January 2007

Today’s Obvious Note

This just in: Pope Benedict XVI dislikes video games. Who would have guessed?

Any trend to produce programmes and products – including animated films and video games – which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behaviour or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programmes are directed at children and adolescents. How could one explain this ‘entertainment’ to the countless innocent young people who actually suffer violence, exploitation and abuse? In this regard, all would do well to reflect on the contrast between Christ who “put his arms around [the children] laid his hands on them and gave them his blessing” (Mk 10:16) and the one who “leads astray … these little ones” for whom “it would be better … if a millstone were hung round his neck” (Lk 17:2).

santa_pope2.jpgNo word on if Pope Benedict plans to ever take any action against members of the clergy who “lead astray these little ones” in ways slightly more destructive to their psyches than GTA 3.

“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.” (Matt 7:5)

Europa Multiversalis

So Europa Universalis III is out. And everyone knows what a Paradox fanboi I am, so clearly I should be raving about this!

My initial impressions aren’t that good.

It’s UGLY. This is using a new 3D engine for Paradox and… it’s just bad. Sure, the screenshots on the website look fine, but most of the time? This is what you’ll be looking at.

On the left, EU3. On the right, EU2. Considering that EU2’s core engine is seven years old (and can run quite well on old laptops), this isn’t much of an improvement. Sure, this series isn’t about eye candy, but the entire enterprise’s user interface just feels slapdash. And this doesn’t just extend to the look and feel. Many automation features seem to have gotten lost in translation, such as the ability to autosend merchants to centers of trade when they come available. Sure, it’s *better* to micromanage that, but just removing the option to have the AI do it… this is an upgrade?

More seriously, the underlying event model, which is really kind of the point with this series, was completely redone. No longer are you competing against the march of history as represented in deterministic events, the primary attraction for history boffins who enjoyed this series and didn’t play it merely to try to see if they could conquer the world with the Duchy of Modena. Instead, the game tries to model cause and effect. Instead of having a hardcoded Hussite Revolt in Bohemia in 1589, you might, if you have a peasant revolt in Bulgaria, and you don’t send troops in time, then you’ll maybe get an event that says “The Bulgarian minority is revolting!” In case you, you know, missed it. And it’s not just minor things that are left to this model. Say, the Protestant Reformation. Better hope somebody in Germany eventually gets a good religious advisor or Europe may be stuck paying indulgences to Friar Tetzel for a while.

This is obviously based on the Crusader Kings model, which worked to a degree for that game. But for modeling 400 years of European History? Not gonna happen. History is just simply too complex to be effectively modeled by an AI script without the human intervention of deterministic events. The fact that EU3 stops at 1792, whereas EU2 goes on to 1820, is illustrative. Because in EU3, how would you ever model a Napoleon Bonaparte? Either you try, and every so often the player is given a free gift of SUPER RULER, OWNER OF THE WORLD — or you don’t. Napoleon was one of those historic leaders that simply can’t be created by a random dice roll.

So instead of a game which could go a long way towards teaching you why history happened (which EU2, and the Hearts of Iron series both do very well), you get – a sandbox. With a multiverse – an infinite variety of Europes, all of which sort of vaguely resemble the one in books. Which tells you maybe that England was a bunch of right badasses, and the Ottomans were hard to throw out of Europe. But it doesn’t tell you squat about, say, the War of the Roses. Because it’ll never happen. If it does, it’s “Oh, Random Leader Zed decided he’d take half your empire.” Not really the same echoes of history there, really. It’s more of a sandbox, and thus becomes less interesting.

There are some improvements, to be sure. Military tradition is modeled, so England is a mother of a powerhouse starting out. I messed around with an Irish fiefdom, took out some loans and recruited about 10,000 mercenaries (in EU3 a monster army) and threw them at the 2000-strong English garrison in Meath. Which promptly laughed and picked its teeth with the pikes of the few survivors. OK, so conquering the world as Ireland may pose a few issues. Diplomacy is richer. The Victoria system of modeling government types makes an appearance. Stuff like that.

Again, this is just a first glance, the result of a few hours of gameplay. But dear god, the gameplay better get better soon, because this game sure got ugly. And I don’t just mean the map colors.

Second Life Embraces and Extends First Life

Exhibit A: First Life!

Exhibit B: Linden Legal Responds!

We do not believe that reasonable people would argue as to whether the website located at http://www.getafirstlife.com/ constitutes parody – it clearly is. Linden Lab is well known among its customers and in the general business community as a company with enlightened and well-informed views regarding intellectual property rights, including the fair use doctrine, open source licensing, and other principles that support creativity and self-expression. We know parody when we see it.

Moreover, Linden Lab objects to any implication that it would employ lawyers incapable of distinguishing such obvious parody. Indeed, any competent attorney is well aware that the outcome of sending a cease-and-desist letter regarding a parody is only to draw more attention to such parody, and to invite public scorn and ridicule of the humor-impaired legal counsel. Linden Lab is well-known for having strict hiring standards, including a requirement for having a sense of humor, from which our lawyers receive no exception.

In conclusion, your invitation to submit a cease-and-desist letter is hereby rejected.

They go on to explicitly license the author of getafirstlife.com to use parodies of SL logos for merchandising purposes.

Well done, everyone involved.

Look For… The Union Label…

Gold farmers form trade association. Or more accurately, apparently, the Korean version of a PAC. You know your little industry’s all grown up when it has its own lobbyists! Clearly, there are soil preservation issues that must be addressed by any RMT industry group.

Snark aside, considering the amount of money changing hands, and the consistent search for legitimacy among the larger RMT companies, this isn’t that surprising.

Everyone Tells Me How To Do My Job (And They’re Right, Damn It)

No, really!

Paul Barnett, whom I had very little dealings with when I was at Mythic, mostly yelling at him THE CHAOS FACTION BETTER BE DONE RIGHT! his first week from another table over at a Mongolian grill – something his tired, weary reaction told me happens to him quite often. Anyway, he has a blog (or rather, a Myspace, because he’s British and thus very emo), and he posts what he expects from designers as a creative director.

Creating systems that are hard to explain to normal people
If you can’t explain it clearly, quickly and to people with different skill sets then you are not going to get your idea realized. It really isn’t important if you have a great idea if you can not express it. Coders are dumb on design, same with artists. Producers? Real dumb. Studio heads, boy you talking about big dummies and as for publishers they don’t understand the word dumb. So add all of that together and you are faced with a harsh reality. You need to explain your great design in a way that all these dummies can understand so it can get in the game and the players can see it.

I have to say in response – Paul, that video. It’s made my life hell. Ever since it made it out to the net, everyone expects me to be as charismatic and flat out funny an evangelist when talking about my own project. Thanks a lot, bucko.

Psychochild on the other hand hasn’t posted any videos to Youtube making all of us look bad, but he still tells me how to do my job too!

The primary job of a designer is communication. This means you need to get used to doing a lot of writing, meeting, and explaining. Your ideas are actually secondary to the main focus of explaining those ideas. A designer with mediocre ideas and great communication skills is better than a designer with super ideas and no communication skills in a project of more than one person. Given this focus on communication, it should come as little surprise that people who design tend to write a lot and have blogs.

Why is communication so important? If the designer cannot communicate those ideas, then the ideas are stuck in his or her head. Other people working on the project need a guide for how to implement the project, which is the purpose of the game design document. Without this central focus, the project is hard to hold together. And, the implementors will have their own issues to worry about: the designer should be able to communicate details that the implementors do not think about. If the designer provides inadequate documentation and then gets angry when the final result is not what he intended, it’s not good for anyone involved.

So basically, designers need to speek gud, because if the most brilliant ideas ever concieved remain in their brain, it’s not going to do anyone any good at all, is it?

This is something I’ve been struggling with at work as well. I can write up a storm, but put me in front of a dozen people and tell me to explain something and I go “fum fuh fuh” a lot. Because as Barnett expressed so perfectly in his infamous E3 video, the best designers are evangelists – not only do they come up with Keeno Ideas, but they are the keepers of the flame for their team – inspiring everyone that what is pouring out onto design docs and spreadsheets and visio charts and what have you actually is going to turn out to be something fun, really, and all this work is worth it.

It takes charisma, basically. Which is scary, because that’s not something historically I’ve thought I was good at. But it’s something I *will* be good at, because that’s what it’s going to take to get all this Keeno Idea stuff out of my brain and implemented. And I may not think myself that charismatic, but I am very, very stubborn!

I Can’t Define Inanity, But I Know It When I See It

Wagner James Au posts an article which argues that the only people that should be reporting on Second Life are people who play Second Life. Well, that’s certainly a common complaint, as anyone who read lumthemad.net and played Asheron’s Call can attest. But of course, Second Life invents everything:

At the forefront of the Second Life backlash, of course, is Nick Denton’s Valleywag. After reading the endless flurry of adulatory press coverage, the rakish blogging mogul decided the place was “begging for a takedown.” And so he has wittily attempted.

I’ve asked Nick three separate times if he’s ever tried Second Life himself, but an answer has not been forthcoming; given the vagueness of his descriptions, and the choice of negative stories he selects (see below), I’m provisionally assuming there is in fact no seasoned Denton-spawned avatar to be found.

Au is, to be fair, forthcoming that he is deeply enmeshed in every conflict of interest possible with SL/Linden Labs. He also notes, correctly, that many of the critics of SL may simply not be able to operate the freakin’ thing. I personally needed a native guide just to instruct me how to WALK and LOOK AROUND. And I think it’s safe to say that I have a passing familiarity with computer games and user interfaces. The “I have a box on my head” icon I use for SL (now new and improved!) is not coincidental. The default action for an object container is to wear it. Which results in you having, well, a box on your head. This makes little sense in terms of user interface conventions, but it was unfixed for so long (edit: finally patched in August of this year) that it’s become a running gag among SL users.

With the existing interface, it is remarkably easy for the unitiated user to go stumbling helpless through the world and quickly assume it’s simply a chat room peopled only by gamblers and prostitutes. And me describing the larger promise of Second Life is like telling someone from Eastern Europe about the United States, and the variety of opportunities awaiting them there—but when they finally arrive, they end up trapped in Las Vegas International where the TSA insists on giving them a four hour body cavity search before they’re let through.

I’m not sure why there would be snarky “backlash” coverage about SL focusing on being a chat room peopled mostly by gamblers and prostitutes, and ignores the people off in their own little servlet curing cancer or singing folk songs or whatever. Perhaps they, I don’t know, logged into SL and hit the Search button.


It’s more than a little unreasonable to expect people to judge a game based on its potential when other games aren’t extended the same courtesy. Second Life’s pretensions to being a “metaverse” or “a new web” or “life’s operating system” or whatever else Snowcrashy buzzword is being flung about to the contrary – it’s a game. To be technical, it’s a graphical MUSH, and much like Everquest being the first graphical Dikumud, it’s setting the standards for all that follows.

Which, as Something Awful (who do play regularly) notes, is mostly gamblers, sexual minorities, and prostitutes, backed by a service which is frequently spotty.

Here’s my take. SL is a social MMO – if not the first, certainly one of the largest (only the often-ignored-especially-by-me Habbo Hotel is larger). And as such, it’s worthy of study, and not merely by the starry-eyed cognoscenti, but by the average user. UI issues, content issues, platform issues, and Linden’s relentless PR manipulation – all of these are worthy of discussion, and unless Lindenistas expect everyone on the planet to log into SL regularly (which they may well do) then some form of separation from the SL community has to be expected. And rather than try to minimize the focus on the more popular and more sleazy parts, maybe it’s worthwhile to examine why the most popular also happens to be the most sleazy. Maybe it’s because that’s what people tend to do when they’re given the freedom to do whatever they want. Liberated from the surly bounds of accountability, the first thing that the average user apparently wants to do is visit a strip club.

It’s not the story Linden wants the mainstream media discussing, but *I* certainly find it interesting. Or amusing at the least.

Adam “Tide” MacDonald has another take here, and Damion Schubert waxes truly wroth on his site.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow (Because Ice Sux0rz)

So we’re currently in Day 2 of the ICEPOCALYPSE. What in Northern Virginia would be a small story in the Metro section of the Post about sanders hitting the streets is, in central Texas, the sixth Horseman of the Apocalypse (after death, taxes, pestilence, Republicans and toll roads).

On the upside, I’m getting a lot of work done on our design wiki at work from VPN while watching cheesy old TV shows on TNT-HD. Thus proving that I’ll watch pretty much anything in hi-def, even while not actually, you know, watching it.

On the downside, I’m home on the day Burning Crusade launches. This for most people would be an upside, except that in my jaded wisdom I had the boxes pre-ordered and delivered. To work. Yeah, funny how that works out.

Oh well, getting lots of work done, while idly watching snow in my back yard. In the middle of Texas. Whee!

Edit: This is what TV looks like in Austin tonight. In OH-MY-GOD-WE-ARE-ALL-GOING-TO-DIE-STAY-OFF-THE-DAMN-ROADS 48 point type.