Not programming, but an amazing simulation…

I recently built a game prototype, where you dock with enemy robot spaceships and modify their internal programming. I called it Space Hacker, and you can find it here:

I consider it a failure (’cause it’s way too hard), but a teaching, thought-provoking one. And thinking about it, I came up with a new angle.

Guitar Hero gives you…the feel and experience of being a rock and roll guitar player, but real guitar players all agree that it works nothing like the real thing. Playing a guitar well is hard, and not everyone can do it. The magic of Guitar Hero is how it captures the "feel" of guitar playing. Similarly, programming is hard, and not everyone can do it.

So, What kind of game can I make that captures the "feel" of programming?

Well, I had a discussion with my nephew Cullen yesterday, and posed the question to him. He pointed out that Guitar Hero seemed to
1) cut down the gameplay to a small portion of guitar playing, and
2) re-amplify the results back into an expression of a full guitar.

And that makes sense. A Guitar Hero controller is like a one-string guitar with only five frets (cut-down version of the real thing). And no one can doubt that the input from the controller is "amplified" by the game into the sounds of a full guitar.

So how can I apply this model to game programming? Game programming (to me) embodies so many simple (and not so simple) concepts, like variables, loops, objects, pixels, WAV files, polygons, pathfinding, reward schedules, and many, many more (from K-TEL!) Which of these do I cut out, and when I’m done, how do I amplify what remains?


A symbology of monsters

At the beginning (for me) monsters were tiny jumbles of pixels, that vaguely looked like the wizard or dragon they represented. The C-64, Apple 2, TI-99 4a, TRS 80, and other home computers of the dawning era were graphical. Not VERY graphical, but graphical enough.

And I didn’t need much. As I played Telengard, Temple of Apshai, and Ultima, I could see the fiery dragons and the gleaming swords in my mind. When I go back and look at those old games today, I wonder where all the beautiful graphics went, proof that what I was seeing on the screen was not what I was SEEING in my mind.

I was seeing symbols, something…humans do exceptionally well.

Later I was introduced to Moria and Nethack, and all the decendants of Rogue. These games were even more symbolic! The text-only terminals that Rogue sprang from, rows of cold green glow populating engineering basements in colleges everywhere, wouldn’t even allow for a pictographic symbology. Snakes were small s, giant snakes were capital S, and the fiercest dragons were capital D.

You were an @.

Yet these games inspired and captivated, and they still do, despite modern console games, like Lost Odyssey, which depict monsters in beauty and detail enough to make you cry. Why? Symbology.

We, as a species, are just fine with symbols. We use them all the time. The characters you’re reading right now are a complex symbology of words and ideas, one of many humans have created and communicated with.

It’s clear from game history that, whenever possible, game symbology was pictographic. Even a 16×16 lump of pixels was SUPPOSED to look a bit like a dragon, with identifiable wings and legs. Even today’s graphics are, to a degree, symbolic. You still can’t smell the fetid reek of the dragon, or feel the heat from its scaly hide. And it’s still pictographic. A flying monster must still be depicted with wings.

But even though the alternate symbology of Rogue was born out of simple hardware limitations, it offers interesting insights. First, there’s no doubt that an alternate symbology represents a learning curve, and many players don’t want to climb it. Second, when people finish climbing the hill, the symbols become nearly invisible, translated into the "real thing". Remember the line in the Matrix movie: "I don’t even see the code anymore, all I see is a brunette, red head.."

The above paragraph reveals the problem with designing and using a new symbology of monsters, and also the amazing potential. But why? Why go through the trouble of inventing and implementing a new symbology? That’s the real point of this post.

One would use a new symbology to solve intractable problems with the existing symbologies, and there are several. 3rd person cameras always suck. Beautiful artwork is always expensive. Polygon people are always sticking their feet through the floors and bushes. Animations can be jumpy and discontinuous. Games are slaves to the clock (on many levels). Avatars are often forced to run from place to place. Games are stuck in a rut.

And there are many limitations forced upon game developers by being "realistic". Plants must always be green. Blood must always be red (or gray for Germany). Computer screens can still only show 256 shades of red, green, and blue (though HDR is a neat trick to "expand" that). the scale of the rectangular screen must be uniform all the way across. Players cannot triple-wield, or leave their hand behind to hold a button down.

In the end, I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is on this, and actually come up with such a game. I’m not sure I can, but I’m sure I’ll try.


I’ve almost completed Spore, Will Wright’s new game. The game has several phases, and I say "almost" because I’ve done most everything in the last phase, the space game. Now I’ve done enough playing, and reading of FAQs, to feel like I know how it ends. So now I’m not really motivated to play right now, but surely I will be again soon.

As I started the game, I was really…engaged. The cell game and the creature game are both pretty engaging, but simple. There’s depth in both that I brushed past in my hurry; the design philosophy clearly valued re-playability.

Once I got to the tribal game, I found myself playing a weak RTS, which isn’t a genre I favor (as a player). Still, I managed to get past it, only to enter the civ game, which is ANOTHER RTS. I quailed, and put the game aside for days. It didn’t help that I was misled about the space game, believing it to be an RTS too.

How wrong I was.

The final game in Spore, the space game, is great. Imagine playing a Star Trek game as captain Kirk, boldly seeking out yada yada. That’s what it felt like. I love it. It helped that the ship I designed looks just like the Enterprise (what can I say, I ran out of creativity).

Visiting unknown worlds, making friends with alien races, methodically crushing enemies (wait, did Kirk ever do that?) Beaming up plants and animals, and using them to seed new worlds with life. Awesome. The resemblance to The Sims really showed here (Alien Simlish), but I could look past it.

Now, I really enjoyed Mass Effect, too. In that game you could land your space buggy on any world and go driving around in methane snowstorms or clouds of volcanic ash. I loved that. This is a feature that Spore could benefit from. Also, all lifeforms were land-based. Some big fish, giant squids, and/or space whales would be cool.

Given the clear track record of Maxis regarding The Sims, I don’t doubt that expansion packs with this stuff are currently under development. I already know that they built a plant editor, but didn’t ship it with the game.