I’ve been working away at my board-game-now-a-video-game game, with the working title “The Day After”. I’m starting to get some art and a website together, so I need to fix upon a final name. I was okay with the working title, though other people think it’s a little weak, which I concede. My girlfriend suggested the name “Aftermath”. I’ve been toying about with variants on that – “The Aftermath”, “<adjective> Aftermath”… “The Day Aftermath” ;)

In case you didn’t know, I’m working on a multiplayer video game (with a board game aesthetic). The city has fallen into chaos after citizens go on an inexplicable homicidal rampage. You are one of a band of survivors who need to cooperate in order to survive until being rescued, potentially exploiting the situation for your own gain or perhaps uncovering the truth behind this disaster. I’m aiming for a survivalist horror feel somewhere in the ballpark of zombie films, natural disaster films and The Day of the Triffids.

This is where you come in. I need to decide on the name for the game. Have your say via the poll, or suggest alternatives in the comments!

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I was visiting my local board games and RPG shop. I went upstairs to check out the RPG gear and noticed there was some new Magic The Gathering gear. When I was younger and nerdier, I was all into Magic The Gathering. It was a new thing then, so I could kinda keep up with it. Then I grew out of it (and the hobby grew beyond my meagre spending cash). Now I’m older, wiser and richer so I thought, “Heck yes, I should buy some starter decks and give it a go and see how the game has changed.” But then I looked at what was on display. “Focus decks” with particular themes or something. Two new product lines and no real distinguishing information on either. I read the back and it was all about quests and things that made no sense to me as a tabula rasa for Magic. I asked the dude behind the counter, told him when I last got into Magic and wanted to know what these things were, using the words I knew like  “Starter deck”. What I got back was a bunch of terms that again made no sense to me. Magic has moved on and I’ve been left behind. So I left with less of an idea than I came in with, and the same amount of money. (Click here to read the rest of this entry)

Virtual economies and the shenanigans that go along with them have been on my radar recently. Not for any real reason – it’s just how the world goes. I find them interesting. They’re a nice blend of really old school psychology and economics, recent tech, and Internet sociology. What’s more, you can interact with them on a scale you can understand, unlike “real-world” economies. (Click here to read the rest of this entry)

So there we were – a few weeks’ trek underground underneath the Silverstep mountains. We were on a mission to free a town of kobolds from their goblin and drow oppressors, mostly for our illustrious leader Jope’s prestige[1. It was his character arc quest.]. We didn’t have the firepower to take on an entire town of bad guys, so we were making our way across a massive chasm to seek an audience with a kobold elder and start an uprising. The direct route to the city, a thin bridge guarded by towers, was of no use to us. My character (a ranger named Rainor) had a pet half-celestial wolf (Rainin). Due to some shenanagins with interdimensional portals, my wolf had spent many years in the Elysium Fields, hunting celestial stags, even though he was only lost for a few minutes in my timeline. A pegasus is a celestial horse, more or less. A half-celestial wolf is a very large wolf with healing spells and the unusual ability to fly (sans wings).

To cross this chasm, we  had to use Rainin to shuttle people across. We had to be quick because patrols were already on the prowl. We had gotten our fearless warrior-leader Jope (Andrew’s character) and our new cleric (Tim’s character) across. I was next with our mage-thief Switch (Paul’s character) waiting behind, literally invisible but with only a limited amount of protection. When Rainin and I were halfway across the chasm, some plucky drow had spotted the giant wolf and pinged us with a blazing light. In the dark depths of the goblin city, an illuminated flying wolf and rider was no less spectacular than a firework. Did I risk heading towards our leader and spoil the whole plan? Or our mage and risk both of us dying? I had two further options. The chasm rose at one end to some kind of bluff – the whole ascent allegedly the flight of an ancient and mountain-shaping dragon who, as it so happens, might have been sleeping at the bottom of the chasm. Up and away, or down into the inky depths? The party were panicking. We were split over a chasm, low on resources and truly outnumbered. So I plunged – down, deep down – hoping my betraying light would be swallowed up by the darkness. And hoping that I myself would not be swallowed as well.

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At the risk of eliciting cries of “Oh ya mug!” I’ve made a change to my projects. Whereas before I was steaming away on Kung Fu Chronicles (aka Kung Fu Legends aka that-Kung-fu-game-you’re-making), I’ve shifted projects and priorities around. I’ve discussed before some of the game engine stuff I had been working on. As a proof of the ontological argument (or Omnipotence paradox), I had created parts of my game engine that were so awesome and featureful that even I had no idea how to use them. :) So I was stuck.

I have also mentioned before that I was working on a board game called The Day After. Brief synopsis: You’re part of a band of survivors after a weird cataclysmic event, and should co-operate so that you all get to rescue… but is co-operation always in your best self-interest? The idea of The Day After was to make something in the vague genre that Arkham Horror lives in, but do it better. My main criticism with Arkham Horror is that with all the tokens, characters and special rules, it’d be better realized as a video game. Anyway, I’ve done most of the alpha design for The Day After, but was finding it slow to put things onto even prototype cards and get it all working as a cheap-ass board game to foist upon my unsuspecting friends. I wasn’t sure about a bunch of rules, or any of the numbers, amongst other concerns. Prototyping it for quick trial play was taking longer and a lot more work than I expected.

Late last year when I was brainstorming ideas, I tripped over the idea of testing some of the game elements by programming a dumb Monte Carlo simulation of the rules and run millions of test games to see what needed balancing. It was a great idea, but I realised to properly simulate it, I needed to put in certain AI routines. For example, to be rescued you need to achieve some goal (eg, restore power), signal the rescue (eg, with a radio) and get to the rescue spot. To get virtual characters to jump through these hoops they needed some basic planning or pathfinding, which sounded like too much work for just testing.

Anyway, I was talking about these issues with my mate Alex who floated the idea of programming it up as a game for prototyping, focussing on having debug capabilities to rewind games, tweak numbers and continue. Due to the way he phrased it I had the brilliant idea to make The Day After into an actual video game. It was a simpler project than Kung Fu Chronicles, but would provide me with a simple framework for testing out game engine ideas. I think I’m okay at general game design, but my game engine design experience is almost non-existent. By programming something simple, I could bootstrap my way up to smashing the block I had with Kung Fu Chronicles. Plus it could serve as a nice fundraiser for my other projects. I still would like to turn it into a physical board game, but that can be later along when the rules are more refined. Plus I can give the video game a board game aesthetic (like Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble!) which simplifies and unifies graphic design.

I’m doing much better with this as my primary project. Already I have a better events system, game loop and general approach to objects. When my girlfriend goes on holiday for a while I’m going all-out on my projects. Hopefully I can get The Day After and my long-suffering novel Breathe into much better states. I’ll keep you guys posted on how it goes.

So I promised to talk about Steam and Valve’s foray into microtransactions. Since the last installment I’ve finished Portal 2 again and played a bunch of other games. The Internet has died down and I’ve lost all the steam for my rant (pun somewhat intended). So I’ll keep this short: I think Steam is one of the best things to hit PC gaming in a long time, microtransactions are a thing that will only get more popular, and for the most part, I like how Valve has approached Steam and microtransactions. I’ve bought a few things for TF2 through impatience to get new weapons, or a willingness to donate to a good cause. I’ll probably never buy anything in the Portal 2 store. As a contrast, I dislike Bioware’s approach to DLC of Day 1 DLC and charging for every little add-on. Weirdly I think DLC should be free, but cosmetic changes you should charge for.

To be honest, it’s too good and interesting a time to worry about trolls and well-intentioned disagreements. We have indie developers selling two million units through outlets built with their own two hands. We’ve got Triple A devs trying new things. It’s a time for creativity and exploration. I should be creating, not ranting. And so off to the drawing board I go!

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So Valve Software recently released their much-awaited sequel to Portal. Before its release they published a number of in-house generated trailers, and promoted the release with an alternate reality game. The game came out, the critics almost universally loved it, but on Metacritic, the forums and blogs there seemed to be general ire against the game and Valve in particular. I’d like to explore this to get a feel of the current games market and blow off some steam on Portal 2, the ARG, Steam and Valve themselves. (Click here to read the rest of this entry)

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Work on my projects has been quiet lately, not because I haven’t been doing anything, but more because I have. I’ve got a good foundation down for the game/simulation side of Kung Fu Chronicles in terms of game objects and the supporting framework. I’m now in a weird position in that I’m really happy with that framework but don’t have the experience with such a thing to dive right in, even though I designed it. I tend to learn by iterated imitation until I feel confident I’ve mastered it. But since the game engine is so new to me and so specialized to the task it needs to do, I’m a little hesitant. Dumb, I know, but that’s how it is.

I’ve been a little entranced with Kingdom of Loathing recently, and had an idea for a cyberpunk, conspiracy-theory-laden browser-based game. The chief gimmick was that you’re a hacker and your base measure of power is your aggregate MIPS across all your computers, electronic devices and “borrowed” machines. I even had a good name for it (Synaptic) with a few hooks and ideas. But I need another game project like I need a punch in the groin. I wrote down all my ideas and I might revisit them in a few years’ time.

My board game The Day After is coming along nicely. If you weren’t sure what this was about, it’s a board game about a city recently struck with a terrible catastrophe. People have gone insane and are killing each other left, right and center. You are part of a band of Survivors who need to survive in the city until rescue comes. Survivors have their own hidden agendas, so survival isn’t just about combat – it’s about compromise.

Early in development The Day After felt like a sack of misshapen cogs and sprockets, but now the different components are slotting together and everything feels much tighter. I still need to iterate the card design to get the right balance of information on cards and rules. I’m finding the different mechanics work best when a hard strategy has a soft counter (kinda how they balanced Team Fortress 2). For example, the base goal for a team is to be rescued. This requires certain tasks to be fulfilled in a coordinated manner, and you need all the people you can get. But some characters can have success conditions if they set up shelter, skip the rescue and try to live out the apocalypse. Both have their risks, but there’s a strong asymmetry in how you try to achieve them.

Another one that I really like but I’m having a little trouble getting perfect is The Truth. The apocalypse didn’t just happen. Perhaps an enemy superpower launched a bioweapon into the city. Perhaps a meteorite hit and brought an alien virus. Perhaps it’s a government conspiracy gone awry. If you’re the Hacker character, you have to try to uncover The Truth. If you’re the Spy character, you have to try your best to suppress The Truth getting out… using any means necessary.

I’m pretty sure that I’ll try to get the game printed and published through The Game Crafter. While they suck for international shipping, they are pretty awesome for everything else. By the way, if you or someone you know is a good artist and would like to make some money doing some artwork for the game, let me know.

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Man, this year is going to rock out in terms of computer games. Let’s have a look: (Click here to read the rest of this entry)

Art is the surface of water between stillness and chaos. It is what exists between the sudden splash and the soft stillness.

When chaos subsides, we find art in the after-pause. No great art is created in the midst of a war. No fine lines are drawn in an earthquake. But when the dust has settled and we have time to look, we can see great beauty, tragedy, comedy or humanity. This is where art can flourish.

When stillness pervades, we find art in the splash. When apathy or tradition dam up humanity into a stagnant pond, great art can punch through the stones and create sweeping waves of inspiration. More subtly, it can be casting an object into a still lake, a quick splash here but the ripples spread all over. The object might be a porcelain urinal, a babbling Irishman, a deformed monstrosity, or a goddamned mess, whose sudden entrance to the stillness may be seen as absurd, or as the discarding of trash. But the casting of today’s trash can be history’s treasure.

Art through the ages, I think, has – to a degree – understood the relationship between stillness and chaos. You can see it in the stone sculpture that looks like it’s alive, dried painted eyes that follow you around the room, fixed words on a page whisking drawing you through old London town, coils of celluloid recreating the movement of life in the same way forever. For the most part, however, we have leaned on a tradition that the Thing of Art (the artifact) is still. A sculpture is made of stone. Paint is dry. Type is set. Film is cut into its final edit. Even in the performing arts, there is the idea of the script, the choreography, the notes. Where these artifacts escape their stillness, there you find art. As the postmodernists rightly point out, the audience see movement and the chaos in this stillness, and thus the art. The artifact is not the art. Nevertheless we say that the person who created the artifact, created the art. They are the artist.

Enso Black 8/20

Buddhists have recognized this sort of thing throughout the universe. As the philosopher Alan Watts put it, stillness and chaos “go-with” each other. They rely on each other for existence. You can’t have one without the other, and to focus on one to the exclusion of the other is detrimental. Too much stillness is stagnation. Too much chaos is noise. The Middle Way balances both stillness and chaos, and understanding this relationship is where Art is.

In a play, there is a script and direction. Actors may faithfully but methodically reproduce this and it might be entertaining or insightful, but it won’t be art. They may forget all their lines and ad-lib like crazy, which again may be delightful and moving, but it won’t be art. The best play is one faithful to the script, but each actor brings something of their own.

So in a circuitous way, we come to today. The dominant creative industry (in terms of cash flow) is video games. It’s new money as the industry is still young. Even the “Old Money” people like EA have to fight for their income. We can draw parallels to writing, illustration, cinema and song. We wonder if perhaps games too can be art. Roger Ebert (and Brian Moriarty) say no. Others say yes.

I think we are in great chaos.  The computer industry is one of the most disruptive and disrupted industries the world has ever seen. People can buy hardware and software that can provide any artistic outlet you’d want, for ever dropping prices. The Internet age means that anyone can show their art to anyone, anywhere, any time, on any device, to numbers that we can hardly fathom. Computer games can replicate experiences seen in other medias, and are slowly shaking off the artifice of their own nascent forms. As an art form, we haven’t yet had the chance for the chaos to die down for us to experience the art that is the new computer life. We don’t really understand what we’re working with.

Moreover, the key component of interactivity in computer games means that our tradition of the fixed artifact of Art is broken. We’ve been cognizant of this issue, but we’re still coming to grips with it in a practical sense. We still say a movie is art. It isn’t. Watching a movie is art. If no-one watches it, it cannot be art. In the same way, a video game isn’t art. Playing a video game can be. It might be a long time before we get over this – we still have troubles calling food art because the experience is so individual.

And because there is an entertainment industry, we get confused by the converse – if everyone watches a movie, it doesn’t make it great art. It makes it great business, but the chance of it being art is exactly the same as if it made no money.

Nevertheless, the prominence of the entertainment industry means that there will continue to be great improvements in technology and the uptake of technology. When people are comfortable with the tech, we will have an opportunity to turn it into new kinds of art. Dynamic forms of art that give us a better appreciation of the interplay of stillness and chaos, artist and audience, subject and object.  Games that are not just exploring within limited rulesets but providing new experiences for each player. Arguably we have this now, but we should strive for more. We should embrace the opportunities that computer-based art can provide. We can still always have our shoot-em ups and fantasy RPGs. You can still have rom-coms after you have Citizen Kane. We just need to go hand-in-hand with our computers to that place in the middle of stillness and chaos. That place called art.