This is somewhat off-topic here, pertaining as it does to software in general, not just games; though in my defense, the article that prompted it, called How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism, does turn out to be about games in the end. But games are software, and software development has been going through a massive crisis lately. Two, actually: one of burgeoning complexity, and one of relevance. And this ties into a bigger trend — pointed out by the aforementioned article — of people focusing more and more on the shiny toys while forgetting the who, the what and the why.
I ranted against techno-utopianism before: the childish belief that more shiny toys will somehow cure all the world’s ills by their mere presence, when it’s not the toys you have, but how you use them. (Look at the hubbub surrounding clean energy and self-driving cars when the Paris Metro has been automated and nuclear-powered for decades — and yes, nuclear is cleaner than coal.) Or that computer algorithms are somehow objective and unbiased, a notion recent case studies have thoroughly dismantled, but one technocrats love, for obvious reasons: it justifies the status quo in which they rule the world.
In the software industry, this attitude took the form of successive technologies being touted as panacea. In turn, we were sold structured programming, logic and functional programming, OOP, UML, XML. More recently it was frameworks, and now everything is package managers and deployment systems.
Hello, everyone! While still working insanely fast on a project only tangentially related to games (and getting overly tired in the process), this week I somehow managed to gather a nice collection of links on the side.
In the way of legendary game designers, there are good news and bad news. The bad news is, Pac-Man’s creator just died. No comment, except that he’ll be remembered. On the other hand, Richard Gariott isn’t only alive and well, but he was just interviewed by Polygon over his new autobiography. And I dunno about the book, but the write-up makes for pretty good reading.
For the game designers among us, Jay Barnson has a few thoughts on character generation in RPGs. And, well, show me someone who made the acquaintance of D&D and didn’t immediately try to roll a character or ten, even before they had any way to actually play them. Sure, organic development has its place — I went with that approach in my own roguelikes — but the fix for unfamiliar options isn’t removing them, or for that matter forcing the player to read a huge-ass manual upfront. Rather, make sure that:
- The process itself is fun and lets players express themselves, and
- no single choice is wrong once the game starts.
As for we writers, of games or anything else, Alexis Kennedy just published an excellent article about worldbuilding. And it’s a lesson I had to learn myself the hard way, after my first few attempts at imaginary universes fell flat. In his words:
This does not mean that invented worlds don’t need to feel consistent. Let me say that again, without the double negative, because it’s important: invented worlds should feel consistent! But an invented world can be consistent and detailed and very very dull.
Which is exactly what happens when you build your world first, i.e. before the story. Which is very much putting the cart before the horses. Because you see, what he doesn’t say is that for an audience to care they need something to empathize with. And people don’t empathize with rocks. Give me some characters first; make me care about them, and then I’ll care about their world by extension, even if their world is a tepid medieval village.
But I could write a lot more about that. Let’s finish by pointing out the recent release of Twine 2.1. Which is a bigger upgrade than it sounds, so be sure to check the forums for issues ahead of time.
Have a very nice week.
Hello, everyone! We’re having a slow week again, and most of it dedicated to interactive fiction as usual (sorry). For one thing, PC Gamer puts the recent IFComp in the spotlight, thus further cementing the genre’s return to the mainstream. And via K.D. we learn that Douglas Adams was working on a modern Hitchhiker’s Guide game right before his untimely death in 2001. It’s a bit of non-news, really, as the assets being lost means there’s no chance of reviving the project after all these years. Doubly so as those assets were likely made for VGA displays back in the day, which would make them unusable in the 4K era.
And that, of course, highlights yet again the folly of obsoleting perfectly good technology at the drop of a hat. Imagine if vinyl had been completely abandoned within the year from CDs hitting the market. No more support for turntables, nothing. Entire collections of old, rare music becoming completely useless unless people worked hard to maintain failing hardware until there were just no more dead units left to scavenge for parts. That’s what we’re doing with computer games, and before you ask why we should bother preserving some piece of shovelware, the answer is that you can only know a classic in retrospect. If you didn’t take care of it on time, sixteen years down the road — when you finally realize it wasn’t just another piece of shovelware after all — you can only weep for the loss. And that’s terrible.
Last but not least, my friend Kris is at it again with a batch of capsule reviews for tabletop RPGs and board games. Enjoy, and see you next time.
Hello, everyone. For once, I only have my own bad mood to blame for the shortness of this newsletter. As promised three weeks ago, my latest book, Make Your Own Programming Language, is live on Leanpub. It’s only of interest to programmers, especially those with a taste for retrocomputing and retrogaming. But you know my opinion: piecing blocks together in GameMaker is still programming, whether you realize it or not. And game design works best when you have at least a trace of process, as opposed to banging things together until they stick. So give it a try.
In unrelated news, all everyone’s been talking about lately is No Man’s Sky. That’s also the case of Michael Cook, who brings it up as an example of the language we use to discuss procedural generation. And you know… I couldn’t help but notice the fatigue of many reviewers when they mention how many millions of billions of planets there are in that game, and how they’re never going to see the vast majority of them. Which fortunately doesn’t really matter…
I guess the creators of No Man’s Sky forgot that the original 8-bit Elite was originally planned to have 282 trillion galaxies, or 2 to the power of 48 (presumably another byte was going to be used for the planets in each galaxy). And never mind that it would have made the artificiality obvious, especially on a home computer from the 1980s. But visiting 2000 star systems is a plausible goal for the determined player — there are just enough of them to make for a huge playground, yet few enough that you can actually remember some of your visits afterwards… and care. While enough content to fill millions of galaxies (a sizable chunk of the observable universe) just sort of blends into an amorphous mass. A statistic, if you will.
As an aside, let me underscore again than an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s, with just 64 kilobytes of RAM, could easily have handled a procedural universe on a scale comparable with the one in No Man’s Sky (if a lot less detailed). What exactly are we doing with a million times more memory and computing speed?
Hello, everyone. This week, Vintage Is the New Old notes that the Internet Archive just uploaded 13 years’ worth of Nintendo Power issues. Which reminded me of the times in 8th grade when all the boys would gather around a classmate whose parents were wealthy enough to get him issues of a similar magazine from France, along with Famicom games. It would be years before I got my own console, a Chinese clone, and by then everyone else had moved on to the SNES. But magazines still made people gather around in the classroom…
In unrelated news, we have a couple of rants, like this one about big game companies jumping into virtual reality feet first and messing things up, thus giving the medium a bad reputation. An interesting argument, but I predict that’s not what will kill VR again — rather it will be the realization that VR is still a gimmick with nothing new to say. And from a different source, here’s an opinion piece about what actually matters in procedurally-generated games. Gee, you mean some people play games for the (gasp) mechanics? As in, the one thing that’s unique to the medium? What a surprise… not.
I’ll end with an article on testing interactive fiction with automated gameplay, which contains some ideas easily applicable to other genres, like board games. It’s a kind of fuzzing, really, with comparable benefits and limitations. Also, the bit about repeating game states made me think about certain rules from the games of Chess and Go — it’s not just an issue for computers.
But you already know to take inspiration from the analog world, don’t you?
Imagine the following scenario: you’re prototyping a game, and for now all you want is to put a colored box on the screen. It should be a simple function call, right? Wrong. For one thing, you can’t just draw anything you want, it has to come from an external image file. Which is in a complex, multi-layered format that can only be created with large specialized software suites, most of them expensive, and requiring semi-professional knowledge to use at all. Then there’s the code itself: you have to unpack the file, pick only the parts you need from it, and set up the display just so before sending any data to the screen…
Thankfully, various people have created more friendly wrappers, that let you load a 3rd-party image and blit it to the screen with just a couple of function calls. Then you discover that the image format you’re using does not, in fact, work on another operating system, contrary to what the library documentation claims…
A while later, a consortium of vendors releases a portable API that does, in fact, let you draw directly to the screen. Except it takes telling the machine exactly how to line up each pixel so that they form a box, for every color channel separately. And then you have to funnel the resulting data through the pathway described above…
Ridiculous? Absurd? Implausible?
I remember playing with a ZX Spectrum on an 11″ black-and-white TV, and marveling at the way you could distinctly see each individual pixel — the resolution was that low. Yet if you put just 64 of them together, suddenly they looked like something: part of a brick wall, a ladder, a jewel…
Fast forward 20 years, when a friend (hi, fluffy!) praised me for the work I put into Escape From Cnossus to make it look like an 8-bit game. I had to explain it was an 8-bit game running in an emulator. Makes me wonder how many of the people playing it on itch.io realize the truth. The game looks just that good — my best-looking at the time in fact.
Most people nowadays seem to associate pixel art with classic NES games. I associate it with everything from the aforementioned Speccy, through Flashback and Street Fighter II Turbo on the SNES, to mid-1990s games like Master of Orion and SimCity 2000 on the PC. Not to mention 2.5D arcade games like Space Harrier and countless racers. So you’ll understand my annoyance at indies who keep churning out cutesy platformers and nothing else, but also at all the snobs who mock them. (continue reading…)
It had to happen sooner or later. For the first time since I’m keeping this newsletter, not a single tweet or blog post caught my attention enough to be worth sharing here. So this has to be a skip week. I blame myself. Maybe don’t unsubscribe just yet though. Please?
I will, however, leave you with a thought if I may: It occurs to me that game genres are the equivalent of literary forms, and there’s nothing wrong with liking sonnets over flash fiction. And when you decide what to write next, you don’t just choose a theme, but also how best to express it. Will it be an epistolary novel? An epic poem?
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a time-tested form. Just do it with purpose.
I wrote about representation in games before. It’s a complex problem that will take many small steps to solve, all of them partial and faulty. But we need to take those steps already, and that’s why I was happy to see one of my favorite bloggers tackle the problem again. In his article You Are the Hero, David Chart explains why representation is hard, and why you can’t always satisfy everyone.
And you know, Mr. Chart makes a couple of good points there. Like the fact that just having a “brown” character isn’t enough. Roma Gypsies may not feel represented by a Pakistani for example. But! I’ll argue that even having Roma characters isn’t specific enough — there are multiple sub-groups to consider, and going too specific may well have the opposite effect. Moreover, all too often the issue is that people from marginalized groups find nobody at all to identify with in a story: all the remotely important characters are rich straight white men. (Who solve all their problems through violence — that’s another good point Mr. Chart makes. It’s horribly unrealistic: most people hate violence, and for good reason, since in the real world it just begets more violence, and solves absolutely nothing.)
That said, I’m not at all convinced it’s so hard to write stories that appeal to a large number of social categories. I’ve read AND written books that feature rich and poor, old and young, women, people of color, sexual minorities and disabled people at the same time, with sufficient prominence, and it never once felt forced. It’s a lot easier than you think. Minorities… simply exist and are among us. You don’t need any special reason to feature them.
Hello, everyone. I had yet another week of writing and editing, with more editing and art coming, not to mention other things. So yeah, still not much attention span to spare here. But the news are no less worth it.
The big one this week was that a computer had beaten a world-class GO champion. Which is incredibly meaningful, because it’s not the kind of problem you can solve with more processing power (unlike the time when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess). You have to build genuine intelligence into your code — and somebody did. It’s part of the same trend as self-driving cars; funny how fast AI has advanced once we gave up on trying to blithely imitate people, and just treated it like another tool in the box.
Anyway, in unrelated news, it turns out that procedural generation of text predates computers by centuries. Which makes perfect sense, because the concept of computation has been around for much longer than the idea of an universal computer, and indeed doesn’t depend on it. In fact, there is a staggering variety of natural processes that can perform computation — one of them, DNA self-duplication, gave birth to us. That people thought of it (in a very meta way it turns out) so long ago is a lesson worth learning.
In the way of actual game development, one of my favorite people in gaming interviews the creators of 80 Days, and while it’s not exactly new information, the way it’s put together makes it fresh again, so give it a read. Last but not least, another story that made waves this week: in a lengthy blog post, an indie game developer explains why they had to fire most of the crew after a successful game launch. And you know, I can understand just fine why someone would make the kind of mistakes described in the article, having seen very similar stories play out before (from the perspective of an employee who had to be laid out). But I wish people would figure out already that:
- ambition is bad;
- you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single basket;
- ambition is bad;
- Steam is not your friend;
- ambition is bad.
No, seriously. I’m sick and tired of hearing how you’d supposedly never have started anything without ambition. I seem to start — and finish — a whole lot of different things, and while none of them has reached epic size or widespread success yet, I have a lot more to show for my efforts right now than my friends who rushed to build a dream castle before they had a solid foundation, and it all crumbled to rubble one day.
Until next week, consider the virtues of patient work.