grep ‐‐week 49

The theme this week is: building momentum.

“As developers try to tell stories beyond the theme of ‘survival’, they’re bucking up against an increasingly archaic central mechanic.” –Lucy O’Brien

Are guns in video games holding the medium back?
Another story following the themes I pointed out in grep –week 47.  Many journalists and developers seem to be on the same page about the potential (and perhaps the need) for games to evolve, but publishers have spent decades marginalizing the market to the point where you have to wonder if it’s economically feasible at this point.

Watch Dogs 2 Would Be Better Without Guns
Whoa now — two bro gamer mainstream video game press outlets penning anti-gun pieces in the same week?  Maybe there’s hope after all… until you read the comments section — did you know that if you don’t like committing simulated murder in a video game, then you are outside of the mainstream?  This doesn’t help my belief that AAA has jumped the shark and will never be able to make games for anyone other than niche bro gamers (you know, ‘mainstream’).

Don’t ignore the trolls
Why does the video game community so regularly threaten people’s lives?  Is there any other community where this happens so often?  No?  Ok then.

“I think the people of the 22nd century will mock our astonishment at pointing a cursor at a 3D representation of a human and watching them go ragdoll.” –Frank Cifaldi

No Man’s Sky cleared in false advertising investigation
I imagine this is the first sort of legal ruling involving procedural content.  Hopefully the internet can finally turn the page on this story, especially with the apparent new massive content update that just dropped, but it remains to be seen how long ‘procedural’ remains a dirty word in the press.

Do game characters need emotions?
“The commercial industry has had no immediate use for these fascinating innovations.”  Obviously a matter of perspective, and this is the accepted perspective of the publishers that define our industry.  But as I’ve been saying, I suspect that the future of games may require investment in emotional technologies, and not just violence, if we want to stay (or become) relevant.

Moon Hunters & Procedural Space
YAMHA — yet another Moon Hunters article.  Why haven’t I bought this game yet?  It looks great.  Oh right, cuz I’m playing…

Review: Starbound
Starbound!  Minecraft in space!  (ignore the tone of the article I linked, which was clearly written by a jaded early access player who should’ve waited until v1.0 was released.)  I love this game.  I’m starting to wonder how much of the content like villages, castles, etc. are canned or if they are all truly procedural.  The wildlife is procgen, which is neat.  One thing the game definitely gets right is the feel of exploring a vast procedural space.  In Minecraft you know the world is nearly infinite, but mostly in an academic sense.  In practice (at least on every server I’ve ever played on) you are mostly limited to the area around where you first spawned, and maybe sometimes someone feels frisky and tries to build a highway through hell to some other area far away.  Starbound puts a restriction on the size of each planet, which paradoxically enhances the feel of exploration.  Choosing a new planet to land on feels like opening a birthday present every time.  Maybe this will wear off eventually, but I’m 30 hours in and I’ve yet to even orbit most of the star types let alone land on all of the planet types, so I doubt it.

On the generation of procedural organs
Procedurally generated monster organs.  Yup.

The Definitive Interview With Ed Boon
Lastly I have to include this fantastic interview with Ed Boon.  Did you know Steve Ritchie was the ‘FINISH HIM!’ voice??

I remember asking him, which was kind of dumb at the time, “Do people program pinball machines?” –Ed Boon

anecdote: changing the rules

The player explores the world and makes a discovery that has profound consequences: it might challenge the beliefs of every NPC, alter the simulated course of history, or modify core rules of the game.

You wonder what the hell you’re doing out here in the outer wastelands, chuckling to yourself at the sheer improbability of the sight: the eldest son of a High Priest of Scepticism, sitting in a hole in the desert, about to make the discovery of a thousand lifetimes.

With a deep breath you reach down into the hole and pull out a rock.  It’s heavier than you thought it would be.  You blow the dust off, enough to reveal a hint of neat rows of hieroglyphics.  Clouds begin forming overhead, and you think you hear a low rolling thunder in the distance.

“It’s about time,” you hear whispered in your ear.  You turn but nobody is there.


“Of course.  Wanna learn how to fly?”

Your dad is going to be so mad at you.

grep ‐‐week 48

The theme this week is: back to normal.

The Extremely Strange World of Infinite Dungeon Video Games
The headline doesn’t really pay off in this article that turns out to mostly be about promoting some guy’s art project (which looks really cool btw).  Otherwise it kind of just briefly describes what is a roguelike game to someone who has never heard of such a thing — which is actually an interesting problem.  I found myself wondering if such a person would understand anything this person is writing about, or if it’s all gobbeldygook.

How do you plan for extraordinary moments in procedural design?
Moon Hunters expansion gameplay with running commentary with the developers.  They make a point I’ve seen a few times recently — when your generator generates some sort of odd area, you should take the effort to craft loot or fun moments or easter eggs to stick there;  these are the little touches that allow players to fall in love with your game.

Studying gameplay progression on runners
It’s kind of useful to break down procedural runners at a high level when considering your own algorithms; for instance they mention using pseudo-randomness to guarantee their pacing wasn’t sometimes broken with bad generation.

Generating the world of Sunless Skies
A breakdown of the game’s level generation design.

Sceelix Web Engine Alpha Demo
This appeared in my inbox this week, a browser-based demo of the Sceelix procedural engine.

anecdote: learning the rules

I’m beginning to experiment with game design via anecdote.  The idea is to tell a quick story told from the point of view of the player that helps to describe the features that might exist in a game.

You approach a sports bar.  The bouncer takes note of your total lack of team colors, home or away, and nods you through.  The game is already on.  You order a beer at the bar and stand in the back of the crowded room.

“Joe Baller passes the billet… and… it’s a superhit!”
How do you react?
–> Cheer loudly.
x Boo loudly.
x Sip your beer.

The crowd turns and looks a you, wondering what kind of asshole would cheer a superhit.  Clearly you haven’t yet learned the rules of blernsball.  You put down your beer and slink out of the bar.

write what you know

I am writer of code.  I am not a writer of literature.  Once I wrote and illustrated a piece of underwater adventure fiction — I was in 2nd grade and my teacher pinned it to the hallway wall outside the classroom.  In the many games I’ve developed I have written tutorials, tooltips, item descriptions, even some character dialogue.  I’ve read a lot of books, but couldn’t tell you anything useful about writing one.

How, then, am I supposed to create my own world, with its own characters and its own stories to tell?  I’ve heard this axiom before, “Write what you know.”  I came across it recently in an interview with Ubisoft’s Tommy Francois.  “It’s not a cliche, it is the meaning of life,” Francois says.

“The guy who writes a book should be able to inspire himself, and he is alone with no tech. Anyone who writes and has not lived, I would probably not want to read his book.” –Tommy Francois

How am I supposed to write what I know, when I don’t even know how to write?  I’m starting to realize that maybe this is the wrong question to ask.  As a game developer and a programmer I write in the language of game design and game mechanics, not in dialogue and story arcs.  Maybe a better question would be: Can “write what you know” help to inform game design and mechanics?

Thinking in this context immediately brought me down the road of the evolution of game mechanics.  When designing a platformer you should probably be fluent in the mechanics of Super Mario Bros.  When designing an open world adventure you should probably be fluent in the language of The Legend of Zelda.  Certainly you can innovate and have a total departure from the play styles established in these games, but you should learn the rules of the game before you decide that you can break them in coherent and interesting ways.

So the first milestone I established for my procedurally generated game was to essentially create an experience with the look and feel of The Legend of Zelda, but deeply infused with procgen.  Maps and dungeons are randomized, enemies start out dumb but can learn from their mistakes.  This sounded great, and right away I started thinking about the details of my combat system.

And I was stuck.  I lost my inspiration.  After working on my game or my blog for at least a few hours a day, every day, for a few months, I had hit a wall.  But this wasn’t some sort of writer’s block.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I knew exactly how to proceed.  But game development, especially indie development, means sacrifice.  What other parts of my life am I willing to exchange for time to work on my game?

Was I going to spend less time playing with my kid so that I could work on a Zelda clone?  Was I going to miss what would turn out to be some of the most epic baseball games ever played on the Chicago Cubs’ run to the world championship while I tried to figure out what was the best input control scheme for murdering monsters?  The answer, at least for a few weeks, was no.

During this time I started to notice a trend on game news sites and blogs (see grep –week 47).  There’s a growing movement of developers with a desire to move away from everything we think we know about video games.  The subtext seems to be that if we don’t figure out how to expand our range as designers to be more inclusive of the majority of humans who find nothing of value in our craft, we risk becoming obsolete.  There’s plenty of rhetoric that games are capable of being just as powerful and important as books or tv or film as an agent of change or as vehicles of empathy and emotional introspection, but anyone who follows the industry should know that the evolution of our medium is slow, and possibly stalled altogether.

Tommy Francois proclaims, “I am sure that someday someone will create a GTA with no guns.”  The interviewer deftly responds, “If we can make these sumptuous, realistic, open worlds with a range of inventive ways of murdering people, why haven’t we done one without the violence?”  To which Francois replies, “The easy answer is that the original games were made by testicles for testicles.” — And the industry has been stuck in that rut ever since.

There’s a clear pattern emerging here.  Game developers are all very similar people — having worked at eight different game studios I can verify this.  We have similar backgrounds, similar tastes, and we grew up playing the same games, so naturally we tend to make those same types of games for ourselves.  There’s enough of us out there as consumers that the problem isn’t apparent to most developers or publishers.

If and when consoles finally fall off a cliff under the weight of their murder simulators, what comes next?  Mobile games have been devoured by free-to-play, reaching the end of the genre life cycle in record time.  There’s a push by Apple to resurrect premium games, and maybe with the entry of Nintendo into this space there’s hope for that yet, but the form factor of mobile devices generally doesn’t allow for immersive experiences with deep storytelling — not to mention Apple’s extreme wariness of any software that promotes contemplative or progressive thought among its players.  Like all big publishers today, they want to play it safe as long as the money keeps rolling in.

So what’s a developer to do?  For me the answer is to pivot hard.  I’ve given myself a new challenge: design a game with the look and feel of The Legend of Zelda, but without violence.  Can such a game have as much of an impact on its players as the original Zelda did for me when I first played it?  I am certain that it can, but now I have to prove it.