Wednesday, May 31, 2006

But Oh, The Quantity

[Computer Gaming]

I present the following quote, courtesy of Martin at Megaderived, as my quick summary of everything that's wrong in computer gaming today.

"I’m still playing [Final Fantasy X], and am now at the one hundred and seven hour mark. That’s working out at 0.0467 pence per hour of play seeing as I bought it for a meagre five pounds. I’m not really having any fun with it anymore, but it’s got a price-per-hour value that can’t be beat." (link)

Apologies to Martin for the quote; I suspect he's being more than a little tongue-in-cheek when he says that, but it stands out because it's so true. Who cares if we're having fun - did we get a lot of play hours for our money? (Note: I personally enjoyed FFX a whole heap, but that's beside the point.)

And, because I've said all this before, I'll direct you all back to my very first substantive post on this blog. Will I keep regularly dredging this up until something changes? You betcha!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Do-It-Yourself Ragequit

[Computer Gaming]

Annoyed at the way your favourite MMOG is clearly out to specifically and personally ruin your fun? Remember how things were magically more fun back in beta? Pushed over the edge by one irrelevant patch too many? Don't worry - The Dust Forms Words has been there! Now, with the aid of the following DIY Ragequit form, you can exit the game in spectacular style with one simple forum post!

Title: [Name of Moderator]! Why [name of game] is dying

GG, [developer], you have ruined [name of game]. Enough is enough. [Name of game] was a great game but now it is DYING. Everyone I know is leaving the game, /golfclap.

I have played this game since beta and I have twenty characters at level [max level]. But now you have ruined it. I have done everything there is to do in the game and now there is no content except [grinding/PvP/raiding]. I know all the [hardcores/casuals/noobs] will flame me but it is TRUE!

This is because of [developer]'s LIES. It is [lifespan of game] [years/months] later and where is my [auction house/casual raid content/meaningful PvP]? Broken promises! This is part of a wilful campaign of false advertising and SOMEONE WILL SUE! They will not give my money back and I got banned when I asked.

Now we have [feature of latest patch] and it is the LAST STRAW. I am cancelling my account and going to play [poor-quality upcoming MMOG]. Your game is dying and everyone knows it, kthxbai.

Editor's Note: You will, of course, have to insert your own obvious spelling errors and maybe a joke or two that doesn't make sense. I hope this has been helpful!

It Looks Like A Nail

[Computer Gaming]

It's a beautiful day in Animal Crossing. The sun is shining, my new pear trees are growing nicely, and the fish are practically leaping out of the river and into my pockets. Which is why it's all the more sad when I find that my good friend Goose (who despite his name appears to be some kind of chicken) has come down with a savage case of avian influenza. He's shaking, he's shivering, and amid deranged mutters about the prodigious size of his pectorals he repeats a single word: "Medicine..."

Well, when a comrade's in trouble I'm not one to stand idly by. Goose needs Tamiflu, and the nearest stash is in the slimy paws of a certain Tom Nook, fixer and fence extraordinaire. I swing into action, and make my way in record speed to Chez Nookington, evil den of crime and inequity. As I prepare to burst in and pump Nook full of hot lead, I take a quick look through my inventory to select exactly which gun to use for the frantic room-to-room firefight that's about to ensue. I'm low on ammo, but I think I've got just enough left to load up my... watering can?

Sigh. Guess I'd better politely ask to buy some medicine, and shell out the requisite 400 bells.

They say that when you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I guess it follows that when you're holding a bagful of cash, every problem looks like an empty shopping bag. And by golly, there's a lot of empty shopping bags in Animal Crossing. There's almost nothing in the game that can't be made better by a quick trip to the local factory outlet.

What's true of zoologically-themed shopping simulators is doubly true of the traditional shoot-'em-up. When you're sitting behind the barrel of a gun, every problem is one you can solve with a bullet.

Counter-Strike is still possibly the world's most popular first person shooter (FPS). It's a game with as many urban interiors as Animal Crossing, but as a player the thought of decorating them with purchases from the local shop does not cross your mind. It's a game where you encounter a range of other characters, but the possibility of buying them medicine or challenging them to a friendly fishing competition is not for a second contemplated.

It's such an obvious thing to say that it seems ludicrous. Of course the point of Counter-Strike is to shoot things. Of course you don't worry about stopping to collect bugs for the local museum. Because those things aren't in the game. They're beyond the scope of the game. You have a gun; the gun's front and centre of your point of view. That's all you need to know what the game expects you to do.

Games are like language. It's a subject that Chris over at Only A Game has been spending a lot of energy talking about (link). You can consider each action that a player can perform as a verb in that language, and each object that a verb can be performed on as a noun. It's more akin to an entire language system than it is a pre-written story, because the player is free to combine verbs and nouns themselves to create their own chains of action (sentences).

The theory of linguistic determinism suggests that there is a relationship between the grammar and vocabulary of language and the way that speakers of the language interpret the world and behave within it - put simply, that your language influences the way you think. Wittgenstein expresses it in his Tractato Logico Philosophicus through the observation, "The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world" (link). George Orwell adds, "If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought" (link).

There is no finer tool in game design for focusing a player's efforts and to quickly explain the point of a game than to give the player a relevant tool. A player given a car knows that the world should be seen in terms of movement and speed; a player given a map knows that they should travel; a player given a magnifying glass knows that they should look closer at things.

Our capacities within the game language define our behaviour. It's technically possible that a level of Doom might contain a problem that can be solved by finding a set of fingerprints in the graphics and using them in some fashion to solve a puzzle - it's within the technical capacities of the game engine - but the language of Doom is such that a player would almost never contemplate such a possibility. The player's primary capabilities are to shoot, and to move, and thus problems in Doom are ones that can be solved by a combination of moving and shooting.

This has a prosaic application; as a game designer, clearly you should avoid designing problems that run contrary to the inherent language of your game. Animal Crossing would be poorly advised to include a one-off problem that can be solved by beating up another character. Counter-Strike would lose much of what makes it a succesful visceral game were the player required to manage a complex inventory or occasionally stop to solve logic problems.

But it also invites a more interesting speculation. If every game effectively teaches the player to learn and think in the language of that game, even if only for the duration of play, and language influences thought - are we dramatically underestimating the potential of games as tools of education and persuasion?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Guild Wars: Updatings

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

On a whim, I decided to fire up my Guild Wars account, inactive since last November. I thought I'd see what the GW world is like post-expansion, and maybe even see if it's worth getting Factions and jumping back into the craziness again.

I'll let you know how it works out. Sjolvir Arkensson stalks Lion's Arch again!

UPDATE: Spent some quality time with GW on Sunday. The last time I logged on was shortly after Sorrow's Furnace and Halloween last year (in fact, my main PvE character was still wearing his pumpkin crown).

Good things: I love the minor interface improvements. Even just as simple as the letter "T" being added to the called target tab is great. Resizable toons is cool, and the new PvP tutorial and testing island is a welcome addition. Never again will I wonder about the exact range of my area of effect skills. The game is still one of the best-looking MMOGs around, and the eight-skill "deck" style of character building is still tactically intriguing. I like the look of the new Titles system and the added PvP gear, but I don't have Factions so I haven't been able to try them out at length.

Bad things: The PvE play still feels shallow, with an item list that's virtually irrelevant and a remarkably small amount of armour and weapon styles. Quest text seems to actively discourage you from reading it with a tiny font that requires you to scroll down to accept. In-battle information about what you and your opponents are doing is relatively scarce, skill mouseovers are not as informative as they could be, and out of the way locations are still as underpopulated as ever. There's still a dysfunctional relationship between PvE and PvP and the learning curve in relation to maximising the effectiveness of your skill usage is still very steep.

Hmmm... six months' holiday from the game, and it's still only halfway to fixing the things that were wrong with it when I left (and they're things I was fairly vocal about when I left). It's a nice breath of fresh air from WoW, and it's great to be able to jump into meaningful skill-based small-scale PvP at the drop of a hat. But I don't see myself getting heavily invested in the game again.

Comics Round-Up - May 06

[Now Experiencing] [Comics]

It's been a good month for comics! Here are a few highlights that I've picked up over the last few weeks.

* Y: The Last Man Volume 7 - Paper Dolls
A mysterious plague strikes the Earth, killing every mammal with a Y chrosome overnight - except for Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey Ampersand.

This is the seventh volume of this fantastic series by writer Brian Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra. Yorick, along with companions Agent 355 and geneticist Dr Alison Mann, is on his way to Japan on the trail of his captured monkey, who could hold the secret to reversing the plague. However, before the trail can be resumed, the trio are detoured to Australia, which happens to be the last known location of Yorick's girlfriend Beth. Yorick has 24 hours to find clues to Beth's whereabouts, but his efforts are complicated by the intervention of an unscrupulous tabloid reporter on the trail of the Last Man. Meanwhile, Hero continues her odyssey across the unmanned America and meets the other Beth, in time to become embroiled in a clash with agents of the Vatican. Backstory is revealed for both Agent 355 and for Ampersand, and Yorick's mother receives a familiar but unwelcome visitor.

Vaughn is doing a terrific job keeping this series as fresh and exciting as it was when it was launched. This volume may well be the high point of the series so far, and the "Paper Dolls" storyline is quite rightly up for an Eisner Award. Fantastic character art and snappy dialogue interspersed with geek culture references make every issue a joy to read, and I hope the series continues for many more volumes. If you're only going to buy one graphic novel in this six months, make it a volume of Y.

* Ex Machina Volume 3 - Fact v Fiction
Mitchell Hundred was an engineer, until he recovered a scrap of metal inscribed with alien script and suddenly developed the ability to speak to, and command, machinery. He embarked on a short-lived career as a superhero, marked by a score of embarassing failures, and one notable success - intercepting the plane that would have otherwise demolished the second tower of the World Trade Center. Riding high on post 9/11 goodwill, Hundred successfully runs for the office of Mayor of New York and wins... and that is where the story of Ex Machina begins.

Volume 3 of this series, also by Brian Vaughn (Y: The Last Man) sees the role of mayor becoming ever more complex as Hundred and his staff begin to move past the post-election honeymoon. In a series of self-contained stories, Hundred confronts fortune tellers, a costumed vigilante, jury duty, and, finally, his mother.

Fact v Fiction (up for multiple Eisner awards) kicks the notch down a little from the last two hectic volumes. The atmosphere here is a little lighter than the earlier installments, but it's a needed break, and it gives the talented Ex Machina team the chance to build tension and develop some new mysteries. Is Hundred the only person with his unique powers, or does he share them with others? What is the origin of the alien artefact? And he may be able to talk to machines - but what happens when the machines lie?

This is an absolutely stunning series, combining The West Wing with Astro City written with Vaughn's signature pop-culture wit. Tony Harris' photo-based artwork lends the series a film-like visual style reminiscent of newsphoto or documentary footage and deftly setting the tone for the political suspense drama of the plot.

Ex Machina offers a little something for anyone who's ever enjoyed a comic of any sort. It's a fantastic story with believable and sensitively written characters and you should pick up a volume at the first opportunity.

*52 - Issues 1 to 3
Over in superhero territory, it's hard to be reading comics at the moment and not know a little about DC's ambitious project 52.

Set in the aftermath to the world-shaking (but somewhat mediocre) Infinite Crisis series, wherein DC redefined their superhero universe, 52 tells the story of the year following the recent catastrophes - one week at a time. An issue of 52 is coming out each week for a year, filling in the gaps and exploring the consequences of Infinite Crisis.

With DC star writers such as Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Grant Morrison at the helm, you could be assured that 52 would at least be mildly interesting. In fact, I'm surprised to find it's rather good. My tolerance for superhero-universe stories has been remarkably shortened by the excesses of Infinite Crisis, so I'm pleased to say that, at least from the first three issues I've read, 52 is a well-paced character-centred story that so far is doing no more than it needs to in order to stay relevant and enjoyable. It's filling plot holes without being gratuitous, it's being dramatic without being melodramatic, and it's doing a fantastic job of making the DC universe look like something worth continuing to read about.

It's also worth noting that from Issue #2 the title is going to print with a "History of the DC Universe" side story. Obviously it's a stunt that allows them to get away with shorter primary stories and thereby keep up with their punishing publication schedule, but that aside it's a fairly good way for new readers to get up to speed on the background of the DC Universe and its regularly confusing host of alternate worlds, historical periods, and multiple versions of the same hero.

In addition to all this, DC is running a parallel alternate-reality style site at which aims to provide additional small details on the background of the "missing year" through newspaper-style headlines and a range of novelty downloads. (For example, LexCorp desktop backgrounds and printable beer-coasters from Gotham City bars.)

If you have any tolerance for DC Superhero titles, 52 is currently one of the better ones, and probably worth your time. Check it out.

* Other titles
Okay, this post is getting a bit long, so I'll just make a few mentions.
- Teen Titans is still awesome, with a very Buffy vibe starting to build up. Robin's a great character in this title, like you've never seen him before; new characters include a teenaged Zatara, a sidekick to Blue Devil, and Deathstroke's daughter the Ravager. Plus the most recent issue introduced the new improved Doom Patrol, which has me bouncing with happiness.
- Battle for Bludhaven is still rubbish. Buy at your own peril.
- Shadowpact could have been interesting - it's by Fables creator Bill Willingham. Freed of the constraints of plotting Infinite Crisis, I was hoping Willingham could turn this "JLA of the magical world" into an exciting title but so far it's still short on much-needed characterisation. It may be a case of a lot of potential going to waste. I'll grab the next issue and see if it picks up.
- Moving outside of the DCU, the latest issue of Dork Tower is a blast and seems particularly relevant for certain people I know involved in last minute convention organisation. Lots of fun from Kovalic, as always, and very funny.

That's me on comics for now. Sorry there's no Marvel titles, but neither the Ultimate titles nor the Annihlation and Civil War plots are doing anything for me. I am reading some silver age Daredevil, which varies in quality, but I don't imagine you'll get much from a review of it. 8-)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Metroid Prime Hunters Friend Code

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I've unpacked my copy of Metroid Prime: Hunters. I'm enjoying the control scheme in principle, but it's a little hand-crampy; I've tried Corvus' "strap the stylus to your thumb" thing but it doesn't work for me. Also, although I admittedly haven't played much of the single-player game yet, I suck in deathmatch. Everyone I meet uses me as their punching bag.

Metroid Prime Hunters Friend Code: 3651 4360 7836 (Name: Greg T)

Don't make me trawl your blogs - leave your codes in the comments on this post!

Saluting The New Order

[Computer Gaming]

Sorry for the glut of Sony bashing posts here of recent weeks (it's so easy!). All this has been by way of me coming to an important realisation.

Despite the fact that I have been a Sony gamer for the last two generations of gaming consoles; despite the fact that I have roughly 100 PS1 and PS2 games; despite the fact that I was a PSP early adopter; despite the fact that I desperately, desperately want to play Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy XIII; and despite the fact that I am exactly the kind of spend-happy loyalist demographic that Sony is counting on to pay way too much for their new Blu-Ray doorstop ...

... I will not be buying a PS3 at launch.

And you know what? If I hear the slightest hint that Konami and Square's respective franchises may not be cast-iron Sony exclusive (and they've done it before), then I can't really see why I'd buy a Playstation 3 at all.

(*unsurprised silence*)

Well, it's a big deal for me, alright?

By the way, Dubious Quality sums up Sony's exit from the market in this post in a far more comprehensive way than I could ever hope to.

Wii-mote = Wii-microphone?

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Gamespot are apparently ready to lend their tentative thumbs-up to some factually thin speculation that the Wii-mote speaker may also be used as a microphone - which would mean on an internet-enabled Wii that that the Wii-mote could be used for voice command a la Nintendogs, in-game chat, karaoke software, and even an internet phone service.

Stop, Nintendo! You sold me on the console at E3! All this talk of ridiculously low pricing and killer controller applications is just overkill! *breaks down and cries*

Young Love

[Computer Gaming]

It seems that everyone I know is getting married these days; in fact I'm attending a wedding tomorrow, which despite all my best endeavours will apparently feature neither a "zombie horror" motif nor the arming of guests with paintballing guns. Bah, the fools.

Anyway, all this random matrimony has me contemplating my first love. Her name was Alis, and along with her friends Odin and Noah and her flying cat-thing Myau she saved the Algol Star System from Dark Force and the evil emperor Lassic.

I remember our first date, at the Camineet spaceport. She was distraught because her brother had been brutally slain by the oppressive police force; I comforted her with some new weapons and armour and several hours of levelling up. We strolled along the romantic beaches fighting giant tentacled monsters, and when we ran low on hit points we retired to Alis' house, where the screen went suggestively dim.

Our relationship matured over time; we took holidays to the nearby desert and ice planets. We squabbled at times, when one too many annoying pit traps left us both stressed and angry, but ultimately we grew together. We took the plunge and committed to the joint purchase of a giant ice-crushing landrover - the payments were huge but it made the commute across Dezoris that much more manageable. Finally, we tied the knot in a romantic ceremony during an eclipse that involved feeding our cat magical berries; we honeymooned in a castle in the sky, and weren't distracted in the least by the ramblings of some old man in a crown and the unspeakable evil thing he kept in his basement.

Yes, Phantasy Star was that moment in gaming when I went from merely dabbling in games to deciding, "I want to play more things like this!" Sure, today I can see how my enthusiasm caused me to miss faults in its grind-based levelling and linear character progression, but aren't we all blind in the face of young love?

I'd like to throw the floor open to all you crazy people who stop by and read my blog. What was the defining nexus among YOUR first experiences with computer games? Which was the game that coloured the way you see the medium today? What game will forever have a special place in your heart, despite all its crippling, crippling flaws? Leave a comment under this post, or better yet, blog about it and let me know!

This post dedicated to Chris and Claire; may you enjoy many years of levelling up together.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Robot Robot Robot!

[News] [Music]

Uh... this is COMPLETELY off-topic compared to my blog's normal content, but thanks to the memorable Juri-chan, via Wuffie's LJ friends page, I am now alerted to the world-shattering news that there is a new t.A.T.u album! Prepare your auditory channels to be assaulted by horrible fake Russian lesbian techno-pop.

*Today is a happy day.*

Sony: The 5-Step Recovery Plan

[Computer Gaming]

Well, the PS3 is looking decidedly unattractive as a gaming console right now. Sony looks arrogant, directionless, and more than a little like they suddenly don't know what the hell they're doing in the gaming industry in the first place. It's a long way to come from the triumphant success of the PS2.

So, just in case Sony execs are out there reading my blog (and why wouldn't they?), here's my five-step plan to get Sony back on its feet and ready to launch with both fists swinging.

1) Drop Blu-Ray
We don't need it. We don't want it. We certainly aren't prepared to have the price of a gaming console inflated by several hundred dollars just for the privilege of being able to use a format that nobody's supporting yet. If you, Sony, honestly think it's such a big deal, then damn well subsidise it yourself. Put the games back onto DVD, or (heaven forbid) HD-DVD, and don't make us pay the price of your format speculation.

2) Stop screwing around with DRM
DRM (Digital Rights Management) is not the way of the future. We, the consumer, are not interested in buying either systems or software infected with crippleware. Games that can only be played in one machine will not sell. Games that cannot be lent to friends or resold will not sell. Games that require online authentication before you can play them will not sell. Telling your customers that you think they're all thieving criminals is not the way to win a fan base.

3) Put Dual Shock back in the controllers
Suck up your pride and pay the damn guy for his technology. It's good technology, and if you have to pay for it then so be it. People expect to be able to feel their heartbeat in survival horror games; to feel the engine in driving games; to feel explosions during cutscenes. Plus, what the hell is the point of backwards compatibility if Psycho Mantis can't move your controller with his mind anymore?

4) Forget about this dual SKU nonsense
Having two versions of the system is just a cheap way of being able to lie about the true magnitude of the price point. It creates consumer confusion and waters down the value of your brand. There should be only one PS3, and that one version should be iconic and have a reputation of quality. There should not be the option of accidentally buying "PS3 - the dud version". Consumers should be able to know that when they're buying PS3 they're buying quality.

5) Remember where you're coming from
Sony, you're a media company. You're the company that combined a CD player and a console; a DVD-player and a console. What we were all excited about with the PS3 way back when was that it was going to be the ultimate media box - an aggregated MP3 server, sound system, web terminal, community client, DVD player and games station, all running on an open source OS with no worries about system spec or hardware compatibility. That was fantastically attractive. You're the company with the experience and the resources to pull that off, so stop flopping about trying to be the bastard child of Microsoft and Nintendo and get back to doing what you do well.

Honestly, I'm pretty sure blind comatose babies know that Sony's current strategy is just rubbish (or at least you can't prove that they don't). Sony needs to stop punching nuns and kicking puppies and get back to what made them so exciting to see in action for the last two generations - making gaming consoles designed for gamers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Girl Gamer Blog Challenge

[Web Stuff] [Computer Gaming]

What with all these girls playing games these days, it's no surprise that there are a few girl gamer blogs getting some attention. What is surprising is that they are all so freaking excellent.

I mean, they're ALL so good. The girl gaming blogosphere seems to be completely devoid of the half-assed and the merely competent. Here I am rambling about the latest Final Fantasy clone I've dug out of the bargain bin, and meanwhile they're brimming to the lid with an intoxicating mix of uber-geekness and well-presented academia. It's enough to make me throw up my hands in despair.

I'll direct you to three of particular note, if you haven't encountered them already:
* Wonderland : Alice talks about sci-fi television, game geek art, MMOGs, and all things kawaiiiii.
* Guilded Lilies : "Grown Women Playing Games", covering the gaming spectrum from virtual world design to game marketing with a decidedly feminine eye.
* New Game Plus : Ariel's apparently a feminist, student, and Nanowrimo participant who blogs on gender and culture issues in games

And of course you should check out the coverage over at Acid for Blood with sidebar regular Brinstar for all things Guild Wars and Metroid.

So my challenge is... can anyone point me to a girl gamer blog which is merely average? Or, to put it another way whereby you're less likely to offend your friends, what girl gamer blogs are out there which I've somehow completely overlooked?

EDIT: It's belatedly crossed my mind that some of the above may object to being referred to as "girl gamers". Those who know me may be aware that I use the word "girl" as a positive term to connote someone who is either physically or mentally on the same generational wavelength as myself. But if anyone's actually worried I'm quite happy to substitute the phrase "woman gamer blogs". Besides, disagreement breeds discussion, and discussion breeds learning, so go nuts flaming me if you've got the inclination.

Conflux 06 On The Horizon!

[News] [Events]

The draft program for Conflux 06 is now available here.

For those who don't already have your memberships, it's not too late to attend! Conflux is a science fiction and fantasy convention in the comparatively mature Australian style, taking place in Canberra at the National Museum from 9 to 12 June 2006.

It's a huge line-up with hundreds of scheduled events.

Appearing by video linkup:
* Sir Arthur C Clarke (author, 2001: A Space Odyssey)
* Ray Bradbury (author, Fahrenheit 451)
* Lloyd Alexander (author, The Chronicles of Prydain)

Appearing in person
* Steve Jackson (Steve Jackson Games)
* Ellen Datlow (editor and author)
* Andy Chambers (game developer, Blizzard Entertainment, Games Workshop)
* Kate Forsyth (author, Witches of Eileanan)
* Jackie French (author, Cafe on Calisto)
* Joan D Vinge (author, The Snow Queen)
* James Frenkel (editor and agent)
* Nick Stathopoulos (artist and illustrator)
* Les Petersen (artist and illustrator)
* Greg Bridges (artist and illustrator)
* Dan Abnett (creator, Hairbutt the Hippo)
* Queenie Chan (creator, The Dreaming)

With a special appearance by:
* ABC's hit comedy series Double the Fist

A huge international art show, a gaming room roughly the size of the last Conflux all by itself, a massive media stream, film festival, trader's hall, cocktail party, tours and pub crawls, a masquerade and banquet dinner, book launches, signings, workshops, and of course debaucherous room parties which are in no way organised or officially condoned by the organisers of Conflux.

Memberships are NOT CHEAP, now going for $220 full membership or $155 student concession (you should have got in early), but I can promise you that it is worth every last dollar and then some. If you've never been to a top-shelf Australian convention then you don't know what you're missing; I've never met anyone who's regretted the cost of attending something like this. If you're one of the people who'll buy a PS3 for $1000 Australian under Sony's new "bend over and take it" pricing policy then you really have no excuse for missing out on an experience you'll remember long after you've finished MGS4 for the umpteenth time.

Also it looks like I may be involved in organising volunteers for the Hall of Gaming. If you're lucky I might get dispensation to thereby let people attend the gaming stream who otherwise couldn't get in, so if you're a lazy bum who can't afford to attend Conflux but would be willing to do some work in order to be around non-stop gaming then get in touch with me ASAP. (No promises.)

UPDATE: Forget that "work to get in" nonsense. Unless the Conflux website is full of dirty lies (which it may be), the gaming stream is apparently 100% free! That's right, attend the gaming stream with OR WITHOUT a Conflux membership! Take that, inferior gaming convention that Conflux is competing with! Uh... but I probably still need volunteers, so does anyone want to work for absolutely no benefit whatsoever just to fulfill my desire to have sockpuppet minions managing the gaming stream?

More details on the official Conflux website.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hurray, I'm Irrelevant!

[Site News]

According to Google, this site is only the 6th most relevant site for finding out about... this site. Apparently the best place to go to find out about The Dust Forms Words is Corvus's blog, followed by Gameblogs' reference to Unfettered Blather's reference to me, the PerplexCity site, my Blogger profile, and my comment on Ron Gilbert's site.

That's... worrying. Clearly not enough of you people are linking to my site. Work harder, audience monkeys! Schnell! Schnell!


[Game Design]

Playing through Tales of Phantasia is reminding me of one of the things that first sold me on the Game Boy Advance (and subsequently the DS): microgaming.

What's microgaming? It's the idea that a videogame player should always be able to accomplish something meaningful within a span of about three minutes of play. It's the concept that the game shouldn't require continuous play sessions of more than about ten minutes without an opportunity to save progress and quit.

Admittedly, Tales of Phantasia is reminding me of this in a negative sense. Its console roots show a little too strongly, and the play sessions between save points are closer to 30 or 40 minutes than to the standards set by games like Pokemon, Legend of Zelda or Fire Emblem.

What are the keys that make microgaming work? I have some ideas.

* The ability to save almost anywhere, and save relatively quickly.

* Discrete tasks; each task should be a meaningful challenge, but a self-contained one, requiring activity in only one area and using only one or two skillsets at a time. Larger tasks should be broken down into a series of these smaller tasks.

* Easy to understand geography. A player should be able to tell where they are in the gameworld instantly, and tell where they should be going next quickly. Mazes should be treated as a once-off discrete task and not a persistent challenge of the gameworld. Key areas should appear instantly visually distinctive.

* No long-term punishments; a debuff or negative state should last only for the length of the task it is incurred in. Another way of saying this is that a player should never be in a position where they are worse off than the last time they saved. (The LucasArts adventure game philosophy.)

* Microachievements: each and every successful action in the gameworld leads towards an achievement. Each monster defeated rewards you with experience; each race completed leads towards a reward unlock; each step taken expands the amount of the world map revealed. This makes even very short play feel meaningful.

* Wheel-hub game structure: rather than a linear progression of stages and objectives, have objectives all roughly equidistant from a single "home hub". Legend of Zelda tends to have a home village from which no single dungeon is very far away; Super Mario 64 had the castle. Pokemon meets the challenge mostly by having the key gameplay (catching and levelling up) work no matter where you are in the world. That way you're not becoming committed to a course of action when you start working on a challenge; if you feel in a different mood next time you power on the system, you can almost immediately move to a different challenge.

These are some of the things that have improved games endlessly for me, and are some of the things that have made so many GBA and DS titles so very addictive. And it leads me to the question - why aren't more games for consoles and PCs designed like this? What is there of value in making the player commit to a half hour trek between save points? What valid design objective can there be for an unexpected fifteen minute unskippable cutscene? (I mean, Metal Gear Solid was good and all, but at times it was less like playing a game and more like watching a Tom Hanks movie.)

Does anyone have anything to say about successful microgaming design, or why we should put up with its absence just because a game's for a non-portable system?

Attack of the Bots

[Site News]

Well, the spambots are now striking in force, so while I clean them up I'm turning on word verification. Sorry about the extra step needed to comment; don't let it stop you from posting often!

The particular ones that have attacked are of the sort that are posting merely to link to their site; as Google ranks sites by the amount of places linking to them, it's a quick way of boosting a Google score. Ick, they make me sick.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Tales of Phantasia (GBA)

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I mentioned before I'm working my way through the port of Tales of Phantasia for the Game Boy Advance (by way of my DS). I thought I might post some thoughts.

Phantasia is the first installment in Namco's Tales franchise. It was first released for the SNES way back in the day, but only in Japan. I'd never heard of it until the series started getting a lot of western attention with the release of Symphonia on the GameCube and the more recent releases of Eternia and Legendia for the PSP and PS2 respectively. Apparently there are a whopping 13 games in the series, putting it up on a par with Final Fantasy, lengthwise.

That's not all it shares with Final Fantasy, though, by a long way. The game follows the classic Japanese RPG format, featuring a group of four adventurers on a quest through time in a medieval-esque setting to face a great evil... thing. The plot progresses from city to city, and dungeon to dungeon, punctuated by random encounters and levelling up. The graphics are unremittingly remniscent of Final Fantasy, as are the combat abilities (going so far as to include a summoning mechanic straight out of FF). As a whole the game feels remarkably like a bastard cross between FF IV and V.

If you're willing to overlook the fact that it may as well have been named Tales of Phinal Phantasia then it's a pretty good game, though. It has a few nice touches like being able to directly control the main character in combat, in a wierd mix of action gameplay and turn-based combat. There's a cooking system (apparently not present in the original game) that ties into the systems in later Tales games and enables you to heal your party of a range of ailments, but it's a bit redundant in the face of plentiful potion-style recovery items (here called "gels").

I breezed through the first half of the game and really enjoyed it; however, I've now reached a point, beginning roughly when I entered the Tower of the Zodiac, that the difficulty seems to have ramped up sharply. Where before I was levelling up at almost exactly the right pace to continue through the plot without stopping to grind, now I'm being beaten to within an inch of my life in every battle I encounter. I'm worried that I have a long grind-filled slog ahead of me; if so, then it will severely impact my interest in finishing the game.

The other thing that's a bit sad is that early on in the game I was receiving a bunch of skills for the main character which "levelled up" with practice; when you "mastered" them you could use them in more powerful combos. But it seems as though I've arbitrarily stopped getting any more of those skills, or at least entered a dry spell, and all my old ones have been mastered already. The combat's getting a bit tedious without any mini-rewards, and there's a LOT of combat in Phantasia.

I'm hoping the game evens out for the final third; it's been a great ride and I'm looking forward to eventually following it up with Eternia once I've had some non-RPG time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Blogs of the Round Table

Corvus, over at his site Man Bytes Blog, has for some time been hosting a project called Blogs of the Round Table. It runs monthly. Corvus sets a (game-related) topic, and if you want to join in you blog on the topic and then notify Corvus of your post. Starting in April 2006, I climbed on board that crazy horse and started flogging it for all it was worth.

April 07 - Trinity
Topic: "Three Colours"

December 06 -March 07 - no entry
I was offline!

November 06 - The Citizen Kane of Games
Topic: "Where's Your Grammar?"

October 06 - Ghost Train
Topic: "This Time It's Fright Night... For Real"

September 06 - Game Design With Balls
Topic: "Conventionally Speaking"

August 06 - No entry
Topic: "Sports Coat, No Tie"

July 06 - The Dawn Of An Age
Topic: "It Was Great When It All Began"

June 06 - The Skull Beneath The Skin
Topic: "The Jolly Reaper"

May 06 - The Pigeon And The Seed
Topic: "Social Issues And Games"

April 06 - With Friends Like These
Topic: "Your Friendship Is A Game To Me"

Visit the homepage of the Round Table! (link)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Next-Gen Quote-a-Thon

[Computer Gaming] [News]

I thought I'd get over the massive gaming industry upsets of the last month. But, sitting here right now, if that day is coming, it isn't today. Here's a quick round-up on what the world's had to say about some of the developments of recent weeks. I'm sorry if this seems like a little bit of Sony-bashing - and heaven knows I'm a big PlayStation adherent - but it just seems like there's no love for Sony out there at the moment. What happened, Sony? Where did you drop the ball?

Next-Gen Pricing
With the XBox 360 already selling for about $400 US and the Wii pegged for between $200 and $300, Sony's announcement at E3 that the PS3 would go for $600 to $700 US (425 UK pounds) was not without a lot of criticism.

Joystiq: "The $599 PS3 is [...] worth its weight in Uranium. The radioactive substance so popular amongst terrorists is expected to hit $54 a pound this year, meaning that if you choose to buy 11 pounds of Uranium (and why wouldn't you?), you'll actually end up saving $5." (link)
Ken Kutaragi (Sony): "The $600 PS3 is too cheap. No one calls into question the price differential between some slop at the cafeteria and a meal at an upscale restaurant. If you can have an amazing experience, we believe price is not a problem." (link)
Peter Moore (Microsoft): "Why you would buy a $600 PS3? [...] People are going to buy two [consoles]. They're going to buy an Xbox [360] and they're going to buy a Wii ... for the price of one PS3." (link)
Phil Harrison (Sony): "I think Peter Moore is exactly right. I think Nintendo will be the second system consumers purchase after PlayStation 3. [...] Frankly, I'm amazed that we can [sell the PS3] so cheaply." (link)

Next-Gen Controllers
Controllers have been big news this year; with Nintendo announcing a motion-sensitive DVD-remote style controller, and Sony dropping their rumble feature in favour of copying Nintendo. Here's what some have had to say:

Taku Chihaya (Yuke): (upon finding out for the first time last week that the PS3 controller would not support rumble) "We didn't know that! Wow, that stinks! [...] I'm kind of disappointed there won't be vibration in the controller." (link)
Clint Hocking (Ubisoft): "How much more 'me too' can Sony be?" (link)
LucasArts: "We're looking into [the possibility of a game where you control a lightsaber with the Wii-mote]." (link)
Joystiq: (on the Wiimote) "Are we hopeful? You bet. Are we floored? Not yet, but we're not willing to rule anything out." (link)

Next-Gen Names: Nintendo Wii
Nintendo took a right turn to common sense about a month back when it revealed that its new console, previously named the Revolution, would now be called the Wii. Never has the internet exploded with so many comments about urine and genitalia. (Personally, I'm looking forward to asking a clerk if he can demonstrate some games I can play with my Wii.)
The Gaming Hobo: "Nintendo Wii? La La La, this isn't haaaappen-ing!" (link)
Silflay Hraka: "Worst. Name. Ever. [...] Using all the marketing wisdom of a cane toad high from licking itself, Nintendo has chosen to call their upcoming game console 'Wii'. [...] Wii will be the straw that breaks the back of the camel that has been carrying Nintendo in the horse race that is video gaming these days." (link)
Reggie Fils-Aimes (Nintendo): "We'd like to thank the people who wrote good things when they heard about the new name. Both of them." (link)
Next-Gen Graphics
There's been a flurry of worthwhile quotes about the much touted graphical capabilities of the PS3. Well, actually, I only have one quote, but by Jeebers it's a good'un.
David Jaffe (developer of God of War): "The PS3 is probably the most powerful game machine on the planet, but it has technical limitations in that it seems to be incapable of rendering three-way sex scenes in real-time." (link)
E3 Press Conferences
Nintendo had Shigeru Miyamoto conducting the Zelda theme with the Wiimote, Microsoft had free fish and chips, and Sony had.... Powerpoint slides? Here's a few reactions to the big three conferences from E3. And by "big three", I mean Sony and Nintendo.
Kazuo Hirai (Sony): "Next generation doesn't start until we say it does." (link)
The Gaming Hobo: "Many people I know are still in shock over Sony's conference. And for the most part, not in a good way. Sony's conferences are generally pretty boring, but this really took the cake. At one point, Phil Harrison had to actually ask for applause." (link)
The stock exchange: A little graph is available showing the finance world's reaction to Sony's E3 press conference. (link)
David Sirlin: "I have never seen anything like the mob scene at Nintendo. [...] It was pretty clear who owned the show." (link)
Wow. It's only two months ago that everyone was talking about "the PS3, the XBox 360, and whatever Nintendo vomits up"... and now the PS3 is beginning to verge on irrelevancy. If it weren't for my tendency to spend too much on games anyway, and the promise of PS3 Metal Gear action, I'd be seriously contemplating jumping ship on my platform of choice. Thanks for following my regurgitation of other people's content - stay tuned for more high quality posts at The Dust Forms Words!

Mario Kart DS Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

Well, I've had Mario Kart DS for a while now, and I'm reaching the end of my tether on the single player game experience, so I thought I'd post my final impressions of the game.

I'll start with the title. The game's called Mario Kart DS. That's all. The DS does not stand for anything above and beyond the title of the gaming machine. They didn't try to call it Mario Kart: Dust Strikers or Dual Strike or Dawn of Sorrows or Deadly Silence or any other clever or not so clever extension of the letters "D" and "S". So big points for that. Yay Nintendo.

Right, so now that we've established that the name's relatively pretension-free, we can move onto the gameplay. There's essentially three single player modes: a grand prix, a mission mode, and a battle mode.

The "main" single player game is the tried and tested Mario Kart race formula: a series of grand prix style "cups", each featuring four races. You can choose from 12 familiar Mario-style characters (four of whom are unlockable), and then pick one of that character's karts (a choice of two to start with, expanding to some ridiculous amount through unlocking). Each character and each kart has different strengths and weaknesses, including their weight, their speed, their handling, and the average quality of items they find on the track. Bowser, for example, is a high-speed powerhouse, but a little slow to start and awkward on the corners, whereas Toad is annoyingly nippy with a tendency to lose ground on the straights.

There are eight cups of four tracks each (that's 32 tracks in all). Half the tracks, collected in "retro" cups, are re-issues of tracks from the last four iterations of Mario Kart, including favourites like the Mario Circuit from the original SNES game and the Baby Park from the Gamecube. The other half are new tracks, which are a little more hit and miss; some tracks like DK Pass and Delfino Square are a load of fun, whereas some others like the notorious Rainbow Road are just a pain. (Though it's worth mentioning for veterans of the older games that this time round the Road is a walk in the park compared to its last outings - it's not hard now, just dull.)

As always with Mario Kart, the gameplay involves driving the track using very simple controls, and attempting to improve your position by the use of items scatterered around the track, and by controlled drifting and boosting around corners. The items include such things as red koopa shells which function like homing missiles, banana peels which can be dropped to foul races behind you, or mushrooms which give a brief speed boost. The more you're losing by, the better the items you get are, so there's a constant rubberbanding which feels good when you're learning or playing someone a lot better, but can be a bit frustrating when someone you've outperformed all race nips the victory which a cheap Bullet Bill at the last second.

Boosting bears mentioning, though, largely because it very nearly wrecks the game. This isn't the first time this game element's been included in Mario Kart, but it's the first time I've really appreciated how annoying it is. Basically, it works as follows - when you turn through a corner, the best way to do it is to do what's effectively a handbrake turn, allowing you to "drift" through the corner. While drifting, you have the opportunity to waggle the D-Pad left and right very quickly. If done sucecssfully, your wheels spark orange, and when you come out of the drift you gain a quick burst of speed which makes up the speed you lost on the corner and then some. It's so effective, that it's essential for mastering the game - on the top difficulty, you absolutely have to boost at least once on every corner, and sometimes twice.

But it gets worse - the speed boost is so significant that on straights, instead of just accelerating like mad, it's actually more effective to drift back and forth across the track, boosting like crazy. The speed gain makes up for the snaking motion, and will outperform a racer just driving normally. To play at the top level, you spend almost the entire race holding the drift button and waggling your thumb on the D-pad. I've almost ruined my wrists doing this online - I wish there was an option to have a race with boost disabled. Item use and course positioning largely become irrelevant in the face of the mad thumb wiggling; which is a shame, because those are the best bits of Mario Kart.

Boost-snaking aside, the grand prixs are pretty fun. There's more, though. The second gameplay mode is a mission mode, which challenges you to complete certain tasks, such as "collect 5 coins" (which are laid in certain pattern on the track), or "drive through six numbered gates in order". You're ranked on performance factors (usually speed) to get a rating for each mission. Every ten missions culminate in a boss fight with a classic Mario boss rendered in Mario Kart style - for example, you're challenged to race the giant Goomboss from Mario 64 DS around the Baby Park - but the Goomboss cheats by stepping over the median strip! There's no real point to Mission mode as far as I can tell - it doesn't unlock anything or have any plot - but it's kind of fun and the boss battles are truly excellent. There's about 80 missions in all, by the looks of things.

Lastly is the classic Battle mode, featuring the Balloon Battle and Shine Runner modes from the Gamecube. Here you're placed against other karts in an arena-style level and challenged to use items to take out or otherwise frustrate the other karts. This has always been my favourite Mario Kart mode, and so I'm a little disappointed to see only two battle modes and only a handful of courses. Where's Bob-omb Battle? Where's King of the Hill? Where's Capture the Flag? Still, what there is remains solid.

No discussion of Mario Kart DS would be complete without mentioning multiplayer. I have to say I haven't had the chance to try out Multi-Card play against other people who are physically close to me, but I have thoroughly explored the online options, thanks to me DS Wi-Fi USB connector.

Online play is excellent; it's well implemented and almost lag free. But it's not without its disappointments. Firstly, online play is limited to grand prix. That's right - no battle mode. I can't fathom this omission - it strikes me as just plain bizarre, and a little sad. I assume you can play battle mode multi-card, but I would have loved to go global with it. And secondly, of course, everyone else in the world is better than me. I can go nuts breaking my fingers with drift boosting and I still lose an awful lot. At least it's not on the PSP or I would have gone into terminal hand cramps long ago.

There are several online match finding options. "Friends" allows you to match against people whose friend codes you have. There is no way to trade friend codes in game (this is deliberate to protect minors from online predators, apparently) and as far as I can tell no way to tell when your friends are online short of trying to start a game with them, so I haven't had any joy from that mode yet. "Regional" matches you against players from your region (which I assume for me is Australia). I've yet to find anyone else actually using that mode, so I've never had a regionial match. And "Worldwide" effectively dumps you into a match against the first three players it finds, out of everyone looking for a game in the world. It might just be that I'm playing at Australian hours, but considering I'm searching "everyone", it takes me a damn long time to find players. Often I'm forced to go with only one or two opponents as we can't find a fourth.

That's worth noting, by the way - although you can race eight players in single player or multi-card play, it's limited to four online. I don't know whether that's a technical limitation or just a wierd design decision, but it's another small frustration. I suppose given my luck to date in even finding four players, I'd never find eight in any case, but still. Also, in passing, it's worth saying that Mario Kart doesn't have the voice chat support that Metroid Prime Hunters has implemented. In fact, Mario Kart doesn't support chat of any kind - not even a "good game" button for when someone hands your butt to you. Sometimes it feels a little like I'm not playing other people, just a spotty AI. The only sort of communication you can engage in comes in the form of your "icon", which is a little picture that you can draw yourself in an included pixel-paint application. Your icon appears over your head in multiplayer games.

I know I'm picking a lot of holes in the game, so it's worth saying that despite all its niggles, Mario Kart DS is far and away the best multiplayer handheld title I have ever played, Liberty City Stories notwithstanding. Its online implementation is a great first step into the obvious future of handhelds, and it's a ton of fun no matter what mode you're in. It picks up everything that's always made Mario Kart great and is probably the best ever released in the series.

Now, it's almost certain there's a Wii version of Mario Kart in development right now, so can I just shout out a message to any designers out there that stumble across this - forget about drift boosting. Just take it out, and get back to the item-focused, skill-light gameplay that we know and love. And for Jeebers' sake, give us more support for battle mode!

Once more, my Friend Code is: 210523 733451

Movie Round-Up

[Now Experiencing] [Film]

A couple of movies viewed recently - a new one and an old one.

* Mission Impossible 3 [2006]
Caught this last week. I'm happy to report it's significantly better than its two predecessors, reaching dizzying heights that can best be described by the words "average" and "inoffensive". Directed and (partially) written by J.J. Abrams (creator of Lost and Alias), it boasts a plot which both makes sense and was NOT stolen wholesale from a Hitchcock film, which is more than the last two can say. That said, it's still not a particularly engaging story, moving from genre convention to cliche and back again with a stolid regularity. Tom Cruise is like screen cardboard - tasteless and bland - and other than the title theme there's nothing to write home about in the soundtrack. Many elements of the film have occasional moments of excellence - the CGI sparks nicely during a helicopter chase, there's some nice stunt action on a rooftop sequence, some moments towards the end are genuinely suspenseful - but it never seems to come together into a working whole. Probably the best elements of the film are the fantastic supporting roles of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman) as the implacably calm and menacing villain, and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as the computer support technician. Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) also does well in an admittedly tiny part as Cruise's boss. All in all, there'd normally be no particular reason to need to see this on the big screen - but arrayed next to the other tripe infesting the cinema at the moment, it comes depressingly close to being near the top of the pile.

* A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]
I re-watched this B-horror classic with my girlfriend earlier in the week. My memory had not altogether served me faithfully on this film; the directing by Wes Craven (Scream, Wishmaster) was actually better than I remembered, and the acting was significantly worse. Heather Langenkamp plays Nancy, a girl whose friends are being killed off in their dreams by the menacing Freddy Krueger (veteran actor Robert Englund). With the aid of boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first ever big screen appearance) she sets out to defeat Freddy, on the way overcoming the almost psychotic unhelpfulness of her alcoholic mother and the pathological cynicism of her father, the town sherriff. Hideous acting, some atrocious dialogue, and a spotty plot come together in a magical synthesis to very effectively render a dreamlike sense of unreality that actually enhances the film and makes it so memorable. This film almost defines the phrase "so bad it's good". A must-have for any afficionado of the slasher flick.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

PerplexCity - Free Cards For Bloggers!

[News] [ARG]

Did I tweak your interest a little while back when I blogged about something called PerplexCity? You know, that game where puzzle solving intersects with engaging narrative and real-life dramatic challenges? You may have use for the following news from Mind Candy (the creators of the game):

Got a blog? Then get free puzzle cards!
If you produce your own media somewhere in the world - like a blog, podcast, vlog, zine or radio show - and you're curious about Perplex City, we'd love to send you a complimentary pack of puzzle cards, plus some more information on the game. Simply email us at with your URL and postal address, and once we've checked your site we'll send out your schwag on the double!
If you're an existing Perplex City veteran, then don't forget to check out our free virtual puzzle cards, video competition, downloads or media page for digital goodies.

Free stuff, hurray. By the way, for those out there in game design who've never experienced an alternate reality game, I strongly suggest you check out the site even if you aren't buying cards - this game does so many things well (particularly community building and content progression) that videogaming can learn from. And, y'know, it's part of a medium that's even newer and less widely understood, so at the very least you can spit on them to raise your relative height on the totem pole.

PS: To those already playing, did you get your SMS last night and go nuts booking imaginary train tickets at 1.40 am Australian east coast time like I did? 8-)

PPS: As I write this, Perplexcity have added my original post to their review feed! Cheers, Mind Candy! Does this mean you're sending me cards?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

No, YOU'RE Out Of Order!

[Computer Gaming]

My shipment of DS games from the UK came, courtesy of I am now the proud owner of:

* Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney
* Trauma Centre: Under the Knife
* Metroid Prime: Hunters

Phoenix Wright and Trauma Centre are apparently not being released in Australia (for some reason). I thought while I was ordering anyway I may as well pick up Hunters. I probably won't sink my teeth into any of these until I've finished off Tales of Phantasia (I'm just about to enter Ylim for the first time) but once I'm done there'll be online Hunting a-plenty. Stay tuned for transmission of the relevant friend code.

The Pigeon and The Seed

[Game Design] [Round Table]

The majority of game design proceeds from a simple assumption - that the worth of a game can be measured by how fun it is, and all other things being equal, a game that is fun will make more money than one that is not.

Except that's not really true, is it?

Surely it's only necessary to make the first few hours of a game fun, so that the player will become invested. After that, you can milk play out of the player for a period of time limited only by the effectiveness of your reward schedule. Building a reward schedule is in many cases cheaper and easier than building fun. And for a very succcessful MMO, that leads to a very important (and very easy) business decision: if you have to choose between your players having fun, or your company making more money, which do you pick?

No prizes for guessing.

But what on Earth am I talking about? I'm talking about behavioural science.

Around 1957, American behavioural scientist BF Skinner was conducting a series of interesting experiments on pigeons. In these trials, pigeons were placed in cages. Within the cage was a disc, which could be pecked and functioned like a lever or button. The pigeons were subjected to one of five different reward schedules.

* Some pigeons were on a continuous reinforcement schedule. When this group pecked the disc, they were rewarded with seed. Every peck immediately produced seed.
* Some were on a fixed ratio schedule. This group would get seed regularly after a certain amount of presses. For example, every tenth peck on the disc would produce seed.
* Some were on a variable ratio schedule. This group would get seed after random numbers of pecks of the disc. That is to say, on average every tenth peck would produce seed, but the specific number from one reward to the next might vary from five to nine to thirteen, and so forth.
* Some were on a fixed interval schedule. Seed would become available through pecking the disc every, say, five minutes. It didn't matter how often the disc was pressed - it would only deliver seed once in any five minute period.
* Lastly, some pigeons were on a variable interval schedule. Seed would become available on average every five minutes, but the specific amount of time between rewards becoming available might vary from two minutes to ten minutes.

Four interesting relationships are indicated by experiments of this sort.

1) A pigeon on a fixed ratio schedule will pause significantly (stop pecking) after each reward before starting the number of presses necessary to achieve the next reward. This pause is not present in variable schedules - the activity is continuous.

2) A pigeon on a continuous reinforcement schedule whose seed supply is turned off will very quickly stop pecking the disc. But a pigeon on an interval or ratio reward schedule, particularly a variable one, takes a very very long time to stop pecking the disc. The less frequent the rewards originally were, the longer it takes the pigeon to stop pecking.

3) No output/reward equation is present in this behaviour; on schedules were rewards come extremely infrequently, a pigeon may actually peck itself to death trying to achieve the reward.

4) Once the pigeons had learned the relevant behaviours, their inclination to peck the disc was to some extent unrelated to whether they were actually hungry.

So what does this mean? It probably means that ratio and interval reward schemes, particularly a variable ratio reward scheme, are able to:
a) produce repeated and prolonged simple behaviour
b) produce behaviour which is not in a subject's best interest
c) motivate subjects to continue seeking rewards after the rewards cease to become relevant or useful to the subject, and
d) motivate subjects to continue seeking rewards for a long time after rewards stop being available.

Which leads me to my point: when was the last time you went grinding for loot?

It seems that fun isn't necessary to make players continue playing a game long after reaching the point of diminishing returns in terms of original content. In fact, fun isn't even the best way to make players continue playing. It's entirely possible it may even be detrimental to the aim of keeping players hooked. So I ask again - if you are developing a massively multiplayer online game, and you're going to be charging players for access by the month, what's going to be your design goal?

(Apologies to Skinner and to behavioural scientists for my horrible layman's version of this area of study.)
Further reading:
John Hopson's article on Gamasutra, Behavioural Game Design.
Chris Bateman's post on Only a Game, Designing Rewards in Games.
More on BF Skinner and operant conditioning is available here.
This is my post for the May Round Table of Bloggers.

Friday, May 12, 2006

E3 Pick of Show

[Computer Gaming] [News]

I've been trawling my way through the E3 footage courtesy of the E3 Video Centre, and I've made my picks of a few games to look forward to over the coming year (or more). Or at least to find out more about. Sadly, almost all of these are sequels, clones of an existing successful game, or have no gameplay footage to let me know whether they're more than just flashy graphics. Sigh. Such is the industry. Anyway, in no particular order:

* Heavenly Sword - which it appears can be best described as "God of War with breasts".
* Haze - looks like it's either going to be horribly derivative, or actually quite interesting
* Spore - because, y'know, Will Wright
* Tabula Rasa - no gameplay footage, extended talk at GDC on why development was going horribly wrong, but... Richard Garriott is involved!
* Final Fantasy XIII - and I don't even have XII yet! Female protagonist, more techy feel than any installment since VI, gunblades, and lots of anime-esque action.
* Resistance: Fall of Man - Battlefield 1942 mass combat meets Half-Life 2 style bug hunt, with Havok physics, from the people who brought us Spyro the Dragon.
* Sadness - survival horror and parasols, using the Wii-mote, with a feel somewhat reminiscent of Eternal Darkness - potentially awesome!
* Marvel Alliance - in which Doctor Strange is a playable character - 'nuff said.
* Metal Gear Solid 4 - because any game that has Solid Snake has to be awesome. Which leads us to my pick of the show....

* Super Smash Bros Brawl - awesome trailer, huge returning cast, plus newcomers Metaknight, Kid Icarus, Zero Suit Samus, Wario, and a very very special guest star...

That right there is the game that will justify me purchasing any platform Nintendo chooses to release it on. It may even enable me to forgive them for their horrible, horrible console naming practices. Maybe. Here's still hoping E3 wraps up with Nintendo telling us "it was all a joke, guys".

Games You Should Have Played - 1987

[Computer Gaming]

Ha! You thought I'd forgotten! Well, you were wrong! Take that, world!

It's about time I got around to explaining why if you haven't played the 1987 games that I have you're barely worth my time and attention. In the style of posts past, I present to you the Games You Should Have Played - 1987 edition.

1) Phantasy Star (Sega Master System)
It's like Ultima I, only pretty. Okay, I'll admit that placing Phantasy Star above, say, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy and Double Dragon is a tough call, but it's a call I'm willing to make. This is an RPG a good half-decade ahead of its time. Granted, it's got bunches of level grind, no particularly interesting mechanics, and dungeons that you need to map with pen and paper, but.... it's so pretty! No, really, it is. I'm still not sure how they managed to wring graphics like this out of the Master System; it's notable that when they released the port of this for the Game Boy Advance, the graphics still looked like they were pushing the capabilities of the system. First person perspective dungeons, loads of plot set across three planets, and one of the most surprising final boss encounters in gaming history. And, um, it's the first game I ever finished on a console.

2) Double Dragon (Arcade)
Co-operative! Side-scrolling! Kung-fu! Beat-em-up! What's not to love? The two player beat-em-up genre is an interesting one; during the late 80s and early 90s it was full of classics like Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Final Fight and Streets of Rage. And then, between about 1993 and now, the genre to all intents and purposes died. Luckily I've now got a copy of Rockstar's excellent The Warriors which is dragging the genre's corpse from its grave and making it dance to the tune of Thriller, so all is well in the world. But if you're not so lucky as me, there's no good reason not to go back to your old copy of Double Dragon and kick yet another shade of crap out of Willy and the Black Warriors. Or, y'know, stab your friend in the back and laugh while you beat his head in with a pipe.

3) Dungeon Master (Atari ST)
Dungeon Master was pretty much the forerunner of the 90s RPG. First person perspective, real time combat, graphic-based inventory management, complex spell system, mouse driven, and featuring direct interaction with the world (such as clicking on a lever to flick it). As far as innovation goes, this is really a much, much better game than either of Phantasy Star or Final Fantasy (both debuting this year). In fact, it probably should be at the top of the list. But... come on, it's Phantasy Star!

4) Sid Meier's Pirates! (Commodore 64)
Open ended gameplay, featuring pirates, as created by Sid Meier. It's not so much a question of why this was awesome, as it is a question of why people are still making games that don't feature pirates.

5) Maniac Mansion (Commodore 64)
1987 is the year that LucasArts enters the adventure game market, with a game called Maniac Mansion that runs on an underlying engine known as SCUMM. It features control of multiple characters, alternate endings, point-and-click interface, and a healthy sense of humour (famously censored NES version notwithstanding). As a game, it kind of sucks. But this is really the first point that anyone other than Sierra is making adventure games, and it won't be long before the people involved go on to make a little known game called The Secret of Monkey Island...

6) Final Fantasy (NES)
This is a bad game. This is an awful, awful, bad game. It is not fun. It is bad. It is, in fact, so bad that the villains responsible for creating it made (at time of writing) some eleven and a half sequels, with more on the way (not counting spin-offs). Some of the sequels and spin offs were not bad. Nevertheless, this is a bad game. If you must play it, pick up the remakes for the PlayStation or the GameBoy Advance (the GBA one is significantly easier than most other versions).

7) Skate or Die! (NES)
... OR DIE! How extreme is that? It's right there, in your face - either you skate, or you DIE! It's the best game title ever! So you'll feel understandably cheated when you play the game and discover that actually, in fact, there is no death in the game whatsoever. It probably should have been called Skate or Make Lunch, or Skate or Snooze. But this is probably one of the better or more successful early attempts at an extreme sports game (if you count skateboarding as extreme) and you couldn't get away from the advertising for it no matter how hard you tried. You could even be a little creative with the truth and call it the spiritual predecessor of the Tony Hawk games. You know, this would have been a much better game had it featured killer bees. I think the sequel had killer bees. Killer bees are awesome.

8) Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (PC)
It's the game that puts Hot Coffee in perspective - Leisure Suit Larry! That's right, it's the mass-marketed game from Sierra that's all about scoring with hot chicks and/or prostitutes! It's crass, it's garish, and it's possibly a little homophobic - but it does advocate safe sex! Featuring one of the most bizarre systems of age verification of all time (because all consenting adults know who the 15th President of the United States was), and stealing its plot and puzzles wholesale from a freeware text adventure, it's the game for which Sierra sold more hint books than actual copies of the game. (Also, possibly in response to Maniac Mansion, as of this game Sierra abandons text-prompt interfaces and moves into the point-and-click age.)

9) R-Type (Arcade)
Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!
No, really, go on, blast off. Strike the Bydo whatsit. I'll wait. It needs striking.

10) Mega Man (NES)
Non linear side-scrolling platform action. Revolutionary gameplay. Power-ups. Plot. And one of the worst box covers of all time.

And that's ten. Now, I know you're going, "But what about Street Fighter?" But stop and think - would we even remember Street Fighter had it not been for the sequel? No. We would have used it for a doorstop, or some kind of aquarium. And there's not a chance I'm leaving Street Fighter II off the list, so we'll have a good talk about it when we get there. Leash your killer monkeys, people.

As for the honourable mentions...
*Mike Tyson's Punch Out - You get to punch out Mike Tyson. That's hours of fun, right there.
* Wonder Boy in Monster Land - I'd actually peg this as a much better platformer than Mega Man, but, well... they're still making Mega Man today, and we haven't seen Wonder Boy since the 80s. Guess we know who won that grudge match.
* Metal Gear - Another game that only became relevant in light of later iterations of the series.
* California Games - I wish they *all* could be California Games.
* After Burner - Zoom! Zoom!
* Bionic Commando - You NES nuts loved this game. I was happy with my Wonder Boy, thank you very much.
* Space Quest - Because not everything released by Sierra in 1987 fell into the category of "pornography".
* ... and, uh, Contra, Wizball, and Might and Magic - which were all perfectly reasonable games which I can't stand. Particularly Might and Magic (wins the GregT award for "least balanced RPG of all time").

That's all, audience monkeys. Go home and stop drooling on my blog. You smell. You can come back next year, when I explain how everything released in 1988 sucked. Everything. (No, really.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Grand Theft Aquarium

[Game Design] [Personal]

We're sitting in the Board Room; there's three of us, and across from us is the manager of the company that we've contracted to develop an educational game for our organisation. We are not impressed by him.

This man's company has taken an amount of money from us to design a game. That amount of money is a five figure sum starting with three. The game centres around fishing. For this money, the man's company has come back to us with a game consisting entirely of question and answer quiz questions, punctuated by non-interactive animation sequences.

I have politely pointed out to my company that the game as currently proposed could have been developed using web pages and cookies in about two working days at a total cost of about $300 plus art assets, and that we are being taken to the cleaners.

Furthermore, this company was chosen on the basis of its alleged ability to make games that are "educational". In practice, this seems to translate into no particular knowledge of education but rather the political ability to schmooze various government bodies and content portals into taking their substandard products. They have advocated rote problem drilling as the pinnacle of modern educational game design and were bemused by the concept that a child engaged by the material is a child more receptive to learning, or the idea that half the educational value of a game will come from the child discussing it with other children. This is a company proposing in 2006 a style of game which was already falling by the wayside in the mid to late 80s when I was at school.

To the end of a) making the game not suck, and b) getting something close to our money's worth, we have asked that the money allocated to developing the non-interactive animations instead be channelled into a "mini-game" to sit between the question rounds, wherein the player goes fishing. It's a simple game where the gameplay largely centres around estimating the size of your potential catch, with the aim being to get as close to a set number of caught fish as possible without going over. The interactivity consists of single clicks to target a school of fish for catching, followed by a quick animation of the fish being caught. Not exactly GTA, but a big step up from how it already was.

And hence this meeting that I'm at.

CONTRACTOR: We're concerned that you're significantly expanding the scope of the project. We'll need more money and more time and we don't think it's a good idea. The main problem is these minigames.

US: Minigame. Singular.

CONTRACTOR: Well, you want it to appear in each fishery.

US: The difference between each fishery would be a different fish graphic, and a different catch animation.

CONTRACTOR: Well, I suppose we could recycle some of the code. But it's still a very complex minigame.

US: There are five variables. Boat x axis, fish x/y coordinates, fish caught, catch target.

CONTRACTOR: That's a lot more variables than what we had before.

US: There's only five variables in the minigame.

CONTRACTOR: Well, they all add up. Variables cost money.

US: You mean processes. Processes cost money.

CONTRACTOR: Sorry, there's going to be an ability for the player to process the fish too?

US: Never mind.

CONTRACTOR: Well, it's going to blow our timelines out. We'll be back to the drawing board.

US: Why, what have you done so far?

CONTRACTOR: Well... we've thought about it a lot. In any case, with this change the content portals won't accept it.

US: Why not?

CONTRACTOR: Because it has doubtful education value.

US: (Explains at length the educational value).

CONTRACTOR: Well, the problem is that with your change it feels too much like a game.


And there it is. I know there's a few people reading this who do game design for a living (the poor sods). Does anyone think this company is even remotely reasonable? Is anyone able to direct me to someone who would have, for our money, given us a game about fish, instead of a game that smells like fish? Or at least, you know, something that actually made use of an interactive medium instead of just becoming an unimaginative electronic quizmaster?

I'd love to go on at length about my experiences working on this game, but I've probably already said more than I should on my blog. BTW naturally if anyone reading this knows any of the people involved PLEASE don't name them in a comment. They're all very nice people, they should just have never been let anywhere near an interactive medium. I'd be highly surprised if they'd read anything at all about either game design or education in their lives; certainly no one in the company other than the (sole) programmer had the slightest idea about programming or coding (and the programmer was conspicuously unavailable to attend any meetings), and I'm pretty sure none of them have ever played an electronic game of any sort other than the ones they'd "created" themselves. Sigh.

DS Online

[Computer Gaming]

Since this weekend I've been the proud owner of the Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector (which I bought seeing as I'm lazy and can't be bothered setting up a router). This means my DS is now fully online-enabled. If anyone else out there has the ability to drive their Mario Kart down the highways of the internet feel free to get in touch to schedule some sort of match.

My Mario Kart DS Friend Code is : 210523 733451

Also I have Animal Crossing and Nintendogs and will be picking up Metroid Prime: Hunters either online or when it comes out in Australia shortly. If anyone's seriously interested in any of those let me know and I'll dig out the friend code. I have to say, now that I have the darn thing, it's a little disappointing how few games make use of it. I could have really gone a round of Meteos or Bubble Bobble Revolution online...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Perplex City Free Virtual Puzzle Cards[Now Experiencing] [Alternate Reality Games]

While I was up in Sydney I caught up with The Simulated One, who introduced me to the wonders of PerplexCity.

If you haven't come across this before, you're missing out. PerplexCity is an alternate reality game run by a company called Mind Candy, and it has several levels to it. On the lowest, and simplest, level, you can buy packs of cards from most game shops. Each card has a puzzle on it; when you solve the puzzle, you take the card to the PerplexCity website and enter the answer. If you're correct, the card is recorded as solved on your PerplexCity account, and you are awarded points. Players are ranked against each other on a world leaderboard.

There's enough game right there to keep a lot of people occupied. But if you're willing to go deeper, there's more to it. You see, there's a story behind the cards - the story of Perplex City, a metropolis in a neighbouring dimension. An ancient artifact, the Receda Cube, has been stolen in a daring robbery, and the thieves have hidden the Cube somewhere on our Earth. Through the cards, through the surprisingly huge maze of Perplex City websites, and through a range of clues hidden in the real world, players are challenged to work both together and individually to solve the mystery of the theft, work out who stole the Cube and why, and find the actual physical Cube where it is buried somewhere in real life. A substantial $200,000 US bounty is up for grabs for the person who finds the Cube.

The real world and Perplex City interact in surprising ways. For example, one of the early simple cards challenges players to deduce the phone number of Violet (a central character from Perplex City) through a series of simple clues. Entering the result in the Perplex City website will give you your points for the card, but you can go one step further and actually ring the number from your mobile to hear a recorded message from Violet directing you to her website, where a range of further information on the overall plot is available.

There is very much a sense of events progressing about the storyline; already key characters in Perplex City have been murdered. Events seem to be escalating rapidly. In the real world, players recently followed a dying woman's last words to a concert in America, from there to a phone service for a sleep clinic, to a BBS text adventure, to skywriting in Manchester, and ultimately to a frantic face off against a shadowy organisation in a race across London ending in a surprising helicopter escape.

The puzzles range from simple pop culture references and crossword clues, to decoding semacodes and unravelling multi-levelled trivia hunts, and include challenges requiring you to hunt across multiple fake websites, hack fictitious security systems, and email various characters in Perplex City. At the top level, two notorious cards challenge players to prove or disprove the famously un-solved Riemann equation, and to decrypt a cypher that can only be broken by the combined efforts of thousands of computers across the world over a period of months.

There's something for everyone in this, at every level of play, and I'm dying for more people to discuss it with. You can get into the overall story without buying a single card; just thoroughly explore the Perplex City website and take it from there. (You can also take a shot at two cards for free by following the link from the picture at the top of this post.)

Is anyone else reading this a Perplex City fan? If not, could you, y'know, become one in a hurry? Did I mention it's awesome?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Back From Sydney / Archibald Prize

[News] [Personal] [Art]

Hello, devoted reader-monkeys! Cease committing random criminal acts; I'm back from Sydney with new Dust and/or Words to entertain you and keep you off the streets of the 'hood.

In fact, there's so much Sydney-style goodness that I'm going to break my musings up into several posts, to be delivered over the next few days. I'm starting today with the Archibald Prize exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery. The purpose of our visit to Sydney was to eyeball some fine art before the exhibition closed. Despite the intercession of ice-cream sellers and the Sydney taxi system, we were successful in this endeavour, and managed to scope out this year's menagerie in good order.

Those who follow such things will know that The Paul Juraszek Monolith by artist Mark Wills was the winner this year; a controversial choice as the work does not fall within the standard definitions of portraiture. It was good and all - but it's derived from the Marcus Gheerarts etching The Allegory of Iconoclasm, and in this case I felt that the direct lifting from classical sources wasn't sufficiently justified to make it genius. Follow the links and judge for yourself.

My personal favourite from the exhibition was probably this portrait by John Beard, depicting Ken Unsworth. It's a physically large and imposing work, and close up seems a little like a mixture of pointilism and impressionism; it's very emotionally powerful, and is both simple and elegant.

We also took a wonder through the sister exhibition at the gallery, being a retrospective of self-portraiture from the Rennaissance to the present day. I was particularly impressed with Elisabet-Louise Vigee-Lebrun's Self-Portrait In A Straw Hat (painted circa 1782, and appearing at the top of this post). The digital version here doesn't do it justice - as with much good art, particularly old art, the fantastic dyes and brushwork doesn't translate well in an electronic medium.

While exploring the exhibitions, my girlfriend and I had the extreme good fortune to bump into the wonderfully talented artists Nick Stathopoulos and Shaun Tan. I think Nick had some kind of mad plan to use a time machine to break the fingers of Sir Joshua Reynolds at age 25; details were sketchy - I wish him the best of luck in his evil scheme.

Both exhibitions were a little crowded for my tastes; the Archibalds are massively popular, and there's a bit of a sense of the cattle being herded through at the maximum velocity possible. It was all but impossible to get a good look at some of the works that were hung near the winner, due to the huge crowd gawking at the Monolith and scrutinising the wealth of small detail in it.

Still, a good time was had by the both of us. Of course, just like every time we go down, we found a much better exhibition on at the Museum of Contemporary Art - but that may have to be the subject of another post.