Last time, I discussed how character backgrounds defined the game experience for me even in a massively violence-focused game such as Unreal Tournament. Having the information exist at all created a living story world.

Now I will try to create some myself; perhaps they will be combatants for a first-person game, yes, but perhaps fighters for a Street Fighter-style one, heroes for any of the countless games out there with hireable characters (Shadowrun comes to mind), or otherwise. If I do it correctly, they’ll be more than just puppets waiting to live and die when a player presses a button.

The point of the game is “Violence begets violence.” Little surprise there, yes?

The most recent game I posted involved a post-apocalyptic world with individuals and gangs of looters, all given personality and equipment. I will use character geometry once more, creating one-dimensional or at most two-dimensional individuals as they will not have airtime to develop themselves further. As noted, I have a table of 100 traits now, and I will choose from them via RANDOM.ORG. I also will choose gender and number of dimensions that way.

Because this game is focused on action, what the characters do can be more important to the viability of the whole game than who they are. Therefore I will use the post-apocalyptic loot tables to select “defining equipment,” the tools of the trade brought into play when you select/meet/hire the character. I get:

One-dimensional character. Female, cruel, crowbar.
Two-dimensional character. Female, hopeless and hungry, axe.
Two-dimensional character. Male, sickly and persistent, metal pipe.
One-dimensional character. Female, damaged, flares.
Two-dimensional character. Male, zealous and insular, rifle.

The traits weren’t supposed to be gloomy themselves, but wow, that looks to be a coherent story right there. For the sake of transparency (not that it matters here in any way), I might note I refined the results a little, throwing out the traits of “dainty” and “bookish” because they didn’t fit with the theme. There are plenty of fighting games out there that have the “cutesy character,” someone who “looks weak” yet obviously is going to blow up the entire battlefield, and that’s not needed here.

With that in mind, I choose to duplicate the naming system I established once and again in the post-apocalyptic world: one descriptor for a nickname, and one normal name. Because I’m silly this way, I’ll derive names from my own Space Trader game, chosen at random. Why not?

Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character: “Heartless” Titania.
Trait: Cruel.
Background: A childhood in the Blasted Zones led Titania to understand survival as coming only at the expense of others. During an early raid on a desert lightning train, she wedged the weather doors partially open on the command crew’s cabin, leading to their death by exposure hours after her raiding party had departed. To this day she uses a crowbar as a tool of both blunt trauma and practical mischief-making.

2-D character: “Ravenous” Aednat.
Traits: Hopeless, hungry.
Background: Like other children of the Blasted Zones, Aednat got used to hardship in the silica pits. Unlike others, the one who came to be known as “Ravenous” got aid in the form of Yaroslava Consortium subdermal tonic implants. Now she outperforms her peers, swinging an axe with the strength of a rad-bull, but at the cost of constant need for nutrition. She will fall the instant she can no longer feed her tech, and she knows this.

2-D character: “Terminal” Proteus.
Traits: Sickly, persistent.
Background: Once buried in the depths of Tavon Mercantile’s research wing on a forced assistantship, Proteus found a way out during open warfare with Yaroslava Consortium. His circulatory system was crippled by a Yaroslava biologic, but he survived by repeated self-administered blood transfusions in the middle of the conflict. He thereafter eschewed high technology and beat his way to freedom with a metal pipe from the facility’s plumbing.

1-D character: “Broken” Emmeline.
Trait: Damaged.
Background: Citizens declared Non-Viable are typically exterminated in MilSec camps or exiled to the Blasted Zones, and Emmeline was no different. Miraculously surviving the same MilSec laser that cut down her brother and sister, Emmeline vanished from the waste carts to resurface years later in a street gang. Calling herself and her gang “Broken,” she is known to fight using incendiary flares despite the shocking burns she causes herself.

2-D character: “Iron” Arcadia.
Traits: Zealous, insular.
Background: MilSec task teams trained Arcadia to terminate rad-beasts that breached perimeter. When promoted to Inquisition, he retained the attitude and work ethic, being known at times not to speak a single word when on assignment. “Iron” is expert in using his rifle at range just as he is swinging it in melee, and reportedly was responsible for curtailing Yaroslava Consortium’s operations in United Galle.

. . . Why yes, I took the opportunity to use my Space Trader game’s random company generator and random location generator as well. What are all these places and how do they work? What’s up with the alleged “technology”? I don’t know, and by the science fiction logic of Unreal Tournament I am absolved of having to care. (Aside from being sure to maintain continuity.)

The key things are that they enrich the world with background and support a healthy plot. Games are culture, as I’ve expanded once already in another violent scenario, and game designers have an obligation to think of what they (designers or games) teach the players. Here we have five characters who would perpetuate violence if left to their own devices, and it sounds very much like the world will lead them nowhere else. Hopefully they are interesting enough that the player will want to bring them to a better resolution.


I love storytelling. I feel that other people should care about storytelling, too, because it is so very important to us: it is a fundamental substrate of human existence. A lesson I learned from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is that a story is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for a story. All our forms of entertainment, including the modern invention of videogames, are culture, and “culture” is just shorthand for (among other things) “who we are, what we do, and what we enjoy.” Stepping sideways into music, there are always the words of Amanda Palmer in her Ukulele Anthem:

You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John [Lennon] that I will not feel guilty

This sort of reasoning contributes to my general enjoyment of all sorts of games regardless of format. (Though I am aware that each medium has its own qualities that may be employed to good result in the artistic creation. But such brings its own discussion.) For years, when broaching this topic with people I would refer them to my videogame collection: most everything I owned was there because of the storytelling. This included an oddity or two . . . which will come in two paragraphs as the main reason I am posting today.

But before I get there, first let me note the timeframe of this collection. Around the turn of the century/millenium, videogame technology had advanced to the point where real storytelling was possible. I took particular note of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here). Years prior, in seeing early first-person games and all their straightforward violence (see Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), I’d imagined the development of a game where enemies had personality, a real life. Your actions might be violent in the end, such as assassination, but this hypothetical game would have computer-controlled characters do such things as sleep, talk, and get angry. They’d HAVE background, instead of BEING background. Then Thief came along and did exactly so (minus much assassination).

The feeling that the world is not “just background,” but that it is alive and filled with living, breathing people, is what many gamers such as renowned author Sir Terry Pratchett enjoyed in the Thief series. I agreed. Thus it was that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story.

It sounds impossible. This is the first-person shooter that made “frag” into a (gaming-) household word. And to this day I have never met another human being who realized that Unreal Tournament HAS a story at all. But I did. Why? And how? Simple: I was the only human being I knew who bothered to read the character backgrounds presented before each match. Thus I saw that the world of Unreal Tournament is one filled with living, breathing people; one where the enemies have personality, a real life. There is even a little mystery about who and what the final enemy of the game is supposed to be. I liked this, and I felt that the background enriched my experience as I played through the high-quality first-person frag fest.

Ken Levine, during the development of the game Bioshock (which is very violent but also has extensive story), discussed how the goal was to ensure the game worked on three levels. On one, the story could be ignored beyond “okay, so, that’s the boss” and it would be a good action game for people who wanted it. On another, the story would be integrated well enough that gamers could observe “oh, I see what motivates these people” intermixed with the gameplay. Then on yet another, of course, the story would be there for people to devour in its entirety, pouring over each log and line to understand the world.

The fact that a batch of “mindless enemies” can be so interesting leads me to now, where I’ve decided to run with this and develop a story world (the same thing as a game world) based around fighter background information. Part brainstorming, part game design, and part just having fun as always. And I will do it in my next post.

This blog has had its share of news about my Kickstarter projects — because I’m in them, this is my blog, and I post about my writing and gaming. As discussed by Dave Morris, it can be very inefficient to fund a publishing project on Kickstarter. This has led me to wonder about other sorts of projects, such as videogames.

Videogames seem to do rather well on that site, particularly older properties from the 80’s and 90’s. Say, Shadowrun. Understandable, given that the people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s are now the young adults spending money on the internet. These digital projects have the advantage of lower “printing” costs (unless the creators will it otherwise) but still need to create a compelling “updated” version of classic content. For instance, Shadowgate (seems to be a theme here) was not promised as “the original game now on your newfangled computer,” but something dramatically expanded. If you’ve read my About page, you know this is what I’ve done for years.

My most recent non-Kickstarter posts were a game design where I developed a whole RPG world and system. Today I brainstorm a videogame project — not because I’m launching anything on Kickstarter, but because I feel like it.

I choose to renew the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.

This was a game from when I was growing up in the 80’s, an era where game mechanics were changing left and right. Long before “health” was standardized to “hit points” (and long before people forgot that a “hit point” was something you suffered, not something you had), Temple of Apshai had a “wounds percentage” that was influenced by multiple factors. You haggled over prices, and, if you looked closely, your loot heap just might include “a partridge in a pear tree.” The game introduced me to role-played character statistics (strength, constitution, et cetera) as well as to “donjons,” “salves,” “parlaying,” and, for that matter, “parrying.”

It’s surprisingly difficult to find a good link for it, though. The most in-depth pages seem to lack the attractive Commodore 64 graphics. However, beyond the graphics, what’s most relevant here is the text: the game came with a large booklet of role-playing-game-style descriptions of rooms, traps, treasures, and foes. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic. Bringing the game back means a new writing project in addition to a careful design project.

As I’ve argued, a well-designed game explores its elements and mechanics fully. It’s possible to go too far and flood something with “filler,” yes, but there seems to be something in general gaming consciousness that leads people to say “Ugh, this game had such a good idea, but they didn’t do anything with it” or “Wow, they really took that idea and did everything they could.” It may be worthwhile to remember Lewis Carroll again:

“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'”

What I’d like to do, in this hypothetical world where I have the rights, the artists, and the programmers to create a videogame, is to resurrect Temple of Apshai and explore it fully. Here’s how. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Step 1: Identify what the original has and where it’s incomplete

The original trilogy consists of three chapters: Temple of Apshai, Upper Reaches of Apshai, and Curse of Ra. The first contains four levels in a single theme, exploring the abandoned underground depths where once dwelled the followers of Apshai, the insect god. The second has four levels with unique art, each the domain of a character from the game world. The third is another single-themed area like the first, but moving on to an Egyptian theme.

The change to a “real-world” Egyptian theme means some fun content but nonetheless could seem out-of-place. New content should explore both the original themes and further “real-world” ones.

The characters utilized for Upper Reaches of Apshai are an odd mix. The game is known to include the Innkeeper, the basic character who tends to your needs and with whom you haggle for purchases, and three other adventurers: Olias the Dwarf, Lowenthal the Mage, and Benedic the Monk. This is four people, but Upper Reaches presents only three — the fourth is an unknown character named Merlis the Mage, whose home you visit instead of Lowenthal’s.

New content should include Lowenthal’s domain as well as other unique areas.

Your basic character statistics develop over the game, and, in at least one horrifying circumstance, lower: some enemies strike you with “a chill . . . ” and your constitution drops permanently.

New content should round out the possibilities for raising and lowering statistics. I only have limited information on the original’s scheme and would have to research this aspect further.

Step 2: Complete the original and expand it where appropriate

I propose that a Kickstarter project promise first to update the game to a modern engine with faithful graphics. Proving that it works would be essential. The text should appear in-game, certainly, and should also emphasize what is so special about this gaming approach: with text, you can draw attention to different senses. So, for instance, when a chamber has the odor of vanilla, the text would place this in bold. And fans of the original would know why this is alarming.

Then I propose unlocking new content in sequence: three more chapters, perhaps with the first unlocked from the start. This allows for a large amount of content available to gamers who wish to design their own adventures.

Beyond Apshai. A similar chapter to Upper Reaches of Apshai, with four unique areas based on characters within the game world. One is the home of Lowenthal the Mage, the missing classic character. A second is for a new druid character from the subsequent Wrath of Eire. A third is a smaller and more distant temple to the insect god, so some “classic Apshai content” would be present even if the project went no further (though the temple would be abandoned so as to maintain mystery about the doings of the cult). A possible fourth could be another area dedicated to Geb, God of the Earth, the patron of Benedic and his fellow monks. This could be appropriate as Geb is the only other (non-Egyptian) god to be so important in the series. Alternately, the fourth could be Egyptian so as to use said content further.

Wrath of Eire. Similar in principle to Curse of Ra, this chapter is a single-themed realm dedicated to Irish mythology. Or at least as much “Irish” as Curse of Ra is “Egyptian,” so it could have referential, ahistorical, and tongue-in-cheek things like serpent enemies. The prevalence of faery curses makes for excellent opportunities in lowering character statistics: a “horde of wee folk” could “twist your features into a grotesquery,” reducing your ego score (the statistic for influence and willpower). Leprechauns are a given, and of course pots of gold, not to mention emeralds (tongue-in-cheek) and clover.

Return to Apshai. This chapter is a direct continuation of Temple of Apshai. Newly-revealed depths in the cave system that the Apshaians excavated lead to more discoveries and more mysteries. The existing lore says the insects dwelled underground before the Apshaians ever settled here, and also that they may be making incursions elsewhere such as near Benedic’s Monastery — there could be plenty to uncover, both humanoid and not, in a subterranean world only partially carved by hand.

. . . And there is a pitch. Will it ever go online? I’m not involved in wrangling rights and I don’t have a development team, so for today it is but a design exercise. It is one I enjoyed contemplating, though, for the same reasons I enjoyed the other game worlds from my childhood (case in point: Lone Wolf), and for the reason that I love solving puzzles. Design is a long and complicated puzzle, and in the end all the best solutions are the fun ones.

Variety is – Part II

August 9, 2014

As I explained, variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. There is nothing to discuss if there is no variety. Adding the right amount of variety and “visual interest” to a piece of art can make it better. If videogames are art (a part of culture), surely variety has some sort of role in game design.

For today, I had planned to describe its importance across a sample of games, but then wound up with a post mostly about Thief. I’m not talking about Thief‘s more recently-released reboot of the series; no, I’m talking about the original games that left such an impression on gamers that they continue to rank highly in “best of all time” lists, and prompted the recent reboot. The original Thief, and then Thief II, are excellent examples.

But let me start with two others. One day I was interested to see gamers comparing Hellgate: London and Diablo II. The Diablo series made an impact on gaming history, and the first sequel arguably improved on many aspects of the original. When Hellgate: London was presented, it was as an amazing new game from some of the original Diablo creators. Surely it should have been a competitor or even replacement for Diablo II. Why wasn’t it?

The comparison looked to variety, and it’s sinister counterpart “boredom.” In Hellgate: London everything was gray. Gray concrete, gray pavement. Travel from one place to another and you hardly could tell anything had happened. But in Diablo II there was always something of interest. Across the four regions of the game you went from green and brown, to brilliant yellow, to dark green, blue, and gray, to brilliant red and black. Even if you didn’t play the game and simply saw it on someone else’s computer screen, things were always changing.

So in that light let me talk about Thief and Thief II. (Fan site here.)

When it was being developed and released, the original Thief offered two demos, both of which allowing you to do a little housebreaking. My long-term gaming consultant, my brother, played these with me and in the end we knew we wanted the full version. Then we got it and I, for one, was stunned: every single level introduced something new, sometimes drastically new, extending far beyond housebreaking.

My brother and I came to divide it into “thievery” levels, with normal housebreaking, and “Indiana Jones-style” levels, where you found yourself leaping around and mantling surfaces in a 3-D dungeon avoiding traps and nightmares. So, taking just the first four levels, there came “thievery / Indiana Jones / Indiana Jones / thievery” with each teaching the player new game mechanics. This is important: a progression of content matters not just for the sake of interest, but for player learning. The beloved game Portal is studied — yes, studied — for its ability to guide the player through learning tasks in an engaging and enjoyable way, introducing new content at the right speed and with the right tools for understanding.

Even when Thief got back to “normal thievery” in level 4, it struck a high point of artistry with a complex and memorable cityscape — that is, variety in sights, sounds, and setup. (And if you really want variety, I haven’t even mentioned the Escher level yet.) I adored all of this and I hold up Thief as the prime example of variety in a videogame.

Enough so that it could be too much. Note that levels 1 and 4 as I just described . . . were the demo levels. Between the two in the full version is a system shock (mildly-punful joke intended) of dungeon-diving. My brother observed it’s a good thing he played the demos first, as the knowledge that “more normal thievery levels are coming” is the only thing that got him through having to completely recalibrate his expectations for 2 and 3. Nowhere in all the advertisement for Thief did the developers prepare the audience for such variety.

Still, I loved it. When a demo for Thief II came available almost immediately afterward, I played that too. I personally wasn’t impressed by the new mechanics so I didn’t push to play the full version. But then I came to see people listing Thief II, not Thief, as their pick for “best of all time.” An endorsement by Sir Terry Pratchett of all people (a fellow who enjoys playing videogames while writing) finally compelled me to try Thief II.

Now . . .

I could dive into the level design in Thief II. An entire level of picking up tiny coins two by two? Waste of the player’s time.

But I was struck by something else: the developers eliminated variety. Instead of engaging in “normal thievery” and “Indiana Jones” in alternation, you go from levels 1 through 8 robbing from the same human guards in the same geometric buildings over and over again, with a little variation as the Mechanists increase in prominence. Any monsters are just for flavor, entire mechanics (“holy water”) are absent, and even new mechanics (“secrets”) are largely ignored. Despite the standard fantasy concept of “trapped treasures,” for almost the entire game you need not worry about traps. You almost never mantle a wall or climb a rope. You almost never see magic. You never see the light of the sun, period.

Even as Thief II attempted to mimic the original with an explorable “cityscape,” the streets had none of the variety. Buildings were all the same color and architecture, regions made all the same sounds.

At the start of this essay, I discussed the “visual interest” that the successful Diablo II has while the struggling Hellgate: London does not. Doesn’t this mean that Thief II, by visuals alone, should have been a flop?

It would seem that “breaking into houses and beating up on human guards” itself scratched an itch. The popularity of Thief with Actual Killing (I mean, Assassin’s Creed) makes it obvious that people will buy such games anyway, and so variety isn’t everything. But even so, I’ve kept shaking my head and wondering about Thief II: what do people like so much?

Well, I’ve spoken with people on that — people like Sir Terry Pratchett. At the 2009 North American Discworld Convention, he discussed what Thief games give us: an immersive experience. A sensation of being in a living world, where you can look out over the city and watch the people going about their evening. As such, he and his friends hold up one level as the prime example: all Thief II players will immediately recognize level 10, the “Angelwatch” level, as the one where you cross the roofs of the vibrant city and feel life around you. This isn’t the low-variety “cityscape” I mentioned above: Angelwatch is the cityscape concept done correctly.

Okay, follow me here:

Angelwatch was the demo level released shortly after the original Thief. Full of buildings with vastly different colors and architecture. Spread with different types of humans and peppered with different monsters; not for flavor, but where they belong. As far as I could tell, it was designed when the creators were still using the principles from the original Thief, and as such exhibited more variety than any other level in Thief II.

“And so variety isn’t everything,” because apparently people-who-aren’t-me think that Thief II surpassed the original. But what people remember about it isn’t the boring picking-up-two-coins-at-a-time level: it’s the living city level, imbuing the whole experience with a vibrance it would lack otherwise.

Isn’t it funny how variety improves even the “best of all time”? Thus, yes, variety has a valuable role in the storytelling and artistry of modern games, just as it does in any other aspect of life. A lesson to remember.

Variety is – Part I

July 27, 2014

Let us take a moment to appreciate that the URL for this post shall forever be “Variety is Part I,” no dividing punctuation.

Variety is more than “the very spice of life” (per William Cowper). Variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. And, from there, it should come as no surprise that variety in art style or movie visuals or videogame content is important for “spice.”

So let me give you a “generalization alert” here: I’m about to draw parallels between things that people already know. In this case, I’m comparing storytelling and art to the basic human experience. Can you handle such mind-boggling generalizations?

Consider vision science, i.e., sensation and perception, i.e., that part of psychology concerned with how your visual system works (among other senses, depending on focus). It’s not enough to ask “How do we see things?” because the very question makes an assumption: that “things” are what we see. It’s more accurate to say we derive the existence of “things” after more basic calculations. At the most basic level . . . we are change detectors.

Change is information. Turn your screen black for a moment and look at your blurry reflection. If you needed to summarize what you saw, how would you do it? State “There’s an inch of horizontal forehead, then two more inches, then another two-and-a-half”? No, that’s a waste of breath. More effective is to note “Here’s a line; on one side of the line it’s my skin color, while on the other side it’s my hair color,” and suddenly both hair and forehead are understood. Pick another line and you get the edge of an eye, for instance.

It is these edges, these changes from one state to another, that define what we see. Conveniently, basic eye anatomy is designed to detect edges. Look it up online or take my sensation and perception class if you need more explanation: it’s a fact of the eye that we seek and emphasize change. Not just change across space but also change across time, as, of course, the motion of an object is also part of perceiving the “thing.”

Now consider the people who take advantage of the powers of vision: artists. I enjoy reading webcomics, and as I’ve taken my daily fill I’ve heard artists using the phrase “visual interest.” For all I know, it’s official art terminology as taught in schools — for all I know, it’s an arbitrary yet convenient phrase picked out of linguistics.

What does it mean? I don’t know, but it’s admired in places like Calvin & Hobbes: the comics are “interesting” because the characters don’t just stand around and talk. Not only are Calvin and Hobbes off dashing down a hill when it’s relevant to the story, but they’re walking along logs and clambering over rocks when it has nothing to do with the matter. Something happens: poses vary, camera angles vary, scenes vary, everything varies; especially in this comic, famous for varying basic panel format not to mention content.

Thus does the webcomic artist, say, speak of how a character design could use another detail here or there for visual interest, but people in many domains use this same idea. I remember stepping into a college dorm and hearing the phrase “you need to put posters on the wall or something” over and over again. The posters themselves didn’t have to be good, and, in some rooms, wow were they not; but people seemed to expect something in the blank space, here and later in life. Your porch looks better with a potted plant; the walls look better with a painting; the floor looks better with a rug; something to “break up” the flat expanse. To form an edge and make a change, else it’s all the same everywhere and therefore, by definition, nondescript.

It seems variety is just to be expected in art as in life. What about in videogames? Next time I will discuss it in game design using a few examples — with level of interest to be varied.

This has been quite a series of posts. First I spoke of the people in a post-apocalyptic game world, using character geometry and my own “loot tables” to understand the disposition and resources of the survivors. Then I described the shadow creatures let loose on this world, themed after our human failings of betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry. Lastly, I spoke of the ethics of the game, of what I was asking the players to do in this world of desperation. This is important because, as I keep arguing, games are culture (I love how the URL looks like a follow-up comment) and thus game designers have an obligation to think of what they teach the players.

But I’m not just here to preach unto the skies. I’m here because writing is fun.

Today I’ll create more humans for the players to face, fight, and/or join in forwarding the plot. I’ll use the same point to the story, asking “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Each will be based on character geometry as before, and equipped by my new-and-improved loot tables. I need to test these further because, of course, it’s basic to gameplay . . . and these tables were the reason I started writing any of this.

So, the tables.

I likely won’t post them because they are far too informal just yet. The key features are the divisions. My post-apocalyptic goodies fall into “food,” “weapons,” or “supplies” categories, and they can be “common,” “uncommon,” or “rare,” with things like household knives and bagged junk food down at the common end, and things like gas cans and sterile bandages at the rare.

A lone survivor gets one roll in each category. A gang for now is between 2 and 20 people (that’s 2d10, gamers) and gets one roll per member, with the assumption that the truly “common” results are then available in multiplicity. The commonality percentages are based on that fact that “common” really should be “common,” a simple lesson learned from Dungeons & Dragons. (Do I have to provide a link? Do I?) That is, 75% common, 20% uncommon, and 5% rare. Technically, there’s 1% out of that 5% for “very rare,” but in my game I just take that as two rolls in “rare.”

(An aside: though I base the logic of those percentages on Dungeons & Dragons, I cannot find this exact pattern in any book, just similar ones. I wonder where I got it.)

So, the people.

I’ll use RANDOM.ORG to generate two groups of gang members, being one-dimensional character classes, and two more two-dimensional characters. I get:

One-dimensional character class. 5 people. Food: 1 C, 1 R. Weapons: 1 U, 1 R. Supplies: 1 C.
One-dimensional character class. 13 people. Food: 4 C, 1 U. Weapons: 2 C, 1 U, 1 R. Supplies: 3 C, 1 U.
Two-dimensional character. Female. Food: C. Weapons: C. Supplies: C.
Two-dimensional character. Female. Food: C. Weapons: U. Supplies: U.

Sounds fun. Next I consult the loot tables for those rarities and smoosh the results together to tell a coherent story.

Now, I noted last time that fighting people is just part of the story, and otherwise the player wants to earn trust and negotiate peace. I didn’t define how to do that. Once the mechanism is set, all these “rival gangs” need some form of “trust mechanism,” like a quest or a topic of appeal. Meanwhile, we can just assume that appealing to or appeasing the personality trait I list here will get you on their good side. ( . . . Wow, looking back over the traits I chose, that will be a challenge.)

Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character class: Member of Gang 4.
Trait: Petulant.
Description: One of 5 people. Claims a territory of former fresh produce stores, since overrun with rats, which the group now farms for food. Supplements diet with the sugar from old canned soda. One individual has a bow for hunting and defense. Uses saws and bungee cords in a construction effort, reshaping doors, stairwells, and so on, corraling the rats, and stringing up a perimeter wall to slow down intruders.
Dialogue: Idle – “Why am I always the one to [incoherent muttering].”
Idle – “I’m not eating another rat!”
Fight – “Leave me alone!”
Fight – “Can’t anyone keep good watch?!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 5.
Trait: Insular.
Description: One of 13 people. Claims an old school as territory, abandoned even before the apocalypse, now growing massive beds of plants and fungus. Primarily cultivates the growths for food, but has some canned food as well, and drinks rainwater. Has used hammer and nails to seal all entrances, remaining inside at all times, defended otherwise with improvised weapons. Has gathered bags of ammunition and batteries but has no use for them.
Dialogue: Idle – “This is how life should be. No one gets it like us.”
Idle – “Can’t we stay here forever? We need only each other.”
Fight – “Intruders! Intruders! Rip them apart!”
Fight – “No one invades our sanctum!”

2-D character: “Wild” Adrien.
Traits: Sarcastic, spiritual.
Description: A woman from complex background, used to hiking and survivalism by choice or otherwise. Has several glass bottles filled with collected rainwater, padded in bags, to sustain her or provide makeshift cutting tools as she seeks better supplies and armament.
Dialogue: Intro – “Hey, knight in shining armor! Come to rescue me from down here or just gawk awhile? It’s okay, I got heaven and earth on my side, don’t need anything else. Like a ladder!”
Idle – “Rummage more quietly, you’re drowning out the cosmic vibes.”
Idle – “It could almost be peaceful, really. A shame.”
Fight – “Pray!”
Fight – “Yeah, we’ll be buddies in your next life!”

2-D character: “Hermit” Henning.
Traits: Formal, restless.
Description: A business-suit-wearing woman staying on top of the rubble by never standing still. She keeps only small objects that will fit in her pockets, including a lighter and miscellaneous candy, plus a handgun in an inside pocket.
Dialogue: Intro – “Put down the weapon in your hand and I’ll stop pointing mine at the back of your head.”
Intro – “Thank you. The name’s Henning. Some call me ‘Hermit.’ Now I’ve already cleaned out this place so I’ll be leaving.”
Idle – “We’ve been standing around too long.”
Idle – “You’re very quiet, I notice.”
Fight – “Keep to my side or we’re both dead.”
Fight – “Let’s go, let’s go!”

. . . Interestingly, I found it as much of an invigorating mental exercise to string together disparate “resources” into a coherent “way of life” as I have all the other randomized elements in my posts. Though I won’t deny I did several re-rolls when things just didn’t make sense.

This occasion, by the way, marks an achievement: in a previous character design exercise, I had a list of 72 traits consisting of everything Dave Kosak used as examples or I used/mentioned anywhere on my blog. With the above, my list has grown to exactly 100 traits long. This should be handy for randomization as I do more exercises in the future, but for now I believe I’ve finished this series of posts.

I’ve spent a couple posts developing a post-apocalyptic game world full of people and monsters. The point of the story (or game) is to ask “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”

Our modern-day Earth has become darkened by repeated and inexplicable eclipses of the sun, and the vast majority of the population has “vanished into the shadows.” Shadowy creatures terrorize the land and feast on the surviving humans. And, as far as the survivors know, that’s the whole story: it’s now up to them to carve out a niche in the ruined cities, find food and resources, and combat the encroaching darkness.

But when talking about the monsters, I described a morality mechanic: the shadow creatures are thematically connected to human failings, including betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry. Once a creature has appeared (typically during an eclipse), it often can pass days as it pursues its victims, waiting for them to slip up. A creature will gladly kill and eat its prey, for sure, but there’s a worse fate: if a person performs a crime themed after the creature’s own theme, then that person will be “caught” by the creature, and will fall through the shadows out of this reality. (An event that is either lethal or damaging, depending on final game design.)

Players already know that desperate circumstances (like in popular apocalyptic movies) can lead to “practical” behaviors that are not very “ethical” ones, such as using a human shield or exterminating a rival gang. In a sense, their challenge in my game would be to keep any “ethical slips” out of the watchful eyes of the shadow creatures.

So what am I saying with this game? What am I teaching gamers?

This is important. I keep talking about game designer/cogitator Jonathan Blow, the voice behind the quotes in this animation over here. In the same speech, he also said this:

“Because we feel like games are just entertainment, we don’t really have the sense that we could do things that we might be ashamed of yet. Right? If we’re powerful people, if our medium is powerful, we should have the capability to do things that we should be ashamed of and then make the choice about whether we’re going to do them or not.”

. . .

“When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment. This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?”

I’d hope to do better than Bioshock from Irrational Games (or 2K Games, but c’mon), which he also criticized. During development, the game was billed as one of “mature choices,” but in the end there was next to no choice, next to no moral quandary — just a lot of shooting people. What about me?

Let me define this game’s win conditions.

I’ve noted the cost-benefit analysis of performing unethical acts to get ahead, which I feel is already more mature than Bioshock’s limited choices. But it sounds like you could view it as “Shh, try to get away with as much bad stuff as you can before the SHADOW POLICE catch you!” That’s not what I want at all.

The main villains of the game are, somehow, connected to our own ethical failings. Back in this character design exercise, I mentioned a genre called “Gaiman pantheism,” which I named after Neil Gaiman but didn’t explain. He obviously didn’t invent this, but you can look to him and his series The Sandman for elaboration: the idea that human thought, emotions, belief, intentions, and so on, are what give gods their power, and therefore all gods are real. Now, “generalization alert,” but this exact same principle is used all over the place: this is how game developers made death itself manifest in The Suffering, with power coming directly from “humans killing humans.” In my game, thus, the disaster is powered by humans wanting to be unethical.

The only way to win my game is by world peace.

That sounds unreachable and pointless for game design, but it needs only scope and definition. Give the game a mechanic for reducing shadow infestations when the players broker peace with neighboring gangs. Reward humans for coming together to put society back on its feet. What if the eclipses, which are already unnatural, somehow became less frequent over regions of peace?

In a videogame version, full “world peace” wouldn’t be achieved in play: it would be reduced to a city level. The player would understand two simultaneous goals, being basic survival on one hand (with all the horrible violence it entails, as many people attack you on sight), and earning trust and cooperation on the other. Maybe by “quests,” maybe by plastering propaganda posters, who knows until a real dev team got together? In the end a new city-state is formed and made self-sufficient. Lessons are learned. Triumphant music is played. “The future is bright.”

In a pencil-and-paper RPG, players interested in going further could then use their new resources to liberate neighboring areas from the “armies of darkness,” which become stronger in desperation against the encroaching light. They could rescue survivors with the promise of a functional new society, and struggle against resistant gangs that still see only violence. Once a population of enough hundreds or thousands had become “re-civilized,” the eclipses would gradually fade from the rest of the world too, waiting for a future day when humanity needed the lesson yet again.

Poof, suddenly a post-apocalyptic game full of grim violence is a vast morality play where being on the side of good . . . is good. The implementation might suffer problems and setbacks like any other; but, in principle, why isn’t this sort of thinking more common in game design?

I don’t know, but that’s enough of an essay for now. In my next post I’d like to get back to fleshing out the world some more with human characters to drive the plot and gameplay.

Why not keep rambling? Last time I wrote the basics about a world from my spare story and game files, using character geometry to add humanity and some playable content. Mostly gang members to beat up. But that’s okay, since really I was testing loot tables for a post-apocalyptic world, so put two and two together and I have enough for a playtest with friends.

I didn’t explain the “shadow creatures,” though, which are supposedly representative of the “darkness” inside humanity. You know, the whole point of the thing: “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Today I’ll explain those creatures.

So! Shadow creatures!

If the super-subtle you-don’t-actually-know-this-from-the-start point of the thing is that these monsters are connected to our own human failings, then it’s time to get symbolic. Tons of people have taken the “seven deadly sins” and tried to manifest them in people or beasts, like the artist Joe England and his rabbit version. (Please take it as meaningful that I present this and only this.) For a videogame, it would be more like the monsters in The Suffering, which came about when certain foolhardy individuals asked Stan Winston Studio “Can you, I dunno, design monsters that are symbolically connected to means of execution?”

But I want human failings, so I go back to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the Inferno. Not his poem, though: my own. After devouring the Inferno in high school, I took it upon myself to write a new one, and the result was the longest poem I ever wrote. I think it even sounded good in a couple places. Not all the “sins” were amenable to game adaptation, so today I choose these five: betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry.

I’m neither Joe England nor Stan Winston, so I don’t really know how they look, but probably each beast is a scrawny/hulking/gangly/muscular brute/wretch of some sort. In dark colors. More important is how they behave. They are intelligent, most act slowly and deliberately upon spotting prey, and all use a thematically-appropriate means of approach. They will gladly kill and eat you, but each also has a special way of “catching” you: if you succumb to their themed failing (“sin”) while one is hunting you, then you’re in trouble. The very next instant you stand in a shadow, you will fall through reality. The only way to avoid this fate is to kill that monster while remaining in the light. Obviously, this morality-themed “catching” mechanic works best in a pencil-and-paper RPG, with fleshed-out details for what happens when you’ve “vanished into the shadows,” how you get back out, and what lingers afterward. I’m thinking effects like Wizard’s Twilight from Ars Magica or Frag from Continuum.

Anyway, to log those creature details. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Behavior: Lure prey into attractive-looking ambushes to kill and eat them. Prepare dead ends with lots of light so they look safe. Open doors and windows to provide tempting escape routes, then make noises (subtle or scary) to channel victims along.
Catches those who: Leave behind companions in a fight. Lie to get ahead when cooperation is possible.

Behavior: Set humans to kill each other so as to feast on their remains. Identify those who don’t wish to be noticed (intruders in hostile territory) and make a loud commotion to ruin their stealth, then hide while fighting ensues. Unlock points of entry in a gang’s lair to leave a route for intruders.
Catches those who: Send others to face risks they refuse to face. Use a human shield.

Behavior: Devour human food and steal their supplies, then wait patiently for the victims to weaken before striking. Learn what humans value and quietly raid stashes while defenders are out. Locate further resources and despoil them if victims approach.
Catches those who: Sacrifice a companion for material gain. Destroy anything or anyone because “If I can’t have this, no one will.”

Behavior: Use hit-and-run tactics, crippling victims before granting the finality of death. Engage in direct assault, switching from target to target quickly after a strike. Target both humans and their supply stashes, and in the case of food and resources either devour or despoil them.
Catches those who: Kill for amusement. Injure an individual or destroy resources to “make a point.”

Behavior: Bluntly assault prey, destroying the victims themselves and all signs of humanity’s presence. Use no subtlety, tearing down walls and throwing furniture to keep victims terrified and in their place. Deface corpses to the same end.
Catches those who: Kill for a vendetta, even against the shadow creatures. Evict companions based on ideology.

(“Kill a surrendering opponent” should be in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where yet.)

I won’t write any dialogue for these monsters, but effectively the above themes could be one-dimensional character geometry. Simple enough. And if this were a printed RPG product, then the “catching” mechanic would be part of the basic draw: “Be judged by your actions” and such on the back cover of the book.

Sure, players are pretty good at figuring out criteria and would try to avoid the “sins.” Good game design here must present a cost-benefit analysis. Many unethical actions are beneficial in a post-apocalyptic world, which gamers know as they’ve seen movie “heroes” be led to betray their friends, or played games where the system explicitly let them use a human shield (“exploitation”). The related costs can appear low or manageable since a creature needs to be present before crime results in punishment, and creature frequency is impacted by eclipse status. If this were a pencil-and-paper RPG, perhaps character generation could demand the player choose one flaw they must risk exposing: perhaps an RPG character must have tendencies towards betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, or zealotry, just as Unknown Armies has a Passion system.

So what then about my ethical obligations as a game designer? I keep saying that “games are culture,” and apparently right now I’m trying to get gamers into a “morality play” of some sort. That’s a topic that deserves more attention, and I reserve it for next time.

Culture I say

April 17, 2014

Let’s talk culture.

In college I developed a definition of “culture.” My journey toward it came from odd places: like teachers telling us students that we had to attend “cultural events.” Attendance even had grades attached to it. Here, look at this syllabus for an orientation class at the University of Maine:

“Each student is required to attend two cultural events . . . . Cultural Events may include, entertainment events, lunchtime lecture series, Art exhibition etc. Only one athletic event can be used. Turn in ticket stubs with your name on the back or a short description of the event and your personal reactions on a separate sheet of paper” [sic]

Whoa, really? Why? What’s so valuable about “cultural events” that you can justify requiring students to attend?

Well here, maybe an explanation can be found in this program description from the University of New Hampshire:

“In order to expose students to the broader constructs that frame our societal environment, as well as enhance their worldview and facilitate the acquisition of a global perspective, the McNair Program will provide access to cultural events for participants to attend. These events will include the fine arts, activities of ethnic diversity, and community/geographical events unfamiliar to McNair participants. During the academic year, participation in at least one (1) cultural event is required of all McNair students. During the summer component, all cultural events on the summer calendar are required.”

Oh, now that’s interesting. “Culture” is about “the broader constructs that frame our societal environment.” And yet we’re still talking about (per UM) “entertainment events” and “art exhibitions.” Yes, UNH also gave the example of “activities of ethnic diversity,” but pray tell: what are those? Demonstration of ethnic dance, perhaps? Workshops in making arts and crafts? All the things that make people happy or make their world more livable.

Culture is entertainment. Perhaps entertainment and art, if you feel those are separate categories.

Or at least, culture is entertainment when we speak of “being cultured.” Ask yourself: what is a cultured person? Images come to mind of an upper-class individual quoting Shakespeare. Which, come to think of it, is exactly in line with these college links I provided: once upon a time, universities existed to create “gentlemen,” the properly-cultured individuals of classical education.

But we need not look to upper-class snobs to quote Shakespeare. As you know, the average person is capable of saying that “all the world’s a stage” or complaining “lord, what fools these mortals be.” Culture, it seems, is nothing but a shared geekdom. It is the idea that you have experienced some entertainment (or art) and so have I. It is the assurance that if you ask “wherefore art thou Romeo?” then the people across the way know you’re not calling them Romeo; you’re quoting Shakespeare.

This means that videogames are culture.

Absolutely no way around this. Some people ask “Can videogames be art?” Less-presumptuous people ask “Are videogames art?” because the first question assumes it currently is not. But no one, NO ONE, questions whether videogames are entertainment.

Last time, I wrote about Jonathan Blow’s speech titled “Design Reboot” from 2007 (with the lovely animation of choice quotes by Superbrothers). Here’s some more:

“Why do people play games? We already know one of the answers is pretty obvious.
“1. Games can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . . But if this is all that games were, I would be intensely dissatisfied. Because fantasy and escapism is not fulfilling to me. At the end of the day, I want to feel like my life has meaning.
“2. Meaningful artistic expression. Coming from a different angle than other media. . . . Music doesn’t feel like a movie or a poem. In fact, if you have a song that is sad and a poem that is sad, the sadness from the poem is going to feel fundamentally different than the sadness of the song.
“3. A means of exploring the universe. . . . Games are formal systems . . . and systems like that are biased toward producing truth (or at least consistency). . . . You can think about mathematics. You start with some axioms that are defined or assumed as true and then you have some rules that you can use to combine those axioms . . . until eventually you end up with something that makes a statement that must be true that you didn’t know when you started.”

Thus we have videogames. Valve’s popular Portal series is quoted by people who share this geekdom: “The cake is a lie.” “We do what we must because we can.” “For science. You monster.” How did we get to this point? Portal is a puzzle game that fully explores its mechanics, granting the player an interesting new “means of exploring the universe” (“thinking with portals”), and then going forward logically. The gameplay engages the audience, as does the humor in the unfolding story; and, as the story proceeds, it explores the humanity (and lack thereof) of the characters in the play. I mean the plot. Thus is it both “entertainment” and “meaningful artistic expression.”

It is culture. The “cultured gamer” has played Portal. Just as you can say the word “Tetris” (no link possible, for it is ubiquitous) and the people across the way know you’re not sneezing.

And now gaming culture has been around long enough that the earliest gamers, predominately starting from the 1980’s, are now the grown-ups raising children. Just search online and you’ll see bloggers asking when and how it’s okay to introduce children to their own personal geekery (in movies, comics, or games). The people raising the next generation, the people running and spending money on today’s businesses, are people who’ve played Tetris.

So today’s game developers are advised to remember their creation is not “just a game”: games expand our mind and our language, they “frame our societal environment,” and they’d jolly well better “enhance [our] worldview” in preference to shrinking it.

I’ve performed in Shakespeare, and I’ve played in Portal. The great playwrights of past centuries are all dead. Videogame developers aren’t. Are you prepared for history to hold you to the same standards?

The quest for content

March 4, 2014

Time to essay an essay.

Game developers want players to play their games. It only makes sense. On one level, a small independent developer might be happy to know that a million people played something. On another, an established company might want to make money off of a million players with monthly subscriptions.

Both of those are fine, but there’s the question of what comes next. If you need to keep a player base, either for interest or for money, what do you do when the players “finish your content”? Unlike with paying for food, players need not pay twice for the same sort of content: they already own your game. They’ve “consumed” it. And now they might just say “there, I’ve done everything” and uninstall it.

This sort of “quest for content” affords three approaches.

A: Offer players more content.

B: Slow down player consumption of the content.

C: Make “consuming the content” irrelevant.

I’ve come to understand that bad decisions at this stage can defeat the purpose of gaming. We have created a monster: a sort of “anti-gameplay” in modern entertainment. Let me show you how we get there.

Solution C is a healthy choice, but hard to define. Consider: does chess have content to consume? No. You can play it forever against different opponents and always be satisfied . . . assuming you ever enjoyed chess in the first place. Thus if an experience is inherently fun, however one defines “fun,” then none of this matters and players will keep coming back.

Often, though, people need something to consume in order to have fun. A new story to read or new world to explore. Solution A is an answer, but, traditionally, is expensive to implement: one can make a longer game. One can produce an expansion pack. One can develop a sequel. Some players will buy it, then they’ll consume it and you’ll have lost them again. Repeat.

Solution B is the cheapest and most failsafe way to solve the problem. One might think I’d support solution B and dislike solution A, since I’ve argued that more content is not necessarily good content. But in that essay I made a point on “filler,” on forcing the player to do “the same thing twenty times,” which I did not fully substantiate. Solution B is the “filler” solution. It brings the threat of bad game design, and is the reason I’m writing this essay.

Now to tell a story that any gamer already knows, but bear with me as I get to the conclusion.

I first became aware of solution B years ago when I learned about MMORPG’s. My roommate was hard at work advancing within, oh, one of those really popular games toward the start of the era. The game had released super-special “legendary items” that took a lot of effort to earn as the player had to collect intermediary items from different locations in the world.

So one day my roommate was camped out near a lake. To populate the lake with aquatic nasties, the developers set spawn points which periodically would replace critters the players killed. No problem so far; though of course it breaks immersion a little when the players locate these magical “instant monster” spots. Anyway, my roommate explained that this one item you needed was only available from an alternate version of the fishy foe, which only appeared on a tiny fraction of the respawns. How could you tell if the alternate version were in the water? Ah, well, because it’s the only one that would follow you out of the water and shatter all suspension of disbelief by swimming in midair. Then, on a tiny fraction of the times you faced this watery loot machine, it would drop an intermediary needed for your “legendary item.”

One of several intermediaries.

And therefore once you had it, it was time to do another tiny-fraction-of-a-tiny-fraction hunt in another part of the world with another monster.

Yes, by the time all this was done, it’d be long enough of a “quest” to make a “legend”! No argument there! But why was this happening? In an ordinary “quest,” you engage in things that are personally meaningful, meet and lose friends, face real risk and find remarkable rewards, and maybe, just maybe, change the world. Here, the only real event was gaining the “legendary item” at the end. Meanwhile? The developers slowed down the player, dragged out the content, kept people paying to play, and implemented solution B.

I’m far from the first person to talk about this. Jonathan Blow, well-known developer of Braid and thinker of gaming thoughts, presented a speech titled “Design Reboot” in 2007. It started with sentiments like mine about “game developers want players to play their games” and followed it through to logical conclusions. It left such an impression that Superbrothers (the brilliant minds that were to bring us Sword & Sworcery EP) made an animation you want to watch of the kicker of the argument. To whit:

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re smart or are adept at trying to get ahead in a system because what really matters is how much time you sink in, because of all the artificial constraints on you. That also says that you don’t really need to do anything exceptional because to feel good, to be rewarded, all you need to do is run the treadmill like everyone else.”

As I said, though, any gamer already knows about filler. My point is here: consider how removed we are from any gameplay.

Pretend I’m the game developer, dressed in the regal robes and crown of a mighty quest-giver. You are my old roommate. With all gravity, I set to you the challenge to retrieve the 7 Whatsits so you may earn your Legendary Polygonal Reward. Where are the 7 Whatsits and how do you retrieve them? Ah, therein lies your challenge! So now you go forth to accomplish your challenge by downloading a Whatsit location guide that somebody posted in an online text file.

Wait a minute.

You are doing nothing to find the 7 Whatsits. In fact, you can’t: how were you to know that a tiny fraction of all fish monsters spawned in one lake in the entire multiverse might give you one of your Whatsits? You’d have to spend days per monster in the whole game just to test each one. You can’t do that, so you don’t.

So you, my roommate, depend on someone else to have found the solution and have posted it online. You don’t even need to think: somebody else already did the thinking for you. “What really matters is how much time you sink in.”

Or you can imagine an even worse scenario. Assume Whatsits are ordinary items available to all players, including those who don’t seek the Legendary Polygonal Reward. It’s easy to imagine that the first person ever to get Whatsit #3 did so by accident. This person then posted online “I just got a ‘Whatsit #3’ from this rare nasty in the lake, but I don’t know what it is so I sold it.” Then you, my roommate, searched online for a Whatsit guide, found the post instead, and camped out by the lake.

No one sought the item and found it. No one solved the challenge.

No one “consumed the content.” No one played the game.

I argue that methods to slow down the player’s consumption of the content are ways to stop the player from playing. It’s long been known by many (including my roommate) that the sheer drudgery of filler gameplay is no fun. I argue that this approach, in its inevitable extreme, is the polar opposite force to gameplay: the “anti-gameplay.”

Thus, by definition, this version of solution B is bad game design. And if only the story stopped there.

In years since, I’ve seen the games on . . . oh, you know. That popular website. The one that took Livejournal and traded all the good features for a million incomprehensible privacy menus. Anyway, these games adopted a new game system: the “energy system.” For those blissfully unaware, this limits player actions or choices (in game design, “choices” and “things to do” are synonymous) by assigning a cost in some resource called “energy.” How do you get more “energy”? By waiting.

When I saw this, I couldn’t believe it. It was like an advertiser or politician using doublespeak to admit terrible wrongdoing but call it “an exciting innovation.” Energy systems are a mathematical in-your-face implementation of anti-gameplay: they define how you will not have fun now. And more games are released that use solution B this horrifically all the time.

So now that we have plumbed the depths of depravity, is there any way upward? Fortunately, yes. Solution C, making a game that’s actually fun, is still there for whomever dares the attempt. Some would argue that player competition, like the chess example, is an inexhaustible source of this. Developers are also wising up to the sheer breadth of solution A: by providing level editors and easy game-modification tools, developers let the players make their own new content. This they do gladly, sometimes going so far as to make nearly-standalone games that may then be developed and sold as a new product.

The opportunities are there, and I would say that the quest for content should lead in these more positive directions, not down the frightening spiral into anti-gameplay. That way lies madness. Which, if you’ve viewed Jonathan Blow’s speech, you know might be more then hyperbole.