• Procedurally generated awesomeness

    Have you heard about No Man’s Sky? Currently in development at Hello Games, it is an exploration game involving space travel between colorful worlds. Players will be able to travel between and explore different planets, solar systems, and galaxies within an infinite universe. There will be countless creatures and terrains to discover and explore. The possibilities within this game are theoretically infinite.

    Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Creating a space exploration game would traditionally involve imagining, coding, and designing every star, planet, creature, and everything in between. The possibilities within the game would be limited by the imagination, time, and budget of the development team. So, what makes No Man’s Sky different? Procedural generation. I’ll embed an IGN video interview with Sean Murray, Founder of Hello Games, in which he discusses the technology that makes this infinite universe possible. The short of it is that they have developed an algorithm that creates the universe using mathematics. Rather than creating each planet and creature individually, they have developed base assets that the game draws from and morphs into seemingly infinite variants.

    The possibilities of this excite me to no end. I recall my brother and me playing Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity on our Windows 95 PC back in the 90’s. That game gave the player free will in terms of what destinations to set for the Enterprise. However, these destinations had no gameplay behind them unless they were connected to the main story. I remember understanding then that it was limited by what the developers could program into the game and wondered at the possibility of going beyond this limitation.  I wanted so badly for each of those random new worlds to which I traveled to offer a new and unexpected adventures and alien races. It looks like twenty years later, No Man’s Sky is going to offer that!

    I am left wondering what else this means for the advancement of game design. Clearly, levels and worlds can be left to the system to generate according to the rules set. No Man’s Sky has even found a way to alter and mutate creature design so that artists do not have to design 1,000’s of individual creatures. Is it possible procedural generation (or a process like it) could advance to a point where designers provide even smaller building blocks (think atoms), and the system practically generates the art (according to the rules set, of course)? Even more of a challenge: could procedural generation move beyond level and creature design and revitalize the stories and AI we encounter in our games? That may be a “square peg in a round hole” -type of issue, so who knows what innovations in game design will bring. All I know is I am eager to see what comes and extremely excited to experience the seemingly endless possibilities of No Man’s Sky.


  • The RPG Complexity Conundrum

    I really enjoy playing a good RPG or MMORPG on my PC. I get so excited by the endless opportunities of leading a character that is all my own through a vast, open world as he or she growns in skill completing quests, side quests, and various other experiences. I am filled with intrigue and wonder as I explore new regions or discover loot. I feel accomplished when I help a hopeless NPC or overcome a powerful boss. I figuratively salivate over the immersion and complexity an RPG offers. Despite all this, I constantly find myself skipping over the RPGs in my game library.

    Role-playing games in the PC take a lot of time and involve a lot of complexity in order to incorporate such vast opportunities for story, exploration, and playing your own way. The player processes a lot of information, including the various interweaving story lines, related quests, item and skill interactions, UI navigation, and game controls.

    These complexities are what make RPGs so intriguing and inviting. At the same time, they seem to be what keeps me from playing or finishing most RPGs I have. When a game like this gets put down for any length of time, playing again requires a certain level of re-learning: remembering how to play, what your goals were, where you left off, and how everything intertwines at that moment.

    This turns out to be a barrier to playing or completing most RPGs. This is because I frequently play games in one or two hour sessions, which are sometimes days apart. This means I spend much of the session trying to recall how to play or where I was. Now, to some degree this is psychological. I worry too much about doing everything fluidly and following the same path I had planned previously. I played Fallout New Vegas last night for the first time in about a month and found myself worrying a great deal whether or not I had the correct equipment in use, or if I was following the proper quests in the correct order. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I should have.

    As I ponder through this, I realize it isn’t the time spent re-learning that bothers me, so much as the fact it seems more difficult to really get in to the story again and feel the way I did when I set it down. It is as if I, as the mind behind my character, have developed a form of amnesia, and what little time I have to play is spent trying to re-achieve the immersion. RPGs really get fun once they have built up the story and the immersion. The character creation, tutorials, and opening quests often accelerate this process, but getting that same ball rolling mid-game is another story. If there was a way to save my mental state, just as we save the game state, this wouldn’t be such a problem for me.

    I guess that leads me to the question: what do you do when you step away from an RPG with plans to return? Do you encounter the same issues I do, or do you have a way to overcome the gap and jump right into having immersive fun?


  • Hearthstone – delaying the victory

    I recently started playing Hearthstone and have really enjoyed it. I had avoided the game for quite some time because I used to get a little too obsessive about Magic: The Gathering, and really did not want to devote all my limited game time to it. However, when it came to mobile, I decided to give it a shot because then I could play it in those odd moments when I have 15 minutes to spare but I am not on my PC (or even home).

    I have really enjoyed playing the game. I will admit that I am not good, often losing more games than I win. However, it is all those losses that has led me to an interesting and curious observation. I noticed that my opponents often delay inflicting lethal damage. Often they will play some unnecessary spells and minions, or throw out some complex combo. This happens frequently enough that I am left wondering why.

    The “benefit of the doubt” answer is a situation I have experienced myself: they simply did not realize they had lethal on the board. I have had a couple instances in which I got too focused on the strategy and took a defensive maneuver before realizing the offensive kills shot was available. I have also miscounted the damage I had available. My funniest experience I to date is an opponent who clearly had the upper hand and had lethal damage in play, when including the hunter’s hero power. However, they spent all mana on new minions, leaving me with one health. On the next turn, I was able to buff my remaining minion to lethal and won the game. I really think this individual got too excited about what they had available, or miscounted mana.

    However, this seems to happen all too often to be nothing but simple mistakes. Take a match I just finished for instance. I did all I could, but had to end my turn in a checkmate situation. I had 7 life remaining with no taunt minions on the board. My opponent had an 8/8 and one other minion on the board. It was obvious one quick hit with the 8/8 would end the match, but my opponent instead hit with the other minion for 3 damage, cast a spell that damaged all minions, wiping away one from each side and leaving us each with one, and then cast Power Overwhelming on the 8/8 minion to hit me with 12 for a 8 damage overkill. So, why go to all the extra trouble? Was my opponent trying to fulfill a daily quest for spells cast or damage dealt? Or, were they trying to rub in the victory? While I don’t want to assume the worst, I would also note only about half of those that take these extra steps respond to my “Well Played” in kind.

    I may never know why other players prolong an obvious victory, but it certainly is a curious thing. I know the obvious way to avoid this is to just concede when the game is lost, but if it is a close match I like to stick it out for the tiny possibility they will screw up and fail to make the killing blow. Honestly, there is no harm done; the match takes an extra minute or two is all. More than anything, this is just a curious observation of a behavioral “meta” I have noticed in my short couple months in the game.

     


  • Fear of Embarrassing Failure – The Anxiety of Being Bad at a Game

    I love multiplayer games. They add an element you just don’t get from the singleplayer campaigns – human thought. Developers are constantly working to make artificial intelligence within their games more human-like to make singleplayer modes more compelling, but they never quite have that full sense of competition and unexpected tactics and interactions you will see in a multiplayer setting. Nevermind game elements that require real interaction, such as strategic diplomacy or team cooperation; AI simply cannot imitate the feeling you get working with other gamers in these ways.

    Despite my enjoyment of multiplayer, I find I do not play it all that often, and when I do, I barely get the multiplayer for all its worth. I find this is especially true in team-based games such as Battlefield or Insurgency. It used to be that I would only play Battlefield if a close friend was playing as well. It was not until I became significantly more comfortable with the game that I would play solo, and even then I don’t initiate interaction with squadmates, I follow the lead of others, and I don’t stray beyond my comfort zone for modes, loadouts, etc. I think Insurgency is a really high-quality game, but I cannot bring myself to jump into it alone.

    I blamed it all on my social anxiety and decided it is what it is: I still have fun playing and that’s all I need. However, it still bugged me, especially as I realized that some things about it made no sense. Of course, anxiety as a whole rarely makes complete sense in that we know deep down there is no real harm to fear, but it still persists. Why would I be socially anxious playing a game online? No one can see my face. I am using my gamer handle rather than my real name, so no one really knows me personally. My anxiety is usually at its worst when I am in a crowded room of people I don’t know and may not share interest with (think business mixer). However, in a gaming environment, it’s a virtual room full of gamers there to play a game. Clearly, we all have a shared interest. So, why so anxious?

    I have come to realize that much of this anxiety comes from a fear of failure and therefore a fear of embarrassing myself. I avoid playing games I will enjoy. I avoid making new friends. I avoid having new experiences and learning new things. I avoid becoming better. I avoid all these things because I am anxious about sucking at a game. I am anxious despite not truly caring how good I am (I just want to have fun). I am anxious despite knowing we all start  as noobs. I am anxious despite knowing it is just a game. I am anxious despite knowing the only way to get better or have any fun with the game is to play. Sure, there are valid reasons for anxiety, such as the vitriol found within many gaming communities, but negative experiences would be outweighed by the positive, you would hope (have found this is not always the case, which has exacerbated the issue at times).

    I am sure I could spend quite a bit of time doing some psychological analysis to determine if this is all due to some adolescent experiences or something like that, but I am sure speculation will get nowhere. In the end, I come back to, “it is what it is.” Sure, I will keep pushing myself, but I know it will always be there.

    I am not sure what my end goal was in writing this. Maybe it was to share my thought process on the subject, or maybe I figured it would be therapeutic. Perhaps someone else not sure why they are uncomfortable in a multiplayer game will stumble across this and have an epiphany. All I can say is I have found multiplayer gaming easier to do with friends because they help you see past the anxiety (at least when they support you rather than making you feel judged about your skills), but it is also more fun that way because it is usually a higher-quality interaction. Even so, there is still A LOT of quality single-player out there, so don’t fret either way you go.

    Oh, and if you see me out there, feel free to say hi. Receiving interaction from others usually reduces the anxiety quite a bit.