Aug 26 2011

Online gaming disappointment

Having had several chances to use Google hangouts for gaming in the past while, I will give my conclusion: it kind of sucks.

There are several reasons for this sucking but first let’s look at what doesn’t suck: hanging out with new people and seeing them laugh and speak and participating in same is wonderful. I adore it. It’s good fun and should be done over and over again.

But gaming — especially role-playing gaming — requires reliable pacing and participation to keep the action forefront in everyone’s mind. Engaging each other in the fiction requires constant control of pace. And this is one place where the hangout kind of sucks.

First, the mediator has no effective control over activity. People come and go as they please, speak when they want, and there is no effective way to control all of this as, unexpectedly, most of the body language and related cues we use to do this fail to translate over the video and audio stream. With significant attention and preparation this could be managed by a motivated mediator.

Second, the technology is inconsistent, creating constant distraction. Some video feeds are great, some are awful, and some are absent. Awful video feeds are awful in different ways — bad lighting, bad resolution, high latency, occasional drop-outs. All of these impact the pace of the game (especially drop outs) and make things less effective. Audio is even worse, in a way, since despite having video we are really there to talk and therefore (one hopes) to listen. So bad mics or mics that are not echo-correcting or mics that are awesome and picking up the dog, the neighbours, and the dishwasher, are all highly distracting.

It is the nature of this place that you cannot control the technology available to the attending parties. If you could, things might be much better — you get great responsivity thanks to low latency, which makes mediation much easier. You get good visual input from everyone and you get reliable, comprehensible, audio with no feedback echo or shriek. You could finally ignore the technology and get on with the communication.

There’s no good solution for the dice yet. Every option is make-shift requiring window swapping, hidden information, or otherwise blocking the pace but forcing context switches. There really is no substitute for physical dice, on a table where they can be manipulated and seen by everyone at once. I hope we can get close, but so far the solutions are so distant (and of course highlighted by games that need all these axes of information, like Hollowpoint) that the pace of the game is crushed by the defect.

Finally, and this is more personal, I live with my wife. I love her dearly and I interact with her all the time. When there’s a game at our house, she doesn’t play but she does interact and she’s witty and nice and insightful and welcome. When I’m away gaming somewhere else I am, well, somewhere else and so she does not feel ignored even though she is not participating. But when I’m focused on communication for hours through this unstable and sometimes hard to understand medium, I am present with my wife and necessarily ignoring her. This sucks and is not acceptable.

So for now my preference for online gaming must remain text — IRC or Google Docs — and I think I will have to impose a minimum technology level on particpants. If we can’t all play at full speed, it’s really not worth playing to me. I’d rather just hang out with you and laugh and have a drink and introduce my girl and like that.

–BMurray


Jul 14 2011

Motivation

I want to talk a little about motivation because we just released Hollowpoint and it almost didn’t happen because I had none.

At some point during the project I lost interest in it. Not because it’s not a great game — it is a great game! — but because…well, I don’t know really. Ennui, maybe. Ennui is my pinnacle stat some days. I am trying to get a handle on what broke through that barrier though.

The first breakthrough was technological. Sometimes during the editing process the whole thing just seems too cumbersome to do well and so, by extension, at all. At some point, however, we found we already had some pretty nifty tools for handling commentary and and status by remote control (recall that by this time I had moved to Toronto, so me and the other primary author, C.W. Marshall, were a few thousand kilometers apart). That broke through the first barrier.

I’ll be honest here, though — while the tools are powerful and effective and reduced the work load a bit, what helped the most (for me) was that they were novel and nifty. I wanted to play with them and the project game me an excuse to do so. This is a big motivator for me: shiny things. I always try to tie shiny things to a project because I know that will get hours from me into the project reliably. So the tools are great, but the novelty of them is important. That’s crass and superficial and unprofessional but it’s a fact and you don’t want to try to bull through facts with willpower and platitudes. If ennui is a brick wall, facts are vault doors.

Then I kind of stalled again. And while I was stalled, some kind soul out there posted on RPG.net wondering whatever happened to Hollowpoint.

That was it.

The big motivator is that someone is enthusiastic about the end product. We forget that sometimes — that there is somewhere out there who is waiting for you to finish and is excited about it. Again, it would be a mistake to look at this too far apart from oneself — the reason this is motivating is Vanity, pure and simple. I really want to please this person because I really want them to like me. That’s incredibly motivating.

Interestingly, I already knew this from playing role-playing games in general. I know that it’s very motivating for players to have a non-player character compliment their character. A beautiful person’s favour, a look of awe at their awesome behaviour…anything really. We transfer the attention from character to player effortlessly (Dennett would say that’s because we use the same tools to simulate emotion that we use to actually experience it, so there is a deep way in which there is no actual difference between pretense and reality except insofar as you seem to be able to pop out of the simulated state) and so we feel good. Wow that was a long parenthetical — if it wasn’t so funny I’d change it to a footnote.

Anyway, there’s the message for motivation: embrace your weakness. It’s similar to Larry Wall’s three virtues of the computer programmer: Hubris, Laziness, and Impatience. If you feed your project through your vices, you will be driven to progress.

–BMurray


Jun 29 2011

Fabricating an awesome community

Before I get started I want to be totally clear: I do not know how to fabricate an awesome community.

Apparently there was a substantial melt-down of an existing Dungeons & Dragons online community. I say apparently because I don’t know which community this is1, but I do know that Wizards of the Coast is pretty interested in it as an object lesson for their own community efforts.2 So it’s a big deal at least as a case study. It made me wonder, though, how the communities I know of that are functional stay functional. There are several pressures at work (yes, this is another pressure/flow argument, but lighter) that I can see. I’ll try to tie these to actual cases where possible.

Pride

There are a few communities I can think of where many, most, or even all of the members are proud of the functionality of the community. They are active and vocal members and consequently they exert significant peer pressure to behave well by simply demonstrating virtues and frowning on non-conformity. This is not actually helpful to someone looking to fix or create a community, though, because you get Those Guys by accident.

Or do you? The hard-core fans of Greg Stolze’s game, Reign, are by and large awesome and a half. It’s always a pleasure to chat in those forums. Now Greg has been working under a very interesting development model for Reign that I think has something to do with this. He proposes development of new content to the community and sets up a pledge system whereby anyone that wants to send him money to develop can do so. He commits to developing the new material if a certain sum is reached (say a thousand bucks). When it is reached (and it typically is), he builds the product and releases it for free. It contains a list of all the people who paid in an acknowledgement chapter.

So the community cheerfully pours money into what is essentially a philanthropic pursuit — spending money in order to generate free material from the single expert at making it. This community is therefore significantly composed of people who are proud of being part of the product under discussion. They helped make it happen and they helped make it free. This pride I believe drives a lot of the goodwill that is present there.

Technology

Now this is going to be a little contentious because there are places I go to read where I feel the community is of very high quality but there are plenty who would disagree. That certainly underlines an issue — that the quality of a community is not just based on the quantity of dickery but also on the tone of conversation. Certainly I have frequently run into people who view any disagreement as a hostile act, and catering to that risks making a community useless. That’s an extreme example, but there are shades of gray all along there. For example, in some places it might be bad form to react to a presentation of creative material with anything other than praise.3 That’s also not for me, so that will be a disconnect as well.

Okay, I have seen a single feature in the forum software, Vanilla, used to great effect. It’s a very non-violent way to manage conversations that can go nowhere good. It’s a method that does not impose restrictions on anybody at all and yet still diverts bad behaviour. These features are awesome — I like freedom and I think that in general restricting it is very very risky (mostly because someone has to be empowered to do so, and I don’t trust that person much).

This function is “sink”. It’s the simplest idea ever and nowhere near enough forum-based communities use it. All it does is disable the feature that causes forum entries to percolate up to the top of the list when someone adds a comment.

Yeah, it takes a minute.

So now a heated argument is not constrained or punished (it’s not deleted, or locked and no one is banned or admonished) but instead it is slowly replaced by functional discussion instead. It sinks off the page. One thing about this that interests me is that you would think that the heat level in an argument would indicate some level of motivation to continue it. But it turns out that clicking “next page” is pretty much always too much work for the invested parties to spend to do so. I suspect this is because the best forum train wrecks are essentially reactive and this puts a speed bump on reaction. I know my own tactic for dealing with a heated discussion I see coming is to quite reading it, regardless of who got the last word to date. If I don’t read it I have no urge to react to it. Having it quietly scroll off the bottom of the page does this for you.

Another technology I’ve heard of is Hell Banning. Personally I think this is just more dickery (and it’s essentially crafted to make other people feel bad while the “good guys” feel good, and I think that’s suspicious behaviour), but it’s kind of funny. The idea here is to ban people with bad behaviour (and that’s the part where untrustable authority enters the equation) in such a way that they do not know they are banned. They appear to have full access to the forums and can post and reply, but no one else ever sees anything they say. It’s kind of an ignore list that is enforced by the authority on everyone who is well behaved (I think I let some bias slip in there). It’s funny to imagine the troll beating his keyboard fervently and no one will react to him. It certainly directly addresses the core problem of trolling: it’s not the troll that’s the problem, it’s the weak-willed everybodies4 that insist on reacting. So in a sense, this is control that is applied to the people you want in order to manage their bad behaviour. There is a way in which I like that, I guess, but the paternalistic smell is a bit strong.

Benevolent dictatorship

We are trained to believe dictatorships are bad and that investing authority in a single person is not only risky, but that it will corrupt that person eventually.

As with the issue of community pride, there is a sense in which this has to come organically — that is, a good and effective person establishes a community with herself in complete control and everything is awesome forever. I’ve seen MMO guilds operate this way and stay functional for many years. It is not, however, something that you fabricate, and that’s the only reason I won’t address it further. It doesn’t really help anyone trying to fix a community to say, “well, if you were awesome and wielded power effectively that would help.” Maybe it does.

–BMurray

  1. If you know and have some details, please comment.
  2. I know this because I was chatting with Steve Winter of WotC last night. Nyah nyah.
  3. At the risk of repeating this caveat too often I’ll anyway say, I am not denigrating this behaviour. This is a valid and useful community role.
  4. Myself included on many occasions.

Jun 27 2011

Robots and Role-play

This weekend I had that great moment where you get to reveal something awesome you know to people who don’t know it. And you know they want to know it. In fact, you know they are going to take it and run like hell and probably score touchdown after touchdown with it. This is especially wonderful when you are pretty sure you are not going to score touchdowns with it. The football in this case was the Mythic GM Emulator.

I was hanging around in Gamefiend’s D&D 4e IRC server (that’s #4ednd on irc.atwill4e.net) and talking about online role-playing. I like me some online role-playing, especially by IRC. I like it because it tends towards the multi-GM model — lots of people in the mix feel relatively free to grab a little narrative authority and hours of great fun can pass before a designated GM even shows up. This is huge fun for me, but the stories that come out of it are mostly chatty — characters trying to get other characters to put them in a situation where they can divulge their backstory. That’s fun, but it’s not a whole evening’s worth of it.

Well the GM Emulator came up in regular conversation and I think it meshed with ideas Gamefiend already had about adding some automation into the role-playing chat channels. Anyway, there was a flurry of PDF purchasing, and then a bunch of great and heated back-and-forth about what to implement, and then bang-zoom-code. Brent Newhall packed together a bot in python within a very short time and soon it was in the lab.

The bot is called Arbiter and what it does is really simple. If you ask Arbiter a question, it answers with a yes or a no and, some fraction of the time, a twist statement. What this does is really interesting. For example, I was playing Keln, who I wanted to be an airship pilot. I didn’t know if that was a kosher choice in the setting but rather than ask a GM, I ask Arbiter. This is where his name is important — he doesn’t just say yes or no, he implicitly grants authority to you.

So Arbiter says, “Yes, with the twist of a beautiful woman and a gambling debt.” 1 So now I have been granted authority to not only be an airship pilot but I have also been granted the authority to introduce some new elements and everyone sees and is engaged in helping that out. So my internal story is that I lost my airship to a beautiful cheating gambler. Someone else latches onto this and clearly wants their character to be that gambler in disguise. Spark spark flame.

So here are the themes that are interesting to me.

Simplicity drives complexity. Arbiter does not need to be any more complex in order to be awesome. Features can be added but at this point it’s pretty much gold-plating to do so. Yes or no, optional twist and you get triggered complexity from participants.

Authority comes from one place. In order to have authority it must be granted. It can be granted implicitly (I’m the GM in a game that has a GM) or explicitly through the rules. With Arbiter, authority actually resides in the stupidest member: Arbiter! He’s like the worst umpire ever, randomly saying “ball” or “strike” and not paying attention to the game at all. But as my favourite professor once said, that umpire is 90% of a good umpire. You need someone to decide more than you need someone to be right.

Those who want it, drive it. Because Arbiter is optional, it only triggers when someone demands information. Even then, it is only attended to (in the twist) if someone decides to do so. This is wonderful because there’s no pressure to perform (which can paralyze) but someone is bound to grab that hook and do something with it. No one is unduly put upon — if you want to mostly coast and react2, you can do that. But if you want some authority, you just ask for it.

The smarts are in the humans. For two reasons. First, and obviously, because humans interpret the answers creatively in order to produce content. But more importantly (and this was Gamefiend’s expectation but not mine) because the essential creative power is actually in asking the right question. My initial concern was that some high percentage of answers would just be “no” and this sounds boring to me. It is boring, absent the context of the question itself. When you know that those are the limitations of the Arbiter, though, you craft questions so that the answer will be relevant. My airship question, for example, was a grab for authority to establish certain setting facts. A “no” might have been boring there, but the possibility of “no” was essential for the authority of a “yes” to be legitimate. I swear there are other examples but I don’t have the chat log handy. Watch this space.

So this has my brain by the nuts at the moment. This is super cool space for gaming. All it needs is an underlying resolution system that is also very friendly to the fast pace of IRC play and can use arbitrary (see what I did?) granting of authority rather than rely on the coordination of a single human. And maybe a way to keep track of the facts list that evolves (something that a GM would normally prepare but that this system kind of demands emerge from play).

–BMurray

  1. Not verbatim
  2. And I don’t mean to denigrate that — a party full of high-initiative people all grabbing at every hook can be a nightmare.

Jan 10 2011

Safety and the Inversion of Folk Logic

Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.

I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.

Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.

An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.

Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack.1 So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a  space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.

Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.

The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.

A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.

I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.”  There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!

People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.

–BMurray

  1. Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway.

Jan 4 2011

Extreme Amateurization

Speaking of amateurization, how about this: a 10-year-old kid discovered a supernova.

–BMurray


Jan 4 2011

Crystal Balls

Well, 2010 was a very good year for Diaspora. We beat our goal of 2000 total units sold by the end of 2010 and by a (probably) very healthy margin. We’re already 40 over and there are still a few sources that have to report in for Q4 of that year. So yay us!

As if that wasn’t enough, I also heard from Chris Hanrahan at Endgame in Oakland (one of the best game stores in North America) and he posted his top 10 RPG sellers for 2010. Sure, Dungeons and Dragons is up there (the Player’s Handbook for 4e is number 4 I think). And Dresden Files RPG takes up two slots in the top 5. Diaspora, staggeringly, is number 5. That’s ahead of a large number of Dungeons and Dragons products, ahead of nearly every other Wizards of the Coast product (Gamma World Booster Packs are in the top 5!) and ahead of Pathfinder material. I have to say, this was very unexpected. My understanding was that Paizo was hoping to compete at similar scales to Wizards of the Coast, or at least within a factor of ten. Surely, regardless, they are on the short list of “big boys” in the industry. If that’s true then this sort of thing must be fairly bad news.

Of course, Endgame is pretty special. Chris has an avowed interest in independent titles and goes out of his way (even, I expect, sometimes losing money) to acquire, promote, and sell them. So this might be an outlier rather than an indication of the market.

Well let’s hope so. I don’t mean to undermine how thrilled I am that our game has sold so well, but honestly if the big names are, in some broader sense, sitting below the sales figures for small fry like the VSCA (recall that I am ecstatic about 2000 units sold over a year and a half) then they are well and truly fucked. Certainly they have deeper market penetration, being installed in Barnes and Noble and ten times more locations than we are, but even so, Diaspora is not making enough money to represent a living wage for a single person. If their profits are, say, ten times better than ours then they can afford an employee.

I’m pretty sure they are not making 10 times more per unit than we are. Are they in 10 times more stores? Or, more correctly, reaching 10 times more people? 100 times? Maybe they are. Even viewed with the maximum skepticism (they reach way more stores with totally different profiles and have profit margins vastly in excess of ours — let’s say an error of 10 times 10 times 10, a factor of 10 for each category) it seems they could scarcely afford a dozen employees total. And that’s assuming there’s no one making a profit after paying salaries (including shareholders where there are some).

So I have to wonder just how long the “big names” can keep this up.

Now some are going to argue that this is the death of the hobby, because in any given niche of endeavour there is an oscillating interest in its impending death. As time marches on, the frequency of this oscillation seems to expand and contract a little, and there are amplitude peaks of panic (I recall the death of the Internet was absolutely certain in around 1990 when it seemed that phone companies were going to charge huge extra fees for using voice lines for data) but it really does repeat. Of course, some industries do die (buggy whips, certainly, though even there we have the niche Amish market) but the continuing enthusiasm for the hobby at every forum where it’s discussed should be seen as a reason for optimism.

Interest does seem to be more diverse and maybe harder to get at with traditional big store models. I know there are small pockets of players all over my city here playing all manner of tiny games, but they aren’t going to Chapters to buy them and they aren’t seeking to maintain a product ownership — there are no or few supplements to chase. Rather instead they buy whole new games. This is bad for anyone depending on the supplement treadmill for profit (and it was certainly a good idea at the time) but good for every tiny guy with an idea, a little talent, and a day job.

I am reminded of the idea of the Global Village1. Technology is increasingly enabling individual effort, allowing small groups of artisans (and I would love it if we’d stop being so embarrassed about being artists) to reach a small audience in every one of thousands of places on the globe. See, you can get volume by reaching a majority of people through a single well understood outlet. But you can now also reach a lot of minorities — they represent minorities only in the context of their local geography, which increasingly does not matter. As far as an internet-empowered vendor is concerned, the only geography that matters is the net, and they are all there in one place.

I guess, this being the beginning of a new year, I should make some predictions. I predict increasing desperation amongst companies clinging to modes of delivery (and types of products) that are already dead. I predict that a small number of these companies will figure it out and change course. I predict that more will make minor moves in the right direction but be unable to make the deep dangerous risky changes that need to be made and will be unable to clear the iceberg. Some will die this year but most will lumber on, still turning and turning but ever so slowly. A whole lot of small guys will become medium-sized. More single artisans will band together to make aggregate entities that emphasize individual ownership but share skill sets. They will reach a million tiny pockets of special interest.

In the longer term there is a potential for losing the monolithic model of human interest — television was the glue that made that monster, delivering the same desires to half a billion people all day every day, but that model of television is surely on the skids. Its iceberg is further away but it is there. Netflix, for example, is waving a flag on the tip of it. And without that binder, there is a distinct risk that peoples interests will be allowed to naturally diversify further. When that happens you (you, the giant corporate manufacturer, distributor, reseller) will no longer be able to easily gather a huge audience into an artificial gross group identity that can be exploited with single products. Well, you can try. But the little guy, adequately paid for doing something else, will be able to rip at your special interests and with less interest in making money doing it.

Sound communist? Maybe there’s something Marx got right.2 Maybe technology necessarily creates equality eventually. I’ve said before that the means of production were made most democratically available to us in the form of Lulu. I used that phrase deliberately.

To summarize, the future is more small companies delivering specialized product to many small groups distributed widely. More hobby businesses will be enabled and more products will be delivered with less interest in profit and more interest in the hobby as art. It will take a deliberate, concerted effort of government and corporation to stop this. Watch those new bills, folks. This is the new Danger for the Way Things Are. And they don’t call conservatism that for nothing.3

–BMurray

  1. Marshal McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962).
  2. And maybe something Marcuse got wrong, which would be nice because his bleak perspective has been looking pretty good the last 25 years or so.
  3. Note that this is not ragging on conservatism. The technical definition of conservatism (which I’m using here) is the idea that change is intrinsically more risky than no change, and therefore that a political goal of maintaining functioning organs rather than changing things is a safe and wise course. It’s very true right up until it’s not.

Nov 15 2010

Empire building

There once was a time when I had a 286 computer running DOS. Around this time, I ran my first empire-building game. It was a big hit. We spent tons of time with it and never even got close to using it as intended. We mostly made maps (by hand, because there was no way the computing power was up to it — actually the software) and designed spaceships (with the Traveller:2300 Star Cruiser rules, if I recall). At some point one of our motley crew built custom software to facilitate the game, complete with a rotatable 3d star map and travelling-salesman solver to find optimum jump paths. That was awesome.

The idea of the empire building game is simple. There is a universe full of worlds and you don’t know much about it. You make space ships and zoom around discovering worlds. You exploit them, increasing your resources and your ability to make space ships. Eventually you run into other people and fight it out for domination of the galaxy. The joy of it is that you can play the empire part by email and use it as an excuse to occasionally wargame the space fights.

That’s the idea. I’ve done this a few times and I don’t think we ever once got to a fight. The thing is, a lot of the fun is in building space ships and exploring the universe. This may be related to the fact that my table like character generation a lot, so we’re in the “prep is play” camp, and a lot of this empire building game is basically prep. You make things, you organize them, you submit them for approval, and you get new data to integrate into your file. You sort of have to love data management. With occasional fighting.

So this time we’re using the rules I wrote for the last time, Starfight, which were originally written for use with a different space fighting game. This time I figured I’d use Diaspora because its ship construction is interesting but simple and we already know and love the space combat system. And it’s designed to stand alone. It seems like a match to me!

Also this time around we have Tim’s sons in the mix, and they are only a little younger than we were when we first tried this. Holy crap, that brings it all home.

Anyway, I did a lot of thinking in my head before starting this because the best time we ever had with this was the first time, and I want to recapture what was fun about that. Part of what was fun was that we had no tools but pencils and blank paper at the time and had to figure out how to manage our data. I didn’t think that was the fun part before. I am certain now that I was wrong. When I think about how cool that first game was, I think about coloured maps drawn with rulers, Lotus spread-sheets, and custom software. But how do you recapture that?

Well, the first thing I think is to realize that folks probably won’t actually use pencils and rulers. But that wasn’t the essence of that success. The essence of it was figuring out what to do with limited data. Figuring out a way to represent it for yourself. So this time around the coloured pencils might actually be some mighty sophisticated software, but under the covers the principle is still this: it’s your problem. So my solution (or rather my experiment) is to provide very limited data to the end user, but it’s the essential data. That is, rather than keep a database of all the details and spit out custom awesome maps, I am just handing out the data. And because there’s nor sophisticated database, it’s not complex data.

For the first turn, players get their homeworld data, which looks like this:

Vagkim (Tim’s home world)

-1-> Faran
-2-> Cozan, Meschist
-3-> Nisqit, Nolaquin

All this means is that Tim’s home planet is called Vagkim and that there is a system called Faran one jump away. And Cozan and Meschist are two jumps away. Nisqit and Nolaquin are three jumps away. Now you can draw a map.  It’s mostly a conceptual map because you only have distances and not bearings, but the fact is no one cares about bearings in this situation. I mean, if you wanted to reconstruct what the sky looks like from your homeworld then sure, you need to know what direction things are in, but if you just need to know how close something is to something else, then all you need are distances.

The other data stored are the resources. These are three numbers: Industrial, Raw, and Social. To start only your homeworld has any. Once a world becomes friendly to you, you can exploit its resources. What you get depends partially on its available resources and partially on your method of exploitation. You can strip mine it, install a corporate presence, or try to run the government.

Oops, drifting afield here. Anyway, managing this data is not very onerous and you can do it all graphically which i fun. Fuck those databases, frankly. Give me a pretty network graph.

And the other thing you do a lot of is make ships with the ship construction system and there is no way that’s not fun. You need to keep track of your ships and that’s your problem and that’s part of your fun. Fortunately Diaspora ships are pretty easy to make and do not take up much space to describe. They are also trivial to verify unlike Traveller:2300 ships which I pretty much just had to take as given, errors and all, because I wasn’t really keep on checking the volume calculations to the third decimal place. One might find oneself encouraged to draw space ships, even.

And then all this takes place on a little mailing list so there is also an implicit invitation to share, and that is part of the program as well. Part of what was really cool in the first iteration was sharing with each other just how we had decided to organize the data. Showing off our cool maps, for example, or our ship drawings. Or the software we wrote. The combination of a problem to solve and an eager audience was really what drove the fun.

I hope. If I’m right then we will recapture some of what was cool in 1986. If not, well, maybe we’ll at least have an excuse to fight space ships. Make guys and then make them fight is the cardinal rule.

–BMurray


Aug 26 2010

Maps, graphs, and other visualizations

So last night I grabbed a mind mapping app for my iPad because I don’t like mind maps.

A mind map is basically just a hierarchical outline that has been painted graphically, so all your leaves are pretty bubbles and the hierarchy is described by arcs connecting these nodes. It’s pretty. But it’s fundamentally flawed because it’s not a way to map your data. It’s a way to organize data in a very specific way (hierarchical) and this very specific way is not always all that useful. Forcing it into that map can be destructive, even. The only way, for example, to imply a connection between two nodes that are not strict parent/children is with an artificial “link” that exists outside the core model of the data.

Why does this bug me? It bugs me because the hierarchy should be an emergent property of the data and not a starting constraint. We should start mapping the data and find out that it’s hierarchical rather than force it into this structure. That is, the mind map severely limits your ability to explore your data set. Instead it becomes just a way to write it down which is, frankly, not interesting.

So anyway I grabbed this app and started playing with it. It’s pretty nifty. It’s very pretty. After a couple of hours enthralled by it I had a huge beautiful map of what this evening’s Soft Horizon game will contain and how they relate. Hierarchically, to be sure, but relate nonetheless. Wow, it is useful. I just had it upside down.

What the mind map does is not organize your data. It discovers your data. What you are exploring is not the data but your brain. You are being invited to invent, decompose, and otherwise investigate the raw stuff of creativity and consequently create something that has structure.

The hierarchical form invite elaboration, for example. I have a node called “Ragged Mere”. It’s a place. I want to know more about it so I start adding nodes (hey are these Aspects?!) like “Peaceful” and “Full of sorcerors” and “Gunpowder”. Cool. I add a couple of NPC nodes — just names, mind you — for people that are somehow attached to these places. Hmm, each also seems to demand elaboration. They get some attached sub-nodes, which also smell suspiciously like Aspects. Pretty soon I have this huge tree of hierarchical data that went all over places I had no idea I was going to investigate. Amazing!

So, okay, I get it. I mean, it’s still a crappy way to represent pre-existing data for all the reasons I ever thought of. But as a creative tool for trying to figure out how to turn a nebulous concept into a structure you can actually use for something, it does indeed work. Because of the way my mind is wired, I have to wonder how much of its power derives from simply being fun and pretty, of course, and that will shake out over time. If it’s useful, I’ll keep using it. If it’s nifty it will gather dust and eventually wind up on my “dead app page”. That’s one step before the trash on my iPad.

The fact that its structure is trivially represented by (and indeed, for many of these apps this is the actual storage format) an outline structure, it’s easy to see how to move from this to a nice linear document, if that’s a path you intend to tread. That’s looking pretty handy too, now.

Damn, I love being wrong almost as much as being right.

–BMurray


Jul 26 2010

What would be in Highport?

Okay that was fun. All the fiddling with my Terrible Grant, I mean. I’m jazzed about layout and typography and stuff relevant to this Highport idea. But is there anything to it? What would go in one of these? Who would get paid and how? What would it cost an end user?

Maybe those should be looked at one at a time. Is there anything to it? Sure. I could be persuaded to generate or acquire and edit content on a relatively frequent basis and fiddle with amusing software to get it done. I’m cool with that. So it’s certainly feasible.

What would go in one of these? That’s the kind of thing that makes lists in my head! So here’s one:

  • A Diaspora cluster in some detail. Not everyone feels creative all the time. Detail might include common equipment and maybe military structure ready for use in platoon combat. Ships? Sure! This is already looking like something that could easily span multiple issues actually.
  • A new game. I remember photocopying Dragon magazines and chopping that up to build my Snit Smashing boardgame. Making something like that happen regularly would thrill me.
  • Preview upcoming VSCA titles. Things like our space combat free PDF release could be stuck in a VSCA magazine.

Obviously I’m thinking mostly about concrete, playable content and not editorial material. Some of this is stuff fans have already been asking for, so it would be cool to be able to fork it over. I can’t see it as being very art-heavy, frankly, but rather more of a nuts and bolts periodical manual for actual play. Tables, charts, diagrams, rules, and enough fluff to get you thinking about how to use it in your game. Very little more. It would look sharp but austere on your iPad.

Who would get paid and how? See now that’s a good question because it’s not sustainable as a single-person effort. As Bob implied earlier, the clone army is not yet ready. But there are some kick-ass game designers and other creative folks withing a few dozen blocks of me and many more within reach of the interwebs. So I’m thinking of some kind of flat fee for a usage license with VSCA not owning the content. So basically I would pay a contributor (of art or writing or whatever) for the right to publish, but they would retain all rights to their content. I thought about doing a royalty thing but honestly I’m just not interested in the accounting.

What would it cost the end user? Well this is interesting. I’m exploring Magcloud because they already do the full-colour magazine thing using a model I like, but also because they have an iPad app and that’s really what I want to get in on: delivery by iPad. Also paper — I love paper — but PDFs can look so damned good on this thing that I am compelled to show you. With product. Currently Magcloud offers content through the app for free with a click-option to purchase the hardcopy. Things looks os bloody good on the device, though, that I’m afraid that’s ass-backwards — it almost makes more sense to sell some kind of ownership and charge a minor printing and shipping fee for hardcopies. Anyway, they will sort that out and if I’m working with them on this I’ll be providing vocal input. They’ll work something out. So there are a few models that would intersect with the Magcloud method:

  • Charge the base rate + profit on the Magcloud hardcopy. When they let me charge for the app delivery, charge a base rate + profit. This is least interesting to me, partially because in soliciting art and writing I incur risk and hope to get paid from the Magcloud revenues. This smells old-school.
  • Kickstart each issue and use a fraction of that money as budget for the issue and a fraction as profit. Release the PDF for free, selling through Magcloud at the minimum possible (just the Magcloud costs basically) for hardcopy and iPadd app release. This is pretty appealing (zero risk, leveraging technology) obviously.
  • Some combination of the above.

Anyway that’s what I’m thinking. I like the visual austerity of Diaspora 1 and would be aiming at that + colour to really take advantage of the iPad as delivery system. This would not be a magazine you buy for the cool artwork. Lots of folks do that already. I want to produce game-stuff. Shitloads of it.

–BMurray

  1. Apparently I will use lots of bullet lists too, judging by this article.