Sim State

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. This idea really started when I watched Day[9] play the new Sim City, and then picked up Sim City 4 again. I wanted to create a game which brought the ideas of micromanaging infrastructure and government into a larger scale. The player would be able to control education, government type, military, trade, etc. Eventually it grew into a sort of “third-world country simulator”, since that seemed like the most interesting route to people I pitched the general concept to.

The basic premise is that you are the leader of a small country, recently put in power by a violent revolution. This country is located in a faux South or Central America, but there is also the possibility for having multiple templates: African, Southeast Asian, etc. The player can only really see the small land area he controls, plus some of the bordering sovereignties. There is no global map (and this isn’t a game about conquest), but there are references to current global institutions (or fictitious characterizations thereof) like the UN and US, or WHO, etc.

Winning the game means pulling your country out of poverty and onto the world stage. This requires many parts, including building infrastructure, establishing governmental rule, and appeasing the international community. However, the win condition is gaining control over every province in your nation. Control just means being the dominant power faction. Routes to control include stamping out resistance (militarily) and appeasing interest groups. Thus a large part of the game is balancing political control; keep the military leaders on your side, stop workers from striking, and stay elected. The last one may mean establishing a dictatorship, rigging elections, or spending a lot of resources maintaining public image.

At the start of the game, your country is poor and unequipped. There are two forms of currency: money, and international repute. International repute can be spent on relief or treaties; perhaps getting a foreign oil company to leave your country. On the other hand, if you drive out the oil company by force, some factions in your own country may approve, while the international community may impose sanctions. Similarly, if their are pirate along the coast, you could demand tribute or try to exterminate them at a potentially great cost. If the world catches wind that you are allowing pirates to operate, however, you will lose repute.

The other form of currency is money. A little macro-economics comes into play here, since you have to manage your currency (printing money), and real “world dollars”. Rapid inflation can be bad for your industries, but it attracts tourists (but only to good parts – nobody is going to visit the region controlled by drug cartels). Real dollars come from exports, mainly. One way to get a boost in the beginning of the game is to exploit your natural resources: cut down rain forests, strip mine mountains, etc. However, you have to establish a more mature manufacturing industry at some point, otherwise you will exhaust your resources and fall back down into poverty.

In terms of infrastructure the player has to build, the main forms are education and industry. Industry includes transportation networks and resource collection, as well as processing. Industry also means municipal improvements, since nice cities attract high-tech corporations and commercial companies. Another route to improving the quality of your workforce, reducing crime, and eliminating overpopulation is education. Building schools takes a lot of resources for little immediate payoff, but it will start to improve your country greatly. It is also a great way for dictators to indoctrinate the population.

Late-game opportunities may include hosting Olympic Games or researching nuclear technology.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for expansions; this is more of a framework for a game, rather than a fleshed out game idea. I know there are games like this, such as Tropico. I think this would be more political and deep than Tropico, but obviously I would aim to offer a different experience overall were I to build this.

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Crysis 3: First Impressions

I put my beefy new graphics card up to the test. I’ve always been a fan of Crysis. The first Crysis game was such a brilliant creation. From the spine-singling intro scenes, to the best mix of cutscenes and free-roam arenas. The vehicles, guns, and explosions all felt right. But the game kept getting better. The tank battle was a nice departure from the jungle stealth of the start. Then the zero gravity sequence just totally blew my mind. That turned Crysis into delicious cake. The ice level, the VTOL sequence, and the entire last level (with that epic end sequence) were all just frosting.

Crysis Screenshot

I know every level of that game by heart. So when Crysis 2 came out, I was excited. The multiplayer beta gave me some idea of how the controls would differ. But I reserved judgement (since the singleplayer campaign is the heart of any game). So imagine my surprise and disappointment when the game came out, and it sucked. Gameplay was boring and linear, enemies were samey and uninteresting, vehicle sections were highly linear, and the graphics were somehow worse than the first game. Despite all the hype over the “CryEngine 3”, the graphics were plasticy and bloomy. Crytek took everything interesting out of the series, and removed all the main characters to boot – Nomad was replaced by a silent, unimpressive protagonist. The game was cut and dried; there was no boisterous spirit left in the IP.

Since Crysis 3 came out, and I got a new graphics card, I figured I would buy the game. Maybe Crytek had taken the lessons they learned in making Crysis 2 to heart. Nyeeeh. The enemies and weapons are the same, and the interface is still dumbed down. I’ll admit, the graphics look a bit better, and the choice of environment is sounder. But since when was a bow and arrows cool? The bow and arrow concept seems like a feature tacked on to justify the game; without it, Crysis 3 would just be a short story add-on to Crysis 2.

My biggest issue is that the game is still highly linear. There are such excellent, expansive sets in Crysis 3, but each area is bounded by myriad invisible walls. The crudest element, which really insults me, is that you can see into the void in some places, where they forgot to put geometry. CryEngine has a default feature that puts a terrain layer across the entire map. The fact that they eschewed that, which was designed for creating large free-roam environments, means that Crytek has truly forsaken the idea of open gameplay. This makes me sad. There was great opportunity for this urban grassland idea. Imagine being able to fight through semi-collapsed buildings, then onto a grass plain, then climb onto a freeway and drive a tank down it, scaring deer out of the way and shooting down helicopters, which crash into skyscrapers.

There were good things about Crysis 2 and 3. The idea that the nano-suit is alien technology, the idea of Prophet’s conscious switching bodies. The stalkers in high grass were cool. But they screwed up the aliens, didn’t bring back ice levels or zero gravity, and took away speed and strength mode, tactical nuke launchers, and in-game freedom. I will continue to tout the demise of the Crysis franchise as a definitive argument against EA and consoles.

< / rant >

A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

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.

Minecraft Server: RPCreate

A while back I wrote a post about Minecraft servers. Since then I’ve put more thought into it and I’m thinking about starting a new server. This will be a much more informed endeavor, and hopefully it will turn out for the best. Here are some highlights:

The main idea is that the server puts all the players on an even playing field by allowing all users to use creative mode and basic commands. This will eliminate hoarding and allow players to focus on interacting, not making money or getting resources. It also removes any worry about stealing. However, because players have the capability to get any resources they need, I am hoping they will be more willing to fill a so for economic role (farming, lumberjacking, mining, building, etc) and resort to using legit materials as much as possible.

You need to be able to write!
Number one requirement to join will be the ability to write. This indicates that you are at least somewhat intelligent and able to express your ideas. In addition, it means you can read what others write and grasp new concepts.

You need to relax!
With a guaranteed level of intelligence hopefully comes a certain ability to compromise and handle a situation gracefully if you don’t get what you want or disagree with someone. We also need people who can play fairly and understand the importance of keeping a balanced economy by not hoarding legitimate materials or abusing creative mode.

You need to play fairly, and build sensibly.
As stated before, each member should be responsible. It is their server, and thus they need to actively work to keep it fun. This is the main idea I want to permeate through the server community: the server is merely a utility through which the players, as a community, get to act out fantasies and epic stories. There are no “admins” lording over the players, telling them how to play; it is the players that get to enjoy the world they have made, and the players who have to maintain the server.

This is not to say that I won’t make suggestions about economy and distinguish between responsible building and overbuilding; I’ll be doing it as a concerned player, not moderator. I won’t have more powers than anyone else on the server, and I won’t get the final call on decisions.

One thing I won’t tolerate, however, is plugins and mods. Besides the basic Bukkit server framework, no mods or plugins will be installed, by request or otherwise, that change or enhance game mechanics. This means no currency, no WorldEdit, no seasons or races or NPCs, nothing.

The community will have a say in everything else, though. The players will make the stories, vote on policies, and build the world. The server will be quite open to change. If the players want to institute a new policy, they can. Since there are no admins or moderators, they will be the ones carrying it out. Since there is no higher authority to appeal to, players will be forced to talk out disagreements among themselves.

Obviously its impossible to completely eliminate a leader who “runs” the server. Someone needs to host it, and someone needs to maintain the bulletin boards and websites. I suppose I would do that, but nearly anything could be changed if it was popular opinion backed by a vote. What I want is a player-made server and community, not a pre-made admin’s framework which has been filled in by the players. That breeds a dependency that ultimately leads to arguments and unrest, and it gives the players something to blame for all the bad things: namely, the admin.

I mentioned in passing a website, which would actually be a key element of the server. In my opinion, a bulletin board isn’t enough to truly let a server grow into a community. It needs independent features for planning events, posting featured videos, screenshots, and stories, and a hub for bulletin board, wiki, and all the other possibly third-party utilities. A website lets the person hosting the server to post updates, which can be emailed to people in case they didn’t catch it on the bulletin board.

If I built my own bulletin board and wiki utilities (which I am interested in doing anyways), the website could have a single account for commenting on news, RSVPing to events, editing the wiki, and posting on the forum. I HAVE been wanting to get back into web programming… maybe I’ll start that this weekend.

Minecraft Servers

I was once an innocent Minecraft player. I played a couple of single player worlds, back in Alpha. Then I looked into multiplayer. I joined a server. The server was called Age of Chaos. That was a fateful day; at the same time I discovered both the magic of SMP and the wonder of role-playing. AoC was a medieval RP server, and it was extremely fun, although looking back on it now I can see that it wasn’t that great. Alas, I joined it during its dying days. After the server went down, I was despondent. That was when I had a brilliant idea. I would create my own server.I had been thinking about concepts for a Minecraft server. I ended up setting up a server that would host a group of people from my school.

It was an RP server, and at first there were only 3 people. I set up a forum, and more people began to join. Some of them were from AoC, some from my school. Some found the server through the scattered ads we tossed out on online forums. TJRP was born (TJ is the common abbrevation for our school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology). The original iteration of the server thrived. The idea behind it was that there were three cities which would have varying diplomatic relations. As it ended up, one city became populated, and the other two fell off the face of the map (one managed to struggle along with one or two residents). Then another city popped up in the backyard of Elysia, the great walled city in the center of the map. Seralotta was the scientific center of the New World. Elysia was a neutral super-power, and Arboris, the half-dead tree city, suddenly revived as the magical city. Things were going just fine. Sure, we had a few disputes. Maybe more than usual. However, those were the days in which the seeds of doom were planted; a group of friends joined.

The core group of 5 people from TJ began to bicker, mostly because they knew each other. As the server spiraled downwards, complaints became more common. Suddenly I decided to reboot the universe. An apocalypse destroyed the New World and the inhabitants fled to another dimension. In the new iteration of the server, we introduced the idea of plugin-supported races. Each race had a different set of abilities. We decided on a two-city structure this time, with humans living in the two cities. The shaman-like Animists were traders, and lived mainly in caravans and in the great forest that dominated the center of the map. Ancients were the natives of the land, possessing great magical abilities but keeping to themselves. Crimsons were masters of Redstone, who also kept to themselves. The Emergents were the antagonists. A zombie-like telepathic race of infected individuals, they were the enemies to all in the first “season”.

The design was flawed, though. I don’t really want to discuss the events leading up to the fall of TJRP, for although it was months ago, it is still a sore subject. I become depressed merely thinking about it. I can relate, however, the fundamental errors I believe I made in creating the server, starting with the most axiomatic errors. The greatest problem was imbalance. Minecraft gameplay is inherently imbalanced. Imposing either behavioral or mechanical restrictions, such as through plugins, only stands to make the game less exciting and pleasurable. There is no way to balance Minecraft and keep a fun RP environment. The races merely exacerbated the problem by creating reasons for mutual jealousy. The second problem was isolation. This is correlative to imbalance. We didn’t have the members to support five races, especially the way we separated the races. We should have put all the players within close proximity of each other. That is what eventually happened, of course. After cities were razed by the Emergents, people naturally migrated to a quaint village built on a mountain. The last major problem was that we tried to induce story. We created “events”, in which a rough structure would provide some excitement and conflict into the world. It was executed in all the wrong ways, however. Instead of waiting for natural conflict to occur and then encouraging it into a full-fledged story, we tried to mould people into how we though the world should be. The story of the server ends with the inmates running the asylum.

TJRP Forums | TJRP Wikia

As bad an idea as it may seem, I am thinking of starting a new server. This time, however, I will make it the most perfect Minecraft RP server possible. With my knowledge, I can resolve all the problems that plagued TJRP. This is how:

Good Members

In the end, its the players who are playing on the server. If the players are going to have fun, they need to get along with each other. Otherwise their wouldn’t be any RP. The idea is that members would be handpicked from known people. Anybody joining from the outside would go through a rigorous grooming process, including perhaps some time on the server in which their personality is judged. TJRP’s selection process was far to tolerant. Player responsibility also needs to be high for my idea to work. Players would have an active desire to work towards an entertaining plot, rather than “winning”, such as building the biggest buildings, collecting the most resources, or having the most powerful character. They would also realize that other people are working towards the same ends, and would deal with any disagreements in a reasonable way.

Eradication of Imbalance

Minecraft is inherently unbalanced. Therefore, why try to balance it? I say that the best way to combat imbalance is to embrace it. If you give everything to everybody, there can be no gradient, since everybody has equal abilities and does not have to work to get resources. Players would all have moderator-level powers. They could utilize WorldEdit and enter Creative mode. Since players would be trying to craft a story, they would use these abilities responsibly. They wouldn’t overbuild, they wouldn’t overuse creative, and they certainly wouldn’t grief. Building powers would only be used for time-saving reasons. It would represent many hours of work sped up, so that players can focus on the juicy RP, rather than the dull work required to upkeep the world. Players could also use the powers to represent in-character powers, such as if a powerful villain were to make an entire building disappear.

Tons of Discussion

The players would be actively discussing the direction of the plot, both in-game and on the forums. Players would converse out-of-character during a scene to make sure their characters are cool and that the story stays interesting. Use of an application like Ventrilo or Teamspeak would facilitate such discussion. It would not only help players debate points faster, but it would encourage a sense of camaraderie and even be used for fluid delivery of in-character dialogue. Due to a common sense of the plot, arguments would rarely, if ever, occur. Hopefully epic stories would also be produced. The stories could then even be recorded and/or dramatized. Having a record of past story arcs would be fascinating and help recruit more valuable players.


You may call me a Utopian or a Romantic, but I truly believe that, if pulled off correctly, this kind of server would be the most entertaining ever made. The only thing that holds me back is fear of another catastrophic failure like TJRP. That server was almost like my child. I had helped it along since infancy. It matured, grew out of control, and then abandoned me and died, spawning another server whose members mock me. It was heart-wrenching, and even the sight of a former member at school reminds me of that horrible experience of a creation spiraling out of control.

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