Rez

Some good news in the lab, amidst all the unending software issues: one of the students may be bringing in Rez tomorrow (the famous self-styled ‘synaesthesia’ computer game) for the interests of ‘research’. Yeah, right. Naturally, I’ll have to demonstrate to the other lab members exactly how much research I’ve done into this important phenomenon…

The Media Lab

In one of the slower periods at the lab, I browsed through the mini library we have here and began flipping through The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT by Stewart Brand. It was absolutely fascinating reading – not because the Media Lab is an interesting place, but because the book is fifteen years old.

The book was written a little after the opening of the Media Lab, which is essentially a technology laboratory looking at the cutting edge of ‘neat computer things’ (my term). It’s amusing to consider that if you stripped the book of dates and numbers, then you’d have both a good description of the current state of technology, and also a good overview of the research the Media Lab is still conducting.

For example, there is talk of electronic books – and we’re now at the stage where they could conceivably be on the mass market within half a decade. There’s talk of interactive TV (which we have) and artificial intelligence natural language processors and parsers (which, yes, we still don’t have). Holography is featured quite heavily, and there are the usual predictions of 3D TV – which I really fail to see the point of.

Between them, Brand and the Media Lab get a lot of things right (e.g. Brand: “I’m inclined to believe that the ideal content for CD ROMs are those multivolume reference works and subscription services…” and MIT: “CD ROM is by definition an interactive medium.”) There’s a nice prediction for personal video recorders which almost exactly mirrors what we have with Tivo, and a discussion about the problems of bandwidth.

Of course, what I found most enjoyable were the predictions that were completely wrong, including the fear that not only might DATs (Digital Audio Tape) overtake CDs, but they could result in mass piracy. About email: “[In the US] if it happens by a provider, it’s going to happen when the banks develop a standard and decide it’s in their interest to pay the costs of getting the terminals out there.” And my favorite, half a gigabit is “effectively, infinite bandwidth.” If only it were so…

It seems to me that many of the problems that the Media Lab was looking at back then have been solved and exceeded, in the form of the Internet and innumerable consumer electronics devices. The problems that haven’t been solved reflect a misunderstanding on the Media Lab’s part of the complexities involved in, say, cheap and effective holography, or that old chestnut, AI.

SemiShake

Whenever I go on holiday, I always think it’d be a good idea to do something spontaneous and unusual. Most of the time though I don’t really bother since there isn’t anyone I know who’s around to watch, and in any case the ideas I have invariably involve a fair amount of risk or money. So on Saturday, after a long visit to San Diego Zoo and the nearby science center, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society performing in the park and looking for actors.

The Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society puts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday in Balboa Park, and practically all of their actors simply walk in off the street (as it were). After watching a couple of scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought it’d be fun taking part and within a few minutes I was being coached through Act IV Scene III as the Second Lord.

The scene was fairly long and the guy I was talking with mainly was pretty good. As for my own performance, I don’t know how that went – the audience didn’t throw anything at me, at least, and there was even a good bit of applause at the end. Having an English accent obviously helped.

A real problem with doing this sort of thing in the UK is that the weather is completely unreliable, and since the point of the society is to get members of the public to participate in a classical production with the minimum of effort, it really does have to be done in a public place like a park with decent weather. Of course, this is no problem for San Diego, which I have long since concluded has the best weather in the world.

DX2

I recently wrote a post in ARGN about the question of interactivity in mmoe-type games. Basically, I say that interactivity with respect to altering the story is overrated.

Warren Spector, the designer of Thief and Deus Ex, both groundbreaking games when it comes to player interactivity, said in Edge that he wanted Deus Ex 2 to exhibit emergent behaviour with its non-player character AI. No more scripted events, he said, we want the game environment set up so that interesting and varied things just happen. And this makes perfect sense to me, to have increased player freedom within levels.

But once the level is over, the interactivity stops. The game doesn’t ask the player, ‘So, where should our hero go now?’ and I think this is so for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to design in this sort of interactivity beyond the level stage. Secondly, I don’t think it makes for a good story. It makes for a choose-your-own-adventure, and not withstanding the fact that I don’t think many people like that sort of thing (people still go to the non-interactive movies, after all), I stand firm on my belief that pre-written stories tend to be best. Yes, of course you can have a certain amount of flexibility within the story if you’re doing it in real time and trying to respond to players (e.g. RPGs, mmoes) but the overall story should be planned out right from the start.

I was re-reading Microserfs by Douglas Coupland the other day, and it was set during 1993/4. In one section, the group of programmers go to a conference about the different types of games that are being developed. They mention interactive stories, and say something interesting – people want to be entertained, they don’t want to have to choose what happens next in the story. Every time some new genre gets developed, the whole argument about story interactivity is rehashed.

Habitat MUD

Rich emailed in to tell me about a Japanese MUD called Habitat that has over one million users. This MUD was started in 1990 by Fujitsu and upon a cursory inspection appears to have one of the most complex game communities around; Habitat even had its own Yakuza-run casinos! (note that Habitat was originally developed in the US by Lucasfilm in 1987. Also, many of the pages online about Habitat are no longer available, so use the Internet Archive to follow up missing pages).

An MMORPG called Lineage apparently has around four million active players, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the social or political complexity of other much smaller games, so clearly numbers don’t count for everything.

I don’t think that Habitat can be easily compared to recent AI-like mmoes, though. It seems that Habitat is, like most MUDs, driven primarily through interplayer interactions, and that there is no centrally dictated narrative. This is not a criticism; different styles of mmoe serve different needs. However, AI-like mmoes concentrate more on a strong central narrative which players work around, and this provides an altogether different experience to a traditional social MUD. In fact, as several people here have pointed out, they’re quite similar to role-playing games writ large on the Internet.

What was the point to this post, beyond the fact that there’s a cool Japanese MUD called Habitat? It serves to show that AI-like mmoes have a long way to go before they can match the popularity of traditional (and comparatively old) MUDs, and that they are qualitatively different types of mmoes. I have this image in my mind of MUD developers being intricate watchmakers, carefully constructing and tweaking their creations so as to make sure they work as smoothly as possible with the least amount of intervention. Developers of AI-like games would be frantic administrators, attempting to lead artists, authors, designers and actors around the clock in response to players demands – a much more hands-on approach. But this is of course a facile analogy; there’s a broad spectrum of MUDs and AI-like games. Hmm… I can sense a possible article here…

Puzzle Bobble

Six player Puzzle Bobble Online! And it’s completely free! While it’s a bit difficult to decipher the Japanese webpage, it’s easy to find a download link. Given that I’m leaving for San Diego on Thursday and it’s a 7MB download, I might pass until I get back home.

Civ 3 democracy

The Apolyton Civilization 3 Democracy Game. This combines two of my gaming loves – Civ3, and mmoe. The premise is that over one hundred people are democratically playing a game of Civilization 3, electing a cabinet, detailing a constitution, forming numerous political parties and even newspapers. It sounds a little far-fetched but at only 14 turns into the game the participants are having a busy time discussing what to do with their neighbours, France (consensus: destroy them with extreme prejudice) and whether founding a city in a jungle was such a bad idea.

It wouldn’t be possible to do this sort of thing with many games other than Civ3, due to its complexity and richness; likewise, any alternate reality game or mmoe must have a certain level of detail and complexity in order to allow a community to grow up around it to carry the game forward.

Into the Woods

Saw a truly wonderful musical at Oxford called Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. The first half is a medley of various fairy tale characters including Jack and Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, brought all together by a quest by the baker and his wife. It’s a traditional musical first half with fun songs and has plenty of inside jokes that adults will appreciate.

The second half is far darker and more realistic (well, as realistic as you can get in a musical) with characters being killed and strife all over the place. Although the moral of the story is layered on a little thick at times, it’s still a great change from most lighthearted musicals you see these days. Plus, the songs are still great. I just ordered a used CD of the songs from Amazon (my first experience with ordering used goods from them). Anyone here seen the musical before?

Google

labs.google.com – various neat alpha-stage applications including Google Glossary (works fairly well for the technical terms I tested it with), voice searching and keyboard searching.