when I was younger. I hadn't had time to learn the rules, so I had gone home and tried to design a similar game, inferring what the rules must be like from the game layout. The most ambitious game I worked on was an all-encompassing game of interstellar war and colonisation -- and in trying to complete it I encountered every problem which SPI turned out to have solved: e.g. what constitutes a complete, usable set of rules?)

The game was from SPI, and Redmond Simonsen was credited with the graphic design of every one of the 400+ games SPI produced in about a decade. SPI didn't invent board wargaming any more than Apple invented the home computer. SPI invented the process for designing and developing board wargames in a manner that made them consistent (where consistency made sense). SPI credited game designers (Costikyan credits Simonsen with coining the term "game designer"), put play testers and blind testers in its credits, developed standards by which game rules were organized and printed, and developed a process for taking a game through from idea through design to testing and publication.

SPI created the games industry. And Redmond Simonsen -- along with James F. Dunnigan -- created SPI.

Farewell Redmond. RIP.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Secunia, Techworld, Mac OS X, and various Reality Distortion Fields

Recently, a Danish (I am told) internet security firm named Secunia has gotten a lot of free publicity, largely by making the pronouncement that Mac OS X is no more secure than other operating systems, notably Windows XP and its variations, which it considers the most secure of all.

Apple has gotten quite a bit (not a huge amount) of bad press over this, all of it citing Secunia's Press Release. The most vehement I have encountered is on Apple Shames Itself Again Over Security.

Unlike some pro-Apple bigots I am not entirely immune to doubting the utter superiority of Mac OS X to all alternatives, so I decided to do a little research. Something, apparently, no-one at Techworld is required to do.

If you visit Secunia's website, and I suggest you do, try looking at their archives of security alerts, under Apple: Mac OS X, and Microsoft: Windows XP Professional. I won't link directly, since you should go find these things yourself to (a) prove how easy it is, and (b) demonstrate that I am not cherry-picking my results.

First of all, in their summary graphs and tables, Secunia reports fewer security alerts for Mac OS X (all versions including server) than one variant (Professional) of Windows XP. But, hold your horses, Windows XP Professional is reported as having no serious issues, none, zero percent (out of 67).

But, when you scroll down the page you discover several serious issues listed. Hmm, if there are several, how does this come out as 0%? So either Secunia are incompetent, or dishonest. Certainly, journalists can't be bothered checking beyond press releases. Well, no surprise there.
What's more, one of these serious issues has been unresolved for nine months!

And then, there's the well-known gaping hole of ActiveX (an ActiveX control can do anything it likes to your machine). ActiveX issues are mentioned only once on Secunia's XP Professional page and shown as having a single serious flaw which has been fixed. (It's one of the 0%.) Well the fix is that the user has to magically know that this ActiveX control isn't safe and click "No" while to get his/her daily work done he/she may have to magically know that other ActiveX controls ARE safe and click "Yes". Whew. Glad that was "fixed".

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

World of Warcraft. MMORPG* Suckage. And Other Stories

* Massive[ly] Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (i.e. games like EverQuest)

A while back I saw an interesting diatribe on (Lum the Mad's blog) about how it would be nice if there were a critical mass of gamers who wanted to play something other than mage / tank / healer games (pretty much every MMORPG out there, and any vaguely successful one, falls into this category) amd proposed some kind of amorphous global diplomacy thing which made no sense but had its heart in the right place.

I would actually settle for something far less ambitious -- a mage / tank / healer game that didn't suck.

(For those of you not accustomed to MMORPG jargon, a mage is someone who is fragile but does a lot of damage (usually from a distance); a tank is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with an enemy in a fight, not die, and be able to hold that enemy's attention; a healer is someone who makes wounds go away... Every major MMORPG to date, including those featuring superheroes and "science fiction" settings, is essentially designed along these lines. If you think of these three archetypes as forming a triangular spectrum (like a color gamut) every character option more or less falls somewhere on the triangle).

WoW (World of Warcraft) is shiney and new and we haven't started to comment on the suckage yet (aside from the obvious -- lag, crashes, and downtime), but there's still plenty of suckage to go around.

  1. As your level increases, content is doled out with a lot of hamburger's helper, in the form of tedium. I.e. instead of "go kill 20 mobs, collect 15 items, and come back for a reward" it's "go across the continent to fred, then go across to BFE, kill 200 mobs, collect 10 items, and then go to wilma (in BFE2) who sends you to barney (in BFE3) who gives you a not to take to betty (in BFE4) for your reward."

    This isn't clever. This isn't fun (not the fifteenth time, anyway). This is just EQ with better graphics and dialog boxes instead of /hail.
  2. The reason for the hamburger's helper is that if you gave people stuff at a decent rate, you'd run out of content. When you run out of content, people stop playing. When people stop playing, they eventually stop paying. Then you go broke.

Is there a solution to this dilemma?

I think there are several, and WoW intends to utilize one of them (by imitating DAoC) but not the others.

  • Make PvP a feature. Folks in my office still play Quake II because PvP never, in a sense, gets old. DAoC didn't have an end game besides PvP, and WoW will probably be a solid implementation of ideas others have already demonstrated will work.

    But what about...

  • Making the world a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    E.g. if everyone is killing monsters of type X, maybe make them scarce. Have quests impact the world in non-trivial ways. Put a tiny bit of state in the world Not a lot, but a little bit. Just a tiny amount would make the world SO much more interesting. God forbid, one server might seem a little different from another.

  • Make quests a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    Imagine if all newbie quests weren't identical. Suppose player A goes to NPC B and asks for a quest and then gets a "slaughter 10 pigs" quest. But player C comes up and gets a "collect 8 eggs" quest. OMG! This could even interact with the oh-so-slightly dynamic world. (When pigs get scarce, more hungry bears and wolves and bandits appear.)

  • Maybe design it as a multiplayer game.

    It's amazing to think that after all this time and effort has gone into designing competing MMORPGs, that they're still fundamentally single-player games.

    E.g. if you are assigned to go kill Fred Bloggs, so are fifty other people. Since there's only one Fred Bloggs, he/she just "respawns" and can be killed over and over again. Why kill him? He just comes back? Why rescue the princess? She can just kill herself and respawn back safe in the castle? In any event, killing Fred Bloggs does not rid the world of him, so why bother?

    It's about time someone actually designed one of these games so that this kind of idiocy didn't exist. Random name generators aren't that hard to write...

Friday, January 07, 2005

Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It's not clear whether it's an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a "system". In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we're talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that's another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that's a 1 - (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round -- a few seconds -- of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit -- things like a warrior slicing his own head off -- happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy's rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 - probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) -- and that's the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you're in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can't be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they're just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of "critical hits" (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of "degree of success" nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.