Games * Design * Art * Culture


Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Vicky: Quick Take
I've been playing a bit of Victoria in the last few days; not ready to give an in depth review yet, but some points of note. Firstly, what I've called "grognard capture" is definitely at work here; this is an even more complex game than Europa Universalis II, which is no simple game in itself. The problem is compounded by the facts that a) there's no tutorial, and b) it hasn't been out long enough for there to be much real strategy advice on the publisher's forum yet.

I started by trying to play Belgium, which begins the scenario at war with the Netherlands, and decided I wasn't up to a war right off the bat. I then tried Sardinia-Piedmont, which looked small, manageable, and with a positive future, since Italy ultimately coalesced around it--but couldn't even figure out how to get my budget in balance.

I'm currently playing Argentina, which I recommend as a starting point. Initially, it is a wholly agrarian economy, meaning you can ignore a lot of the complexities that come out with more advanced economies. Additionally, it is a wool and beef export powerhouse, so you can run a budgetary surplus fairly easily, at least initially. Its literacy rate is low, and it has discovered relatively few technologies, so the first thing you want to do is crank funding for education to the max, raising taxes a bit and cutting back on some other expenditures. Concentrate mainly on industrial and cultural advances--some early ones improve the productivity of your farms considerably, which helps. I also advise sucking up to Peru and becoming their ally early; Bolivia breaks away early in the game, there's a brief war between Peru and Bolivia, you'll likely to invited to intervene on Peru's side, and you can easily pick up a province or two from the Bolivians. Argentina also begins with some colonial establishments in Patagonia; you can pick up one state their for the asking. Your primary goal for the early years is to make enough money through exports to buy the lumber and cement you need to build out the colonial infrastructure there so you can annex the rest of Patagonia.

I'm now starting to build a little bit of industry; unfortunately, the laborers in the north are quite militant, and I have to keep suppressing uprisings. However, I've established a (lousy, but better than nothing) medical system and a 14-hour work week (as opposed to no limits on working hours), which I trust will gradually reconcile them to our glorious Argentine repressive dictatorship. Curiously, the game tells me we are now a democracy, although we still seem to have a one-party system.

Elsewhere, the Mexicans and British have done a number on the United States, and we haven't even had the Civil War yet. Russia is having problems--the Baltic States and the Ukraine have split away--and Prussia is running rampant in central Europe. I don't much care, so long as they keep buying Argentine beef.


Tuesday, November 18, 2003
Sundry
Breaking up is hard to do... But what if you're both gamers andMicrosoft won't let you transfer your saved game files?. So sad.

And here we have a vitally important experiment in pervasive, real-world gaming: Human Pac-Man. What a senseless waste of high technology. (Wex says: "Normally I'd chalk this up to a hoax, but it's in Singapore and I don't think the government there has legalized a sense of humor.")

Hmm, apparently Codemasters, a UK-based publisher, has a New York office.... Guess I need to add them to my list of NY-area game operations.



MMGs Are So! Games -- And If Not, They'll Die
The developers of Second Life and There claim that their massively multiplayer--things--are not games. Raph Koster says that he works on "persistent worlds," not "games," and that these are "more than just games." Eric Zimmerman agrees that MMGs are not games because they do not come to a "quantifiable conclusion."

Let's start with Zimmerman, since his reasons are different from those of the others. Zimmerman is working from the definition he and Katie Salen provide in their landmark Rules of Play: "A game is a sytem in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome."

Now here's the thing: This definition exclused MMGs as well as tabletop RPGs, because none come to an "outcome." Zimmerman says "well, they're boundary cases," but I disagree: They're among the most interesting and vital game forms of the last forty years. And from my perspective, if you produce a definition of "game" that excludes things that most people call "games," either your definition is clearly wrong, or you need to make a strong argument for why the excluded entities aren't really games. Simply saying "they don't come to quantifiable outcomes" is circular, since it is saying "This is my definition of games, these don't fit, they aren't games, QED". A better argument is "These are clearly games, they don't fit your definition, therefore your definition is inadequate, QED".

MMGs and tabletop RPGs provide quantifiable advancement; you rise in level, gain skills, or whatnot. They provide goals for players to strive for--but that goal isn't "victory." The problem with Zimmerman's definition is not with "quantifiable," but with "outcome." Zimmerman is fundamentally a boardgame-and-console gamer, and thinks primarily about games that do indeed have endpoints, with clear winners and losers (or, in the case of many arcade-style games, inevitable loss but a score you can try to improve on). It's not surprising that he wouldn't think of MMGs and RPGs as "games," but it's patently silly to exclude them. The people who play them certainly consider them "games," and they have every right to do so: They have rules; they provide goals for players to strive for; they are structured; they create the same sense of a special sphere in which people act as if goals matter, but fundamentally agree that they don't really matter; they are forms of structured play. They certainly fit my definition of "the game," but it's clear to me that they should also fit any reasonable definition of "game."

Koster



Koster wants to exclude MMGs from "game" for quite different reasons. I think the main reason is so that he can claim

I AM KOSTER, CREATOR OF WORLDS! TREMBLE, YE MIGHTY, AT MY NAME!

In other words, they he doesn't create mere games, he's creating something much more vital, important, and interesting: Virtual worlds. Games are jejune. Virtual worlds are cool.

Needless to say, I find the attitude annoying.

Okay, okay, I'm overstating it. Actually, Koster is rather self-effacing, but I can't resist a good line, and "I am Koster, creator of worlds" is nothing if not that.

Koster's claim is, in essence, that MMGs are not games, but worlds in which people live (in some sense), and that they can eat other games for lunch. Quite literally; you can implement a version of Blackjack within an MMG, for instance. Indeed, you could include just about any game within an MMG as a "subgame" if you so desired.

And then there's the pervasive meme that MMGs are the first step toward Gibson's cyberspace, or what Stewart Butterfield of Ludicorp calls "the metaverse." Supposedly, virtual worlds will eventually be our interface for everything online, a far friendlier and more fun and "easier" interface than, say, eBay. This is, when you think about it, a crock of shit; when I want to buy a shirt, I for sure don't want to walk through a virtual mall. In fact, the reason I go online to buy a shirt is to avoid walking through a goddamn mall. Give me quick access to your shirts and swift checkout, and I'm a happy puppy. Search and shopping cart in a web browser is what I want, thanks, not some high-concept notion of a high-touch universe. 3D worlds are lousy ways to find most of the things you want, precisely because they use the phenomenological universe as a metaphor. They're great environments for games, though, because they (almost) make good on the promise of transporting you to a different universe, which is one of the things many game styles try to do.

Sure, some people effectively live in MMGs; people who do deserve our sympathy, and an effort to get them out of the house to have some fun with friends. MMGs are great, but not if you're in them 20 hours a week. Then, you got a problem.

Sure, people make friendships online; that's great, but it's not something that happens only in MMGs. When I was a househusband, the old science fiction roundtable on GEnie practically saved my sanity; it was a way of keeping in touch with people with shared intellectual interests, when practically the only other folks I socialized with were other local moms and dads, and there's a limit to how many conversations you can have about burping before going nuts. BBSes, virtual communities like the Well, blogs, IM, email, and dating sites are all great ways to make friendships online. MMGs help establish quick intimacy, it's true--shared intense experiences are a great ice-breaker. But the ability to make friends online is a function of networks, not a function of MMGs.

It's also true that MMGs are something different; they're vastly huger undertakings than conventional game projects, they have infinite (or at least very long) lifespans, and because of their complexity, intensity, and longevity, they spawn all sorts of phenomena that we haven't seen in other sorts of games, or at least not on the same scale: trade in virtual property, people using the system for things like in-game theater, uber guilds. That's great, and fascinating, and fun, but it doesn't make MMGs something entirely other or new.

When you come down to it, EverQuest is just a large-scale version of D&D with an automated (and therefore inferior) DM. All things being equal, I'd rather spend six hours with buddies and a good DM playing D&D than playing EQ--but EQ is always there, and it's pretty, and I don't have to spend time and energy getting folks together or designing a campaign. Sheer scale--thousands or tens of thousands at once on a single server--does create phenomena you don't get in a D&D campaign, but so what? It's still the same basic thing.

As for the argument that MMGs can "swallow" other games--so what? Sure, I can sit down with folks in Second Life and play a game of D&D--but, uh, why? Pretty silly, if you ask me.

For sure Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online are games. You play in what Zimmerman & Salen term a "magic circle" (a space set off from the 'real' world), you have goals to strive for (character improvement at the very least), there's a structure to limit potential behavior.... How is this not a game?

The only way a massively multiplayer--thing--can be something other than a game is... If it isn't. Which brings us to Second Life and There.

Non-Game MMGs



There and Second Life both claim that they aren't games. The reason they claim not to be games, of course, is that their creators are under the delusion that they will increase their potential audience by making this claim, since games are for geeks, and they want to create MMGs for "the rest of us." The idea being that only geeks play games, a small percentage of the population are geeks, ergo, to create a 3D world that achieves a mass audience, you must create one that isn't a game.

Let's start with the assumption that only geeks play games. This is patently false. At this very moment, tens of millions of people are playing Hearts, Spades, Chess, and other classic games online at sites like the MSN Gaming Zone and Pogo.com. Every PC on the planet is loaded with Solitaire and Free Cell and Minesweeper, and I'm willing to bet that, on 95% of them, one or more of those applications is run at least once a week. And let's not even talk about sports. It's true that not everyone plays games, any more than everyone reads, or watches TV. But, well, almost everyone plays games. Most of them don't play the kind of games that geeks like.

And it's true that a huge majority of the population is never going to be interested in a fantasy-themed hack-n-slash game, and there's a huge opportunity for someone who does figure out how to create an MMG that appeals to "the rest of us". But I believe, at any rate, that if it isn't a game, it's never going to appeal to more than a small minority of people.

Why is that? It's very simple, and it derives ultimately from one piece of my definition of game that is core and essential: Games provide goals. Sometimes, as with SimCity, the goal is not explicit in the game--but in SimCity and games of its type, the simulation provides a broad range of potential player-selectable goals (build a city that relies solely on mass transit, say). Sometimes, as with MMGs, one goal is explicit (character improvement) while others emerge through play (make my guild the best, defend Britannia against the evil Hibernians, help my buddy get the Staff of Eternal Whatchamacallilt). But goals are what motivate play; if I don't have a goal, I'm stuck with something like a hypertext novel, where there's no strong reason to select one branch over another, and the whole thing is rather dull. (Actually, even with a hypertext novel, you do have a goal, or you do if the writer is decent: To achieve some kind of ephiphany, to understand what's going on in the story and the writer's subtext.)

If an interactive structure doesn't provide those who play with it with goals, then players will play with it for a time, realize there's nothing to achieve and nothing much to do--that it is, in fact, pointless (=goal-less)--and quit.

So much for theory: Let's look at some examples. The earliest massively multiplayer non-game (as far as I'm aware, anyway) was Morningstar & Farmer's Habitat. Habitat was 2D (and operated on PCs with 64kb of memory!), but had many of the features we've come to expect from MMGs: inventories, customizable avatars, the ability to trade and buy items, a substantial world to explore, items with special powers and effects. I remember playing with it briefly when it was in development at Lucasfilm Games, and thinking, wow, this would make a great game--too bad it isn't one. Because, when you came down to it, it was a graphical chat environment with objects: no character advancement, nothing really to strive for or do.

Habitat survived, in various permutations, for many years; it may still exist somewhere, for all I know. I last returned to it about ten years ago, when I did a survey of graphical chat environments for the Markle Foundation, which was thinking about doing something in this realm. At that point, it had mutated into Worlds Away--basically the same product, but renamed, then owned by Hitachi, and operated on Compuserve. I went into the world, created an avatar, started walking around and chatting with folks--and "looked at" a character I'd run into (essentially, pulling up her profile). It said (among other things) "I am so-and-so's bitch."

Oh-kay. Anybody who's spent any time on IRC knows this rhetoric. She's so-and-so's online sex slave, and they like to engage in hot bdsm cybersex together. Whoopie. This is a direct artifact of the non-game nature of this thing. Not that cybersex (and bdsm) don't happen in MMGs, but... The problem with online chat is the difficulty of finding something to chat about. Sex is always the default (if you don't believe me, go onto IRC sometime and try to figure the ratio of sex channels to non-sex channels), because an interest in sex is about the only thing you can rely on. Everyone (well, virtually everyone) is interested in sex, and you can generally find someone to chat about it with. Finding someone interested in, say, Cantorian transfinites is a lot more difficult.

Habitat, and Worlds Away, had their following--but when you come down to it, they were cute toys, but inferior chat environments to text-based chat. That's because they replicated the problems of the real world; you had to walk through the world to find someone to chat with, whereas on IRC and the like, you can simply go to a room on a subject you're interested in. The graphical nature of the environment is interesting, for a while; and if you do develop some friendships there, you might stick around--but since there aren't really any goals to pursue, it palls quickly for most folks.

Then we come to The Palace. The Palace was another 2D graphical chat environment, developed (if memory serves) by the Time Warner Interactive Group, which is now defunct. It was a little different from Habitat, in that you "moved" around the world more like a text MUD--not moving in space, but going through doors from one room to another. And in addition, there was a sort of teleport function that allowed you to go straight to a particular room.

You were represented by a little square image. You could select an image from a bunch provided with the application, or upload your own graphic. E.g., I remember chatting with one fellow who was represented by an image of Milk from Milk and Cheese, which I thought rather clever. Additionally, there was a little scripting language you could use to do things like spray a brief rainbow effect in space, or implement a version of Backgammon, say. Of course, few users were experienced programmers, so only a few took advantage of the scripting language.

You could copy square images, and "drop" them, too, leaving them in place in a room until someone deleted them. And you could "show" someone a larger image by juxtaposing a bunch of standard-size images together. I remember walking into an empty room, and discovering that, scattered about the place, were little components of the image of a naked chick... I reassembled them, because why not. As I did, it became clear to me what had happened: I'd walked into the aftermath of cybersex. Some folks had been doing the virtual nasty here, and one, at least, had showed the other a pr0n image as part of the process.

Because, of course, there was no goal to The Palace; its only real appeal with the novelty value it offered. People fall back on sex when there's nothing better to do or talk about. IRC is still a better chat environment, not least because The Palace's server software wasn't very scalable, and once you had more than a few dozen folks on a single server, it became slow as molasses. (And if you want to show someon a pr0n image, you can do it more easily via DCC.)

The Palace never became all that successful... Though it's still available as a free download, if you're interested.

Second Life



And so we come to Second Life, which I spent a little time with over the last few days. Second Life, remember, claims to be another non-game MMG.

It's pretty; it's smooth; the avatars are highly customizable. The interface is far simpler than, say, EQ. But it doesn't take long, walking (or flying, which is neat) around before you start to wonder: Okay, what now? What's my goal? What am I supposed to do?

Second Life allows you to create in-game objects, with a relatively simple interface to build solid shapes, stretch and attach them, paint them with textures, and so on. It also provides a very complicated and extensive scripting language that allows you to attach all kinds of behaviors to objects. This is sort of cool, and encountering such objects and interacting with them is interesting. There are areas where you can engage in gun battles, play classic midway-style games, bounce about on trampolines, etc., etc.

Once you've created an object, you can set up a store to sell versions of the objects to other players for in-game money. Also, there is a "rating" system that allows you to rate people and the objects they create--and there's a leaderboard that reflects these ratings.

Okay: So actually, this is a game. There are at least two goals I can strive for: getting rich, and being popular. Sure, I can just treat it as a graphical chat environment if I wish, but if I actually want to do something, there are some things to do.

Cool... Except that....

If you want to become rich, you need to create objects that other people want. To do that, you're either going to need to be pretty facile with the object design system, and with Photoshop (for the textures); or you're going to need to be a pretty good programmer, and get familiar with Second Life's scripting system. In other words: This aspect of the game (at least) is not a "3D world for the rest of us" (meaning non-gamers). Instead, it's a 3D world for graphic designers and programmers. I suspect that's a smaller subset of the population than game geeks. And, ah--doing anything sufficiently interesting with the scripting language is going to require enough programming work on my part that I'd rather spend the time developing a game for MIDP Java. If I'm going to program, I'd rather create something real, thanks. This is too much like work.

Or you can try to become popular. The problem with this is that the metaphor is a leaderboard. Leaderboards suck, particularly for large-scale games, because only one person can be at the top. In a level-based system, by contrast, everyone can increase in level, and everyone can reach the top--eventually. And while some may progress quicker than others, it doesn't really matter; everyone knows they can reach level 65 in EQ, eventually. There's no reason to become discouraged, just because there are level 65 characters about; if anything, that's a motivation. If they can do it, so can you.

But only one person is ever going to be ranked #1 on a leaderboard.

I have no problem with games that provide social status or popularity as a goal; in fact, I'd love to see a good MMG implementation of such a game (and, in fact, tried to get funding for one, some years ago). But you can't do it through leaderboards; you need a system of ranks, with promotion to a higher social status by achieving intermediary objectives. A massively multiplayer version of En Garde!, if you will. It would work, I have no doubt.

In other words--if you view Second Life as a game, it is a weak game. There are only two paths for advancement (money and popularity), and the first requires specialized skills that most folks don't have, while the other path is constrained to reward only one or a handful of people at any given time.

Of course, the Second Life folks maintain that it's not a game at all. And if you view it that way, okay, it has a lot of similarity to The Palace and Habitat. As with The Palace, you can create visual artifacts, you can write scripts to create interesting in-game effects, you can hang out and have fun with folks. As with Habitat, you can explore space, play with objects, and, uh, hang out and have fun with folks. But as with both those products, Second Life (treated as a non-game) quickly palls; without goals, an interactive product is dull.

There seems to be a lot of cybersex going on in Second Life, by the way--and a lot of hot girl avatars. Riiight. As I've argued before, this is indicative of the basic problem. Nothin else goin on.

I'm going to go out on a limb: Second Life will fail. Oh, not utterly; it will get some press, people will be interested in it for novelty's sake, but I'd be astonished if they break 40,000 users.

Why? Because it's not a game.

Now--I haven't played There yet, and I suppose I'll get around to it at some point and report back... But I'll make the same prediction. Possibly the There folks are making the "not a game" claim because they are under the delusion that this will attract folks--and actually are sneakily implementing a game. But if not, if it really isn't a game, I'll make the same prediction. It will fail. Because there's no game There.


Friday, November 14, 2003
Quick Update: State of Play Conference
Here's my presentation on political speech in games.

Castronova was entertaining, as expected. Jack Balkin of the Yale Law School was surprisingly informative on the possible intersections between MMGs and the law. Best panel, I thought, was one with Julian Dibbel, Clay Shirky, and Greg Lastowka on the governance of gaming communiies. Missed a couple of panels. The Thursday keynote, with Rich Bartle, Raph Koster, and Dibbel was surprisingly dull, actually.

Just got back from dinner with Alex Macris and Tom Kurz of the Themis Group; Dave Rickey, designer of DAoC and now with Wish; and Rich Bartle. Which was good fun. I was surprised to learn that apparently Bartle and I traded gaming fanzines back in the 70s.




Wednesday, November 12, 2003
The State of Play
I'll be speaking on Friday at a conference at the New York Law School entitled The State of Play. I'm on a panel with Rebecca Tushnet, a lawyer who has written about the legal implications of fan fic; David Greenfield, an academic who has been pushing the idea that games can be addictive in a meaningful sense (guess I'll have to try to be polite); and Yokai Benkler, a scholar at the NYLS who seems to be interested in the legal implications of open source. The panel topic is "Games as Speech."

Sounds kinda dull, actually, but there are a bunch of panels with people I actually want to hear, like Edward Castronova, Raph Koster, Rich Bartle, and Clay Shirky. Rather an odd congregation of academics and practitioners, but hey.

After the conference, I'll post my brief presentation here. Basically, all it does is say, Here, these are some games that are explicitly intended to make political points, how can any reasonable person say this isn't speech?

Starting with Lizzie Magie's The Landlord's Game, and ending with "Under Ash," the FPS game of pro-Palestinian propaganda.


Sunday, November 09, 2003
Chess
According to legend, the earliest version of Chess was invented by the wife of King Ravana of Ceylon when his capital was besiged by Rama, some four to five thousand years ago. In actuality, there is no real evidence that any version of Chess existed prior to sometime between 300 and 600 A.D.--the date of a Sanskrit manuscript called the Bhavishya Purana, which describes the game of Shaturanga, a precursor of the modern game.

Several modern games, including Shogi (Japanese), Xiang Qi (Chinese), and Changii (Korean) derive ultimately from Shaturanga--as does the game we call Chess. By the 11th century, references to Chess start to appear in Europe, and by the 16th century, the rules of the game as it is played now were well established.

From a game designer's perspective, Chess is an important game for many reasons. First, it is, at least to Westerners, the abstract strategy game par excellence; while the pieces have colorful names, it in no way can be understood as a literal military simulation, nor does Chess strategy have any value outside of the context of Chess itself. It does not rely at all on chance; it is not a solvable game in the sense of Tic-Tac-Toe; and it offers an amazing level of strategic depth.

Chess is important also because it is a perfect example of some highly important design techniques--and stands in perfect defiance to at least one idee fixe of modern game designers.

Chess Has No Story



Time and again, particularly when talking with people outside the field trying to understand game design, or with wannabe game developers, they want to begin the process by talking about story or character.

The impulse is understandable, because in almost every other entertainment medium, story is where you begin. That's true of film, fiction, and TV; and those who have looked over the shoulder of someone playing a videogame see something that, at first glance, may not look that different from film. Characters are doing things in a visual medium.

And for some game styles--adventures, RPGs, action-adventure hybrids like Deus Ex--story is indeed highly important, and strong part of the game's appeal.

You cannot, however, understand how games function if the first thing you reach for is story. You could use almost the same story in an old-fashioned text adventure, an Unreal-powered action adventure game, and a computer RPG--and the experience of playing each of those games would be very different indeed.

Nor is 'story' necessary to 'game.' Games can incorporate stories; some game styles depend on stories; but a game is not a story. To wrap your head around this idea, you might think about music. Many musical styles depend on story--opera, the musical, the rock-and-roll ballad. But many do not--symphonic music, house, ambient. Music, like stories, and like games, unfold in time, and you can talk about the 'narrative' of a symphony, using 'narrative' in a rather rarified sense, meaning evolution over time--but that narrative has not a damn thing to do with story.

The best way, I've found, to make people pause and think again about the importance of story to games is just to say: What is the story of Chess?

Of course, a fellow I knew once responded by saying, "It's a game about a war between two brothers..." Which made me pause and think again. Indeed, viewing Chess through that prism is interesting--but certainly most Chess players don't think about the game that way.

Instead, they view it as an arrangement of pieces; the forces projected by those pieces; potential next-turn arrangments and what they would imply; and so on. Chess is a game about understanding the projection of force, anticipating the moves of others, and working toward subordinate goals--removing opposing pieces--in pursuit of an ultimate goal--checkmate. Nobody is thinking about plot obstacles or character development when they play Chess.

Some might object that this is true, but not relevant to digital game designers; after all, almost everything that gets published today has some kind of story attached to it, if only as a little backstory to provide some player motivation.

True--but if your understanding of the game is limited to story-as-game, then you will certainly never design Tetris, nor yet Civilization. It's important to understand that the world of possible games includes whole continents where nary a story is told.

Emergent Complexity



I'll have more to say about emergent complexity when discussing other games, but Chess is a great example of the concept. The basic idea of emergent complexity is: simple rules can have complicated implications.

Chess's rules are certainly non-trivial--but you can learn them in half an hour or less. You can't become a grand master without years of work, however. The implications of Chess's relatively simple rules set are enormous. Chess is a game of rules simplicity--and strategic complexity.

Mind you, I would hesitate to try to devise a game of Chess's strategic complexity ab ovo; Chess is so polished a game precisely because it has been refined by (literally) millenia of evolution. Think of in in this way: A typical digital game is lucky to have six months of betatesting before release. Chess was betatested for thousands of years. It's not going to need a patch anytime soon.

Benjamin Franklin, or possibly Mark Twain (it's been attributed to both), once wrote "I would have written you a shorter letter, had I but the time." There's truth to this; editing something down to a succinct nugget of wisdom is not easy. Similarly, designing a good simple game is in many ways more difficult than designing a good complicated one. With a complicated game, making it better often means layering on another level of complexity to add some depth; most game projects on which I've worked have accreted detail over development. (This is not a universal experience, about which more another time.) But developing a game as tight and clean as, say, Chess, is about the most difficult task you can set yourself as a designer, and the number of real successes is small--Set and Hex among them.

The reason it's so difficult is because games of this type rely on emergent complexity--complicated strategies deriving from simple rules sets. And because the whole point of emergent complexity is that outcomes cannot readily be grasped from initial conditions, it's hard to derive a set of rules that create emergent complexity--at least at anything like the depth that Chess offers.

The Metagame of Analysis



Richard Garfield (designer of Magic: The Gathering) defines "the metagame" as "how a game interacts with life." This is a bit too broad to be a useful definition; perhaps a better working definition is that a metagame is the things around a game that do not derive directly from the rules of the game but that create additional interest in the game. Examples include the sports season, tournaments of all kinds, and the processes of collecting, trading, and building decks from Magic cards.

A new player of Chess approaches it, in a sense, naively--as well all do with a game that is new to us. That is, the player will learn the rules, sit down at the board, study the positions, attempt to understand the implications of the current gamestate, and make his or her next move. But if a player becomes interested in Chess, this will not do for long; he or she will soon find themselves studying openings, buying Chess books, following the games of masters, reading the Chess column in the local paper...

Because Chess is a strategically complicated game, and because it has stable strategies, it is suspectible to analysis in a way that most other games are not. (As an example: Can you imagine a book entitled "Sixty Opening Strategies for Zork"?)

Play between masters is different: the early game typically moves swiftly, because the implications of each move are already understood by both parties, since both have studied openings and typical board arrangements in detail, and it is not necessary to ponder the implications of each move. The implications are well understood. The game moves more slowly over time, as the well-studied initial postions move into terra incognito, where each move is not simply a matter of grasping what opening your opponent is attempting, but of understanding the play of forces at this instant, and their future implications.

Chess, in other words, has no 'season,' no game of trading and pre-game deck construction--but it does have a deep, indeed rich metagame--one created and sustained not by design, but merely by its strategic richness, coupled with its strategic stability.

By "strategic stability," I mean that, at least in the early game, players can anticipate similar strategic situations each game, or at least in a high proportion of games. With Chess this is obviously so, since starting positions are identical with each playing. With Go, there is a bit more variability, since players may place stones in any board position they wish--but nonetheless, they start with a blank board, and the first few placements are vital to strategy.

It is hard to sustain a culture of analysis for a game that is less stable; as an example, suppose Chess pieces were distributed at random across the board before each game. You might be able to write about strategy for such a game, but it would be harder, since each early game would be quite different from every other.

To be sure, few games other than Chess or Go spawn so long-standing and rich a literature. A game needs to be very widely played, over a long period of time, for that to happen. Yet it is still worthwhile to try to create games that reward analysis, even if that analysis typically happens by a single player, sitting over the board, or trying sequences of actions on a screen, by him or herself. It can be done; Diplomacy may be mainly about negotiation, but it is strategically stable, with rich enough strategy that hundreds of strategy articles have been written about the game. And "hint books" or articles for some strategy games--Civilization and Europa Universalis spring to mind--are more often couched in terms of strategy than in terms of specific sequences of actions.

Conclusion



Digital game people--vidiots, as I have uncharitably described them at times in the past--often dismiss games like Chess as being irrelevant to their concerns. Actually, as I think I've shown, there's a lot to be learned from Chess that is directly relevant to digital games. In fact, precisely because it is so different from most digital games, it's a useful reference point when thinking about games, so much so that when someone starts generalizing about games, it's always worthwhile to ask yourself "Does this apply to Chess?" If not, perhaps this generalization is of dubious universality--and perhaps there are many fruitful design paths that do not conform to that generalization.


Saturday, November 08, 2003
Fixing Snorcomments
This will be useful to others who encounter the same problems. Those not interested in technical neepery can skip the rest of this post.

Blogger identifies each post with an ID number. Up until July or so, this was an eight digit number; since then, it has been an 18 digit number. This is a problem, because Javascript, which Snorcomments uses (in addition to Perl) only supports integers with 17 digits of precision.

Snorcomments uses the ID number in several ways: It stores the comments associated with a particular post in a file named {ID_number}.txt. It also stores the number of comments associated with each post in a separate file; for your first blog through Blogger, these are stored in a file named 01.txt; for the second, in 02.txt; and so on. This file is a simple list of all posts, identified by ID, followed by a bar (|) and the number of comments, like this:

{ID_number_1}|28
{ID_number_2}|3
.
.
.


...Assuming that there are 28 comments on the first post, 3 on the second, and so on.

When you load a page for a blog that uses Snorcomments, it makes a call to a Perl script called comment.pl; this spits out Javascript, which is attached to the blog page. The Javascript consists of three things:

1. An array, pCount, indexed by Blogger ID numbers, with each array member set equal to the number of comments on that post. So, for example,
pCount[{ID_number_1}] = 28;
pCount[{ID_number_2}]= 3;
etc.

2. A function, postCount, which is called at the end of each post to insert the number of comments in that post next to "Comments" in brackets, like so: Comments [28]. The function is passed the ID number of the post it is attached to.

3. Another function, viewComments, that pops up the comments window and lists the comments in it, with a form at the end to allow people to add new comments. As with postCount, the function passes the Blogger ID number of the attached post.

Now here's the thing. When Blogger went to 18 digit post numbers, what happened is that the IDs were rounded off all the time. Thus, the pCount array would turn an ID number of, say "{lotsadigits}43" into "{lotsadigits}40". The same thing would happen when a call to one of the two functions occurred. Comments were stored in a .txt file using the rounded-off number. The rounded-off number was used in 01.txt.

So far, so good, right? Yes; in fact, you can use Snorcomments for quite a while before anything really noticeable happens. You might notice a few occasional glitches: Sometimes, two posts are close enough in number that it screws up, so that a post is said to have comments when it does not. Sometimes, oddly, the rounding seems to be different at different times (not sure why this is so, might be a binary-to-decimal problem)--so that, for example, half of the comments on the "300 games" post are stored in one .txt file, and half in another that has the same number except for the second to last digit (the final digit always being 0--off-by-one becomes off-by-ten in this scheme). You might notice that a bunch of comments on a post are inexplicably gone. But Snorcomments will still seem to work--for quite a long time. In my case, for 5 or 6 months.

But then--at some point, rather than rounding, the system will try to treat a Blogger ID number as a floating point number. Thus "1{lotsadigits}43" will become "1x{lotsadigits}4ex17". The comments get stored in a file named 1x{lotsadigits}4ex7.txt. And a line appears in 01.txt like this:

1x{lotsadigits}4ex17|28

This is catastrophic. The next time you load a blog page, Snor creates the pCount array, and tries to assign the value of 28 to pCount[1x{lotsadigits}4ex17]. This causes a Javascript error, because a Javascript array can only be indexed by integers. Since the postCount and viewComments functions are defined after the array, Javascript halts before getting to them, and people can no longer read your comments or add to them. At this point, Snor is broken entirely.

How to fix it? You need to do a number of things. First, change the viewComment call in your Blogger template by adding single-quotes around the Blogger ID number, thus turning them from integer passed variables into string variables. Do NOT, as recommended elsewhere, do the same for your postCount call.

The code that looks for a comment file name to load or store uses concatenation (+".txt") to determine the file name, so this won't break anything--except that all your existing file names (and entries in 01.txt) are now incorrect, since they were created using bad, rounded numbers rather than the correct, literal number. You can fix that by viewing the source for all your blog pages, figuring out which file corresponds to comments for which post, and renaming all the files. You must simultaneously rename the entries in 01.txt, of course.

This now allows people to view comments and add to them; proper numbers are used.

If you also put single quotes around the postCount call, you will break it. postCount does a simple logical check; if pCount[passed number] exists, it puts the corresponding comment count into the web page. Otherwise, it inserts a zero. If postCount is passed a string, it quite reasonably decides that there is no entry in the pCount array indexed by that string, since after all, an array cannot be indexed by a string. Thus, it pretends that all posts have zero comments.

I will note, however, that there will probably continue to be occasional glitches with the postCount system, because it is still using numbers, rather than strings, and the same kinds of rounding errors may occur. However, correct file names and entries into 01.txt are now being used, so that comments shouldn't get lost, and you shouldn't get a catastrophic failure any more.

To provide a step-by-step guide:

1. Edit your blogger template. Find the line that says
<a href="javascript:viewComments(&lt;$BlogItemNumber$&gt;)" target="_self">
Comments [<script type=text/javascript>postCount(<$BlogItemNumber$>);</script>]</a>

Put single quotes around the item in the viewComments call, but NOT the postCount call, so it looks like this:
<a href="javascript:viewComments('&lt;$BlogItemNumber$&gt;')" target="_self">
Comments [<script type=text/javascript>postCount(<$BlogItemNumber$>);</script>]</a>

2. Save the template. Wait to republish until you've completed the other fixes (doesn't matter, really; Snor won't work until you have, but then, you're probably broken already, n'est-ce pas?).

3. Fire up your FTP client, go to your blog server. Find the file 01.txt (it will be 02.txt for your second Blogger blog, 03.txt for your third, and so on--but not too many folks have more than one). You'll probably find it in {your_directory}/public_html/cgi-bin/sc/comments. Print it out as a reference.

4. Then go to the directory where comment files are stored. It will probably be {your_directory}/public_html/cgi-bin/sc/comments/01 -- again, for your first blog, 02 for your second, and so on. Notice that each file in the directory is numbered, and the numbers correspond to the numbers in the 01.txt file.

5. You may want to start with your earliest archived page and work forward. Load it in the browser, and "view source." At the beginning of each post there's an anchor tag that containst the blogger ID. It will look something like this:
<a name="106807469425729031"></a>
That's the Blogger ID for this post. If it's an 8-digit number, don't worry about it; it's not broken; scroll through until you find your first 18 digit number. (You might have to load the next archive page forward, and so on).

6. When you find the first 18-digit number, look at your post. Now, using your FTP client, load the first 18-digit file name in your /01/ directory. Check to make sure that these are indeed the comments on this post. If so, write the name of the post next to the filename on your print-out (not the correct file ID--too long, and your post name is more mnemonic). Please note that posts will not ALWAYS be in the same order as your file listing, so you may have to hunt around. But basically, you want to identify each file and associate it with a particular post.

7. Notice also that in some cases, TWO different files will contain comments on the same post, for some weird reason. Note these on your print-out, too.

8. When you've identified all comment files, start at the top and go down your print-out. Do the following:
a. Using your browser, figure out the correct Blogger ID for this post.
b. Rename the comment file with the correct Blogger ID.
c. Correct the listing in the 01.txt to correspond to the correct Blogger ID.
...Repeat until all files have been renamed.

9. When you have two files both containing posts for the same post, you must do something a little different:
a. Open both files.
b. Copy one file to the end of the other.
c. Save that file on the server under the correct Blogger ID.
d. Find the entries for the old files in 01.txt (there will be one for each; add the number of posts together. Correct one entry's Blogger ID; change the number of posts to correspond to the combined number. Delete the second entry.
e. Delete the old comment files on the server.

And.... Bob's your uncle.

By the way--this is still a kludge. There will still be occasional wonkiness with comment counts. Someone with more knowledge of Perl than me should rework that part of Snorcomments; unfortunately the original creators don't seem to be supporting it at all (or even aware of the problem--nothing on the Snor site that's at all helpful).


Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Okay--comments are now working. Sort of. If you click on a comments link, you'll view the comments--but the "count" isn't working, so everything shows up as "zero" below. I'll try to fix that part later.


Sunday, November 02, 2003
Politics
This is not a political blog, nor do I anticipate it turning into such in any fashion. However, I'm moved to say the following.

In 1980 on Election Day, I dressed up in a three-piece suit, bought a bottle of (non-Communist) expensive vodka, put it on ice, and went to the Grad Center Lounge at Brown, where I was then a student. In the company of several friends, we toasted the returns as Reagan swept the nation. Reagan--that would-be reducer of the state, defender of immigration rights, and strong believer in civil liberties.

It was clear to me then--this was the era of Carter inflation and hand-wringing inaction in the face of the hostages in Iran--that the Democrats were a far greater threat to the liberties of Americans than the Republicans.

Sometime in the 80s, I was living in Columbia University housing with my then-wife, who was studying for her MBA. A political worker came to the door, and asked us to make a donation to some political organization, I don't recall which, to help fund the "fight against the radical right." Louise told him "but we are the radical right."

Today, we have a president whose idea of cutting taxes is cutting them in such a way that the richest few percentage of the population gains almost all of the benefit; who has no compunction about leading the nation into a wholly unnecessary war, with no workable plan for how to manage the victory; whose administration consistently works to increase police powers and erode individual freedom; and whose party has been captured by fundamentalist Christian lunatics whose political agenda consists solely of oppressing women and those who make love in ways they don't like.

It is patently clear that, today, the Republicans pose a far greater threat to American liberties than the Democrats.

I'm not of the "anything but Bush" school. I could never bring myself to vote for someone who thinks censoring games is a good idea (Lieberman), seems to want to bring back the Smoot-Hawley Tariff (Gephardt), or came to political prominence through irresponsible race baiting (Sharpton--I'm a New Yorker, and I assure you that I remember Tawana Brawley, not to mention Crown Heights).

Still, today, the United States is in the hand of a dim-witted Yalie frat boy who listens only to neocon nutcase advisers and has no clue how close we are to a hundred-year war between the Islamic world and the West--and if he did, might think it was a good idea, since that would resemble some of the predictions for the End Times.

If the Democrats wind up nominating Dean, Clark, Edwards, or Kerry, I will almost certainly wind up voting for someone other than the nominee of the Libertarian Party in the next presidential election--the first time I will have done so since I was old enough to vote.


Haven't been around the last few days, for obvious reasons.... Nor have I fixed the comments yet, although I hope to soon.

Karen gave birth on 10/30/03 at 1:32 PM to Simona Rose Sideman, 6 lb 6 ounces, via C-section. Any congratulations should be offered to her, not to me; she is indeed my sweetie, and I expect o be playing a parental role over time, but, ah, I live a fairly complicated personal life I do not intend to detail here, and I am not the genetic father.

I'll be going up to the hosptical tomorrow to bring her back to her apartment with l'enfant.



This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?