Games * Design * Art * Culture


Wednesday, October 29, 2003
And... Hm. Karen's water has broken, so I shan't be around for a few days.


Okay.... I -think- I've figured out the problem, not that I've managed to fix it, yet at any event.

Blogger assigns each post a numerical ID. Sometime last June, they changed from a system of 8-digit numbers to a system of 18-digit numbers. According to this post, this is a problem for Snorcomments. Snor uses the ID number provided by Blogger to identify comments. Essentially, all comments to a post are stored on my server in a file named postIDnumber.txt (e.g., 111111111111111111.txt). So far so good.

But Snor uses Javascript to make a call to comment.pl (a cgi in PHP). The call passes the Blogger ID number. Both Javascript and PHP, however, only go to 17 digits of precision. Thus it winds up storing the comments in a file named something OTHER than the Blogger ID.

This is not a problem under normal circumstances, because Javascript makes the same error every time, and so the same Blogger ID =usually= wins up at the same file name. However, it can break under two circumstances: First, if two Blogger IDs are close enough that the rounding error points to the same file for the two different posts--and second, if some critical value is passed, at which point Snor turns the passed number into an exponential, like say 1x06720019248778ex17, at which point the whole thing seems to go blooey.

Now apparently, if I'd understood this problem last May, there was an easy fix: Simply put the Javascript calls in single quotes, turning the passed value from a number into a string. Since the PHP determines the comment filename by adding ".txt" to the value, it doesn't matter if the value is a number or a string, the resulting filename is the same, you wind up concatenating a string to '.txt' instead of a number, same net effect.

But since I didn't fix the problem then, I'm now up shits creek. I fixed the Javascript calls, but all the comment filenames since last May are now wrong.

I -think-, but am not sure, that if I now go and figure out what the proper filenames should be, and rename all the files, the thing will work. I say 'think,' because while I can read the Javascript, having done a fair bit of work in Javascript, I'm basically dumb-fuck ignorant of PHP, and I'm only guessing how that side of Snor works.

I have, however, devoted way too much of today to this problem, and am deferring this for later.

Computers suck.


Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Having a problem with the comments... The comment files still seem to be on my server, by they're now misnumbered relative to the numbering scheme used for Blogger posts. I have an email into Snorcomments in the hope that they can help. I could do a stopgap manual fix, but I'm hoping there's a more permanent one. Sorry bout that...


Monday, October 27, 2003
If I Ran the Z/o/o/ Con
by Leslie Turek, NESFA Press, Boston, 1987. iv+109 pp. plus game cards. GBC Bound, ISBN 0-915368-51-X

The New England Science Fiction Association is one of the oldest and best-organized groups of science fiction fans; among other things, they run the annual Boskone convention, and often bid for (and run) the World Science Fiction Convention. Their publishing arm, NESFA Press, exists mainly to keep in print classic works of science fiction and fantasy that commercial presses no longer see any profit in providing.

They don't publish games.

Except for this one.

The World Science Fiction Convention is the largest amateur-run convention in the United States (and quite likely the world). By the charter of the World Science Fiction Society, the body that governs it, North America is divided into three zones (western, central, and eastern), and the convention moves from one zone to another in rotation. Any group that wishes to may offer a bid to hold the convention, naming the city where it will be held--and a bid outside North America can bid in any year, and will win if it receives a plurality of votes. This year's WorldCon will be run by NESFA, in Boston; next year, it will be in Glasgow; and the year after that, in L.A.

In other words, spontaneously organized fan groups put together bids; try to persuade fans to vote for their city; and, if they win, wind up putting on the convention. Since WorldCon usually gets about 7000 members, this is no small task, for unpaid volunteers.

Science fiction fans are proud of the process, and of the fact that WorldCon has remained relentlessly uncommercial for seven decades. But the process is obviously fraught with difficulty; so much can go wrong, and many of the people involved have scant experience with, say, persauding hotels to waive corkage fees, or dealing with guests of honor who want only the blue M&Ms.

Why all this backstory? Because you need it to understand what If I Ran the Z/o/o Con is, and why it's an interesting, maybe even important, game.

If I Ran the Z/o/o Con is a choose-your-own-ending book, basically. You read a paragraph in the book; at the end of the paragraph, you're asked to make a decision. Depending on your decision and, sometimes, a die-roll, you are then directed to another numbered paragraph in the book. (The cards add some random events during play.)

All very typical, and very jejune. Precisely the same system is used in hundreds, probably thousands of deservedly out-of-print 'which-way' books from the 80s, which is the last time the genre was popular. Which-way books basically suck; they suffer from all the problems of all branching-narrative game styles, but because they're set in text, they're even less interactive than, say, graphic adventures. Boh-ring.

Why then is this game interesting?

The fantasy behind If I Ran the Z/o/o Con is that you are leading a group of fans who are putting together a bid to host the World Science Fiction Convention. The problems you face as you move through the process are drawn from the actual history of WorldCons--with the names changed so that, say, the highly popular but incredibly cranky and potentially violent guest of honor (one of several you can select) is not actually named "Harlan Ellison," for the obvious reason that he is highly cranky, and quite litigious.

Depending on your choices (and a little luck), you can end up with a very successful WorldCon, everyone happy, and a profit made into the bargain--or a huge pit of despair, madness, and red ink.

The game, in other words, serves a didactic purpose: It is intended to help wannabe WorldCon bidders at least understand some of the problems people have faced before, and (hopefully) get them to avoid making the most obvious mistakes. It serves that purpose admirably--and even if you don't plan on making a WorldCon bid, it's pretty fun to play, at least if you have an interest in science fiction and the field's personalities. It's rather amazing what can go wrong.

Since the digital games revolution began, starry-eyed twits have been going on and on about how games will change education and lead us all down a future glorious path in which everyone learns everything because it's fun to do so. This is, of course, nonsense, and always will be, since creating something interactive =and fun= is bloody hard enough, and insisting that the result should also cram some facts into people's heads is enough to turn "bloody hard" into "well nigh impossible." (And.... Have you noticed that every school computer lab in the country has Oregon Trail and SimCity installed--and few if any other games--and that this has been true for twenty years?)

If I Ran the Z/o/o Con doesn't have to be a one-off, either. The same technique is usable for other subjects. If there's a body of knowledge that can be encapsulated in anecdotes, and a process that moves through time, you could do a game along the same lines to teach that body of knowledge. I could see it being used, say, to teach new hires at a brokerage about the sales and clearance process.

Creating didactic games is hard. Creating fun didactic games is harder. Creating a fun didactic game out of a game style that is itself bankrupt is--pretty amazing, when you think about it.



Additional thoughts
Thanks for all the comments.... At some point I'll try to put together a revised list based on them.

Also, I agree with Jason Scott that "300 games you gotta know" or somesuch does make it sound like work, rather than fun. Who wants to be told they have to plow through 300 anything to be literate in a particular field. Perhaps "Games that Matter," which also avoids the necessity to juggle the list to conform to some arbitrary number.

Boy, if I'm serious about this, do I have a lot of research to do. Not to mention a lot of systems to buy; at present, I've got an Atari 2600, Sega Genesis (and CD), 3DO, CDi, Dreamcast, PSII, and access to a GBA and XBox. And a PC, obviously. But at a bare minimum, I'll need a NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64.

Incidentally, this is a few months old, but I ran into it this morning, and it's a hoot; James Wagner Au riffing on Julia Roberts's claim to play Halo.


Sunday, October 26, 2003
The 300 Games Every Game Developer (and Gamer) Should Know
I've been thinking about writing a book with this title. There are several reasons why I think it would be useful. For one thing, I (and everyone who comes into contact with game design wannabes) am often shocked at how ignorant such people often (not always) are--how limited their experience with games. In some cases, they don't even seem to play games at all; in others, their experience is limited to a very narrow range of games.

For another thing, it would be a cool project, and a cool reference.

What are the criteria for including games? There are a bunch of them. Some games are historically important. Some games are highly innovative, landmarks in design. Some games are miserable failures, but the ways in which they fail miserably are important and informative. Others are obscure, but interesting and innovative attempts that may point the way to fruitful future development. Some are perfect examples of a particular design idea, or a particular design flaw.

I spent some time today hacking together a list--it's a lot short of 300 (and maybe we wind up with 200, or some other number--it's not that important). But in putting it together, I also realized that =I= have a lot of blindspots, too. For one thing, I've never had any interest in sports games, and you can't ignore them. For another, while I'm not totally ignorant of console games, I'm primarily a paper and PC gamer--and the console games I do play tend to be RPGs, action-adventure, etc., meaning I know very little about racers, sports games, and other whole categories.

So I thought I'd post the list here. Please do comment--suggest games I'm missing, criticize choices I've made, and so on. With some help, I think we can put together a pretty solid preliminary list. So here goes:

FOLK GAMES
Tic-Tac-Toe
Rock-Paper-Scissors
Chess
Go
Backgammon
Hearts
Poker
Dominoes
Solitaire
Twenty Questions
Charades
Memory

(Maybe: Checkers, Chinese Checkers, Owaree, Pachisi, Peg solitaire, Bridge, Spades, Gin)

EARLIEST DESIGNED GAMES
The King's Game
Kriegspieler

MASS MARKET GAMES
Candyland
Monopoly (& The Landlord's Game)
Pit
Clue
Risk
Scrabble
Acquire
Trivial Pursuit

HOBBY GAMES--Miniatures
Little Wars
Fletcher Pratt Naval Miniatures
WRG Ancients
Warhammer

HOBBY GAMES--Boardgames
Tactics II
Stalingrad
Napoleon's Last Battles
War in Europe
Diplomacy
Stellar Conquest
Ogre
Titan
Kingmaker
Axis & Allies
Cosmic Encounter
Advanced Squad Leader
Tales of the Arabian Nights
BattleTech
Car Wars
Settlers of Catan

HOBBY GAMES--RPGs
Dungeons & Dragons
Call of Cthulhu
Vampire: The Masquerade
Champions
GURPS
Toon
Shadowrun
My Life with Master

HOBBY GAMES--Other
Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks
Starweb
The Larp
Heroclicks
Magic: The Gathering
Stratomatic Baseball

ARCADE GAMES
Pong
Breakout
Asteroids
Space Invaders
Missile Command
Pac-Man
Pole Position
Gauntlet
Donkey Kong
Robotron
Dragon's Lair
Virtua Racing
Street Fighter II
Dance Dance Revolution

(maybe: Centipede; Tempest; Battlezone; Atari Football; Defender; Berzerk; Sinistar; Q*Bert; Commando; Double Dragon)

COMPUTER GAMES--Early
Willy Higginbotham's Tennis
Space War
Hunt the Wumpus
Hammurabi
Adventure
Rogue/Nethack
Pinball Construction Set
Loderunner

COMPUTER GAMES--Adventure
Zork
Kings Quest
Monkey Island series
Sam & Max Hit the Road
Myst
7th Guest
Grim Fandango

(maybe: The Neverhood, Leisure Suit Larry)

COMPUTER GAMES--RPG
Ultima IV
Bard's Tale
Morrowind
Ultima: Underworld
System Shock
Thief
Baldur's Gate
Diablo
(Maybe: Temple of Apshai; Wizardry)

COMPUTER GAMES--Strategy
M.U.L.E.
Civilization
Balance of Power
X-Com
Populous
Master of Orion
Dune II
Heroes of Might & Magic
Command & Conquer
Starcraft
Dope Wars
Europa Universalis
(maybe: Age of Empires)

COMPUTER GAMES--FPS
Doom
Quake
Half-Life
Counter Strike
Deus Ex
Battlefield 1942
(maybe: Unreal)

COMPUTER GAMES--Sports
John Madden Football

COMPUTER GAMES—Other
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Railroad Tycoon
Harpoon
You Don't Know Jack
Wing Commander
Lemmings
Tetris
Deer Hunter
SimCity
The Sims
Sim Life
Roller Coaster Tycoon
Barbie Fashion Designer
Rockett's First Day

ONLINE GAMES
MUD
Netreck
Modem Wars
Habitat
Air Warrior
Gemstone
Hundred Years War
EverQuest
The Sims Online
A Tale in the Desert
Laser Squad Nemesis

CONSOLE GAMES--Old School
Atari Football
DragonQuest/Dragon Warrior
Final Fantasy
Super Mario Brothers
Legend of Zelda
Super Mario World
Super Metroid
Pokemon
Castlevania Series
Sonic: The Hedgehog
Toejam & Earl
Earthworm Jim
Megaman

{maybe: Phantasy Star, Nobunaga's Ambition, Chrono Trigger, Mega Man}

CONSOLE GAMES--64bit
Metal Gear Solid
Twisted Metal II
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy X
Parasite Eve
Wipeout XL
Resident Evil
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Super Mario 64
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Parappa the Rapper
Gran Turismo
(maybe: Shen Mue, Golden Eye, Panzer Dragoon, Jet Set Radio)

CONSOLE GAMES--modern
Grand Theft Auto III
Halo
Frequency
Mojib Ribbon

ODDITIES
Tamagotchi
Botfighters
Conway's Game of Life
The Prisoner's Dilemma
Cortazar's Hopscotch
afternoon, a story
How I Ran the Z/o/o Con


Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Miscellany
Not a major post, but a few things that have caught my eye over the last few days....

Peter Berger has a longish post on the combat-centric nature of most CRPGs and how that sabotages narrative in such games. I take his point, although I note that tabletop RPGs have understood this issue for a long time, and indeed more recent games (e.g., starting with RuneQuest, which is a good long time ago now) don't rely purely on kills=ep. Although it's non-trivial to come up with a system that isn't gameable; e.g., nobody wants systems like those in many skill-based MMGs that encourage macros. Even in Runequest, one use of a skill per session gives you a skill roll, so once you've used your sword you put it away to use your bow, then your axe, etc....

Somone on the MIT Diablo list pointed me to Skannerz. It's a little toy that, when you scan barcodes of random products, either gives you pet monsters, heals or potions to use with them, or 'enemy' monsters to fight. And when you train your pets up, you can fight them against those of others. A cool concept, I think; like Digimon, but with the additional madness that you need to go through your kitchen cabinet and scan everything in sight to see what you get.

Now what I really want is a product like this that lets me scan book ISBNs, but is specifically designed to dovetail with the book in question. So what does the Modern Library edition of Moby Dick give me? How about the latest Steven Brust novel?

A report from Frost & Sullivan says mobile games will be a $7b market in the EU (do they mean a 7b Euro market?) by 2006. Whoo hoo. I'll believe it when my net worth reaches five figures. Well, okay, where the first digit is more than a 1.

Matrix Games, a New Jersey-based publisher (and all praise to NYC-area companies, god help us) announced that their game Highway to the Reich went gold.... but to me "Highway to the Reich" will ever and always be the SPI boardgame of that name. Designed by Jay Nelson, developed by Irad Hardy--and 2nd edition developed by my buddy Eric Goldberg.

I'm tempted to buy it just to see how much is ripped off.

And.... whoo hoo! Victoria, the Victorian-era game based on the Europa Universalis system from Paradox will be available this November 18th. This is ten days after Karen's due date, five days after I'm due to speak on whether games have redeeming social value at the New York Law School, and six days before I'm to stuff and cook a turkey for the kinder. I suspect I won't have much time to, say, make clear why Wilhemine Germany needs a place in the sun. But I will still purchase the thing with alacrity.

In a totally unrelated note, I finally completed a chapter on the book I'm collaborating on with my Dad.... About the changes in the American political system since 1950. Albeit my chapter is mostly about changes since, say, 2002. It includes interviews with Markos Zuniga of DailyKos, David Weinberger (an advisor to the Dean campaign--well, that's inadequate) and Andrew Hoppin (no link, but he's behind the net effort for the Clark Campaign in New York). I'm pretty chuffed about it... And submittted a variant (less verbiage explaining what a blog is, and rather more explaining how the machine used to work) to Salon. We'll see if they're interested.

Oh.... And you fellas. Sure, I like portraying the angry, um, middle-aged man... But, yet, I understand the importance of capital in bringing a product to market. But think about it: Back in the day, capital provided four essential things: development funding, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. In the digital era, manufacturing is trivial; distribution is less of an issue; marketing is, if anything, harder; and for most products (not games or film), development is easier and cheaper. Under the circumstances, isn't a realignment of the percentage of revenues due to artists a vital necessity? They =should= get a bigger piece of the pie. And since manufacturing is trivial, and development easier, the whole thing should be cheaper to consumers.

And whoever figures out how to market effectively online is going to be worth.... well, more money than I shall ever see in one place.



Saturday, October 18, 2003
Recasting the Debate on IP
Any form of intellectual property derives from Mills; words are the raw material, I mix my labor with them to fix them in a particular form, I then own the story or article that results, and you have no right to do anything with that particular expression of words except with my consent. By extention, the same applies to a particular arrangement of musical notes, daubs of paint, or arrangement of animated frames. There is indeed an ethical basis for the idea of intellectual property.

But we do also have to understand that the specific legal framework in which we work today--that of copyright, patent, and trademark--is of fairly recent origin. The United States, in particular, didn't even really acknowledge the concept of copyright until well into the 19th century (since we were a developing "third world" nation happy, indeed eager, to rip off the works of more advanced nations--something that might give us reason to think twice before imposing our own copyright standards on today's developing nations).

But never mind that. Another principle, to consider is: law should be logical. It should be evidently just. It should seem reasonable. And it should not prohibit things that seem reasonable and natural to reasonable people--because if it does, it casts doubt on the validity of law in general. Unjust laws breed contempt for the law.

Thus, an unjust government might prohibit people from owning computers without a permit (as Ceaucescu did) or from organizing trade unions without state sanction (as China does) or from using a non-addictive recreational substance that poses no danger to non-users (as the United States does), but from a logical standpoint, one must say: such laws are unjust and wrong. Indeed, at that juncture, the only question is whether you accept the argument that one should obey the law even when unjust, but seek to change it; or reject that argument, and say flouting the law is a moral imperative.

Let us return to copyright.

On the one hand, yes, I mix my labor with these words to create this text; by Mills, I therefore own these words. On the other hand, the notion of "copyright" is ultimately based on a set of technological circumstances that no longer pertain.

A digression is in order.

My younger daughter attends the City & Country School, a progressive pre-, primary, and middle school in New York City. City & Country likes to think of itself as a "community," and as one way of reinforcing the idea that it is a community, it assigns a "job" to each class. Last year, as a 10, Vicky's class had the job of making signs. All of the signs in the school--those pointing to offices, the computer room, the library, announcing the fall festival and other events, those admonishing visiting adults not to smoke; all are drawn by the ten-year olds

This year, Vicky is 11, and her class has the job of printing. In a room adjoining her classroom is a print shop, with three presses, and rack upon rack of lead type.

They print the school newspaper, announcements to parents, and so on. They do so by pulling lead type out of the racks, arranging it, inking the ranks, and pressing them onto paper. In other words, they are printing as people have since movable type was first invented. It's rather cool, in a retro sort of way, although it does rather make me itch to buy them a decent offset press that understands Postscript.

In the days when printing a book meant owning this kind of equipment, paying skilled professionals to laboriously assemble lead type from a rack, hand-stitch signatures to a binding, and distribute the results to bookstores, the idea of "copy right" was clear, reasonable, and evident. Few places could actually reproduce a book. It was reasonable to say that an author should have the right to license one particular press to reproduce his work. It was easy to police; and as an author has mixed his labor with the words, and owns the product, it was his obvious moral right to police the reproduction of his words, and to profit thereby.

But let us fastforward now to the current day. By installing a piece of software on my machine, I may browse and access the music--and indeed print--works of hundreds of artists, easily transfer them to my machine, and enjoy the results.

Doing this does not involve some kind of furtive skulking; it's all very straightforward, and easy, and it doesn't feel like theft. According to something I read recently (and if I were a real scholar, I'm sure I'd track it down and provide a link, but basically I'm a lazy bastard), 70% of people under 25 don't feel they're doing anything wrong by filesharing.

And I'm not sure I do, either. The last song I looked for online and downloaded was the Flying Lizard's rendition of "Money." I have it on vinyl. I never bothered to buy it on CD. And I don't know why the labels should earn any money off of me at this point. I bought it once.

In general, when the RIAA complains about file-sharing, the refrain is that "artists" are being ripped off. I agree, 100%. Artists are indeed being ripped off--by the members of the RIAA. Anyone with more than a cursory understanding of business practices in the recorded music industry understands that the labels have refined the business of screwing recording arstists to a very fine art. With rare exception, musicians never see a dime beyond their initial advance--nor will they if the RIAA succeeds in its effort to suppress file trading. Realistically, this is not about defending artists. It's about defending the labels.

Recently, I went to a movie, and was subjected to a spot from some film industry organization, I do not remember which, that featured a fellow who is a set maker for the movies. He spouted some nostrum about how people who 'steal' movies were screwing him, not the studios. I was not impressed. He's a member of a craft union in Hollywood, and receives union scale when he works; I very much doubt he gets residuals, or any kind or royalty on the films that get made. His income is not affected one whit if the studios lose income through 'piracy'. To be sure, if fewer movies get made because piracy affects Hollywood's revenues as whole, he may be affected--but this is at best a red herring. It's the suits who'll suffer first.

I strongly believe that artists should be recompensed for their work. I do not believe that music labels, movie studios, game publishers, or book publishers have any right to continue to control the pipe that brings the work of artists to the public.

In fact, to the degree that they can be disintermediated, and artists can ultimately profit by bringing their works to an appreciative audience on a direct basis, that's a strong, positive move in the right direction.

I don't even think the audience would object. Think about it: If downloading a song from--oh, I don't know what you're interested in: Fatboy Slim, Billie Holliday, the Ataris, Sleator Kinney--means those folk (or in the case of Holliday, their estate) means they get at dime out of your Paypay account--wouldn't you be delighted? If reading one of my short stories, or one from Cory Doctorow, or E.L. Doctorow, or Harlan Ellison, or Hunter Thompson, meant they got a nickel, would you begrude them that?

Ultimately, there's a confluence of interest between fans and creators--in getting the asshole suits out of the picture. Why should EMI or Disney or (sorry Tom) Tor Books be getting a cut? In a digital world, what the fuck do they contribute?

Screw IP, as it exists under current law, and indeed as it exists under the Berne convention.

The advance of technology has made both the old ways of doing business, and the legal structure created to reify the old ways of doing business, obsolute and jejune.

Let's build something different.

What would that different structure look like? I'm not entirely sure, but I think I'd like to start by borrowing the idea of statutory mechanicals from the music industry.

"Statutory mechanicals" were created by the federal government as a way of dealing with the transition from print music to recordings. Before recordings became a phenomenon, composers made money by selling print music. They did so by signing contracts with publishers of print music.

By law, every time a recording is sold, a dime must be paid for each song on that recording to the "publisher" of the music. Originally, that meant to the publisher of the sheet music, who typically split it with the composer and lyricist. Today, most successful recording artists set up their own "publishing" company to receive statutory mechanicals.

And in many cases, mechanicals are the only real revenues artists ever see from their music.

iMusic charges a dollar a song--fuck that.

Charge a dime a song--but ensure that every penny goes to the artist.

Or, let's be generous--charge 20 cents a song, give the artist a dime, and let Apple (or whomever) keep the other dime for providing the servers and the bandwidth.

The whole "antipiracy" thing is not ultimately about preserving the rights of artists. It's about preserving the value of intermediaries who have already fucked over the artist. And from a purely ethical perspective, I don't see why the intermediaries have a leg to stand on.


Friday, October 17, 2003
Stellar Crisis
A few days ago, I had a few hours to kill, didn't really want to embark on another major game, and had gotten a tad bored with Nethack, and so went looking for a game I used to play quite a lot.

I encountered Stellar Crisis back in the early 90s when I was relatively new to the Web, and even though I realized that raw HTML made a pretty bad client-side supporter for online games, went looking to see what people were doing. Stellar Crisis was about all that was available at the time.

It was developed by Sylvan Clebsch, who created it originally as a promotional thing for the company he was working for at the time. It was pure HTML on the client side--neither Javascript nor Java existed at the time. It was, in some ways, a hat trick; the amazing fact wasn't that the game was great (although it wasn't bad at all), but that it was possible to do anything interesting at all in pure HTML. (On the server side, it was Perl.)

When I first encountered it, it was called "Stellar Conquest;" I wrote Clebsch and pointed out that he was asking for trouble from Avalon Hill, which had not long before reprinted Howard Thompson's game of that name (which was originally published in the 70s by Thompson's own company, Metagaming).

The original Stellar Conquest has to be considered the grandfather of all 4X games. (4X means "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, and is used to refer to space games like Masters of Orion or Galactic Civilizations played on a star-map in which you do precisely that.) It contained basically all of the major tropes used by 4X games ever since; a star map, systems with variable resources, technologies that improve over time, and large space battles.

As a result of my note, Clebsch renamed the game "Stellar Crisis." Although, like all 4X games, it owes something to Stellar Conquest, it is its own game. The game map is, in essence, a square grid; each square contains a star system; systems are linked to some (but usually not all) adjoining squares by "hyperlinks". All ships, even those with advanced technology, can move only one square per turn (although one of the technologies you can build is a hyperspace gateway that allows you to move from one point to another without passing through the intervening squares). There are three basic ship types: Science ships, which are the only ones that can explore into a system you have not previously visited; Colony ships, which transport your citizens to settle a previously unsettled world; and Attack ships, which are more powerful in combat than either science or colony ships.

A diplomacy system exists whereby you and another player can ally--in essence, there are several stages of alliance, and you can upgrade into a closer alliance by one step each time. You can also downgrade if you like--but the point is that if you are at the closest level of alliance, it will take several turns to downgrade to the point that you can attack an ally, and he will have several turns of warning that this is what you are doing. Joint wins are feasible, so alliances tend to be fairly set in the game--this is not a game of freewheeling backstabbing ala Diplomacy.

All orders are via Form submission; it is what I term a "simultaneous movement turn-based game," meaning that all players submit orders independently and simultaneously, and a new turn is resolved by the server after a set period of time, or when all players' orders are in. This is a useful scheme, because in a typical "round-robin turn-based game," in which each player moves in turn, you are typically left waiting for a substantial amount of time until your turn rolls around again.

Stellar Crisis has also had, from the inception, a feature that is, as far as I know, original to the game--and one quite useful for any simultaneous movement turn-based game, I think, and which I stole for my game Fantasy War. I'll use FW's terminology, becuase it's perhaps more transparent than SC's; the game can be played either in "blitz" or "epic" mode. In blitz mode, there is a new turn update every few minutes, and you can play a game to completion in an hour or two. In epic mode, there is a turn update every day, and you can play a game to completion over the course of a few weeks--signing in once a day for 15 minutes or so of gameplay.

I very much like the epic mode; back when I was playing SC frequently, my workday usually included 15 minutes of time getting my daily game fix. I found it a highly congenial way to play.

SC certainly isn't a perfect game; the nature of the square grid, and the severe limits on speed of movement, make it rather static. The experience is of grinding, slow-moving warfare--but there's enough variety and complexity to the underlying economic, alliance, and technology systems to make it a strategic challenge (by which I mean that you actually have to think about what you're doing--an unfortunate rarity in digital gaming).

Clebsch's company eventually failed, and he released the code under the GPL; since then, volunteers have improved and maintained it, although on the client side, there's been only on real technological change (the addition of a Javascript timer to automatically load the new gamestate at update time during a blitz game).

Today, the game is supported by a half-dozen servers across the globe; the Stellar Crisis home page links to them, and the Stellar Crisis Open Game List page usefully polls all servers to report on all open games across the globe at the moment.

If you like 4X games, and have a few hours to kill (or like the idea of epic mode play), it's worth checking out. There are not, after all, all that many good free multiplayer games.


Saturday, October 11, 2003
Barrett on "Writing"
An interesting post on Mark Barrett's blog on the need for good writing in games, the lack of defined craft knowledge in the field, and the heavy-handedness of producers.

Generally, when people start talking about "writing" in games, I flinch--largely because I think it's a very bad mistake to bring a "writer" into a game project, if by that you mean a film/novel/comics writer who thinks they understand "entertainment" and resist the knowledge that interactive entertainment is a different beast. Linearity is the enemy, thanks.

Which perhaps is why Barrett is generally illuminating--since his conception of "writing for games" is a whole lot broader... Indeed, he often finds it necessary to talk about the "writer/designer," which is both why his approach makes more sense than that of most folks who talk about "writing for games," and also perhaps why his rhetorical approach is (from my perspective) flawed. It call comes down to good -game design-, which has nothing to do with 'design' from the persepective of graphic design, print design, or industrial design--and while good writing plays a part of it, it's more about designing interactive structures capable of unexpected emergent behavior.

Blame Redmond Simonsen, who coined the term "game designer." Pace Zimmerman, game design has little to do with 'design' as the term is used in other fields. But pace Barrett, we aren't exactly writers, either.

I think I know the project Barrett is talking about here. And I believe I talked with them as well. My conversation lasted a much shorter time, however, as I quickly understood that the principals were clueless.... And I think they quickly understood that I wasn't likely to 'implement their vision,' since it was clear I thought their vision was extremely flawed.

I haven't heard about this project in some months, though, which is odd if it is in New York, and still ongoing.


Friday, October 10, 2003
The Half-Life Brouhaha
I suppose I do need to comment on this in some fashion.

I'm sure we all now by know that some putz stole the Half-Life 2 source.

Some basic reactions on my part:

1. Don't use Outlook. The security holes are absurd. Eudora is my friend.

2. There's been speculation that people can steal the source and make their own games using it; or alternatively, that no one will now license the HL2 engine, because it's out there for free download. Both are baloney. It wouldn't be hard to decompile a commercially released game built on the stolen source and demonstrate that it was based on Valve's engine--and Valve still owns the copyright, and it would sue. And if you do want to use the engine, you'll still license it, because a typical engine license fee is small potatoes in a multimillion dollar budget. Of course, you might be deterred by the security issues.

3. The security issues are indeed a bear. First, possession of the source obviously makes it easier to hack the client. The client would be hacked, anyway--virtually impossible to prevent map cheats unless you go to a remote, server-driven model ala MMGs. But it'll be easier to implement more severe cheats.

More than that, games are generally insecure by design. Speed is considered a higher priority than true security; you're not going to build a fast-action game on top of HTTPS, just ain't gonna happen. Games generally rely on "security through obscurity," down to red herrings in the code to mislead decompilers who are trying to read it. All of that stuff is out in the open now--and Valve can replace it with equivalent stuff, but that will take time, an some of their cleverer tricks may not be reusable now.

The scarier possibility--less likely, but not impossible--is that possession of the code may allow the black hats to find vulnerabilities in the HL2 code sufficient to give them a backdoor into any HL2 player's machine. After all, you can get that out of, say, Outlook, and I doubt Valve has worried too much about the possibility, since people haven't really targetted game applications for that kind of nonsense. That's what would be scaring me, if I were Valve...

3. And apparently, Steam, Valve's online update-cum-distribution schme, as well as Havok, a third-party physics engine used by Valve, may be compromised as well.

In general, it is certainly a mess, and we can only hope the Feds are paying attention to this one.


Monday, October 06, 2003
"September 12, 2001"
Gonzalo Frasca sent me a note on September 12th, A Toy World, billed as a "newsgame". The idea, evidently, is to produce games that are intended as news commentary rather than mere entertainment.

Interesting idea. Really. I'd like that.

When you begin, the game screen fills with a view of what appears to be a Palestinian city; some folks are "terrorists" because they are wearing do-rags, while others are not. You can center a crosshairs on a "terrorist," and fire, at which point a missile appears and demolishes the area around where you fired. You kill your target, and probably some innocents. The sound track wails in mourning, and several standersby become terrorists in response to the deaths of their (presumably ) loved ones.

There are no victory conditions. Essentially, you continue until everyone is dead and the city is a smouldering pile of rubble--or you don't, and everyone just toddles about the city until you become bored and go play Nethack or something.

Now.... I see. Terrorists are perfectly peaceable people who toddle around until nasty, evil Western imperialists destroy them and half of their neighbors through indiscriminate missile attacks. Yes, and it has certainly been US policy to mount indiscriminate attacks on terrorists, wherever they may be found regardless of the huge number of civilian casualties that my result. Why, the attack on Iraq made Auschwitz look like summer camp, n'est-ce pas? Yes, those Yanks certainly made not the slightest effort to reduce the deaths of innocents whatsoever. It's amazing they avoided using nukes, I suppose.

And, I see also that resorting to violence under any circumstances simply causes more violence in response, because every terrorist slain breeds four more terrorists.

Well, how interesting, and what an impressively mounted attack on US policy; moreover, what an imaginative, well researched, and well argued point.

How lovely it must be to live in Uruguay, as the developers of this product do--a small, inoffensive, neutral nation in South America remote from any possibility of assault by the murderous enemies of liberal democracy (well, other than the possibility of a home-grown dictator or two) and therefore capable of taking a high moral stance without any risk that they might have to deal with the implications. And why, how Christian. Yes, just turn the other cheek. That's the way.


(I feel it necessary at this point to illuminate my own political views a little, lest this be taken as some kind of right-wing hufflepuff. Even though I'd be quite happy to put a bullet through the brain of anyone remotely involved our recent contretemps, I also think our esteemed president is a blithering Yalie twit who blatantly lied to drag us into a wholly unnecessary war simply because Pater didn't finish the job. In other words, you won't find me listed on too many right wing blogrolls anytime soon. Oh--and I'm an atheist, for what that's worth.)

I don't object too strenously, really--I mean, idiotic and banal editorials are written every day. And indeed, this is an idiotic and banal--well, I won't call it a game, and they don't either. Game-like editorial object. Once mustn't get too exercised about idiotic and banal editorials; they are legion, and being idiotic and banal in expressing an opinion is a fundamental human right. Still and all, if the purpose is to demonstrate the utility of games as a means of illuminating current political issues and derive greater insight into them.... surely this has failed.

Mind you--games are capable of providing great insight into real-world phenomena. I challenge you to find any single volume that will teach you more about the Battle of Waterloo than Kevin Zucker's Napoleon's Last Battles. Or anything short of 100 hours of instruction in a cockpit that will teach you more about flying a plane than a good flight sim. Or anything other than a semester-long course in Medieval history that will teach you more than playing Europa Universalis.

But to call this a "simulation," as the creators do, is fucking obscene. Simulation of what? Where's the research? What systems are simulated? What intellectual depth is brought to the consideration? What is the point--and have they even though through their point, smug, superior schmucks that they are?

And how would they like it if smiling headscarved maidens were blowing themselves up and killing dozens of women and children on buses in Montevideo on a regular basis? It's all so easy when you're removed from the reality, isn't it?

And I'm sure if this had happened in their city on September 11th, 2001, they'd just smile in delight if someone chose to name an inane piece of offensive crap after the following day, wouldn't they?

I think I'll go have a lie-down now.







Gamers
So I watched Gamers last night with the kids... And enjoyed it, of course; not a superb example of the documentarian's art, but fun for a gamer, at any event. It deals with Counter-Strike gamers, which makes the name a bit of a stretch; there are, after all, virtually as many types of gamers as there are game styles. Counter-Strike is a game I have at least a glancing familiarity with, though surely nobody need ever ph34r my l33t sk8llz.

It did, however, bring home to me the three reasons I feel that the attempt to professionalize the "sport" of gameplay is misguided:

First, watching this, you almost can't avoid the feeling that these people do need a life. If I weren't a gamer myself, I might couch this in terms of getting out and doing something real, rather than playing a game. As a gamer, of course, that sentiment is banal and misguided; civilized people ought to have a deep familiarity with our era's most vital artform, and spending a lot of time playing games is not, in my book, any different from spending a lot of time reading novels, watching cinema, or attending dance recitals. (Albeit--dance, now there's a waste of time. But never mind.)

Rather, it seems to me that these people need to realize that there's more to life than Counter-Strike; indeed, there's Civilization, EverQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Puerto Rico for a start. I mean, how can you get a sense of the enormous ferment of creativity in our field if you spend every waking hour playing a single title?

Second, the dangers of professionalizing a hobby are quite evident here, in the disconsolate reactions of the tournament losers. What would otherwise be simple fun becomes, in a tournament with a substantial cash prize, something where victory and loss is not just about bragging rights, but a matter of going home empty handed to your wife. Bleh. Leave it amateur, says I.

And the third? The third is simply a function of my own professional bile, of course. We have an industry in which developers are not even often recognized for their contributions. So instead we should make "star athletes" out of mere unwashed gamers? I'm sure it's just me, but I'd rather make a star of Miyamoto than Thresh.




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