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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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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]




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.




Halley's Comet of Journals?

Lessee, 2014 huh? Last journal entry was in 2008. Previous one was 2006. Geez, at this rate my next entry should be done by what, 2020?!

I've been possessed of late, animated with a need to write about games, mostly surrounding a topic in gaming that's become absolutely radioactive. Likely everyone who follows gaming news knows what I'm talking about, and it's extremely divisive, so I don't want to talk about it here. But I find that I feel so strongly about it that its cut into my game development time, so maybe writing here is a way of recovering balance.

So, with that in mind, be warned. Serious TL;DR ahead.

I'm not posting much about games these days, but I'm still working on them. Some of the ideas I've posted about ages ago are still alive. I'm not sure I'll ever stop loving space games, or wanting to make them.

This year, however, has been about beating the logic of the "sunk cost fallacy," the lie that you can't turn back now because you've spent too much going the way you're going. I had been working on a game using Torque 2D, but the farther I got, the more wrong the process seemed to be. Torque's a great engine, especially in its new open source form, and my project had started life on the closed source version (Torque Game Builder) as an epic space trading RPG set in a randomly generated galaxy. Initial development seemed easy once I'd picked up the scripting language of TGB, and once it went open source I started dreaming of a sort of Dwarf Fortress in space, with a huge emphasis on exploration, crew development and random encounters.

But as I succeeded, I began to struggle with an embarrassingly simple problem. I didn't want to make a 2D game.

Yeah, I know. Dumb. What's that they say about insanity?

I'd originally chosen Torque because it felt faster to get up and running for a lone wolf dev. My dirty little dev secret is that although I can program, I don't especially enjoy it. The faster I can move a thought into interactions on the screen, the happier I am, and I've preferred engines over rolling my own because I really can't stand the fiddly bits. I'm like an author that just wants a typewriter without having to learn the metallurgy and chemistry needed to build one.

Torque Game Builder had rudimentary 3D support, treating 3D objects as sprites. It was perfect for what I was planning. But the collapse of Garage Games took out TGB, or at least any future updates, and when the company came back from the dead with Torque 2D MIT, 3D didn't make it and wasn't planned. Not devastating, though, because there were lots of other goodies, and isometric was still possible. A big challenge was that the engine now lacked an editor, which was a hit to productivity, but I reasoned that I had lots to learn, the editor was around the corner, and the ability to customize the engine was compelling.

After awhile, though, I felt frustrated and stuck, less due to the engine and more to my own limits. The smart thing to do to learn and improve in game development is to make and COMPLETE small projects, but every time I've done this I've felt my motivation disappear mid-project. At this point in life I realize I'm only ever going to be who I am. Whatever is happening in my head that causes this experience is unlikely to change any time soon. So the best I can do is manage my own insanity and try to abstract and constrain gameplay in a way that doesn't balloon content and coding requirements.

(My success here may be debatable.)

So I lost a lot of time trying to shoehorn my ideas into 2d. I cut things out, I abstracted, tried to add gameplay to bolster weakened areas, saw the design contort in the wrong direction (life sim/RPG?) and through it all attempted to maintain my failing morale by playing games more like what I was likely to be making. Smugglers IV, for instance, showed me that abstract space combat might be fun. Weird Worlds gave me quick and dirty planetary encounters. Character portraits could stand in for characters. Exploration might work like in Planet Stronghold.

Maybe? Maybe? Yeah, maybe.

At this point I'd sunk probably thousands of hours into design and development. I'd gotten as far as a huge space map, randomly generated planet surfaces, rudimentary logic for procedural empires, some specific encounters. There was a bit of base exploration, a history generator that I thought could be turned into some sort of procedural story/mission generator and a sweet random word generator I'd stayed up until 5 AM coding one night. I was about to push into procedural cities.

At this point I was starting to notice that it was getting harder and harder to make the game more granular, and the more zoomed in I got the worse the game looked. I'm only slightly dangerous with art, and it's a heck of a lot easier to animate an asteroid than it is an animal. Add to that Torque 2D MIT still didn't have an editor, even months after release, and I was increasingly finding it hard to learn and experiment with risky concepts.

Eventually, I hit a wall. Carving up my design into more and more abstract representations began to feel like bludgeoning myself with a hammer. I think I stopped working on anything for months. Maybe lots of months.

Unity had been exploding through this time, maybe well before, but I barely noticed other than to note the growing number of "Made With" games out there. I think I'd last looked at it back when it was Mac only, can't really remember. But I have a habit of sticking to whatever I invest myself in, sometimes well beyond the point that it's not working (queue life lesson *bing!*), so I didn't notice.

It's a weird fact of my life that no matter how hard I try to get away from game development, even when it's not working,I can't stop doing it for long. I once gave up gaming entirely, no making, playing, thinking or talking about it allowed. I got into motorcycles and databases and stressed out a good gamer friend who suddenly didn't know what to talk to me about anymore. I lasted a year.

I guess this is a curse, one which some of you share. To me it's not about profit, or career or success. It's about the need to say something no matter what. To quote the annoying mission failure screen in Fuel, you.. "Keep trying, or fail forever."

So at some point I stopped being stubborn, started seeking other options and risked Unity. Hidebound as I am, afraid of change as I am, I gambled that it had to be better than being stuck where I was.

It was the best decision I've ever made.

I think I started experimenting near the end of last year and since then my productivity has exploded. As with Torque, I find there's a huge learning curve, and I've always had crappy math skills so I'm again confronting that. But the stability and maturity of the engine has really rescued my project.

So what do I have so far? Lots, though not yet tied all together, and no part by any means finished. But there are explorable solar systems again. There are MASSIVE procedural planets with biomes with levels I think larger than Fuel, a severe allergic reaction to Mass Effect's disappointing postage-stamp sized worlds. I've got the barest beginnings of randomly generated interiors I hope to turn into faction bases and alien ruins. I'm starting to learn Poser Game Dev (and just spent 3 days trying to model #*@!&$! boots) and as that comes along so will characters, armor, and gear.

Of course, it's only a start and I'm quite aware that there's far more ahead than behind. But what the hell! Even if it snowballs, I'm having more success and more fun than ever before. And when I think from time to time about whether this is the best use of a limited life, I'm not in the least bit regretful. Yeah what I'm dreaming about is ambitious, ludicrous, devouring of time and resources, but really, what else am I gonna do with myself?

See ya in 2020.




Getting Dusty In Here Again...

You know, with journal updates so infrequent of late I just might have to turn in my GameDev "Most Prolific Poster" badge. [rolleyes]

Life is quite busy! I'm trying to chew through database programming material for a new job, which is in healthcare. Although it's not the most exciting thing in the universe, I work with some really cool people. I'm also, thanks to the tender loving folks at the IRS, enjoying having more than $0.37 USD in my bank account... just don't tell anyone that I now program in Visual Basic, okay? o_O

The local lottery here is up to $250 million. The only thing I can think about is how many games I could make with that. (Of course, with next gen budget balloonage, probably two... anyways...)

Straylight Update

I finally have the cash to buy game tools! I picked up the Torque Shader Engine, Character Viewer and Torque 2D. I'm getting into learning the viewer because I really want to see what my models look like in their engine. But I can't seem to get WinCVS to download TSE! I'm going to fight with it a bit more before I try switching to an older version of WinCVS.

The real thing I want to talk about for a moment is this, though: What are some credible ways to build a galaxy?

One major problem I find in trying to come up with new game design ideas is the search for validation. You might have an awesome idea with great potential. Or you might just be off your freakin' rocker.

This is one of those areas. How do you even approach an idea as intimidating and potentially overwhelming as trying to generate the illusion of a seemingly boundless play space? Our galaxy contains between 100 and 400 billion stars, more than anyone could ever explore in any lifetime. How can you create the sense that not only can the player strike out in any direction as often as they like, but that there'll be something interesting to do when they get there?

I've got several ideas here. The first, as I've written about before, is "Go Anywhere Gameplay." Whatever you are as a character, that's what generates the gameplay. It could be a ship filled with mutinous pirates, or the cybernetics, AI and nanotech in your own body.

But that by itself is not enough. There needs to be the sense of story, there need to be interesting places to go, and worthwhile characters to meet/defeat.

I'm considering a number of issues here:

Simple one, but how do you name everything? I don't like the results I've seen of some of the random technologies like Markov lists, so I'm experimenting with phonemes. Ideally, I can both screen for inappropriate names (or even legally verbotten ones, like "Skywalker"), and create grammars that match the disposition of the race (harsh sounding words for a harsh culture, IOW)

What does the world look like and what is a planet good for, let alone a solar system? This is a hard design conundrum because it basically asks what the player can do and what they're supposed to be doing. Should every planet be a threat of some kind? Should there always be resources? How many "duds" can there be, even if it's realistic to find a barren, radiations blasted wasteland without life or minerals of value?

How do you (or do you?) keep the player focused? If the play space is too large, they may wander down so many paths that they get swamped and can't even remember the main goal.

I think one of the biggest secrets lies in giving the illusion of boundless space but making the player so involved that they don't need to find its edges. I'll explore this more in coming posts.




Deus Ex Machina

Illuminati, Tunguska, Stonehenge, Roswell...

You know, I think the NSA has been piping sleep fog into my room. For the last few days I've been coming home and practically falling asleep as soon as I get to my room. Sure, I wake up around 10 or 11 PM, but by then, it's too freakin' late to do nearly anything!

Of course, getting only about 5 hours of sleep a night probably wouldn't have anything to do with it. [rolleyes]

Straylight Update

"We are not responsible for all of the evil in your world, but I fear a great deal of it is our doing. We have been shaping you since before you stood upright. Shaping you towards a purpose unimaginable. And a great deal of that shaping has involved winnowing-- sometimes individuals, sometimes entire civilizations."

The game world of Straylight begins 100 years from now on what I call Phoenix Earth. It is a world rising from the ashes of a nanotech induced apocalypse. The world is a contrast of high and low tech, of massive cities with monolithic, 3 mile high towers and raider and machine plagued badlands. We're reaching into space at the same time that we're trying to rebuild the world.

The people of the world know their Earth has been ruined by the wickedness, greed and short-sightedness of previous generations. But as the player, you will learn that this is only partly correct.

The Indwellings have been with us forever. They may be fallen gods, or benign shepards, or foul puppetmasters. Whatever they are (you'll have to play to find out [wink]), they represent an undying force in the game's universe, one responsible for guiding events and influencing human destiny.

When the game begins, you're a refugee from the wastelands, the sole survivor of a particularly brutal nanostorm (a constant scourge which can dissolve entire towns). You're raised in the safe haven of an arcology and use gameplay to choose your skills, career, patron family and several other character and gameworld factors.

Before you leave this beginning safe area, however, a plot-point must be resolved. This not only clues you in to who and what you are, it affects how you will play the game.

More on this in the next post...




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...




Down, But Not Out

Sincere apologies to anyone who still checks this journal from time to time for the lack of updates again. I was down with crashed hardware for weeks, then got injured at work in the most unbelievably idiotic accident of my life-- my chair caught on a floormat and dumped me (yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right... I somehow managed... to fall... out of a chair... obviously I'll be attending remedial "Sitting 101: Philosophy and Methods"[rolleyes]).

I think I sidestepped a fractured tailbone and lower back injuries, but won't know for sure until I get my X-rays back this week. Honestly, it would be hilarious if the past two and a half weeks hadn't been pain soaked exercises in what it will one day be like to be elderly (like the 2 minutes to tie my shoes or get into the car... a real laugh riot[rolleyes])

Anyways, FWIW, I'm feeling a lot better and getting things underway again.

Straylight Update

Make that 78,967 ship names. [grin] I'm almost done. Some random examples: Princess of Alula Borealis, Guardian's Lore, Mysterious Veil and Sojourn's Reach.

I've just got to finish up the pirate, ethnic and mythic names before I'm happy. Right now it looks like coming up with about +100k will be a snap, and with procedurally generated ships, will really be a subtle way of expressing the sense of a large and varied galactic society.

Status Effects: I've been working to finish up the basics of code for procedural status effects. The core idea is that you can be affected by a wide variety of forces via technology or spatial anomalies, some of which span light years. If I can figure this out, you'll be able to negate or take advantage of these effects as you encounter them.

As usual, more later...




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!




Hey, It's My Birthday!

You know, I must be getting old. I'm not into this whole blogging thing. You write thoughts that disappear into the wind, never guaranteed that you'll have an audience. It's a very disconcerting feeling. At least when you post in the forums there's a chance that your thread will be seen and ignored. But with a dev journal, here you're a subset of a subset of thread readers...

The thought actually reminds me of a cool Humanities class I once took that covered ancient Egypt. The invention of writing was thought to have magical powers, whether you could read it or not, and the early Egyptians were very concerned that it endure forever. So throughout Egypt you can find wards on obelisks and other ruins that are as simple as a "No Tresspassing" sign, inscribed into eternity.

Anyways, it's my birthday today! I'm into birthday resolutions, and one of them is to keep a better account of how Straylight is going. If nothing else, it'll keep me accountable.. even if only to the wind.

What's been happening with the project?

Well, first off, not as much as I'd like, but it is still moving forward in fits and starts. I'm going through a crappy period financially and it's kind of tough to focus on creative work when you're worried about whether or not the sheriff is going to throw your stuff out on the front lawn. Actually, that's just gallows humor. It may suck right now, but I'm fine-- just not able to do as much as I'd like.

I'm working on a book right now, as well, to teach beginning programmers C++. You wouldn't know it by the length of my posts on Gamedev, but it's pretty hard to come up with 1,500 to 2,000 words a day! [lol]

I've had two big developments in the past two weeks as far as Straylight goes. The first is that I may have a business mentor to help me create a business plan. He's got a lot of contacts and may know people who can help me create a startup company. I'm going this route because if I don't turn this thing into a serious business effort it's going to become impossible to do in the next few years. I think the graphic expectations alone will just be impossible in 5 years, and game budgets are only going to get bigger.

The other major breakthrough that I'm really psyched about is in design. For the longest time I've wanted to put you in a sci-fi universe and give you lots of freedom. If I had my wish, I'd let you do anything you wanted, but that's of course an engineering impossibility. What I've settled for is trying to give you a mix of "go anywhere gameplay" and dramatic adventure.

The "go anywhere gameplay" is a phrase I use to mean no matter what's on the level / map, you have something fun to do, some goal to work towards. You could be flying your ship, walking around town, sitting in a bar, or in the brig. Doesn't matter, you'd still have some activity that's enough to keep you interested.

The dramatic adventure part involves freeform, unscripted gameplay that I'd like to rival story. THIS one is a large female dog, pardon my French. There are tons of factors like pacing and immersion to worry about. This has been by far the toughest to crack.

It's not detailed enough to, well, go into detail, but here's a sense of what I've come up with:

I think I have a way of tossing you into the game as a nobody while still making you dramatically relevant, if you choose to play along the freefrom storyline.

The setup is that you've got something wrong with your head. And people may be trying to kill you for it. You don't get this right away because you're an immigrant with only enough money to either start a business; get some skills and get a job; or buy a dinky ship and try to make a living that way.

If you follow the story, you'll realize that your quantum soul has been hacked and some shadowy figures have decided that you'll midwife the most powerful AI in the known universe. What happens to your sanity is only an afterthought. Worse yet, those who did it are part of a competing group of secret factions, each of which has done the same to others. These other avatars are now fighting and assimilating each other, and if you're not careful, you'll be on the menu next.

What I think is REALLY cool about this idea is that it doesn't get in the way of you being Joe / Jane Nobody making your fortune in a hostile universe. The plan is to break the freeform story up into chapters which escalate the action. You're the sole trigger of the escalation, though, so if you ignore the story (as I love to do) the other NPC pawns will just keep waging war against each other. They'll come after you according to your visibility in the game world, though, so you'll need to keep this in mind as you build up your personal empires.

Now for the even cooler part: To make the game more freeform I've been trying to put in some "virtual life in the future" aspects. I've wanted you to be able to open a shop and customize it, buy and build up property, or run around GTA-style raising mayhem.

In the past, life sim elements have always ended up being distractions or annoyances. It's hard to manage this stuff when you're trying to adventure, and it always felt like it didn't belong. Now as a part of the whole AI-in-your-head thing, I think I've got a way of making it seamless and natural.

In the coming weeks I hope to talk a bit more about this as I work on it. More later...




Is That A Dead Skeleton Sitting In The Corner?

Geeze, no updates for weeks, this place is dusty again!

I have a most interesting life: A book that is about to be published, a job with a boss that tries to give me two hours to do work that will take two days, and a magically replenishing To Do List of items that are idiotic, mundane and completely unavoidable (includes: "Was burning smell while driving due to the paper towel the mechanic left in my engine? And what the hell are rocks doing near the altenator? Note to self: Find new mechanic.")

Straylight Update

Ever get the bug for putting some feature into your design and have it drive you crazy, to the extent that you're wondering what in the nine hells possessed you to try and add it in the first place? For me, this lovely little design apocalypse has been family. Right now I hate the very concept, and if I didn't already shave my head every day I'd be tearing out my hair.

Here's the basic problem: Straylight has the ambition of making time pass and the world change around you. I wanted to draw in two types of gamers into this world, the more hardcore RPG and strategy gamers and the more casual Sim or builder players. (I'll bet you that was my first mistake.)

If time passes and nothing changes, the illusion of a living, breathing world (often the aspiration of every open-ended game) will vanish. Everyone will seem immortal and everything will seem ageless. This is just the right feel for a medieval game, but is a disaster for a science fiction game.

So for months I've been trying to figure out how to give you two strategic options and make them matter: A player run dynasty, or some sort of faction. A faction, which can be anything from a starship crew to a thieves guild or even some sort of simple in-game business works just fine (on paper anyway). But a family introduces a number of problems, most prominently based around two things: Gameplay, and aesthetics.

Why have a family? At the most mercenary level, I first thought of it as being a kind of continue system. But that doesn't work because in an RPG-like game you invest heavily in a single character and by doing so, become emotionally attached. This makes the events in the game world more visceral and lifelike. So the "aesthetics" of an RPG (heroic involvement in a grand world) clash with the aesthetics of family (personal and often mundane drama on a small scale)

Okay, so what if I could shift the focus from a single character to a bloodline? No, that turns the game more into a management sim. Well, what if the game were more episodic and you played important roles at different times in the family's history? Nah, now we're really getting off track.

So what I've been discovering (the hard way) is that my thinking isn't at all yet clear on major area of the design. I don't yet know if this is a completely dead end that I should abandon and move past. I still have some hope that I can at least create the right feel with the Montage Mode I've talked about before, so it doesn't seem right to just completely dump it yet.

Briefly, I've been thinking of doing this:
-I've had in mind a whole faction system. I could just simply make family no different save for that they're faction members who are more likely than not to be ultraloyal. As a trade off, you wouldn't be able to modify them (cybernetically, genetically) like devoted hirelings, though.

-Anything that's messy and complicated about family (like rebellious children, or sibling rivalry) would either be dumped or put into Montage Mode, meaning you're presented with situations that in turn spawn world settings.

-In Montage Mode, your character's personality traits could trigger family related events. This is similar to Tropico. Not the best solution (as you're not in control), but at least it retains the taste (aesthetics again) of an RPG

What I still don't yet know is how to handle succession at death. The design already calls for your character to die after a certain amount of time (unless you find a fountain of youth or become post-human/AI). That's necessary for suspension of disbelief, I strongly think. And the story says that for some reason you keep being reborn.

But who do you play? One of your offspring? Or someone a generation or more later?

I don't have a real solution to this yet. As usual, more later (hopefully sooner than later this time around, though).




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.




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.




In Hades, All the Programmers Use VBA

Not much time this eve because I've been studying MS Access and VBA. From a C++ programmer's point of view, VBA is purgatory, let me tell you (and I know that Beezebub is laughing his forked tail off at me). Writing code with it is a little like trying to compose the Illiad in Notepad (or Edlin, if you're that old school).


Straylight Update

Not a tonn to report, unfortunately. I had to fly to LA to do training for my new job and that really ate up my time. I have, however, been thinking intently on how to merge map-based empire gameplay with RPG gameplay.

The most vexxing challenge is not how you make it work (I think I know the gameplay for that), but how to show it to players. Civ players are used to looking at an iconic tile map. Old-school RPG players are also used to looking at handpainted maps. But the two display drastically different information.

I've been wondering if a slow-time version of Civ on a 3D scale with true 3D movement would work for this? Because of time and difficulty, I don't want to wade into the realm of procedurally generated planets. I have a deep suspicion that as soon as you raise the visual bar that high, all content must match it. That would kill a lot of the VR gameplay I have in mind and help create a disasterously expensive expectation for realism across the board.

So I've been thinking of a VR mode that's summarizes important details without getting bogged down in visual detail. For some reason I have this thing for 3D terrain tiles, even though that might be ridiculously cumbersome. I likely won't do it, but I really like the idea of a grid of tiles, each tile which can be zoomed into an actual map. (Maybe I just like the idea of tons of maps to play on)

I've been using Wings3D to create mockups of what this might look like (with connecting roads and mountains and such) but haven't gotten anything yet that I'm happy with. There are plenty of issues to deal with when not using the fully procedural approach. For instance, how are distant objects that should be visible (like mountains) handled? How are changes to the map reflected in the RPG viewpoint (creating a crater, for example).

I've not yet had a chance to really dig down into the Torque engine or talk with the community to see how this might be dealt with, so I'll have to post more on this later.




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...




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!





Well, just a little over 10 hours ago, I finished a 34 hour marathon session on the last three chapters of my book. Sorry for not updating, but this has been the week that was: I was behind on writing because of bugs in the program, and I started a new job. So my week has consisted of working 8 hours in the day, then working 8 hours at night.

If nothing else, it shows me that I'll probably be able to pull a lot of weight for Straylight. [rolleyes]

You can't BELIEVE how psyched I am to get this thing "in the can." If I weren't flat out broke, I'd be celebrating... (maybe next week, when the check from the publisher comes in [grin])

Straylight Update

Nothing really focused this week. I'm going to look at setting a goal for recruiting and locking some of the more risky design elements. I also plan to dive into Torque character viewer tool as soon as I get some cash.




In A Jam

Mysteries of the Universe #5,769: Why is it that crappy strawberry jam, which is loaded with what I'm sure will be found to be cancer causing preservatives and diabetes generating high fructose corn syrup, three types less expensive than jam whose incredients is simply fruit? o_O

Anybody on this one? Anybody at all?

Straylight Update

Ah, enemies...

So the design calls for combat, stealth and trade over multiple eras. That's multiple planets, multiple cities. It's a pretty steep challenge, but I think that story and world design can come to the rescue here.

The storyline I'm going to go with first starts you on a ravaged, recovering earth. A major substory will be the world rebuilding, with the increasing appearance of "neurozombies," people who have been sequestered by nanotech & modified against their will. This will be a remnant of war tech, as will these huge sandstorm clouds of deconstructing nanites.

Alright, the enemy behind this will be a rogue doomsday AI that's bodyjacking people, creating the huge storms, and generally wreaking havock. It will be driven from the earth, and flee to space, where it's tracked down and destroyed. But not before it secretly scatters itself to the stars on clouds of nanites launched near the speed of light.

What does this do?

The result will be tens of thousands of "vehicle" characters, people who were forcibly downloaded into machines. These people will opt to become a culture of machines in space, transferring to probes and rovers and even large ships.

The rogue AI's nanite clouds and constructs will make an appearance on other planets. On Earth, the threat will start out balanced. But out in space, you may encounter fleets, sprawling factory bases, or even dust clouds where planets uses to be.

I would LOVE to be able to procedurally create aliens like Spore will do, but that's like wishing for a Lear Jet when you're homeless. However, I'm going to search high and low for graphics genuises that can help me populate planets with aliens and creatures.

One thing that MIGHT work is to simply accept that there will be four or five body types, and then try to scale the animations, vary the textures procedurally, and use attachment points for things like horns or tufts. It won't be anywhere near as varied, but a little is better than nothing.

Ultimately, I'm seeing four types of environs for enemies:

* Human cities, with bots, humans and later aliens
* Alien outposts, with aliens, bots and humans
* Land frontiers, with bandits, colonists / survivors (if on Earth), and possibly creatures or rogue AI constructs
* Space, with "post-human" probe/ship people as like NPCs in space, and alien and human ships with crews

If I can get a few scalable, reconfigurable animal body types going and mix and match human machine pieces, that should be enough variety.

I hope, that is...




Dihydrogen Monoxide!!!!

I've gotten a chance of late to do a lot of swimming, which has been a blast and a great way to destress as I work full time on my book. I haven't been swimming in five or six years. What's funny is that I've been living for three years in a huge condo complex that has three of these

but never bothered to register with the powers that be to get a key. It cost $100.00 to do so, and I just figured it'd be better to spend that on game development!

Oh well, I guess we all have our priorities. [smile]

Straylight Update

A few cool ideas have been percolating that could really spice up the world & reduce dev costs:

Shadow Self: The shadow self is your will encoded in AI. It roams the wires, acts as VR assistant, and reports back on events in the world. Like a constant NPC companion, you interact with it through symbols and dialog. It can advise you of plots against you, business opportunities, and act as continual built-in help.

VR Command Centers: Ships, bases and businesses will be controlled in VR (think Matrix, Zion docking control). Emphasis will be on character interaction and minigames, with summarized decisions requiring your strategic input. No low level micromanagement!

HMI & Emotional Noise: Human-machine interfaces require a level head to control. This now makes the morale bar and personality stats MUCH more integrated. Morale will affect your ability to control things like ships, drones and power armor.

Nano-template Chips: Change the stats of items using a chip add-on! I hope this will clear the unrealistic expectation of having massive varieties of low level items.

The battle is always how to reduce content, and I'm hoping these will turn out to be satisfying options.




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."




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!




40th Hour

18 Cups of coffee I think. I refilled the pot about 2 & 1/2 times that I can remember, maybe more before that. Almost half a bag of Splenda and 1/2 a bottle of sugar free syrup ghost.

I've been listening to the same 20 MP3s for the past 10 hours. It's all very odd.

I've just finished the 50% drop on my C++ book. Had to make up a couple of weeks of work because I fell behind (damn GDC :>)Wrote 17,659 words in 3 days. At least that's what MS Word thinks.

What was funny was going outside to get more milk for coffee. No shave in three days + melanin + hoodie = American Taliban. You know somethings up when dogs start barking, moms hustling their kids off the street, and the Terror Alert goes up as soon as you step outside.

I was supposed to start a job today, but I'll have to blow that off. I'm in temp hell these days, anyway, so I'm not exactly risking losing a job with the Donald.

What's I find interesting from a phenomenological standpoint is the change in perception that accompanies sleep deprivation. I seem to be very lucid and aware of multiple things at once. At the same time I had to use a calculator just to add 22, 23, and some other number (heh, left side...it's gone bye-bye for now)

I suppose this is at least more entertaining than those who post while drunk. Marginally.

Straylight Update
Heh. Yeah. Real funny... I'll finish it up real quick, just lemme get more coffee..




2006 - Reassess and Renew

I like that the beginning of a new year is considered a time of renewal. It gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean, and I'm taking this time to do that Straylgiht.

I've not been at all happy with snail's pace of the project this past year. Yes, there have been many reasons for the slow progress, but the bottom line is that I have not kept my word. I've declared that I would do things, and I haven't done them. An idea I've found to be very effective is that "successful people are successful because they do what they say they're going to do."

Straylight hasn't been very successful at all. I've lost about six people who had signed on to do art or coding due to the lack of progress. I never finalized the design or technical needs spec, and a lot of the early momentum I had a year ago dried up.

I look at this as a time for failure analysis-- what went wrong, and how do you fix it so that it doesn't go wrong again?

The biggest problem with this project simply has been time. In December of '04 my goal had been to work part-time as much as possible in order to have as many hours as possible on the project. Initially this worked, but I made a mistake in taking on a writing project as well. Not only did this cut into Straylight, but the writing project itself had some management problems (spec changes) that required me to give up many more months on Straylight (I even had to quit a part time job in order to devote two months to the book).

So ultimately this has been a failure of time management on my part. It partly stems from overcommitting--too many projects, too many obligations, heck, even too many friends! O_o But time management is something that can be fixed.

So my strategy is this:

Work 20 hours a week on Straylight. (Just completed my first stint this past week, btw.)

Get more manpower as originally planned. (As a start, I've got a phone meeting this week with a dean of a local art college to discuss offering a work for credit arrangement to some of their students).

Keep this place updated so that I'm visibly accountable for making progress or not.

With a little luck and a lot of effort, '06 will be the year that Straylight really starts to take shape!




A Bridge Too Far

Mysteries of the Universe #7,271: How is it that all the 3D graphics tutorials made by amateurs out there reference the high end features of Lightwave, Maya and 3D Studio Max, tools which cost thousands of dollars? o_O

Straylight Update

Since my book's almost done I've been taking some time to remember how to use all of those dev tools I've had to put down (more than 6 months ago!)

One very cool tool is Wings3D. If you think you have no artistic skill but you need 3D models, this is, next to Blender, one of the best free tools I can recommend. I've been playing with the new Bend feature, which allows you to create very nice curves in objects.

Using it, I was able to go from this

to this

in under 15 minutes.

I've also been exploring what it takes to create even more elaborate structures, like suspension bridges:

This new feature is real a blessing because the colonies in Straylight will need lots of roads and bridges once you leave Earth.



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