Sunday, May 22, 2005

Broken Dishes

I had a bunch of things I wanted to do this weekend, had some scripts from work I wanted to work on, I am typing up a history of the Dragon Kill Point (DKP) loot system used in MMORPGs, and my article on designers and writers in the video game industry.

Instead of working on any of that I spent the days driving from mall to mall trying to replace a plate that was broken and the evenings just lying on the couch surfing the net and reading up on all the stuff I missed at E3. I could also mention some of the really bad TV shows that have been on this weekend but that would mean I would have to admit that I was actually watching “The History of Band Aid.” You know the song from the 80’s, Feed the World “…don’t they know it’s Christmas time at all?” That thing. It’s on right now while I’m typing this. I’m too lazy to reach the remote.

In case you were wondering I didn't find the plate; the pattern from Living Art was everywhere when we bought the set last year but nowhere to be found now. It is kind of a summer pattern so maybe I'll have better luck next summer (remember its fall/winter down under currently.)

Oh, and I enabled Anonymous Comments so you don't have to register to post comments.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Story Or Design?

"I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters."
-Frank Lloyd Wright

I gave a talk at Queensland University of Technology today on writers in the video game industry. It felt very strange. It is usually the other way around. Usually you hear from people who want to be designers but are really writers. They tell you about their ideas but they are nothing but story ideas bereft of any actual game design. I can’t count the number of time somebody said they were going tell me about their game design idea and then launch off into an elaborate story summary.

So now had to do the reverse and talk to a bunch of writers and trying to explain how wrap a story around a game design. I wish had more time to prepare, but I did come up with some interesting trains of thought coming at the subject from this angle.

I was going to go on about it now but I’m still recovering from our 12:01 AM Star Wars Episode III showing night before last and I am literally falling asleep at the keyboard. I’ll continue thinking about it for awhile and write something up a little more formally.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Power of Logos?

Looks like Tabula Rasa’s web site is back up after there little ‘refocusing’. I want it to be clear that I am not making fun of that, because it is something I’m all too familiar with. It was a bold move to grab the marketing team by the horns and have them shut everything down while they did it though. But what I am going to make fun of is the marketing team / story blurb that appears on the front page:

Tabula Rasa™ is a massively multiplayer online action game that takes you into the heat of battle at the frontlines of an epic war between a xenophobic alien race bent on galactic conquest and the coalition of rebel soldiers who’ve traveled across the galaxy to stop them.

Combining the action of a first person shooter and the immersion of a role-playing game, Tabula Rasa takes the player on an intergalactic adventure where the individual has an opportunity to significantly impact the pace of battle on a global scale. Players enter the game as rebel soldiers wielding a variety of futuristic weapons, potent demolitions and the mystical power of “Logos”. It is up to each individual to use their stealth, ingenuity and skill to assist a ragtag coalition of rebels in their efforts to stop an enemy known for its intelligence and unyielding determination to enslave the Universe.

The power of Logos? Yes that’s right boys and girls the secret behind Tabula Rasa is brand name identity! The evil xenophobic aliens known only as “The Bane” have traveled across the galaxy and it is up to you to sell them products they don’t need or want. I guess it Tabula Rasa you don’t just form a group of players but rather a 'focus group'. You don’t kill the aliens but instead try to find out what they really want from Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™, how they feel about Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™, and most importantly what color they think Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™ should be. Once you have managed to put together the ultimate new and improved Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™ package you can start selling it to them safe in the knowledge that soon their entire race will have their credit line over extended to such an extent that they can no longer afford to wage war.

Seriously though, they have 5 new movies up. I haven’t seen them yet myself, but they should be done downloading by now so I’ll go check them out.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Believe It Or Not, It’s E3

Ever wonder what would happen if Weird Al and Jack Black had a baby together? Me neither, but thanks to G4TV we now have the music video "Believe It or Not, It's E3" to show us.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

We Are Having a Baby!

"Having a child is surely the most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit."
-Bill Cosby

So at the end of my previous post I hinted and some new information I was withholding. Well now its time to actually tell you what all that was about. While I was writing that post Connie, my wife, took a pregnancy test and it came back positive! She had taken one in the very early hours of the morning but it gave an invalid result. She had been on pins and needles all day. Now of course she had to be dragged away from playing World of Warcraft on the computer to go to the store to buy a new test, but pins and needles none the less. You may think she is going to beat me for saying that. But you have to understand that’s what I love about her. How many of you wish that when your significant other comes in at 4 AM to yell at you for still being logged in and playing; that instead she was sitting right besides you and logged in herself? Yeah you’re right; she will still probably beat me.

I’ll go ahead and answer your next question for you too. Yes, if he is a boy he will be named Joseph Benjamin Hewitt V. Connie says she thinks she is going to be a girl in which case her name will be Rachael Cariana Hewitt. Cariana is a combination of Carol, her mother’s name, and Diana, my mother’s name. Connie thought that one up, I like it.

Connie will be going to the doctor later this week to get the official medical take on it and I’ll keep you informed.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

What Is Art Anyway?

"I never intended to make art."
-Walt Disney, when his work was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ve never considered myself a real artist. Yeah there are quite a few computer games out there whose credit list says otherwise. But I’ve always thought of myself as a hack. Taking something somebody else did and screwing with it till it was what I wanted. The entire tile artwork set for the Pride Rock level of the SNES and Genesis version of The Lion King game was based on two little rocks Rick Parks drew. When I started in the industry there were no designers, there was just a programmer and an artist and together they designed the game. But as time went on and the industry grew I managed to work myself into a pigeon hole as an artist. I was actually really good at tile art, cutting up a piece of artwork in small characters or icons. More hack work.

It came to a relief when I finally officially and completely moved from being an artist to a designer. It actually took EA closing Westwood Studios and me changing companies to really break out of that hole. Sure I got to do my share of design work, but I was still considered an artist. Now I’m at a company on the other side of the world where I was hired as a designer. I’ve gotten to prove myself as a designer, both to myself and to my peers who never saw me as an artist.

…so I’m drawing some spell icons today in photoshop…

Seriously though, I told you that story to tell you this one. I just love doing that classic comedy routine where you spin it around like that. I used to write stand-up comedy, but that is another story.

But really I was drawing the spell icons. Well hacking them out. The artist that drew the originally sub-set is kind of new to this whole thing. He did some really good looking icons but didn’t take them to the point that we needed them. Details like spell lines across multiple elements, reoccurring symbols to represent things like health and mana. Anyway I started to tinker with them as we are getting up against the wire for E3 as I had all my other stuff finished and they really needed some attention and next thing I know I’m doing them all.

At one point I’m using Google’s image search to find picture pieces I need. I am drawing a few icons that are silhouettes or facial close-ups for ‘shout’ abilities. I got to wondering what these people would think if they knew their photo was being manipulated into spell icons. They of course are being changed beyond any recognition. But I look at my picture over there on the right and wonder if some artist hasn’t grabbed it and turned it into something else.

I remember the icons I created for Command & Conquer had all the soldiers modeled on Mike Lightner, one of the designers. I think I got the original image from one of the mission movies and just kept altering it. The thought at the time was to make them look the same to have that ‘every-man’ soldier feel. Remember this was originally a game done in 640x480 but even at that size he was still recognizable. He thought it was pretty cool. I think I kept using his image for the soldiers for redone C&C ’95 version and even Red Alert. By the time we got to Tiberian Sun we were using in a high enough resolution that we could start doing much more detailed pictures instead of just facial close-ups. I have all those icons on my hard drive somewhere.

A number of the Eye of the Beholder character portraits were other Westwood employees including myself. And if you look at mine in EoB I, EoB II and Order of the Griffon you can see my hair growing out as I updated it each time.

Oh well enough reminiscing, its time to go to bed.

So later when I tell you and you ask when. It was while writing this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Taking MMORPG Customer Service Seriously

I read the following article: The Cost of Insecurity: Griefing, from Anonymity to Accountability by Steven B. Davis on Skotos today. It was also posted on the Mud-Dev email thread. I started to give a short reply and wound up jumping off the deep end and just going on and on. Here is my rambled response:

Verifying who said what is a lot easier than implementing a system of digital signatures. You simply keep a good number of lines of each user’s chat log in a buffer on the server. When a user puts in a customer service ticket (any CS ticket) that buffer is attached to the ticket. The CSR should then be able to view that record from within his CS tool. Since it is all done server side it is already secure. A side effect of this system is that the player can have the scroll back buffer of his previous play session available the next time he logs on even if he is on a different machine, a big factor in Asian PC Bangs.

This is nothing new, Earth and Beyond used this sort of system. Star Wars Galaxies uses something similar but not quite right, for example the text buffer isn’t automatically appended to any CS Ticket but rather the user has to issue a /report command and then a copy of the chat log is saved elsewhere the server. The CSR has to manually go through the logs to find the player’s report. Many older games even had the basic /report command that would snapshot the last few lines of text and save them server side, but many times the amount of text saved wasn’t enough to see the whole issue.

An ever better system would allow the player to specifically enter which player he is accusing of harassment and attach that users chat log as well. Many times the CSR will find both players are guilty of goading and escalating the incident.

But all is a minor detail to what should be the main point which is that developers need to take customer service more seriously. I am sure every one of you is thinking, “Yeah like my company does.” But you don’t. Everybody says the words but nobody backs them up with the deeds. Customer service tools are given a very low importance during development, they are underdeveloped, and don’t address many of the CSR’s basic needs. CSR personal are in many cases underpaid temp labor that don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of the game they are providing support for. Other departments treat the CS department as the black sheep of the family.

For example for the launch of one of the biggest and most anticipated MMORPGs ever (no I am not talking about WoW) was the poster child for this. The CSR staff hired from a temp agency has had just over a week of training which consisted of allowing them to play in the beta and practicing going through the check lists when the servers were brought up. They were given their CS tool the day before launch, which did nothing but show the player’s CS tickets and allow them to respond without having to log into the game. The load of tickets broke the tool in short order.

The CSRs had absolutely no power or tools to investigate anything and didn’t get any such power till much later. Even nominal CS command like the ability to change an offensive player name required the CSR to find the player while he was online, issue the name change command, and then wait for up to 30 minutes to see if the name change went through. The head of the CS department for the title had written up a very detailed list of commands and powers he wanted for the team over a year before launch and none of them were implemented. Why? Because when the game that so much money is riding on, is heading down that final stretch to completion nobody wants to take any people off making sure the game is ready to launch to work on something like CS tools that won’t even be needed till after the game comes out.

Communication between the design department and the CS department was non-existent. The only way CS could get a response from Dev was to send the message to the department head that would bring it up in their weekly meeting and then wait for the head of dev to have somebody investigate it and report back in the next dev meeting.

Nothing was done to give the CSRs any real game knowledge; they were given free copies of the game but not free accounts. Since they were all hired from temp agency and not making much money, most of them couldn’t really afford to pay for their own accounts. If it wasn’t for the ability to alt-tab over to a spoiler site 90% of the CSR staff at any company probably couldn’t answer issues about high end content.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is par for the course. I don’t want to name the company responsible for the above problems because it’s what every company is doing. It isn’t like they didn’t spend money on their CS department, they may have hired temps but they hired a lot of them. They had a wonderful work area with decent computers. They paid for overtime and included them in almost all full-time employee benefit type events (staff picnics, movie premiers, holiday presents, etc.) But without the actual work and effort before that point it didn’t matter and as a result their launch was a PR nightmare and they lost a lot of customers.

So what needs to be done? The game needs to have a customer service tool and CSR abilities designed and built along side the game. You’ll need to plan ahead of time how you’ll CS staff will be able to monitor the game and investigate issues even if you are sure those issues will never come up. An actual quote from a lead designer to the CS department, “There is no need for a reimbursement system for items because they designed it in such a way that items would never disappear.” Sorry, I’m still laughing at that one.

The game should have built in systems that monitor the rate of exp and money earned damage per second done, travel speed. It should have some system to know when mobs are stuck or under the world or are being attacked and cannot attack back. It should also monitor CSR behavior, logging all CSR level commands. These things should be automatically flagged when they fall outside the expected parameters so they can be investigated. There should be a way for a CSR to track an item to find out where it came from and view those transactions in their entirety IE be able to see the whole trade such as players Abe traded items A, B, C and X gold to Bob for items X, Y, Z and X gold at time/date stamp. The CSR should be able to search for items and find where they are, sounds simple enough but most database programmers don’t think like this. The container knows what items are in it, but the items have no idea what containers they are in. Etc.

Player characters and every single game item needs to have a unique identifier that will never be changed or reused. Makes sense, but I’ve seen this not be the case time and time again. The system should even check IDs to make sure duplicates don’t exist. There was a case in UO where a bug or dupe would create an item with the same ID as an existing item. Guess what happened when somebody deleted a sword with the same ID as your house?

Finally you need to make sure you players understand your game’s policies. I can tell you they aren’t reading that 4 page ELUA, and aren’t going through the rules on the web site before playing. Pull out the original manual for Star Wars Galaxies and turn to the Naming Rules on page 34. Note that of the 4 points listed only 2 are policy rules and the other two just tell you your name has to be unique and can’t have special characters like hyphens or apostrophes. Then go to the 'naming section' of the Rules and Policies on the SWG web site HERE and read the full 11 point Naming Policy that is much longer and detailed as the one in the manual. Guess how many players through a fit when they were told their character name violated policy and that the full rules weren’t in the manual but rather on the web site. Why aren’t these rules presented to the character on the screen where they have to type in the name?

Okay, this soapbox is starting to get uncomfortable and I’ve spent far too much time typing away when I could be playing. I get enough of this at work and I’m sure you do to… oh wait one more thing. You should make your design staff work in the customer service department at least 1 week every 2-3 months. You’d be surprised at the things they learn about their game and how much it will benefit both departments. I know it did wonders for me.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Free Comic Book Day

Well it’s May 7th and there are lots of things happening today. I already mentioned that today is the MIT Time Traveler Convention and my Mother’s birthday.

Today is also the fourth annual Free Comic Book Day so let’s talk about comic books. When most people think of comic books they think spandex’ed super-heroes bouncing around the city while spouting spiffy one-liners. But there are a lot of comic book titles that have nothing to do with super-heroes that have some amazing stories.

I know what you’re thinking though; you just aren’t into the comic book thing. But now days you can skip the comic and go right for the graphic novels or trade paperbacks as they are more commonly called now. These collect whole story arcs of a title into one nice and neat book. You can find them in most major bookstore chains and I’ll give you a brief run down of some of the ones I like.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is the most famous of these. It tells the story of Dream of the Endless. There are 7 endless, Death, Dream, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was Delight) and the 7th who turned away from his duties and isn’t revealed till later. Many of the stories aren’t really about Dream himself, he is really just the linchpin that ties the rest of the stories and characters together. The series ran 75 issues and you can find the entire run collected in 10 trade paperbacks. The series has won numerous awards and really put this genre into the mainstream. You can download the first issue as a PDF file. Mr. Gaiman also wrote the best selling novel, American Gods and his next novel Anansi Boys is due out in September 20, 2005.

Lucifer written by Mike Care is my current favorite. It is a spin off from Sandman, telling the story of Lucifer after he abdicates Hell as told in Sandman’s Season of Mists storyline. Lucifer isn’t evil as such but is the perfect anti-hero. It isn’t a devil worshiping, blood and sacrifice type story. I am really at a loss to describe the series without giving anything away. But thanks to Vertigo Comics you can download first issue as a PDF file though the scan isn’t the best. It’s actually the first issue of the 3 issue mini-series that kicked off the title before it got its own monthly series. The story is currently up to issue 62 and like Sandman it will also end at number 75. There are 7 trade paperbacks out collecting up to issue 49 (including the 3 issue mini-series, minus issue 45) with the 8th TP due out this month reprinting 45, 50-53). As a writing exercise I am actually novelizing the first trade paperback. It gives me something to write where I don’t have to worry about the story, the characters, the dialog, scenes or anything but the actual task of writing.

I recently discovered Fables by Bill Willingham. I had actually bought the first graphic novel, Legends in Exile, back before moving to Australia and never read it. I picked it up simply because it collected the first issues of the title and at the time I was taking a look at anything in DC comics Vertigo line. But like I said I never read it. I saw the latest graphic novel at the store last weekend and noticed it had won 3 Eisner awards so I figured I’d give it another shot. I liked it so much that I ran out today and bought all the individual issues (I'm still missing 1-5 and 8.) I think the title’s lack of popularity is due to the fact that its premise sounds somewhat dumb or silly. Trust me though, it’s a great read. Basically someone called the Adversary has taken over the various lands of all the fairy tales and the survivors, the ‘fables’, have fled to our world where they live in two communities. The main one is New York where the Fables who can pass for human live and the other, the farm, is further up north where the non-human fables live. The first story is a murder mystery which introduces many of main characters but doesn’t really show off the legs the title will eventually grow. The series is up to issue 36 with five trade paperbacks collecting up to issue 33. Again you can download the first issue as a PDF file but I can’t stress enough how it doesn’t do the series justice. If you want to give this title a shot, read at least up to the 3rd graphic novel, Storybook Love, which is when it really gets going.

Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra tells the story of a plague of unknown origin that has killed every male on the planet with the exception of Yorik and his male pet monkey. The story starts of kina slow and unsteadily but once the main characters set out cross country it settles down to good story. The series is up to issue 33 with 4 trade paperbacks that collect up to issue 23. Here is the link where you can download the first issue as a PDF file.

Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon is a story of a small town preacher who suddenly obtains god-like powers. He sets off on a quest to find God and hold him accountable for everything he’s done. This title was coming out at the height of Sandman’s popularity and was also able to capture a bit of the main stream non-comic book audience’s attention. The title ran 66 issues and is collected in 9 trade paperbacks. Here is the link where you can download the first issue as a PDF file. I have heard Preacher is being made into a movie but the things I’ve heard havn't been good.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is super hero story… kind of. Only one of the characters actually has super powers. It starts off as a mystery when a retired hero called the Comedian is killed and the murder is investigated by the only hero who didn’t retire when the Keen Act outlawed masked vigilantes. The story has such incredible depth and scope with such real characters and a brilliant twist ending. You’ll have to read it at least twice before you start to notice some of the subtle things that are going on in the background that all come together in the story’s conclusion. The original 12 issue came out in 1986 and is now being made into a motion picture. This is the best comic book story I have ever read. I would kill to be able to write like this. Sorry DC/Vertigo doesn’t have the first issue of this one online.

Those are the basics that should get you addicted. There are many more some I like better than those listed but might not be good for somebody just starting out. If you want more you know where to find me.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Personal Links Working

I was supposed to come home and install Guild Wars tonight and get up to speed on what has changed since beta. But the first thing I wanted to do was fix up the personal links and picture which now appear to the right. The ‘little history’ link turned out to be a 5 page epic. Once I got going I just couldn’t stop. And now its all up and I am going to bed since its after Midnight. Don’t believe the timestamps, they are PST and I’m on Australian time. Its 12:45 AM Thursday morning here.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Time Traveler Convention

MIT is holding a Time Traveler Convention on May 7th, my Mother’s birthday. There isn’t any significance tied to the fact that it is my Mother’s birthday. I just happened to realize that as I was typing and remembered that I still haven’t sent her present off yet.

Anyway… the convention:
The Time Traveler Convention
May 7, 2005, 10:00pm EDT
(08 May 2005 02:00:00 UTC)
East Campus Courtyard, MIT
42:21:36.025°N, 71:05:16.332°W
(42.360007,-071.087870 in decimal degrees)

They want to spread the news around as much as possible to get the details embedded into our culture so that far into the future when time travel is made possible the travelers will know where and when to go.

I wanted to add something here about the new conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ that Douglas Adams came up with in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” but don’t have a copy here with me in the land down under nor can I find it on the web. But lets just say that in the future they want people to say, “Hey did you hear about that MIT Time Traveler Convention back in 2005? We should go, it will have been great!”

I remember in Jr. High School thinking that if later in life I was able to travel back through time I would come visit myself right then. But even now I don’t remember exactly what day that was. I later thought that if I did travel back in time and visit myself I might change something that would then cause me not to be able to travel back in time. And if I was traveling through time obviously whatever trials and tribulations I had gone through were probably worth it to get to that point. But then again maybe all time traveling will get you is a sofa stuck on your stairs.

End of the Game Industry

So before I break this blog trying to get rid of the forced extra white space on either side (please feel free to offer help) and make other small changes I wanted to take the time out to respond to John C. Dvorak, a contributing editor of PC Magazine, who wrote an article the other day entitled: Doom 4: End of the Game Industry in which he proclaims the gaming industry is dead... or at least doomed.

Basically his argument is that games have not changed since the invention of the first person-shooter. He claims there are only five categories of games: shooters, puzzles and mazes, adventure games, sports games, and simulations. He goes on to claim that all of today's hottest games are combinations of two or three of these categories. But I think that is way to broad a statement to be a valid base for his argument. That is like pointing out there are only seven different story types and then spouting off that nobody has written an original story type in centuries so literature is doomed.

Yes, FPS games are very popular right now. There are a ton of them out there and many more in development. But it’s not like we haven’t been here before. I remember Joystick magazine article about how they were sick of “maze games” (a.k.a. Pac-man clones) back in the 80’s. I remember spouting off about how I was sick of “side-action fighting games” (a.k.a. Street Fighter clones) in the 90’s. And now he is sick of “first person shooters” (not that I imagine he plays many games, which might actually be the problem here.) None of these trends led to the doom of the industry and when it was time a new genre immerged or evolved. I’ve was part of the team that created the Real-Time Strategy genre with “Dune II.” I know Brett and Joe weren’t trying to invent a new genre; they were just trying to make something fun. And based on the above list, RTS games would probably get lumped into the simulation category anyway.

He claims that computer gaming has always been sustained by never-ending improvements in resolution and realism and then asks, “What is going to sustain growth once we get to photorealism?”

That whole point/question points out how narrow-minded the article is. How about we move off the computer screen and go out in the real world. There are already several games that are using mobile computer technology to take games out into the world. For example Uncle Roy Is All Around You which I guess Mr. Dvork would dismiss as just another game in the Puzzle and Maze category.

How about in the future when you can pop on a pair of special glasses that render the GUI and game objects on the back your retina. Then you can run around your neighborhood playing yet another FPS. No accidentally being shot by police who think you are holding a real gun, its rendered by the software and the gloves you are wearing give you the feedback that you are holding something. Yeah that’s a little far fetched, but people are already experimenting with just that concept, though admittedly it isn’t quite at the level I described… yet. But it’s just another game in the FPS category if you believe Mr. Dvorak.

I think he wrote the article just to try and to get some attention and drive up the hit count on his column. He actually makes one good point which is overshadowed by his dramatics. I think he is right that the consumer probably isn’t going to put up with paying $50+ for these types of games for much longer even though games are costing more and more money to produce.