When not to fix a bug

SLBug

An interesting problem that crops up occassionally in Second Life is the question of Whether or not a Viewer bug that affects rendering should be fixed.

In most MMO’s the idea of fixing a bug is a very simple thing. Bugs are bad and there to be squashed. However as soon as you have an economy that pushes roughly $450m a year around the world you start to get into all sorts of problems.

The most recent issue is a fix to the order of Alpha rendering on Avatar Skins. Ever since I can remember The Eyebrows and Lips were rendered below the texture and this has been used by Skin makers to allow users to modify their skins without destroying them by making the lips a little darker or adjusting the overall skintone.

As you can se ein the picture above though changing the render order to draw these elements above the texture can have some very nasty side-effects that could threaten to ruin the Skin industry.

Fortunately this fix is being reverted by Linden Labs as they aren’t so stupid as to incur the wrath of their entire customer base and destroy a lucrative industry with a few lines of code.

The original bug report (and hysterical comments) can be found here.

You can find my musings on the impact of Second Lifes economy on it’s technical progression beneath the cut.

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Eve is Liquid Win

This fanmade video representing a key part of Eve Onlines large backstory (essentially the start of the Caldari/Gallente war) is absolutely amazing. It was made possible by one very dedicated player and CCP’s immense support by allowing him access to their own machinma tools.


Day of Darkness II from Dire Lauthris on Vimeo.

It is a real shame however that the actual fleet combat in the game isn’t anywhere near as fast-paced or close-in as the combat in this video.

To CCP: If you want an experienced Designer to head up a project to create a single player narrative driven space combat game based on the history of Eve with a direct control combat model then I am volunteering for the job!

Failure and Learning

infraggable-is-looking-goodThere is a belief that a good game never punishes players and only rewards them.

It’s a belief that often causes debate amongst Designers because the phrase is usually reinterpreted to mean “The player must never fail.” and this couldn’t be more wrong. Failure does not equal Punishment and in fact Failure is an intrinsic feature of all games and forms of play.

One of the biggest problems is that failure is thought of as being a negative thing. If you fail the mission then it’s Game Over. This is only a correlative relationship however in that Punishment (which is almost always negative) often follows Failure (which can be positive). “Cum hoc ergo propter hoc” as somebody who understands Latin might say (I don’t I just stole it from Wikipedia to look clever).

Failure is a Positive experience when it is possible for us to learn from it. This may sound a bit like a line from a self-help book but it’s something that is worth emphasising.

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Understanding Games

understandinggames

This managed to pass me by when it first appeared but Andreas Zecher made a series of Flash Games called Understanding Games which try to explain the fundamentals of Game Design via Game Play. It is to Games as Understanding Comics is to Comics.

The games clearly take alot from Raph’s Theory of Fun and is a cool grounding for anybody unfamiliar with the medium (and could probably stand to re-iterate the basic principles veteran games designers might forget in the white hot forges of crunch).

For a fun Friday morning exercise try and identify some Design Principles he’s used but not explained. That’ll be that unconscious mind at work again I suspect.

Level Design – Further Reading

I’m always keeping an eye out for good Level Design resources to recommend to people as I believe that it is a hideously under-documented topic and what documentation does exist is often buried deep in forums, wikis or blogs. The remainder I find isn’t actually useful documentation that Designers can learn from. A large part of this is due to the way the information is presented and written rather than the quality of the advice. 

So in the interests of trying to aggregate the genuinely useful links I find I shall be trying to keep this post up to date with what I find.

Single-Player

  • Level Design Pre-Production – Dating back to 2003 this article goes over the practical aspects of actually designing a level layout before you start building it.
  • Using Loop Layouts – From the Valve Community Wiki. This is a concise and to the point explanation of using looping layouts in single Player Levels with several case-studies from Valve Games.
  • Bouncing or Back-Tracking – Also from the Valve Wiki another concise page detailing effective use of Back-Tracking or “Bounces” in Level Layouts. Again lots of excellent case-studies.
  • Color Theory – Another page from the Valve Wiki! This page ties-in with what I describe in Continuity Level Design about contrast and composition but also covers more general color theory.

Multiplayer

  • Competitive Level Design – Dating all the way back to Quake 3 this page is an excellent grounding in the tactical and strategic considerations required by designing competitive maps.
  • Level Design Patterns – (Warning PDF Alert!) Skip to Page 10 for the useful stuff. A Good grounding with Case Studies on common Patterns in Level Design. The Principles can be applied to other genres than FPS games quite easily.
  • Making de_dust – Proof that it’s better to be lucky than smart the creator of the worlds most played Level takes you through the creation of de_dust.

Critical Analysis of Game Design

analysis

I am currently reading Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making by Gerd Gigerenzer. If you’ve ever Read Blink (or even if you haven’t) then I recommend this book as it deals with the concept of intuition, instinct and the unconscious in a much more detailed way. I’d argue that you can completely bypass Blink altogether and go straight for this  as it is a much more useful book and very easy to read.

However this post isn’t about the book (I’ll save that for when I’ve finished it and filled it full of post-its). It’s actually about what I’m doing on this site.

When I write a blog post I am not so much telling the world things or laying out facts. This is part of my learning process. By writing about the things I discover or have learnt I’m helping to improve my understanding of them. I actually use this blog as a mnemonic device. By the act of writing about a topic I am ushering that information into my unconscious and hopefully helping it to become intuitive.

In short I’m writing this for me and not you. If you find it helpful than I’m glad. But be aware that what you see on these pages is rarely ever backed up by anything resembling evidence or research. It’s either all cribbed from books I’ve read or lessons I’ve learnt so take it with a pinch of salt.

Like a lot of Designers I tend to operate on my gut instincts a lot. When generating a new design or mechanic I tend to operate on automatic, letting my instincts rule the creative process. I believe that in the early stages of Design when you are roughing out what you want this is the best way to operate. By Instinct. Our unconscious mind is powerful as anybody who does anything remotely Creative will attest. Companies pay a lot of money for people with good instincts.

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7 Ways to Make Your AI Smarter

halflife2351

Prompted by this article over at Bit-Tech on How AI in Games works it made me want to blog about some of the ways you can make your enemy AI appear smarter without having to re-write your AI back end or invest in expensive middleware.

SCRIPTING

A huge amount of what convinces us a game has good AI is often completely scripted. Nothing ruins the illusion of AI like the Level Designers treating them purely like cardboard cutouts or filler. What the AI is doing before they start fighting is just as important as what happens during the fight. 

My favorite reference for believable AI scripting are the NOLF games. Yes you couldn’t go more than ten yards without stumbling on a pair of AI guards having a conversation but it adds so much to their characters that you become far more forgiving towards them.

The arrival of an enemy is a great opportunity to make them seem smarter than they really are. AI that Rapel down a wall before fighting you or who shout for backup when they see you causing two more enemies to sprint around the corner. These are almost always scripted events but most Players will attribute it all to the AI.

Even just adding Patrol routes or some good ambient animations can make a very simple AI character appear more inteligent.

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Link Round-Up

It’s Friday and frankly I’m too tired to post anything too thoughtful. 

The week has been an interesting one with RPS linking to my Level Design piece on Sunday which made a complete mess of my my stats graph by putting a big spike in the middle.

However this is a link round-up so here is some reading:

Oh and of course The Demo of Wheelman is on Xbox Live. Download it and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

Have a good weekend!

Flow – Stating The Obvious

Common sense is wonderful. It only ever gets applied in hindsight or the third person.

So when I tell you that games are at their most fun when your skills are in equilibrium with the Challenge you face you’ll scoff and claim that it’s just Common Sense.

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Well that is the basics behind what is known as “Flow” in Psychology; the state of mind where you are no longer aware of your concious self and become entirely absorbed in what you are doing. Being aware of the concept alone changes how you think about Games Design.

Game Designers are ussually locked into a battle of trying to obtain “Balance” within their game. This is typically a game of tuning numbers, spreadsheets, damage-per-second, damage mitigation and long complex formulas.

Flow changes that. Being focussed on maximising a Players “Optimal Experience” (The other term for Flow) is about moment-to-moment interactions not just raw numbers. It’s all very good if your game is Balanced by the numbers but it doesn’t count for anything if your players are Bored or Frustrated.

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Continuity Level Design

Over There by San Sharma Over There. by San Sharma

Continuity Level Design is a school of Level Design predominantly used by Single Player games. 

Recent examples include Portal, Mirrors Edge and Call of Duty 4. 

Now it’s worth pointing out that the phrase “Continuity Level Design” is something I’ve just made up (well at least as far as I’m aware).

I’ve chosen the name based on the similarity in concept to Continuity Editing in Cinema.

There are a few rules that characterize Continuity Level Design:

  1. The Player Always Knows What They Are Doing
  2. The Player Always Knows Where They Are Going
  3. Everything Happens In-Front of the Player

If the above list looks like it’s making the Player the centre of the universe then that’s because it is. Everything about this school of Level Design is based around their being a single perspective on events. Read More »