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Wednesday
Feb052014

Two Science Videos

You have probably seen or at least heard of the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate about science.
Here's the video:


(starts at about 12:30)

 

In that video, you can see Bill Nye saying informative things about how we know the age of the Earth and so on, and you can see Ken Ham make painful linguistic distinctions that lack any explanatory power. Ham is obsessed with the distinction between "observational science" and "historical science" which is a concept he made up to cover the part where his theories about the past don't reconcile with science in general. Bill Nye explains the many, many problems with believing the Earth is 6,000 years old and how that belief conflicts with overwhelming observable evidence.

The most striking contrast to me between the two men is actually the quality bar each has for what qualifies as an "answer" to a scientific question. For example, "where did stars come from?" is a question. Ham is enthusiastically satisfied with the answer "the bible tells us God created stars." Meanwhile Bill Nye (and I'd hope any thinking person) finds that empty, and basically a non-answer. Nye wants to know the process through which stars form, the natural laws and physical states that made it possible for them to form, the nature of the fusion chain reaction going on, and so forth. If Ham were to read my words here, he would predictably say that the fusion chain reaction is part of "observable science" so Ham is just as interested in that, but that where a star came from is [arbitrarily placed in the made-up category of] "historical science" so "the bible says God created stars" is a complete answer. Astonishing. I'd hope for more intellectual curiosity than that.

Logic students could study the debate to see the many fallacies Ham uses. There's undertones of the common "if you can't explain a given phenomenon, that means a supernatural being must have done it, rather than a process we do not yet understand." What a strange thing to default to! If you want to argue something, I guess you can just declare your position as the default. (I declare that a teapot is orbiting Jupiter. If you have no evidence on it either way, I guess there really is such a teapot!) This same fallacy came up several time when Nye was asked to explain things currently unknown by science. Nye honestly tells us he doesn't know, and shows us this yearning to learn the answers from more science. Ham tries to frame this as a "gotcha," as if not knowing any of several currently unanswerable problems somehow means we throw out everything we do know and default to Ham's fantastical, supernatural non-explanations.

He also uses the fallacy that non-perfect data means "we can't know anything." Don't dozens of different radioactive dating methods show the Earth is billions of years old? Maybe, but they don't all say exactly the same thing (pretty sure he's exaggerating that, but let's just go with it for now). Check this out: THEREFORE the Earth is 6,000 years old. Again, if there's any shred of non-perfect data, you can declare that we can't know anything about the subject, so we should default to the crazy impossible situation that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and created by a supernatural being that acts outside the laws of nature. If there's perfect data on a subject, just declare it non-perfect and use the same tactic. I laughed when Nye said that if Ham walked into a clock store and saw that the clocks were all set to slightly different times, that he'd think it means we can't know anything about time.

Nye used a clever rhetoric trick at one point that I think is good for dealing with a nonsense claim. The thing about a nonsense claim is that it implies other nonsense if true, so can you expose that from more than one angle. Nye subtly attacked one idea from two sides at once, forcing Ham's position to rest somewhere inbetween two impossibilities. The two sides of attack had to do with how many species were supposedly on Noah's arc and how rapidly species branched into more species since then. In one argument, Nye explains the infeasibility of caring for tens of thousands of animals on a boat built by 8 people who were unskilled in boatmaking. In a separate argument, Nye compares the number of species alive today with the number supposedly on the Arc 6,000 years ago, and computes that it must mean there are 11 new species every day. Wouldn't we notice 11 new species every day?

Ham defends his figures saying that Nye greatly overestimates the number of animals that needed to be on the arc. It could have had just 2,000 he says. And that's the trap. Nye points out that if that's the case, it just makes the other problem even more absurd. Now there has to be even more than 11 new species every day for the story to be true.

Another fallacy that is at least more interesting is something I'd call "appeal to catchy phrase." For example, "You can't get something from nothing." Or "you can't get life from matter without God." Ham made both of those claims, and assumed them to be true. The thing is, those are actually incredibly bold claims, far stronger than Ham seems to realize. On the second one, "Non-living matter usually does not turn into living matter" would be a pretty conservative claim (not one he made though). What I mean there is that if you have a rock, it doesn't tend to turn into something alive. Or if you have a pool of sludge with no life, it doesn't tend to actually create life (though it might attract already existing life). Those are fine claims. But to say you CAN'T EVER get life from non-life would require you to know everything that could possibly ever happen. What if actually you CAN get life from a pool of sludge rich in the protein building blocks of life if you wait trillions of years and repeat this on trillions of planets or something. I certainly can't prove you can't. And we have pretty strong evidence that this unlikely thing did happen once. You can't start your debate with a first principle of assuming otherwise, simply declaring that catchy phrases are true statements about what's possible.

Then there's "you can't get something from nothing." That sounds nice, but is that really true? The physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book explaining that you can. Krauss says a discussion of this topic is basically just nonsense unless you have a pretty advanced understanding of physics. When you talk about "nothing" you mean "the absence of things." Ok fine, but what things? If we have a given space that might have "nothing" in it, then what things aren't in it? Obvious things like rocks and trees and apples, meaning things we can see. Ok that's a good start. But at some point in science we learned about *air*. That's an invisible thing and from then on "nothing" probably meant "no air, either." What about photons(light) or electrons? Quantum mechanics shows that space is actually teeming with quantum particles that leap into and out of existence. You have to know this stuff to even talk about what "nothing" means, and Krauss says that when you do know it, it becomes more like "of COURSE you can get something from nothing, we'd expect that, and it's what we've observed to be true as well." By contrast, Ham's counter-argument uses the appeal to catchy phrase "you can't get something from nothing," and ends all examination and critical thinking right there.

Honestly, it's painful to list out more fallacies from Ham. I leave it as an exercise to the viewer to find more. It's also painful to watch the debate at times because it's just so remedial. Bill Nye could surely teach us more about science if he weren't so hamstrung explaining the most basic things to someone with an absurd, untenable position. So...let's raise the level of discourse.

I mentioned the physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss, Daniel Dennet, and Massimo Pigliucci have a long conversation about science in this video:

They talk about what science can know, and what it maybe can't know. They talk about how if science can't know something, it's not like another way of knowing would have a shot either. Are there even other ways of knowing? This video starts out with Krauss saying maybe they won't disagree at all because they are all smart and reasonable people. I'm not sure how ironic he meant that. They are on the same page on many things and that allows them to discuss things at miles and miles higher of a level than Nye was able to in his situation, but the the rift between Dennet as a philosopher and Krauss as a physicist does come out. A lot is under the surface of their discussion.

Dennet deals with the philosophy of consciousness. I recommend checking out his various books and videos. Here is my short summary of his work, which I think he would agree with. Consciousness is deeply difficult to study. There's a large set of ideas you can have about it which are almost certainly wrong. If you haven't thought about it or studied it at all, you are pretty likely to think wrong things. Dennet can't necessarily tell you right things, because we don't quite get it yet, but there's a bunch of wrong things he can identify that we can pretty safely cross off. He's basically trying to keep sciences honest and steer them into framing their questions correctly. (Example of bad framing: "where is the immortal soul located in the brain?") Scientist tend to be pretty skeptical of philosophers, and I think for good reason. Reasons Krauss explains in very diplomatic terms. Yet he also acknolwedges what the value of philosophy is to some parts of science. It's interesting to see Dennet's take on these things.

Anyway, if you have several hours, then there are two science videos for you. The first showing a bunch of bad answers to questions and why those answers are bad. The second raising good questions to stimulate your mind.

Tuesday
Jan212014

Chess 2 is Released!

Hey everyone, Chess 2 is live right now on the OUYA. Check out this sweet trailer for the game:

You can download the game straight to your OUYA here.

Saturday
Jan182014

The Psychology of Learning

Here's a great podcast where HatchetJob interviews a psychologist who studies how people learn.

I like this subject, and it's frustrating that it's so widely misunderstood by gamers and game developers. Some genres of games have conditioned people to think that time = skill, which is a gross oversimplification. Then that shaky foundation leads some to say that because time = skill (which it kind of doesn't) then it's ok to have a forced-grind in a competitive game before you're allowed to play with all the gameplay relevant pieces. "It takes a long time to get good anyway, so that's why it's ok prevent ALL players from having immediate access to the real game." That actually does not logically follow at all. It's some mistaken notion that comes from the time = entitlement concept of RPGs. There's a lot more factors in human learning than just spending time to have external numbers go up.

Some players learn incredibly quickly compared to others. You'd think a competitive game would embrace that not saddle those who just want to play the actual game with some long forced-period of playing gimped version of it. Supposedly this is done in the name of being a better teaching experience, but that doesn't hold up at all. If teaching were a high priority, then optional tutorials and and optional grind to slowly learn pieces of a game would make more sense. A forced grind for *everyone* is merely a business tactic, and one that turns a legitimate competitive game into what I call a "fraudulent competitive" game. Examples of fraudulently competitive games would be a version of chess where you aren't allowed to use all the pieces until you played gimped-chess for 100 hours, or League of Legends. I would recommend only supporting the competitive games that allow immediate, non-random access to all gameplay elements (for those willing to pay for the game in the first place).

Back to the podcast. It explains these elements about learning:

  • Time alone does not increase skill. ("I showed up at the tennis court every day for a year, I deserve to be good now!")
  • Effortful study, which means pushing yourself during practice, does increase skill.
  • While the rate of increase of skill diminishes as you get better, the overall curve or rate is different for different people. Some improve much faster than others.
  • People don't start on even footing in all skills. Some people start off better at some skills. And actually, the people who start off better are more able to learn faster.

Transferable Skills

There's something that wasn't covered in the interview, and I really wish it had been. I asked HatchetJob about it and he said he wanted to include this topic too, but he didn't have time. The topic of transferable skills. Imagine we have three players A, B, and C who have never played a certain new game. We measure how fast each gets good and how good they get. The game is a competitive multiplayer game. Here are the backgrounds of the players:

A: is a high level player in a game of the same genre.

B: is a high level player in competitive games in other genres, but has never played this genre before.

C: plays games, but has never played competitive games.

Player A is likely to have incredibly high transferable skills. Even player B is actually miles and miles beyond player C as a starting point, most likely. So many concepts underlie competitive games in general and how to approach them, that there are many transferable skills that apply even outside of specific things in a genre. (How to find bread-and-butter strategies that are immediately effective, when to play conservatively, when to go all in, reading the opponent, how to make the opponent play "on tilt," how to analyze one's own performance, etc.) Make sure to read Josh Waitzkin's book The Art of Learning if you're interested in what aspects of learning to be an expert are universal, and not even part of the thing you're trying to be an expert at.

How to Not Make Fraudulent Competitive Games

Here is a recommendation to game developers on how to use this information. Expect that your player population will vary wildly in how fast they learn and how many transferable skills they are bringing to the table. Don't think of all new players as being bad at the game. And just to put that into perspective, if you worked for 3 years making an RTS game, I would *expect* some players to be better than you at it after playing it only one day (professional RTS players). So, you'll have to plan for both the high and low skilled players.

For low skilled players, they need to understand what's going on in the first place. They might not even know genre conventions, so a good tutorial or some missions that have enough tooltips that they are "secretly" a tutorial are critical. So is having good AI opponents. AI opponents let new players get their footing on the basics without feeling bad getting trounced and yelled at by real people. Even genre experts benefit here because they can learn the way the game's user interface works in a low pressure environment.

And now we get to the meat of the matter: gating content. Your game might be easier to learn if you remove some parts of it and let new players learn those parts, then move on the more stuff later. That way they won't be overwhelmed. A good example of that is in the card game Yomi, the rulebook says you might want to play your first game without using the Jokers and without using the "mixup normals" rule when you knockdown the opponent. The game functions without these two systems, and playing it without them is simpler for a new player. Once the player understands the basics of Yomi rules, such as how blocking, attacking, dodging, and throwing work, and how combos work, then they can add those things in later (or right away if they prefer). A TERRIBLE way to handle this would be to force all players to play the simpler mode for 100 hours before they unlock the full "real" game.

The forced-gating concept may work ok for the worst players on the skill spectrum. Though even then it's pretty questionable because they are getting to used to a "fake" game and learning tactics that ultimately don't make any sense to use. As an analogy, if you spent a long time learning some simplified version of chess with a bunch of missing pieces, yeah that's easier to learn, but none of the openings you practice would make sense later. Your view of how the game dynamics even work will be totally off, and you might end up worse off in the end than if you had just played the full game to begin with. But that said, some gating can help, especially for the low end of the skill curve.

The high end of the skill curve, as in players who experts at other turn-based strategy games who are picking up chess, or players who are experts at other card games who are picking up Yomi, this gating is not just frustrating, but really a slap in the face to them. It's a waste of their time and disrespectful to their skills. Don't do that. I know that I feel personally insulted by any competitive game that would withhold the real game until I'm ready, because it's not the game designer's place to say when I'd be ready. It's my place as a player to say it. If there is a wait more than 0 seconds, then to me it's some trash game to ignore. A wait of 100 hours is ludicrous and goes against what competition is really about. That's actually really easy to see if you think of chess and imagine that there was no possible way to play it with all the pieces until you grind a bunch. Clearly a failure as a competitive game if that were the case. It's not materially different when applied to other genres though: it's exactly as unacceptable.

If you got mad that some game you like and think is great just got filed under "trash game" by my definition, there's a fix. Just tell that developer to stop doing the forced-grind thing. Easy! I'd hope that them removing such a disrespectful system to experts would gain them some goodwill, too.

Conclusion

So developers of multiplayer competitive games, definitely do what you can to teach players how to play your game, but be respectful of the radically different rates of learning and different levels of transferable skills your players will have. And that means 0 seconds of forced grind to access the full game is the correct amount of time. Optional grinds are still ok because they can be helpful learning tools for some players.

Thursday
Jan162014

Chess 2 is in the news a lot

Chess 2 is sure getting a lot of buzz. It launches on OUYA on January 21st. (It's a timed-exclusive there, but will make its way to other platforms after that.) You can get the print-and-play rules here, by the way.

Here's lots of recent news stories about Chess 2:

Eurogamer.

Among Pixels.

Polygon.

BT.

Zipped Gaming.

Softpedia.

Gamemoir.

There's also an upcoming upcoming Indie Games Magazine coverage. Daniel Pruzina of Indie Game Magazine said "Chess 2 is parked between 'amazing' and 'really amazing' due to its outstanding playability and uniqueness among Ouya titles." He also said, "starting Chess 2 and seeing the tutorial was pretty cool. I thought it was a pre-rendered vid at first." Nope, it's real-time 3D!

There's also these older articles if you missed them. They're both great in-depth coverage about the design of the game:

Eurogamer.

Wired.

There's a whole bunch more coming right around the time of the January 21st launch too. It's just incredible how much response there is to Chess 2. Thanks everyone, and I hope the launch goes well!

Monday
Jan132014

Yomi Development: New Rulebook and Print-and-Play Decks

Here's a new rulebook for Yomi. It has many updates, including visuals for combo sequences that are valid and invalid to better illustrate to new players how combos work. It also has the new 2v2 Team Battle mode as well as a solo mode.

Yomi 2v2 Mode

The 2v2 mode is pretty crazy and awesome. Amazingly, you can play it right now with decks you already have. It doesn't need any changes to any cards to work. (That is some kind of insane miracle, if you ask me.) You can think of the 2v2 mode sort of like Marvel vs. Capcom-style games where you have a main character in play and an assist character on the bench. The assist player gets to heal a little bit and draw extra cards. You'll probably want to switch several times so you each get a chance to heal and get cards, because you can do combos by tagging, and because sometimes switching your partner in creates a more favorable matchup against the opponent's team.

There's also an assist mechanic that lets the assist character participate in combat along side you. You might play without the assist mechanic at first because it's the most complicated part of the 2v2 mode. If you're ready for it though, and can wrap your mind around it, it really adds to the craziness. It turns out that tons of characters have good assist moves because there's several properties that help in an assist. Any linker becomes good as an assist move because it can help you do big combos. Any fast move is good because it helps you win combat. And any SLOW move is good because of the way the timing to resolve things works, you'll get to resolve things in the order most favorable to you if you do a slow assist.

Even besides assists, the 2v2 mode is really super crazy. It feels a bit like Marvel vs. Capcom video games in that so many teams have absurdly powerful things they can do. And when you think it's unfair, you realize the opponent's team also has some amazing thing too. Some examples off the top of my head: Argagarg on the bench with Bubble Shield active, ticking away and you can't even hit him. Troq is the only character in the game who can guarantee a snapback (to force the opponent's team to switch) without needing to even win combat. DeGrey dodging all day into Rook's AAAA Checkmate Buster super even though Rook can't dodge into it himself. Gloria as the only character who can continue to combo after she tags in with a super. Lum building on the bench building up extra cards to set up poker hands. The list goes on!

Solo Mode

The new rulebook contains instructions for how to fight against an automated "bot" opponent. It's actually pretty neat and legitimately helpful for new players. Playing against it until you can consistently beat it means you will learn the fundamentals of the game and about card valuation. Blocking more early, dodging more late, managing your hand, generally being efficient, getting the best use out of your abilities and playing to minimize the opponent's abilities—all that stuff is very important even without the "yomi" (reading) aspect of predicting what an opponent will do. The bot could be a good start to learn some basic competence at the game.

The online version of the game at www.fantasystrike.com also has bots. These bots used to play literally randomly, so they were terrible and probably taught you very little, other than how bad playing randomly really is. Now, that random bot is still available as an "easy" setting, and there's a new "hard" setting that's very sophisticated. Much, much more sophisticated than the single bot in the rulebook for the tabletop version. The hardbots online will put you through your paces.

Various Rule Changes

These days in Yomi, whenever your normal attack wins combat or is blocked, you get to draw a card. This makes normal attacks a bit better, lets you get away with blocking a bit less, and causes a wider range of speeds to be relevant in combat. It's pretty fun.

There are also other minor rule changes. There's now a hand cap of 12 cards. It's pretty easy to stay under that, so hopefully it won't affect you much. What it does is put a cap on how good blocking can possibly be. I'm not saying you should block block block until you have 12 cards, but if you do, then you won't much benefit for blocking beyond that. Also, some Lum players had like 30 cards in hand at times in order to set up poker moves, and it's just unwieldy and bad-feeling in live play. Now it feels much better to have a reasonable cap. And don't worry, Lum is still plenty good.

When both you and your opponent are knocked down at the same time, just cancel the knockdown effect. Imagine that you both get up and fight normally. It doesn't really make any sense for you to BOTH be able to mixup the other. This was an edge case that rarely happened, and it's slightly more possible (still rare) with the expansion characters, so this is just a minor bug fix.

When an effect would have you gain life, you can't gain more than your maximum HP. First, this fits fighting game flavor where you can't go above the end of your energy bar. Also, it allows the 2v2 mode to work at all. The benched character healing above their maximum life would be a problem there. The cap on hand size AND life makes it so that a benched character in 2v2 who is maxed on one of those is "wasting" the benefit of getting more cards and life while benched, so that's an incentive to switch in, which is a fun dynamic. The cap on life total also prevents bad potential gamestates with Gloria (a healing character) where she might be able to gain so much life that the match would take too long.

Finally, there's a new time out condition for when any player runs of out cards to draw. Now when any player draws their last card, the game ends right away and the winner is whoever has more HP. This is just like a fighting game, so it matches the flavor a bit better. It's similar to how time out works in Flash Duel (the round also immediately ends when the last card is drawn). It also helps with some rare situations in the 2v2 mode.

The normal draw rule changes the feel a fair amount, but all the rest of that stuff is just minor edge case fixes that you might not even notice by just playing normally. Yomi's been around long enough that we can smooth out some of those edge cases though. :)

Print-and-Play decks

All 20 characters are now available in print-and-play form here. All the final art is there for every card, including the card back designs, new graphic designs for all character cards, and a completely new "stat & reference" card for all characters that gives you a quick way to know every stat in your deck. Grave and Jaina's print-and-play decks are free right now too.

Physical Beta decks

There are still a few beta decks available for 8 characters: Grave, Jaina, Midori, Setsuki, Quince, Onimaru, BBB, and Troq. These are from a print-on-demand run, and are pretty good quality. If anything changes about the balance, it will be easy to offer just a set of changed cards later for these decks because they were print-on-demand, rather than a large scale print run. Same goes for the print-and-play files, those will be updated if anything changes too, and you'll be able to use the same download links to get new versions later. That said, the balance is in a very polished state right now, and there might not be any further changes.

It will still be a while until a real manufacturing run. For starters, I have to design a crap load of boxes and packaging. There's probably months of behind the scenes stuff left to do, plus more time to set up a kickstarter, then run the kickstarter, then several more months for manufacturing. I'm as anxious to release it as you are, if not more, so believe me it's coming but there's still a wait. In the meantime, the beta decks, print-and-play version, and online should tide you over.

Yomi Online

You can play Yomi online, too. The online version at www.fantasystrike.com has all 20 characters. The iPad version of Yomi is pretty far along too. It's hard to predict development times for it, but maybe another month given how far along it is at this point.

New Players

We could use your help in recruiting new players. You could invite them to try the online version for free with you, or for the tabletop version you could print out the Grave and Jaina decks for free (all the tabletop and print-and-play stuff is here). Or maybe you already own the tabletop version. Try out the 2v2 mode with some friends. I hope you enjoy Yomi in one way or another!

Oh and some specific call outs: Hey Day9, TrumpSC, and Kripp. I think Yomi should really be your competitive card game of choice. How about train up and start entering our online tournaments?

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