Monthly Archives: November 2008

Michael Mateas talk on Facade

This past Thursday, I went to a talk by Michael Mateas: "The Authoring Challenge for Interactive Storytelling". Mateas runs the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz. The talk naturally centered around Facade, an interactive drama released in 2005 by Mateas and Andrew Stern.

2005 was a long time ago now, which saves me the effort of explaining what Facade is. (What? Click on the link.) (What? Okay, here: Facade is a short game in which two friends, Trip and Grace, invite you over for dinner. They then proceed to have a horrible nasty argument and drag you into it. The interface is a real-time, free-form, natural language text prompt; the characters respond in spoken text and animated movement. It's free, go download it.)

(Admission of guilt: I never got around to playing Facade before I went to the lecture. Fortunately Mateas started by showing a trailer (youtube link), so I wasn't lost. Yes, I've now played with the thing.)

The lecture was nifty. So nifty, in fact, that I will transcribe all the notes I took. (My notes, to be sure, were not anything like a complete transcript of the lecture. I'm putting my notes under quote bars, but please take them as my interpretation of what I heard. I'll intersperse my own commentary.)


What is interactive storytelling?

  • not choose-your-own-adventure books
  • not paper-and-pencil RPGs
  • not hypertext
  • not an "embedded linear story" in a game (the most common story model for videogames, where a fixed story plays out in cut scenes, unintegrated into the gameplay mechanics)

The text adventure (Zork) is close to what Mateas is imagining. (The usual notional model is Star Trek's holodeck -- thus Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck and so on. But even as a fictional ideal, the holodeck has been problematic.)

Yay text adventures. (I am, as you will soon see, thinking about this talk from an IF-author's point of view.)

As a distant spectator to the academic world, I don't know what narratologists think is problematic about the holodeck idea. (I mean, aside from it nearly destroying the Enterprise every six weeks.) I guess it's clear that the Star Trek writers had no deep notion of what interactive drama would be -- they just stuck a subordinate static narrative into the static narrative of their TV show. Except for that Moriarty episode, which showed how interactive stories didn't work...

CYOAs and hypertext are easy to implement, but don't provide much sense of agency. This is even more true of linear embedded stories, obviously. D&D provides true interactivity, but you need a human game-master to run it. The holodeck, similarly, needs a 24th-century computer. So we are led to the idea of AI underpinning interactive story. AI (or at least AI techniques) seem necessary for:

  • story generation
  • story understanding (figuring out what the player is trying to do)
  • drama management (selecting and ordering bits of story to create dramatic arc)
  • autonomous characters

This is where a lot of discussion in the IF world runs aground. We say things like "To really improve text parsing, you'd need real AI." Then, since none of us are AI researchers and we're pretty much implementing everything in low-level, C-like languages, we give up and say "Okay, so what can we do really well without AI?" (At least, I do. And I think I've gotten excellent answers to that latter question, but it's still fair to see it as a dodge.)

Current research into interactive storytelling has been disappointing. A lot of people come up with theories of how it could work. Some people implement engines or mechanisms based on their theories. Some of those then go on to create story demos within an engine. Very few create a complete interactive story -- not just a demo, but a work that can stand on its own.

Mateas and Stern created Facade out of a belief that to move research forward in an artistic sphere, you need to create complete works.

In other words (my words), a demo for a new game model can demonstrate the engine, the programming techniques, etc. But it can't demonstrate the validity of the artistic approach. To do that, you need to do art. It can be a short work, but it has to be something you're aiming at players. You find out whether you're right by seeing how players react.

This has been common wisdom in the IF world for a decade. Right from the beginning of the amateur-IF era, the community developed a strong response to on-line theorizing: "That sounds great. Write a game and show us." (Mateas mentions this himself, later on.)

They were hoping that Facade would provoke works in response, but it hasn't. Nor have the techniques been adopted by the commercial game world. (Although some of the most recent crop of games, such as Fable 2 and Far Cry 2, are beginning to do things like it.) Nor, for that matter, have they been adopted by the indie/amateur game world.

At this point Mateas played the demo reel.

When the creators first started planning Facade, they wanted game-like interactions -- no explicit game goal, but many opportunities for the user to pick up on a play mechanic and try to do something with it.

(Mateas mentions that in the beginning, he sternly resisted calling Facade "a game". Nowadays, sure, it's a game. He didn't say whether this was a shift in his attitude or a broadening of the expectations of the gaming audience.)

Eventually they went with a model from pop psychology, transactional analysis: Eric Berne's Games People Play. The characters Trip and Grace are playing head games at each other, using you as leverage ("Courtroom", "See What You Made Me Do", "I've Got You Now, You Son of a Bitch"...)

(See here for game examples from the TA literature. Or see any Woody Allen movie from his "miserable couples snipe at each other" period; Mateas cited Husbands and Wives.)

This gives the player several ways to dive into the game:

  • the affinity game: take Trip's side or Grace's side.
  • the hot-button game: find topics that provoke the characters and see how they react.
  • the therapy game: try to help the characters understand themselves. (This is the most subtle, but it has the strongest effect on which ending you reach.)
  • the tension level toy: the tension level in the game always rises, but you can play with it by trying to calm it or fan the flames. (Not exactly a game.)

Note that the creators don't expect players to stay in character, or take any particular role. You don't have to be a therapist. They expect players to try prodding at the edges of the story world (e.g., by talking nonsense, bringing up outrageous topics, kissing the characters, etc.) They wanted Facade to provide satisfying responses for that sort of play, just as much as for in-character or realistic play.

Nor do you have to stick to one goal throughout a session. (Although Mateas does, in some articles, describe the game as an "affinity half" followed by a "therapy half". See this article, which also gives a more detailed form of the next part of the talk.)

Facade offers multiple, mixable story progressions.

The idea is that in a simple linear interactive story, you can either Do The Next Thing (in which case the plot advances), or you Do Something Else (which fails in some sense, and the plot doesn't advance). In Facade, there are several story elements going on at any one time. If you type something that doesn't make sense in one storyline, maybe it pushes a different one forward. These storyline threads are called "beats".

I got confused at this point, because I was assuming a "beat" to be the smallest particle of performance. That's how the term is used in theater: in a back-and-forth dialogue, each line is normally a beat. (Or one character can pause a beat before replying, or so on.)

Mateas uses "beat" to refer to an entire scene fragment, in which all three characters may interact. (For example, the PhoneCallFromParents beat: the phone rings, Trip and Grace argue about whether to answer it, the player may ask them to answer or ignore it.) I am going to cheat and swap around the next few lines to introduce the concepts more clearly:

Facade contains just 27 beats, of which half might activate in any one run-through. Each beat has a chain of narrative goals, plus variations and reactions that depend on what the player does. Each goal is made of "joint dialogue behaviors", and each JDB consists of up to five lines of dialogue. (The JDB is more or less the smallest particle of performance, although you can interrupt one in mid-line, so they're not absolutely atomic.)

Facade contains about 2500 JDBs. So each beat contains about a hundred JDBs, on average.

There are three kinds of story progression, each handled by a story manager:

  • the beat sequencer: manages the library of beats (27 of them), and picks which one to activate when the previous beat ends (or is interrupted).
  • the beat goal sequencer: manages the goals of the currently-active beat; runs through them, or chooses variations based on player input.
  • global mix-ins: a set of hot topics that can interrupt the currently-active beat if the player brings them up. (E.g., sex, divorce, alcohol, the view out the window, etc.)

Just one beat is active at a time, but these managers hand control back and forth fluidly as the player interacts. This lets Facade provide multiple, mixable story progressions for the player to mess with.

(About two-thirds of the JDBs are in beats, one-third in globals mix-ins. Then there are a small handful of JDBs which run in the background, handling "fidgeting" personality behaviors like sipping a drink or playing with a magic 8-ball.)

Mateas then went on to the central point of his talk, which was that this is a hell of a lot of work. (2500 JDBs is, what, six or eight thousand lines of dialogue?)

Writing the text is more difficult than writing the text of a play, because there are lots and lots of ways for lines (or groups of lines, or groups of groups) to be strung together. You have to think about the meshing at every level.

Mateas and Stern tried to work with a traditional playwright, but he never got the hang of writing dialogue that fit in with Facade's machinery.

There are several other areas of Facade where the implementation requires design work. For example, parsing the player's input happens in two stages. The words are parsed into a topic or phrase (as in IF). But then, the phrase has to be interpreted as an action.

For example, saying "I like [Grace's] painting" could be construed as complimenting Grace, or (if Grace and Trip are arguing about the painting) as agreeing with Grace, or disagreeing with Trip, depending on exactly when you do it. There needs to be custom logic to decide which action you've taken, which is then further customized for the ArgueOverRedecorating beat. This is all design work.

Then there's art design -- even the very stylized artwork of Facade has lots of code to manage body language and facial expressions. And so on.

Facade took two people five years to create. Mateas estimates that creating another game with the same model and technology would take a year and a half. Is this too long? It's too long for a decent feedback cycle, either in academia or among indie game designers.

Implicit is the point that the commercial game industry, which takes at least a year and a half (usually more) to produce a high-profile game, is also too slow for a decent feedback cycle.

Mateas gave explicit props to the IF community, for our strong tradition of small, experimental games. (Just to talk about myself for a bit: Shade, Hunter in Darkness, and Delightful Wallpaper each took me a month to write. Each did interesting stuff. We don't get games responding to games every month -- the annual IFComp cycle slows things down -- but it's still a high rate of creativity, with lots of people involved.)

To do interactive storytelling, do you have to be an artist/programmer? ("Artist" in the general sense, including "writer". Mateas and Stern each worked on both the dialogue and the implementation of Facade.) Mateas says he once thought so, but has changed his mind: he is now interested in how a powerful authoring system can support an artist who is not a programmer (or a programmer who is not an artist!)

Open questions for inventing an authoring system:

  • how much help will it provide?
  • will it help artists, programmers, or both?
  • is it trying to replace a weak facility, or help the user improve his facility?

Attempts in progress:

Mateas is also planning a project, "Story Canvas", in which a user enters linear narratives; the system then remixes and spins them out into an interactive drama (with the collaboration of the user).

As a final note, Mateas said that his vision for AI in interactive drama was not to replace human creation; he sees AI as being an expressive medium, a field in which artists can work.


That was the body of the talk. I will summarize some of the questions and answers that followed.

Did _Facade_ have debugging tools? Yes, lots. It's essentially impossible to diagnose bugs from the player's-eye level. You have to turn on verbose logging to figure out what's going on.

If branching story threads are difficult for writers (who aren't programmers), what is difficult for programmers (who aren't writers)? Ambiguity, maybe -- attacking a problem which has no clear definition, where you have to invent the problem statement and the solution in parallel.

I loved this answer, because that's exactly what I think of as the fun part of being a programmer. Implementing an algorithm to achieve a specified goal is work. Figuring out what the goal should be is what the work is for. And it is design work, artistic work -- art.

What about interdisciplinary teams? (That is, having an artist and a programmer work together, instead of an artist-programmer.) It's possible but Mateas hasn't done any work in that direction. It seems like it must be difficult -- all the work that an artist-programmer would do, plus the work of coordinating, communicating, and understanding each other's needs.

This would have been my question, but someone else asked it first. This is, of course, the approach that Dave Cornelson is trying with Textfyre.

Is _Facade_ sociology? (That is, is it extending our knowledge of how people interact?) Um... no.

Why the "kitchen drama" genre? Because it turns lots of game conventions on their head. No fantastic setting, no expansive landscape to explore, no physical danger. Mostly conversational interaction as opposed to physical interaction. Also: it's such a familiar genre that it's easy to tell if the work succeeds or fails.

Could menus be substituted for _Facade_'s natural-language prompt? Not easily. Facade allows twenty-ish speech acts, many of which are parameterized ("agree with X", "insult Y", "inspect object Z"). A menu system which really let you choose any available interaction would be huge and unwieldy. However, Mateas has considered other interface changes: perhaps displaying the system's interpretation of what you entered, or giving you an "undo" button to rewind time.

As an IF weenie, obviously, I see the free prompt as Facade's big strength. You can bring up any topic at any point, and the range of topics feels infinite. It isn't really infinite, but the point of having a clear genre demarcation is to let you speculate about what topics will get interesting responses, and be usually right. (So sex, divorce, the couple's courtship, Grace's art, Trip's drinking, the things in the apartment, etc, etc.)


Whew. Okay, long blog post. I hope you enjoy it. Again, I apologize for anything Michael said that I have miscontrued, misquoted, or just plain made up. It's accidental, honest.

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One more past blast: Enigma

The Oxyd games, by Meinolf Schneider, were one of the great puzzle-game series of the early 90s. They originated in the Atari world; I played them on Mac. I played them for hours, because they were big, big and evil and full of puzzle goodness. I still have the Per.Oxyd shareware code book.

Now -- or rather, two years ago -- an open-source implementation of the game appeared: Enigma. This means you have to play it. Now. Available for Mac/Win/Linux.

(It is not, I admit, a well-chosen name. There must be dozens of puzzle games called "Enigma", not to mention Enigmo, etc. But who cares?)

Oxyd is a physics puzzler, in the Marble Madness line. You roll a black ball around by nudging your mouse. When you hit certain blocks, they open, revealing a color. Then you play Concentration. Hit two blocks of the same color, and they're done. When all the color-blocks on a level are done, the level is solved.

Simple! Of course! Not. You'll see walls and mazes. You'll fall into water and drown. You'll fall into quicksand and drown slowly (if you don't struggle out in time). You'll hit switches to open and close doors. You'll blow up bricks with dynamite. You'll find slopes, gravity, crates, one-way doors, timed doors, springs to jump walls, lasers, pipes, deathtraps, and mailboxes (evil, trust me). There are regions of high friction, low friction, and no friction. It's very tactile -- the mouse interface practically lets you feel the wood, carpet, or metal that you traverse.

In some levels, you have to steer many marbles at once. In others, you can switch back and forth between two marbles, essentially controlling two cooperating "characters". There is, in short, a hell of a lot of variety, packed into what looks like a simple tile-based game.

Enigma is a startlingly faithful reconstruction of Oxyd, considering that 640x480 was a giant-sized screen when it first appeared. The graphics have been scaled up without losing the original style. All the levels from the original Oxyd games are included; and then a big batch of new levels. And then, since it's open-source, a steady stream of user-contributed levels. The game engine is capable of emulating Sokoban, and so a set of Sokoban levels is included. Stuff like that.

I could easily spend the rest of the holiday season playing through this thing. I won't, honest -- too many other games to play. (I've barely even started Mirror's Edge!) But I could.

Note that Enigma is a fan recreation of Oxyd. I don't know how the original author feels about it; the web site doesn't say, except to thank him for the inspiration. There is a recent game which is an official descendant of the Oxyd line -- Oxyd Extra 2.0. (Free but not open-source.) I haven't looked at it.

(I would have included this in my Forerunner Foray post if I'd known about it at the time... but I didn't. Thanks to jayisgames for tipping me off.)

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Dominion and Race for the Galaxy (but mostly Dominion)

I went to a game night last week at my FLGS, Eureka! Puzzles and More, and I played Dominion. I had such a good time with it that I went and bought it immediately following the game night. I then played it the very next night with the same people I'd played it with at the game night, and then again quite a few times at a party last weekend instead of being social. It's one of my current favorite games.

Everyone starts with an identical small deck of ten cards consisting of money and victory points (worthless until the end of the game). You start out by drawing five cards, and then each turn you use some of them, discard all five, and then draw five more. So after the second turn, you're left without a deck. No problem! Just shuffle your discard pile, and that becomes your new deck.

The fun part comes with what you can do with your money. There is a common supply of cards in the middle of the table, each with a cost. Besides being able to buy victory points and money, there are also 10 types of action cards chosen from a set of 25. The rules list a suggested set of 10 cards to use for your first game, and they also list four other sets that you can use. There are 10 of each of these cards, more of each of three denominations of victory points, and more of each of three denominations of money. The game ends when any three of these piles are empty (i.e., people have bought the cards).

So what do you do when you buy a card? You put it in your discard pile. So you're adding it to your deck, but you don't get to use it right away. What you're doing, then, is slowly building your deck up so that it becomes able to do more and more, eventually letting you get victory points so that you can win the game.

I would almost describe this game as a multiplayer solitaire. Yes, there is indirect interaction with the other players in competition for the action cards (if you buy up most of one type, that leaves fewer for the other players), as well as some bits of more direct interaction through several of the action cards (there are action cards that attack other players, doing things like messing with the top of their deck, making them discard cards, and giving them curse cards worth negative victory points). However, mostly you're just playing your own game, trying to keep your deck balanced between action cards and money—you can only play one action card per turn (although there are action cards that give you more actions) and can only buy one card per turn (although there are action cards that allow you to buy additional cards)—while trying to decide when to add some space-wasting victory point cards (remember, you only draw five cards each turn, and every victory point you draw is a slot in your hand that's not something useful).

Most of the games I've played have ended up being races to get your deck working well enough for you to buy victory point cards worth six points. Six points for one space-wasting card is the most efficient way to do things, but it can take a while to get your deck to a place where you're able to buy those cards, the most expensive in the game. There is a second way to end the game, emptying the pile of six-point victory point cards, and this is how most of the games have ended.

Of course, one way (and the most fun way, in my opinion) to decide on the 10 action cards out of 25 to use is to do it randomly. It's almost like you're playing a different game with each combination. There are over three million ways to choose 10 cards from the set of 25 (and of course there are going to be expansions to add even more action cards), and some of those ways can be very different from each other. For example, some games you can have lots of money. The "Big Money" suggested set of cards in the rules is certainly not misnamed, as you can sometimes buy two six-point victory point cards in one turn. In other games, however, it can be a struggle to do anything. A recent game I played included three attack cards and no defense cards (the set of 25 only has one defense card). One of the attack cards gave every other player a curse card, which is bad enough that it gives you negative victory points at the end of the game, but it also takes up space in your deck. Another of the attack cards allows the player the chance to steal money from other players. With those two cards in each player's deck, there was only one six-point victory point card bought the whole game (there are a total of 12), decks didn't grow very large at all, and the total number of victory points in the game at the end was the same as at the beginning (i.e., the total number of curse cards given out exactly balanced the extra victory point cards players bought).

Having played close to 20 games of this so far, I think I can safely say that there's high replay value, and I will certainly be buying the expansions when they come out.


I've read a number of reviews for Dominion, and many of them mention another game, Race for the Galaxy. Most of the mentions are along the lines of, "Dominion is not like Race for the Galaxy." I suppose this is because some people have compared the two, and it's easy to see why. They're both card games, they both have you building up your own little world (in Race for the Galaxy, it's a tableau of planets and developments rather than a deck), and they both severely limit interaction between players.

However, Race for the Galaxy feels much more like a multiplayer game than Dominion does, even though the player interaction seems less important. Whereas in Dominion you can do some limited messing with other players' decks, in Race, you can't effect other players' tableaux at all. For those unfamiliar with the game (and I assume people are more familiar with Race for the Galaxy, since Dominion is much newer), in Race for the Galaxy, there are five phases (explore, develop, settle, consume, produce), and at the beginning of each round, each player secretly picks a phase. Then everyone plays each phase, but any players who picked that phase get a bonus associated with that phase (drawing more cards, spending less on developments, etc.). There can be times you want to do things in two or three different phases during your turn. Being able to only pick one phase yourself, however, gets you to playing the guessing game, trying to figure out which phases your opponents will pick so that you can pick another phase and get the bonus. It's possible, for example, that you want to play the develop phase, but you don't need the bonus associated with it. If you are reasonably certain someone else will be picking the develop phase, then you can safely pick, say, the explore phase, thus getting the bonus where you get more cards. However, if everyone thinks the same way, you could all end up picking the explore phase, and then you will have to hang onto your development card until the next round (when, of course, everyone else picks the develop phase . . . or will they?).

This form of player interaction, being able to do something based on which phase other players pick and giving other players the opportunity to do something in the phase that you pick, makes for a game with a lot more significant player interaction. Now, maybe I'm wrong about this. I've only played three or four games of Race (if you don't count the dozen or so games I've played of the solitaire game, which comes with the first Race expansion—I'd go into that, but this post is already long enough, and this is mostly a post about Dominion), but they've definitely felt much more interactive than any of my games of Dominion.

However, I'd be hard pressed to say which of these games I like better (and their BoardGameGeek rankings are currently 8 (Race) and 9 (Dominion)). The higher level of interaction makes Race for the Galaxy more mentally stimulating, but the constantly changing selection of action cards keeps Dominion very fresh, forcing you to reevaluate the strategy for each set of 10 action cards. Dominion is also quite a bit more friendly to people who aren't into games that are more complex, which means I'm a bit more likely to find people to play Dominion. I haven't bought Race for the Galaxy yet, but if I don't get it as a gift in the next month or so (I've dropped several hints), I will definitely pick it (and its expansion) up. Even if I don't get as much chance to play it with other people, the solitaire game is enough to make it worth the purchase.

I wonder what a solitaire version of Dominion would be like . . . (OK, after typing that, I went and checked BoardGameGeek. There is indeed a thread about solitaire variants, but none of them seem compelling enough for me to want to try, especially when compared to the quality of the Race for the Galaxy solitaire play.)

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I blogged a while ago about Adventure on the iPhone -- Colossal Cave, that is, not the text adventure. Now Peter Hirschberg brings us the other one: Atari 2600 Adventure on the iPhone. It's a free download.

(As Nick Montfort likes to remind me, Warren Robinett intended his Atari Adventure game to be a port of the text game Adventure. It's extremely stylized, of course, but it's got the mazes and the monsters and the keys and the puzzles... the giant bat must be a reject from Wumpus, however.)


While my back was turned, Fantasy Flight Games got the rights to republish Cosmic Encounter. Great Bird of the Galaxy!

Cosmic was the game of my college years; we played a couple of games just about every Sunday afternoon. It was already out of print from its second publisher, and then (in 1991) reprinted by a third, and I could go on all day about the shortcomings of its various incarnations. And the expansion sets. (I had the enormous luck to find a copy of Eon's original Expansion Pack #8 in a dusty Pittsburgh gameshop. Kickers, kickers were key. I never cared for flares that much.)

Cosmic reappeared in 2000 in a nicely-produced -- but expensive and oversimplified -- box set from Avalon Hill. Then Cosmic Encounter Online, a capable (okay, still simplified) browser-based game which is still going strong. And now the wheel turns again: a new box set. Fantasy Flight's web site says it will ship this month for US$60.

The new edition looks pretty good. The famously complicated turn structure is diagrammed on each alien power card, with the important phase (for that power) highlighted. (Preview examples: Mind, Pacifist, Parasite, Loser, and newcomer Tripler.) No star-system hex boards, but you can make your own if you want the classic experience.

The all-important artwork is satisfactory. (And when I say "satisfactory", I just mean "I will always be wedded to the Eon artwork of my youth.") Kevin Wilson, the game designer in charge of the project, calls the style "retro-futurism", which I'd agree with -- old pulp covers, more than a hint of Frank Kelly Freas.

It will ship with 50 aliens, a decent selection -- handily graded by play-difficulty, if you want to introduce new players to the game. Expansion sets are promised. To be sure, each republisher of Cosmic has promised expansion sets, and I don't recall that any have succeeded except for Mayfair's minimal More Cosmic Encounter in 1992. Hopefully FF's edition will get enough love to keep growing.

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Muggle collegiate Quidditch

For many years, Capture the Flag with Stuff reigned as the supreme overelaborated fantasy-themed sport played by overenergetic college students. Or, well, probably not. I have no idea what the kids get up to these days, really. I didn't know what kids got up to in those days. But CtFwS was the one I was aware of -- mostly because I started it. (It has evolved considerably since then; see the new KGB rules used at CMU.)

(Moopsball was the supreme overelaborated fantasy-themed sport not played by enthusiastic college students. Sadly, it is no longer not played because it's too much work; it is now not played because nobody remembers it. Sic transit the guy with the hula hoop.)

But the new generation has arrived, and that means Quidditch. As in, the kids who struggled through Philosopher's Stone at age 8 are now in college. Quidditch is what they want, and they have made it work.

(Here I tried to interpolate some joke about what the devoted fans of Twilight will be playing at college in five-ish years. My first idea was too creepy to put in writing and they went downhill from there. Make up your own, I'll be hiding under this extremely sparkly rock.)

If you've read the Harry Potter books, you know how Quidditch works. If not, this blog post will do nothing for you... okay, look, hit Wikipedia and come back. Or don't come back, because that entry has a summary of Muggle Quidditch, so what do you need me for? Huh? I'll just go hide under that extremely sparkly rock over there.

(PS: Wikipedia keeps its Quidditch page up to date, but they delete the page explaining Kosho? 1000% lame.) (EDIT-ADD: Thank you Deletionpedia.)

Muggle Quidditch! Rule one: you must run around holding a broomstick between your legs. ("Harder than it looks, and just as awkward," says one player.) Rule two: throw the Quaffle (a volleyball) through the goal hoop. Rule three: you must drop the Quaffle if someone clobbers you with a Bludger (dodgeball). Rule four: the game ends when someone grabs the Golden Snitch. The Golden Snitch is played by a very fast person, dressed in gold, with a tennis ball tied around his or her waist. There are other rules but they don't seem to prevent shoving and tackling, so that's basically what the game winds up being about.

So it's simultaneous tackle rugby, tag, and dodgeball, all being played on the same field among different subsets of the players. I know it sounds like I'm making fun of this; but I'm impressed. All the players have to have a clear idea of what's going on, to make this work.

I also admire that it's not just a game -- it's an event. The 2008 World Cup at Middlebury College had costumes, characters, role-playing. (See, there's a reason I brought up Moopsball.) There are extravagant team names. There are people on stilts. The league commissioner wears a top hat. Everything is better when top hats are involved.

The biggest difference between this and Rowling's fictional Quidditch -- well, is that the players can't fly. (Everyone agrees that it's a really, really muddy time for all. On the positive side, if you slip, it's not 150 feet to the ground.)

The biggest chosen difference is that grabbing the Golden Snitch is worth only 30 points, or three times the value of a goal -- not fifteen times, as Rowling had it. This brings the game into something like balance. Both Seekers have to keep an eye on the score as well as the Snitch. Unless the score is very close, one Seeker will be actively running interference against the other, rather than trying to catch the Snitch herself.

Here's an article about the 2008 World Cup. There's also a rudimentary IQA web site. See also, a documentary produced by Justin Bogart (youtube video).

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I am totally done with Silent Hill 5

When I say "Silent Hill 5", I mean the "Homecoming" game that just shipped. And when I say "totally done", I mean that I got a third of the way in and I'm stuck.

It's the police station. There are about eight of the axe-headed bastards between me and the exit. I can generally kill about five of them. Seven if I'm lucky. I have essentially no health at the save-point -- burned it all on the previous boss monster -- and there isn't enough in the game to be getting on with. I just failed to make it through, four times in a row. So I'm done.

(As per my usual rule for video game series, if I can't finish a game, I'm not interested in the sequel. Devil May Cry, I'm looking straight at you. Also Onimusha, next time one of those comes out.)

So tell me: why is there no Easy Mode in SH5? All the previous games, you could choose Easy as an option (for the combat, I'm not talking about the puzzles). There was a well-understood penalty for wimps: you couldn't get all of the variant plot endings, not without going back through the game on the higher difficulty modes. But in this game, your choices are Normal and Hard.

I played the four previous games in Easy Mode. I enjoyed them. I was happy with the endings I got. I was a fan of the series. With this new game, the designers seem to have decided that I was not enough of a fan, because they threw me off the bus.

Some games have adaptive difficulty. If SH5 does, I'm not feeling it. Some games offer you an Easy option after you've gotten your ass kicked a few times. SH5 doesn't -- at least, it hasn't happened to me, and the walkthroughs I found on the web don't mention it.

So who benefits from this? Were there people posting all over the gaming community, lamenting that the Wrong Kind of People were playing their precious survival horror game? Did people regret succumbing to temptation? I understand well the attraction of the dull path -- this comes up in adventure game design all the time, albeit with puzzle-solving skills rather than button-mashing. Players will take the easy way out, be it brute force or infinite health, and then complain that it made the game no fun. I get that.

But this isn't a new format. Anyone who is interested in this thing is probably satisfied with the original game model -- at least enough to have bought SH2, 3, and 4. It's not like there was a tide of hardcore gamers waiting to rush in as soon as Easy Mode was deleted.

Or was there?

Answers, tips, and infinite-health cheats welcome.

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From the old to the new

Another in our series of game design documents. Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives (standard disclaimer: this book was published by the company I work for, and I acquired it, but I have no direct financial stake in the book), recently started blogging on the topics associated with his book. He just posted a game design document for a game that he's going to start building, called Arcana Manor, a "3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons." You can also check out his post where he talks about his initial idea for the game, and I find it interesting to see the modifications and refinements that take place just in the two weeks between the posts. I'm particularly interested in the fact that he's going to use tarot symbolism, with the possibility of wandering through rooms based on the major arcana. (I've had this minor fascination with card games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different ability, and I've been meaning to post here about that.)

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Grim Fandango puzzle design document

Another in our series of historic game development trivia! (This is completely coincidental, stuff just keeps popping up.)

Tim Schafer at Double Fine has posted the puzzle design spec for his classic adventure game, Grim Fandango. It is that game's tenth anniversary; it was released on the Day of the Dead, 1998.

Read the Grim Fandango document (2.4 meg PDF).

This document is a first draft, dated April 30, 1996. It has lots of puzzles which didn't make it into the final game. Schafer also notes:

We didn’t have the last puzzle designed when I wrote that document, so I wrote two nonsense paragraphs and then overlapped them in the file so it would look like the final puzzle description was in there, but obscured by a print formatting error. That way I could turn the document in by the deadline.

Bonus: Grim Fandango cake.


EDIT-ADD (11/13): Schafer has taken down his blog post and the document, with no direct comment, but a very indirect hint that it wasn't his to post. Since we at the Gameshelf believe in historic preservation, I have put a copy on our own web site. So the link above works again.

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More bad news for Cyan

Recalling Cyan's status in late summer: their game development division was down to a skeleton crew, whose only funded project was iPhone Myst. They were working getting Uru back up as a low-budget, low-profile sandbox for fans to play in. Most of the company's revenue came from CyanTest, their game-testing service.

Unfortunately, in October, Cyan announced that "a major revenue stream to Cyan was disrupted". We now have a little more information: CyanTest's biggest customer was Gamecock Media -- which was recently bought out by SouthPeak Interactive. Cyan's testing deal with Gamecock apparently didn't survive the acquisition.

As a result, we now hear that fifty employees of CyanTest were laid off today. (News article from the Spokesman-Review.)

Presumably Cyan has spent the past month looking for new customers, and failing. The layoffs leave seven people in CyanTest. So, a skeleton crew on both sides. They have a few small game-testing customers, and iPhone Myst is on track, but Cyan is now nearly nonexistent.

Cyan has pitched the idea of a new video game to several publishers but hasn’t been given any funding yet. If the new project is funded, the game development side of the company will ramp up, [CEO] Fryman said. (ibid.)

As long as I've got this thing lit up, have some comments from Rand Miller on Myst Online, given at a panel discussion at the Austin GDC in September.

Elaborating on why the game couldn't manage to initially keep itself alive, Miller said, "I'm always going to fall back on 'we were ahead of our time,' because it's easy."

"The biggest thing we did was an all or nothing proposal from an entertainment point of view," he continued. "It's not like you can start up a new TV network and give one show a month and expect it to be successful... We couldn't quite pull that off with the money we had." (from the writeup on gamesindustry.biz)


EDIT-ADD: The layoffs may have been as early as October 7th, the day Cyan posted about revenue trouble. The news article only says "recently" (and not "today", as I originally misread). Rumors about layoffs popped up that day (see this forum thread), although I had no confirmation until now. Some time between then and now, anyhow.

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Vote, youse

This is not a political blog, although we who post in it have political opinions. (You can figure mine with a minimum of Googling.) So this will remain a non-partisan post:

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is voting day in the US. Vote, you (American voting) bozos.

If you are not sure whether you are a qualified American voting bozo, or how to do the deed, start here. If you have done the early voting thing and your pebble is in the jar already, I thank you.

If you are sick of this election, I apologize. (But that doesn't get you off the hook.)

Partisan comments in this thread will be squished because, frankly, there are forums better able to manage that kind of firefight. Talk about the Race for the Galaxy expansion instead. I got clobbered on Saturday because I couldn't get enough blue planets oh, fudge.

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