Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sources for the Current Project

A dozen years ago, my dad turned 60 and declared that what he really wanted for his birthday was to see the Aurora Borealis.  His birthday being in January, this was not an impossible request, and somehow we concluded that the best way to realize it was to set off for Iceland.  There is much that can be said about that trip, but relevant to this post is that it was when first I heard of Snorri Sturluson.  Despite the fact that the travelers were all well-intentioned, purportedly mature, multiculturalists, at least 2% of our conversation all week consisted of simply saying the name "Snorri Stuluson" and laughing at its strange sound.  ("Ole Worm" -- which we also mispronounced -- got his as well.  Also, the word for "horse" in Iceland is "hross"; how delightful!)  Anyway, we never did see the Northern Lights, but little did I know that Snorri would come to wield such a weight influence over me in the years to come.

(As an aside: the Icelandic patronymic naming system is the direct source of the fabrinymics in Primordia.)

To the extent there is a single author whose influence on our next project is greatest, it is Snorri.  At a minimum, one must attest to him The Heimskringla, the Prose Edda (from which derives much of what we know of Norse mythology), and books on skaldic poetry, each of which has been of great use to me.  But he is potentially also the author of Njal's Saga, which would give him even more importance.  In any case, I don't mean to catalogue every book I've read, or write a paean to Snorri -- a man who exceeded me not only in my avocation as a writer but in my day job as a lawyer -- but simply to briefly touch on him before sharing some quotes that help give a flavor for where we're going.

Njal's Saga:
By law alone will our land be built up, and by violence laid to waste.

The Norse Myths (Kevin Crossley-Holland, drawing on Snorri's mythological work):
Odin did not extend a friendly welcome to the witch Gullveig when she came to visit him. In his hall the High One and many other Aesir listened with loathing as she talked of nothing but her love of gold, her lust for gold. They thought that the worlds would be better off without her and angrily seized and tortured her; they riddled her body with spears.
Beowulf (Heaney trans.):
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Heimskringla (Snorri, Hollander trans.):
There were two men, one called Gauka-Thórir, the other, Afra-Fasti. They were highwaymen and evil robbers. These two brothers were bigger and stronger than other men, and they did not lack daring and courage.
The king said that it seemed to him that it might be a good thing to have the service of men like these. “I am inclined,” he said, “to accept the service of men like these. But are you Christians?”
Gauka-Thórir answered, saying that he was neither Christian nor heathen.  “Nor have we fellows any other belief than trust in our own power and success, and that proves to be enough for us.”
Finally, from the Valkyries' song ("Darraðarljóð") in Njal's Saga:
See! warp is stretched
For warriors' fall,
Lo! weft in loom
'Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
'Neath friends' swift fingers,
Our gray woof waxes
With war's alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corpseblue.
This woof is woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is weighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.
Needless to say: the project to come is not especially cheerful!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Primordia's Unused Epigrams

Before embarking on a new project, I try to immerse myself in the artistic genre to get a feel for the core themes and images that provide the "form" in that particular artform.  Because I dove into Primordia without any preamble, I drew mostly on what I'd already read, watched, and played, but I also tried to buttress that with other things.  That included fiction such as The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, but also a fair amount of just background philosophy and nonfiction about our relationship to machines and about some of the game's themes.

Along the way, I thought it would be neat to have epigrams when you quit a game session or something, but that idea was (rightfully) scrapped.  For those who might be curious, here are some of the quotes I gathered during my literary roving:

“Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs.” - Samuel Butler, Erewhon

"I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man
for the engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control." - Henry Adams (in 1862 people already felt this way!)

"In attempting to construct sentient machines we are not irreverently usurping God's power of creating souls, rather we are providing new mansions for the souls that He creates."- A.M. Turing (1950)

"When God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. Make a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.” - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

"In the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right -- and of being more just than many others who call themselves more just than the just.” - Italo Calvino, Hidden Cities

"Man is like a broken shard,
like grass dried up,
like a faded flower,
like a fleeting shadow,
like a passing cloud,
like a breath of wind,
like whirling dust,
like a dream that slips away." - U'Netaneh Tokef (part of the Yom Kippur liturgy)

"Nature has found only one method of organizing living matter. There is, however, another method more simple, flexible, and rapid, which has not yet occurred to nature at all." -
- Karel Capek, Rossum's Universal Robots

"Machinery is the new Messiah." -  Henry Ford

Next up, I'll share some quotes from the sources that are shaping our upcoming project!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eulogy for the Stillborn Cloudscape

Primordia ate up a huge amount of my time, energy, and passion for two years, but at the end, there it was, our baby!  Unfortunately, the follow-up to Primordiaa project called Cloudscapealso ate up a huge amount of my time, energy, and passion, for almost a year.  At the end, there's really nothing to show for it.

Originally this was going to be a postmortem, trying to understand what went wrong with our ambitious, beautiful, doomed project, but candidly I don't see any point in that exercise.  Instead, I want to share with you guys some of what it would have been.

* * *

On Perebor, a world of seething clouds and strange wind-borne creatures, the La civilization flourished and faded, leaving behind mysterious towers to be picked clean by treasure-hunters, archaeologists, and profiteers.  Now, the scavengers’ boom years have passed.  What remains is a decadent world, nominally run by the Amarant Corporation but in fact ruled by a ruthless criminal known as the Headman.  For decades, no starships have passed through this backwater, but an unexpected visitor has suddenly arrived: Dahlia Hein, a messenger from the Interstellar Courier Service, coming to claim a bequest left by a certain “Angelo Nemo.”  The trouble is, no such person seems to exist . . . . 

When people ask about Primordia sequelsand about unanswered questions in the game, such as why the War of the Four Cities began or what happened to the Choir in Civitasmy answer tends to be that Primordia's universe only seems big and elaborate.  The peripheral things, however neat they may have sounded, were really just there as ideas not as fully realized content: for example, the War of the Four Cities just represents war for no good reason to no good end; it's not a particular fictitious geopolitical conflict spawned from social and economic considerations.

With Cloudscape, howeverambitiously imagined as the first game in a trilogyI wanted to build a universe that could actually sustain more than a stage-production scale.  As preparation, I spent years gorging myself on space opera and planetary romances, and I fell particularly in love with the works of the late, great Jack Vance.

To the extent Cloudscape's "universe"as opposed to the particular planet on which the game takes placehas a single strongest inspiration, it is the Oikumene of Vance's The Demon Princes series: a decadent but not depressing faster-than-light human civilization that serves as a fun-house mirror to our present-day virtues, flaws, and foibles.

But I didn't just want to create a big setting for the game(s): I wanted to have both the big setting and a content that was basically about "ideas" just like Primordia's smaller content was.  So there's this elaborate backstory that sets up a sociopolitical history and fictitious universe for the game, but also operates as a bunch of symbols and allusions.

For example, "Perebor," the world on which the game was to be set, takes its name from a Russian word that is both a Russian Orthodox funereal bell-striking ritual and a nerd slang term for a problem that lacks an elegant solution.  The planet was colonized by a Russian corporation (Amarant ZAO), although by the start of the game's timeline, most of the Russians were long since gone from the planet.  (Unlike Primordia, Cloudscape would take place in a "real world future.")  Russian cultural allusions, from Tchaikovsky's Snow Maiden (a leitmotif, puzzle solution, and parallel to the game's story) to prison slang, were woven through the setting.  (Tchaikovsky, of course, was a double allusion, the second one to Loom, one of my favorite games.)  Other cultures flitted around: Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought, Saami traditions, Romantic poetry, Conway's game of life, Gold Rush-era prospecting, analog technology, and so on and so forth.

Thematically, the game was about the breakdown of families, death rites and rebirth, and captivity.  Crows were integralin the imagery, in the themes, and in Pereborian culture (they served as a primary meal item, sometimes passed off as "black squab"; another key staple was "small mutton," the euphemistic term for rat).

As with Primordia, I spent an inordinate amount of time on language and wordplay.  I agonized over nameslike Moeder Veer (actually, Vic's inspired adaptation of my "Mother Feather"), the cult leader; Anton Walzer, the Headman's brutal enforcer; Jules Barba, a fossicker who served as an informant for the Amarant Security Office.  Sometimes I tried to create a kind of echo in different names.  




One of the things I'm proudest about regarding the design is the way in which image, idea, and setting were fitted together, such that we could have an awesome creature like the teratorn or a tortured tree like the terebinth actually make sense as organic elements of Perebor, rather than just part of a quilt of striking but unrelated elements.

Because one of the important charactersan "off-screen" character, since he's long-dead by the time the game starts—was a Pereborian poet, I found myself dusting off the old Primer playbook and writing a variety of poem-based puzzles.  One of the more clever ones IMHO (I'll avoid spoiling the puzzle) worked off of this poem:
The Sum of Man
The seven sins are all man’s worth,
a fitting match to seas of earth,
the churning, teeming devil’s brew
from which evolved those sinning two,
whose lust ten generations bore
until the One could take no more.
He rent the firmament asunder,
sending forty days of thunder
to drown his murd'ring, grasping brood,
who, still abiding, grew more shrewd
and so connived fourscore more arks
to spray their seed across the dark.
A thousand worlds were claimed by man,
new bowers where he’d breed his clan,
and thus a star-crossed race would sire,
unsmiteable by flood or fire.
Setting aside the poem's dubious merits as a work of art, it did manage to cram in some of the game's background lore (namely, the project of seeding different worlds with humans) and a puzzle, so there's that. Plus, a shout out to Days of Thunder?  That's worth something, right?

I wanted to retain the eccentricity that we had in Primordiaeven build upon itwhile still having the characters come across as human.  Primordia's robots provided a good excuse for monomania; it's a bit harder with real people.  Still, I was pleased with the roster of knights errant, mad poets, rusting AIs, bumbling tycoons, plucky urchins, longsuffering priests, gas-choked miners, touring freaks, and the like.  With Vic at the wheel and Cory Webster riding shotgun, our designs were great.

Perebor, like the world of Primordia, is a dying world: in fact, it's dying for the second time.  Humans are scavenging the planet, but they've held on too long and are being pulled under by the very corpse they're clutching.  That message was sometimes delivered by the game with a light touch, but sometimes (as in the case of the slaughter of Perebor's "whales"), with a heavier hand. 
The graphical quality we could hit arose from a few things (aside from Vic's genius): a built-from-scratch engine by coder Steve Poulton; additional concept work from Cory Webster, and fantastic sprite work from Ben Chandler.  (Below, Dahlia Hein, the game's protagonist.)
It all actually came together in a working, high-res build with ambient sound, music, dialogue built using our new editor, and so on.  (I'll save the screenshot for a later post.)

So, what happened?

There's no great explanation.  It was a very ambitious project that could succeed only with all of us pulling together in the traces, and that never seemed to happen.  For the months we spent on it, most of what I have is hundreds of pages of design, ten thousand emails, a few dozen pictures, a lot of music, and a few invoices.  Ultimately, several different things coincided in Vic's life to create additional challenges, and for a three-month span, I didn't hear from him at all.  (I hear from him occasionally now; he's mostly doing murals.)

The truth is, independent game making is a tricky thing under the best of circumstances.  We probably would've been wiser to aim smallerperhaps with that sequel to Primordia I always refuse to contemplate.  But I hope that someday I'll be able to dust off what I did on Cloudscape and make something of it.  If not our beautiful, ambitious adventure game, perhaps at least some kind of a sourcebook for other people to pick over.

The Storm

I dreamed a new behemoth,
of wing and eye and claw,
a creature wreathed in seething mist
that poured out from its maw.

The thing I dreamed regarded me
with sneering awful mirth,
as I in youth once viewed alike
my fellow sons of Earth.

In fear I tried to rouse myself,
to flee its burning gaze.
Yet then I knew I was awake,
and stared at naught but haze.

The vision was an eidolon,
a pipe dream, nothing more.
But the pipe is just a boatman,
and the night has awful shores.
 * * *
Anyway, all is not lost: as it happens, the despair left by Cloudscape's untimely death eventually turned into a surge of energy propelling me to my next project, which I hope to announce very soon.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lesson for the Next Primordium

So, with Primordia basically at the point where there's nothing more that coding tweaks can improve, and with me now having a long separation between making it and playing it, I feel like I've come to understand some of the game's flaws a bit better.  Here's some of what I've learned that would probably have led me to do things different if I were making it now (and I'm not talking about things like recasting voice actors or having a different plot or whatever).
(1) Playable space includes "breadth" and "depth" and even if content = breadth * depth, the two variables aren't really fungible.  Amazingly, I recently learned that per, Primordia's average playing time is about the same or slightly longer than that of Monkey Island, Quest for Glory, King's Quest V or VI, or Sam & Max Hit the Road.  All of them come in from 5 to 6 hours; Loom comes in at 3 hours and The Legend of Kyrandia at 4 hours!  (Now, these data sets are fairly small, and there is possible distortion because perhaps players today already know how to beat those games, etc., etc.) 
If you'd asked me, though, I would've said that those games were much larger than Primordia, and they certainly are in "physical space."  Unlike Primordia, they are full of empty rooms; if not entirely empty, puzzle-less rooms; if not puzzle-less, well certainly rooms that don't have NPCs or complex UIs in them.  By contrast, almost every room in Primordia contains: (1) an NPC; (2) a unique UI; (3) an inventory puzzle; and (4) a half dozen "flavor" hotspots, each with unique quips depending on what you use on the hotspot.
While it might seem that the rationale behind our approach with Primordia was economy (i.e., get more bang for your artistic buck in making rooms), that wasn't really it at all.  (Indeed, while making a room takes some time, Vic probably could've done a room every 10 days once he'd hit his stride.  At 27 months' development time, that would've been on the order of 90 rooms rather than the 40 or so that we had.)  Instead, I had this idea that the more layers there were to an area, the more you could engage with it, the more meaningful it would be.  And cutting down the number of rooms meant much less backtracking, something I've always hated in adventure games.
And yet . . .
I've read a lot of books in my life, and probably something like half of them have been fantasy or science fiction novels.  My favorite part is always the first book, where you're introduced to a new setting and the world is built up around you.  In fact, when people ask whether I'd do a sequel to Primordia, I always say no, I'd want to make something new.
When a player enters a new area there's that same feeling of freshness; when he enters a new area by virtue of accomplishing some goal, he feels a sense of progress.  Years of warfare, exploration, and hero journeys have inextricably linked geographic movement with advancement toward a goal.  In Primordia, though, there's very little of that.  Despite the fact that you move from the Dunes to Metropol -- despite the fact that a locked door is around every corner (see below) -- Horatio is actually almost never moving geographically toward a goal.  He circles, and at each stop digs.  Eventually, the digging proves futile and he moves on.
Some of this is deliberate and couldn't be changed with totally revamping Primordia.  But some of it could've been addressed by adding in a half dozen more "spacing" rooms akin to the cul-de-sac with the sad robot or even the two rooms leading to the Factor overlook.
It also may explain some of the problems people had with the "last third" of the game.  In my mind, the game always had three acts and a coda.  One major theme of the game is whether it is truly possible for Horatio to escape the legacy of being a war machine.  In each of the three acts Horatio tries to recover his power core in a way that drifts ever closer to his old self.  In Act 1 (the Dunes), he tries to build a new power core: this is the "good" solution.  In Act 2 (Metropol up until learning Arbiter is dead), he seeks legal assistance to resolve the dispute, which is neither creative nor idependent: this is the "neutral" solution.  In Act 3 (from Clarity joining to Clarity dying), he seeks to recover the power core by force.  In the coda, he largely seeks revenge for its own sake.  ("This isn't just about the power core any more, is it, boss?")
I always figured that reviewers treated the three acts as the Dunes, Metropol up until Clarity's death, and then the "coda," which would explain why the "last third" felt small.  But replaying the game, I realized that wherever you slice the last third, there's almost no "space" added to the game: from learning Arbiter is dead until the credits, the game at most adds ten rooms, several of which are tiny: (1) the small area above the Factor overlook (tiny); (2) the overlook itself; (3) the lobby of the Council Tower; (4) the elevator (tiny); (5) the Council Chambers; (6) the emergency elevator area (tiny); (7) the roof; (8) the Calliope Station "hallway"; (9) the sealed doorway (tiny); and (10) MetroMind's lair. 

By contrast, the Dunes contains 15 rooms: seven rooms in just the UNNIIC, plus another eight scattered among the other locations (the junkpile, the shrine, the dome and its interior, Goliath's exterior, throat, brain, and stomach).  From entering Metropol until finding Arbiter, there are 13: (1) the tracks; (2) the station interior; (3) the station exterior; (4) main street; (5) the tower exterior; (6) the crash site; (7) the courthouse exterior (which also has a close-up), (8) the cul-de-sac (tiny); (9) the courthouse interior (which also has a close-up); (10) the underworks; (11) the drawbridge; (12) Clarity's island; (13) the pathway leading to Factor.

If you count in terms of "new areas" rather than "new rooms," the division is even more stark.  There are five areas in the Dunes: the UNNIIC; the junkpile; Goliath; the shrine; the and the dome.  There are five areas in "Act 2" Metropol: the train station; main street; the courthouse; the Underworks, and that doesn't include some interstitial space.  But in "Act 3," there are only three areas: Factor's area, the Council Tower, and "Calliope Station."

While I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to have the final act more geographically confined than the prior ones, I do think that Primordia was a bit unbalanced in this regard.  And, in general, I think the game would've been better with more space.

(2) Design rooms with an eye to how they will function.  My biggest -- really, only -- regret with how Vic did the game's graphics is that he concerned himself almost exclusively with each room's painterly aesthetic without real regard to how the room would function for players.  This led to some incurable problems.

Most people complain about the hard-to-find hotspots, but (generally speaking) I think that problem is overstated.  The larger problems are more basic: many of the rooms use wonky perspective that makes the sprites look ridiculous.  First, there are things like the rooms of the UNNIIC, where the doors are like funhouse absurdities half the size of Horatio.  Next, there are character sprites that never match the room's scaling.  If you play the game in DDraw mode (i.e., without the mixed-resolution scaling that D3D provides), you'll see that -- for example -- the repairbot at the crash site and Leopold look horrible because even though they never move, the sprites aren't scaled to match the room.  Very few of the rooms have the principal action taking place at a point where Horatio and Crispin are scaled to 100%; they're often shrunken or bloated.

Another basic problem is that AGS does not have very good pathfinding, and the rooms -- as a consequence of their irregular scaling and circular forms -- cannot be easily handled by AGS.  Horatio's awkward walking animation is actually not primarily an "animation" problem (in the sense of bad frames); it's an engine problem because the game is stumped by how to play those frames.  Even over short distances, the characters stutter and get lost, and in large areas, like the Underworks, they sometimes break down entirely.

(3) Prioritize the things that matter most.  Here are some things that we spent a huge amount of time on: Crispin's hint system including an automatic hint system for when you are stuck that I doubt any player ever saw; dozens of frames of animation for when Scraper's arm melts the doorway to MetroMind's lair; composing two competing soundtracks for the game.  Here are some of the things we did not spend very much time on: a final dialogue-check to ensure consistency for names ("Armstrong" vs. "Waldo") and genders (Memorious, the greeter); animating the climactic Scraper vs. Clarity battle (the gun close-up used there was actually moved from the Clarity vs. shells scene!); making sure line readings of critical lines were done properly.

That is really bad prioritizing.  Throughout the project, each of us let ourselves go on Ahab-like missions without focusing on our large goals.  We had the luxury of a long development cycle, but even then we rushed enormously at the end.

(4) Don't stand on principle in the face of testers' actual experience of the game.  In various places, I insisted that even though the testers were all getting stuck in silly ways, it was important that players be taught to play games properly rather than be mollycoddled.  For example, the game treated differently using the plasma torch on the cable and using the cable on the plasma torch.  As well it should!  As anyone who does anything with any tool knows, using a tool on an object is not the same as using that object on a tool: using paper on a pencil might mean wrapping the pencil up, while using a pencil on paper is how you write.  Same with hammers and nails, and so on.  Many testers protested; I ignored their protests.

Then I watched Let's Plays of the game, and invariably players got stuck there.  Indeed, the Giant Bomb Let's Play -- the most watched one, I believe -- was completely derailed as a consequence, squandering an important opportunity for us to bring in new customers.

I'm not saying that everything should be homogenized by focus testing.  But derailing players simply to try to impose some logic on the way the game parsed objection interactions which had no gameplay consequence other than derailing players is bad design.

* * *

Anyway, I'm sure there are a million other lessons, but I'm out of steam, and those are the big ones!