Archive for month: September, 2014

“Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.” – Mike Pondsmith

30 Sep
September 30, 2014

Virtual Explorers

25 Sep
September 25, 2014

The urge to explore is a powerful one, there is a thrill in discovery, a joy in wandering virgin territory and meeting new and exotic characters.

It’s certainly one of the most compelling aspects of this interactive medium, it’s ability to not just tantalize us with glimpses of exotic worlds, but to actually transport us to them, to place us on alien soil, inside that forgotten temple or derelict spaceship, and to let us take on the role of virtual explorers.

And while there’s some debate in the gaming sphere over whether the so-called “walking simulators” like Dear Esther count as “games” or some other thing, there’s still that joy of playful exploration, the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner, over the next hill. Personally, I’m glad they’re made.

And with that thought, I leave you with Bernband, a freeware walking simulator set in a low-fi sci-fi city, oozing with Star Wars-cantina atmosphere.

You may be tired of the pixelated look, but give it a chance. There’s plenty of little things to discover as you poke around.

As a side note, man but there really is some great, inspiring stuff out there in the indie scene! Especially these days, as the cheaper, easier and more powerful tools have truly opened up the space to developers and designers of all stripes. I love finding projects like this, that demonstrate that it’s possible to create something that delights and feels expansive, even without a big AAA budget. I’ve grown too accustomed to being pragmatic, realistic, reasonable. To lowering my expectations and believing that some project X is out of reach unless I have a big budget to execute it. *cough* Deus Ex-alike *cough*

The indie scene helps free my thinking a bit, opens my eyes to creative solutions and low-cost design hacks. It keeps me excited and dreaming about what’s possible, rather than just what’s “realistic”.

Keep being inspiring, indie guys and gals.

It’s The Little Things

24 Sep
September 24, 2014

As I mentioned in a previous post, most of my development time right now is devoted to playtesting. Game balance is a complex web of mechanics, interactions and visual communication choices, and tweaking even one tiny thing can lead to all sorts of unexpected changes rippling throughout the system.

That’s why theorycrafting can only take you so far. You have to actually build the thing, test it, iterate, try out ideas and see how they feel. Often you’ll be surprised at where this process takes you, design-wise.

An example from the design of System Crash is how players start with 1 Credit (the game’s resource) in their Pool at the beginning of the game, even before they play any Credit Chits. Quite frankly, I don’t like that. It’s a design hack, a fudge factor.

You see, the problem I had was that, originally, when the player started with an empty Pool, the first round or two of a game would feel a bit boring, the player wouldn’t have much to do. There aren’t that many cards in the game in the 0-1 Credit range, and you can play at most 1 Credit Chit a round.

So the first round tended to be boring, with very few interesting decisions to be made.

My first instinct was simply to make all the cards cheaper. Simply knock 1 Credit off the price of every card in the game, and that should keep the relative balance of everything the same while allowing you to make interesting decisions quicker, right?

No, not quite.

(For the purposes of this example, we’ll assume a good resource run, so the earliest you can play an X Credit card is on turn X.)

An 8 Credit Agent discounted to 7 Credits can now be played on turn 7, as we expect. But consider playing two 4 Credit Agents. If you drop the cost of each of those Agents to 3 Credits, the earliest you can play both of them is on turn 6. That’s a 2 turn reduction, whereas the Agent originally costing 8 Credits would only get a 1 turn reduction.

You see the problem? The 1 Credit discount compounds itself across cheap combos. If previously you could have played four 2 Credit cards on turn 8, now you can play the four 1 Credit cards on turn 4! A 4 turn reduction! The balance of the whole game completely changes, with the cheaper combos getting a huge power boost.

So I went back to the drawing board. What I wanted was to keep the balance of the game as I had it, but allow the player to have a better chance of being able to do something besides play a Credit Chit card in the first turn. So…what about just giving them 1 Credit to start? Just skip past the boring first turn?

I tried it, and it worked. The fudge bothers me, it feels like an inelegant solution, but it does work. So I left it in, and try not to get too twitchy over it. 😉

So coming back to my recent playtesting, I decided to try mess with another factor, just on a whim. Currently, each player needs to score 30 Objective Points to win the match. I bumped it up to 50, just to see what that was like.

And lo and behold, I think it actually makes the game much better! What it does is extend the end-game phase of a match. Going back, the 30 OP matches feel truncated, just as you start to get your bigger cards out, the game ends.

And while 20 OP extra to chase sounds like a lot, once you start getting the big cards onto the field of play, 20 OP is something that you can score in a single round, even.

It also, oddly enough, reduces the power of the early game cards. Because you have more breathing room, losing advantage in the early game isn’t quite as much of a disadvantage. A hacker getting off some Smoke Grenades for a few rounds doesn’t leave you feeling quite so helpless, because there are a few more turns afterwards to reverse your fortunes, now. More time for you to pull out some big stompy robots and teach that hacker pest a lesson. 😉

A subtle change, but one that is, I think, for the better. But the real lesson here is that it’s important to experiment with your design, try things, tweak, iterate. The results may surprise you.

Mind The Straw, Sam

16 Sep
September 16, 2014

straw-bale-on-field

(Let me just apologize up front to the folk who visit this blog for the sporadic updates about game development. You’ll probably find this bewildering and/or irrelevant. Feel free to skip it, by all means. But I had a long-form thought I wanted to get down, twitter isn’t the best medium, and it seemed a bit much to hurl out randomly amoungst my friends and family on Facebook. So I thought to myself “you know, you do have a blog…”)

A couple of people in the skeptical community have been sharing this piece by well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, posted in response to…well, you should read the piece for the proper context, in his own words. I’m just going to critique it. He says some unfortunate things, in my opinion, and then falls prey to a common pitfall when discussing gender. It bugged me to the point where I felt like I needed to get down my thoughts.

(Let me say up front that I mostly like Harris and find him to be fairly clear-headed. Mostly.)

The first problem is that Sam reaches for an easy straw man counterargument in response to the charge of sexism. In fairness, misunderstandings arise, and these kinds of off-the-cuff remarks can be more poorly phrased than something carefully mulled over and written down. But still.

Here is where it starts. Harris relays their conversation to us.

She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.

Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.

She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.

Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.

If it’s not obvious, here, let me summarize the gist of the exchange :

Her: What you said is sexist.

Sam: Are you saying you think there aren’t any differences between men and women? If you think that, this conversation is over before it started!

You see it?

Sam’s response is an attack on a position that the other person didn’t state, a straw man argument. It is not the case that saying a particular generalization is harmful or biased means that you think the 2 genders are completely identical. It’s a huge reach to infer that from that comment, but it IS a great deal easier to knock down, as arguments go.

Sam then continues to build his pile of straw later, on his blog. Inviting us, his readers, to join him in laughing at the idea of someone denying that sex differences play even a small role in skewed gender representation in the management of powerful companies.

However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

I’ve read the piece multiple times now, and I’m quite at a loss as to when either of the women claimed to hold that position. Again, it’s a straw man that Sam sets up, just to knock down. It’s very easy to seem intellectually superior when you make a show of knocking down exaggerated claims you’ve pinned on your opponent.

Anyway, Harris spends a lot of time talking about how he knows and respects women etc, and even points out that he recognizes the danger of skirting the “some of my best friends are black” style defense against accusations of sexism.

But simply pointing out that you’re aware of the pit looming in front of you isn’t enough. You have to actually change course to avoid it.

Personally, I would have hoped that if Sam had so much respect for and interaction with women, he might have picked up by now how many of them find comments about their “nurturing” natures to be patronizing as all hell, especially when reached for glibly as an explanation of why they are underrepresented in various fields or careers.

You see, and this really gets to the heart of what Harris missed here, these kinds of benevolent-seeming comments are often used to justify the differences created by deeply-entrenched structural sexism. You’ll hear things like women are too delicate for sports, too sensitive to go to war, they don’t like to get dirty, they’re more naturally inclined to soft skills like caring for children, they’re more supportive and less competitive than men, and so on and so forth.

These words, plotted out visually, would form a mental map around the core stereotypes of motherhood and femininity, the idealized archetype of woman (in the eyes of a lot of men). And these ideas have frequently been used to oppress women throughout history.

These kinds of things are examples of benevolent sexism, sexist concepts that, on surface examination, sound positive. Women are more caring, women are nicer, women aren’t as dirty. Isn’t that a nice thing to say about someone? How could anyone protest being called “the fairer sex”?!?!

But they straightjacket women and the ways they can express themselves in the world. They send signals to women about how they’re expected to behave and which careers they are expected to go into, and they have been used, over and over and over, to justify the inequality caused by deep-seated misogyny. No, we hear, it’s not sexism that keeps women out of certain careers, certain spaces, it’s because they’re just not inclined toward those kinds of things in the first place! It’s not that we’re keeping women out, it’s that they don’t even want to come in!

Which brings us back to Harris’s contentious comment.

There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

Well, obviously, if women don’t want to participate, the likely explanation is because they’re just not inclined to this kind of thing, this man-thing. This rough-and-tumble back-and-forth intellectual pugilism. Women are more gentle, you see. Softer. Nurturing.

Harris doesn’t want to acknowledge the (likely unintentional) sexism in this comment, but he doesn’t have real evidence that critical thought is more “intrinsically male”, more a part of our natures. And it’s unfortunate that Harris can’t see his quick, off-the-cuff reaching for that particular explanation first as part of a larger, problematic pattern experienced regularly by women in society.

And it’s doubly unfortunate that many of the prominent males in the community are, as we speak, closing ranks and working to discredit the sources and communities where the strongest feminist critique is coming from. It would be nice if they’d try to listen and understand instead of getting defensive. If I hadn’t already unfollowed Dawkins a long time ago, I would have had to, now. People you look up to, intellectually, making cringe-worthy comments is a fairly painful experience.

The ending paragraph slips from what could still be considered to be an honest mistake to an unfortunate bit of vindictiveness. I understand that he’s taking heavy flak and the urge to punch back is probably strong. Hell, I’m an argumentative guy, I get the urge to strike back.

Pretending to want to keep the harmony while taking the opportunity to throw some less-than-subtle kicks at whoever it was he was debating with is a shit move. It’s like firing a few tank shells across the border at a neighboring nation and waiting for a counter-attack, all while loudly proclaiming that you’re trying to keep the peace. That is not what the moral high ground looks like.

Start a fight or don’t, whatever, but just own it, Sam. And clear up all this the bloody straw.

Discarding Discard Mechanics

11 Sep
September 11, 2014

Please excuse the silence of late.

I took a brief, 2 week hiatus from game development while I was up in Joburg for my day job. With the commute and change of daily schedule, it was just too exhausting to really get much work done up there. But I’m back now, and I’m head-down focused on the final push toward release. Besides waiting on some final game art, I’m playtesting the heck out of the campaign and the various deck builds. Hours and hours a day, playtesting duels.

It’s late in the day to be making anything other than minor changes, I know, but what can I say, I’m going with my gut here and changing stuff if it doesn’t feel quite right. Seeing if I can make it better. And so far, so good!

The first major change, that I’ll talk about in this post, is that I’ve mostly done away with the discard and resource destruction cards. And, by “done away with”, I mean “re-purposed the cards to use different mechanics”.

The reason is simple. I read a post a while back from one of the designers of Hearthstone, where he’d said that they’d purposefully chosen not to include discard and resource destruction effects, because they aren’t fun to play against. A good card duel is a back-and-forth, and that’s a lot of the fun. But a well-constructed discard or resource destruction deck centers around denying an opponent any moves, or significantly limiting their moves. Of limiting their ability to actually play, essentially.

And the point resonated with me, in the way things that you subconsciously know to be true do, when you hear them put into words. Sitting there with an empty hand isn’t really a fun experience, and it’s not the most fun way to win, either. Sure, you can revel in your success, but it’s kinda like chucking a weighted net over your opponent and then stabbing them through the net while they’re tangled up. It’s not really much of a combat.

To make it worse, those effects are REALLY hard to balance, I found. The problem is that there is more of a sliding scale of victory/loss with other cards. Your Agent might be slightly weaker than the opposing Agent, but you still get off a shot or two before going down, leaving the enemy weakened.

Discard and resource destruction mechanics straddle a razor’s edge, balance wise. Because they either deny your opponent the ability to play a card or not, they’re very binary. If you can play them early enough, you completely strangle your opponent. Play them too late, and you can’t apply the lock-down you need to control the game. They’re also essentially hard counters to ANY strategy, if done right. Because the easiest card to defeat is one that’s never played.

So it’s an incredibly difficult thing, to balance them properly.

Anyway, I tried it out on a test branch, removing the handful of cards that applied discard or resource destruction effects to your opponent, repurposing them with other mechanics. And so far, I like it. Not only does it remove a problematic mechanic, it gives me a few more cards to flesh out other strategies with.

But I didn’t completely remove discard. Like in Hearthstone, some cards have an extra cost to play them, forcing you to discard a card at random from your hand, or lose some other resource. That, I’m ok with. Because that’s not about strangling your opponent’s ability to perform actions during their turn, that’s just adding a kind of gambling mechanic to your deck building, where you play a card and hope it doesn’t cost you too much to do so. High risk for potentially high reward.

I’ve mostly added the effect to the Yakuza cards, where it makes sense with the theme. It’s always dangerous to have dealings with the Yakuza, after all.

Yakuza Soldier, for example, has better than average stats for his cost, but he comes at a price.

YakSoldier

I’ll discuss the rest of the repurposed cards in later blog posts. For now, have fun guessing what they’ve become! 😉 And they’re not the only cards that have been rebalanced and rejigged. I’m constantly tweaking. So I think my beta testers will have fun with the next round of testing, seeing what’s changed, trying out new strategies!

Stay tuned!