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About this blog

Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip and come on in to the mothership!

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Your design's writin' checks reality can't cash

Ahem... with apologies to Top Gun, that is...[grin]

So my new motto is this: "All of life is a problem requiring creativity."

That little gamma ray burst of insight comes courtesy of my forays into neuro-linguistic programming. I'm taking the tact that you've got to find creative solutions to the huge problems of getting a game out there, and the first solution is to manage your morale.

With that in mind, the GDC was good smackdown experience. I attended every business and indie track I could. I now know two things: VC funding isn't an option for games (I was probably dumb to think it was), and even simple games are bloody expensive.

I also learned that publishers take everything, IP-wise. I hadn't expected that they'd want your wall and ground textures. Why on god's green earth they need your wall textures I don't know. I was prepared to give up rights to using Siegers and whatever else I came up with... but for god's sake man, not my wall textures!!!! [grin] Seriously, this makes me rethink the plan of releasing on the internet with the hopes of getting picked up by a publisher for a bit wider coverage. One publisher at a session said, "If you did it once you can do it again." Sure, easy for you to say, bud. But I look at it as starting from scratch. It might be a stupid obsession, especially compared with the hardship imposed by limited 'net circulation, but you really have to think about not just one game, but several, and what might hurt your ability to stay in business, especially when you're thinking of doing a series of games set in similar environments.

Anyways, the good news: The bloom of game programs in schools have eased the way to getting help. I made some great contacts with local universities that may prove useful.

Straylight Update:
Ran the "go anywhere gameplay" idea past a hardcore gaming friend and he barfed. Hmmm... Certainly gives me pause. We extrapolated and playtested a few scenarios, but he still was cool to the idea. I won't change it based on one person's opinion, but he's been a great bellweather in the past, so I've got to look at this more closely.

Had a weird brainstorm involving representing personality using symbols. Oddly enough, it reminded of the UI mechanic Doom used, where the guy's face become more bloodied as you take damage. Not sure how viable or effective it would be (90% gets tossed, it seems [wink]), but I could see certain people striving to evolve a certain "symbolic look."

Then again, could be waaaaay too cerebral.

More later...




You know you've been designing too much when...

Today, a series of transmission stutters with my car finally culminated in a "Service Engine Soon" warning light, and the first thing I thought was, "you know, this random event just isn't interesting. There's no gameplay unless I'm a Mechanic Class."

O_o Guess I've been thinking about games too much.

Straylight Update

Unfortunately, nothing interesting to report here. I'm fighting a fire involving my book that's taking most of my time.




You DON'T Know The POW-er...

Welp, I've gone and done it. I've gone to the dark side. Severely disappointed that my legions of loyal journal readers didn't get me a single thing for Christmas, I went out and did the unthinkable: I bought an XBox.

Now, I know what you're going to say: Turncoat! Traitor! Console Terrorist! But hear me out for a sec... as much as I've ranted against the insipid simplicity of console games over the years, you've got to admit... it's hard to beat multiplayer co-op, especially when you can be in the same room with your best friend who has invested in two massive TVs. And it seems that the console market is increasingly starting to understand that people want to play games together once in awhile!!

So what was the reason for my selling out? Mouse and keyboard. I finally found a mouse and keyboard adapter for the XBox, and it works flawlessly. So you might say that I'm actually still representing for PC, especially when I kick the a##es of all my Halo playing, controller fondling friends.

Hey, you think that makes me a double agent? [rolleyes]

Straylight Update

I've been splitting time this week between learning the Torque Shader Engine and art techniques like normal mapping. The folks at Garage Games plan to provide pretty robust support for a wide variety of the shader techniques out there, and I'm way behind the curve on this technology. In case you're interested in this topic, I've found this guy's site to be very helpful (I'd be happy to hear of others you may know of, tho')

Casper The Friendly Ghost?
How would you feel about playing an alien spirit? This might be a severe wrong turn, but for the purposes of story and design I'm considering casting you in the role of an Indwelling, which is an ancient embodiment of a power or ability. Story-wise, Indwellings would be akin to fallen gods, responsible (Illuminati-style) for engineering many events on the Earth, particularly the "nanocaust" that gives the high-tech/post-apocalypse universe you'll start with. As an Indwelling, you'd be able to hijack or possess hosts and you'd be unkillable (no death, no quickload). More importantly, you'd build a dynasty over generations in order to become more and more powerful.

I'm not completely okay with the idea, but it does solve many design problems I've been fighting with (how to eliminate game-over upon death, how to add in a feel of families and bloodlines, how to kill empires via catastrophe, collapse or invasion and keep the game playable).

For anyone interested, there's a thread in Game Design on this. I think the chief problem with the idea so far is that it's hard to relate to a spirt, and that the idea might be a bit too fantasy / New Agey for a sci-fi game.

My goal is to come to a resolution on this by the end of next week.




Wow! MDA Works!

Earlier I wrote up a piece on the MDA (Mechanics, Design, Aesthetics) Framework Marc Leblanc introduced in the two day Game Design workshop at GDC. I was so impressed with it that I started using it, but really didn't get into it until this week. In my home office, I was able to spread out scissors, paper and glue and start mocking up the core of my design. It was an awesome process!

To make it work you've got to focus on what the core experience will be for your player. I started out with a focus on life experiences and adventure. Then you have to ask yourself, in a way that can be rigorously tested, what the essential nature of your goal is. For me, I asked "What is the fundemental essence of a life in the future?"

The answer inspired the creation of a game grid filled with challenges and opportunities, cards and a character sheet. The sheet holds your resources, the cards emulate events, and the challenge / opportunity squares cause you to draw a card when you land on them.

One so far easy thing to confirm: It's fun to try to stay afloat economically. To simulate the survival portion of the game, you get 20 points of money, and you lose 1 every turn. This really pushes you to try to find opportunities to raise it, and hope that challenges don't wipe you out as you move around the board.

Also saw right off the bat that it's difficult to make regular life gameplay interesting in contrast to epic adventuring. I don't have the gameplay in place for what I call the "gardening" portions of the game, yet (like shopkeeping), so it may just be that I'm abstracting a lot.

I have a bunch of ideas to test out, like adding story cards, adversary chits, and making the playing grid a city. Once I get that playtested, I'll try it out on some friends.

What I really like about MDA is that you don't have to sit around wondering if the mix of your design ideas will work. You can get a rough approximation in only a couple of hours!




Why RPG-Empire games are COOL!

Well, shame on me for not doing any real work, but I've been coming up with some cool ways to fill out this blasted game.

Straylight Update

"Survive & thrive in a fantastical future and change the destiny of the human race."

That's the game goal. Building and relationships modification are going to be the primary ways to accomplish this.

I see three environments for this:

In a civilized habitat
In the wastelands of Earth and frontiers of alien planets
Inside something mobile, like a landship or starship

The goal is to make money and/or influence others. The money making part can be accomplished through building structures. In concept, this happens on a gridded environment, like Startopia, but with the ability to enter structures and interact with NPCs.

You'd influence NPCs by helping them achieve their goals. This is standard quest gameplay, except I think I'll be able to make the relationships between NPCs dynamic. Maybe Joe hates Fred and wants to see his business drop. Normally, a game makes you do a specific thing to make that happen, and then you get a reward.

But what if you could make Fred's biz drop by threatening customers? Or hacking into his shop's power regulator? Or by infesting his shop with nanite cockroaches?

Basically, Fred's shop would be an effect generator (business) with stats attached (attractiveness, defense, hack security, etc.) Fred himself would have stats, which in turn generate effects (ownership of the shop, advertising, etc.)

Scare off Fred, his customers, or sabotage his shop... in most cases, Joe doesn't care, as long as it gets done (he may care in some cases, and might tell you not to do certain things, but that just makes missions more varied)

Smooth Operator
As a young immigrant to the towers, you need cash to build up your enterprise. Your enterprise can be anything from "monster hunting" (nanite neurozombies & constructs in the wastes); policing; racketeering; space expansion and exploration; or running an operation.

The operation basically consists of people who perform some service or control some machinery, and the machinery itself.

If you want to create a waterpark, for instance, and make money attracting tourists, you would find a district in the tower to ally with, negotiate with NPCs for terms, buy the templates, rent some workers and building tools, and lay down structures RTS style. I'm seeing raising and lowering of interior terrain possible as well.

Or say your operation is a mining town. If it's in the wastes of Earth, you don't get permission, but you do need to bring in either expensive automated help or cheaper human labor. Or if you're really nasty about it, you use a nano-sequestration virus and bodyjack people into service (do this far from the law if you know what's good for you).

Then you start laying down structures. The structures create an effect, such as improving productivity, defense of the town against bandits and monsters, possibly even attracting in cheap victims labor.

Autonomous Agents Behaving Badly
I'll post more on this in the coming days, but I think I've got some improvements on Oblivion's proposed autonomous agents that make up a village.

Here's what I see as possible: You divide NPCs into "people units." The people units then use basic A* pathfinding to find attractors based on needs (Sims stuff here).

This covers the basic behavior that you see. But behind the scenes, you use an influence map or some nodal structure to create NPC interactions. The interactions are events that get generated and solved by rules you've devised that say how plots get solved.

This is then journaled, made available to you as a town foreman / interloper / bandit / citizen. You can then interact with the NPCs so that the radiate the events you desire.

The events they radiate can be very complex because they'll happen abstractly. If Joe is sleeping with Fred's wife, it's too expensive to animate that. But if Fred beats the crap out of Joe in the middle of town, that becomes a resolved effect using standard combat anims.

I've got a lot more to say about this, but I'll do so in the next post.




Why Dream Big?

Greetings! Welcome to the first installment of the journal of Wavinator. I hope you'll enjoy reading about my thoughts on everything from game design to the challenges of building an independent gaming project.

One of the things that has been rattling around inside my head lately is the question of why a person would pursue a dream, especially a big dream, and especially one in a field as miserly and short-lived as game development. What makes the risk worth it, when you consider that there are so many other stable, safe and lucrative avenues? Ernest Adams' 1998 Game Developer's Conference Roadtrip lecture, Some Practical Problems of Immortality, sums up the game developer's situation perfectly: "Our work is as bright and as beautiful as the wildflowers of a Sierra mountain springtime... and just as ephemeral. Our work cannot serve, unaided, as our monument. When we die, we leave nothing to remember us by."

As some of you may know I'm pulling together a team to work on a science fiction role playing game. The working name is Straylight (soon to change in order to avoid a possible trademark dispute). The game's focus is on combat, stealth and trade while running a starship or base. If I can put in everything I want, it will feature freeform adventure in a post-apocalyptic galaxy teaming with struggling empires and hostile life. There will be character and property development, randomized missions, and what I call a Reactive Cosmos--a game environment that responds to the choices you make.

One of the things I'm aiming for is trying to capture the soul of science fiction. I feel that many SF games are more about things than about people--lasers, robots, hull configurations, weapons, etc. In science fiction writing, these are called "gadget stories," and they're the type that writers like Isaac Asimov and Athur C. Clarke were famous for. But while they can be very fulfilling stories, their main drawback is that they never give you a sense of a living, breathing world, a view of the human experience in a future impacted by grand ideas. You never get the ever-famous "sense of wonder" science fiction is supposed to be reknown for.

Some games try to give you a taste of this, but in doing so tie you to a claustrophobic plot. You get a strong sense of character, you may get a sense of the world, but you do so on the designer's terms, when he decides the time is right. Exploring the world in depth is usually impossible. Want to see what the people are like? Better hope its in the script. Want to experience a day in the life? Too bad, you've got mission objectives to fulfill! Want to replay and have a different experience each time? Forget about it!

Well, I don't know about you, but I play games in part to escape the confines of fiction, so that I can make meaningful choices.

What would it be like to stand on the deck of a ship you've built, with a crew of different personalities you've picked, and explore and adventure in the direction you choose? What would it be like to set that ship down on alien worlds and explore, on foot or in a vehicle, environments both strange, lucrative and deadly? What would it be like to be caught up in the intrigues of clashing empires, the destinies of ancient cultures and the challenges of a mystery spanning the entire galaxy?

I've been holding a vision of what this might be like for many years. One of the major reasons why I went into the game industry--and a major reason why I left--was that I wanted to see this vision realized. I grew up playing games like Elite, Starflight and Master of Orion, and have forever wanted to build a unique game that blends elements of all three: The freeform, "pick your own path" gameplay of Elite; the beautiful scope of Starflight's planets and plot; and the turmoil of a changing, growing, thriving galaxy as found in Master of Orion.

A project like this is going to be very difficult to organize and difficult to finish. The challenges in technology and content are formidable. Design, programming, art, management and marketing will all require a potentially exhausting commitment in time and energy.

So why do it? Why even try?

Because it should be done. I think that's the answer to why you should pursue a dream, especially a big one, even one as miserly and short-lived as game development. If it has been in your head long enough, if you've tried to pare it down and make it more safe and traditional and reasonable yet it resists, if it haunts you through wake and sleep, it should be done.

I think the things that we hold inside our thin, fragile skulls are lost forever if we don't give them shape, commit them to form, try to breathe life into them so that they can survive outside of us. I figure that we all have a very limited amount of time on this earth, and I have to ask myself, given this, what it is that is really worth doing. I think that doing something that you really care about, despite the cost and the challenge, no matter how short lived it may be, is worth both the risk and the effort.

At least, at the end of all of this, that's the answer I intend to give.




What's In A Name?

Ya gotta love procedural development. I just finished randomly generating more than 10,000 starship names. And not the kind of crap gobbledy-gook names you tend to get from Markov lists, either! Examples include "Maiden's Dream," "Queen of the Heavens," "Titian Tiger", "Nightwind" and "Eastern Thunder." The names have weights, as well, which assigns them a greater chance of belonging to pirates, bounty hunters, freelance independents or even romantic cruise ships (like "Empress of Love").

This adds to the 2,000+ handcrafted starship names I've already created (and don't ask how long THAT took! [grin])

I started this side project, btw, because of how Escape Velocity, Freelancer and Independence War made me feel every time I ran into the same few ship names. I don't know if it bothers you as much as it bothers me, but when I'm told a dozen times in a row to hunt down "The Black Dragon" it loudly reminds me that I'm playing a game.

Anyways, there's more to tell, but I'm too sleepy for a more extensive update. More later...




What If People Were More Important Than Things?

This week I talked with a fellow who has started a foundation for artists, and is enthusiastic about seeing more positive computer games. We had a great conversation, and I learned that he's on a first name basis with several folks in the game industry (a VP from EA is on the board, apparently), but I came away from the conversation a bit troubled and wondering just exactly what a "more positive" game is.

I know I'm not working on GTA. In fact, two big things bug me about that game: the first is how it gets false props for being one of the first open ended games evar(?!); but the second is how its sleazy nihilism seems so lauded. Debates on violence and whatever aside, I consider the latter a corrosive example of a "negative game".

But where does that leave a supposedly positive game? Is it supposed to be filled with hearts and flowers and Sims you seek to drown in a pool? If your game has violence or conflict, is it automatically negative?

I've twisted myself into knots over this and the best I can think of is that it is the lack of consequences that make a game positive or negative. If you genocide some helpless race in a 4X game and the galaxy responds with kudos, that's not positive. (Although, tough luck explaining that nuance to Senator Clintion).

Straylight Update

The title of this post highlights my hopes for making planets and other locations much more interesting.

I break the problem into two categories: How to make uninhabitated locations interesting, and how to make settled areas feel alive.

Uninhabited Worlds: An Awful Waste of Space
Maybe its the case that a realistic cosmos is filled with dead, lifeless worlds. But as a character said in the movie Contact, "It would be an awful waste of space."

So let's instead imagine a galaxy whose worlds have been left with the muddy bootprint of thousands of intelligent species, most of which have gone extinct in the 13 billion-odd years of the universe's existence. Some have flourished into galactic empires, others have never left their cradle.

I'll use this scenario to reason three types of uninhabited (by intelligence, anyway) worlds: There are what I'll call the "Utility Worlds," the "Wildlife Worlds" and the "Ruined Worlds."

Utility Worlds have something that's continuously useful, such as minerals or control stations that can boost warp travel. They often form some sort of strategic lynchpin, either at the company, faction or empire level. Storywise, they're uninhabited because they've been lost in fallen empires, or by periodic attacks by Siegers, or when the galactic wormhole network has from time to time reconfigured itself.

Wildlife Worlds are filled with plants and animals. This will be a mix and match affair of life that's been cross-polinated through the wormholes that connect the many worlds. Unfortunately for hapless colonists (and fortunately for the player), many of these creatures will be the most aggressive and deadly mixes that have managed to survive. Although the shapes of creatures can only have so many forms, I'd like to create a huge variance on the stats and abilities.

Ruined Worlds are those with riches and traps, some of them exceptionally powerful and dangerous. Ships might, for instance, find the equivalent worlds they can land on but not leave until solving a puzzle, or ones where automatic defenses left over from a million year old war shoot them out of the sky. From these worlds, technology can be mined and brought back to help one's own empire/faction.

(btw, I'm calling these "worlds" but technically they can be mixed and matched. You could, for instance, have a Ruined Island on a Wildlife World.)

Inhabited worlds take on a totally different flavor. In these locations, I'd like people to be more important than machines. Ultimately, this boils down to your weath and access to equipment or ships (or "stargate" equivalents) being linked to helping and impressing the right people.

I think the key to doing this is using stats and status effects, and setting up NPCs to be somewhat like puzzles. I also think its critical that NPCs actually move around in the universe, particularly so that they can either find and confront the player or interfere with the areas that the player has touched.

I've got a bunch more to say on this, but this post is already a bit too long, so I'll reserve the rest for the next time...




Um... it's a "character interaction worldbuilding game"

I increasingly don't know what the hell to call this game. Although the level of detail and sheer, eye-bleeding volume of material I've been posting in the forums makes everything look out of control, I honestly think I know where I'm going and that this will be doable (famous last words, eh?[wink]). But I increasingly find myself working in the hinterlands of genre. Is this thing an RPG? Is it a strategy game? Is it a life sim?

No, it's a worldbuilding game, whatever the hell that means. It's a "whatever you call a freeform game where you interact with characters to change the course of history over lifetimes" game. Blech!

I get a bit ticked at how easy Grand Theft Auto has it. Driving cars? No problem. Shooting people? No problem. Mix of freeform and mission-based play, plus some Sims-like elements? Bring it on!

Oh well.[rolleyes] Perhaps in one of my frenzied pacing sessions the answer will come to me. In the meantime...

Straylight Update

Did some general worldbuilding today. Worldbuilding can either be a huge waste of time or great brain-teaser for revealing gameplay possibilities and solutions to gameplay problems.

I'm working on how a nanotech society crammed millions high into vertical cities actually works, and if it's possible to make you a citizen with interesting survival and leveling gameplay. If so, I'll have met a major goal of giving you a sense of "living in the future."

I've also been taking a look at some of the Garage Games tools. I'm happy to see that they're finally going to be getting a robust level editor, which should remove a major stumbling block to development.




Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin...

...into the FU-CHAAAAA![rolleyes]

Well, I know I've been doing something in these last few days, but everything's been a blur since I pulled a 30 hour day to finish the 75% of my book. Only 25% more to go!

In the mean time, I've been experimenting with Wings3D to mock up O'Neil Cylinders (these are tube-shaped space colonies with air, cities and land inside).

Here's a couple of shots:

It doesn't look like much in wireframe (it is just a mockup after all), but it's shows what the environment would look like and some problems that will crop up in trying to place content. By the way, I created it by extruding a cylinder in sections, selecting interior points, and using the deform option on the interior to generate makeshift hills and mountains. I then threw together some blocks for buildings, duplicated them, and then spotted the interior with a bit of color. I wanted to up the poly count, but Wings kept crashing on me, so I'll either have to wait for a fix or seek out another tool.

And because I've been getting a kick out of reading Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy (just finished the 2nd book), I'm going to have to include in the game something that looks supiciously like the Lady MacBeth: [grin]

Straylight Update

Ships in Straylight will (if I can get everything textured & animated) start with a sort of 2001 look and end up with a kind of modular anime fighter look (like Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star or the old Galaxy Rangers).

Gameplay-wise, this means several things: System Era ships will be slow, expensive strategic platforms. They'll cost hundreds of millions to buy, making them limited enterprises you can invest in but not really own to start. If you serve on one, you'll be hopping between ports for months, with the meat of gameplay either being a time-skipping montage or personal interaction and skill building. Combat between ships will involve slow, strategic moves limited by G forces mixed with fast action involving killer drones (this is more the Freelancer gameplay, except I see you being able to remote fly drone squadrons).

The System Era ships will give way to gravity-drive ships that can generate fields to compensate for the crushing effects of high-G acceleration. They'll be smaller, more aerodynamic and modular. The difference will be like shifting from sailing ships to ironclads in Civilization. But because colonization will take centuries, you'll still see the cost-effective System Era ships plying the starways, especially on the Frontier and Hinterland regions. So they'll be retired from combat and placed into service as civilian haulers, available for a fraction of the original price.

Because it's space, ships can conceivably last for centuries, allowing you to inherit the same vessel across lifetimes. These ships will also serve as deep space colonization vessels. And if humans get scattered by Siegers or an alien empire, the O'Neil Cylinder design will become generation ships (by mounting a Bussard ram scoop to one end and drives to the other).

Btw, here's an example of a Pioneer Class generation ship:

It might be a wasted focus, but I think it makes the whole expansion of human civilization experience more gritty and vivid. You'll start out as a citizen of Earth and in Master of Orion fashion, watch the human empire expand, split and in some cases even fall, all with RPG-like gameplay. [smile]




There are no problems, only solutions

So it costs astronomical amounts of money to build your game, and even if you went through a publisher you'd only get a fraction of the money back to put into your second one, and it takes a bunch of people who require expensive salaries, and people are loathe to invest in a hit driven business, and publishers won't fund you until you have at least 50% in most cases done, and most games don't sell that much anyway, and...

Doesn't this strike you as a problem requiring extremely creative solutions? It does to me.

Have a book milestone due (25%, ugh!) so I haven't had as much time as I like, but I'm still working on balancing the virtual life elements so that they compliment adventuring.

One interesting challenge is fixed versus mobile property. A car and a starship can be interesting because they're means to get somewhere. If there's driving or navigation, this is an interrim challenge that you enjoy while keeping your eye on your goal.

But what about owning an orbital hacienda? Should it just sit there? What about a small shop? Got some thinking to do.




The Spirit of Mao Is Upon Me

Darnit, I've been meaning to keep this place updated. But I've found that working 8am to 8pm, exercising for 2 hours a day, and trying to write a book takes a bit of time. Oh well, I'm sure the billions of people who read this will forgive me. [rolleyes]

The Long March

So I'm in a rough spot right now. You might even say that I'm screwed, but that kind of talk only leads to defeatism. I've got to get a better job, because for the last few years-- frankly since the dot com crash-- I've been struggling to stay afloat. Although I've got tech skills, I'm really learning that the game industry was a unique, open-minded environment unduplicated elsewhere. Whereas I rose through the ranks in gaming because I could show talent, the business world seems to rely exclusively on connections or credentials. Either you know someone or your school's name gets you in the door.

Unfortunately, what this means is that if I don't want to be doomed to a slew of risky temp jobs (i.e., no insurance / not knowing if you can pay the rent), I've got to finish school. And that means that, now that I know nobody will fund indie game development, that it's going to be even harder to finish Straylight.

Harder, but I refuse the word impossible. It seems to me that the first mistake people make in independent game development (besides biting off more than they can chew, which I plead guilty to) is focusing on externals first. You get the concept artists and work on the engine so that you can show the screenshots. The screenshots create the buzz so that you can recruit volunteers and maybe even paid talent. Everyone asks to see how far you've gotten because nobody wants to be attached to a falling star, and your screenshots prove your progress.

Graphics age far more quickly than code, however. The next multimillion-dollar game is going to raise the bar for everyone, commercial and indie alike. Go back and play Doom 1 if you don't believe me. What I remember as clear, amazingly crisp, stunning detail is now a pixelated mess. How did it change? Our perceptions were radically altered at a fundamental level, and now, save for retro games meant to look old, those graphics aren't good enough.

So if graphics age far more quickly than code, and you have a big job ahead of you, it seems to me that, recruiting be damned, the worst mistake you can make is to start working on graphics. I knew this at a fundamental level, but let some people talk me into walking the "create a website / post artwork / get artists" path. That's only smart if you're going to finish soon, because I guarantee you that most people who sign up with you will quit unless they're compensated. By now, that's the dominant theme I hear in indie game development involving medium or large projects.

So it occurs to me that if a person has the willpower (fanatical, at this point) to keep the dream alive no matter what, then the strategy has to be long range. You keep working as much as possible on the material that won't age until you finally build up enough critical mass to burst through to completion. You keep searching for stylistic graphical representations, such as iconic, mini-game or static graphical representations, that will still be popular. And you save the wow-cool engine stuff for near last (in as much as you can create content / gameplay without an engine, that is).

As I've been exercising for hours each day, the nature of motivation, willpower and limits has become more clear to me. Sure, there are a great many things that we simply can't do; but there are a whole lot of other things that we say we can't do, which are nothing more than competing constructs of the mind. False thoughts, or undermining motives, if you will. I say to myself, half-way through my exercise program, that I can't keep going, but when I focus on something that consumes my attention, time evaporates, and I'm done. Obviously then, the mind lies. [smile]

What the hell does this have to do with completing Straylight? Given everything that's on my plate, it's going to take laser focus and an iron will to keep moving forward. I've got to do school, I've got to find a safer job, and I've got to finish this damned book (that they've asked me to rewrite, by the way). And the mechanism to do so derives, I believe, from motivation.

It's interesting how much energy we can discover within ourselves when we have the proper inspiration. One of the most amazing examples I can think of is from Chinese history: The Long March. Mao Tse-tung somehow managed to march 100k people over 18 mountain ranges to escape defeat. Now, I don't know about you, but I have no idea what it's like to march over even one mountain range, let alone 18. What does that take?

Proper motivation, I'm sure.

Now, yes, I admit it's stretching credulity to even compare the Long March to developing a video game, but I'm only using such an extreme example to show that we can do the impossible when properly motivated.

And I'm very motivated to finish this game.




The Risk of an Idea

A good friend of mine, who has practically become my codesigner for Straylight, has just returned from Nevada. Before he left to try out new job opportunities over a year ago we talked endlessly about open-ended games, consequences, and what real freedom might mean in a game like Straylight. In fact, years ago it was his input that made me see the merrits of cooperative play and console gaming, and without his fervent arguing on dozens of points Straylight might have well ended up as Asteroids: The RPG. Of course, it would have been done by now... but anywho...

The process of arguing a game idea, particularly a risky one, is always interesting because it relies so heavily on "mights," "ifs" and "maybes." Reaching out into the unknown takes a certain amount of faith, and maybe even a basic amount of skill of handling the very concept of "newness" (seen best in not treating it like the "oldness" you already know). Take, for instance, the idea of not being able to quickload in an open-ended game. Very controversial (just search the near-flamewar wasteland of Game Design under this topic if you want examples). Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm a foaming at the mouth, rabid "let the player play the way they want to" adherent, which means free-saving whenever, why-ever.

But as I've narrowed down the experience I'd like to be able to offer with Straylight the idea of removing the need to quickload has become EXTREMELY compelling. Not from an arrogant, "I say you can't save" position, but from a "death is uninteresting, loss is far more interesting" place. More and more I'm convinced that certain really fun, really engaging experiences will be impossible with saving. But while the idea may have promise, not a lot of games do it well, and it is very risky (remember the first Predator vs. Aliens and how the fanbase kicked Fox's *** in the press until they issued a save patch?)

So arguing an idea like this with my friend is a very fascinating experience. He doesn't, like many, fall back on the hazy "if it's done right" aphorism that seems to plague surface-level game design. That doesn't get you anywhere. Instead, he goes right for the throat. How, he asks, can you be sure that players won't fall into some unseen negative experience unanticipated by testing and planning and programming? How do you make the process of recovery from mistakes as interesting as whatever preceded making them? How do you distinguish between a stupid mistake (like accidentally firing on a dreadnaught while in a shuttle) and a fateful choice? What about crashes and file corruption?

My temptation is to reach for the mights, ifs and maybes. But the real answer-- the only answer you can ever give-- is that you won't know until well into building it. Sometimes I wonder if this is exactly how Fable and Freelancer stumbled. My friend raised that point during our last discussion-- that Molyneaux basically said that he was trying to do so many new things that the game they were making, over time, less and less resembled the game they'd hyped.

I'm not, of course, comparing myself to Chris Roberts and Peter Molyneaux. But its interesting to see how even the well-heeled and funded, experienced developers, when reachng out past the well-trod "X was popular, let's make a game like X" ideaspace run afoul of the same problem, again and again. It's almost as if, when reaching into the untested, you need to constantly keep the logic of your assumptions-- and all the implications for gameplay and the player's experience that they embody-- organically modelled and alive in your head as you plan; then that plan has to be reality-checked by bouncing it off of others and validated in playtesting as much as possible before coding.

Obviously, this whole process of reaching into the unknown to solve problems isn't unique to game design. This makes me wonder what other methodologies other creative or pioneering disciplines might have to offer. Heh, we might turn this whole gaming thing into a science yet. [smile]

Straylight Update

And speaking of risky ideas...

After lots of good feedback from friends and the great folks of Game Design, I'm going to risk casting you in the role of an Indwelling, a spirit-like entity inhabiting human flesh. But I've decided not to spring it on you all at once, keep it story-drive and understated, and make you something of a human-spirit hybrid.

I'll explain more in my next post, but the gist is that you're the essence of destiny, the embodiment of choice. There are other Indwellings in the world just like you, embodying essential natures humans would identify with, such as fear or honor. Indwellings have symbiotically existed in humans throughout history, gradually uplifting us and directing our path. That delicate balance ends abruptly at the start of the game when you, the Indwelling of destiny, are murdered.

More later...




The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Ever have a week that makes you look around and wonder if you've offended someone on a cosmic level? This one's been like that for me. Yes, the hits just keep on coming, and include such wonderful experiences as:

Having to take off and put back on the entire right inner panel of my car door-- one hour before dark, right after work. Why? Because I decided to roll down the (electric) window and it decided not to roll back up. I'm now have a car whose right window should NEVER be rolled down.

Losing the security badge to the office I work at and finding WEDGED UNDER the rollers of the driver's seat (a near physical impossibility)

A boss that asks for a completely database 1 hour before I leave (She has pointy hair, wonder what that means...)

Well, at least it's not as sporty a time as I had when I was writing my book. [rolleyes]

Straylight Update

After having to put it aside for the last couple of months I'm back trying to get the Torque Shader Engine up and running. My goal this weekend is to spend some time mapping out the overall architecture. If there's time, I'm also going to try to get more art into the Torque Show Tool (maybe a completely textured starship) so that I can both keep my skills up and nail down one part of the asset pipeline.

Family, Montage Mode, Death and Rebirth
You know, maybe I should stop kidding around with this and get down to some serious stealing. After all, one of the Straylight's objectives is to capture the essence of sci-fi (or SF for you purists). So instead of trying to wedge the semblance of normal family and clan, why not leverage some of the interesting takes on "family" in SF:

Strong themes that often appear:

Natural versus engineered - As I've mentioned in posts, maybe this suggests a tech tree of genetic effects that mimicks character leveling, except its across generations.

Ancestor Ghosts - What if the knowledge and voices of all of your ancestors was available to you? That would really upend the "skilling", and definitely would require some system for continuous challenges.

Digital interaction - Brainphones? VR? Maybe "iconizing" some family interactions will help cut down on a major problem with this idea, depiction.

Dayclubs and simming - Is there a need for schools and classrooms in the future? If knowledge comes in the form of implants or RNA sequencing, kids would learn faster and family dynamics would look very different.

Mind Design - If you can tailor your child's genes, how much of their psychology can you alter? And how much should you alter? There's an interesting range of possibilities here which could make how you treat offspring critical.


Conceptually, I'm still groping for ways that will make this matter in terms of gameplay, rather than an arbitrary story. I've got to look at it in two ways: Is there any gameplay in being a member of a family, and is there any gameplay in heading a family?

I'm still not sure, but as it's late I'll have to continue this later...




The Community: Straylight's Future Society

Lately I've been trying to rival Gene Roddenberry here! [lol]

In worldbuilding for Straylight I've been working on how The Community, the future society you start in as a result of the game's timeline (see below), fits together. What's cool is that it suggests some interesting missions and gameplay, which makes the effort a bit of a payoff.

The Community is supposed to be a people who pride themselves on fusing together opposites using technology (AI, nanotech, consciousness sharing). They're part libertarian, part socialist, with an ethical bent toward pacifism-- yet won't hesitate to frustrate threats against them using covert action("viral peace" using volunteers on the other side who agree to share perspectives electronically), misdirection and force if necessary.

Below is my first stab at how they might work:

Direct Democracy

At the highest level, government is divided between elites called Pillars elected every 10 years, and AI that enables popular oversight and direct democracy
Population broken up into hundreds of districts (counties) worldwide
Citizens have dual citizenship: Community (global) citizenship, and citizenship within a district
Districts may reject who they choose, and expel who they choose (but must pay for resettlement)
Majority vote determines laws and mores within a district, as well as rights concerning district laws
Districts may have police but no military
Right to vote in Community affairs granted by military or volunteer service of 3 to 8 years; must also pass election-related civics test
Citizens have the right to move from any neighborhood
Districts rely on technology and basic resource grants, which are determined by population
Districts free to organize however they like so long they don't infringe on Community Law, which includes civil liberties

Federal Global Government Functions

Security (terrorism, intradistrict, interdistrict, external)
Minimal mandatory taxation of and basic resource grants to districts
Intellectual property law enforcement (vital to controlling nanotech, nuclear fusion, cloning and AI development)
Dispute regulation between districts
Group and individual asylum (constitution has right to mobility clause, but no district must accept a group)

Private Enterprise

Economy has shifted away from manufacture to research and services, aided by automation, nanotech and AI
Districts grant companies (called combines) charter on a per district basis
Charters, by Community Law, automatically expire based on the industry (forcing combine to campaign for its continued existence)
Combines can be privately or district owned
To check power, no combine can own another
Regulation, rules and taxation up to each district
Community reserves right to form hypercombines for large scale projects such as colonization and defense (charter subject to periodic per district funding approval) as necessary for human survival
Wealthy elites are those who own patents on nanotech, keeping society in state of artificial scarcity / pre-nanotech revolution

People and society

Jobs: People are either independent contractors, work for districts or work for Community federal bureaucracy or hypercombine projects
Education: Basic digital literacy, schooling free; professional training costs
Law: Citizens must obey Community Law and district laws but can move; conflicts between district and Community law are often resolved by voluntary exile / asylum to another district for the individual or group
Mobility: Citizens have constitutional right to mobility. Community subsidizes global vaccuum train and shuttle networks encourage this, helping to dilute ethnic identity; some, however, may be too poor to exercise this right
Free accomodations per citizen are stark and minimal (often considered low status)
Many districts in the West rise and fall based on individual contractor talents; people are highly mobile between districts
Many districts in East still have strong traditional group ethic, with districts rising and falling on trading ability and organizational skills; district populations are highly static


The Community's Common Culture movement has called for reinventing human society, in part by destroying identity artifacts such as the Pyramids at Giza or Great Wall of China (most people live in armored megacities, so don't care / aren't aware)
Unresolvable conflicts often result in strongly ethnic / nationalist cultures being assisted into expanding into space (gets them off earth, balkanizes them into space habitats, reduces / delays conflict)
Federal government is rumored to have covert peacekeepers who use volunteers to exchange thoughts, creating "viral peace" through shared perspective
Extreme cases of interdistrict conflict may call for The Community to evict both groups into space
Offworld colonies must either accept Community rule or agree to military spending caps and periodic inspections
The Community can and does act with force against rogue powers, nanotech / AI IP violators and militarizing colonies-- but often as a last resort, as the people must approve war


Mass media, data networks privately owned but transmission infrastructure regulated by rules of each district; Community reserves right to censor material for security or IP protection purposes
Freedom of religion exists by Community Law, but religions may not use mass media
Combines may not use mass media (no mass advertising)




That's funny, he doesn't look demonic

Some random musings so far on my trip to the GDC:

Dave: That's odd. He doesn't look a thing like all those photoshopped pics.

IDGA + Serious Games + Mobile Gaming = Some serious professionalism. The ratio of geeks to suits has changed in the last few years since I attended. Military types, government types, academics. Yikes! This is not your father's GDC!

Indie Gaming: Okay, where else can you see a game featuring a vegan bull riding a bike through a fully realized city GTA-style while performing missions to rescue animals from cosmetic testing? It's Steer Madness, and it even features a voice acted story with cutscenes (um, not sure if that's good but the quality's there) and music from up and coming indie bands.

Slitherine Strategies put in a great showing with a Roman-themed RPG / RTS called Legion II. You can chose a huge range of special skills and abilities as your people improve (kinda like Gladius meets Rome: Total War). It also has a great tactical planning element and nice engine for zooming in on the fighting by hundreds of units. Nice to see some developers making sales! 100k units, according to Director JD McNeil, but he explained that they've got to deal with lots of small publishers throughout Europe to survive. Internet sales, unfortunately, are still just a drop in the bucket.

Alien Hominid by the Behemoth also looked very nice. Twisted Stitch-like character takes on lantern jaw CIA suits, iron-fisted robots and hordes of other baddies in this quirky, fast paced side scroller. 7k sales on the Internet with no advertising I think the designer said, and already coming out on the GameCube! Now that's some success!

Feet: Oy! Man, you'd think working out twice a day for weeks and weeks would prepare you for all that standing and walking. No such luck. I wonder if any of the booth babes are giving out foot messages...? [rolleyes]

I PROMISE NOT TO CHOKE PEOPLE... But the well dressed, doll-like exec lady who was whining about sci-fi and medieval games at E3... hold me back, fellas!!!! Hold me back! (Lady, you're lucky the readers of GameDev.net are holding me back because... ohh, man!)

The Hotel Westin
28 gram jar of nuts... $10.50
Crappy internet service that repeatedly times out, forces you to rewrite your journal entry twice because of some stupid login-in screen and must be renewed each day... $14.75
Being awakened by the screech of metal from loading trucks at 4 am... Priceless!




Sucking down a 50-gallon drum of reality

"Ahhhh... feel the burn!" Urp!

Last week I got to talk over beer with several veteran indie developers, one a biz guy who started three companies, and a couple of programmers and artists. The biz guy and I talked for over three hours, and I swear I wish I could have simply downloaded his brain and posted it in my journal (would be messy, though. [wink]) (I won't use his name, btw, since he hasn't given me permission).

If I could distill in one nice, clean gutshot what I learned it would be this: Too many indie game developers are working only on games.

Think about it: We work like hell to scrape together enough resources to create a game, many of us can't sustain ourselves on games full time, we do our level best to market it in an already clogged channel or amid publishers who often demand ownership of everything, even the wall textures, we often don't have the talent or even basic interest in good business practices, and in the end, what we work on is a star that shines for but a second. If we're lucky, we may make enough to do it again. But the more common result is that we make little, if anything. Not very motivating.

Our games often are too big, too similar, and focused only on gaming when they need to be focused on being a phenomenon. We think that if we keep refining the design document (!) we'll find the right formula to bring in enough people to do well. But the design doc hardly matters if there isn't a strategy to build the game into a larger something that's part franchise, part mythos.

The example he used was comic books: Look at what Marvel or DC, paired with Hollywood, have been doing with Spiderman, Batman or the X-men. The comic book is only an agent to sell a mythos. Even taking Hollywood out of the picture, how many of us as kids had pens, patches, lunchpails or cereal boxes with our favorite comic book characters? I know I had probably a full metric ton of G.I. Joe paraphenalia (probably worth a fortune today if my mom had't thrown it out!)

My gut reaction to this is rejection, but I'm doing the same thing these days as successful indies who have finished games: Casting about for a way to make the business viable. I heard war story after war story from the biz guy, from personal experience, of damn good dev teams and designs fading into nothing, or limping along because the market is to fractured.

Yes, some of us do transform this to more than a hobby. A Tale In The Desert was a successful MMO made on just over a million (a huge initial chunk self-funded, btw). But GDC and the conversation I had a few days ago keep driving home that damnably few of us make anything sustainable in the long run. (In fact, one more confirmation I got from this biz guy, privvy to publishing deals for indie games, was that there's so little financial information out there about indie development stats because most people don't make any money.)

Now we could crawl into a hole and chant "if we build it they will come." Or we could decide that we're making art or a game just for ourselves and say screw economics. Either might be comforting, but neither I think is viable. As I get older it seems that I'm increasingly sucking down a 50-gallon drum of reality made of one part responsibility and one part hard limits. Even if you're an ascetic bot with neither want nor care for much beyond games, you're still going to either have to divide your time between making your heart's work and paying the bills, or figure out a way that you can pour more of your time into what you want to do. The later requires facing down reality.

I hope that I don't sound disasterously pessimistic. Truly, one the the last things I want to do is try to figure out the psyche of the average consumer so that I can somehow, like a leech, attach my mythos to some region of their brain. It makes me think of jingles. And God, how I hate jingles.

But I take heart by going back to the comic example. Is it demeaning to aspire to create a mythos that's completely bigger than a game? Wouldn't it be fun to think about how other media could carry the weight of the work you're trying to create?

And, hey, wouldn't it boost the ego just a bit to see someone wearing your game's logo? Not because they're some idiot without taste, hypnotized by mass media-- but because they love the mythos you've created and want to paint a small corner of their world with it?

I don't know. Maybe half of accepting a hard situation is finding within it an empowering perspective.

Straylight Update
-The book has SEVERELY gotten in the way of coding, but should be finished in about 2 months.

-I thought long and hard about freezing Straylight and making a few smaller games to have some revenue, but while that's probably the most intelligent decision, damn me for not having the heart for anything else.

-Finally scraped together some more money to invest in Torque tools. I'm looking forward to getting better specs on how characters are developed so that I can formulate needs requirements that can be handed off to artists. (New Torque Shader Engine has some easy techniques for creating O'neil Cylinders! I am PSYCHED!!!!!!!!)

-I've been giving serious thought to how to make the design more "mythos" friendly, in terms of making more memorable characters and settings.

-Doing a lot of brainstorming on how I might conduct low-cost market research to vett some of the premises of the game. How many gamers even play science fiction games? How many people would play a game set in the future that's cooperative? Need to get a sense of this kind of stuff.

-Still using MDA Framework to prototype design elements before coding. As time allows, I'm tackling the task of spicing up being an nanotech engineer.




Straylight Summarized

Straylight Update

I've been posting so many different ideas on in the forums of late that it's hard for people to keep track of the game's focus, so I'm going to summarize:

Premise: Survive and thrive in a fantastical future where you can change the destiny of the human race.

Synopsis: Play across generations as a citizen infected with mysterious, developing powers that can shape the future. Start on a recovering, ravaged Earth, expand to the Moon and Mars, then discover secrets that lead to interstellar travel and galactic exploration-- all from an RPG-like perspective. Command starships, evolve colonies, or grow rich expanding networks made up of legal or illegal enterprises. Follow the story, confronting a cadre of constantly evolving immortals like yourself, or play your own way in a sandbox mode.

Core Concepts:

RPG-like: Gameplay focus is on character interaction, combat, stealth and trade. There is skill building, items and a far reaching grand story.

Immortality: Somehow, you never seem to die. You can't be killed by combat or accidents. Only your immortal enemies can send you on to the next lifetime.

Generations: Success in one generation allows you to build up the next.

Reactive Cosmos: The world around you changes and grows and can be affected by your actions, or the action of NPC immortals just like you. You cannot quickload the world, so every decision counts.

Destiny: Dramatic changes sweep the world every so many generations, drastically altering the course of human events. You must try to build yourself up enough to stand against the tide, or even use it to your advantage!


Survive: You begin life in a sleeper coffin, a citizen of the libertarian-socialist Community, a high-tech utopian society that has survived the near annihilation of the human race. Choose to make your way in the massive arcologies and space stations of civilization, the treasure and danger filled wastelands, or the depths of space.

At first, you only have 3 concerns: Health, Energy and Morale, all of which slowly decline. Health is replenished by food, which also fortifies stats and resistances. Energy is replenished by rest, which also increases skills and aids in completing inventions. Morale is replenished by winning missions, gaining friends and improving one's life, and allows you to excel in integrating with mind-machine interfaces.

Health controls resistance to normal death. When your health drops below zero, depending on your luck, several situations spawn-- but all allow you to keep playing.

Acts like fatigue and limits physical activity. Energy amount drops with age, but can be enhanced with implants and nanotechnology.

Controls social reactions and the ability to interface with machines, a vital skill in a high tech world. .

You thrive by gaining status, money, allies and building up your personality.

Gives rise to better job opportunities and access to characters who can change the world.

Most equipment, items and hired help cost money by the hour or day, but allow missions to be completed which build status. The trick is to balance money going out and money coming in.

Protect you in combat, help you build yourself up, rescue you when you're in trouble. Allies have unique personalities and goals and will act independently with or without you.

Who you are is what you can do. Personality impacts your ability to take some risks or capitalize on certain challenges, adding a whole new dimension to character interaction and leveling. You can grow from an unsure cadet to a confidence inspiring captain, or young thug to brutal strongman, winning things like personal auras and special interaction techniques.


Ancient alien gods are fighting a war using human beings as pawns. Some have picked you as an avatar. Do you engage in the struggle against characters like you who have your powers and abilities to resist death, or do you try to shape the future your own way, in freeform gameplay?

The Avatar
You start the game viewing motes doting the Earth. Each is a destiny point, a life waiting to be born. When you begin a life, you immediately begin to accrue Lifeforce. Lifeforce is banked across lifetimes and allows you to access more and more powers.

Powers allow you to perform near-miracles, such as travel back in time, or see into the future. But each use of power drains Lifeforce, and the greater the use, the more visible across time and space you are to enemy avatars. Only enemy avatars have the power to send you onto your next life.

When you die, you can choose to instantly convert all Lifeforce of the last lifetime to reincarnating instantly as you were, or you can choose to become a member of your bloodline. Your bloodline includes family you've managed to gain, or clones and cyborgs if the technology exists.

Nemesis Characters
Twelve other NPC avatars share the world with you. None know who the others are, unless they use their powers. Each has a unique focus and will try to change the world in their own way. Some can be allied with, others must be opposed.

Each lifetime, avatars may be born into new bodies. Avatars can only be known by special hints during interacting with their characters. You may know that an avatar is an enemy who ravaged worlds the last lifetime, but in this, he may be masquerading as a pillar of a community protected by the law.

Shape The Future
With or without you, the world changes and grows. Businesses and entire worlds go through boom and bust. Factions rise and fall in power. Empires change governments, laws or culture, sometimes even breaking apart in peaceful or violent revolutions.

The game is played out in eras, each of a limited length. This gives you a limited number of lifetimes to accomplish your goal. At the end of every era, a dramatic event drastically alters the playing area. The end of an era may usher in a wild new frontier, an invading alien race, or a great war or catastrophe that must be survived.

You can choose to pursue the story and discover how to stop these cycles of destruction. Or you can decide to play freeform, building up your own personal empire to weather and even beat back the coming storms.

Feasibility: The game will depend on a number of techniques, including procedural development and focusing a wide variety of events through character interaction.

Prefab levels will be mixed and matched and populated with random interaction nodes and customizing artwork. The Torque Shader Engine should allow for custom environments such as canned cities and continuous random planetary maps. Cities will be procedurally generated from block parts.

System-based Gameplay
Trade, reputation, crime and stealth will all be system driven, meaning that you will have stat resources that are affected by challenges throughout the level. Sneaking, for instance, might involve keeping a low heat signature in space and sound signature on foot. This allows emphasis to be on numerical customization of environments, rather that art heavy asset customization.

Equipment and HUD minigames will spice up and fill out a great deal of gameplay. Activities such as scanning, item repair, engineering challenges and medbay challenges will be done through puzzle or action games depending on the equipment you buy.

Still in process, but should become firm once I get a sense of how much help I can expect to get by partnering with local universities to offer work experience for credit.

Whew! That's it for now!




Or What's A Heaven For?

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?"

I love that quote by Robert Browning because its so empowering, especially when you're working on a project with an insane scope. [grin] Since I've been thinking about galaxy generation stuff all day, I'll just jump right into it...

Straylight Update

Ysaneya and evolutional made some great points in responding to the last entry about galaxy generation here: Essentially, focus on creating a certain number of content rich places, then design the gameplay so that the content rich places are easy to get to.

But if a galaxy has differientiated regions, some boring, some exciting, I fear that players may blame the game for allowing them to do something that they won't have a positive experience doing-- namely, traveling to the boring places. Just like games that allow you to trap stupid AI, or reward creep and save, or provide lucrative rewards for uninteresting risks, players often feel compelled to do what a game allows. I don't know why, but I think it can't be ignored.

So if you offer them a galaxy, how do you make it interesting to go everywhere?

To answer this question, I'm going to break the problem into two domains. How do you create interesting interstellar space, and (a more granular problem) how do you create interesting planets?

Quick Detour: Why Is "Interesting" Interesting?
In games, interesting seems to come in two flavors: One which emotionally impacts the player strongly but often fades quickly, and another which reinforces the meaning (or the whole point) found in playing the game.

Beauty and immersive environments, I think, offer the most striking but short-lived embodiment of "interesting." Seeing places you've never seen before and witnessing breathtaking vistas and colors is very satisfying initially. But over time it's like being given an expensive gift every day. After awhile, the value fades as the experience becomes routine. (This isn't to say that beauty shouldn't be used-- it certainly should! But it shouldn't be relied upon exclusively to maintain player interest.)

OTOH, I think a more enduring form of "interesting" arises solely from the utility of the objects and environments found in a game. "That's nice, but what can I do with it," is something I've heard many a game reviewer and player say.

If this concept has any merit, then is it possible to look at the utility of the immense space of a galaxy and design the game from that standpoint? I think so.

Interstellar / Interplanetary Utility
So in a huge, open-ended space game, what is a heaven for? The answer depends heavily on the palette of gameplay options the player has.

In most space games, the interestellar / interplanetary medium exists as nothing more than a void you fly through and fight in. Because the gameplay palette is often limited to flying and fighting (and occassionally trading), space has no real point. The last thing you need is more of something which, while pretty, does nothing for you.

As a constrast, consider the map of a 4X empire game. Civilization on a HUGE world has a massive number of individual locations (game squares). Any one of them can do something useful for you, and there are layers of complex considerations for when to travel to, change or claim any one square.

Even though Civ is primarily a combat game, the ability to do more than just fight in any particular square means that the utility of game squares in general can be more varied. A square in Civ, for instance, can be excellent for providing shelter to a wounded unit. It can be a great resting place before a big strike. It can be used by a slow unit to lose a fast pursuer. It can provide water to nurture a city, be a source of disease, or play a pivotable role in winning or losing the entire game.

So why can't interstellar / interplanetary space be composed of a kind of terrain? The first step, I think, must be in expanding the gameplay palette. We need to be able to do more with a "patch of space" than just fly and shoot through it, and so our ships need more than just flying and shooting capability. If we handle suspension of disbelief, space can be wildly varied.

In Straylight, I'm going to use the idea of "average anomalies" and pair it with wormholes in order to give space terrain. Rather than conceptualizing interstellar space as an empty void, the plan is to mix and mangle science and sci-fi ideas to claim that variances in everything from the gravitational constant to rifts and dimensional misalignments create anomalies that range from the mundane to the spectacular. Within these regions gameplay will be jinked in different ways depending on your ship's loadout and the dynamic you've established among your crew.

The regions themselves, like a cell in Civ, will be areas that can be claimed, damaged and terraformed. Wormholes (of several different flavors) will provide the economic and military context for moving near or through these regions. As you grow in strength and the tech level of the empire you're a part of evolves, I plan to allow you to link regions in order to create larger regions.

What this ultimately does is make the game universe a strategic map. Mixed with a heuristic that mimicks expanding and contracting factions and empires, I think that plain old boring space will become much more lively. You'll find yourself entering a region with a host of strategic concerns which (if I do my job right designing this) will be simple to start with but grow more textured and nuanced as you expand.

Combined with a wider gameplay palette, I think there may be enough variability possible to fill up even a seemingly massive galaxy.

Ugh... that was much longer than planned... I'll touch on planet surfaces in the next entry. I think a similar approach can be used, but in order to really justify the expense of creating planets, I'm going to describe an idea I have involving "gameplay that follows you."




Open Your Golden Gates, George Franscisco!

Points for those who know what movie that quote is from!

Straylight Update

Well, I've pretty much blown today on trying to model a mockup of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to the world fiction, this should be destroyed and San Francisco should be a partially submerged aquatic arcology... but what the hey...! I decided to again exploit Wings3d's new bend feature. This time, I wanted to see if I could recreate the bow the of span and the cabling. Months ago, I tried without this feature and found that trying to make curves from straight objects was murder!

It's technically not complete (I didn't finish end span details because I got bored). I also went nuts and used a few selection tricks to do all the cabling as well as the X-bar girders along part of the span itself. I think the cabling, which amounts to triangles, and the X-bars along the midspan would instead be done with textures. At 25,564 polys total (triangulated), those details are extremely costly-- but it might not matter if it was for a full level you could walk and drive across.




No Death But True Death

Lots of time spent writing with the C++ book and looking for work. Not much design time. :(

Did have a great brainstorming session, though, walking around my local park. God I love sunshine!

* Getting some great feedback from folks in the Game Design forum on the possibility of enemies and players who can't be killed. Flesh or steel is just a shell that enhances your true stats, so getting killed is getting deleveled. Segmented "soul recovery" networks, factional fighting and gameplay to absorb enemies makes this rich with possibility.

* Opens up the controversial possibility of removing saves except for exit & autosaves for bugs.

* Solved a major art asset / graphic engine challenge, which may save money & speed up gameplay: Systems of tele-porter doors that have the potential to pack the space of a battleship inside a grain of sand. Need to explore portal issues with Torque engine to see if windows & such are possible, but this could move the focus to modeling rooms rather than massively interconnected geometry. (What a FREAKIN' headache!!!)

* Pods, glyphs and holographic privacy screens may help cut down on killer animation requirements

* VO could be Star Wars / Trek alien mishmash-speak to help cut out some costs for VO

* Level transitions that actually do something for your character MIGHT take some of the sting off of level loads

That's all for now. Back to writing...




My Life in 30 Seconds

Hello gamedev. After ages being absent, I'm feeling a bit like Halley's Comet. For the old timers and friends who wondered, "Whatever happened to Wavinator??? Is he dead???" here's the 30-second digest:

I've been out of game development for years, mostly doing database programming for a healthcare company in California. Life and the job took up much of my free time, and the high hopes I'd had for developing an open-ended science fiction RPG where pretty much dead. In fact, I was so disgusted with the whole reality of indie development that I stopped thinking about games or even playing them for over a year.

The funny thing about some passions, though, is that no matter how far you try to get from them they still follow you. I heard this great piece of wisdom recently: "Some barriers in life exist solely to let you know how much you want something." And I can't seem to escape wanting to develop games.

So after a long moratorium, I've found myself going back over old notes and resurrecting bitrotting code (albeit with far less ambition than my previous kitchen-sink designs :P). I've gotten into game development using the Torque engine and have a flying ship with a stellar background up and working as a proto.

Anyways, aside from the fact that I've moved from California to Canada to marry a wonderful woman who happens to live here (we're planning for June), not much is happening.

I'm looking forward to being a part of the gamedev community again.




My Andy Warhol!

Hey, I'm in a comic!!!

Andy Warhol once said that we all get 15 minutes of fame. Well, since it's the digital age and there are so many of us, this has probably been abbreviated to 15 seconds. Anyways, enjoy!

Hmmm.... maybe those Tolkein-length posts of mine need to be edited down a bit? [grin]

Thanks to boolean for his fine sense of humor!




More on the virtual life stuff:. partners in crime

Straylight update:

Working on design, virtual life elements. The gist is to make the spouse and family no different from crew, which are little different from you. Family have perceived and actual loyalty, morale, personality, moral bearing, skills, reputation, goals and life events. (No "killer AI-in-the-brain" tho)

For the spouse, you do a bunch of sidequests to get him/her. Once gotten, just as with crew, you improve the spouse's morale in order to improve their loyalty. Loyalty is the basis for bonuses like Synergy, which amps up skills between compatible characters / NPCs. The spouse should provide the highest amount of Synergy, and therefore the best boosts possible. They should also auto-manage certain property for you, defend attacks against your reputation, and generate interesting life events which give you a chance to risk resources for some gain.

I think the virtual children might be more interesting in that there's a sort of grooming aspect that's possible: Basically, character creation by responding to life events. What the child excels at, how they view the world and factions therein, and what goals they have will heavily reflected your input.

I should stress that the way Synergy and life events works, you probably won't want to leave the spouse at home all the time. Most Synergy bonuses require the two characters to be on the same level; so your spouse could be your partner in crime, trained like you to fight, stealth or trade their way through the universe. It should be an interesting tradeoff, though, because if they stay home they can improve property, defend your rep and get you contacts / missions.

The life events should take care of those who want meaningful story. The leveling should take care of those who want gameplay.

More later...




Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Sincere apologies for the lack of updates of late. I've been even shorter on time than normal. Not only have I just started a new job, I forgot that I now have to respond to edit requests for my book. I'll be doing this for another couple of weeks and trying to pick up MS Access as well. So progress is still going to be slow for another month to come, I expect.

Straylight Update

I'm in the process of trying to figure out several things:

Details of the 3D modeling format Torque requires
How much change you need to see in the form factor of equipment and building interiors as time advances from 2100 into the future (what should 3100 AD's equipment look like, for instance?)
How the Montage Mode (which gives you the ability to fast forward through months or years while the game world changes) should operate
What the best 25% of a 4X game is
Whether or not invisibility should, like Ghost In The Shell, be a major option in combat (you'd use hints like people leaving a wake walking through water)
How story might be broken into states which change random encounter tables

I'm always irritated that I don't have more to show for this, but I think it's important to plan so you don't paint yourself into a corner.

Some Details...

Montage Mode
I've touched on this before. This mode is intended to merge story with expansion/empire building gameplay. You would choose to park your character in a location for as long as you had resources to do so and the game world would evolve around you . While this was going on, you could set your character to perform automatic actions, such as training or working on some great project. During this mode, you'd get a chance to drop back into normal RPG gameplay whenever certain events appeared on the horizon.

Best of the 4X
I'm starting to think the best parts of empire game that will merge nicely with an RPG-like game are

Unit design
Strategic unit deployment (with proper grouping)
People modeling (so they're not just population points)
Tech tree advancement
Land development, at least in the beginning (eeking out roads, developing terrain)
City / base / station upgrades

I have several ways that each of these can be a part of your gameplay when you first start out, but I'll save that for later since this post is already too long.

More later...



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