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August 29, 2005

I made Blogged Out again

So, welcome back, GamaSutra¹ readers.

Jim Rossignol adds to the discussion, so I'll go ahead and keep talking about it in the original article's comments section.

Thanks Jim. And a belated thanks to Simon Carless for the first one.

¹Free registration sometimes required. I'm registered, so I don't know which are which.

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:19 PM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2005

Golfin' with the Boys

It's a-me, Mario Golf

Lately the boys and I have been getting into Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for the GameCube.

I'm not usually into golf games; indeed, I'm not really into sports games at all. If it were Tiger Woods, I'm fairly certain it would pale pretty quickly. But having those fun cartoony Nintendo characters really works for us, and of course, the boys find it more interesting too.

Part of the appeal for the boys is that they themselves have played a bit of mini-golf, and Luc has actually gotten out to the driving range with me and his grandparents a couple of times¹. Both enjoy swinging a set of plastic clubs, too².

Mostly we've been playing stroke play, but that's not really fair. The boys are mostly competing just with each other at that point, and they try to keep track of any holes they beat me on. We're going to switch to the skins game, so that it evens up a bit. We end up splitting the holes a little bit better if you ignore score -- when I mess up, I usually bogey or double-bogey, whereas it's not uncommon to see one of the kids go +6 a hole or two per round. I'll also switch back to using the swing meter in the more complicated mode, with the multiple button presses, and let them keep going with the automatic swing, which is a nice feature that should also help balance the play.

Toadstool Tour is not without some flaws. The most annoying thing is that to unlock additional courses, I have to go back and play the single-player game some time when the kids are in bed. That just drives me crazy, particularly considering that we played through all of Double Dash entirely in co-op, completing the whole game. The models of the games are a little different, but it's still something I find completely frustrating, and it's not hard to imagine pitting my threesome in a skins game or stroke play against some of the other Nintendo characters. We have about six courses open right now, and we've played most of them, so I'm going to have to open up a few more over the next few days.

Anyway, we're looking forward to Mario Baseball coming out next week. And the news that Mario's going to be showing up in the next SSX makes it likely to be the first snowboarding title I'll pick up since Tricky. It'll be bound to entertain.

¹He's surprisingly good. We didn't go this year but last summer he was hitting really well, which was pretty amazing considering he was only about six at the time.
²When Luc was five, he could hit those plastic clubs with better form than I could swing a driver -- it's humbling how many habits we have to unlearn, how much we have to get our brains out of the way when we do physical activities. At least, those of us in the not-so-active-nor-ever-so-graceful set.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:06 AM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2005

Discussion: Two Plus One

Jules and Jim Façade

Jules et Jim is a great little movie about the complications of friendship and romance, of the duties we owe one another and to our own happiness. The titular pair are great friends who meet in Paris, Jules an Austrian and Jim a Frenchman. They grow to be great friends, thoroughly understanding one another.

Soon, a woman enters the picture, Catherine, and her amazing resemblance to a statue they both admired in Greece strikes them both, and makes them realize that she is somehow different than their other girlfriends, which they have sometimes shared. Catherine is a free spirit, and as portrayed by Jeanne Moreau, she crackles with a frantic, radiant energy that must be seen to be understood. Both men fall for her, Jim perhaps the hardest, but Catherine chooses Jules, and Jim respects her choice and does not try to interfere.

It is at this point that the film gets a little strange, or perhaps, a little stranger; war intervenes, and Jules returns to Austria with Catherine now his wife. Time and the war pass quickly; each man worries for his friend and hopes that he will not meet him on the battlefield¹. They do not, both survive, and time marches on until one day Jim pays them a visit.

Jim encounters the couple, very unhappily married, with Jules still caring only for Catherine's happiness so long as she can be made to stay near to him, to still share in his life if she will not share his bed. She has had lovers, and soon takes Jim as a lover, with Jules' blessing, as they will live in the house, and no harm will come to Sabine, Jules' and Catherine's daughter, thereby.

There are other wrinkles, but by this point in the story I've told you enough to impart the film's strange flavor. At the time that I watched it, I was a little stymied, but like most great films, it sticks with you and grows a little bit in your mind; you recall its images and its subject, and it ends up making you think a bit about what two people who love each other owe to each other, and what concessions they should make for the other's happiness. In the case of Jules and Jim, there are three pairings -- the two men clearly love each other, and each of them loves Catherine. Where it gets interesting is when that third wheel is added to the mix².

It's funny, but I kind of feel the same way about Façade, the research project everyone's been talking about³. What's interesting about Façade, at least in theory, is that it does exactly what Jules and Jim does, but it puts the player in charge of exploring his relationships with these other characters.

It's not properly a game, unless you'd call it a role-playing game, with a heavy emphasis on the role. Players4 arrive at the home of Trip and Grace, a married couple who are clearly having a domestic dispute which is interrupted by the ringing of the bell (at a point of your choosing).

The simulation takes input through typing, as anything you type is something you say. This is, unfortunately, a rather clumsy interface, and even with my very high word-per-minute rate, I continually find myself just a beat behind in conversation, often cutting off one of the participants mid-sentence as I furiously pound out my words. That aspect is quite frustrating.

What really thrills me about it, though, is that I can approach it with my own role in mind. Am I to be the cad, who has always had the hots for Grace and now can make my move? Am I supportive of one character or the other? Am I uncomfortable? Interface issues aside, it aims to let me make these choices, and despite those flaws, it's still really interesting. Jules and Jim explored the interactions of two people and one other, and so does Façade.

I wondered over in Jamie's blog whether the implementors had done any filmed tests to see what worked for the experience and what didn't. Often in academics, you look to see what explanatory power your model has, and sometimes you take what you have and measure it against what people actually do5. I think it'd be really interesting to take some blind subjects and run this scenario with real people -- actually walk these blind subjects up to the door with exactly the information they get when playing the game, and let it unfold with a couple of actors.

I'd love to know how they might have changed their simulation in response. Would people ask "Well, wait a minute -- did I meet Trip first, or Grace first? How long have I known them?" How much more information would people want before they felt comfortable? In what ways would they connect with the characters that weren't reflected in their simulation -- longer hugs? Back rubbing? Peering attentively? Making faces? There's so much richness there, and I'm curious about how much of it you'd have to add in to feel like you had enough interface to emote properly?

Would speaking directly to it be enough, through a microphone? I don't know. But it'd be a start. I don't want to push more hard problems on them, but given the simulation, that kind of real-time interface is pretty desirable. Had they simply presented it as a text "adventure", the typing interface might have worked much better, though the results wouldn't have had the immediacy. Maybe playing it out as a text adventure and then playing it back as film might work.

So, I guess I think Façade is pretty important too. Like Jules and Jim, the more I think about it the more questions it makes me ask, the more it makes me think. That's a significant contribution.

¹Talk about your pronomial binding problems. Anyway, Jim worries for Jules, Jules for Jim, and neither wishes to meet the other in battle.
²Note: Wildly diverging metaphors!
³See site for links and quotes. I learned of it through Ernest Adams' write-up on GamaSutra.
4Interactors? Consumers? Experiencers? Participants? Since it's not really a game, it's not really proper to call us players. An experience which drives me to seek new terminology is often a good thing.
5Years ago when I worked in graphics research, I was co-author of a paper about generating speech and gesture for animated conversations, which still shows up in searches on my name. Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about the project was some of the errors we would get, and the ways it would fall into the uncanny valley (behaviorally speaking; visually speaking, the poly models were far below what we have today). The chief researcher, Justine Cassell, had done her graduate work in gesture, and behind her theories were some good indications of why we actually can mis-gesture. Fun stuff. While academia is really not for me, some of the intellectual questions it poses are still really interesting to me.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:33 PM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2005

Gunslingers and Samurai

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Deadwood: Season One¹ Sanjuro The Twilight Samurai

It's certainly been remarked before that there are a lot of similarities between samurai films and Westerns; indeed, some of the greatest Westerns were inspired by films by Kurosawa, including A Fistful of Dollars by Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven by The Seven Samurai. (Sanjuro, which I recently watched, is itself a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo; another parallel can be drawn with the spiritual successor For A Few Dollars More.)

It's fairly obvious with even a little bit of thought why there should be such a close correspondence. After all, both genres deal with violent historical periods where life was fairly cheap. Both deal with time periods that are distant enough to be romanticized and yet not so distant as to be forgotten or undocumented. Both eras came to a close at about the same time, with the Meiji era in Japan beginning at roughly the same time as the West becoming more civilized². Both times deal with questions of honor and moral ambiguity, with hired guns and ronin facing off across moral lines. Both genres also point a bit to the souls of their cultures -- with Westerns portraying the lone individual surviving by his wit and skill, and samurai films portraying men bound by honor and code and tradition.

Both genres are also highly malleable; periods of great violence at an individual scale³ lend themselves to all sorts of investigations. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a single murder causes one man to lose his grip and become a bum, while another rides the coattails of the fame it grants him to become a Senator. This is similar to Twilight Samurai, where a single event causes a man to overcome his concerns about a marriage he would make for love. Both are capable of morality plays (for example, The Ox-Bow Incident4). Both have enjoyed cycles of popularity, with periods of reinvention and rejuvenation; in getting a television series in Deadwood, it's my hope that Westerns may get another here in the States.

But enough about similarities.

One of the things I find interesting as a gamer are the differences between the Japanese market and the American market, and one notable difference is that these two genres are reflected differently in the games made in their native countries. In short, while there are several games reflecting samurai culture in a given year (Dynasty Warriors, the Onimusha series, games like Way of the Samurai or Musashi Samurai Legend), Western videogames are comparatively rare. I can only think of a few, and even then, I need to stretch a ways back (Outlaws, Red Dead Revolver, er...).

Why is this? I'm not certain, but I think it's probably about the guns. Why play an action game with guns where the pistol only carries six shots and the machine gun has to be left in a fixed position? Also, a hip young friend of mine tells me that Westerns just aren't cool anymore. I certainly hope the film genre doesn't die out altogether, though Clint's gotten a little old to get out there riding horses, and I'm not aware of any other stars who could even revive the genre anymore.

Whereas gracefully wielding a katana is eternally cool, as Kill Bill points out.

In the end, I'm not even sure I want to know why. What I really want is a few more Western games, though preferably not ones that drag in other genres to try and make them cool. I have high hopes for NeverSoft's Gun, which comes out this fall.

¹I suppose I should change my category names to DVDs rather than Movies, since I don't want to add something about television. I'm not going to, even though I suppose I should. But for anyone who regularly reads it, read Movies as a broad category. :)
²The Meiji era (beginning 1867) was a time at which Japan began to modernize; by 1876, samurai were forbidden to carry their blades in public. By the early 1890s, most of the Western territories such as Montana or the Dakotas had gained statehood, and with it legitimacy and the rule of law.
³As opposed to the scale of warfare, I mean.
4There's another interesting point to be made about The Ox-Bow Incident, and that's that it was adapted from a play. I actually think there may be another interesting blog post about adapting films from plays and the problems that that caused film and television early on -- since we face some of the same problems with videogames. But that's for another time.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:03 PM | Comments (12)

August 08, 2005

Discussion: Information

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Sweet Smell of Success is one of those old-time Hollywood movies, which doesn't clearly fit any obvious Hollywood mold today. It involves the circle surrounding one J. J. Hunsecker¹, the most powerful gossip columnist in town. Getting your name in his column means the death, birth, or rebirth of your career, depending on what people can read between the lines. It's worth seeing, especially to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis play against type, even if the dénouement feels a little stale and forced in this day and age. But those two amoral characters at the center of the drama, both dominant and submissive, make it worth viewing even now.

The theme of how information gets around is an interesting one. Back in the days when Molyneux was hawking Fable before its release, he mentioned a feature whereby village kids would emulate your hero, to the point of wearing their hair in the same style and being tattooed the same way. At the time, I thought this was a pretty neat feature from the standpoint of reinforcing the player's identification with his character. After all, your actions are having a tangible effect on the world, as kids look up to you and try to emulate you².

I thought this was really interesting, the sort of somewhat simple mechanic that achieved a great deal. But it got me thinking about how those kids got to know about your exploits. How does information make the rounds in the fantasy realms we so often explore in games?

In The Sweet Smell of Success, information as gossip got around via a sort of feudal system. Small-time publicists fed upwards to bigger and bigger columnists, and above it all was the tyrant, Hunsecker, who then decided what went out as a decree via his column. Fortunes were made and lost on his say-so.

There are other sorts of information networks that are interesting. Just starting with the Fable example, there's lots of different aspects of information you could model:

  • Imperfect information. One thing that struck me when I heard of this feature was the vanishingly low likelihood that all these kids would have a) gotten tattooed in the first place, but b)managed to get the tattoos exactly right. You can just imagine the variety of tattoos that might derive from a description along the lines of "he had the figure of a serpent above his brow." Horizontal? Vertical? Coiled? Cobra? Rattler? And imagine being the kid who got it right -- he'd be the cock of the walk for a week.
  • The Speed of Information. These days, of course, a significant amount of information flies about as fast as you can download it on eMule. But even early in the last century, news could take quite some time to make it to the common man's ear³. This could make for some interesting gameplay scenarios -- in some cases, the player could outpace the information, and even deliver it himself, thus being the first and perhaps final authority on the slaying of yonder foul creature beneath the mountain. But in others, the player might be delayed (or distracted by other subquests), and others might step forward to take credit for his achievements, thus stealing the limelight. I can see all sorts of scenarios: the player arriving to an enormous festival held in honor of Sir Guillaume the Dragonslayer, only to discover that Guillaume was that wretch "Dirty Bill" he threw out of a tavern a town or two back, pulling a con on the gullible townsfolk.
  • Channels of Information. How information gets around is sometimes as important as what information gets around. For example, the film Desperado4 begins with Steve Buscemi coming into a bar to tell about the horrors he's seen a town back. Because he's a stranger and more than a little creepy-looking, his story isn't completely believed. That is, until Banderas shows up...

This is just the beginning. I can also see managing reputation systems based on the way information gets around. Sure, you're really popular with the orcs over in Ogrimmar, but across the ocean on the other continent they've never even heard of you. And that big bad guy who always seems to be watching our hero in the BioWare games? Maybe he only learns of your presence once you've made enough of a mark, and word has gotten back to him.

Some games have managed to incorporate information into their play, but it's usually as a side note, a little local color, as it was intended to be in Fable. As another example, Deus Ex brought in a fair amount of written material that referred to earlier actions of the protagonist, though these were obviously not dynamically created. This can be really effective and reinforce the player as critical actor in the world.

The programmer in me thinks it'd be really neat to me to see some information modeled in different ways, and incorporated into gameplay, and not as some set, pre-scripted event. But then, it'd be just as neat to see that Fable example play out with multiple kids each sporting their own variation on the snake tattoo -- scripted or not, that'd be a pretty cool sequence. Throw it in so it only happens to five percent of your users, and you can claim a lot more is going on than appears at first blush. And then you can watch as that information makes its way in the world through reviews, boards, and word of mouth.

¹Interestingly, I remembered the character as Walter Hunsecker. The character is based on Walter Winchell, which might be the source of my misremembering, but I think I was confusing him with Waring Hudsucker, who is the titular character of The Hudsucker Proxy. Okay, maybe it's not interesting. That said, The Hudsucker Proxy reminds me of a movie that Hollywood made even though Hollywood didn't make those kinds of movies anymore. Now I'm really digressing.
²I'm not certain whether this feature shipped with the project. Anyone know?
³Anyone think that ordinary folks were able to find T-shirts akin to the Onion's Local Man marked "Common Man"? Probably not, but the image is funny to me.
4A film I can't recommend, much as I like Robert Rodriguez.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:05 PM | Comments (0)

August 06, 2005

Why I've Stopped Playing World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a truly stunning achievement. It's beautiful, it's enormous, and it deserves every bit of its success.

And yet, I've completely stopped playing. Twice, actually.

When I first picked it up, what I really wanted was a way to keep in touch with friends on the West Coast. I moved to Maryland from the Bay Area at the end of last year, and I had a lot of friends online playing WoW. I figured this was a good way to get my cooperative game on and still chat with friends about what was going on in their lives. Unfortunately, the three-hour time difference was a killer, and it was very rare that I could actually get in any time with my friends -- typically, we could start no earlier than 11 pm my time, which left a very narrow window, since I was getting up at 5 am.

But the game thoroughly sucked me in nonetheless. Before long I had levelled a Tauren Druid up to the mid-twenties. And one weekend that server had been down, and I had started a human Warlock on another server. Before long, he was into the mid-twenties as well.

Mostly, I played solo. On occasion, I'd group with one or two other players, and we'd do a few quests. This was all just happenstance, however; I'd be up in that area doing a quest anyway, and another player would happen by, and we'd end up grouping and doing something together.

In that way, I met Renwok, a troll rogue who in real life is an 18-year-old New Zealander; while adventuring, we chatted about his foray into Zen philosophy, and we discussed our thoughts about Suzuki and other enlightened thinkers. I also met a fellow programmer who had worked at Skotos Tech one night; we didn't group, but we were in the same neighborhood for a while and were just having a conversation.

These were really interesting evenings. But they were one-offs, and that was kind of unsatisfying. I would occasionally whisper to Renwok, but he'd be busy on some quest or whatever and, given his ability to spend far more time in the game than me, we'd probably never get to play together again.

One night, I actually played with Jamie for a while; I started a new character and we leveled up to about four or so before he had to go and take care of the baby. It was fun, but again, a one-off.

And I joined a couple of very successful groups, always with complete strangers. I did the Van Cleef thing, which was an awesome few hours of play. I did the Wailing Caverns with some folks I didn't know. I did a few things in the neighborhood of Lakeshire with groups. And this was all really fun, for a time. But joining with some people only to never see them again was ultimately disappointing.

Basically, every effort I've made to get to know someone, to spend some time adventuring with someone, has come to an end in an evening. While I really enjoy the serendipity of doing something and having someone come along who can help, I don't like letting go of that so quickly.

Most recently, I had an acquaintance start playing and we planned to spend some time adventuring together. So, I picked up the game after having put it down for a few months, and I quickly leveled a new character up to 12 or so, and I joined him in Westfall for an evening of adventuring. But there again, it ended. He was in the early throes of WoW, putting in a lot of time every week, while I could still only find a night or perhaps two a week to jump in and play. Soon, he had passed 30, while I languished at 17 or so.

I don't fault Blizzard for any of this; I think it's a built-in peril in the MMO framework, built as it is on somewhat flimsy social networks.

I know it can work; I know that there are people who find and form lasting relationships from their MMO play, either entirely online or moving offline. There are guilds where members don't know one another personally at all (in terms of meeting in the flesh), but who nonetheless have strong personal associations through their characters. But what I find¹ is that these are people who typically spend enormous amounts of time in the game, and that's something I simply don't have time to do.

While the first twenty or so hours of playing a character have always been immensely rewarding² because of the density of quests and the little chains of related quests that will take you through a few levels, this thins out after a time (towards level 20 or so) and there aren't enough quests you can do solo for the game to retain that level of enjoyment.

So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. As with anything, you'll get out of it what you're willing or able to put into it. And as a father of two young boys, a film and book buff, and also a console gamer, there are other things I want to spend my time on that return the rewards I want from them.

I'll always look back fondly on my time with WoW. And in fact, I'm not entirely ready to turn off that account yet³; a small part of me wants to explore being in a big guild, to explore that aspect of the framework. I may even give some upcoming games a try -- D&D Online or Star Trek Online. I have friends and acquaintances working on both of those games, and I'd really like to see what they come up with.

But for me, I think couch co-op games with friends and my sons are going to continue to be the best format for me. In these cases, the games we play may be one-offs, but we'll play them because the gaming will grow and inform our existing relationships, not serve as a source of them. At this point in my life, that's the most that I can ask from a game like this.

¹Anecdotally, of course. I had a colleague at LucasArts who was spending some time playing Everquest at work during the week or two after his project was cancelled, and I asked him how much time he spent on it. So, he typed some command in and it told him 135 days. So, naïve me, I said, "Oh, so you've only been playing for a few months and you're already level 60?" and he said, "No, that's the total number of days I've actually spent logged-in." I was amazed. That's a significant amount of time, when you think about it. It's about a year and a half working a standard 40-hour-a-week job, for example.
²I've created about eight characters that I've taken to level 10 or beyond, and a couple that only made it to level four.
³Making me exactly the kind of customer that every MMO dreams of -- the paying customer who doesn't actually play.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:29 AM | Comments (6)

August 05, 2005

Welcome GamaSutra folks...

Well, turns out I somehow got mentioned on GamaSutra. I'm not sure how.

In any case, anyone who gets sent here from there, welcome. Browse away.

For anyone out there reading, I expect to post something about why I've stopped playing World of Warcraft sometime this weekend.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:31 PM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2005

I'm in Chicago

I've a post coming up but it needs to cook a few more days; I didn't get a chance to finish it up before I left.

Incidentally, the stuff I intend to post about is that "Upcoming" section over on the left of the page. I should probably reverse the order, but I take things off the bottom. So, expect that post to be about World of Warcraft. Cheers.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:16 PM | Comments (2)