Saturday, May 19, 2012

Physically Real, Real-Time Strategy

Yeah, it's been a ridiculously long while since I've posted here, but I just dreamed up an idea that's a natural for this blog, so I'm reviving it.  (It really, actually came to me in a dream, just minutes ago.)

Real-Time Strategy in the Real World

In my dream, there were a bunch of pre-teens playing in some kind of basement.  Each one had his or her own 3D printer, and they were smaller than the MakerBots and RepRaps I've seen online.  Their printing volumes were about the size of...  a standard apple or orange.  The printers themselves weren't much bigger than, say, a stack of about 12 CD jewel cases.

I remember asking a little girl how much her printer cost, and she gave me an exact amount that I can't remember, except that it was in the area of 150$.  (The cheapest 3D printers I've found online still cost around 600$ + shipping.)  I know it's kind of weird for a young girl to tell me the price so matter-of-factly, but hey, that's how I dream.

Now, most 3D printers you can get for between 600$ and 1200$ online work with spools of plastic filament that gets melted by the printing nozzle to build up objects.  In my dream, the printers worked with powdered plastic instead.

The kids in my dream were building remote-controlled toys that they would then control from their computer.  Some of the toys even shot small bullets that weren't dangerous to the kids, but would still damage other toys.

But the kids in my dream were just building things and having the things shooting at each other, with no real rules or anything like that.  It was I, in the dream, who started thinking that this was all that was needed to make a physical RTS.

Start with a really clean table.  Place some obstacles, some terrain, and possibly some structures that the little toys won't be able to destroy, but can use for cover, etc.  Then, place some plastic powder in appropriate places, for the toys to "harvest".

Start each player with a couple of toys already-built, including one that can harvest powder, and bring it back to the printer's "reservoir".

Now, each player gets a map of the playing field, on their computer, but everything is more map-like than a realistic rendering, with simple markers for the positions of units, for example.  So they use the computer to control their units (they are not allowed to ever touch their units physically) using an RTS-style interface.

Harvesters bring in more powder, letting a player build more units, including defensive and offensive units.  Each "factory" (in reality, the printer) has some special targets that must be hit a certain number of times to disable it (without really damaging it.)  So players have to defend their factory, if they don't want to lose the game.

There could also be a "shredder" addition to the printer and its reservoir, and "scavenger units" could pick up "dead" units and drop them into the shredder, to turn them in to small enough pellets or powder to be reused by the printer-factory.

Since the units would be pretty small, printing them would be close to the times we're used to seeing in RTS games.

Now, obviously, there's one thing I didn't think about while I was dreaming that I was forced to consider after I woke up with this idea still in my head: how do these toys move, and where are the electronics?

This is the part that is theoretically possible right now, but not quite feasible (I think) for making this a reality.  I hope someone can prove me wrong, soon, and actually build this setup, somehow.  This game would require a combination of tiny servos and one radio receiver, as well as some kind of power unit.

Let's take care of the power unit, first.  Battery technology has advanced enough that building small enough batteries for this shouldn't be a big issue.  So another part of a player's base might just need to be some kind of recharge station, and the game could use electrical power reserves as a second resource for the gameplay.  Units that lose all power before they can reach the recharge station are dead, and left there to be recycled by any player's scavenger units.

Another element that I don't see as a big problem is the radio receiver (which should also be a transmitter, so the computer can communicate with it both ways.)  I've seen tiny radio-controlled cars no bigger than a "Hot Wheels" being controlled by a cell phone, via Bluetooth, so this is definitely feasible.

The last item is the hardest.  We need a bunch of tiny servos that "squid out" of the core that contains the battery and transmitter, in such way that they can be placed in different configurations within the units, for different shapes and movements.  You might have one larger, high-speed motor that is the "main drive", used for basic movement, and the other servos are used for steering, or controlling things like the excavator arm on a harvester.

So, what would happen is, the cores, with their servos that squid out, would be a third resource.  Each player would start with a certain number, and more could be placed in caches on the battlefield (or, it could be that the total number of cores in a game is limited, and players have to fight over them, scavenging them from dead units and such.)

Units would be built in 3 stages: an initial first half of the unit would be printed, then the core would be dropped-in, and each servo would be placed in its correct spot, and finally, the rest of the unit would be built over that.  Again, this all appears to be theoretically possible to me, but there are sure to be some difficulties in engineering all this.

There is one more thing I mentioned at the beginning that I haven't covered yet: weapons and shooting.  If the plastic is made fragile enough, perhaps it would be possible to have something like a small cannon that shoots the same metal pellets as pellet guns.  Units would then be forced to return to base to reload, adding yet another resource (pellets could even be scavenged from the battlefield.)  But this would require additional mechanisms.

Pellets could also be made out of the same plastic as the units, so that players would have to balance the production of units with the production of ammo.

The last thing I thought of was water.  Get a type of printing plastic that can actually be dissolved by water (maybe that's even part of the printing process, instead of using heat -- or it might be a combination of water and heat.)  Next, make sure the cores and servos are properly waterproof.  Finally, include a small water reservoir in offensive units, made out of something other than the water-soluble plastic, which needs to be incorporated during printing of such a unit.

So then, you have units shooting water at each other, and the water damages the units, the way acid would melt metal.  Except that the melted plastic resolidifies as the water dries, so that puddles of dried-up plastic can be scavenged.

And there you have it, boys and girls.  A Real-World, Real-Time Strategy game.  I didn't go into details for the construction of the units, their look, etc. because I think it's better to leave it like this, and let each reader imagine the units themselves.

Wouldn't all this be AWESOME?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

From the "Not Directly Related to Games" dept.

I made a remix of Radiohead's latest single, "Nude", off of their new album, "In Rainbows". You can vote for it using the widget at the top of the page.

I didn't even use the provided bass and drum tracks. I wanted to make as "naked" a mix as possible. I made the guitars more prominent, and I cut the song up and reordered it into something different. It doesn't even start and end like the original.

I know this isn't really related to video games, but there is a tangential link: I like audio production, I have fun doing it, whether it's for music or something else. And audio production is crucial in video games, so acquiring this skill is a good thing: it forces me to think of the audio just as much as the graphics.

Too many video games take sound for granted, and add in any music they like or wait until the end of development to rush-produce the sound. Well, it's not as bad as it once was, but you still hear a lot of bad things, such as bad voice-acting or merely mediocre, throwaway music. Even sound effects, while well-mixed (now that PCs and consoles support 5.1 audio and such) are often just taken straight out of sound effects libraries, with little to no processing added.

That's why I try to always have at least a short section on sound in each of the game designs I propose here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

So you want to work in the Games Industry?

Blogger's note: I originally posted this as a reply to a thread in the Help/Advice section on the Penny Arcade forums. When I got to the end, I realized it would be a good fit here, so here it is. It was meant as a reply to someone considering the games industry, except that that person didn't seem to know much about how the industry works, and also didn't really seem to know what he wanted, apart from seemingly looking for an easy path.

The games industry is NOT an easy path. In general, almost all the jobs you can hold in the games industry have analogues in other types of companies, and in many cases, either the money will be better, or the pressure will be lower. But it can also be very satisfying.

So you want to make video games?

Do you want to become a game designer, or a game programmer? Or perhaps you feel you would make a good producer? Maybe you're a good enough artist that you think you could do game art?

First, you need to know what each of these positions involve. The days of the solo designer/programmer/artist are long gone, except for very small games, such as the flash games you see on web. Even simple cell phone games typically have 2-5 programmers, a few artists, and one or more designers.

1. Programmers

To even get hired for such a job, you will have to show that you can program a game. If you're lucky, some of the projects you make in school will help fill out your portfolio. But make sure you pad it out with other things, such as mods, and ideally, full, but small games. Showing that you can program impressive games for smaller platforms, such as GBA, DS, or cell phones, could help. The graphics don't need to be kickass, unless you're trying to get a job programming graphic effects into games.

When you do get the job, you'll likely be assigned to a very specific part of a game, such as programming pathfinding AI for NPCs, or programming the physics for particle graphic effects. And you might end up doing that for a bunch of games, one after the other, for a few years, before you even get to program anything more "substantial". Things might go differently at a smaller studio, though.

2. Artists

Can you draw? If no one has complimented your drawings in a while (except for your parents...) you might not be ready for this path. Then again, you might still be qualified to become a good 3D modeler, as the skillset is somewhat different. Play around with 3D Studio Max if you have access to it, or Blender if you need free software. If you can't draw, and can't make something interesting using 3D modeling software, you're probably not cut out to be a games artist.

Then again, if you think you're good enough, start building up a portfolio, and maybe look into courses to help you learn to really use your tools. And then, when you finally get the job, they'll probably assign you to draw or model things you really hate (for example, you love modeling robots, dragons and spaceships, and they'll assign you to model football players.) You have to learn to like these challenges, or you'll be miserable all the time. Then again, some artists do their best work when miserable. I'm not that kind of artist, so I wouldn't know.

3. Producer

To become a good producer, you don't absolutely need any academic knowledge, although some management training or experience can go a long way. It's good to be a people person, and it's deeply crucial to be organized. You need to be good at driving meetings, and at leaning on the programmers, artists and designers on your team just enough that they keep their focus, and not too much that they start seeing you as a tyrant. Knowing a little bit about each task helps, because you'll be in a better position to talk with each "specialist" using their own terms (i.e., using artistic terms when talking with artists, using programming terms when talking with programmers... knowing Elf and Klingon might help in talking with designers, as they're a weird bunch.) Actually, failed programmers, artists and designers can make great producers, if they have the aforementioned qualities, even though most producers are usually good programmers, artists and designers who ended up in that position because the responsibility makes it seem like they are helming projects from a higher level than when they were in their prior position.

(I've been a producer, but I was a bad one, in that I wasn't organized enough, and I'm bad at exercising my authority on other people. My abilities are more on the design side of things.)

4. Designer

If you constantly think about how you could make a game you're playing better, you might be a game designer at heart. If you feel the urge to take someone through a story or experience of your devising, you might be a game designer (then again, you might simply be writer, screenwriter, or amusement park ride designer.) The problem is, many gamers think that, but they still don't have what it takes to become game designers. The post that DrFrylock linked goes into a lot more detail here, and it makes most of the right points.

A few of the things that helped me realize the kind of game designer I was were when I played really unique games, such as the original Wario Ware, many of the DS games that use the touchscreen in novel ways, Portal, Guitar Hero, and basically any Wii game that properly uses motion controls. When I first play such games, I get giddy, like a little kid whose parents finally let him have that candy or toy he's been requesting for a long time. I get giddy when faced with completely new ways to play games.

But not all good game designers get giddy at new game design paradigms. See, game designer is the hardest job to define, as it can only be defined recursively, in the sense that to be a good game designer, you have to be good at designing good games. Many game designers are avid readers and good writers (if for no other reason than being able to convince others that the story they're writing for the game is good enough)

To see if you might be a good game designer, take the level editor in one of your favorite games, and try to create levels that make for a new experience. DON'T try to reproduce something you've already played elsewhere. If you can't come up with something that feels new, you probably don't have the needed creativity. Put the best levels in your portfolio.

Don't expect to get hired as a game designer with no prior experience. Most designers start out as level designers (in some cases, artists also become designers) for bigger games under a lead designer with a lot more experience. Knowing how to use many game/engine editors will really help. Knowing your way around 3D Studio Max or other 3D modeling software, even if you can't make anything that looks good, will also be an asset. Knowing a lot about storytelling (read books about writing fiction, and screenwriting, that will really help) also goes a long way.

What Else?

Other jobs you could do in the games industry, which might even lead to one of the positions above if you play your cards right and are lucky:

QA / testing: in some places, it happens often, and they use QA almost as a proving ground, whereas in other places there is an almost impermeable wall between QA and the rest of the company. I've done 3 years of QA in three different companies. In my view, almost everyone in a games company should do 3 months of QA before moving into the position they were hired for. I know it's impractical, but it would go a long way towards increasing respect for QA and reducing the animosity that often exists between QA and developers/artists. QA rarely pays well, and the hours are often the worst, but it doesn't require as much in the way of education (although being able to think logically, and being good at writing concisely, clearly, and well is a major asset.) The reason QA is a good starting point is that it's at the very end of the chain, which means you see all the good and bad moves that go on before a game comes out, and you (normally) get to interact with all the other teams working on the game. It's a great way to learn how a game comes together (or not! disasters can also be very educational!)

IT / internal tech support: could be a good position to start in if you're aiming to become a programmer, as you'll get to interact and become familiar with most of the staff while you're helping them. But I have to admit I haven't heard of many IT people moving into "production" positions.

External tech support: if the company actually has in-house people supporting their games, that could be your way in. The same point I made with IT applies here, although you do end up becoming familiar with the games.

Sound and Music design: that has more chances of leading to other production positions, but then again, you ARE already working on the game. Sound Design can be very fulfilling, as long as you don't mind that most producers / designers / programmers / artists / testers still see sound as secondary to graphics and gameplay. If you do your work really well, you might not get as much positive reinforcement as visual artists do, mostly because good game sound reinforces what's already there, so it becomes a subconscious thing. But believe me, sound is an important component that can break a good game if it's shitty, and it can make a good game great when done really well.

Content writer: for games that have a lot of text content, sometimes, writers are hired. Otherwise, designers often end up writing this (which is why the writing in many games sucks... even when they're good writers, they often have time to both design and write well.) But don't expect constant, full-time work from this. On the other hand, it could lead to some game design work.

I haven't covered everything, but some of this should be of help to some of you.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Your Turn, Episode 1: Aftermath

Aftermath. Has kind of an ominous sound to it, does it not?

Yeah, it sure took me a long while to get around to this, but if you only knew all the stuff that's happened to me in the last few months...

I got a new job. 3 weeks' training, and I only ended up working for 3 weeks after that. Because I found another new job. I'm doing some technical writing for Touch Tunes and it's actually very interesting work, even if it's not directly game-related.

My place got burglarized again, and then a week later, they finally caught the asshole who stole my stuff both times: it was my neighbor. So a few weeks later, I got most of the stuff from the second time back, and a few items from the first time. That sort of crap, plus the new job have been in my mind a lot these last few months.

But anyway, enough about me, here's the aftermath of that previous feature I tried out called "Your Turn", where I asked readers to come up with concepts for a combat-less RPG.

Someone who calls himself emnmnme on the Penny Arcade forums suggested a game where the point is to avoid fighting at all costs.

Someone else with the handle jothki mentioned that combat could be replaced with some kind of sports match. While this still seems to me too close to actual combat (watch an American Football match, and you'll realize it's not that far off from gladiator fighting) I like the parallel here with history, where, in many ways, national rivalries have switched from actual fighting to sports contests to settle "who is better". Unfortunately, many fans still haven't realized this yet, so we still have "soccer hooligans" and such.

Someone who posts under the name piL had this to add:
An RPG without combat? Simply an RPG with different skills that are used in checks to perform goals that aren't related to fighting. You might come upon a gateway on the side of a hill. If your character is strong enough, he can knock it down. If he's good at climbing, he can climb over, and if he's skilled at lock picking, he can pick the lock. An adventure game would do this by having you acquire a key, a ram, or a rope at some point. Instead you would design a character and attempt to overcome social and environmental problems.
I like this idea. In the same way that I'm tired of Adventure games where there is only one obscure solution to most puzzles. I'd love to see an Adventure game where your character and the skill set you develop for him are part of the solution, and the whole game world can be manipulated realistically (somewhat) instead of the very limited ways that adventure games have provided. For example: you need to get through a door. You can either try and get the key (which might require influencing a character into giving it to you, if you're charismatic enough) smash in the door (after developing your strength and finding a suitable object to help you smash it) or maybe pick the lock, after learning the skill from a master thief somewhere.

I eventually came up with the following, in order to illustrate the kind of game I was hoping to see come up in the discussion:
For example, think of an RPG where you're a politician. You have to manipulate public opinion in your favor, you accumulate facts, you decide which ones to say, which ones to distort, and what lies to say. Then the game system crunches some numbers and then spits out the results of the latest opinion poll, along with new headlines (including some surprise events, such as, say, a school shooting, or a successful Space Shuttle mission.)
I also mentioned the following:
I had a discussion recently with someone where a character's "growth" in the game was based on how many secrets he knew about the other characters, meaning that the more dirt you have on your "opponents", the higher you are in the sociopath ladder.
Some using the name Rhesus Positive had a pretty cool idea:
Guitar Hero RPG: save the world with rock!

I entered a Photoshop contest with a similar entry, with the idea of blending Loom with Guitar Hero. While the idea has elements of straight substitution, I'd like to see more of a focus on the role of a Bard - making other people look like the heroes.

The bulk of the game would be coming up with material for your heroic verses - basically exploration of a world where there are a bunch of heroes tackling quests. The environment would present more of an obstacle than active enemies, like in the 2d Zelda games - you'd need to be a certain level to break rocks with your songs, for example. On the successful completion of a mission, you'd be presented with the music and lyrics of the hero's accomplishments, to be played like a regular Guitar Hero song - your grade would then be translated to character points, to be used on stats like Agility and Charisma.

The world itself would be free-roaming, but when you attached yourself to a specific hero it would become more linear. When not following a hero, you could explore for better instruments, unlocking more powerful spells to allow yourself to explore different areas.
I then posted the following, which seemed like a cool idea, at the time:
You're a "spirit" or "angel" without a physical body. You can "possess" humans for limited intervals, which lengthen as you progress through the game. Your main goal throughout the game is to help make the world a better place.

The world is full of "angels" like you, as well as "demons", who are your enemies. Since you and your enemies are immaterial, you can't fight directly, and neither of you has enough control over the humans you possess to actually fight it out that way either (a possessed human who gets hurt causes whatever is possessing him to leave.)

Humans, left alone, would be neither good nor evil. They only do good or evil deeds when possessed. People who seem particularly good or evil are people who are possessed with a very high-level angel or demon who is particularly attuned to them.

The story would take place in the "present world", in some big city's neighborhood, where the player could roam and find good situations to strengthen, and bad situations to turn around. As the player gets better at this, his angel spirit becomes more adept at staying longer and influencing his possessed target better. The player gradually learns of a plot by devils to completely corrupt this neighborhood and then have all the evil spread from there.

So the player must work, sometimes with other angel spirits, to prevent this, and eventually the player will find one important human character who is in tune with his angel spirit and start possessing that character more and more, for longer and longer. This will provide that character with the means to turn the situation around in the neighborhood, as that person is either a (good) politician, a (good) policeman, or perhaps, in an ironic twist of fate, a nice mob boss who dislikes violence and has more of an economic control over the neighborhood, and who rules out of benevolence and not fear (only the people working for and with the other mob bosses fear him.)

Anyway, something like that. You don't fight, you just try to make humans do good deeds.
Then someone going by the name of Hotlead Junkie posted two pics that made me laugh out loud: one was a screenshot of the original NES Final Fantasy game, and the other one was the poster to the movie You Got Served. I'm still laughing thinking about this idea, since it seems to fit so well, although it is a case of simply replacing combat with another directly confrontational activity.

Many people mentioned existing games which fit my requirements somewhat: Harvest Moon, A Tale in the Desert, The Sims, and especially, Uplink, which I've played and agree that it's probably a perfect example of what I was talking about, since the combat mechanic is replaced with something that is not directly confrontational, but still very exciting, and there definitely IS a plot as well as significant advancement for the player, who does play a role.

All the ideas mentioned above came from the thread on the Penny Arcade forums I started right after posting the "Your Turn" entry in my blog.

Now here are some ideas that were posted as comments on this blog, which are certainly worth featuring here.

David came up with a gardening RPG that seemed interesting:

You play as a gardener in a gardener world where some people are becoming "bad" or "sad".
You are to travel the land to find new flower species, you have to mix them to get original colors, to get biggest flowers and increase their "love power". Ultimately, you are to save the King who is attacked by some villagers that want to bannish love from the country.
You can buy tools, special chemicals to make your flowers grow faster, alter flowers colors and size.
You can plant them everywhere, around people's houses, around people themself (so you need to have flowers that grow very fast to act on people before they leave the area or before they make you feel bad or sad or angry).
In addition to health (you must eat, rest, ...), agility (you have to go in dangerous places to get flowers) and other classical statistics, you have a "love level" that can decrease or increase with time and various events (other people have it too). People are sensible to specific colors, or colors combinations, to size or to perfume and when their love level reaches a limit, they are happy and let you go/give you items/give you hints or missions.
There is a parallel here to be made with my previous design post of the game Chlorophyll, although my idea did not involve an actual gardener character, and it was more of an RTS than an RPG.

Well, if anyone has any further ideas to add to this challenge, just post them as comments to this post, I promise you I'll read them.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Microsoft would rather cooperate with robbers than with its own customers

Ok, this is not the usual kind of content I put up here, but I felt I needed to share this story. Hopefully, someone can give me a convincing and reasonable explanation as to why things went the way they went.

Yesterday, I came home from the long weekend (Canada Day gave us Monday off) to find that my apartment was robbed. Among all the missing items was my XBox 360.

Some months ago, when I decided I wanted to buy some XBLA content, I entered my credit card data, so I wouldn't have to go out and buy points cards. Little did I know that going this route had a hidden cost.

With the credit card info saved on the console, anyone with the console can now buy Xbox points (or whatever they're called) or even subscribe to a Gold account using my credit card info.

Now, I know they can't extract my credit card number from the console, but the thought that they can still charge stuff to my card irritates me, as it would mean complex dealings with my credit card provider.

So I called up the Xbox customer service line, chatted up a storm with Max (the automated voice dude you have to go through before you can talk to an actual human being) and then got a chance to talk with a nice young lady (whose name I forgot to write down... sorry if that brings down my credibility, but I bet anyone from XBox customer support can confirm that what I will tell you next is their actual policy.

Anyway, I expose my problem to the nice young girl, and simply ask that my credit card info be deleted, or at least that they prevent any use of my credit card on XBLA for at least 30 days. Either of these solutions would have satisfied me.

I thought I owned that credit card. I even tried deleting the info myself through the website. No dice: you can only add another credit card, you can't delete an entry.

The nice young girl patiently explained to me that the only thing she could do was to put in the request that my credit card info be removed, but that the process would take at least 30 days to complete, and that if any transactions are attempted during that time, the process would be canceled.

Think about this for a minute.

Even if I ask that the info be removed, never mind that removing info from a database can be done in a few seconds, it takes them 30 days to do so, AND if the robbers decide to buy some XBLA points, the whole process is canceled. Even though I explained that I don't mind not being able to buy anything with my account for the next month or so (I won't have a 360 back until the insurance replaces it) and even though I don't have any recurring charges setup (such as a Gold Membership or any other services I don't know about.)

Note that this wasn't a security issue. I gave her more than enough info for her to confirm my identity.

Her only suggestion was to tell me to call my bank/credit card provider and tell THEM to block any transactions going to Microsoft. The one thing I was hoping to avoid from the start, as we all know how complicated it can be dealing with credit card companies. I guess it's even worse trying to deal with Microsoft.

So, back to the title of this post: if you haven'T figured it out, what I meant was, Microsoft prefer to make it easy for robbers to fraudulently buy more stuff from them . They'd rather encourage fraud than protect their paying customers. Way to go Microsoft!

(What is it with companies refusing to delete credit card info from their files when asked to do it? Why should such a simple manipulation -- assuming the caller's identity can be verified -- take 30 days to complete?)

Anyway, for my dear, regular readers, I'll try to post the things I promised soon... This last robbery and my new job are taking up a lot of my mind these days, but then again, I bet if I start, the distraction will grow on me and I'll be back to full posting strength... maybe...