Monthly Archives: March 2016

Opinion – Procedural Generation and You!

Coding this piece

The coming release of No Man’s Sky has put procedural generation at the forefront of gaming once again.  The developer, lacking the resources of a larger team, turned to procedural generation to create game assets via an algorithm rather than devoting a person to create a specific asset.  As a result, they claim that everyone on earth could play the game for the rest of their lives and still not see all the content the game has.  Procedural generation (PG) allows the creation of entire universes, but it has its limitations.  The technique fairs poorly where gaming cannot be boiled down to simple math.

The oldest and most common use of PG is the creation of environments and maps.  Probably the oldest examples of this are 4x games where land tiles could be randomly shuffled to create new battlegrounds with relatively little effort.  The developers learned to establish certain parameters (landmasses could only be so small or not to put deserts next to tundra) that improved the enjoyment of the map.  Modern games employ a more sophisticated version of the same strategy.  Minecraft creates biomes and underground caverns based off of the dictates of its algorithm.  The billions of planets in No Man’s Sky does the same basic tile swapping, but on a galactic scale.  PG works on these particular assets because they can be accurately modelled mathematically.  Each object has a predictable relationship with every other object making PG a matter of ensuring that the objects interact in the right way.  Establish enough of these interactions the developer can create worlds that feel both unique and cohesive.

Yet this fails totally when coming up with procedurally generated stories and quests.  PG content along these lines is generally predictable and unconvincing.  Quests ask for pointless tasks like “collect 10 rhino spleens” and rarely lead anywhere.  The most prominent and recent example of this is Fallout 4 during its quests to rebuild the wasteland by establishing small towns in the ruins.  Quest giving NPC Preston Garvey starts by asking the player to clear out settlement sites for repopulation.  Once that’s done, he asks the player to go back to those same places over and over to defend against yet another mutant horde/ghoul assault/scurvy outbreak for the millionth time.  The quests were obviously the result of a formula that never had any endpoint.  While developer BethesdaSoft’s attempted to create procedural content for their game, they ended up with a poor feature that was mostly mocked by its users.

PG content of this kind fails because stories don’t breakdown into easily manageable chunks.  A computer can’t randomly rearrange sections of a story to create a cohesive whole.  Each piece of a story must necessarily build on its predecessor in a way that seems like a natural evolution of the characters and the setting.  Character A attacks Character B’s hometown for loot.  Character B seeks revenge and, in so doing, must make moral sacrifices that ultimately put them on the path to attack towns like Character A.  These relationships are much harder to describe and far more limiting then saying that a tile can be next to three different types of tiles but not next to the fourth.  They can’t be broken down into component parts with their own set of discreetly defined principles.  As a result, PG stories and quests that follow the same model as their environmental generation brethren often look hollow and predictable.  Fallout 4’s quests of “[town] is under attack by [threat].  Go kill [number from 3 to 10] of [threat] to bring peace to the land!” never satisfies because it tries to breakdown the narrative into pieces in the same way it does so for environments.

It doesn’t help that stories are also more demanding of their game.  By their very nature, environments are generated before any of the action starts.  They don’t need to draw on any existing assets beyond the algorithm that crafts them.  Stories must reflect and use the environment that they’re in.  Taking an extreme example, consider Fallout 3’s town of Megaton.  At a pivotal moment in the game, the player can either defuse the atomic bomb at the center of town or set it off and become the hero of the nearby Tenpenny Towers.  To make this quest work, PG would have to establish all of the characters, create a town with a nuclear bomb at its center, create the various story beats, identify the save/destroy decision, and ensure that the resulting actions did not remove vital parts of the main story.  It would also have to ensure that all other story interactions wouldn’t conflict with what happened in Megaton.  That’s a lot to align and all the harder for an AI that can only understand story structures and themes through the coding of a programmer.  PG stories are clearly a step beyond PG environments.

Given the woeful state of procedurally generated narratives, it’s tempting to write them off as impossible.  I would caution against that.  It took environmental PG 25 years to get to its current state.  I imagine the old 4x creators would have considered galaxy shaping algorithms impossible, yet now we have them.  The sophistication isn’t there yet, but we’re far from having done all we can to explore this space.

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Review – Moon Hunters – PC

This is a thing I kickstarted.  You have been warned.

Moon Hunters is a game about stories…at least, that’s what the developers told me a couple of years ago when I saw them at PAX.  It’s about the actions of heroes and how they are immortalized through the people they help (or harm).  The game promises to let the players create their own legends except it’s missing out on one key part: the legend.  Moon Hunters feels like 3/4s of a game with the payoff missing.

The most standout feature of the game is the aesthetic.  Moon Hunters chooses a pixel based art style with fairly traditional, but varied, landscapes.  Forests are lush and green, deserts are brown and barren, and swamps have ponds showing the ripple of a falling rain drop.  Characters also animate smoothly and blend well with the environment reflecting a pleasant, unified style.  The music takes an appropriately reverential tone with plenty of otherworldly singing suited for a campfire.  On the whole, this visual and audible approach has been done before, but it’s also done well here.  The player will enjoy the little touches, even if the world doesn’t sweep them away.

Combat is similarly a step up from the norm, but not awe inspiring.  The player picks from one of four characters (local coop for up to four players) with unique skills.  They each have a main attack, an area of effect attack, and a speed move which the player uses on a top down map with a combat style akin to a twin stick shooter.  Not all the characters are sufficiently powerful (the range fighters suffer) which frustratingly extends some fights far beyond the point of fun.  Stat boosts from story vignettes scale characters well, but the opening fights can be a real slog.  Players can also purchase upgrades from merchants, though this often emphasizes the problems with the weaker characters.  Weak characters take longer to kill enemies which slows the rate of currency accumulation and thus the ability to upgrade out of peon status.  Still, the character powers are unique and combat requires tactics to perform well in.  There’s nothing special here, but enough is done right to get the requisite amount of fun.

The main selling point, the player made stories, is the weakest element.  The premise is that the player is one of several heroes of a moon worshiping village when the sun god kills the moon.  The player is then charged with reviving the moon goddess and defeating the sun god’s army.  The story after the setup is filled in with micro vignettes (they last about a minute at most) that confer or reflect traits.  These traits help establish the ending of the player’s story such as the “proud” trait inspiring other chieftains with the player’s confidence.  It’s at this point where Moon Hunters flaws are most evident.  The story wants the player to feel like they’re building a unique hero, but the procedural approach means that the trait ending stories feel disjointed.  The ending is several little blurbs of text pulled when a player has a certain trait.  It doesn’t feel cohesive or like an adequate payoff for the trouble.  Even worse, the end never shows the effect of the player’s actions making the idea of “crafting a story” feel hollow.  The player never sees the fruits of their labors, so the repeated playthroughs that the game encourages will allows fall flat at the end.

Moon Hunters is almost a solid little game executed well.  Nothing truly excels, but enough works that the game is largely an enjoyable package.  It’s a shame that developer Kitfox couldn’t stick the landing.  Buy on sale if the idea sounds interesting.

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Opinion – Logic in Games

Déjà vu for the first time.

At one point in my life, I applied for a job at a temp agency.  As part of the intake process, they had me test on various office programs.  After scoring well on the programs I knew, the instructor encouraged me to try accounting software that I had never touched before.  Ultimately, I agreed to do so and scored very well on a test for a tool that I had never seen.  In a seemingly unrelated situation, I was searching for a toilet in a new (to me) building in a foreign country.  After finding an out-of-order bathroom next to a staircase, I correctly guessed that there would be a similarly placed bathroom just one floor down.  Despite never having been in that building before, I successfully identified where to find one of its rooms.  What’s going on here?

We could assume that I am some kind of rare accounting-poop polymath, but let’s set that aside for the moment.  Instead, consider that many aspects of our lives are ordered according to an underlying logic.  According to some consistent rule, be it intentionally derived or naturally ordered, much of our environment follows a certain path.  I tested well on the accounting program because of its similarity to the underlying logic of other programs I used.  I found the bathroom by assuming that toilets next to staircases were centrally located and, therefore, a sound design for a building.  In short, I understood the logic of the thing I was analyzing and so made successful predictions about that thing.  Nothing I did is special.  The Albert Einstein of poop counting need not apply.

Video games are lousy with internal logic with much of it going unnoticed.  Think back to the level design of many games.  Most levels have a start, challenge rooms, and a boss at the end.   Play a million games and each one will follow a similar pattern.  As a result, the player can make guess about the level with only a little information.  For example, games often incentivize exploration by providing items and secrets for players who stray from the main path.  If a player reaches a fork and goes down a tine that continues for a while, they may then backtrack on the theory that the other path carries valuable loot.  On a related note, some games tell the player if the boss is in the next room.  The unstated, but widely understood, purpose of this is to let the player know that they should finish exploring the level (and collecting goodies) before challenging the boss.  The other unstated piece of logic is that no level requires the player to backtrack after beating the boss and therefore will remove the player from the dungeon once the fight is over.  Fight the boss and you’ll have to start at the beginning to get any leftover items.

Think about it and you’ll likely find other examples.  Unkillable bosses are usually fights the player needs to lose to advance.  Powerful units and attacks in a multiplayer game inevitably have some kind of counter.  The value of internal logic in games is that it smooths out the player experience and provides them with the tools to overcome challenges without being told the solution.  For an example of the first value, you need only look at the paragraph above.  By maintaining consistency, the player learns how the game is laid out and how to access the parts they like without getting bogged down in the parts they don’t.  Consistent control schemes across games (triangle for menu, x for confirmation, etc) is another example of this.  Internal logic also gives the player the means to overcome challenges.  By establishing consistent rules, the player learns a rule book to evaluate and exploit.  The player can then develop their own strategies and beat the game on their own terms.

Lacking internal logic can have the opposite effect.  Without a consistent, understandable rule set, the player is liable to become frustrated over seemingly insurmountable challenges.  The game appears random and the player’s losses appear arbitrary.  No one likes playing an unbeatable game.  The most obvious example of poor internal logic is adventure game logic.  Early adventure games contained puzzles ostensibly requiring clever solutions that were actually just random combinations of things.  An example of adventure game logic would be sailing a rubber ducky down draining water in a street that inspires a cat to chase after the ducky resulting in the revealing of the key to the next location.  There’s no logic for the player to grasp except combining all possible solutions until one turns out to be “correct.”

No one likes randomly mashing things together.  The joy of gaming is discovering the rules and applying it to a challenge.  Games with strong internal logic are a lot of fun to discover.  Those that aren’t, well, go the way of the old adventure games.

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Opinion – Fantasy is Lame

The noble warriors of light can go die.

Fantasy sucks.  Mostly.  There are always exceptions to broad brush statements like the one I just made, but fantasy mostly just sucks.  Compared to its sci fi contemporaries, fantasy books, games, and movies, lack originality.  Fantasy works are tied to popular models of the past that haven’t evolved in interesting ways in years.  Characters, storylines, and settings all feel like warmed over copies of previous works that were themselves warmed over copies of their predecessors.  If the genre is ever to grab my interest again, it’s going to have to change.

Ditching the medieval setting would be a good step.  Fantasy authors have tied dragons, magic, and powerful artifacts together with low technology, feudal kingdoms, and English accents for so long that it’s easy to forget that none of these elements ever have to be related.  By assuming they’re joined irrevocably, fantasy creators reinvent the same stale worlds that hold no wonder for experienced (or even amateur) audiences.  There is little joy to exploring yet another high fantasy world with castles and wizards.  Alternatively, consider some of the most successful fantasy works in the modern age: Harry Potter and The Magicians.  Both import fantasy into modern times and take great pains to integrate magic into more familiar settings.  These are fun worlds to discover because they feel fresh to the reader.  They also give their authors more flexibility in creating new characters and situations.  By making magic the purview of a select, secret group, Rowling and Grossman create magical microcosms where they can both delve into their unique magical worlds, but also show how they interact with a largely magically ignorant society.   Dropping the medieval from fantasy opened up creative space in a way that keeping the old setting never could have.

The traditional fantasy races could use an overhaul as well.  By sticking to elves, dwarves, dragons etc, fantasy also limits the kinds of adventures and concepts it can explore.  These races are well known quantities that offer few new experiences.  Having a greedy dwarf who is good with an axe or a wrench is about as uninteresting as it gets.  The traditional races are so overused that even new takes on them don’t feel new.  Bioware’s Dragon Age made elves the downtrodden poor of their fantasy world and it still felt too similar to the usual treatment of Elves as the highly advanced guardians of a declining civilization.  Flipping traditional elements of well-established tropes can be a good source of creativity, but not when the trope is so well worn that even the juxtaposition of old and new still feels too familiar.  Fantasy needs genuinely new races that use elements of the style in interesting, unexplored ways to break out of the samey rut it finds itself in.

Magic, one of the key elements of most fantasy, is another place to innovate.  As one of the defining features of the genre, magic serves as the lynchpin of a lot of fantasy worlds.  It manifests as an otherworldly force wielded by highly skilled individuals drawing upon mysterious forces.  There’s no reason why magic can’t be something else.  It could be a power source, a corrupting influence, or a gift from fickle gods.  It could be the foundation of a society until it’s discovered that magic comes from killing cute babies (Soylent Magic is made of people!  It’s made of people!).  Magic can be anything we want it to be, so there is no reason to keep it penned in to old dudes with pointy hats.  The medieval setting is the most limiting problem of fantasy, but magic has the most potential for interesting scenarios.

There are a number of creative ways to break fantasy out of its rut.  One potential solution is to encourage fantasy artists to create more high concept works.  High concept works adapt a genre’s style to explore an idea outside of the genre’s usual focuses.  For example, Blade Runner used androids as a vehicle to explore the nature of life and sentience and how it differs (or doesn’t) from the naturally occurring version.  The advantage of high concept works is that they force a genre to look outside of their usual tropes by prioritizing the message.  Parts of the familiar tropes that don’t work are removed and the remaining bits are adapted to serve a radically different narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with fun adventures, but they rarely innovate in such a way as to establish who new worlds and ideas to explore.

The solution is simply that fantasy must innovate.  Fantasy creators need to look at the very foundation of their genre and revaluate whether every brick really is as important as it seems.  When the genre does innovate, it succeeds (see previous examples).  Furthermore, the recent success of superhero movies suggests that elements of the fantasy playbook already work in the mainstream (replace science with magic and The Avengers is a game of D&D). There is considerable potential in fantasy so there is no reason why it should be sci-fi’s boring cousin.  I’d love to see something new.

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