Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My life as an ARG

I've been AWOL for some time now, but, rest assured, it was not all in vain.  I had the delight and fortuitous circumstance to be able to attend the Game Developer's Conference Online in Austin, Texas at the beginning of October, and I intend to share my notes, similar to the chronicling that I undertook for WorldCon.  Here, however, is a brief list of my favourite presentations, free to access on the GDC Vault, and so wonderfully informative and thrilling that I can't believe I never attended the conference before.

My favourite top pick (video):
Dr. Richard BartleMUD: Messrs Bartle & Trubshaw's Astonishing Contrivance

"Almost all today's MMOs are direct descendents of MUD, yet few developers have played it. This talk, by one of MUD's two co-authors, describes the thinking behind its design and corrects some of the commonly-held misconceptions about what it must have been like to play. It also explains why it is that although MMO development has advanced dramatically since 1978 there are still some areas where early MUDs were more capable than today's behemoths. The present can learn from the past; the good old days are yet to come."

Executive summary: Absolutely fantastic coverage of the entire speech by Leigh Alexander here, but basically, today's designers are lazy.  

My second favourites (slides only):
Marleigh Norton(D) None of the Above: Interactive Dialogue Without Multiple Choice (currently broken?)

"Once upon a time, there was a girl who liked video games. She played pirates and emperors and third-person omniscient beings, but in spite of all that, she noticed whenever it came time to talk to someone, her games turned into third grade multiple choice tests. And she wondered why that was. Now that she is a grown-up -- or at least can often pass for one -- she has given this matter some thought and come up with several alternatives. Some are finished games, some are demos, some are just sketches, but none of them work if you just pick C. Please come steal her ideas."

Executive summary: Sometimes the best narrative designers aren't writers.  Moderating incoming hate mail in 3, 2, 1...

Tim Cain - I'm a Special Snowflake: The Art of Participatory Storytelling in MMOs

"Join Carbine Studios Design Director Tim Cain, as he draws on his 30 year game development career to discuss the art of taking storytelling from single-player RPGs to the world of massively multiplayer online games. Drawing on his experiences crafting storyline for titles like FALLOUT, ARCANUM and more, well discuss several different approaches that developers have to craft a story that is both accessible and immersive, with candid evaluation of the state of storytelling in today's massively multiplayer online games."

Executive summary: This is the MMO I want to play.  Right now.  
Otherwise known as: We need to make better use of instances to support the player in creating a unique experience that they can call their own, e.g. why aren't MMOs more like single-player games?

As for the title of this post, I'm currently teaching myself ActionScript 3, with the help of Todd Perkins of Lynda Library, and a very patient friend who disdainfully teaches it in lieu of 'real programming' because some of us don't like C++.  Now that I'm trying to wrap my head around the internal logic of what's going on - as you may have seen by my previous disastrous attempt at learning to program - I'm starting to notice behaviours in the real world that I'm wondering about in code.

Simple behaviours like stopping at a light when it's red and going when it's green are comparatively simple to create, when compared to another function which might decide that the person crossing the road is running late and wants to cross even though the light is red.  However, both of these people would be of the same class type, just with certain functions enabled or disabled.  So if I have a robot that does certain things, and I have a baby robot that doesn't do anything, baby robot is just an on/off switch within the robot class that disables all of its other functions, apart from existing.  That's a pretty holistic view of humanity.  No wonder so many programmers are so tolerant.  Well, with things that aren't programming-related.

Some time ago, I started reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, and I found it very informative.  Why, when you choose the wrong option at the ATM, must you begin the transaction again?  Why do we still have a folder structure for file browsing when it doesn't really make that much sense when you think about it?  Why has Fable 3 gone for NO HUD AT ALL?

OzCHI - the Human Computer Interaction conference - is taking place in Brisbane soon, and I think it might be a good chance to get some of those HCI geniuses and combine them with the brilliance of people like Morgan Jaffit and Matt Ditton.  Just like Marleigh Norton came up with excellent ways of providing dialogue, without calling herself a writer, HCI and computer games have a lot to discuss.  I have no HUD in real life - I want one in my games.  If I had a health bar, I wouldn't spend so long agonising over whether or not to go see the doctor.  

And, really, it's this dissection into components that is making all of this more apparent.  I don't claim to understand programming in the least, but I hope I'm getting a little closer.  Understanding that every consequence comes from somewhere is a value that's often discussed in new age spirituality, but I hadn't considered it in the form of numbers, strings and functions.  In games writing, we talk a lot about how to make the player feel, and how to create emotion and agency in games, but if the player is a very complicated computer, why are we regarding them so simply?  We're playing God with electron probability fields.  Come on, player, just stay in the damn cup!  Why do we think it works that way?

Amazing how science can inform creativity.  I love hard sci-fi as much as the next person, but when books like In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality are informing my understanding of narrative theory, I think that's truly wonderful.  

Now, back to Todd Perkins and his step-by-step explanations.  I'll try to be more coherent in my next post.

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