The Stochastic Game

Ramblings of General Geekery

Inside Star Citizen

Speaking of fallen video game superstars, I also recently finished reading through Kotaku UK‘s various impressively thorough articles about Star Citizen.

There’s not much to say except that, even before the Kickstarter campaign ended, half of us backers knew it would be a shit show. It’s just fascinating to see how exactly the shit show is going – from the totally dysfunctional project and scope management to the size of Chris Roberts’ balls for selling non-existing digital items for several hundreds of dollars… with the nice addition of fans that are so extreme they can make some Apple or Linux fanboy look balanced.

I personally backed Star Citizen for the same reasons I backed Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: as a big “Thank You” for having made, in the past, some of my all-time favourite games. I mean, I was so in love with Wing Commander that I wrote my school notes in its iconic font for several weeks after finishing it. And I still have, to this day, t-shirt that came with the awesome collector’s edition of Wing Commander III… but those new games? Meh. Star Citizen was suspicious from the moment I learned they were using CryEngine. Shroud of the Avatar’s use of separate zones with loading screens (probably because of limitations with Unity’s streaming features) and antiquated UI made it vastly unappealing to me – although I give it a try once every few months to see the progress.

Hey, at least, in terms of pure entertainment, we can’t say we didn’t get some of our money’s worth with Star Citizen ;-)

The Rise and Fall of Peter Molyneux

I recently discovered Kim Justice’s YouTube channel about video game history, starting with this video on legendary publisher Psygnosis, and quickly ended up watching this epic, 4-part, Peter Molyneux series:

One thing stuck out for me: Molyneux’s obsession with creating “living worlds”, i.e. games where you’re free to do many things (plant trees, build a house, have kids) and choose many paths (be good, be evil, choose this or that in each situation), and all the while witnessing the consequences of such acts. He’s not the only one trying to do this in video games, but he’s probably the one who tried it the most – or at least talked about trying it the most.

Technically speaking, this is a potentially fascinating problem. Will video game RPGs have to implement advanced AI and machine learning techniques for the game to truly react to your actions? Maybe. Hey, who knows, maybe Fallout 9 will be where the first sentient computer program emerges, after some guy in North Carolina has played it for 7 hours straight or something. But I’m wondering – is that even the point? Should video game designers strive for this kind of “perfect” sandbox experience? Or are they just working in the wrong medium?

There’s already a type of game where you’re free to do whatever you want, and the game world reacts accordingly – not only in a logical or plausible way, but also a narratively interesting way: tabletop, pen & paper RPGs… or, you know, just “RPGs”, as we called them back in the day1. If you’re writing a comic book while covering all pages with descriptions and inner monologues, maybe you should be writing a novel instead… and if you’re struggling to make a video game where you can do whatever you want, maybe you should be writing RPG books?

  1. Damn you video games RPGs – especially JRPGs, who have close to zero “RP” in their “G”. 

Saturday Morning

I have shows for my kids that I’d rather they wouldn’t binge watch. For example, a weekly/6 months a year show like Dragon Ball is supposed to evolve with its audience. But if my kid watches 7 or 8 episodes a week because that’s all he ever wants to see when he gets TV privileges, it would take him only a few months before he ends up in front of the teenage power fantasies of the Saiyan Saga.

Early Dragon Ball is the best Dragon Ball

Enter SaturdayMorning, my little week-end coding project.

Say your kids watch stuff on Plex or Kodi or whatever. You can remove all the episodes of the show they’re watching by putting them in some separate folder, out of your HTPC’s reach. Then you use SaturdayMorning to bring the video files, one by one, every week day or every saturday or whatever you want.

With only one new episode ahead of them, you may find that your kids ask for TV slightly less often, diversify their shows, and/or get more excited about a “new” episode being available to watch.

You can head over to the SaturdayMorning website, or to the GitHub repository.

Richard Garfield's A Game Player's Manifesto

Richard Garfield, widely known as the creator of Magic: The Gathering, recently posted this “Game Player’s Manifesto” against what he calls “skinnerware”:

I believe that in recent years, while looking for revenue models that work for electronic games, game designers and publishers have stumbled upon some formulae that work only because they abuse segments of their player population. Games can have addictive properties – and these abusive games are created – intentionally or not – to exploit players who are subject to certain addictive behavior.

It’s a good read, as Garfield tries to formalize what’s OK and not OK in games, with clear guidelines about gameplay aspects that make a game become “skinnerware”, while still allowing some gray areas. Of course, many people were quick to point out that his own game, Magic, falls, at least, in these gray areas. After all, a certain percentage of Magic players are known to spend huge amounts of money to acquire rare cards, and, generally speaking, buying more packs give you better cards which gives you some advantage.

What saves Magic from the skinnerware category, in my opinion, is largely that it’s a physical game, not a video game1, so whatever you buy still has value and can be sold back. The other thing is that its “power-ups for money” mechanism is not quite open-ended. True skinnerware games typically let you buy an endless amount of coins or jewels or energy charges or whatever. Magic, on the other hand, has a limited (although quite big) catalog of cards. Trying to get them all by buying booster packs quickly gets you diminishing returns because of the rarity of many cards, so you would quickly turn to individual purchases at market price. It’s still a shitload of money, but it’s a finite shitload.

  1. Although there’s a digital version you can play

Live Asynchonously

Quincy Larson of FreeCodeCamp recently posted an article about work productivity:

Last year I turned off all my notifications. I stopped booking meetings. I started living asynchronously.

Now instead of being interrupted throughout the day — or rushing from one meeting to the next — I sit down and get work done.

Using one of the most awesome webcomics on the subject of interrupting a programmer as a starting point, he does the usual attempts at convincing people that open floor plans are bad, and that meetings are better replaced by asynchronous communication.

Offices and emails

I’ve never had even the slightest opportunity to get my own office1 so I frankly have no idea whether a private office would be an improvement – I just don’t know any better.

We do a fair bit of asynchronous communication, however. This is pretty much unavoidable, since, over here on the Frostbite Engine team, we have to deal with customers and co-workers that are spread across a dozen various places on Earth with up to 9 hours of time difference.

In some ways, however, it’s funny that Larson recommends replacing meetings with emails since a lot of my coworkers mainly complain about having to deal with too much email already. Also, the way he describes how a “quick” email conversation can replace a lengthy meeting is misleading since – having turned off all notifications and checking email only a couple times a day to improve productivity – this “quick” 4-message back and forth would actually take 2 days to complete.

In the zone

The part that caught my eye the most is the part about reaching a “flow state” – something that most people call being “in the zone”.

I have almost no problem reaching that state – even in an open floor plan.

Arguably, I’m not important enough to receive enough emails or meeting invites to experience the problems a lot of other people (most of them more senior than me, I assume) complain about, so that must help… but I basically get “in the zone” often enough that, on a regular basis, I finish a task, take off my headphones, and realize that it’s 2pm and that everybody had lunch already.

While most people use the Pomodoro technique to help protect themselves from distractions, I was, for some time, using that technique to help me take a break every now and then… because being “in the zone” for too long would frequently give me painful migraines (at least once a week). Even when I used Pomodoro timers on my phone, I would frequently not notice them going off!

Then again, I’m one of those people that most of you probably hate: the ones who can fall asleep in less than 5 minutes. So I suppose my brain and I really get along well when it’s time to shut off distractions. Yay brain.

  1. Video game companies are almost all using open floor plans, and nothing will change that any time soon.