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Real Life Point Systems, Automated RPGs, and Recent Awesomeness

Down went my last Blog entry, a delirious rant about American politics that surprised no one paying attention. If not pro-liberal, it was at least definitively rabidly anti-conservative. In having bias, it wasn’t fair. It didn’t really belong in a Blog whose goal is to focus primarily on gaming topics. Besides, politics are downright depressing, and I’m trying to lighten up.

Racking up Points

Perhaps I was grouchy about my new diet. Weight Watchers. Essentially The Hacker’s Diet, boiled down to a sort of “calories + fat – fiber = easy-to-track points” formula.

It’s marketed as a $16/mo service. Supporting 46,000 employees across 30 countries I bet they have more subscribers than World of Warcraft. When it comes to fighting weight gain, business booms under promises of contraction.

Fire and Forget Heroism

Gaming-wise, my last real entry has put me in a fascinating position of considering the merits of the computer roleplaying game that automates the monotonous decisions away.

In terms of trying to quickly determine the overall quality of an RPG, this is a really good system: “Oh, look, you’re making me manually do a large quantity of obvious and completely unchallenging activities. I think I shall uninstall your game now.” It brings the number of viable RPGs down to a remarkably small number.

However, there’s some surprising exceptions that pop up when I consider them.

For example, Dwarf Fortress. This indy hit took the PC gaming world by surprise not too long ago. Completely text based, your role is in designating what work your dwarves need to do, and away they go. There’s an alternate Roguelike RPG mode as well.

A remarkable number of successful RPGs can be found to have automated, streamlined out, or severely minimized the more monotonous decisions. Not the least of them being Blizzard’s Diablo and World of Warcraft series. In most cases, the transformation is incomplete – they’re still grinds – but there’s signs here and there such as World of Warcraft’s fire and forget trade skill mechanism.

This eventually branches into the entire Real Time Strategy genre. When you get right down to it, isn’t that what those little controllable units do? You tell them where to go and they’ll try to work out the details themselves. The difference between an ‘active’ (attack while moving) and ‘passive’ (don’t attack while moving) move command is very much a minor re-programming of the AI – at least a dip switch of sorts. Real time strategy games can bring together thousands of units on the same map this way.

The real time strategy genre in particular makes one very aware of a difference between “Good AI” and “Bad AI” that brings about the true nature of one of the major problems in implementation:
  • If you give the players bad AI, they get ticked off about how stupid the units you gave them are. They’ll do what the player did not intend, which is frustrating.
  • If you give the players the best AI, the player feels uninvolved. Newbie players especially become quite aware that the AI is better at playing the game than they are, and feel belittled.
  • If you give the users an AI that they customize themselves they’re both well-involved and able to minimize the monotony. However, if it requires a computer science degree to even use, it’s simply inaccessible to most players.
In the end, a user customized AI that’s hooked up with a user-friendly GUI seems the best possible path, and this is extremely rare. It seems to me that this is a very fertile niche for game development. I’m considering writing a simple game with manual NPC behavior configuration as the predominant feature.
I wonder how much control Spore will give the player along these lines. It could be quite interesting if the players could put their creatures up against eachother and include with them instructions on how those creatures act. No sign of it in the creature creator, but then, that’s not the meat of the game – ’twas merely the character generation sequence.

Recent awesomeness
If you haven’t done so yet, I recommend checking out Jeff Gerstmann’s and company’s new site, GiantBomb. I’m not sure if Gerstmann was really fired for journalistic integrity in the face of corporate bribery, and I don’t care – that’s water under the bridge. What does impress me is that GiantBomb is an interesting combination of grassroots journalism and open-source gaming wiki maintenance. I’ve already updated some entries on my favorite little movie character, Wall-E.

On a final note, I’ll mention I finally caught the first three acts of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (something most people would have been able to do a week or two ago if they were quick enough). I think there’s a little Dr. Horrible in us all. I wish them the best of luck and hope they’re a commercial success.
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