July 31st, 2006 — Wordman

The best computer games are those without a victory condition. There is no such thing as “winning” a game of SimCity. Just as good are games that have victory conditions, but enjoyment of the game isn’t particularly tied to fulfilling them. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City wandering around and doing your own thing was much more fun than following the game’s plot. Some weird convergence of thoughts on this style of gaming, Exalted and the butterfly effect resulted in the following game concept:

The setting for this game is region (or, perhaps, world) populated by human beings, but ruled by a superior form of life, perhaps humans genetically modified to be perfect and not require sleep, magical creatures (e.g. elves), an artificial intelligence, or even aliens. Maybe it’s a fantasy genre continent or a sci-fi genre planet. Whatever it is, the entire thing is run by the ruling class. Humans live decently; these rulers are not despots. The world runs fairly efficiently, but it is not a utopia by any means. Much of the system is designed to keep those in power on top, not least of which is their superior abilities. Much of the elite’s authority, however, stems from the fact that their abilities keep a large invading force at bay. Maybe they can work magic that keeps out a horde of demons, or they control ships that deter an invading alien force. Whatever the reason, the human population has a vested interest in having these elites remain in control.

An important aspect of this setting is that it has existed this way for a long time, a millennia-long stalemate between the elites and the impending doom. The economy runs like clockwork. Naturally, there are fads and trends and boom and bust cycles, but in general, everything is in a steady equilibrium.

Into this equilibrium, you, the player, is injected. You are stronger than even an elite individual, but not as strong as a group of them. You move through the world as the humans do, walking through a 3D rendered landscape and interacting directly with those around you. For some reason, you have incredible powers. Through play, you can acquire more abilities, allowing you to hold off larger and larger groups of elites. Your abilities are not only physical, but also mental and social, able to manipulate people and groups in increasingly effective ways.

Fairly early in the game’s progression, your powers make you largely immune to law enforcement, but you are never free of consequence. Your actions, even your mere presence, disturb the world’s equilibrium, you see, like The Mule. Even your smallest actions can have radical consequences down the line. Some players would seek to replace the old equilibrium with one closer to their liking. Others would foster complete chaos.

There would be several paths to playing this game. Those who focus on physical might start beating and killing people to achieve their goals, or perhaps destroy key shipments or installations. More social players would mentally dominate key figures, altering the policies of the organizations and assets they control.

In principle, the player could do anything. Want to use your powers of metal suggestion to overthrow a government? No problem. How about to sleep with a stripper you see in a club? Check. How about make yourself hideously wealthy? Have at it.

In response, the world would be simulating as much as possible. Will your seduction of a stripper effect the price of gold tomorrow? Probably not, but overthrowing the government certainly will. The idea is to have player actions generate consequences that are logical but difficult to predict. This feeds back into the player, causing even more action. Perhaps a religion springs up worshiping the player, or dedicated to his destruction.

Some of the more drastic consequences would be a concerted effort by the elites to destroy the player or the weakening of the elites to the point that the waiting invaders invade or both (perhaps at the same time). Perhaps the player can organize armies to the point that he can stave off these threats himself. Perhaps he allies with one force to destroy another. Maybe the forces ally to destroy him.

In essence, the game would be a god game, but without the controls of a god game. You can’t just hit a button to throw rocks from the heavens, mobilize armies or summon tornadoes. You have no “god view” with which to select people and change their mood; you actually have to find, get to and interact with them. There is no progress graph that shows you perfect information of the economy, attitudes or anything else. Your knowledge of the world is partial, only as good as the conduit by which it is delivered to you. While you may gain abilities that improve this, even getting information “supernaturally”, your information is never perfect.

Given the free form nature of this game, I think it would be a hit. Then, once everyone is addicted, you come out with a multi-player version, where dozens, even hundreds or thousands of Mules are let loose into the world.

Even a broken watch is right twice a day

May 19th, 2006 — Wordman

Gaming guru Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British) gave an interview about his new on-line game recently, and one quote leapt at me:

Even though we chow on lots of bandwidth…the cost of bandwidth has come down so low. Now the biggest expense to us is electricity. On one server set we pay more money on electricity than on bandwidth. Bandwidth is really no longer the dominant factor to push value to our customers.

Back while Wired was jumping the shark (a process unquestionably completed by issue 5.03 and started much earlier), it published an article by George Gilder predicting essentially this, that an era would come where people would “waste bandwidth and save watts.”

My instinct usually led me to distrust Gilder, a feeling that was confirmed by his later founding of the Discovery Institute; however, in spite of using the word “paradigm” far to often (i.e. more than zero times), at the time I thought this Wired article prediction was correct. I remember getting into an argument about it not long after the article was published with a gamer buddy of mine. I felt that companies who built technology assuming they had infinite bandwidth would eventually crush those who invested energies into technology that assumed bandwidth was scarce. My buddy disagreed. The argument petered out when we realized that we were thinking about very different time scales. My buddy was thinking about the next five years. I was thinking about the next 50. Looks like I only needed to wait 10.

Actually, I was probably wrong back then, because I ignored the other half of Gilder’s point: that electricity would become scarce. While most of the first world is worried about terrorism, immigration, global environmental problems and which celebrities are breeding, power generation is more likely than all of them combined to bring down the first world. Imagine that you knew that world electricity consumption (around 12.8 TW now) was going to more than double by 2050 (to 28-35 TW) and were given the task to figure out where this power would come from. To get this power, would you:

  1. Burn every plant, even food, growing over the entire agricultural landmass of the planet.
  2. Build one new nuclear fission (or, conceivably, fusion) reactor every three days, starting now, until 2050.
  3. Saturate every spot of land traversed by winds strong enough to produce electricity with windmills.
  4. Dam every remaining undammed river on earth.
  5. Continue to suck every possible source of petroleum for all it’s worth, and find as much more as you can.
  6. Improve efficiency in existing power generation
  7. Somehow harness the power of the sun

It turns out that even if you did all of the first four, none of which are actually practical, you’d only barely be able to meet your target. Option 5 is the likely reality and, while opinions vary on exactly how much petroleum-based fuel remains, all agree that whatever the quantity is, it is both finite and non-renewable. It’s also fairly certain that the geopolitics surrounding oil that have been such a source of joy over the last few decades will only get more ugly. Eventually, this will probably get bad enough that option six will become economical. Chances are, this will improve things; however, it is most likely that any efficiencies will be in the area of petroleum-based power and, since this is non-renewable, such a solution ultimately becomes useless.

One thing we have a lot of, however, is sunlight and water. We can build fuel cells that combine hydrogen with air to produce water and energy. If sunlight could be harnessed to convert water to hydrogen, very large quantities of power could be generated in a renewable way. Barring something like antimatter reactors, only the sun contains the energy potential we’re likely to need. Unfortunately, we don’t actually know enough fundamental chemistry to solve this problem yet. One of my rules is to suggest solutions, and to this problem, I have none. I know of those who are working on one, though.

The Nocera Lab at MIT (the source I’ve used for the numbers and information above) is working on this exact problem. I’d trust their ability to hit on a solution over mine. An interesting prediction of the leader of this lab (mentioned in a lecture at a private company) is that every key advance in chemistry in the next few decades is likely to have something to do with power.

Another potential solution comes from the much less prestigious (bordering on flaky) Living Universe Foundation. While this group has grand plans for space colonization, the early stage of their plan is more grounded, involving building platform “cities” on the oceans. Whether of not these will be true cities, these platforms would be built around a large Stirling engine that would use the temperature differential between the surface and several dozen feet under water to generate electricity, which would then be used to extract hydrogen from water. Essentially, the power input into these systems is also the sun, as it is what heats the surface water.

Whatever occurs, if Gilder’s contention that “every economic era is based on a key abundance and a key scarcity” is true, the scarcity over my lifetime is likely to be electricity until someone ushers in the hydrogen age. Whether the “key abundance” will turn out to be bandwidth or not remains to be seen, but it’s as good a guess as any.

How you will be wasting your time in the near future

March 3rd, 2006 — Wordman

Will Wright has changed the face of computer gaming at least twice. He’s about to do it again in what may turn out to be the coolest video game ever. I’m not even going to try to explain it, but let Mr. Wright show you himself in this video. The video is quite long. After about the first two minutes, you are thinking to yourself “well, that looks like it might be kinda fun”. After about seven minutes, you really want to play it. But the video continues for another twenty minutes and just keeps getting better.

Seriously, if you like computer simulation games at all, spend the time to watch the whole thing. Keep an eye out for the way he uses the word “landmark”, which gives some interesting insight into the way his mind works.

Once you’ve seen the video, you might also read this article about it. I think it’s pretty clear that “Spore” will be a household word before the decade is out.

Living after the end of the world

April 14th, 2005 — Wordman

Of the many role-playing games I played as a kid, Gamma World always held a special place in my heart. Maybe it was the goofy “get exposed to radiation, gain super powers” concept. Maybe I just liked death machines. Maybe it was because my friend PG created a six foot mutant chicken named Sal Manilla. Either way, playing it was a total hoot.

It gets resurrected every so often, with it’s current incarnation (the sixth!) released about a year ago. Unfortunately, this version uses the d20 Modern system. Actually, perhaps “abuses” is a better term. I don’t like d20 enough to say definatively, but several reviews suggest that new Gamma World was designed by someone who didn’t understand the d20 Modern system that well. Though I love the fact it uses an open content license, I’m not a big fan of the d20 system, so this new edition didn’t exactly blow my skirt up. Still, there is some stuff worth borrowing, which you can read about in my kleptoreview. Also, you can check it out yourself, since Drive Thru RPG is offering it for free download until 18 Apr 2005.

When reading this latest edition, I again was blown away at how neat the world can be. As before, I started to think about what a good MMORPG it would make. In the gaming press, you often see references to the need to refresh the genre. Given other games that deal with super-powers, it seems possible to build a game based around a bunch of post-apocalypse mutants. There are a few things unique to the Gamma World setting, particularly as envisioned in the latest revision, that could make it stand out, if handled properly:

  • Entropy. Everything in the game should wear and decay, especially buildings of the player’s community. It should require investment of the players to keep villages and towns operational.
  • Production. It should be possible (through massive effort of large groups of players) to build or discover and make operational, production facilities of various kinds. Gamma World is all about scratching out survival in a strange wilderness. Reclaiming lost technology is a big part of that, and a critical part of the game.
  • Variation. The terrain within the game should be completely different on each server, particularly the locations of dead factories. Exploring this terrain and how to exploit it would then be a big part of the game.
  • Mortality. Death is easy to understand, but most games don’t put much effort into explaining resurrection. It should have a cause in this game. For example, maybe pure strain humans have access to cloning banks. Perhaps a tribe of mutant animals surrounds some kind of blob where the dead can be fed and new (perhaps slightly altered) versions emerge.
  • Finality. On a few servers, death should be final. That is, you get one life and when you are killed, you have to start a new character. These servers should cost about a third of the normal subscription rate.
  • Linearity. Quests should not repeat, ever. Once the scouting party of mutant pig men is eliminated, they should stay eliminated until a new scouting party is sent. There should be somewhere from where they are sent, a vast hive of mutant pig men that can be eliminated if tons of players decide to try it. Naturally, there would need to be some quest “templates”, like “bring this {mcguffin} to {random guy} in {random location} in exchange for {reward}”.
  • Soup. The nanotech/genetech soup that pervades the atmosphere should be an ever present threat/boon, able to hurt, heal or mutate players given the right situation. Pure strain humans should start in extremely large, Zion-like enclaves where this soup is kept out. They start with much higher technology, but have a lot of difficulty being outside in the soup.
  • Impact. Players should be able to change the world, even so far as to expand towns, or even found their own. They should start by belonging to a tribe, and be able to found their own. Tribes should be able to form alliances and declare war. Members of warring tribes should be able to kill each other. Players should be able to climb the ranks to gain control of tribes.
  • Economics. Resources, even those from/to vendors, should be represented realistically. If a bunch of people gather moss and sell it to vendors, the price to buy and sell it should go down. I people start buying tons of it, the price should go up.
  • Armageddon. It should be possible for players, with ample warning to other players, to destroy the world. Again. If this happens, nearly everyone dies. Perhaps the server restarts, with new terrain.

Such a game would probably only attract really die-hard players, which means it probably wouldn’t do very well. It would be fun while it lasted, though.

Sisyphean volunteers

March 23rd, 2005 — Wordman

Imagine you rule hell. Long, long ago, you were asked (by, perhaps, another pantheon) to severely punish this Greek punk that betrayed the gods and captured the god of death. Since this punk, Sisyphus, was so industrious, you put him to work pushing a boulder up a steep hill. But just when the boulder approaches to the top, it rolls all the way back down the hill. You compel Sisyphus to always want to get the boulder to the top, making him labor for eternity.

While initially quite pleased with this punishment, eventually the novelty wears off and you spot some problems with it. For one thing, planting the compulsion to push the rock leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It seems… artificial somehow. For another, after a while you notice that Sisyphus seems to accept his fate. He makes peace with the fact he’s going to push the boulder forever and, to your shame, takes some comfort in that knowledge.

You forget about this until thousands of years later, when a more insidious punishment stikes you. It would still have the endless toil aspect (of which you are so fond), but with the following differences:

  • You would trick people into actually volunteering for the punishment by making it sound pleasant. Ideally, they would pay for the privilege.
  • The volunteers would seem to accomplish goals but, in fact, their actions would have no real consequence and, in most cases, would reset to be “accomplished” by the next volunteer. This prevents them from coming to grips with their punishments for much longer.
  • The illusion of accomplishment would be strengthened by allowing the volunteers to brag and “help” each other, but even en masse, volunteers would have no actual ability to change anything.
  • Failure (often accompanied by hideous, painful death) would be punished solely by the offer of resurrection, tricking the recently dead to volunteer again for the task, over and over if need be. Volunteers would not find this odd.
  • At some arbitrary point, cut off their advancement so that they no longer have the crutch of getting better when they “accomplish” something, but allow them to either continue anyway (perhaps by meddling with other volunteers), or start all over again in some other form.

The end result punishes the wicked in a far more insidious way. They register that they are being punished on only a subconscious level. Their ignorance brings them a certain amount of bliss but, deep down, realize that they are just as useless as Sisyphus. They are toys for your amusement.

They are, in short, characters in World of Warcraft.

What other explanation would your tauren shaman have for sleeping for days at a time, only to wake up to be killed over and over, then sleep again? How else can your troll warlock rationalize the centaur invasion that he just singlehandedly repelled coming back twenty minutes later like it never happened? Why else would the meager vein of tin your gnome picked bare disappear, only to reappear hours later? They’re all in hell, they just don’t know it.

This could be said of most video game characters, but the addictive nature of MMORPGs and the flimsy rationalizations of their players suggest a hell that has expanded to punish the living.

In any case, a MMORPG that actually embraced the idea that its characters are running the gerbil wheel of an afterlife, rather than just resurrect them continually without explanation, could be fascinating. You might even base it somewhat on the old Sierra game Afterlife, with its virtues and sins. Or perhaps theme it around a war between heaven and hell, where the players can be angels or demons. Maybe they can be (or, perhaps, must be) mortals until the first time they die, and their actions as mortals dictate on what side of the war they find themselves and how much power they start with.