A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

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Tekkit Sucks

There is a set of Minecraft mod packs that includes Tekkit and Technic. You may have seen these showcased in a number of venues, including a popular Yogscast series. Let me just get this straight. Tekkit is stupid. It was obviously designed by someone who looked at Minecraft and said, “I’m going to make this the best game ever.” Unfortunately, they merely succeeded in creating a hodge-podge of mods which take away from the core of Minecraft.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.



But what is the core of Minecraft, really? Ultimately, Minecraft is what you make it. I say that unironically, even though I’m about to tell you how it should be. Minecraft has always been a great source of surprise. Legions of Youtube videos outline hundreds of crazy contraptions and structures that use the basic mechanics of the Minecraft universe to form impressive and surprising constructions.

Nearly every feature in Minecraft has a way of being exploited to perform tasks that the creators never even fathomed. Beyond the basic mechanics such as crafting and smelting, the use of a feature is mostly left up to the user. Fluids, redstone, minecarts, TNT, signs- must I go on? But really that was the appeal to begin with. You can create completely new contraptions within a very simple set of game rules.

This is why I think many of the features Notch added in later updates- wolves, potions, dragons, the End- run contrary to the spirit of the game. It’s OK to add elements to expand the exploratory, adventuring parts of the game. But when that threatens to push the creative, inventive part of the game into the shadows, I think the developers need to re-evaluate their priorities. Minecraft was never prized for its combat, or adventure. It became popular because the game allowed players to invent their own set of rules and develop the world how they liked. When the developer takes the reigns and decides the end-goal FOR the player, something has gone awry.

For the same reasons, I absolutely despise Tekkit. I can see the good intentions behind it, but it completely fails at its mission. A group of people, perhaps, with no sense for the game, were intrigued by how much could be done in Minecraft. But they thirsted for more. So they set out and gathered mods which let them do what they wanted. Pipes let them transport items, tanks let them store fluid, pumps let them suck it up, engines and solar panels gave them electricity, quarries let them automate mining, and energy condensers let them get any material they needed. To make it more “balanced”, they added a larger set of materials needed to build these contraptions, including rubber, and tons of new ores. Furthermore, a control system was needed, so they put a programmable computer in. A computer that ran Lisp scripts. And you loaded the scripts from outside Minecraft. They needed more power, so they added uranium and a nuclear reactor.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Minecraft anymore. It was a horrifying maze of features that was no longer surprising. Sure, people could build fascinating things that were intricate and took enormous amounts of time. But it wasn’t really surprising anymore. A nerd with a computer and a huge set of physical actuators can obviously accomplish a lot, whether the computer is in a videogame or not. The appeal of Minecraft was that nobody thought building a ALU was really possible when it started out. Half the crazy contraptions were for accumulating resources: automated farms ranging from chickens to monsters to reeds to cobblestone to snow. With the energy condenser, nobody needed ice pipelines or chicken friers. Sure, you could still build them. But there was no point. Oh, you built an automated oil refinery? All it takes is pipes, pumps, and refineries. The blocks are all there. That’s the only thing a refinery is used for.

Blocks only have one purpose, even if that is a broad purpose. Engines power pipes and quarries and pumps. Fuel goes into combustion engines. Refineries make fuel. Pumps suck up liquid. Quarries dig. Seriously, you make a single block, which then automatically digs. You can also add a pump to it if you want it to suck up water and lava. But there is no design for you to modify. You can’t make it more efficient, or irregular, or spray water on lava. You can’t build a giant engine room which is twice as efficient due to interlocking designs. You can’t build a computer, since there is already one built. Want to spray some construction foam over everything to make it blast-resistant? Boom, done. Need a nuclear reactor? There’s a block for that. Want to make it bigger? Sorry, you can add on extra chambers, but only up to six. It outputs a high-voltage. You need to make a very specific set of blocks, each of which steps the voltage down one level.

Again, this violates the very essence of Minecraft. That’s why I developed a plan for a comprehensive mod that allows most of the same functionality of Tekkit, but goes much, much further. I will cover this mod in a future post, or probably multiple posts.

Failure of Fantasy

Here’s the question: what is fantasy?

1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
-Dictionary.com

That definition sounds pretty good.

“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.”
-Wikipedia

That one doesn’t. Fantasy is not about “magic” or “the supernatural” in and of themselves, although they certainly must be central to the story. Fantasy is about taking participants in the story to a universe that contradicts the participants inherent expectations about the way things work. The story told hinges on this new and unpredictable world. Participants get to explore an unfamiliar world as they follow the characters on their journey.

Using this definition, a lot of self-proclaimed “fantasy” isn’t really fantasy at all. Whenever a “fantasy” story casts its story in a world of dwarves, elves, harpies, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, wizards, etc. it is doing so because most fantasy readers will be familiar with such a setting and it allows the storyteller to cut straight to the storytelling. Yet, inherently, this is not fantasy.

These stories are still speculative fiction, but they are no longer true fantasy. I would call them speculative fiction with fantasy elements, but I certainly wouldn’t label them as real fantasy. Of course, the term fantasy can be used to refer to these works of speculative fiction, but it is an insult to the real works of fantasy that take the time to explore a completely new and unpredictable world (e.g. Discworld).

Some of these faux-fantasy universes include roleplaying games, both on the table and in games like Minecraft, and amateur “fantasy” stories. Obviously, world creation is hard and it is time consuming to think up convincing worlds that have interesting aspects.

Ultimately, this was the downfall of my Minecraft roleplaying server. The setting was not engaging, and players had difficulty getting immersed in the lore. But why is a “fantasy” setting necessary in the first place? People seem to associate roleplay with fantasy, probably because of the prevalence of roleplaying fantasy games. In addition, both RP and fantasy aim to satisfy the same itch: they are methods for an escape from reality.

But at the end of the day, you can have a fantasy Minecraft server without roleplaying, and you sure as hell don’t need a fantasy setting to have a roleplaying server. When I founded my Minecraft server, I wanted to see how much of a functional economy would emerge if I only set in place the loosest guidelines and money functionalities. Predictably, people found little need for money, since resources are, necessarily, abundant within (almost) any Minecraft world.

I am still interested in seeing how a Minecraftian universe can be reduced to a level where economic transactions become more feasible than collecting the resources yourself. On some level, this requires restraint from the players. However, people will not restrain themselves if it restricts their fun. So the parameters for my new server are slowly taking shape.

For one, people need an incentive to play, beyond just entertainment. There are a lot of competing venues of entertainment overall, and Minecraft is a particularly niche form of entertainment. But even within the realm of Minecraft, the pool of available servers is huge. And without a critical mass of players, a server cannot succeed. So, logically, the server needs to market itself in a way that pulls enough people in while still maintaining all the other parameters.

The server will be limited edition; it will only run for 50 days (7 weeks). This means that the story has a beginning and an end, and players are driven to accomplish a tangible goal within a time frame provided by an external force.

The setting of the server will be colonial. A group of colonists must set up a lucrative colony on a newly discovered land. The trading company that is sponsoring the colony will only fund it for ten years, during which it must start making money and pay back the initial investment. This means that players must collaborate both to survive and to generate revenue.

When the server first begins, players start on the ship that brought them to the uncharted land. It has a supply of food and tools. However, players will become hungry at a much faster rate than in the regular game. Any action, from crafting to using a tool to placing a block, will significantly reduce a player’s food bar. This will result in either a high death rate (because players will not be able to sustain their health and die from trivial falls, etc.) or a high food consumption rate.

Since the colony needs a much greater amount of food, a significant amount of energy needs to go into gathering supplies, which means that until farming and breeding infrastructure is established, not much effort will be put towards gathering valuables. Food scarcity will be boosted on the server, by making crops grow slower and increasing the cooldown time for animal breeding. Food is important because characters get only one life, raising the stakes considerably. Also, once a player dies he must wait until the next ship arrives from the motherland. These arrive once every six months ingame, which translates to roughly every 2.5 days real time. However, shipment arrivals are important for other reasons as well.

The colony can purchase things from its sponsor company. Of course, the prices are higher than reasonable. Some of the things the colony can trade away include gold, redstone, diamonds, magical items, sugar, and melon. In exchange for such raw materials, the colony is allotted some number of “trading points” with which it can buy guns (maybe), food, and other normal things like pistons, dispensers, lumber, stone, iron, saddles, etc. The exact trade ratios will be determined at a later time. They may also be adjusted as the game progresses.

Right now I think the difficulty will be set to peaceful, both because monsters would detract from the experience IMO, and because it means that the use of gunpowder, bonemeal, string, and slimeballs can be restricted.

To add back in some of the conflict lost from monsters, I hope to have two factions in the world. An existing faction, the natives, will already have infrastructure when the settlers arrive. The natives have farms, granaries, domesticated pets, mines, and supplies of string and bones. However, the natives don’t have guns (if they are put in) and can’t use any sort of redstone. To balance this, natives will be able to use magic freely, while settlers cannot. This means both sides have items from the regular game that the other side cannot access. Having such a dichotomy opens the door to different kinds of diplomatic relationships, depending on what the players decide to do ingame. I have no idea whether raids or trades will be more popular.

Unfortunately, I am also wary about creating two factions in the first place. Disparate groups on a server cause two problems. They isolate players from one another, essentially requiring double the players for two-faction play to feel the same as single-faction play. Groups also cause more frequent arguments, since communication is severely throttled.

I hope that with the right amount of advertising, I can attract around 6 people to start. They will all be colonists; only after the number rises to 12 can a native town be “discovered”. I am hesitant to go ahead with guns, because that would require a modded client to play, which significantly reduces the pool of available players. The server should be as accessible as possible. That being said, there is a lot of riffraff that, frankly, I didn’t keep out on the last server. Players NEED to be able to write full, coherent sentences both quickly and consistently. Even one person who cannot communicate well can ruin the experience for everyone.

If I ever get around to fixing connectivity issues and finishing the website, I am definitely going to go ahead with this server.

Snow Crash

Oh. Yes. I am going to start off this post by talking about the absolutely brilliant book by Neal Stephenson (see Cryptonomicon), Snow Crash. The book that popularized the use of the word “avatar” as it applies to the Web and gaming. The book that inspired Google Earth. And despite being 20 years old, it is more relevant than ever and uses the cyberpunk theme to hilarious and thought-provoking extents. It paints the picture of an Internet/MMO mashup, sort of like Second Life, based in a franchised world. Governments have split up and been replaced in function by companies; competing highway companies set up snipers where their road systems cross, military companies bid for retired aircraft carriers, and inflation has caused trillion dollar bills to become nigh worthless.

In the book, a katana-wielding freelance hacker named Hiro Protagonist follows a trail of mysterious clues and eventually discovers a plot to infect people with an ancient Sumerian linguistic virus. The entire book is bizarre, but it has some great concepts and is absolutely entertaining. Stephenson never fails to tell a great story; his only problem is wrapping them up. Anyways, I highly suggest you read it.

Well, I’ve been thinking about games again. I have two great ideas in the works, and one of them is “hacking” game based roughly in the Snow Crash universe. It doesn’t really use any of the unique concepts from it besides the general post-fall world setting and things like the Central Intelligence Corporation. It probably won’t even use the Metaverse, although it depends how much I choose to expand the game from the core concept. The player does play, however, as a freelance hacker who may or may not wield swords (not that it matters, since you probably won’t be doing any running around).

I’m writing up a Project Design Document which will cover all the important points of the game:
Download the whole document

Unity and tjSTAR

Here is a soundtrack for this post:

Everybody should use Spotify. It’s like magic, but real.

So I wanted to talk about Unity. For those who don’t know, Unity is a game engine. But it’s way for than that. The best way to describe is an IDE for game development, similar to UDK. Every part of the development cycle (aside from asset creation) can be done within the program, from placing assets to creating game object behavior to playtesting. The engine also has built in support for pretty much anything you would want to do. Behavior is described through scripts, which can be written in JavaScript, C#, or Boo (which seems to be a Python/C# hybrid). Assets can be imported from almost any file format, without external conversion. For instance, any 3D file format that can convert to FBX works, and image formats from PSD to PICT. Unity constantly checks for asset changes and updates them in realtime.

A good analogy involves programming languages. UDK is like Java, while Unity is Python; Source is C++. You don’t really understand how much annoying background work you are doing with Source until you start using Unity. However, unlike Python, Unity has an enormous learning curve. This comes from its being extremely powerful. I’ve only just started working with it (a few days) and I can see that there is a huge amount of potential. I also still have no idea how to most of anything.

The event that sparked interest in Unity was tjSTAR, an annual symposium held by my highschool. In addition to Design Challenge events and student presentations, there are also panels and professional talks. I attended 5 talks, all of which were fairly interesting.

Game Design and Development as an Academic Path and an Industry
This presentation is an in-depth look into majoring in game design in college, what universities offer the best programs, and how to get in; accompanied by an overview of the game industry and the careers it offers.

Mr. Danny Kim
Student
University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Interactive Media Division

This was the presentation that got me interested in Unity. Of course, I had seen it before, such as at SAAST(the computer graphics course, specifically) when we looked at projects the undergraduate students had been doing, they used Unity for the most part. Danny Kim (a TJ alumni himself) also talked about how TJ is a great source of talent, both due to the large number of talented programmers, but also the great writers and artists. Any interested reader should check out his blog, See Play Live.

Big Data: What Is It and How to Cope With It
With the digital world enveloping our lives through mobile devices, digital home appliances, digital sensors and controllers, and video, data growth is expected to be massive in the coming years pushing into peta and zetabytes. Of this data, only 5%-20% will be structured. Find out how is the technology world is preparing to cope with this onslaught.

Ms. Rumy Sen
President & CEO
Entigence Corporation

This talk was about processing large amounts of data, especially sampled from online sources and social media. The objective is to analyze the whole of customer feedback across the Internet rather than from small testing sessions performed by marketing and consultant companies. However, this requires entirely new structures for storing and processing the data into a usable form. She talked about Hadoop and other forms of managing unstructured data that differed from conventional database methods, as well as processing methods such as massively parallel processor arrays.

Computer Vision: Challenges and Applications
Computer vision is the art of teaching computers to see and to understand what is in images and videos. The presentation will discuss some of the key challenges, and show practical applications.
Dr. Peter Venetianer
Director, Commercial Science Development
ObjectVideo

Computer vision is obviously interesting. The big brother of computer graphics (the two are inverse problems), it has stumped researchers for decades. The first professor to attempt the problem was sure that a summer with a lab of grad students would solve it fine. Now, 50 years later, we are starting to make some headway. Dr. Venetianer discussed some of the methods for separating critical objects from a noisy environment. Spotting movement from a fixed viewpoint is fairly easy. If you have three consecutive frames, spotting moving objects is simple using the three-frame method (it involves comparing differences). However, identifying the objects is much harder. If you know what to look for, the problem simplifies somewhat, but there are still numerous exceptions. A car is usually wider than it is tall, except when it is coming towards or moving away from the camera. A person is usually taller than they are wide, but a group of people is more likely to match the profile of a car.

Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation and Control
Guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) is a specialty area in Aerospace Engineering that involves determination of how a vehicle gets to its target, knows where it is, and maintains its position or trajectory. These concepts and related technologies will be highlighted for spacecraft application. Some of the projects involving GN&C at Emergent Space Technologies will be summarized.

For more information, visit http://emergentspace.com/.
Dr. Sun Hur-Diaz
Vice President
Emergent Space Technologies, Inc.

Until you think about it, determining where you are in space might seem trivial. But because hardware never reacts perfectly, a spacecraft needs to constantly be checking its position and orientation. But you need a variety of instruments, such as sextants and telescopes, to determine orientation. To find your location in orbit you need at least four GPS satellites. Finding which orbit you want to go into requires some physics simulations, as well as constant corrections to maintain it. In fact, finding an orbit to optimize fuel usage and time for a set of destinations is a huge field.

Millimeter Scale Robotics Research and Development at the MITRE Corporation
As we continue to look for ways to keep soldiers and first responders out of harm’s way, the capabilities of robotic systems improve and demand for them increases. While large robots have been used extensively, the development of smaller robots opens up a range of additional potential applications, such as accessing confined areas for search and rescue or surveillance purposes. To address this emerging need, MITRE’s Nanosystems Group has been developing rugged, low-cost robots, designed to be carried in a pocket. They can be operated from a mobile phone and reconfigured in the field to quickly adapt to specific missions.
Ms. Jessica Rajkowski
Systems Engineer, Sr
The MITRE Corporation

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I am working at MITRE this summer, albeit in a different division. The talk was still fascinating. Some of it was about developing micro-scale “robots” using interesting properties of polymers and metals. The speaker also discussed MITRE’s development of a hand-sized field robot designed to be low-cost, low-maintenance, durable, and easy to control. Obviously this would normally violate the rule of “cost, speed, quality; pick two”. To some degree it was speed that was sacrificed. It took years to develop the robot, but at its current stage it is pretty amazing. Another subject of the talk was the speaker’s project to set up a consistent test for testing whether a producer’s robot was up to MITRE standards.

I’ve also continued to use Google AppEngine and I’m working on a forum, seen here.

Portal 2 Element-Based Level Generation

This is not going to be a full post. I just wanted to bring to your attention that the Portal 2 team has just recently launched something they are calling the Perpetual Testing Initiative. It essentially allows players to use a simplified in-game editor to create test chambers, and then immediately build and play them. It adds in aesthetics, detailing, and essential level elements completely procedurally.

It is, as I would like to believe, a response to the post I made a while back about Procedural Level Generation, in which I outlined a similar idea. This reinforces my theory that anything brilliant I say will be executed in a year or less by someone else. I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out how brilliant it would be to build more nuclear power plants. Oh wait, I’ve been saying that for years. And they just recently started planning for a new one.

On a side note, I think the entire idea of the Steam Workshop is an excellent idea. Steam has broken PC barriers and surpassed game consoles, but now they’ve really done it with this amazing forum for player-generated content. I’m excited to see how else they will use it in upcoming games.

TF2 Mapping Competition

I recently got back into Source mapping (I made a post about this a while ago). However, the first thing I did was say, “I’m going to find a community that does Half-Life 2 mapping.” Apparently, none of those exist. I guess I should have expected as much from a 4+ year old game. I was depressed for a bit. I though about migrating to another platform, but I’ve been working with Source for a long time and it’s the platform I’m most comfortable with. My ventures into CryEngine 3 and Unreal Development Kit, have been a bust. Maybe a project for another time.

Anyways, I decided to start mapping exclusively for TF2. Turns out, that’s a lot more fun. It’s less work to set up a fun map; more of the work lies in coming up with a good idea. Then you get to enjoy the map simultaneously with your friends, and if your map becomes popular it’s very gratifying to see people on a server playing it and having fun. I needed a platform for my maps though; a way to get them critiqued and then onto a test server. Now, I had tried out TF2 mapping before, but I had self-taught like usual and my maps weren’t very robust (or finished).

So I went on a search for TF2 mapping communities. That’s when I found TF2maps.net. It’s a community of serious mappers that hosts competitions and has servers and regular map testing events. It’s the perfect source of critical analysis and constructive criticism I need. It also helps me feel less alone while mapping, and I know that once I finish the map people will play and analyze it.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so busy. In addition to AP week and my Udacity class, I jumped straight into some mapping action over at tf2maps.net. I signed up just as the latest big official content had ended, so I instead decided to enter in a smaller, unofficial contest.

The contest is based around redesigning 2fort; keep the style and feel while creating a gameplay area that can handle a game of 32 player instant respawn. The description in the thread calls it a spiritual successor. Here’s a link to the contest thread: Reimagining the game’s worst map. Here is a link to a download/description page: ctf_teufort.

Anyways, I’ll be doing a lot more of that, so expect some more posts regarding that. I also want to post more videos on YouTube, so I think I’ll make some overview videos for each map I make.

Speaking of which, I fixed my screen two days ago, and filmed it! I’m going to composite the video over the weekend and then post it. In fact, I’ll be doing a lot more editing in the coming months because I’m finally getting the editing job for HDP (which I wrote a post about, too).

That concludes this series of shameless plugs.

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