I was talking about coop-centric gamedesign (and specifically AI) yesterday, and I forgot to link to this interesting topical website — linked by Chris M. Park's blog, also very much worth reading, for that and more.

Merry '10, people, this will be an interesting year, in the Chinese and any other sense, I reckon.


Coop vs AI

An emerging trend in the world of strategy/tactical games of late is the focus on coop multiplayer vs AI, as opposed to the more traditional use of AI as a stand-in for an absentee 'real' opponent.

While not entirely new, this is an interesting development, and one of the many subtle ways in which the wargames (as a broad category/genre) are finally getting payback from the adventure/action/RPGs that have shamelessly 'borrowed' from strategy games forever, without giving back much love until recently.


While other genres have evolved spectacularly over time, thanks to genre fusion/bending and cross-pollination, strategy games have known few significant changes since the emergence of RTS:
at core, most strategy games tend to fall in either of two categories: computerized renditions of boardgame-styled designs, or mildly brainy action games sitting in a fancy simulated environment, with eyecandy added to taste.

The reason for that is simple: strategy and wargames are traditionally and by nature thought of as 'versus' games, yet current AI do thoroughly suck at emulating a 'real player' opponent.
Thus the tried and true solutions to make the AI look good boil down to either very solid game mechanics that even a seriously retarded bot can't screw up, or relatively simple game design (that an AI can handle, with cheats if needed) fleshed out by a rich enough simulated environment to overload the cognitive capacity of the human player and create the illusion of lifelikeness.

As a result, designing for single or multi player(s) has often been perceived as an either/or choice: a good single-player campaign usually will hinge on RPG-like scripting, crafty level design, extensive playtesting, with some storytelling and cutscenes thrown in to thicken the sauce, while the multiplayer PvP mode requires solid boardgame-like game mechanics to work — it's really tricky to do both at once and well enough in a single game.


Luckily, other game genres bring a comparatively lateral-thinking answer to this dilemma: cooperative multiplayer.
As hinted above, this is a counter-intuitive option for strategy and wargames, and although coop mode has been present in the multiplayer options of many a RTS in he past, it generally has been there for the sole sake of exhaustiveness, and rarely if ever been a defining feature of any srs bzs strategy game until recently…
Just to be clear, I'm talking about coop vs computer here, not team-based PvP, which is indeed cooperative too and can spice PvP quite a bit, but is still PvP at core and is not an essentially different play mode from FFA PvP, mechanics-wise.

Coop vs AI (CVA) comes from CRPGs (notably MMOGs) and action-adventure genres, which have been struggling for a long time to reconcile their single-player heritage with the commonly accepted wisdom (and now built-in expectation) that multiplayer adds value to a game. In those genres, Coop gameplay is a fairly obvious way to go about bringing more than one player on the same boat, and is also a welcome answer to the seemingly insurmountable problem of Artificial Stupidity of henchmen and other computer-driven teammates in RPGs and action-adventure titles.


Applied to strategy games, the eureka moment of going CVA involves putting the genre on its head: the common ancestors of all wargames are about two guys sitting on chairs across a table and duking it out over a board and tokens — at face value, making it about two guys helping each other to beat the crap out of a machine is more of a leap than a stretch — but in hindsight, CVA looks just as elegant and obvious applied to strategy games as to CRPG.

CVA works best when freed from the preconception that the AI's there to substitute an absentee human opponent, which AIs are notoriously bad at.
Dropping the Turing-test idiot ball and instead embracing a PvE-centric design approach allows to build a game that can be equally interesting in solo and multiplayer mode, as the game mechanics no longer need to cover for Artificial Stupidity. It's certainly extra work over just bolting more seats on a single-player game, but it's definitely the easier path (compared to faking human intelligence with scripts) to get something worth playing.

Coop doesn't mean the challenge, tension and sense of accomplishment have to be diminished, either : the human factor and drama fuel can be just as strong when players try to work together rather than intently butt heads, and a CVA design can still be spiced up with multiple coops competing against both the AI and each other, as long as the AI is clearly defined as the primary threat/target.

The brilliant (despite disputable looks) 2009 poster child for that approach is probably AI War — go check it out now if you haven't yet.

…and if you want to know more about the AI in this particular design, here's a good and thorough writeup series.




I used to be precocious, and now I'm old and retarding…
— things even out that way.


Head in the cloud, and beyond.

There's a lot going on vis a vis cloud computing these days, and it has been occupying a good share of my time lately, especially considering what it can do for the future of R-POW gaming…

I was so busy trying to wrap my mind around its potential from an infrastructure and business standpoint, how it could inform game design practices and tie with other pink unicorns like augmented reality and AI/AGI, I missed the obvious… frickin' gorgeous games.

Minesweeper on Windows™

R-POW, in their various MMO* incarnations to date have been plagued with the general curse of blandness at best, ugliness at worst, with a few notable exceptions such as EVE online and World of Warcraft, which have managed to make for reasonably good looking games by banking either on a hardcore g4m3rZ userbase with matching rigs, or on insane talent and production value, respectively.

Cloud-based gaming, by moving the computing power out of the end-user field, not only brings hardware requirements down (all you need is a decent display hooked up to broadband — read any HDTV-capable appliance), it opens the possibility to code games with previously unreel hardware reqs that would have reduced the potential market to the niche of very special nerds operating liquid-nitrogen-cooled gaming clusters, purpose-built for one title.
Incidentally, such systems exist, they're called military-grade training simulator platforms, and for some reason it's an approach that never made it big in the consumer market — I blame the terrible dress-code and hairdos, personally.

Moving on…

Cloud computing doesn't just hold the potential to bring down development and operating costs of R-POW, to let studios finally make a buck by steering clear off parasitic publishers & retailers, or to open the way for easy licensing and high-quality indie games by allowing costs to scale up gracefully with user base growth. The biggest change may yet come from the fact games will no longer be defined by the limitations of the end-user hardware. People (and designers) will be able to make decisions based on what they need/want, rather than what the target PC or console can handle.

No longer forced to design and code within the confines of 5 years old consoles or $600 office/family PC, game makers will be able to trust the platform to glitchlessly churn out the latest in rendering algorithms, and may even gain access to on-the-fly throttling to beef up the simulation engine to meet the demands of a climactic scene.

Minesweeper in the cloud.

Movie-level visuals, plus solid simulation engine, massively multiplayer, always on, from your smartphone to your wide-screen TV… now we're getting somewhere.



Apple in bed with BigPharma™ companies ?

Here, get a tinfoil hat so I can talk to you safely, and hang on, you're in for a treat…

Apple has figured a new way not to honor AppleCare warranties on their very expensive hardware — preexisting conditions.
If your machine has been taken out of its original shipping box, or at any time since purchase otherwise ventured outside of a clean room and into contaminated environment, a.k.a RealWorld™, Apple will not service it under AppleCare,  because frankly, you brought it on yourself by daring to, you know, use the computer, instead of setting it on display in your personal gallery's sealed, bulletproof shrine, with Colorsync-matched gentle UV-free lighting.

Apple computer used as intended.

This should only come as a mild surprise, considering the high standards of customer service Apple is known for, and how Apple service reps are encouraged to deny warranty claims on the slightest pretext (one Apple service center employee explained me how he's been briefed on the not-so-subtle art of tripping 'submersion sensors' to turn warranty-covered faults into revenue-generating after-sale servicing).

The recent stories about second-hand smoke as a warranty-voiding 'clause' however, show Apple reaching to a new level of creative callousness that warrants notice. 

Here's the reasoning: Apple is not refusing to service the machines that show (?) signs of having been exposed to tobacco smoke out of a misplaced sense of anti-smoking righteousness or — perish the thought — as a flimsy excuse to save costs at the expense of the customer, oh no… it's doing so because it can't in good conscience expose its employees and service reps to bio-hazards…

What would you want Apple to do ? Knowingly poison techs by feeding them your toxic waste, you monster !?

I wish I was making this up, but no: apparently it is part of the standard service procedure that Applecare techs are required to lick every part of your machine chassis to clean it up thoroughly before re-assembling it — which also implies part of the training for Applecare servicing certification centers on learning how to lick one's way around the aforementioned moisture sensors.

Leveraging imaginary health-hazards to shift the blame on the customer for its ailments and therefore deny coverage, while painting ghastly pictures of alternative protection systems faintly reminds me of something in recent US news, but I can't quite put my finger on it right now… nevermind, it'll come back.

Not to be insensitive to the ordeal of career Steve worshipers with an oral fetish for delicious machined aluminum alloys, but I'm starting to wonder if Apple seriously means to end the hackintosh excursion, or if they're just pretending to, for the sake of maintaining their image of batshit-insane control freaks, while really plotting to push their users into switching to cheap knockoffs ?

If your machine must be disposable — by virtue of being more expensive to maintain than replace — do you really want to shell the extra 30% Apple-brand tax on it ?

I didn't think so.


Best of luck.

Believe it or not…

…these two are soon getting married.


[Here be the photo gallery, and go there for a nice behind-the-scene look at Big Daddy's inception.]


Story of my life.

Either I'm getting complacent and easier to please (which would be subtly ironic, given the link below), or I'm on a roll for finding stuff worth reading, lately.

In this case, and for my sake, worth re-reading at least once a week until it sinks in.


Another bullseye.

You may remember I mentioned Eschaton Online a few days ago.
Turns out Gnostic Labs seems very much dead, but unless I fell prey to an eerie case of fortuitous homonymy, I believe I've picked the scent of one Jake Cannel, once of the Eschaton Online team, who's nowaday focusing on computer graphics, on the western US coast.

As it happens, he blogs, like anyone with access to tap water is required to nowadays — seemingly by law — yet to the difference of most, it's definitely worth reading, at least if you're into his kind of stuff.

This, especially, about the evolution of gaming platforms and how it could impact development practices is at once well-written and spot on, imnsho.

Not much more to say right now, although I poked a company that's working on the kitchenware version of that idea, roughly… I'll get back to that if/when I get word from them.

Economic crisis update.

…or why the way we do capitalism deserves to die.


Getting there.

The rapture of the nerds is on us, or close by, according to Itamar Arel, who gave an interview last month to Sander Olson. Read it there.

The skinny is Dr Arel believes we're just a decade away from the first proto-human artificial intelligence, roughly baby-stupid (or smart, depending on your personal bias), and from that point on, there's no stopping the singularity from happening within the next few minutes.

Meanwhile, I'm being clever trying to figure ways for MMO* to suck less… Considering the likelihood of success on that front, I suspect it will be a relief to be ended by our mechanical overlords.


How the MMO* production model is broken.

Not spanking new, not illuminating (because of the next proposition), this entry by Scott Jennings summarizes so neatly a bunch of points I subscribe to, I figured I'd just link it here for future reference — at least until one of the younguns educates me on shared bookmarking or somesuch.
 In the meantime…

And don't miss the comments, Lum's readership is half the goodness.


Economy in playmonies

The meaning of PvP.

…meanwhile, on the other blog.

I usually try to keep things separate between my EVE-specific rants and musings, and the broader design issues I discuss here. The last two downtime fillers on EVE is broken obviously relate to EVE, but really are what I believe to be generally valid observation about the nature of the relationship between carebear-type players in R-POW and the PvP playstyle(s).

If you're interested in pop-psychology applied to PvP, you may want to check at least the first entry: it was a bit of a shocker even for me as I drafted it (obviously, odds are I'm not the first to have this specific eureka! moment).
Today's filler is a bit more EVE-centric, but I reckon anyone with a passing familiarity with the subject in other R-POW can work their way around the spacenerd-flavored rocks easily enough to keep it legible.

ttfn, time for coffee.


Eventually Stuff Rendered Bland

As I was doing the rounds of various game-related websites today, both designer and end-user oriented, it struck me: almost all popular western R-POWs are tween-to-teenager friendly — or at least try to be, according to their ESRB ratings.

The only exceptions I found after a cursory search are Age of Conan (rated M to AO/18+ depending on who's talking), a Korean-made mediaeval-horror I don't think I ever heard of before (although the name is so generic it's hard to tell), and, in its own contorted ways, Second Life (while Linden Labs hate seeing their over-hyped cathouse lumped with vulgar MMOG, SL still qualifies as a R-POW, I guess).

Two of those are deemed NSFW on a basis of a lot of gore and gratuitous violence, plus the occasional b00bs and semi-explicit deviant sex, and the last is… well, Second Life, homeland of furries and middle-aged local politicians who love to go wild in latex diapers.

But I digress… my original point, I guess, was that it's surprising how few commercial R-POW take advantage of the creative freedom afforded by not having to give the time of the day to the hysteric 'for the children'  lobby.

An Adults-Only rating allows designers to drape pretty much anything under the First Amendment (or  applicable equivalent) and be reasonably safe from moral crusaders and wrong-footed art critics …which would be nifty enough on its own, yet the real beauty of it is: it doesn't require you to actually produce boring pornography or unimaginative Nazi-flavored gorefests… seriously.

Going AO essentially amounts to running a private club: you can post the most stringent EULA you want, and nobody will be able to build even a half-decent case against your policies on the basis they were too lazy to read, or to claim a natural right to access in the holy names of free market and consumer choice.

Much like this blog is set as 'Adult Content' — although I don't think I ever posted anything even as mild as a wardrobe malfunction — taking the non-family-friendly approach means you don't have to answer to the mouthbreathers who'd want to dictate their terms in your space.

A double side benefit is you'll still get the kids, as per the first law of Forbidden Fruits and attractive exclusivity, yet the onus will be on them to behave like grownups in order to avoid being detected (and subsequently insta-banned without trial).

Honestly, I can't see a downside to hanging a large AO/18+ sign on your door — without even stopping to consider if  you could go for a T instead, and try to sneak your most controversial material under the radar of rabid soccer moms.

The only obvious (if short-sighted) rationale for the lack of AO offer on the R-POW market would be that game makers live by the mistaken belief their only potential market gravitates around the kids demographic… that could go a long way towards explaining why most MMOs are firmly planted on the stupid side of the creative spectrum, though.

Not to imply kids are stupid, or only going for brain-dead entertainment, obviously: rather to say that if you can be so far off the mark on who your userbase is, you probably also hold very flawed assumptions about what they're paying you for.


New Gaming — HowTo (New Gaming, part 2)

[read me first, if you dare.]

New gaming is what you'd get if you were to design a hardcore game such as it could attract casual gamers and be playable by them, without dumbing down the gameplay. That's roughly it.

Because 'Real' Casual Players will not commit more than a very small amount or time, brains and money (if any) to a given game, and because old-school hardcore nerds make for very small niches, both by their head count and by the number of titles which they will devote their individually high commitment to (while dictating exclusionary gameplay/styles in the games that cater to them), New Gamers are where most of the (smart) money and designers' attention should go.

New Gaming is not just a fancy rebranding tag for the fabled 'mainstream' Casual Gaming of the last decade, though: you can perfectly design niche games for New Gamers, and don't have to go for maximum eyeballs at every turn, at the expense of theme or gameplay originality.

What sets apart New Gaming from the usual understanding of Casual and Hardcore Gaming is it doesn't target any specific age-class, hardware requirements or gender (to name but a few). Those standard demographics parameters are something that the feature set, gameplay and theme can be concerned with if the designers so choose, and they're of importance, but New Gaming is less about who you expect the player to be than what New Gamers would expect from any game they will play.
As such it is more of a positive definition: a game must meet a set of conditions in order to reach New Gamers, as opposed to reach out for players who fall in a specific market demographic.

New Gamers demand games that acknowledge players who want deep, immersive, challenging and engaging gameplay, and are willing to commit brains, time and money to that, under the provision the game makes it easy to get in, allows them to play unobstructed by poor usability or frustrating artificial difficulty, and lets them learn as they go without fearing a forced restart from scratch halfway through the game — oh, and it must not look ugly, either.

Yes, I know it sounds like a blanket 'make better games' admonition, without consideration for realistic funding, release dates, or production and technical limitations. Weirdly it is not, and it can be managed by sticking to a few rules.

1) Do it right, or do something else.

New Gaming designs assume players are reasonably smart, and as such will both notice and cringe at sloppy work. That they're also smart enough to work around design or engine quirks doesn't mean they're OK with those being there in first place: most likely they just crossed a mental checkbox towards the total that will qualify your game for a trip to the nearest tradeback store and a scathing review on Amazon.
New gamers don't care for groundbreaking AI if their units can't pathfind their way through an empty parking lot. It could know how to flirt with them in their native language and deduce their favorite breakfast dish from unspoken clues in the player weapons' choices, it would still be broken if it doesn't do what the player can sensibly expect it to manage as a matter of course.
On the upside, they will buy in games that don't sport a grocery list of features if there are a few good reasons to play the game, and the rest of it doesn't spoil the fun: in that sense they're closer to casual gamers who will play something because it's fun, even if it's not the most cutting edge on the technical side, as long as it doesn't make eyes bleed.

2) Stuff must make sense (in context).

It ties to 'do it right…' above, but applies more to internal consistency of the design, ruleset and universe than to individual features' merits, performance or polish. Players should be able to make informed guesses about new content and game mechanics from their prior experience of the game levels/worlds.
That doesn't require the gameplay to be in any way dumb or simplistic, only that — however complex — the arrangement and relationships between moving pieces (and scenery) shouldn't be unduly complicated or arbitrary.
If some stuff is so arcane that it can't readily be understood early on, but is deemed too important to drop (because it enables really interesting gameplay later down the road), either provide players with ways to circumvent it during the early stages, or give them the means to both gain at least a superficial understanding of it, and to use it with reasonable (if limited) success without relying entirely on luck/cheats/hints/save-reload.

3) Replayability value is a one-way street.

Notably, that a game is even better on the second run shouldn't mean it's fine if it only becomes worth playing after the first play through. New Gamers won't make it through the first run if the game sucks until you know it by rote, or pack 00ber gear.
It is true that RealLife™ doesn't always do this favor to us monkeys, and many things only start to make sense retrospectively, with the invocation of external knowledge not readily available at the time you first faced a problem — there's a reason why New Gaming is not called New RealLife™.
Easter eggs, hidden gems, unlockable s33kr1t levels and equipment are not a mortal sin against New Gaming, but if you need that to justify finishing the game, you have a serious design problem.

4) Learn early, learn often, learn easy.

Internally-consistent 'laws' should be hinted at early and through the learning stages of the game, while the visible connections and interactions within a limited feature set make plain that upcoming content will follow the same internal logic.

Combinatory functions are cool because they reuse content (saves monies) in many ways , and if done right make for exciting deductive challenges and exploration (as opposed to robotic 'try every possible combo'). If players can stumble on entirely new toys with significantly different effects from previous ones, but can correctly figure how to use them and what to expect without too much poking around, you've done something right.
This 'common wisdom' allows to introduce progressively more intricate and complex content to the players as they venture further through the game, which they'll be able to learn  on the fly as they build up on previously acquired knowledge.
Formal, mandatory Tutorial segments longer than a few minutes (beyond teaching the control schemes) are generally a copout in this regard. 'Lab' zones that allow players to experiment and practice at their leisure (without breaking immersion and rule 2 above) a by far preferable if some mechanics are worth spending time getting the hang of.

5) Shine shouldn't blind.

No matter how cool your particle algorithm is, or how much you like flare effects, if I can't use my torchlight without losing half the screen-estate to various graphical fluffery, it better tell me something I didn't know until then about my circumstances. Likewise, I don't care if true-3D rendering is more reelistic, I'll take roto-sprites over 3D any day if it means I can tell my soldiers apart from my peons at a glance.
While we're at it, if the game challenge hinges on the scenery and objects being semi-illegible, and if a simpler rendering would make the game 'too easy to play', there is a problem: graphics should add context, emotion, and possibly tell me more about the gamestate, not obfuscate it, unless it really serves a purpose — I'm not averse to walls being opaque, mind you.

6) Fun, polished fun.

Fun is something you make for yourself, as the saying goes, so it's a rather subjective thing, but if you have a game idea that sounds like it would be fun for you, chances are you're not alone — that's not a bad start.
Beyond that, making things fun is more art than science, and discussing it in detail would turn this article into a book, something neither you nor I look forward to — so let's assume you can recognize fun when it bites you.
…and that's the gist of it: look for it, see that every step of your game, from the intro to the controls, to accessing inventory management or moving around is, at least, not a bore, and whenever possible enjoyable.

7) Design early, design hard, design a lot.

Probably the worst thing that can happen during the early and core design stage of a game aimed at New Gamers is to leave too much to be sorted out later, especially if something doesn't quite feel right about an important feature that you know you'll reuse a lot.
Good design is cheap, compared to do-overs: it takes mostly time, talks, paper and a handful of people with various perspectives, using each other as sounding boards. Putting some stuff out in the open on a forum during pre-alpha may sound scary (OMG, BlizzardArts™ stole my ideas), but if you've been at it for a while, you may have a head-start in familiarity with your design that's hard to beat, and you don't have to go fully public either.

There's no such thing as having too much material: there are plenty of ways to prioritize the goods and decide what won't make it to v1.0… On the other hand, finding yourself forced to make up critical design elements as you go, halfway through production or (much worse) during crunch time, is a recipe for sloppy if not downright terrible results — neither will pass muster with New Gamers.

To conclude this once-again way too long entry, here's a quick summary and two examples:
New Gamers want games that are easy to get in, yet reward the dedicated and skilled, without screwing too hard on the beginner, unlucky or underdog — if there is a wealth of world/game mechanics to explore, all the better.
A near-perfect example of such design, far from R-POW and sandbox games is Mario Kart, which is not exactly a $50 million development project.

Another, which could probably turn into a commercial sleeper hit on the iPhone or any comparable device, with only a very slight coating of shoeshine on, but has everything that matters already in the box…
If you started videogaming this side of the 80's, odds are you never played anything like it. It's not old-school iso, or top-view 2D, it's ascii, which is beyond exotic ; and not only does it not hurt the eyes too badly, it's a fantastic game to play. Not 'good for an indie title'-good: it's worth playing regardless of any outside considerations. It's Dwarf Fortress.

I will write more about this beauty of a game someday, but until then I recommend you take a look at this page, yet only after you've spent a couple hours digging caves and fending off batshit insane mourning dwarven.


Gaming species (New Gaming, part 1)

 Games are art (not only, but also), and as such they're seen differently by the critic, historian, designer or budding artist than they are by the players.
While a botched game can still be worth the attention of a critic or game designer, who may spot the promising new feature or hidden gem amidst the debris of a production or artistic train wreck, the player who paid 5 movie seats or good paperback books worth of expected fun may not be so well-inclined toward a game that crashes, doesn't play well, or sports glorious-yet-ultimately-illegible graphics.

Because video gaming started as a niche hobby chiefly dominated by obsessive teenagers and early twenty-something, it used to be that the critic and player culture largely overlapped, in ways that made many players tolerant and supportive of ambitious-yet-failed attempts, as they knew to focus on the potential for the genre/platform to forgive or overlook flaws in a product that pushed the envelope.

Kids these days…
Most critics nowadays are gamers with soda-induced ADD, who grew up on games with a very high ratio of shiney/gameplay, while the player demographic has broadened to such a point that the gamer genus now encompasses uncounted species, many of which have never heard of each other.

More and more people are new to games, regardless of their birth date: the broadening of game demographics and the multiplication of platforms types (cell phones, browser games, cross-generation consoles) is bringing (back) new consumers to the games market every day. As all players before them, their tastes and expectations are shaped by their early experiences, and the near-instant availability and variety of today's offer mean they don't have to spend any more minutes than they feel like on games that aren't satisfying to them.

The emerging majority among this 'generation' of players share only one characteristic: they will settle for what they perceive to be the best in the current readily available crop when deciding where to put their time and money. They won't seek out promising monstrosities, or stroll a forum in search of a rare indie game that sports a unique feature or gameplay style — they game surf like they channel surf or watch DVDs: from the top 20 sellers in their favorite genre/shop.

New Gamers vs 'Real' Casual Players.
This trend has been widely acknowledged by the industry, and identified as the 'rise of casual gamers', which I believe to be a fallacy.
New gamers aren't inherently different from old-school gamers, many among them crave deep, challenging, involved gaming experiences, while casual players will never commit more than 15% of their brain's bandwidth for cycles longer than a few minutes to an hour at a time. What has changed is access and expectations.

The 'Real' Casual Players, who are only interested in 'light', non-committed playstyles now have more readily-available games that cater to their tastes, thanks to increased accessibility (notably via new platforms): this demographic is less growing (in absolute head count) than it is discovered and reached out to by a suitable offer, which wasn't the case before.

As for the New Gamers, even though they started video games in the current century, and can take internet for granted as their shopping mall, playground and grapevine through which hearing what's worth playing now, they have the same hunger for immersive, compelling fantasy worlds and alternative realities the two earlier generations of gamers had — except they won't eat their delicious gaming marmalade if it's spread on a burnt toast, even if served on a day-glow plate …which we were willing to do, because that was the only way we knew 'serious gaming' could be.

The intarweb ate my homework !
New Gamers and Casual Players both are raised on games that are instant-on, don't crash, come cheap or free (at least during the demo/trial/early play), can be jumped right in, unencumbered by arcane instruction manuals, clunky control schemes and configuration requirements, and provide a satisfying experience from minute one.

How come they get to enjoy such a carefree player career, compared to us who had to rebuild entire PCs and hunt down *custom* video drivers on BBSes to get a single game to run, hopefully without setting our study/dorm on fire in the process ?
Curiously, not because games nowadays taste less like burnt toast on average (although arguably, they do), but simply because New Gamers will dismiss games who fail those basic usability and enjoyability litmus tests without a second thought, a luxury they can afford because they have alternatives we didn't. It may not be 'better' games in your or my eyes, but they are humanly playable games, which is more than can be said about many of those responsible for most of my all-time fondest gamer memories.

Picking targets.
From the above, today's gaming market basically breaks down to three categories of potential customers: 'Real' Casual Players, old-school hardcore nerds, New Gamers. Platforms and RL demographics distinctions are largely irrelevant to that breakdown, although there may be more natural affinities between some than others.

To have any reasonable hope of a headshot, any game project can and should aim for only one of those groups at once.

  •  'Real' Casual Players are both the most numerous and fickle, in theory.
In spending power, they may not be the strongest group, as they are raised on free (as beer) games, leaving you with nothing to get revenue from but ad-placement and possibly micro-transactions  — both of which I personally think are largely doomed models for this, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

On the plus side, real-casual games can be made for reasonably cheap, are typically low on art assets and coding complexity, and make easy to itemize and derivate new products from a single codebase. They can potentially support a low-overhead business model in its own name, or act as gateway drugs to lure in potential New Gamers toward more ambitious products.

  • Old-school hardcore nerds are a stable niche.
Due to increased life expectancy and the OCD type of most hardcore gamers, they are in for the long haul, and won't stop playing and buying games as long as they can afford the time and money.

Capturing the attention of those players is a good way to build up ambitious game designs that take years/lots of sequels to reach their full breadth. Hardcore gamers play a game (series) as much for its development potential as for today's game as is, if not more.
The high barrier to entry that comes with games that are almost certain to never fully deliver on their overambitious promises (and player expectations) means they are not for the faint of heart, however: players and game makers alike who sign up for these projects must be ready to enter a world of pain and frustration, only redeemed by the occasional moment of pure bliss and ecstasy when things accidentally fall in place just right.

Because of the opposite aims of OSHN games compared to 'Real' Casual Players games, almost no  bridging between the two groups is possible inside a given game, and if it was, it may not be beneficial for either party to allow anyone to cross over too easily.

The ranks of OSHN can be replenished to make up for those who fell to diabetes complications, by tapping the pool of New Gamers: provided a OSHN game offers some desirable features that can't be found in more user-friendly titles, and the game look'n'feel is not too much like a smelly shantytown, a fraction of New Gamers can be enticed into taking the leap in OSHN-land. Once there, they'll start growing bellybutton lint with their new brethren, soon to morph into proud OSHN forever, after they've alienated all relationships dating from their former New Gamer life.

  • New Gamers are not exactly sitting in the middle…
New Gamers aren't 'Real' Casual Players, by a long stretch: although they may occasionally play those, they don't consider real-casual games are 'true' games, as they expect more from theirs.
This doesn't make them OSHN, either, as they don't subscribe to the notion that poor gameplay and ergonomics, ugly graphics and show-stopping bugs are an acceptable and worthy price to pay for a richer game experience, which sets both groups apart, divided by fundamental values. …at least at first.

Designing for New Gamers requires the game to be accessible and easy to enjoy from the first moment in, yet to also hint at hidden depth and complexity early on, without making it overwhelming or angst-inducing. The second-to-last thing a New Gamer product should do is have players worry about making irrecoverable mistakes during their learning phase of the game, the kind that will only become obvious hours or days into it, forcing them to re-roll/re-start (hint: they won't, and will quit in frustration instead).

To an extent, successful design for New Gamers can be achieved without ever venturing further into complexity and depth than a lap-dance: the mere tease of flirting with deep gameplay can be enough to capture most New Gamers' attention for a long (and paying) time.
Good examples of this can be found in many modern CRPG, where the save-everywhere and 'rewind' mechanisms ensure no drastically unforgiving consequences can result from player choices, while still imposing some sense of loss/worth through the penalty imposed on 'wasted' playtime by the 'rewind' option.

In multiplayer games, New Gamers are looking for deeper and meaningful experiences, where their decisions do have lasting consequences and manifest impact on the gamestate and others, but where 'losers' always get a chance to bounce back and at least catch up with the head of the pack.
Although they will be welcoming high amounts of content if it is diverse enough, they usually care more for variety and emergent gameplay potential than for sheer quantity of features or size of the map.

Animals Crossing.
To a large extent, RCP, OSHN and NG don't mix well inside a same game: the antagonistic expectations about what makes a game worth playing (or dropping) mean it's rarely possible to reconcile them in a common environment.
What is true of individual games isn't of individual players, however, and just like many New Gamers can occasionally enjoy some RCP-aimed games, they can be lured into mainly OSHN-flavored titles that offer extra depth at not too steep a toll on accessibility.

'Real' Casual Players will usually not cross over into NG territory, because of the insurmountable time and attention commitments required by more involved styles of play — when they do, they're possibly budding New Gamers who didn't realize it before, and are likely to spend most of their  play-time on NG games after they've taken the leap once.
Barring serious blows to the head, RCP obviously never slip as far as OSHN-land, and run away tearing their eyes out if they mistakenly do.

As for OSHN, they're savage, smelly creatures living in caves, jealously guarding the entrances of their basement dwellings and spiteful of anything that roams the earth in the sunlight — don't expect them to  waste any time on n00bt0yz: their games are srs bzns.


[In the second part of this series, I'll have a look at how to make games that cater to New Gamers. 
Stay tuned.]


Homeworld Cataplasm Online

I've been spending quite a few hours dusting off years old pieces of design, mainly EVE-related stuff, since the announce of their December train wreck expansion… My most recent WTF? moment — and the ensuing drawingboarding of ideas about tactical maps and in-game intel management got me thinking: am I sketching a full-featured wargame, here ?

…and more importantly, does anyone remember Eschaton Online, a space-themed wargame a few years ago, that revolved around the notion of multiple play modes, ranging from god's eye strategy to in-cockpit dogfight ?

If you've played it and have opinions to share about that, send an email my way, pretty please: I'm curious to know.


The tales game designers should write.

A common and well-known problem, when adapting an IP from its original medium to another is to avoid alienating the fans by betraying the source material, intentionally or not.
Some stories simply don't 'translate' well to any other medium, while others will simply crash into impossible budget, production or artistic constraints on the new medium that didn't hinder the original, and will inevitably force compromises.

Nowadays, creators across platforms and genres are aware enough of the issue that many of them try to factor the potential for adaptation in their original production — this is especially true of written fiction, which is a difficult trade to make a living from by itself, but where a single movie deal over a readily written book can sometimes — literally — get one from rags to riches.
Whether factoring the limitations of a different medium when writing a novel does any good to literature is debatable, but it certainly can help ensure the filmic adaptation will be less likely to betray the original book.

What of videogames, then ?

While there is no shortage of insightful work about the peculiar challenges of interactive storytelling, and of the difficulty to port a story from a linear, author-at-the-wheel medium such as a novel or movie to a more freeform experience, most of the discussion usually revolves about the pitfalls of 'too much' freedom or control granted to the 'audience'… How can you stop people from taking powergaming shortcuts with your story, or from simply killing off the insufferable protagonist/love-interest/sidekick the first chance they get, and still keep them somewhat engaged in a game experience ? — yes, Harry Potter, I'm looking at you.

It seems however that the converse issue of coping with the restrictions imposed by limited interactivity gets less attention, or rather the question has been largely abandoned, whereas more interactivity used to be the obsession of gamemakers during the pre-and-early 3D era.

ChocoPuffs Online — the slasher game.

Are we so happy today with the completeness and perfect seamlessness of the physics and visual engines in our current 3D game worlds that the only thing that separates videogames from movies is strictly a matter of artistic choice ? Bluntly put: I think not.

Perversely, every improvement in graphics and physics in videogames only makes matters worse by raising our expectations about immersion, verisimilitude and interactivity freedom to heights that can't reasonably be met, short of reaching Matrix-esque simulationist quality.

Videogames versions of beloved franchises tend to prove generally about as reliable and faithful to the original IP as you can expect the similarly-themed breakfast cereal to be: Mrs Butterfly's Morning Surprise: now with raisins !
…OK, bad example, those would be kinda cool, actually.

Everybody wants to be a Jedi !

With sandbox-themed games being all the rage these days, new problems arise, and MMOs are a spectacularly unforgiving platform for adaptation of original material that hasn't been created with massively multiplayer in mind.

Star Wars Galaxies is possibly the uber-example of that: when your IP is beloved for its rich and colorful universe, yet your entire storyline is entirely focused on the respective and successive, all epically-scaled hero's journeys of a son, his antagonist father, and the father's own father figure (because he's an orphan, true story), things get hairy shortly after they fall in the hands of the enemy.
If spinoff novels, comic books, CRPGs and even tabletop RPG can take the time to plead a good case to the fans in favor of delving into other, previously undeveloped aspects of the Expanded Universe, thanks to the directive nature of the medium (or willful association for TT RPG), MMOs don't have that luxury, and the capacity of thousands of free-roaming players to collectively drag each other down and afar from playing the game as intended by design can't be overstated.

I'm pretty sure my class should be able to climb stairs…

Denying players their rightful heirloom as the putative unique son of the greatest king to ever roam the galaxy is only a side dish in the seven course meal piling up on the plate of the designer in the process of porting a story to a R-POW sandbox, however: the entrée comes in large helpings of game mechanics/engine limitations.

Source material, whether books or movies, doesn't just define the gameverse and backstory, it paints the spectrum of typical in-verse actions heroes can perform, beyond the mundane or within. If the videogame version even so much as brushes near any topical feature taken from the original IP, players brains will be primed to jump right into action, and if they can't because the game engine won't let them, much disappointment ensues.

The nature of a massive sandbox makes it extremely likely any given player will not brush near, but instead run into a great many such topical features, and the odds of disappointed expectations are proportionally heightened.

Not to bash on the Star Wars videogames franchise, as I have a long love story with many LucasArts titles, but having to run the long way around an open grass lawn to reach the handifriendly wheelchair ramp, simply because my friggin Jedi can't step over a 4" thick kerb edge kind of kills my Force-induced buzz.

Thus, fiction writing and MMOs have a contentious relationship. Backstory books and chronicle-type novelizations are powerful immersion devices and seamless tutorial tools, and can vicariously enhance the otherwise limited experience some players have of the gameverse, but they can also shine a searchlight on stuff that simply feels like it ought to be doable in game, yet isn't.

Twisting the record straight.

There is a simple way to avoid the clash between a sandbox MMO and its derivative products or supporting source material, and that's to design and write source material hand in hand.

Many designers use snippets of written fiction, or simply roleplay during brainstorming sessions to get a feel for how a given scene or situation coulda-oughta-shoulda play out in game. This makes perfect sense, and builds on the well-known effect having to explain your ideas to somebody has on your own understanding thereof. For mysterious reasons, this practice has not been given much credit in the industry, and is largely considered anecdotal, a personal trait or quirk of some individual designers rather than part of any formal method of sandbox game design.

If done early and soon, and if actually made a defining part of the design process, design by tales can be a very powerful tool for designers to maintain design consistency, craftily expose players to content they didn't yet realize existed, and shape players expectations about gameplay.
On the designer end, writing helps figure gameplay 'musts', to better prioritize and plan new features or changes, and can be a great source of inspiration for new content or design elements.

There's only one risk with fiction writing as a game design method: one may sometimes get carried away while jotting down a quick illustrative example


Derek goes global !

Derek Smart's 3000AD is cooking a MMO based on their Galactic Command IP !

This will earn the qualifier of awesome, for real.

…it will also be entirely unplayable for regular humans, but that's par for the course with anything Derek Smart™, and it shouldn't stop you from checking it out.

3000AD is a unique studio, and everything coming out of it is crazy-prophet type stuff: they do games nobody else would, maybe with good reason, but you never know until someone tries, and Derek Smart (Derek Smart Derek Smart) does try, in his boisterous, rambunctious, compulsively driven way. That alone is worth respect, in an industry that is growing more risk-averse and vision-impaired every year.

I hear space-grognards moans of arousal coming from the basement, already…


Oldie but goodie.

I know it's old, I know if you read this, odds are you're familiar with this stuff, but just in case you somehow missed it, as one of my good friends had until it popped up in the course of a conversation today, here's a link to a seminal paper by Nicole Lazzaro, of XEODesign, which is most definitely worth your time.

You'll thank me later.


Game stakes ≠ Gameplay Goals

A consistent pattern in MMOs is that designers seem to believe 'high stakes' are enough to make any content worth playing.

The assumption is that if you create a huge enough penalty for not participating, or a high enough reward for the winning side, players will feel compelled to experience your content and find it Epic.
This is valid to an extent, as high stakes add tension and bring context to an event or action, which can act as multipliers of excitement, and bump something from merely exciting to positively thrilling. Still, a big virtual jackpot alone is no substitute for good gameplay, or gold panning simulators would be more successful than FPS and racing games combined.
If the only reason for most players to partake in a major feature of your game is what's at stake, and they play through it despite — and not because of — the gameplay experience, then the drawing board wants you to get back to it right about now.

As a corollary, a litmus test for good gameplay is to see if people still want to play a feature that has been stripped/nerfed from its rewards.
Enjoyable gameplay is largely its own reward, and when the design is good enough, game goals matter mostly insofar as they guide the gameplay, even if accomplishing said goals can lead to rewards with more or less high stakes — in soccer, you score by putting the ball in the opponent's cage, and this goal guides a gameplay that is about moving a ball around, not about increasing numbers on a scoreboard.

This is not to say everything should be easy, or that you can't submit your players to some duress, once in a while: a little pain adds flavor, and 'hard' difficulty can contribute to a player's sense of achievement. The real question you want to ask yourself is this:
Am I using my carrot/stick to steer players towards content they'll enjoy playing, and would people want to play this part — on the whole — if they didn't have to ?


Reality… as basement gods know it.

[Part 1/x of the World building for dummies series.]

Game worlds are not MeatSpace simulators.
As obvious as it sounds, this basic truth about the nature of games seems too often lost on the most myopic nerds among players and MMO designers alike.

It's easy to understand the urge: lots of insanely cool/scary/exciting/epic stuff has happened through history, or could have happened, had history been willing to go just at tiny bit differently to fit our personal preferences, misconceptions, and power-fantasies.

— Think about it for a minute, dude: if Albert Einstein had been born Japanese instead…

— Of course ! Nukular rocket-riding Ninjas would rule the world ! Maan, how cool would that be ?

— Amen… I tell you, those Nazis really ruined it for us.

For better or worse, game worlds are teleological, designed to serve a purpose rather than the consequence of such fun-agnostic principles as the laws of thermodynamics and special relativity, thus the best can happen when designers fully embrace their god-like role, with the attached responsibilities of keeping internal consistency and making the universe interesting for its mortals.

Teleology is for the worse when game designers miss the point of 'fiction' and try their best at making a 'realistic' game world, based on their limited understanding of how reality works, which they take to be a valid guiding rule to achieve a consistent design — not only does it fail to produce anything remotely verisimilar, it practically guarantees the only places the game will successfully emulate reality will be at its most uninteresting.

— Do we seriously have to roll a check for Mildly Uncomfortable Bowel Movement at -7 on every combat round ?

— Doh… yeah: it would be Unreelistic not to !

The very worst case — and most common — scenario happens when game gods get bitten by the "But I'm one on TV !" bug, and start believing in their own infallibility — a faith they will defend in the face of contrarian facts with any shaky rationalization they can muster, under the delusion that coming up with lousy excuses for a sloppy job magically un-lames the results.

— Nukular rocket-riding Ninjas !

— Er… no-nonsense ancient Greece setting, here ?

— Ain't that a great mystery for the players to solve, then ?

Yes, if it sounds like fan-fiction, that's usually a good indication the design sucks.

World building for dummies.

Fictional worlds are created for the purpose of providing a good setting for storytelling, or in the case of a game world, to support fun or meaningful gameplay, or both. The flip side is, without the rigid rules of reality automatically imposing themselves on your game universe, nothing but your own design's internal consistency protects the game world from behaving like fan-fiction, which is why you want to think hard about your core design elements and never, ever depend on the players' willingness to play as intended.

This series will look at the most common mistakes that can be done when building a game world, how to avoid them, and how to make world design more an asset than a liability for your game.

As the saying goes: once you go live, your game is in the hands of the enemy.


Goofram — tastes twice as funny.

Sure, you love its guidance in navigating the intarwebs, but the Church of Gloogloo is a bit bland at times… ever wished you could shpritz a dash of ebil genius to top your ad-browsing experience with something a bit edgier ?
Say no more, friend, for I have jumped on the bandwagon of Goofram, a Firefox plug-in (and standalone search webpage) and so should you, if you enjoy computer-generated deadpan comedy.

Of course, Wolfram Alpha won't know how to make love, and neither will it be able to make head or tails of most of your typical search queries, but there is some nice zen to how it fails — sometimes a much welcome perspective.


Nowhere near the uncanny valley

…but still: this gives me a warm and nostalgic feeling coming straight from the early eighties.

Maybe we'll get our flying cars, too, at some point ?


A Better Place than Google Earth.

Looking for a poster child for the western world and whole earth future, if there's any to have ? Look no further, we have a friggin' winner right there.

Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place, is well on his way to put internal combustion engines and coal power plants where they belong: in museums.
All that within the next two decades, mind you.

Best part of it is, it could actually work.
With a single eureka and a deployment plan that shows uncanny smarts for context analysis, the same man / company could be both the inventor, the initiator and the main agent of the most significant milestone to date on the way to green power and CO2 emission reduction.

The idea is simple: gas-powered cars are responsible for about 25% of the human-related CO2 emissions, but electric cars are plagued by their limited autonomy and the recharge time of today's batteries , not to mention their unfavorable cost of ownership.

Agassi's solution is to remove the battery from the end-user's side of the equation, and not for trolley wheels.
In the Better Place model, the killer app is gas stations equivalents that can swap the main electric battery of a car in the same time (or less) it takes to fill a tank of gas today, with less hassle for the user. Better even, by taking advantage of a car's downtime on the parking lot to recharge the batteries, these pit stops would be only occasional, and in any case less frequent than with a gasoline car.

Swapping the actual battery instead of recharging it is genuinely brilliant, largely because it's practical, provided the infrastructure allows the process to be fully automated, a plan that doesn't have to worry about backward compatibility or established providers slowing down the penetration of Better Place-compatible battery swap stations, because there is no competition yet.

Electric car owners don't have to front the cost of the batteries anymore, and re-pay it over time through the e-miles they're billed on battery swap (much like today's cell phones are sold below cost by telcos and repaid by the customer through her phone bills/minutes recharges).
Not only does this solution reduce the cost of acquisition and total cost of ownership for the customer while solving the autonomy issues, but it also enables all electric cars to seamlessly upgrade to the latest in batteries technology as those become available in power stations, further reducing the per-mile cost and environmental footprint of cars over time.

The required infrastructure may seem like a huge barrier to entry, until you realize building charge spots at home, on the workplace parking lot isn't such a big deal, since they're basically smart power outlets.
As for the much more innovative Battery Switch Stations, it definitely takes more heavy duty work, what with the cars on conveyor belts and the automated underside extraction/replacement of batteries in under 5', but I'd guess in these times of economic collapse, the extra jobs are welcome, and the real estate for that can be found at affordable prices, where simply converting existing gas stations is not an option.

Double-plus smart.
You would expect such a perfect plan to be instantly torpedo'ed by BigOil™ with all the weight they can put to milk the last of the gasoline profit until the world ends, right ?
That's where Agassi's business acumen really shines: after solving the practical issues on the wares front, he figured how to reach critical mass to force his way in by going for the most eager early adopter for anything that gets them out of OPEC and Iranian grip: Israel.
Then he moved on to the euro tree-huggers with their 100+ % taxes on gasoline and gas-powered cars, and to the third-worldish/developping countries that aren't too happy about spending their limited monies on Saudi oil when they could use homegrown electricity instead.
Australia, Canada, Japan are hopping on the bandwagon already, with many others to follow …well, pretty much any place gasoline is expensive and not locally produced in sufficient quantities to feed domestic needs can see the incentive in the model.
The US of A lag behind still, as usual when it comes to not entirely burning down the planet, yet the combo of Obama's green bent with a totally wrecked economy should steer Uncle Sam toward the clean electrons light sometime before people start shooting each other for jerrycans, Mad Max style.

Full spiel @ TED '09.

Although there obviously are some bumps to iron out before the Better Place EV go global as intended, such as the big issue of actually feeding all those batteries with clean juice — lest eco-friendly EVs have to run on on dirty electrons from coal/diesel power plants — there is a good chance this model might work out: context has never been better for radical changes in the human transportation industry, and green is the new pink.

Where Google claims Do no evil as its motto (which is unrealistic, sounds a bit holier-than-thou and is largely disproved by the facts), Agassi takes a more radical and uplifting approach of not just dreaming the world was a Better Place.

My 2KW.
The enabler value of this project is not to be overlooked either: not only does it have the potential to single-handedly grow the market for clean electricity to critical mass, but it should make green juice available anywhere you have cars, which is also where consumer of electricity (for other purposes) hang out.

Once the infrastructure is there, and you can buy clean electrons right at home or at the corner shop for cheaper than the no-name current of your local utility company, both on tab and canned, the realm of possibles for creative/derivative applications (and lawsuits) is rather shweet.

Despite appeasing cookies thrown in the general direction of electric utility companies such as "Better Place’s services will also create an opportunity for utilities to utilize electricity produced from intermittent renewable energy sources more effectively (e.g., wind power generated at night).", it's pretty obvious where this is headed: the electrons route is about to become a two-way street as consumers awareness of electricity as a product (as in good/commodity) rises.

It's a recurring theme in Better Place's discourse that not all electrons are equal, depending on how they are produced, harvested, distributed and used.
With the green fad nowhere near ending, organic junkies will jump at the opportunity to switch to clean electrons for much more than powering their cars, as soon as convenience meets quality.
It won't be long after Better Place goes gold before homegrown and farmer-market styled electrons offers begin to flourish.

Will the utility companies cling on their crumbling monopolies, or embrace the change to get in business with local producers by offering to store and distribute their green juice ?
My guess is: both, and the former will go down lobbying and suing till they're blue in the face and get washed off.
The remaining ones will have to fight for their lives, by competing on retail price and/or perceived value (green is better, hence worth more) driving up the demand for affordable clean electrons.

I suspect Shai Agassi knows this already, but I can see clean electrons becoming an everyday alternative currency before 2030 if Better Place works out halfway as good as announced.

Meanwhile, I'd put my money in flywheels and efficient small scale water turbines if I had any (I'll leave as an exercise for the reader to work out what just crossed my mind, here).


Me luv Charlie.

Charles Stross is one of the most endearing SciFi writers of the past decade, and I mean that in a good way.
He mans a very stimulating online diary, which he recently moved into a previously deserted domain of his: accelerando.org.
While announcing the relocation, he mentioned his Singularity ! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds, which is not only funny as hell but also happens to be TiddlyWiki-powered.

Mom, I think I'm in love, I hope you'll understand.

PS: those stranded in Baltimore over this coming weekend (I know at least one who is) may find comfort knowing it's also where Charlie is (lolcat and stuff).


Operating system of me.

This post summarizes a few ideas which I hold to be true, while not necessarily endorsing them from an ethics standpoint, and which you can assume I take for granted in any piece of opinion I write.
Being one of those people who are never entirely comfortable with certainty, and live with the nagging feeling that confidence is mostly about overlooking stuff — the paradox is only apparent — there isn't much I take for granted.

This list is intended as a helper resource for whoever decides to enter a discussion with me: if any of those seem too deeply flawed to you, you'll save us both time and frustration by first correcting me on those postulates you deem broken before you try to skin any other beast — either that or drop it.


[For lack of a more sensible ordering (that I can figure), entries are organized by growing character count.]
  • Less is (often) more.
  • You can't un-fry things.
  • Diversity is inherently desirable.
  • The passing of time has no purpose.
  • 90% of any human production is crud.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
  • Convenience beats quality under most circumstances.
  • The map is not the territory — don't get caught in metaphors.
  • Hard work and steadfastness can't alone salvage flawed designs.
  • Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  • Those who most tend to seek power are less likely to exert it wisely.
  • Our brains don't naturally grasp statistics, not even simple percentages.
  • Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
  • Ideas should not be held responsible for the people who claim to defend them.
  • It's unlikely there is a god… even more unlikely it cares in the least about you.
  • Evolution is not a perfecting principle, it works on the just-good-enough principle.
  • Concepts should not be judged based solely on the success or failure of their implementations.
  • In most competitions, the optimal strategy is to hamper opponents' ability to compete whenever possible.
• New one-line-beliefs will be added as they come, if/when applicable.

• These one-liners each ought to link to a full entry eventually, but as usual, don't hold your breath, this blog is a low-priority item as far as I'm concerned.

• Catchy zingers that happen to be corollary to any of the above have been purposefully omitted from this short list, and will be covered — if ever — in the full-entry versions.
Ex: I strongly support the notion that "Universal Suffrage is a scam", but it doesn't warrant an entry in the list above, as it is merely a corollary of several of other listed postulates (primarily but not limited to) "the optimal strategy in most competitions…", "convenience beats quality…", "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." and "those who most tend to seek power…".
Ditto for: "Don't wait for your afterlife to make something of your time, there is no respawn for you noob."


On the way to Slate,

we paid a visit to Tokyo Toys (their catalog is pretty nice, but the B'n'M shop doesn't measure up) in Trocadero mall, which hosts other amenities, including an arcade, a bowling, and this very cute cybercafe-cum-gallery where strange robots live.

[click the pic for more]

13, Coventry Street: first floor, better accessed by the ramp next to the Passaje del terror attraction (no kidding).


Steampunking the MacBook Pro…

Right about to get one of the 'new' unibody 17" MacBook Pro, I'm told these tend to run *hot*.

Looking at Apple's specs, the operating ambient temperature range for these machines is 10°C to 35°C.
Needless to say, I routinely run my laptops on the high end of these temps, if not higher, which is a good enough reason to be concerned that those figures may not just be a matter of CYA on Apple's part.

Add to that the double issue of battery life and dust buildup inside the machine, both of which are tied to how often and how hard the two fans at the rear of the MacBook have to blow on the CPU/GPU heatpipes' heat exchangers, and it becomes obvious that anything which can be done to improve the cooling of this laptop by other means is a GoodThing™.

[Speaking of which, I'm not entirely sure how much of the air intake is done from the rear grille and how much is dependent on semi-improvised various holes such as around the keyboard, etc.]

Since I want to keep the drilling through the MacBook Pro chassis to a minimum of roughly zero (and it's not like there's much room to spare inside the box anyway), the back of the display casing seems like the best place to hook up some external cooling apparatus.

Yet before I even begin to worry about where the heck 'plate' type heatpipes can be procured, or how to build a small thermosyphon, I'll have to figure out the first and so very weak link in my thermal chain, ie: how to extract the heat from the 'cold end' of the factory heatpipes, and bring it to the 'hot end' of a back-of-the-display thermal circuit ?

The wiggle room between the internal heat pipe and the unibody shell is about 3 millimeters at best, and right next to the rear grille, so I figure a sheet of copper attached with clips and connected with thermal paste to the 'cold end' of the factory heatpipes can get me out of the chassis without sigificant adverse effects on the factory cooling system.
…yet from there I still need to work my way around the bottom of the display (which rests inconveniently below the topside plane of the main chassis) to reach the 'hot end' of the external heat dissipation circuit.

And no, hard plumbing is not an option, the display must still be able to open, adjust and close with the external cooling system mounted on, so the thermal bridge better be flexible.

Ideas ?

[See here for an in-depth look at the innards of the 17" MacBook Pro Unibody.]

Glaswegian Computing.

I'm currently looking into options for an unpowered and silent yet efficient cooling system for a mid-to-high end gaming rig.
At first, I looked into heatpipes and/or thermosyphon based designs, but I recently stumbled on an old experiment, and it got me thinking.

Yes, at the uncanny crossroads of Scottish cuisine and Xtr3m3 nerdiness, people figured deep-fried computing was an operating concept, provided the tub is see-through.
Seriously, follow the link, I'll wait…

The quick and dirty cooking-oil-in-a-tub proven surprisingly solid, especially on the noise reduction end of things, which is kind of a big deal for me.
I also like the elegant simplicity of a pure convection liquid cooling system with zero pumps or extra power requirements.

The main limitations of the oil-immersion model (besides the yuck factor when adding extra RAM) seem to be the potentially harmful capacitance and corrosive characteristics of cooking oil, but provided a similar fluid without those drawbacks can be substituted, this approach has real potential.
Oil-like liquids, despite being less thermally efficient, are especially attractive as they don't evaporate as easily, which fits the general less is more angle I'm going for.

It would seem practical enough to build a kit based on a ready-made durable container, where the motherboard and PSU would be placed near the bottom, while everything that needs to remain easily user accessible such as drives and I/O connectors could be installed above 'sea level'.
Some passive funnels could also be mounted inside the cooling pool to boost the convection cycle.

Provided the side walls of the containers were made of acceptably transparent material, plexiglass style, and that two or more (non-soluble with each other) fluids of different densities could be found (that fit the conductive/capacitance/corrosion bill), a 3GHz lava-lamp becomes a distinct possibility.

Obviously the one big technical bump is finding the right fluid(s).

Any ideas ?