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Saturday
Feb232008

The Most Balanced Games

Please help me with a personal project. Tell me what you think "the most balanced games" are. Don't include sports. Stuff like Chess and Backgammon, while true, isn't that helpful either. These should be competitive multiplayer games that have demonstrated they hold up to high level play.

It seems like the games I'm looking for have to have the concept of different races/classes/characters/sides to qualify. Otherwise, it doesn't mean much to say something like Settlers of Catan is "balanced." It's a great game and all and we could study it to learn how to make a great game, but not really how to balance a competitive multiplayer game.
My nominations:

  • StarCraft
  • Fighting Games:
  • Street Fighter (Hyper Fighting and Super Turbo)
  • Virtua Fighter
  • Guilty Gear
  • Soul Calibur 1 (yeah, I said it)
  • Magic: The Gathering
  • Puzzle Fighter: HD Remix (??? I don't even know, but I can nominate it at least!)

StarCraft probably requires no explanation. Guilty Gear designed defensively by including many self-correcting balancing features, as well as lots of tuning over the many versions of the game. Virtua fighter has relatively low variety (compared to Guilty Gear) but extreme care has been taken over MANY iterations (over 14 versions of VF so far, maybe way more, I lost count). Soul Calibur 1's parry system does a lot to level the playing field, and it was pretty balanced in general anyway (SC2 and 3 maybe not so much and ruined by bugs on top of that).

Magic: The Gathering also has a defensive design with somewhat self-correcting balance. I realize this one is probably very controversial because there are times in the history of the game that it was pretty unbalanced, but I also lived through long periods where the so-called type 2 environment was healthy, had no banned cards, and a diverse set of viable decks at top-level play.

Does Counter-Strike belong here? Team Fortress 2? Halo? Enemy Territory?

Please add your own nominations.

--Sirlin

Saturday
Feb232008

GDC 2008, Day 3

It was hard to find any talk of games today at the Game Developer's Conference.

There was a promising session where venture capital firms let five or so startup companies present what they're doing. One of them was Dennis "Thresh" Fong, the Quake master who once won a Ferrari in a tournament. Afterwards I introduced myself, gave him my book, and asked if I could interview him in the future for my next book, which will contain compare several champions in various different games. He said yes and at least sounded excited.

Anyway, the session itself was dreary and strangely not relevant to the conference. It was a session that showed no games, talked about no games, and none of the featured companies were game companies. They were all VC-fundable, yes, but all strangely out of place at the same time.

By far the most notable speaker was the guy behind "I'm in like with you." He cursed like a foul-mouthed sailor and opened by telling us that internet completely sucks in the United States. He moved to Korea for a few years and got a 100mbit connection for 30 bucks. He says everyone plays games there--everyone. Popular, beautiful girls play games, it's the norm. Games are social. Games are all ostensibly free. Korea is moving completely away from the subscription model. Item buying is commonplace and his friends there often gave him items in games as gifts. He noted that he received about $10 per week in virtual items from his friends. Compare that to the 0 here. He also said 75% of item sales are gifts for friends in Korea.

We're so far behind here it's almost laughable. He told us how the CEO and (someone else high ranking) at Yahoo came to Korea and tried to buy every game company there and failed. He met with them and told them how gaming there is incredibly awesome and that Yahoo needs to get in on this way of doing business. The guys from Yahoo said they agreed completely and they'd already been working on this and that it will be out in one year. Then the speaker said that either Yahoo measures "year" differently than him, or that "they are complete fucking retards" because there's still nothing in sight years later.

Raph Koster
It was equally hard to find mention of any actual game at Raph Koster's session. I think highly of Raph and I know there is some small chance he will read this, so Raph, your lectures have so far *all* been entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking, except for this one.

It was labeled as a "game design" lecture, yet it contained no game design at all. You might argue that your choices about the architecture of Metaplace imply certain game design results, and yeah they probably do, but I still maintain there was no discussion of game design at all. It was entirely about architecture, involving programmery stuff like telnetting, markup tags, cgi scripts, and client-server models. You should have labeled this a programming lecture. I was also disappointed to see no actual game anywhere in this (though yes I understand your platform gives other people the ability to create games). I also bet you'll be very successful.

Sherwood
This Sherwood game is pretty amazing. It's a free, web-based MMO in 3D...that was made by one person (company: Maid Marion). Yeah it feels clunky, untuned, and has terrible combat. But it's an MMO made by one person! And it's 3D in your browser. Not impressed yet? How about this, he has 1.8 million active players (700,000 in Poland for some reason). It's ad supported (an ad at the bottom horizontal strip of the game) and it seems like this guy makes bank.

He did the entire thing in Shockwave using Director and Maya only. He modeled everything (characters, weapons, enemies, buildings, etc). He animated everything. He programmed everything. He designed everything. It uses lots of procedural content and has procedurally generated quests. When you check it out, I know you'll complain about it being too low quality, but let me remind you that one guy made it, that it's free, and that it has 1.8 million players, and that it makes him bank.

It totally blows my mind that you could have a graph of World of Warcraft subscribers and this Sherwood game even shows up on the graph as anything but a dot. WoW.

That was about it. Although the sessions weren't so great today, I made up for it with some of the connections I made.

--Sirlin

Friday
Feb222008

GDC 2008, Day 2

Soren Johnson
I wanted to go to his talk, but I couldn't get up in time because I stayed up too late doing [can't talk about it for 2 years.]

Ray Kurzweil, Futurist
Oh my god. There is no possible way I can explain to you what he explained to us. A year or two ago, GDC had a "vision" track with a keynote speech from a scientist that worked on the mock-technology behind the movie Minority Report. Spielberg had him assemble a team of top scientists from different disciplines around the world to create a plan about how future technology like transportation, advertising, computer interfaces, etc, etc might feasibly work in the future. The goal was for all these super smart guys to figure out something reasonable in under a year about all this. At first, I wondered what this had to do with the game industry, and maybe this guy didn't belong here. By the end, he seemed like the smartest guy at the entire conference and *we* were the ones who didn't belong.

Ray Kurwzeil (the Futurist!) gave me that exact same feeling. He's like, on a level above another level that's above everyone else. I was trying to estimate how many times more data he used in his talk than the average, but the average is somewhere around zero so it's hard to compute. I think there were tens of thousands of pieces of data thrown at us, at minimum.

So what does this guy actually *do*? He predicts the future. He's a very old man and he's done this for a very long time and he now has a team of 10 data analysts in various different fields who help him. I think he won us over immediately by saying how unfortunate  it is that the thing we make is called "games" and it's the "game industry." As if none of it matters, it's all just a game. Doesn't count! He does a lot of work in AI and said he's stuck with the same unfortunate naming there: "artificial intelligence." No, it's real intelligence. "Virtual worlds?" No, they are just worlds. In Second Life, $2 million changes hands every single day, but maybe it doesn't count, because it's a "virtual world."

The telephone, he said, is a virtual world that's been around for a while. It was really magic when it fist came out, allowing people to share a virtual auditory space across great distances. With deadpan delivery he joked, "But what about that agreement you made with me yesterday? Oh that wasn't a real agreement, it was on the telephone, so it doesn't count." Ha.

Seriously...*seriously* save your criticisms of any of that. Let it go. I have so far told you about 0.001% of what he said, so any trash talk you have will be ill-informed and picking on things like whether AI is "real intelligence." If I could tell you the rest, you'd see how fucking real he means it.

Kurzweil explained that predicting things like Google's stock price in 2020 is very hard, predicting how a possible merger between Microsoft and Yahoo might go is very hard. The fortunes and misfortunes of individual people. The waging of wars and results of wars (that might happen 100 years from now) are hard to predict. But that is not what he predicts. What he predicts, he can do with amazing accuracy. While he can't answer any of that, he can tell you the price of a 1 billion transistors in the year 2014. The capacity of efficiency of solar cells in the year 2040. The size and power of nanite technology in whatever year you name. And so on and so on.

He showed his track record in pretty great detail. One example was his published predictions of the expansion of ARPANET in like 1970 or something. He predicted a doubling every X time that would continue indefinitely, resulting in certain numbers of users in specific years, reaching a tipping point in 1990s at which point he said the entire world would basically be connected through a "world wide web," so to speak. At the time he said this, they were struggling with signing up 1,000 new scientists, so to many, this idea was ludicrous.

There are many, many more examples, but I'll have to skip them. Kurzweil explained that he is not some magician here, he just uses the same trick every time: it's all about exponential growth. Hopefully you're all aware of the whole phenomena about how humans are horrible at understanding exponential growth (it's not intuitive, we can only handle thinking about linear growth). He has a ridiculous amount of data about everything from punch card computers to cell phones, to the nanites about how every kind of technology follows the same exponential growth curve. (He had at least one zillion examples of this, all with tons of data). He says his predictions are only surprising to people who have not looked at where we are on a certain technology's exponential curve.

For example, solar power cells are expensive, hard to make, not terribly efficient, only contribute a very small amount of all the power we generate today, etc. If you aren't looking closely, you'd think they're going nowhere. But they increase in efficiency exponentially over time and we're currently in the period where they are only doubling small numbers to begin with. You might think that even if we gathered all the energy that the sun sends to Earth, that it's still not enough to power the Earth. Well, the actual research shows that we need only 1/10,000th of the energy the sun sends to Earth and solar power planners will be able to capture that amount by the year 2029 at which point fossil fuel will be irrelevant.

The human genome was only very recently mapped, but we can already reprogram the software life runs on, he says. We know the exact gene that causes your cells to store energy in the form of fat. This was useful to hunter-gatherers (hard work to find food, need to store it if you get it), but today it leads to heart disease, diabetes, etc. We've already tried turning off this gene in rats and they live longer, have all the health benefits of being slim, yet eat whatever they want. This is one of like a dozen health technologies he covered, trying to demonstrate that human life span is also going to change on a radical scale. Every year, the human life expectancy increases by some amount. In 20 years (or 30 at the worst), the increase per year will be *greater* than one year! Think about that for a minute!

By using his graphs for exponential shrinking of computer technology, you can see how easy it was to predict that by the year 2006, we'd be able to insert a pea-sized computer into someone's head that has Parkinson's disease to do whatever it is you need done if you have that disease. The computer interacts with your neurons just fine and performs the missing brain function for you. Now in 2008, we can even upload new software to these computers inside people's heads.

It's totally foreseeable when computers will be small enough that instead of a pea-size, they are the size of a human blood cell. I got a little confused at this point about whether this next part is really being tested now or it's a prediction of the near future or what, but he was talking about blood-cell-sized nanites that perform the function of your red blood cells at radically better efficiency. Replacing 20% of your blood cells with these nanites would, for example, allow you to run a marathon without being winded or sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours without needing more air.

He also talked about the implications of having nanites like this inside your body, and how they could be used. Things we call HUDs would be sent directly to your visual cortex (and he had a ridiculous amount of information about how we have now deconstructed the human visual cortex and are implementing  in robots exactly how it works in humans). Anyway, you could have these computers take over your sensory system and make you feel as if you're really in a virtual world instead, perhaps with some kind of "picture in picture" thing of the real world so you are still alert to dangers or whatever.

I have now captured maybe 5% of his talk, so you'll have to live with that. Imagining games in the future he describes is completely mind-blowing.

Clint Hocking
Clint thinks really hard about what he says and that puts him far ahead of a lot of speakers at GDC, ha. His lectures from last year and the year before were incredibly, though this year I wasn't quite as deeply affected. His topic was immersion and he explored the difference between sensory immersion and immersion in thinking deeply about something. For example, you can really be taken over for a moment by the tast of great chocolate, the sight of a beautiful painting, the music of Miles Davis, etc. Movie theaters themselves are a way to try to immerse our senses in a movie (filling up your field of vision, darkening the rest of the room, everyone is supposed to be quiet).

Clint says movies are really pro at this type of immersion, and while games need to care about this, they probably shouldn't try to attack Hollywood on their home turf by completely relying on this type. Games create this feedback loop between actions players make and changes in the game-world, so this leads to the possibility of a different type of immersion. Playing an intense game of chess or even moving Mario around his world is are interactive loops, and create their own kind of immersion.

He also talked a great deal about Guitar Hero and how it offers a pretty deep type of immersion to hardcore players who really try to improve their skills, but it provides a different (shallower, but still enjoyable) type to Grandma, who just wants to fee like she's playing a guitar and rocking out a little, without learning the intricacies of a timing system with hard dexterity challenges.

Experimental Gameplay Workshop
Always great stuff here. Several games involving playing with time that are dangerously close to something that, if only I could tell you.

A few games demonstrated the idea of "obfuscation." One was a simple platform game where everything is made of static (like on a tv screen with no signal). Any screenshot of the game looks like pure static, but in motion you can see patterns in the static that show you where the ground is. Another obfuscation game lets you play an invisible monster. No predator-like shimmering though, you are really completely invisible. It has platforming challenges, dodging bullets, and you even fight a boss that's another invisible monster. The remarkable things about this game are that you can actually play it at all, and that while you are very intensely concentrating on something like jumping around and avoiding stuff, spectators see absolutely nothing happening! ha!

One game, I don't know the name, was probably the weirdest game I've ever seen. The entire point of it is that the rules themselves are obfuscated. Even moving your guy around has mysterious consequences. There's some strange low-rez alien that screams at you for a long time, but he somehow disappears if you walk into him for long enough, and then a heart falls from the sky, and you can enter it and ride it to the next area. Then you have to walk to the right for a while, which scrolls some star background behind you but nothing else. Ok, so it's like this gibberish game of what-the-fuck-is-happening. But it really does raise interesting questions. When I see one single screen of Super Mario Brothers, I know like 100 things. I know about jumping, about landing on the enemy's head (not the side which can hurt me). I know about going into pipes, hitting question mark blocks that might give me a powerup or a coin, about jumping on turtles that make turtle shells that I can kick around, etc. But *this* crazy game? I have zero, zero clue what's going on, and you basically never have that feeling in a game. It was actually very interesting to have the feeling that I knew nothing at all about what even the basic rules are.

Space Giraffe (XBLA) was another demonstration of obfuscation. It's a Tempest-style game, sort of, but the entire point is that it goes to more and more and more lengths to completely cover up everything with ridiculous special effects. It reaches the point where a spectator cannot even tell anything about what's going on. It looks like some kind of malfunctioning psychedelic explosion that can't possibly have any meaningful information in it, yet you as a player can actually play it. As you play each level, some mysterious part of your brain really can sort out the gameplay part from the crazy light show part, and that's kind of interesting.

There were more interesting experimental games, but I kind of forget the rest right now.

Positive Impact in Games Panel
This session had a simple message, and it was powerfully delivered. It was very similar to Jonathon Blow's message from the day before, but somehow delivered in a "good guy" way rather than Blow's "bad guy way." (No knock on you Mr Blow, I love your stuff!).

Anyway, the point of Molyneux, Chris Taylor, Louis Castle, and the rest was that our medium gives us incredible power over people's lives and it's totally irresponsible for us to shrug our shoulders at what messages we're sending. They were all very clear that they want to create commercially successful games (rather than games intended entirely to convey a certain message, regardless of profits). They want to make AAA games, but they want them to have some positive impact on the world, rather than negative.

I think their stance is totally reasonable, and they each gave several examples of how they are at least trying to do this. Molyneux said his favorite angle is to let the player do whatever they want (but with consequences) and then hope that the player will learn something about himself or herself through that. Others talked about how realistic World War 2 games gave their kids a better idea of what the Normandy Invasion was really like, how hard the odds were. They were all for Saving Private Ryan approaches that show people how horrible war is and remind people that 18 year old kids died on that beach.

Another panelist explained a game he designed about the French Resistance period of history, which he researched a lot and worked with a historian on. The theme of the game was that you cannot trust anyone, and yet you need to trust people to survive. As he said, this is an interesting facet of the human condition and exploring that is meaningful and worthwhile and does not preclude making a fun game, in fact it brings a new depth to the game that could be a great success. He also explained how he made the save/load screen into a calendar with pics and text about major events in the war. If you click on them, you get to read historical papers about those events. Of course, you can completely ignore this and it has no bearing on your progression of the game, but because it's on that save/load screen you see a lot, you might eventually get curious enough to actually learn something.

Other panelists had examples that were more mass market than that, but the general theme was that if you really want to make something that has *some* redeeming value, then can. There are many ways and opportunities to do so, rather than make a game that says how great and fun war is, for example. Note that they are at the level of Lead Designer or Creative Director or whatever, so they're assuming you're in charge of your project. Also note that in a proposal for a simple flying shooter about World War 2, I tried to show through an extremely short story sequence on each side of the battle, and through missions that were basically mirror images of each other where you got to play both sides, that war starts to feel futile. I could explain this in more detail so it doesn't sound stupid, but you get the idea. The publisher said "let's just take all that out." You see, they don't want to say anything because if you ever say anything about anything you might offend someone, and game publishers are generally very against that.

Will Wright
I won the lottery (literally) to go to Will Wright's talk. Will is just as much of a super genius today as he ever was, but I've seen him speak like 20 times now so I feel like I could almost give a Will Wright lecture at this point, or at least a parody of one.

He talked about fantasy worlds/franchises/IPs that are really successful (from tv shows to Godzilla to Disney to Starwars to Carebears). The bottom line from his talk is that he thinks the best stories/worlds have characters/settings/verbs that are the most easily deconstructable and separable because then you can play with them and recombine them in new ways in your head. And the flip side is that the best games, he says, comes from giving the player pieces they can put together in many ways, or at least give the player a way to generate their own stories based on what they do.

As an example to make more concrete, Darth Vader in Star Wars is very iconic and extreme and it's easy to separate him from everything else and just think about him. You could imagine him appearing in some other world or setting, and you can imagine what would happen. Spiderman has this great verb of swinging around and Harry Potter has great verbs about casting magic spells. You can deconstruct all those things into their components and imagine combining them in new ways. Properties that lend themselves to that lend themselves to "franchise" ubuquity. If something is going to be a movie, console game, phone game, lunch box, card game, t-shirt, etc, it's going to have a better shot if you can deconstruct and recombine the various parts easily.

That's it for today.

--Sirlin

Thursday
Feb212008

GDC 2008, Day 1

Even though the Game Developer's Conference technically starts on Monday, I always call Wednesday the first day of the main conference. A lot of people ask me why I go to this conference at all. Other people at the conference ask me why I go to the actual sessions. All I can say is that it's a huge melting pot of semi-conflicting ideas. There's nothing else like it.

Player Generated Content
Daniel James (Puzzle Pirates), Brian Goble (Hipsoft), and a guy from IMVU talked about their experiences with player-generated content. Bottom line is that it's awesome, that it takes some system to manage it, but that it's really worth it. Goble explained that his word game that's been out four years now has had 2.9 million player-submitted phrases (kind of like Wheel of Fortune phrases). Only 19,000 of those are approved, but this is way more than the development team could have ever created (there are several requirements for what makes a phrase good for the game).

IMVU has a great business model. Players can create models/textures for avatars (in maya/photoshop) and upload them for sale. Users buy credits from IMVU. They spend the credits buying cool avatar stuff and 50% goes to IMVU, 50% to the content creator. The content creators do NOT sell those points back to the company to cash out, though. Some users use the points they earn to simply buy other people's cool avatar stuff. Creators that make more credits sell them back to customers on a secondary market (the price has stabilized to somewhere around 60 cents on the dollar). There's even a, uh, tertiary market of companies that buy points from creators, then do all the marketing and web transaction stuff needed to efficiently sell those points back to users. These companies take about 10% for their services. Bottom line is that money flows into IMVU and doesn't flow out. They make bank.

Microsoft
To give you an idea how much the Microsoft guy said "democratizing," he even had a joke about how he said democratizing too much. But you know what? Microsoft really *is* democratizing games if their new XBLA service works how they said it did in this lecture.

Step 1, join the Xbox Live Creator's Club. Use XNA Game Studio to make a game. When you're done, submit the game and fill out some forms about how much violence your game has or whatever.

Next, other members of the Creator's Club can play your game and rate it. They don't even rate if it's good or not, just if you were honest about the level of violence or strong language or whatever that you claimed you have. Once you pass this part (remember, you can't get vetoed for having a weird game or a bad one), then your game is fully available to ALL XBLA customers. Yes, all. Not just people in the Creator's Club. WOW! I've been waiting for that forever, awesome job Microsoft. I wonder about all those TCRs though, like the million requirements about naming the menus right, having help text right, when to use the B button for back and so on. Hmm.

Also, I happen to be in a super-fortunate position where I can get something approved on the full XBLA service in the first place without going the Creator's Club route (if only I had an actual team...please join me), but this Microsoft news is truly awesome for the industry.

Blizzard
When Rob Pardo talks,  people should listen. He spoke about multiplayer design. He first stressed that you must design multiplayer FIRST, or at least that's how Blizzard does it. Multiplayer games have more constraints and restrictions, so it's important to figure that out first, then do single player. If you did it the other way around you'd have to rip out a bunch of single-player stuff you came up with that won't work in multiplayer. As an example, Warcraft 3 had about 4 years of development time, but the entire single-player campaign was done in the last 9 months.

He spoke a lot about "skill differentiation." That means giving players lots of ways for them to show their skills. He warned against recent games going in the other direction, such as more auto-aim stuff in first-person shooters. "Twitch" gameplay is a very deliberate feature of Stacraft, he says, because it gives players that much more to master (in addition to managing their economy, multitasking, knowing the capabilities of each race/unit, and knowing the maps).

As one example, he talked about how in Starcraft you can only select 12 units at a time. On Starcraft 2 they argued a lot about whether you should be able to select unlimited, or keep it at 12. Keeping it at 12 gives the player one more thing to master because it's much easier to manage a large group of units if you can select them all at once. In the end, they decided to allow unlimited selection even though it goes against the "support skill differentiation" rule-of-thumb because players thought the restriction was arbitrary and felt like broken Ui.

I'm personally surprised they would even consider keeping the 12 unit selection limit because it tests a skill I find irrelevant. Fighting with the UI shouldn't be valued skill. And, in my opinion, neither should a whole lot of other twitch things. There's plenty in the realm of strategy, timing, and knowledge that differentiates players without needing arbitrary walls like 12 unit selection limits or 8 frame windows for recognizing Dragon Punches. While I'm interested in eliminating a lot of pointless skill tests, Pardo seemed in favor of providing a whole lot of these. He *did* make Starcraft, Warcraft, and World of Warcraft though, so what do I know?

Pardo said a lot of great stuff I totally agree with, also. He let out one of my secrets that game balancing has little to do with math. It can *start* at math, but there's no way around being a real *player* of the game. "You have to know the nuances," he said, "not just watch replays." He said things like how much this or that unit suffers from the pathfinding in Starcraft isn't in the spreadsheet math. And knowing that 1 zealot beats 2 zerglings, or whatever, is nice, but it doesn't matter to the level of detail some designers think it does. It matters if Protoss beat Zerg, but that's a much higher level, complicated question. Also, using just math to balance can lead you to very "boring, but fair" answers. Moves ideally *feel* extremely powerful, he says, even though they are fair. He advised against "super weapons" though. That means a weapon or move so powerful that you feel like there is nothing you could possibly have done. The nuclear launch in Starcraft is his example of how to do this right: it feels like a super-weapon sort of, but has LOTS of ways to counter it. (They neeed a cloaked ghost nearby, a laser sight, there's a red dot and a timer, etc, etc.)

Use your betas well, Pardo says, because you never get as long as you'd like. If there is a move or strategy you wonder about, start the beta with that move or strategy set to "too powerful" levels. Then people will try it. Then nerf it a bit. Then a bit more if you need to. If you start with it too weak, then no one will try it at all. When you make it more powerful, even if you really made it TOO powerful, no might notice in the beta because they have been trained to consider it pointless already.

I nodded in agreement as he explained that while you need to patch to fix balance stuff, you should NOT do this too frequently. If something appears too powerful, it doesn't mean it is (I've been saying that forever!). It's very possible that players will find counters and eventually the "overpowered" thing will seem pretty fair in comparison. If you fix every little thing that appears overpowered, players learn to not even try to counter anything. They just wait for you to solve all their problems. Let the metagame develop a bit before balance patching.

Don't have tons of special effects. Artists have a tendency to turn up the effects, he says, but it gets in the way of gameplay. Don't let them. He said Warcraft 3 has too many effects and sometimes you can't even tell what's happening.

Pardo also stressed having the right amount of complexity in your game. I have said for a long time that 30 moves is some kind of magic number that's about right. Pardo's magic number is 15 units in an rts. You want enough that players can be expressive and learn nuances, but if you have TOO many then it's a huge mess and no one even knows what's what. Amen to that. Incidentally, that's why Guild Wars is confusing. In Magic: The Gathering, there's a million cards, but it's a turn-based game where you can read each card. In Guild Wars, it's real-time and even though one character can have only 8 moves, it's 8 from a huge pool. It ends up with that "who even knows what's-what" syndrome (except for expert players).

I would love to make a "wow-battlegrounds" like game that has clearly defined classes/abilities. Not a million. Think about 15 units in Starcraft, 30 moves in Street Fighter, and 9 classes in Team Fortress 2. Manageable stuff that a player can wrap his/her head around.

Another amen to Pardo saying bigger maps are not better. More maps are also not better. You want as few maps as you can get away with and as small maps as you can get away with. I wish the media would figure this out. He said Warcraft 3 has about 8 maps per map-type because if it's too many, people don't really learn the nuances of the maps and it divides up the players too much anyway. If the maps are too big, they become less and less fun because travel time takes too long. Small maps are faster and just more fun.

I was amused to hear that Pardo keeps some stats secret on purpose because he's forced into this political game with the players. If players THINK a certain race/class whatever is imbalanced, then a snowball effect happens where more and more players jump onto it, fewer and fewer try counters of another race/class, and things generally get pretty unhappy. This snowball can startup even when players see stats that are like 51%/49% on something, so Blizzard never publishes stats what the win rate is between Orc and Undead, for example.

Pardo said a lot of stuff beyond all this, even. Good stuff, but that's enough for now.

Jonathon Blow
Jonathon Blow is outside of the box. I thought he had trouble expressing some of his ideas, but hardly anyone else is even attempting to express the ideas he brings up in conference after conference, so I'll cut him some slack. A lot of slack, actually, he deserves it.
He started with a quote from the New York Times review of Halo 3 saying something close to "As cinema evolved, it developed the ability to transform as well as to entertain." For some period of time, there mostly notable films had some kind of technical achievement, but only after a certain year (which I forget) do we now say films started to really have the power to "transform," meaning to make a real impact on people's lives. That New York Times Review said that games poised to make this transition from only entertaining to really transforming, and that Halo 3 is NOT a step toward that. Ha.

Mr. Blow's point is that he thinks we're not even as poised to make that transition as the NYT reviewer said. We're pretty far off, he said, and we're not doing great yet. Blow says he's matured over the years, but games mostly haven't and offer the same-old same-old without making much of a real impact on anyone.

To give some perspective, he talked about one way to make design decisions. In the consumer-goods view of a game, you make the game to make money. There's always design tradeoffs, so when you make your decisions about what to do and what not to, your guide is to choose the things that will make the game sell more. If adding only the minimum number of features to your yearly release is how you maximize money, then that's what you do.

Another way to approach design is to have some kind of "goodness" scale. Do X and the game is more fun (to you maybe, but also to your focus group of players, and your guess at the wide-world of players). You make your decisions in order to maximize the fun or enjoyment of the game. He pointed out how really stupid this all sounds, but he wants us to at least acknowledge that these are two different ways of doing things, and yeah, they are.

Then he really cut into the game industry. He said that we've gone way too far in making only games that are a certain type of "fun." They give the players fake challenges, then shower them with external rewards (rather than the real internal rewards). We make them feel awesome for doing the most routine things, and the whole sharade is empty and inauthentic. His example of one end of the spectrum was God of War (a power fantasy where you easily kill a zillion enemies who exist only for you to easily kill them) and on the other end, Peggle(sp?), a casual game that showers you with fireworks and sound effects when you solve the most easily solvable puzzles. (Disclaimer: I know the people made God of War and I happen to like it!)

Blow says much of the problem comes from games having trouble with the concepts of difficulty and challenge. If you want to tell a story, for example, then you need good pacing. If you want good story inside a first-person-shooter, then you just committed to some type of challenge-based gameplay. If it's too hard, then it ruins the pacing of the story. If it's too easy, why even having this aiming/shooting thing at all? So far the answer is to create these fake challenges that aren't that hard but kind of seem like you are cool for completing them, then occasionally tossing in a real challenge to help with the overall illusion.

Blow says we should be thinking of completely different kinds of challenge. Action/Skill challenge is one we do all the time, as well as problem solving. He asks what about challenges like curiosity, social challenge (trying to fit into an awkward social situation), perceptual challenges (like in Space Giraffe), ethical challenges, aesthetic challenges, or parasympathetic challenges (like in Wild Divine) to name just a few.

He also talked about how backwards it is to say "I'm going to make an fps, and I want it to have great story." He advocates we instead think of some genuine idea or emotional/intellectual territory to explore, and then ask "what kind of game can best explore this." He fully admits that this will not make as much money as a game that panders to the lowest common denominator, but that's ok. There are films like Transformers that are designed to make as much cash as possible. There are other films that are content with being seen merely by a reasonable number of people (rather than the highest possible number) and which have a real, deep impact on people, transforming the way they think and feel. The film industry has both and we need both.

Apologies to Jonathon for my poor summary of this. I could do a better job on this if I weren't trying to cram it in at 1am the night before Day 2.

Chris Hecker
I've only seen Chris Hecker a couple times and both times he seemed like he was using some sort of illegal stimulant. Apparently, he is just always like this. I took Chris's lecture as some sort of comedy experience or "ride." After 20 minutes of highly abstract stuff he said "From here on out, it's going to get a lot more abstract." He said this with a straight face and I literally laughed out loud. He also said such lines as "I don't know what this has to do with my lecture, or with games at all, but it seemed related (that was about Amazon's Mechanical Turk service). He also said "If you can invent something better than the triangle, then unlimited money awaits you." One of the questions at the end was actually "What was your lecture about?" and I'm not even making that up.

What his lecture was about is that there are few really hard problems we've solved in games that we solved really well. There is a similar character to these solutions. I won't go into the details, but let's just say they are awesome solutions. He talked a fair amount about "the triangle" being the biggest one, meaning a triangular polygon with a texture map. People tried all sorts of competing things like NURBS and other ways to describe meshes and surfaces, but the triangle apparently is the current king.

What he points out about this is that there's a bunch of STRUCTURE to a triangle...the xyz coordinates, the uv coordinates, the way it connects to other triangles, and that it can have a texture map. Then there's also the idea of the STYLE you can put on a triangle, namely the cool looking texture map. So programming people can play with all that first stuff because the computer understands the STRUCTURE of these triangles. Art people who know nothing about programming can play with the STYLE and create awesome 3D worlds and characters. Great solution!

He even said the triangle solution has had the biggest impact of any technoloyg in the history of games. But what SHOULD have had the biggest impact is AI. Too bad it hasn't.

Chris says that AI needs a STRUCTURE/STYLE solution. There needs to be some way that we can define a structure of how behaviors in AI work, then let non-programmers define the style of creating behaviors for particular characters. He means something deeper than just messing with stats on a spreadsheet, but not something that involves writing real code. Do you NEED code to describe AI? He says his first answer was yet, but now he thinks maybe not.

To sum it up in a catch phrase, he wants "The Photoshop of AI." A program that non-programers could use to create AI. He thinks we are no where near doing this now, but that it is possible. He said we're far enough away that we're better off not even trying explicitly for this yet, but on just generally understanding AI better first, and once we do, it will become more clear how to create that "Photoshop of AI."

Yes I know that if you know enough about AI to appreciate this, then my quick summary feels far too lacking. Sorry! You're better off talking to super genius Chris Hecker than me about this anyway. ;)

That's it for Day 1.

--Sirlin

Tuesday
Feb122008

The Mysterious Grassroots Gamemaster

There's a mysterious, secret guy called Grassroots Gamemaster. You can read about him here, and especially this post of his. He talks about how backwards the game industry is right now, and one of his best points is how people who know the most about the design of games are nearly never the ones who decide which games to make. Those decisions are usually made by people who wear suits. I laughed at his analogy of a money guy telling Thomas Edison that a lightbulb is not really what anyone wants but he'd like to hire Mr. Edison to be an inventor of something else (perhaps a genre platformer for the next kids movie coming out).

Dear Grassroots Gamemaster, I have a lot of positive things to say and one negative. The positive part is that you have exactly described me, I fully accept your arguments, agree with them, and would like to work in the environment you describe. To give you an idea of how true that is, it's hard for me to picture myself working as cog in someone else's machine where I get $0 for each additional copy sold for much longer. I don't care about job security, I care about doing something that has lasting impact and meaning, but those notions get lost in the shuffle as you described.

So when do I start? Let's do it.

I hate to give out jeers on something when I haven't really researched it, but at first glance I have to wonder what is up with the IGDA regarding Grassroots Gamemaster. He says someone threatened to kick him out of the organization for his views. Grassroots Gamemaster: what is the person's name who told you this? What is his position? What were his reasons? Also, I notice that the IGDA forums deleted pretty much all your posts. IGDA: Why did you do this? Deleting unpopular speech doesn't really sit well with me, especially when the message is so spot-on.

Again, I didn't look into this that closely, but that really worries me about the IGDA. I'm all for an organization that looks out for my interests by lobbying against insane anti-video game laws and that publishes whitepapers on the quality of life in the game industry, as the IGDA does. But really, deleting posts and threating to ban someone who is unmasking the game industry with such cutting accuracy makes me very, very uncomfortable.

Finally, Grassroots Gamer, since we're now going to work together and make great products and win the video game lottery and all, let's just get it out in the open now. I have one problem with you: you're a coward. People who post anonymously on the internet are cowards. Please put your real name on your site and keep saying what you're saying. Wouldn't it feel better to stand up and be counted for what you believe in, even though the people you currently work with might be mad at you?

There's a lot worse things to be than a coward. Being wrong is worse, and Grassroots Gamemaster is not wrong, so he's way ahead of the curve.

--Sirlin