Thursday, April 14, 2005
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Five One Five Four
I've uploaded a collection/album of songs I wrote several years ago (dated Jan6/2002) using only Fasttracker2 and Maz's no.1 instruments sample cd. The idea was to severely limit my tools in order to require and encourage creativity. If you liked "Somewhere East" from Gate 88's soundtrack, this should be right up your alley.
Grab it and enjoy!
Thursday, March 31, 2005
The Duality of Open Source Games
Technologies: ideas and sciences enabling humanity to defeat nature and act impossibly. The human is born with two legs and learns to walk, but when he sees a bird in flight he says, "I must fly too," and he takes to the skies. Somewhere in flight, the human discovers the atom, but then he says, "no! 1 = 2" and the atom splits. Years later, the human gives birth to twins, but then he says "it is not by chance," and he clones the sheep.
Technology replaces impossibility with possibility, but it also creates ethics and ideologies. Following Einstein's discovery of E=mc2, issues arose questioning the ethics of atomic warfare. A moral code was established along with an ideology that we should all disarm ourselves of nuclear weapons. Similarly, biological cloning has opened the door to a whole new set of ethical issues.
Software is no different. There are ethics in place that discourage a programmer from releasing spyware in the guise of utility and there are ethics in place that discourage technologically inclined individuals from spamming millions of users' email accounts with useless junk. And there are also ideologies. Perhaps one of the most profound of these ideologies is The Free Software Definition.
The Free Software Definition is powerful in that it applies a forward-thinking philosophy to a field that is inherently forward-thinking. In software development, we always say, "don't reinvent the wheel! Always reuse, reuse, reuse!" In other words, build software on top of other software, creating a direct relationship between the old and the new. For the new to operate optimally, the old must also operate optimally. To ensure that the old operates optimally, we must have access to the old. The Free Software Foundation is the key to that access.
In that regard, many games, Gate 88 included, have received a lot of flak for remaining closed source. The rationale is that games are software and when the software does not function the way we want, we should be allowed access to fix it.
But the creation of a game is not motivated by needs of utility and application. Actually, a game proposes a need (the goal of the game) to the user who is actively restricted from satisfying it. For example, in Street Fighter, the need (goal) is to beat the other guy into oblivion, but you are restricted to only punches, kicks, and super moves. You can't just press a button to wipe out your opponent in one blow because relieving restriction will ruin the game.
Thus the game designer's ambition is entirely distinct from the engineer's ambition. Whereas games seek to establish a delicate balance between need and restriction, applications and utilities seek to satisfy need and vanquish restriction. The distinction parallels the distinction between art and technology. Unlike technology, art is not rated by performance optimality (satisfaction of need) but rather, by subjective enjoyment. Clearly, games fall into the later category of subjectivity. Then, what role does Open Source have in a work of art?
By close sourcing a work, the game-designer/artist receives the freedom to create and independently express under his own terms, allowing the game's vision to remain true to the creator. This protects the work from contradictory visions, resulting in a work that is pure and special rather than diluted and ordinary. Just ask yourself, "would Picasso's Guernica have been as great if it were open sourced?"
The situation is complicated when games are implemented as software. New software must operate optimally, but for the new to operate optimally, the old most also operate optimally - The Free Software Foundation must apply. It is because of this complication that I see creating a video game as similar to raising a child. As the child grows, the parent is close to the child, ensuring that he is not influenced negatively. When the child grows to be an adult, the parent is distanced and the child, now adult, is able to fend for himself. The analog to video games centers on this process of maturation. When the vision of the game is so ingrained in the work that it becomes resistant to change, the game is ready to be open sourced.
In that light, Open Source is like a doctor to games. It cures the game of sickness (bugs, cheats, exploits), and extends the lifetime of the game (ports to newer operating-systems/hardware-platforms). It vanquishes the restriction of implementation and satisfies the need to play that particular game. But this process should not penetrate the artistic side of the work. Respect and freedom must be given to the author so that he or she can create the game - the art - with a vision that is pure and special. This is what makes the art an expression of the artist as opposed to a tool for the artist.
Saturday, March 19, 2005
Liquid War, Othello and the Penalty-Reward Relationship
Like most RTS games, the goal in Gate 88 is to manipulate your army into a favourable position, but unlike most RTS games, there is a serious penalty which increases as the distance from you to the point of action increases (eg. building a factory in deep space requires you to spend a significant amount of time away from your own base). Jack, who's provided some excellent g88 testing/bug-tracking work, has found Liquid War which completely encapsulates this concept into one neat little package.
The game has each player in control of an army of pixels where the goal is to simply eat your opponents' army of pixels (see the rules). Curiously, your only method of interaction is the movement of a cursor that your entire army attacks towards. Because you can only attack in one direction at a time, your defense in the opposite direction is immediately compromised (similar to g88 in that building factories in deep space immediately puts your base at risk since you have to physically fly away). The crux of Liquid War involves managing this penalty-reward relationship in which immediate gains are coupled with immediate lose.
Somehow the concept reminded me of the basic gameplay in Othello (some of you may know it as Reversi) where the goal is to flip your opponent's discs to your colour. This is similar to Liquid War in that pixels you've eaten turn into pixels of your own. Yet there was something deeper about it which I couldn't quite put my finger on.
Being an Othello noob, I decided to scour the net for any information on strategies and tips. Upon reading that "because of the nature of the rules of Othello, most moves you make tend to increase your opponent’s mobility and decrease your own (there are suddenly more discs for your opponent to flip and less for yourself)," it finally hit me: the game's "battle for mobility" is exactly the same gameplay as the immediate penalty-reward relationship exhibited in Liquid War! The penalty is your opponent gains mobility on you, but your reward is you end up with more pieces.
Of course every game has some sort of penalty-reward relationship. In FPS games, shooting costs ammo, but it's the only way to kill. In RTS games, building costs resources, but it's the only way to grow your army. In shmups (shoot 'em ups), going for a power-up often puts you in danger, but it's the only way to upgrade. What's special about Liquid War and Othello is that while Liquid War strongly suggests the penalty-reward relationship (attacking compromises defense, but you do not have to attack), Othello specifically states it (flipping more discs decreases the amount you can flip in the future, but you must flip each turn). Then, if every game has some sort of penalty-reward relationship, and Othello specifically states it, does that imply that every game in existence is just an instance of Othello? (!?)
I think this is why Othello has become one of the classic games of today alongside Go and Chess.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Random Headshots and the Action-Reward Model
Possibly the most frustrating games (video or not) are those whose core gameplay mechanic depends on randomization. From the roll of the dice in Monopoly to the lucky headshots in Counter Strike, these games provide the possibility for a player to defeat another player of much greater skill. Often, this initially leads from angry, blood-boiling cries of “OMG NOOB! YOU'RE SO LUCKY!” to questions like “why does this skill-based game allow random noobs to dominate a veteran player? Isn't it a bit of an oxymoron for skill games to have luck?”
In my previous entry I suggested that luck and randomization play a central role in games like Nanaca Crash. The thing is, Nanaca Crash is an extreme case of how luck and randomization can benefit the gameplay. Indeed similar concepts play a role in contemporary games such as Counter Strike, where the main skill is learning to aim and fire at the head. In CS, there are two streams of interactions that allow the player to perform these headshots: 1) learn to control the recoil of your gun (i.e. use skill) or 2) spray and pray (i.e. use luck). These two separate streams also separates the novice players from the veterans. The veteran will usually perform headshots via stream #1 whereas the novice will most likely follow stream #2. What's interesting is how two entirely different streams of interactions allow players of any skill level perform the most deadly action in the game.
For the novices, every random headshot gives them a glimpse of what it's like to be a veteran player. That is what keeps the player coming back for more. It's like being offered free broadband Internet access for three months and then having it taken it away. No doubt you'll feel the urge to shell out the extra coin lest you risk falling back into the dreaded depression that is dial-up. Similarly, with CS, after being offered that one shining moment of making the perfect headshot, you think to yourself, “maybe I can do it again next round!” Then next round turns into next next round, and suddenly you've been playing for hours.
Thus randomization and luck is a useful tool for games that do not provide an explicit action-reward gameplay model. What I mean by an “action-reward gameplay model” is the gameplay model whereby explicit rewards or upgrades are given to you as you complete more of the game. A good example would be Gran Tourismo where winning races gives you money which you can use to upgrade your car. The action-reward relationship is explicit.
It can be argued that the action-reward model in CS is explicit in that players are rewarded cash for making kills, but skilled players will often max out their arsenal early in the game. This renders the weapon purchasing system irrelevant and suggests that the action-reward model in CS is not explicit. Instead, the draw of the game for skilled players is being able to dominate the enemy with repeated headshots. Consequently the relationship between the action and the reward must be related to making headshots. Randomization is one way to reward novice players with these headshots (the “glimpse of what it's like” via luck) while still rewarding veteran players in greater frequency. Thus, randomization supports an action-reward model that is implicit.
Here are some more examples:
- Any Sports Game: Scoring a random goal
- Street Fighter 2: Pulling off random spinning pile drivers with Zangief
- Texas Hold'em: Flopping a set with seven-deuce offsuit
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Nanaca Crash: A Modern Day Slot Machine
As of late, this curious little flash game has been satisfying my late night cravings for gaming goodness. For a game largely dependent on luck, I couldn't understand how it has managed to become so addictive. Is it the cute expressions of the anime characters? Is it the upbeat music coupled with the cruel nature of the goal? Is it because the game requires next to zero attention?
Maybe that's the draw of the game. The fact that with constant play, your luck is bound to reward you with that coveted Cosmic Force Field special. Big gains are yours so long as you master one simple skill: click the screen and play a lot!
This gameplay mechanic seems oddly reminiscent of the gameplay mechanics in casino slot machines. Both games involve an initial interaction that sets the tone for the rest of the game. In Nanaca Crash, the initial interaction is the choice of angle and power at which you launch the poor dude. The rest of the game is spent, with minimal interaction, hoping that your dude crashes into the right girls (literally, no metaphors here) for the special bonuses (...). In slots, the initial interaction is the pulling of the lever (and whatever voodoo you might perform beforehand) with the rest of the game spent hoping that the slots show up lucky 7s.
It's true that Nanaca Crash allows players to perform an extremely limited set of interactions (the "Aerials") whereas slots has more of a fire-and-forget feeling, but the principles are the same. Think of Nanaca Crash as a row of serially connected slot machines whose outcome affects the outcome of the next slot machine connected in the chain. The game is still based on luck, but allows for minimal interaction.
Sometimes I think back to the bygone days of arcade culture and wonder if Nanaca Crash would have ate up quarter after quarter much like its slot machine brethren.
Anyway, a new Gate 88 temporary fix was released. Grab it: http://www.queasygames.com/gate88/temporaryfix.html. The fix uses slightly different logic than the old servers and so turrets may go a bit spastic. Join my server called "Running temp fix: mar1/05 - READ THE NEWS ABOVE," to alleviate the spasticness.
Oh, and the globe background shouldn't mess up now:
Let's hope it all works this time.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
A temporary fix for the Gate 88 choppyness problem is available at the temporary fix page.
Note: these fixes undergo next to zero testing from me. However, if the g88 community (that's you guys!) can give me a hand in trying out these updates, I'll be able to more quickly whip out new versions.
So let me know how it goes on the forums.
Saturday, February 26, 2005
And the Bomb Drops...
So as we've all found out, Gate 88 still can't quite handle eight player network games... but at least the server doesn't bomb out.
Without getting technical, there are several "modules" that determine the overall performance of g88. There's the drawing, the physics, the netcode, and the logic. What's interesting is that when I think back to the early days of g88 development, I realize that bottlenecks in various modules have been hiding bottlenecks in other modules.
In the beginning, it was totally a physics problem. Once four or five players launched their ninety fighters it was all over. The server would melt and I would run for the fire extinguisher.
Upon fixing the physics problem and evolving the gameplay to be base-centric, it became apparant that the netcode was the bottleneck. Due to one critical error, the server was being flooded with useless data. If you remember, those were the days of 900 ping.
Yet solving the netcode problem (released a couple days ago), the game still can't cope. Can you guess? Yep, it's the logic module. It's interesting (and infuriating) how without fixing physics, I would never have seen the netcode problems, and then without fixing the netcode, I would never have seen the current logic problems.
Well I see them now and the next version will be much faster.
I know, I've been saying that for eight months now.
Anyway, the forums have been updated to match this colour scheme. Let me know if there are any problems.