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[Comments] (5) How Game Titles Work: 2017 Update: In 2009 as I was writing Constellation Games I researched how game titles work on a rhetorical level. I published my results as a six-part series of blog posts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This post is a summary of that post and a bringing it up to date for 2017, based on a talk I gave at Penguicon in March. (Slides are here.)

In my 2009 research I discovered a basic tension: games are works of art, so there's a tendency to name them like movies, but in our society games are packaged and sold like laundry detergent, so there's a tendency to name games like detergents.

Different game-makers resolve this tension differently. In the early days, games were named after real-world activities, or about the very act of playing a game mediated through a computer; otherwise, it was difficult to get people to understand what was going on. You don't see that much anymore; nowadays it's common for games to have names that resemble (in formal terms) the names of 19th-century novels, laundry detergents, episodes of TV shows, or rock albums.

But all games have two things in common: the second person and the present tense. A movie can be the story of something that happened to someone else long ago, but a game is always the story of what you are doing right now to complete the feedback loop. So most games are named in the second person present tense, e.g. named after your character within the game.

I originally had to figure out How Game Titles Work because for my story "Mallory" I spent a long time making up titles for six fictional classic arcade games, and despite all the work I was unhappy with the results. The final draft of Constellation Games mentions thirty-three fictional human games, plus thirty-five games made by space aliens from various alien cultures. Since cultural artifacts are created and named by people embedded within that culture, I had to figure out the underlying rules for games so I could apply those rules to the various extraterrestrial cultures. I also worked this process in reverse: came up with a weird game and used it to figure out what kind of culture would create that game.

I decided to update the series because one of my conclusions in 2009 was that shareware games in the 1990s, and indie games generally, have better titles than contemporaneous big-budget games. Since 2009 the indie scene has exploded, so I decided it was time to take another look and see how naming techniques have evolved.

I used the MobyGames API to get the names of all games published since 2009, and went through them looking for interesting names. Although AAA titles still have boring names, indie games have dramatically expanded into more artistic naming spaces. It's now fairly common for a game to have a title that's not in second person ("Papers, Please", "This War of Mine"). More frequent than in 2009, but still not common, is a game whose name is not in the present tense ("Gone Home", "Thomas Was Alone"). The games themselves are still second-person-present-tense, but their titles play with tense and person to zoom in or out emotionally.

Even more common, though, are games whose names transcend synecdoche to convey the mood of the game rather than referencing specific elements: "The Flame in the Flood", "No Man's Sky", "Sir, You Are Being Hunted". An older example of this is "Grim Fandango" and I think this quote from a Tim Schafer interview provides some insight into the naming process as well as the function of a game's name:

"The original title, when I was pitching it, was Deeds of the Dead.. The Last Siesta was one [working title]. Dirt Nap I think was in there somewhere..."

"And then I finally came up with the name and was like, 'I'm so smart! This is the best name ever!' I remember I ran out of my office and I told someone... [a]nd they were like 'That's terrible. You'll never sell a game called Grim Fandango. What does that even mean?' But I've always loved it... I mean Grim Fandango just as a metaphor for what? For life or death depending on how you're looking at it."

Schaefer starts off with punny titles, like you would see in the title of a TV episode, and genre references, like you would see in the title of a film, but he settles on something evocative, like the title of a modern novel. "Deeds of the Dead" sounds kind of goofy, "Dirt Nap" sounds more hard-boiled. "Grim Fandango" evokes grandeur, tragedy, and inevitability.

In my talk I performed some close readings of really good game names, and if you post your favorites in comments I'll do the same here, as I did in the comments to part 5. I want to close with an example from 2009: "Just Dance". This is different from every other title I've encountered, because its job is to convey to a game-averse audience that this isn't "really" a game at all! Other game titles make you play a character or perform a job, but here you just dance! C'mon, give it a try! A very friendly title.

Minecraft Archive Project - 2011/11 Sample: For a while I've been working with Jason Scott on the best way to make the data from Minecraft Archive Project available. The basic problem is that if you zip it up, it's many terabytes of data, and if you don't, it's millions of individual files. Although the Internet Archive is technically capable of handling either one of those options, neither is great for sharing data with the public.

The Minecraft Geologic Survey gives you an overview of everything posted before July 2014, but generating it was incredibly processor-intensive, so it's not really something I can update. So we decided to try out time slices instead.

Here's a 22-gigabyte archive containing everything Minecraft-related I could get that was posted in November 2011. If you think you might be interested in doing something with the full archive, please download this tiny slice and see if you can figure out how it works. If you have problems, complain to me. (Not to Jason, he just puts the files on the Archive.)

I picked November 2011 because it comes in the month of the 1.0 release, at a really interesting time for the medium. By 2017 standards the maps in this set are very primitive, but it was right around here Minecraft went from indie darling to decade-defining megahit. At the same time, fans had started to chafe at the limitations of the medium-- was the month I wrote my "Programmable Minecraft" essays, where I basically asked for command blocks.

Command blocks would be introduced in August 2012, and IMO they mark the distinction between the "silent film" era of Minecraft and the "talkie" era. I think the next most important month-slice of data would be August 2012, which would let us see what people did immediately after they got command blocks. But the point of this exercise is not to release one month at a time; it's to release a single month and make sure the package is usable before we package everything else the same way.

[Comments] (1) Jokes For Minecrafters: The last time I went to California, my nephew told me lots of punny jokes about animals ("Why are cats so vain? Because they're purr-fect.") He'd gotten these jokes from a Pokémon joke book, in which the jokes were about Pokémon ("Why are Meowth so vain? Because they're purr-fect."), and kindly translated the Pokémon into real animals for my benefit. Which worked out well because the jokes had clearly been about real animals to begin with.

This reminded me that I'd been meaning to report back about two other joke books about a common childhood obsession: Jokes for Minecrafters and Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters. I'm really interested in the shady but seemingly profitable world of unlicensed Minecraft books. I've seen Minecraft self-insert fanfic being sold as an 80-page chapter book at Target! I applaud Mojang's lax stance on fan works but that seems a little excessive.

I recall from my own childhood that this sort of obsession-feeding book is usually a big disappointment once obtained. Themed joke books are the worst because they're often a big cash-in on preexisting folk jokes. Plus you have to find someone who's as big a nerd as you, and wants to listen to you tell the jokes instead of reading the book themselves.

I was prepared for disappointment, but I had to find out what Minecraft kids' jokes were like, so I ventured one more time into a world I'd abandoned long ago. Fortunately, this time I didn't have to pay the Troll Book Club to send me two slim paperbacks. I just put the ebooks on hold at NYPL.

And... the best joke in the series is probably the very first one in Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters:

Q: What happens when a creeper walks into a bar?
A: Everyone dies.

It's all downhill from there. Here are the two runners-up:

Q: Why do players shop at Endermen yard sales?
A: To get their stuff back.
Q: Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers?
A: No, they eat their fingers separately.

I'm not here to make fun of bad jokes, because comedy is hard, but most of the book is more like this:

Q: What did the pig say to the creeper?
A: Nothing. The creeper blew up the pig.

Many entries have the form of jokes, but are actually Minecraft trivia. Here's one I didn't know:

Q: How do zombies and skeletons keep from burning during the day?
A: They stand on soul sand.

This one hasn't aged well:

Alex: "What do you call a polar bear in Minecraft?"
Steve: "I don't know. What?"
Alex: "Lost, because there are no polar bears in Minecraft!"

I need some help on this one:

Q: What happened when it became so cold in the icy biome?
A: The snow golems were holding up pictures of thumbs!

There are also many jokes that require knowledge of the Orespawn mod, which I'd never heard of. One book had a separate chapter dealing with "mods", but a lot of Orespawn jokes were not in that chapter. This seemed unfair to kids who are just trying to understand jokes and maybe laugh a couple times.

This one makes me irrationally angry:

First player: "I heard the End has its own soundtrack."
Second player: "What does it sound like?"
First player: "You can only hear it in the End."

This one has an artifact that makes me think most of the book was copy-and-pasted from an IM conversation:

You might be a Minecraft addict if you forget to give your mom a present for her birthday and instead get her a Minecraft account XD.

Anyway, I'm here to tell you that the terrible Amazon reviews of these books are more or less accurate. In the spirit of reconciliation, I thought I'd close by trying my hand at corny Minecraft jokes:

Q: How does Steve detect if someone is raiding his marijuana stash?
A: He uses a BUD switch.

That one's on the house!

[Comments] (1) The Lonely Dungeon: Dear diary, once again I have created the greatest bot ever. It's The Lonely Dungeon (Tumblr, Twitter), another in my tradition of "out-of-context selections from a very large corpus". In this case the corpus is all those RPG sourcebooks that came out in the late 20th century.

I found these books fascinating when I was a kid. They were full of secret information, obscure contigencies, bit characters with weird motivations, worldbuilding for made-up societies. Each paragraph was a little story about why this part of the game couldn't be handled by the normal rules.

Now the books have been replaced by newer editions, or just forgotten since nobody plays the games anymore. As forbidding as they seemed, all those crypts and forests and space stations were incomplete unless someone was going through them and uncovering their secrets.

One of my current interests is worlds that end not through some calamity, but because the inhabitants get bored and move out. Like Minecraft Signs, The Lonely Dungeon is a spotlight picking out features of abandoned worlds.

I've been working on this bot for over a year in spare moments. For the first time in Leonard bot history, The Lonely Dungeon's primary medium is Tumblr, so that I can give you the full OCRed text of the text box. It's better for accessibility, especially as those scans can be difficult to read. I had to learn a lot about PDFs and image processing, and I've scaled back this bot from my original plans, but those plans are still on the table in some form. More on this when it happens! In the meantime... keep adventuring.

[Comments] (2) The Minecraft (And Other Games) Archive Project: As suggested in the previous Minecraft Archive Project post, I have now completed a capture of the CurseForge family of sites. They host a lot of Minecraft stuff I hadn't downloaded before, including the popular Feed the Beast series of modpacks, lots of other modpacks, mods, and a ton of Bukkit plugins (not really sure what those are or how they differ from mods TBH).

CurseForge also has sites for Terraria and Kerbal Space Program, as well as many other games I haven't heard of or don't care about. I paid $30 for a premium membership and grabbed it all, downloading about 500 gigabytes of images and binaries. This doubles the size of the 201512 capture (though it probably introduces a lot of duplicates).

Here are the spoils, ordered by game:

Game What Capture Size (GB)
Firefall Add-ons <1
Kerbal Space Program Mods 23
Kerbal Space Program Shareables 1.8
Minecraft Bukkit plugins 19
Minecraft Customization <1
Minecraft Modpacks (Feed the Beast) 15
Minecraft Modpacks (Other) 87
Minecraft Mods 33
Minecraft Resource Packs 80
Minecraft Worlds 45
Rift Add-ons 7.5
Runes of Magic Add-ons 1.8
Skyrim Mods 6.4
Starcraft 2 Assets 4.7
Starcraft 2 Maps 46
Terraria Maps 4.8
The Elder Scrolls Online Add-ons <1
The Secret World Mods <1
Wildstar Add-ons 1.7
World of Tanks Mods 40
World of Tanks Skins 12
World of Warcraft Addons 48

Here's the really cool part: CurseForge projects frequently link to Git repositories. I cloned every one I could find. I ended up with 5000 Minecraft/Bukkit repositories totalling 47 gigs, 103 Kerbal Space Program repositories totalling 6 gigs, and a couple hundred megabytes here and there for the other games. That's over 50 gigs of game-mod source code, which I predict will be a lot more useful to the future than a bunch of JAR files.

These numbers are gloriously huge and there are two reasons. 1. this is the first capture I've done of CurseForge, and possibly the only full capture I will ever do. So I got stuff dating back several years. 2. CurseForge keeps a full history of your uploaded files, not just the most recent version (which is typically what you'd find on Planet Minecraft or the Minecraft forum). Some of the World of Warcraft add-ons have hundreds of releases! I guess because they have to be re-released for every client update. And it doesn't take many releases for a 100MB Minecraft mod pack to start becoming huge.

Anyway, as always it's good to be done with a project like this, so I can work on other stuff, like all the short stories I owe people.

Minecraft Archive Project: 201502 Capture: I've done a new capture of data for the Minecraft Archive Project, my big 2014 project to archive the early history of Minecraft before it disappeared. My goal for the refresh was to capture what has happened in the past year while doing as little work as possible, and I met my goal. The whole thing took about two weeks, and most of that was a matter of letting things run overnight. Most of the actual work was refactoring the code I wrote the first time to make future captures even easier.

Top-line numbers: I've archived another 150 gigabytes of good stuff, including 18k maps and schematics, 1k mods, 11k skins, 7k texture packs (resource packs now, I guess), and 100k screenshots. I was able to archive about 73% of the maps. Four percent of them maps were just gone, and 23% I didn't know how to download.

The 201404 Minecraft Archive Project capture contains data from four sites. The new 201502 capture is limited to two sites: the official Minecraft forum and the huge Planet Minecraft site. I started archiving maps, mods, and textures for Minecraft Pocket Edition, and was able to pick up about 5500 MCPE maps.

Now that I've done this twice without getting into trouble, I'll give a little more detail about the process. I've got scripts that download the archives of the Minecraft forum and Planet Minecraft. I find all the threads/projects modified since the last capture, download the corresponding detail pages (e.g. the first page of a forum thread--I'm only after the original post), and extract all the links.

Then it's a matter of archiving as many of those links as possible. I've written recipes for archiving images and downloads. These six recipes take care of the vast majority of items:

There's also a general catch-all for people who host things on normal home pages, as Tim Berners-Lee intended. If your URL looks like the URL to an image or a binary archive, I will ask for that URL. If you serve me the image or the binary instead of an HTML file telling me to click on something, then I'll archive the file.

I decode most link shorteners except for the ones that make you click through ads, mainly and The 2014 archive had about 18,000 maps behind links, and I spent a lot of time running Selenium clients clicking through the ads to discover the Mediafire links. I think that took a month. This time there were about 3000 new maps behind links and I just didn't bother.

There are two big blind spots in my dataset, and they're the same as last time. One is mods. A lot of mods are hosted on Github and CurseForge, two big sites I didn't write recipes for. There's also the issue of mod packs, which have been steadily growing in popularity and complexity as development on core Minecraft winds down. Thanks to things like the Hardcore Questing Mod, modpacks are entering the "custom challenge" territory previously occupied solely by world archives.

There are sites that list mod packs (1 2) but I don't want to spend the time figuring out how to archive all the mod packs. There's also the problem that mod packs are huge.

The second blind spot is servers. It's theoretically possible to join a public Minecraft server with a modded client and automatically archive the map, but realistically it ain't gonna happen. I complained about this last time, but now I've done an assessment of what's being lost.

Planet Minecraft has a big server list that mentions the last time it was able to ping any particular server. There doesn't seem to be any purging of dead servers, so I'm able to get good measurements of the typical lifecycle.

Of the 136k servers in the list, 12k are "online" (The most recent Planet Minecraft ping was successful). 51k are "offline" (Most recent Planet Minecraft ping failed, but there was a successful ping less than two weeks ago) and 73k I declare "dead" (last successful ping was more than two weeks ago). It seems really weird that of the nearly half of the 'offline' servers went offline in the past two weeks, so something's going on there; maybe Planet Minecraft's ping process is unreliable, or it just takes a long time to check every server, or servers go up and down all the time.

Anyway, the median lifetime for a public Minecraft server is 434 days, a little over a year. These things go online, people do a bunch of work on them, and then they disappear. I've kind of gotten to 'acceptance' on this, but it's still obnoxious.

One final thing: I thought I'd check if I could see the result of Mojang's June announcement of rules for how you can make money by hosting servers (and, more importantly, how you can't). I wanted to see if these rules had a chilling effect on the formation of new servers or caused a lot of old servers to shut down.

And... no, not really. Here's a chart showing two sixty-day periods around June 12, the date of the Mojang blog post. For each day I show 'births' (the number of servers first seen on that day) and 'deaths' (the number of servers last seen on that day). There's a drop-off in new servers around the end of July, but then it picks up again stronger than before. I don't have an explanation for it but I don't think there's anything in here you can pin on a blog post. The Mojang rules were probably intended to go after a small number of large obnoxious servers, and everyone else either doesn't care or flies under the radar.

(Screenshot is from World #57 by Art_Fox. I didn't archive the map because it's behind an link, but I got the screenshot.)

PS: Congratulations to Anticraft, the oldest public Minecraft server I could find that's still online, added to Planet Minecraft on February 28, 2011.

Update: I fixed up the code and let it run for another two weeks (!), saving another 2000 Minecraft maps and 700 MCPE maps. I probably won't do this again because it's a huge pain, but I said that this time and ended up doing it out of some sense of obligation to the future, so maybe obligation will strike again, who knows.

More Dice Fun: A while back I wrote about a maddening but interesting book called Scarne on Dice. It's a really huge book which I intend to get rid of ASAP, but before I do there's a couple things about dice, and cheating at dice, I wanted to quote.

In perhaps the most entertaining section of the book Scarne takes on the sleaziest parties in this whole wretched business, "the crooked gambling supply houses", who sell outdated cheating devices at huge markups. According to The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, another book I read recently, the mailing lists of these supply houses were coveted by con artists, because by definition, everyone on those lists "liked the best of it." One catalog's advice to buyers, according to HoyleScarne:

When telegraphing use the following code: PAINT for cards and CUBE for dice.


This head-slapping entry from Scarne's inventory of trick dice needs to be quoted in full:


These are a very brazen brand of mis-spotted dice that show 7 or 11 every roll. Since the catalog lists them, there apparently are buyers, but they are strictly for use on very soft marks and then only on dark nights. One die bears only the numbers 6 and 2; the other nothing but 5's! Since anyone but a blind man would tag these cubes as mis-spots, the moment they rolled out, they are of no use except for night play under an overhead light when the chumps can't see anything but the top surfaces of the dice. Strictly for use by cheats who don't know what a real set of Tops is.

There's a a couple entertaining but long stories of specific cheats which I won't transcribe. The best is the story of "the mouth switch". Seems there was a craps hustler in the 30s who kept a trick die in his mouth and introduced into the game it by cupping the dice in his hands and "blowing" on them. They called him "Mononucleosis Joe". Actually they called him "The Spitter," but they only started calling him that after he tried this trick while drunk and ended up rolling all three dice onto the craps table.

Finally, a tale of collegiality which I feel gets really boring if you explain what the numbers mean:

Several years ago the Harvard Computation Laboratory put a battery of calculating machines to work and came up with a whole book full of answers. Since the binomial formula is used in many problems and so often requires staggering amounts of arithmetic, they constructed a set of Cumulative Binomial Probability Distribution Tables which give provability fractions for a wide range of values of n, r, and P. And because Dr. Frederick Mosteller, Chairman of the Department of Statistics, had seen a copy of Scarne on Dice and was aware of the 26 game problem, he saw to it that the calculating machienes were asked to provide figures for the terms n = 130 and P = 1/6.

It's easy to read this book and feel superior to the people who get fooled by seemingly rudimentary tricks (David Maurer, author of The Big Con, specifically points this out in his book), but I'm sure someone who knew their stuff could take my entire roll in a crooked dice game. Why am I so sure? Because you could take my entire roll in a completely fair dice game.

...And Maps: I've got some exciting new stuff for people who read NYCB but not my Twitter feed (which, if you consider the future, is the vast majority of everyone who reads NYCB). As I mentioned in the film roundup, I went to the Books in Browsers conference with my NYPL colleague James English. James gave an overview of the Library Simplified project we work on, and then I gave a talk I like to call (and did call) "Project Gutenberg Books are Real Books!".

Part of my work on Library Simplified is to integrate Project Gutenberg books into our ebook catalog. This sounds easy, and it is, so long as you're willing to treat Gutenberg books as second-class citizens that live in their own poorly-documented area. I'm trying to do something more like what Amazon did with its free Kindle books (BTW I recently discovered that they're selling the newer ones)—turn the Gutenberg texts into no-frills derivative editions that are nonetheless fully integrated into the storefront.

Second, there's a new Reef map, Reef #4: The Timeline, a cross-section of Minecraft history going from late 2010 to mid-2014. I think it's the most accessible of the Reef maps—it's small and it's obvious what's going on.

As is tradition, I introduced Reef #4 with a video, in which I compelled Lapis Lauri and Ron Smalec to race to the end of the Timeline for my own amusement (and theirs).

As you can tell I'm working on all kinds of stuff, notably something you will probably never see—the pitch document for Situation Normal. I really hate writing this stuff and it's a huge pain, but why write a book if you're not going to try to sell it?

[Comments] (2) On Scarne On Dice: At a book sale where the deal was "$5 for all the books you can fit in a bag" I picked up a book that barely fit in the bag, Scarne on Dice, originally published in 1943 and updated in 1974. The author, John Scarne, combines a ton of genuine gambling expertise with the demeanor of a megalomaniac crackpot. The jacket copy, written by some unknown soul *cough*, describes him as "the man who made the phrase 'Acording to Hoyle' obsolete and replaced it with 'According To Scarne'". He's invented his own kind of dice, Scarney Dice®, which are normal six-sided dice except that the two face and the five face have the word "DEAD" on them.

With Scarney Dice you can play a number of games such as Scarney 3000® ("the favorite dice game of the members of the John Scarne Game Club of my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey"), Scarney Put-and-Take Dice, Scarney Duplicate Jackpots, Scarney 21 Up and Down, Scarney Bingo Dice, and Scarney Black Jack. Many of these games feature dice combinations called "Big Scarney" and "Little Scarney", or require a player to call "Scarney" when exploiting a winning position.

There are also three chapters of the book devoted to card games Scarne has invented, games like Scarney® ("the first really new card game concept of this century"), Scarney Gin, and Scarney Baccarat. These games—stay with me here—are card games, they include no dice, and they have no place in a book called Scarne on Dice, especially since John Scarne also wrote a whole other book called Scarne on Cards. But since we're going down this route, how about the family portrait in the front of the book where John Scarne poses with his wife, his son, his books, and the board games he invented, most notably a checkers-like thing called Teeko. Did I mention that he named his son after his board game? Oh, and after himself, of course. John Teeko Scarne.

But unlike every other person like this I've ever encountered, John Scarne actually knows his stuff. He convincingly debunks parapsychology dice-rolling experiments by contrasting the way the experiment was run with the way casinos handle dice. He explains ludicrous systems for beating the casinos and then explains why they're mathematically impossible. His chapters on how to spot loaded dice, rigged games, steer joints, and general cheating are clearly a light rewrite of the lectures he went around giving on Army bases to stop GIs losing their paychecks to craps hustlers. He has a convincing description of what it would take to run an underground gambling operation, down to a detailed payroll.

What is going on here? My initial guess was that gambling is a field where being a Jeffrey Lebowski-esque blowhard is tolerated and even encouraged. That's still my primary guess, actually. But after reading the most interesting 200 pages of this massive tome and skimming the rest I I wonder if something else is going on. This book is mostly about craps, a folk game with a relatively clear origin in Hazard but no real chain of custody between its origin and the modern day. Maybe Scarne just wants to make damn sure that his contributions to ludology are properly credited. Unfortunately, his habit of naming everything after himself just made it that much easier to ignore his innovations and play the same games people have been playing for hundreds of years.

But there was one game that John Scarne invented whose genius I appreciate, even though I'll never play it. It's a drinking game called Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice and it survives in a modified version called Twenty-One Aces. Scarne describes a couple variants but here's the simplest one: in Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice the players take turns rolling two dice until someone rolls nothing but twos and fives (these are the "DEAD" faces of official Scarney dice). The first person to accomplish this orders a drink. Scarne recommends "a double rye with celery tonic, vodka with chili sauce", or something equally weird. The second person to roll twos and fives drinks the drink, and the third person to roll twos and fives pays for the drink.

That's just great. It creates two types of tension at once—who's going to drink the drink and who's going to pay for it, and it uses creativity from an unrelated field as a game mechanic. Good job.

[Comments] (1) The Minecraft Geologic Survey: I've been waiting for all the pieces to go into place before writing about this on NYCB, and now the pieces are in place. The lightning strikes my castle laboratory and the Minecraft Geologic Survey rises! (See Fig. 1.)

Fig. 1

Back in May I announced that I'd downloaded 65,000 Minecraft maps from the official Minecraft forum, and used the data to make my @MinecraftSigns bot. Later I took over Allison Parrish's defunct @minecraftebooks and revitalized it with _ebooks-style quotes from the books found in Minecraft worlds. (Plus, as of a few days ago, command block outputs that incorporate the names of followers, Exosaurs-style.)

But all the while, in the background, I was downloading. Worlds, screenshots, mods, player skins, texture packs... everything with a URL. I ended up with about two terabytes of data, an amount that here in 2014 is not difficult for me to store but is very difficult to transfer or process.

To get the signs and the books for my bots, I had to load every Minecraft world into Python and go through every chunk looking for entities. I ended up with about 180,000 worlds, and iterating over them all was a very time-consuming process. Fortunately, I had two more projects that would amortize all that computer time.

Both projects required that I take "core samples" of each world, extracting individual chunks that were likely to be interesting and forming a new world (like the one pictured above) containing only those chunks. The resulting dataset is representative of the full more-than-a-terabyte package of original worlds, but because it's just a very tiny sample, the whole thing weighs in at a comparatively slim 12 gigabytes.

That's small enough to go on the Internet Archive, and small enough for you to download it and use it in your own project. I wrote a detailed guide to the data, which includes not only 170,000 synthetic Minecraft worlds but a big JSON file (also available on its own) containing all the metadata and sign text and other things you'd need to do a text-based project.

The other project is The Reef, a series of Minecraft maps that combine the chunks obtained from the survey into mashup maps that incorporate designs from many different authors. For instance, you've got The Reef #1, which sticks spawn chunks from 10,000 different maps together to form a (mostly) naturally-sprawling terrain. Or maybe you'd prefer the Skyburbs, a thousand Skyblock maps jammed next to each other.

I've got plenty more ideas for Reef maps, but now that the data is available I think this is a good point to put the project on pause for a while. I will be publishing the code I use to make my Twitter bots and the Reef maps, to encourage you to play with the data and do your own thing.

I'm concerned about the Minecraft servers that have been shutting down since Mojang changed their EULA to include strict rules on monetization. People have been giving a lot of attention to the Microsoft buyout, but the EULA change is what's affecting servers right now. I would really like to offer an archive service for Minecraft servers that are being shut down (plus just original worlds that people have lying around on their hard drives), but I don't see a good way to get the word out. It's not like the typical Archive Team project where you can go into a server that's shutting down and download everything. The server owner has to take the initiative. Also bandwidth and storage become a problem for me at this point. So this is more of an open question than something I know how to solve. It may not get solved.

[Comments] (2) The Average Minecraft Skin: Currently my two spare-time hobbies are 1) Situation Normal revisions and 2) gathering Minecraft data. Yes, I'm still at it! There's a lot more data than I anticipated! I'm up to about 175,000 maps, and I've branched out into archiving mods and texture packs. There's even more I could do, but pretty soon I'm going to have to put away the data-gathering part of this project for six months or a year so I can get other stuff done.

My reach keeps expanding because whenever I decide that a certain dataset isn't interesting and I won't bother with it, I immediately come up with something really cool to do with the dataset. For instance, Minecraft skins, the little images that are bitmapped onto your character in the game to make you look like a penguin or Jean-Luc Picard. I never really cared much about skins, but in the process of deciding not to bother with them, I discovered that Planet Minecraft, one of the biggest repositories of skins, lets someone who uploads a skin specify a gender ("male", "female", "interchangeable", and "other"), as well as a category classification ("animal", "cartoon", "famous person", etc.). Now I was interested! Skins are data about how people present themselves in the virtual world, data that I could gather and graph.

Here's a simple graph showing the skins available on Planet Minecraft, broken down by category and gender:

Self-reported gender of Minecraft skins

In every category male skins are drastically overrepresented, but the discrepancy is smallest in "Other". Why? My guess is that "Other" is where you'd put a skin that you made to represent yourself.

Since there are only two different sizes for skin images, you can average a number of skins together to get a new skin. Here's a skin that is the average of 100 of the most popular "female" skins on Planet Minecraft:

And here's the average of 100 of the most popular "male" skins:

That's a pretty preliminary result, but I think it's interesting. The major sexual dimorphism among Minecraft skins—the shape of the eyes—comes through loud and clear. If you want to use one of these as your actual Minecraft skin, I recommend going in with an image editor and erasing the upper-right part of the image. Otherwise your character's head will be shrouded in a ghostly hat, and it won't look good.

@MinecraftSigns, And Minecraft Maps: I finished a draft of Situation Normal and sent it in to writing group, so I've now got time to reveal the other non-NYPL project that's been taking up all of my time. Ta-da! It's a bot! @MinecraftSigns posts signs that I found in Minecraft maps using the pymclevel library I learned for the Historical Minecraft project.

For a long time, signs were the only form of textual self-expression possible in Minecraft. You get four lines of 15 characters each. In normal play they're generally used as labels or signposts. Custom mapmakers also use them for instructions to the player, dialogue, narration, and hidden messages. They are a medium of communication with more severe character restrictions than Twitter, which makes them a great subject for a Twitter bot. Signs posted so far range from the profound:

This one's
about dropping

To something I think I saw on one of those trendy t-shirts recently:

peanuts and
pickles and
potatoes and

To the crowd favorite so far:

Do not
Extinguish fire
You will lose.

Oh goodie, you say; another bot from Leonard! What will he come up with next? Yet another bot? The answer is yes. But, before you dismiss @MinecraftSigns as just another window into a beautiful realm of found poetry, ask yourself this: how did I get this data in the first place? Where did all these Minecraft signs come from? Oh, I don't know, maybe from the sixty-five thousand Minecraft maps I've got on my hard drive?

That's right. After the Historical Minecraft project I thought back to late 2011 when I was enjoying the world of custom Minecraft maps. I then thought forward to early 2012, when I was kind of done with custom Minecraft maps, but when I moved all the ZIP files I'd downloaded onto a backup drive rather than deleting them, because these things don't stay on the Internet forever and it would be nice to have a copy, say, twenty years from now. And then, in early 2014, two years into that twenty, I was thinking about that little act of preservation and it hit me: who's archiving the rest of those maps?

The answer was: apparently nobody. And then the answer quickly became: I am. From the middle of April to the middle of May I archived 65,000 maps linked to from the Minecraft maps forum. That's out of about 100,000 maps total. I verified that 25,000 maps are gone, and there are about 10,000 maps I didn't get because they're scattered across a million different file-sharing sites.

So, at least a quarter of the maps put up since 2010 are already gone. I was able to get screenshots for a lot of the missing maps, so it's not a total loss, but that's still really bad, and not only because it's generally bad when interesting things leave the Internet.

Minecraft is the medium used by a lot of accomplished designers and artists. The most obvious examples IMO are Vechs (Super Hostile) and three_two (Vinyl Fantasy). Those two are pretty legendary and their maps are in no danger of being lost, but there's a lot of really great stuff published in 2011-2012 that was lost in the flood. 2011-2012 was the silent-film era of Minecraft custom maps, when the genres were being defined and the first wild experiments were happening, but when the medium was not taken seriously enough to warrant systematic preservation. In the future we'll have tools for finding the overlooked gems, but first those maps have to make it to the future.

Speaking of the future, Minecraft is the training ground for the next generation of game designers, the way ZZT was the training ground for my generation. There's a ZZT archive; it's got about 2,000 ZZT games. How many are lost? Sure would have been nice to save more of them, but all we had back then was BBSes. We didn't have a big official "ZZT forum" with a special place for posting links to your games.

Finally, even a map that's made by a young child who grows up to be an actuary rather than a game designer is valuable. For one, it's valuable to the actuary. I didn't grow up to be a visual artist, but I value this awful, mysterious poster I drew when I was six. That poster would be long gone if someone (my mother) hadn't archived it for me. Second, these maps might be useful in the aggregate as a source of information about period slang or the way children visualize three-dimensional space. Third...

Well, I think one reason Minecraft is so popular with kids is it recreates an experience that American kids generally aren't allowed to have anymore: going outside and playing in a semi-natural environment, on your own or with friends, without parental supervision. There's this infamously bad Minecraft map from 2011 called Quest for Gallell, which turned out to be made by a six-year-old. Presumably this goofy swashbuckling playthrough was made before the players knew they were making fun of a six-year-old's map, but if you watch the video you'll notice that the players understand how to approach the map: like kids playing together in the woods. They're acting out kids acting out adults.

Quest for Gallell is the three-dimensional record of an imaginative play session, which you can play through yourself if you want. It sucks that kids can't play outside anymore, but at least we have some records of what they do instead. Those records are worth saving.

Crosspost: Apparently I have a new weblog! It's my NYPL staff weblog and I've put up a post about a project I worked on with Paul Beaudoin on like my second day at NYPL Labs. We turned a historical contour map into a Minecraft world. This is cool on its own, but it also means I now know how to programmatically generate Minecraft maps with Python scripts. The possibilities are endless, and you'll be seeing more of them later. Like, when I'm done with this novel.

If you must get all your Minecraft news in video form, you're surprisingly picky but you're also in luck. I took Nashville's own Joe Hills on a tour of 1860 Manhattan, and he recorded the whole thing. My only regret is that I didn't prime the buried TNT he discovers near the end of the video.

Loaded Dice 2013 Update: I fetched the BoardGameGeek data again, a yearly tradition, and put up another Loaded Dice update.

A few highlights:

If you go to the main page, you can download an amazing 17-megabyte JSON dump of BGG data I've compiled. It includes descriptions and genres for every game in the dataset, and three data samples that convey historical rating data over three years. At this point I feel like I'm adding enough on top of what the BGG API can give you (the historical rating data) that I can make the data dump available without apology.

Fundamental Indeed: I could spend all day just posting games that Board Game Dadaist comes up with. I forbear, for the sake of you, my readers, but Adam Parrish and I will email each other when we find an especially good one. And I think you should know about the best game BGD ever came up with (found by Adam back in December):

Fantasy Fundamental Rails (2005)

Players divide themselves into two teams.

[Comments] (1) Spacewar! The Interview: Went to the museum last night not for a movie, but to meet Peter Samson and (via poor-quality videoconferencing) Steve Russell, for a conversation about the second video game ever made, Spacewar!.

I asked Russell the question that's been burning in my mind for years: why does Spacewar! have an exclamation mark in its name? His answer: "Once I got it working, I thought it deserved an exclamation point!" I also asked Russell if he considered any other names for the game. "Nope."

No one asked the obvious final question, so I got that one in too: what games are they playing now? Both Russell and Samson are fans of solitaire card games. Russell also said he likes the Android game Tiny Village.

Some other tidbits from the conversation, which I found especially interesting and/or which I don't think are on the net already:

Crazy the Scorpion Semi-Online: Kirk and I collaborated on an in-browser version of Crazy the Scorpion for Klik of the Month Klub. It's "online" in the sense that you download an HTML file containing the game and play the game in your browser. But everyone who plays must be gathered around the same computer.

I scraped a bunch of Wikipedia page titles to make fake Trivial Pursuit cards. It's not great, but the whole thing's not bad for two hours of work. I mainly hope this version inspires you to play Crazy the Scorpion using physical components.

: Third board game post in a row. It's much easier to teach Cosmic Encounter if you pick out ten aliens ahead of time, separate out their flare cards, and hand out two alien cards to everyone. Instead of handing everyone two flare cards and making them look through the pile for the corresponding alien cards.

[Comments] (12) Ticket to Grief: Ticket to Ride comes with 30 destination cards. You can start out with three, and on your turn, you're allowed to draw three new cards and keep them all. This means you can very rapidly take almost all the destination cards for yourself. You would get a very large negative score, but prevent the other players from getting a good score or having anything to do in the endgame.

Once the deck of destination cards runs out, you could start drawing two train cards from the deck every turn, and keeping them permanently. There's no hand limit.

If you're bored with Ticket to Ride, this is a great way to ensure you're never invited to play it again.

Maloideae: the game of strained but learned analogies: I've been sitting on this for a while and figured I'd package it up for you. Maloideae is my latest free print-and-play card game, the follow-up to my earlier remix, Crazy the Scorpion. Maloideae is basically a parody of Apples to Apples, but if you give it a shot I think you'll find it has its own vibe and is a lot of fun.

Loaded Dice 2012 Update: Here it is, folks. I re-downloaded the BoardGameGeek dataset and crunched some numbers to determine what happened between July 2011 and now. Highlights:

I'm planning another entry in the Loaded Dice saga, one involving geeklists, but that's not going to be done for a while.

[Comments] (1) Crazy the Scorpion: A cooperative card game: I've been having a great time with a card game Beth Lerman and I invented, a game which I'm calling "Crazy the Scorpion", for the same reason "Exquisite Corpse" is called what it is. If you want a less interesting title it can also be called "Newsworthy".

Crazy the Scorpion is based on the "fun variant" of Man Bites Dog invented in 2010 by Kevan Davis, Holly Gramazio, and myself, but it's even more fun, and replayable to boot. I've tested it with two and three players. It should work with four, but probably not more than four. It plays in 20-30 minutes. I'm releasing these rules, and the print-and-play cards (see below) into the public domain.

Update: In 2013 Kirk Israel and I made a browser version of Crazy the Scorpion.


To play Crazy the Scorpion, you need two decks of cards:

  1. A copy of Man Bites Dog.
  2. A stack of Trivial Pursuit cards.

Trivial Pursuit cards should be easy to find--in my experience, the Trivial Pursuit family is the single most common board game find at thrift stores and yard sales. You can also use Once Upon a Time cards or red Apples to Apples cards (not playtested).

Man Bites Dog is tougher to find, but I've made a print-and-play deck of 128 headline words. I constructed the words by looking at a news site, independently of Man Bites Dog, and the words are optimized for Crazy the Scorpion and not Man Bites Dog, and you can't play Man Bites Dog with my deck anyway because the cards have no point values.


The goal is to construct a 5x5 magic square of headlines, out of headline cards and Trivial Pursuit answers. The best way to explain the game is with a...

Sample of play

I start the game. I draw the Man Bites Dog card "SCAM", and a Trivial Pursuit card with these answers:

I lay down the cards like so, and designate the Trivial Pursuit card as the "Gopher" card.

The headline reads "Gopher Scam". Other legal layouts include "Scam The Montreal Canadiens" and "A Pen Scam". Anything that could conceivably be a headline in any universe. I could have laid out the headline horizontally or vertically.

Now it's your turn. You draw the Man Bites Dog card "DEVOTED" and a Trivial Pursuit card with these answers:

You lay down your cards like so, and designate your Trivial Pursuit card the "Abraham Lincoln" card:

Now there are two headlines: "Devoted Gopher Scam" and "Devoted Abraham Lincoln". Other legal placements would create headlines like "Gopher: Scam A Goalie", "Devoted Gopher" (created by placing "Devoted" above "Gopher"), and "Scam Prancer Devoted".

"Gopher A Goalie" is an illegal placement: it would put two Trivial Pursuit cards next to each other, which violates suggestion #1. "A Pen Devoted" is also illegal: it would rename "Gopher" to "A pen", violating suggestion #2.

Now it's my turn again. I draw the Man Bites Dog card "DRUGS" and a Trivial Pursuit card with the following answers:

I lay down my cards like so, and designate my Trivial Pursuit card the "A quantum" card:

Now there are six headlines:

  1. Devoted Gopher Scam
  2. Abraham Lincoln Drugs A Quantum
  3. Devoted Abraham Lincoln
  4. Gopher Drugs
  5. Scam A Quantum

Among other legal moves, I could have formed "Devoted Gopher Scam Drugs Dennis Rodman" instead.

Halfway through my third turn, we might have a nice 3x3 magic square that looks like this:

Or, in textual form:
Abraham LincolnDrugsA quantum
JudgeA netTourist

Forming these six headlines:

  1. Devoted Gopher Scam
  2. Abraham Lincoln Drugs A Quantum
  3. Judge A Net Tourist
  4. Devoted Abraham Lincoln
  5. Gopher Drugs A Net
  6. Scam A Quantum Tourist

(More likely, that early in the game we wouldn't have a magic square at all. But this makes for a better illustration.)

By the end of the game we'll have headlines like "The Ladybug Judge A Net Tourist, Charlemagne Blasts" and "Nicotine-Devoted Abraham Lincoln: Judge Buckminster Fuller's Movie."

Now I think you're ready for the...

Official Rules

The goal is to construct a 5x5 magic square of headlines. Or, for the adventurous, a 6x6 square. Players take turns drawing two cards (one from each deck) and placing them in a grid. The game ends when the magic square is complete. The game may end in the middle of one player's turn.

When playing a Trivial Pursuit card, the player names the card after one of its answers. The card is considered to have that name for the rest of the game.

Each played card must be orthogonally adjacent to at least one card already played.


The game is better if you follow these suggestions, but in specific cases you might get funnier headlines by breaking them.

  1. Man Bites Dog cards should not touch other Man Bites Dog cards, and Trivial Pursuit cards should not touch other Trivial Pursuit cards. You want to get a nice checkerboard pattern.
  2. Don't rearrange, rename, or remove cards once they're played.
  3. Headlines must make some kind of sense at every stage. This is more a requirement that you come up with a story about each headline, than an admission that there's some sequence of words that cannot conceivably be a headline.


The Man Bites Dog cards are full of words that clearly belong in headlines, but which (for the sake of generality) include no details. Trivial Pursuit answers are disconnected references to newsworthy topics. Combining them yields sentences that feel like real, specific headlines, but make no sense whatsoever.

Have fun!

Some Interesting Game Aliens: Editor Kate pointed me to this list of the best and worst aliens in video games. Without wanting to say anything bad about that list, I noticed that it (and similar lists I've found online) focuses heavily on the visual design of humanoid aliens from first-person shooters. So I thought I'd make my own list, in honor of the print release of Constellation Games (Publishers Weekly calls it "fun"!), highlighting some video game aliens that I find interesting from a game design perspective. I'm sure there are plenty more I haven't heard of, so if you have any additional suggestions, I'd like to hear about them in comments.

The invaders (Space Invaders)

Just gonna get this one out of the way. Among the most iconic aliens ever devised, the invaders in the middle row have come to symbolize video games as a whole. Apart from their visual style there's nothing there, but the style is great.

The blobs (A Boy and his Blob)

These were my gut-reaction nomination for "best", because they're the only aliens I can think of that only make sense in a video game. The blob in A Boy and his Blob is a game mechanic personified: a sentient inventory. This causes serious problems if you try to think about the species outside the context of the game—when your toilet clogs on Blobolonia, do you feed your friend a jellybean and turn them into a plunger? But within the game, it works great.

The Melnorme (Star Control II)

If you want vivid alien characterizations, Star Control II is your game. Unfortunately, most of those characterizations are based on asinine stereotypes. That's why the Melnorme win it for me. It would be easy to make "the trader race" greedy and sleazy—in fact, SC2 does this with the other "trader race", the Druuge. But the Melnorme are friendly cosmopolitans who're fun to talk to. And they occasionally drop ominous hints that are never followed up on anywhere in the game.

That said, there's nothing game-y about the Melnorme, they just happen to be in a game. Every race in SC2 could guest on Star Trek, and many of them have. So I'm not pushing this one very hard. At least they're not humanoid.

Honorable SC2 mentions: the Zoq-Fot-Pik, who are silly and fun; and the Orz, who are similar to but not as well-executed as...

The Endermen (Minecraft)

From another dimension rather than from outer space, but aliens nonetheless. The Roadside Picnic of video game aliens; the Endermen follow rules that make perfect sense... to them. Their random rearrangement of blocks and sudden fits of aggro bear a twisted resemblance to your own behavior in Minecraft. Like you, they are interlopers in the game world, and their behavior was designed to challenge your dominance of it.

Giygas (Earthbound)

I almost didn't count Giygas for the same reason I'm not counting the Meteor from Maniac Mansion: I already gave the "cool aliens that happen to be in a game" nod to Star Control 2. But the final battle of Earthbound does some interesting things with the game's generic JRPG battle system, so sure, I'll count it.

"Them" (The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask)/The Martians (Metal Slug 2)

These aliens are composed entirely of pop culture cliches. The interesting thing is not their design but the fact that they show up at all. These aliens aren't just from another planet: they're from another genre. The Martians show up and abruptly turn your tasteless WWII run-and-gun into a '50s saucer flick. And "They" show up in a Zelda game. Albeit a Zelda game that also features a time loop and travel to the moon.

When I asked on Twitter for peoples' favorite video game aliens, the only response I got (thanks, Laura!) was also in the vicinity of this category: Crypto from Destroy All Humans, which I haven't played but which looks just like the movie Mars Attacks!.

Board game bonus! The Loser (Cosmic Encounter)

Cosmic Encounter is all about embodying game mechanics into alien species, and the Loser is the best, because it forces you to have debates about what it means to "win" a game. Whatever chaos is happening due to the other players' equally unbalanced species choices, the Loser multiplies it. My absolute fave.

And there you go. Let me know of any you think I missed—this is a bizarrely underexplored field, though maybe I just think it's bizarrely underexplored because I spent a long time writing a novel about it. I mean, I also thought it was weird no one had explained how game titles work.

Image credits: Flickr user philosofia, DeviantArt user aeonpants, DeviantArt user dczanik, DeviantArt user EliteParanoid, SNK, Felicia Cano.

: Remember when this weblog used to be about fun links? I don't either, but I think it was somewhere in there. Well, check this out: last year when I went to PAX my most enjoyable experience was the panel "Videogames Antiques Roadshow." It worked just like you think: people would bring old game stuff up on stage, and distinguished collectors would estimate the value of the old stuff. Here are some pictures from that panel. In fact, you can see me in the second photo, fourth row center.

Kind of got distracted there--the point of this post is not to look at a crowd scene that includes me. I meant to say that they brought the panel back at PAX Prime, and this time there's video. And it's now called "Retrogaming Roadshow", possibly due to trademark issues. In addition to bringing to light cool bits of history like the PCjr edition of M.U.L.E., I love the way these panels illustrate the social construction of value. Highly recommended if you've got an interest in this stuff.

nanDECK: I have a little side project creating a print-and-play board game. The game has a lot of cards, but I don't need to design each card individually--I can generate them programatically. Or I could, if I were capable of writing the program.

First I tried ReportLab, the Python library for making PDFs. I'd used it for the sadly-now-defunct Pocket Wisherman, and I thought it would be perfect for putting lots of little squares on a piece of paper.

Not so fast! The Pocket Wisherman puts lots of squares on a piece of paper, but in that program text flows from one square to another. That can't happen on a playing card. The closest I could come with ReportLab was a table, and since I couldn't add spacing between the table cells the way you can in... HTML...

It was easy to get something in HTML that looked right on screen (these cards are pretty simple), but not so easy to get them to look good when printed. So I went back to searching for tools optimized for card design. I delved deep, past many people talking about the best way to manufacture cards for print-and-play-games, and then I found nanDECK by Andrea Nini.

I'm gonna complain a lot about nanDECK so I want to make it really clear that nanDECK solved my problem. In about an hour I went from having two failed Python scripts and no cards, to having cards as nice as my design skils could make them. If I got some design help from someone else I can make the cards nicer still, from within nanDECK.

Now, let the complaining begin! Actually, I'm not even gonna complain. I'll just phrase my complaints as helpful hints. nanDECK is a Windows IDE for a domain-specific markup/programming language. It runs fine in WINE. The prominently-linked manual is actually a reference guide--tutorials and examples are linked further down the homepage.

The interface features so many buttons that the "visual edit" button might get lost in the shuffle (ha), but that button is going to help you so much. You won't have to remember all the arguments to the language directives, and you can lay out elements visually on the card rather than guess at measurements over and over again. In the end I couldn't get the linked-data feature to work (possibly an interaction with WINE), so I figured out the layout for a single card within nanDECK and then wrote a Python program to generate the nanDECK script for my entire deck.

Whew! Kept it positive. If you want to design cards for a game, and you don't want to lay them all out manually (which you shouldn't), I think nanDECK is your best option. Thanks, Andrea Nini!

Fruit to Fruit: Time for another Apples to Apples variant (previous editions), this one discovered last week by Pat.

On every green A2A card there's the name of the card, like "Handsome", but there are also three related words, like "attractive", "elegant", "fine". In Fruit to Fruit, you don't read the name of the card. You just read the related words. Sometimes the related words are so similar that you might as well be reading the name of the card, but usually something goes missing (such as the masculinity of "handsome"), leading to funnier red cards being put down. The name of the card is finally revealed during judging.

We had a great time with this and played it in conjunction with the Apples to Placebos variant, even though there were four players. You might think this overkill, but at this point A2A is more a social activity than a game. Anyway, it says right on the box "The game of hilarious comparisons!", so anything that makes the comparisons more hilarious is legit.

While seeing if anyone else had come up with this variant I discovered Apples to Trivial Pursuit, and the improv comedy variant. I also discovered that the game is patented, and that there is an entire patent classification system for "means... by which contests of skill or chance may be engaged in among two or more participants, where the result of such contests can be indicated according to definite rules."

To This Basic Game Hedgehogs Are Added: I bought a cute game about hedgehogs, Der Igelwettkampf ("The hedgehog contest"), as a Christmas present for my niece. On Der Igelwettkampf's BoardGameGeek page I noticed that it was classified under the game family "Animals: Hedgehogs/Porcupines". I'd thought "Family" was for boring things like grouping together the endless versions of Ticket to Ride, but turns out it's also used to group together all the games about hedgehogs.

The question then arises: what's the best game about hedgehogs? According to BGG it's Igel Ärgern + Tante Tarantel, a double bill in which Tante Tarantel might be doing some of that work because Igel Ärgern on its own is rated a bit lower.

More importantly, what's the worst hedgehog game? Indubitably it's Hedgehog's Revenge, "The GAME where the hedgehog STRIKES BACK!", whose BGG description includes the now-hopefully-immortal saying "To this basic game hedgehogs are added."

At this point I was on a roll... of the dice! I went back to my now-old BGG data dump, sorted the board game families by how many games they contained, and picked out interesting groupings for use in Loaded Dice. We've got Games about animals (most popular: dogs) Game versions of sports (soccer), and Games about countries (the Roman Empire, in a landslide). That page shows the top-rated game and the lowest-rated game, so get ready to load a lot of cover images.

I did a couple other lists, like media tie-ins (champion: Disney) and "families" that are strongly tied to one single game (the 889-strong "Monopoly" family), but I think the three lists I put up are the most interesting.

Bizarre trivia abounds! Did you know that crows are board game gold? The worst game about crows (The Crow and the Pitcher) has a BGG rating of 6.32, which isn't that bad at all. (Longtime fans will remember the median rating is 6.0).

Did you know there are twenty rodeo-themed games? Apparently you didn't, since only one of those games has more than five ratings. How many wargames take place in Switzerland, a country that doesn't fight wars? Only two: Switzerland must be Swallowed and Zürich 1799.

My data is six months old now and it's starting to show some cracks. There are BGG families for Russia and Antarctica which were created after I took my dataset, so they don't show up in the country list even though most of their games are in my data. After getting the Switzerland idea I ran the "What percentage of a country's games are wargames?" test on all countries, but wargames were drastically undercounted. For instance, all but one "Vietnam" game on BGG is a wargame (the exception being Venture Vietnam), but only 35% of those games were classified under a general "Wargames" category.

But, the lists are still a lot of fun and there are some interesting games in there. I'll leave you with the board game equivalent of the dusty World Book Encyclopedia sitting on the shelf at your grandparents' house: Trivial Pursuit - The Year in Review - Questions about 1992, the worst-rated game (3.90) in the 155-strong Trivial Pursuit family. Also available in 1993 flavor!

[Comments] (8) Hostile Witness: The Vechs Interview: Minecraft can be a tough game. The controls are kind of blocky, the best resources are hidden deep in the map alongside deadly lava rivers, and the night hosts monsters that will kill you just as soon as look at you (or, in one case, just as soon as you look at them). But it's not that tough. All that terrain is generated by algorithm. It's not like the random number generator is trying to kill you.

But there's this guy named Vechs who is trying to kill you. His "Super Hostile" series of custom Minecraft maps offer challenges that prohibit or subvert every survival strategy you learned in vanilla Minecraft. Even in his easier maps you'll find bottomless pits, world-spanning ceilings that block Minecraft's all-important sunlight, swarms of monsters pouring from hacked spawners, and TNT in unfortunate places. Just getting your first tree is a challenge. Complete a Super Hostile map, and vanilla Minecraft will seem easy.

But Vechs' maps are not just tough: they're creative, fun to play, and they look great. Vechs uses landscape features and lighting to grab the player's attention, direct the flow and pacing of their playthrough, and give them a spectacular environment to build in once they've conquered the map.

I've raved about Super Hostile a couple times before here on NYCB, but with the release of "Spellbound Caves", the tenth entry in the series, I knew it was time to get serious. I sat down with Vechs (I assume he was sitting down, anyway) and interviewed him over's private message feature. My goal was to pick up where this interview from July 2011 left off, with in-depth questions about his style and his mapmaking wish-list. The interview contains some Minecraft jargon, but anyone with an interest in game design should get something out of it.

Leonard: You play a kind of character on your maps, an angry trickster god who hates his players and taunts them by writing things on signs. But clearly you're not actually like that. I've played maps made by people who really did hate me, who wanted me to farm cobblestone for an hour or dig through obsidian without a tool, and I said "screw this" and quit the map. I don't think you'd ever do that, right? What's the difference between you and the "Vechs" in your maps?

Vechs: It has to do with challenge. There is a difference between making the player use skill or ingenuity, and making the player do something tedious. Sometimes a solution to an area can involve using lots of blocks (Like the player making a cobblestone tube for them to safely move through.), but these are usually just one option of many the player can use to conquer an area.

Sometimes the "Vechs character" in my maps is pretty mean, and just downright spiteful, especially when it comes to traps. In real life, I'm not like that at all.

In the Obsidian Block interview you say that you recently graduated from college and are looking for a career as a game designer or world designer. What did you study in college?

I am a Media Arts major. I studied everything from digital image editing, video editing, to stage lighting, to writing scripts and screenplays for movies, and more. I'm glad to have a diverse background, even though my passion is still game design.

What would be your ideal job? Would you rather work on a big-budget project with high production values, or an indie project where you have more creative control?

My first choice would actually be to have my own studio and bring to life some of the game ideas I have. One idea I've had for a while, and as far as I know, nobody has ever made a game like it. I wouldn't mind making it all myself, but that means I would have to re-learn a lot of programming. I've programmed some text-based games in C++, but programming is not my main forte.

That said, I also wouldn't mind working for a major company. Like, for example, Valve. Love those guys.

What other games have you made maps for? You mention Duke Nukem 3D in the Obsidian Block interview; what else?

Just off hand: Red Alert, Warcraft II, Warcraft III, Neverwinter Nights, Total Annihilation, TA:Spring, Terraria, Command and Conquer (and several sequels), The Elder Scrolls series, and obviously I'm the world designer for the RPG games I've worked on, using the XP and VX engines.

Are you currently making maps for any games other than Minecraft?

At this moment, no, but I have been meaning to make some maps for Team Fortress 2.

Have you ever heard of ZZT or Megazeux, or am I just incredibly old?

You're old! *grins* I looked them up, and I think my version of that would be the RPG-series of game engines.

There are a lot of memorable set pieces in the Super Hostile series. Now that you've put out ten maps, would you mind taking a look back and sharing some of your favorites?

The first 15 minutes on just about any of my maps. I love that feeling of just starting off and scrambling for resources. I like the rail station in "Sea of Flame II", and how it goes out in the area with the huge pillars, and "Spellbound Caves" is just full of nice vistas and "scripted" events.

Most of my maps feature at least one "death fortress" as an end-game area. These are intended to be where the player gets to use all the resources and items he has been collecting through the whole map. TNT, lava, swords, bow and arrow, even TNT cannons... bring your whole arsenal and have some fun!

Can you describe the evolution of your design philosophy over the course of the series?

Try to improve in at least one area every time I make a new map. Push the Minecraft engine to its limits. Make an awesome and memorable experience for the player.

What are the biggest challenges in re-balancing Super Hostile for Minecraft 1.0?

Armor and blocking.

Does 1.0 have anything to do with the fact that you recently flattened the difficulty levels in your map descriptions, so that "Sunburn Islands" and "Legendary" are now both considered "Easy"?

Yes and no. I feel that recently I have been drifting away from the theme of "Super Hostile" and I want to get back to my roots. Being able to respawn forever, over and over kind of takes the risk out of a map. Even in "Legendary", unless you really mess up and drop all the wool in lava or something, you can just set your bed spawn near an area, and try over and over until you get it right. I think that's pretty Easy on the player, even if the area you are attempting is challenging.

Call me nostalgic, but I kind of miss (sometimes) the GAME OVER screens from older video games. Modern video games, in the name of convenience, typically feature unlimited lives, save games, checkpoints, the works. But beating a modern video game, I have to admit, is much less satisfying than beating some of those old NES games. You can just bang your head against the game until you get lucky and get through an area. Heh, man this makes me feel old! "In my day, we didn't have all those checkpoints! We had three lives! One hit deaths! And we were happy!" *shakes cane*

Anyway, I do think this is a legitimate point of concern on modern game design, is risk versus reward. It is possible to make games so easy that they are very unsatisfying...

I'm an admirer of your ability to create new genres of map. Have you made experimental Minecraft maps that just didn't work? What's in your "abandoned projects" folder?

The only thing I've actually stopped on, is "Race for Wool #3: Common Ground". Because it basically became "Capture the Wool".

Have you ever made maps for a game that featured scriptable events? If so, do you miss that capability in Minecraft?

I have used C++ to code some text-based games. I have also used various scripting languages in the process of making mods or making my own games with existing engines. You do have some limited "scripting" ability in Minecraft, using redstone. Check out the Rumbling Caverns in my tenth map and you will see what I mean. :)

But yes, I would love some even rudimentary scripting in Minecraft. I believe a while ago, I proposed invisible effector blocks, that you can place with Creative or MCedit, that modify the immediate environment around them. Like, an invisible block that makes monsters not spawn within 50 blocks. Or one that doubles monster spawning within 50 blocks. Or one that makes it snow. Or one that makes a ray of sunlight always be shining on that spot. Or one that makes the temperature freezing so any water turns to ice. Simple stuff like that. They would show up faintly in Creative mode, but be invisible while in survival mode.

What would you like to see added to Minecraft? On your forum thread you mention that you'd like to add sharks and underwater plants to "Endless Deep". What else?

Bow enchantments... more mining enchantments, such as area mining. Check out episodes 04 and 05 of my Spellbound Caves Dev Commentary.

For bow enchantments, I would like:

I think these enchants for bows would make bow combat much, much more fun. It's currently fairly slow paced, and a bit boring. Imagine a bow with Toxic, Piercing, and Phantom Spreadshot on it! It would be so much fun to shoot groups of enemies with a bow like that.

You have a creative relationship with some of the people who do Let's Play videos of your maps. It's a kind of relationship I've never seen before: the way people play your maps in public affects the way you design later maps. How did these relationships develop?

Very organically. Zisteau agreed to LP my very first map, "Sea of Flames" version 1.0, and ever since then, he's been involved in playing my maps, and giving feedback.

There's a very clever trap in "Spellbound Caves", [location redacted]. It's clever for many reasons, but I'm asking about it because it doesn't seem to have any triggering mechanism. I went in afterwards and took the walls apart and couldn't figure out how it works. What's the secret? Or is there a pressure plate somewhere that I missed?

I has a seekret. Oh, also, I hate you, die in a fire.

POSTSCRIPT: With my interviewee uncooperative, I had no choice but to load a fresh version of "Spellbound Caves" into an editor to get to the bottom of the mystery. What I found was a trigger that did not shock me to the core of my being. But it is a cool design.

The trigger is a proximity sensor: a shaft behind a wall, with a creeper spawner at the top of the shaft and a pressure plate at the bottom. When the player gets within 16 blocks of the spawner, it activates and spawns a creeper, which drops onto the pressure plate, triggering the trap. The resulting explosion obliterates both creeper and spawner, leaving no trace of the trigger.

And that's what you get with Vechs' maps: MacGyver-like use of everything the game engine provides, to create confounding and unexpected effects. Seriously, game studios: hire this guy. Everyone else: play his maps.

PPS: Hey, people from, thanks for coming over. I've written other articles about Minecraft (1 2 3 4), and if you like my stuff, you might want to check out my novel about alien video games.

Hypothesis Confirmed: I know you're excited about the evidence for the Higgs boson, but I was going through NYCB's 2011 archives for the inevitable year-end "best of" entry, and I noticed something even less amazing.

Earlier this year as part of Loaded Dice I made a list of "Pre-1990 games still greatly in demand". I suggested that someone could make some money reprinting these games. When I reread the NYCB post that linked to that list, I remembered an ongoing but very polite dispute in which two different game companies plan to reprint "Merchant of Venus", having acquired the rights from two different sources. I checked on my "someone should reprint" list, and sure enough, "Merchant of Venus" was #4 on that list.

In fact, four of the top five games on that list were reprinted/remade in 2011, or will be in 2012. The other one is Crokinole, a public domain game that apparently just can't be manufactured cheaply because you have to use SFI-approved Canadian hardwood. Spot checks further down the list turned up other games like "Code 777" that were reprinted recently, and games like "Full Métal Planète" that were recently subject to unauthorized reimplementations. What I'm saying is, that list is marketing gold.

Programmable Minecraft 3: The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work: In the previous installment of this series I went whole hog and created a simple event-based scripting language for Minecraft objects. Left in the dust were three ideas I had for blocks that let you do more with your existing redstone circuits. These blocks won't blow anyone away, but they would let creators add a lot more polish to their Adventure- and Complete The Monument-genre maps.

This is probably the last entry in this series, so take heart. I had an idea about using Minecraft blocks as placeable opcodes in the event-based scripting language, but... there you have it. That's my idea. And here are three more:

[Comments] (4) Programmable Minecraft 2: Redstone Boogaloo: I think my first post in this series left me too optimistic about how much you could really do for Minecraft map designers without making programming easier. I did come up with three useful blocks, but I'm gonna save them for a brief follow-up, and in this post I'll go ahead and sketch out a ZZT-OOP-like language for Minecraft.

My reasons are fourfold: 1) This level of abstraction is what I really want, not the circuit stuff. 2) it's simpler to interpret a simple scripting language than to simulate an equally complex circuit. 3) Apparently the next big feature in Minecraft is official mod support, which means someone could actually implement this. 4) I think it's more important that people learn how to program than that they learn how to lay out electrical circuits.

So instead of last time's circuit-level Computer block, imagine a software Object block. An object can take the appearance of any other Minecraft block, or it can have a custom bitmap that's loaded from a map-specific resource directory. An object also has a script, which is probably loaded from a file because I really don't want to use Minecraft as an IDE. The script is where the magic happens.

Here's a ZZT-OOP manual. (I think it's a copy of the original manual, it seems very familiar.) ZZT-OOP is extremely primitive, but because it's so primitive it can be explained in a weblog post, and I'm still familiar with it despite not having used it for fifteen years. So let me adapt it to Minecraft and we'll see what happens.

You program an object in ZZT-OOP by defining its response to stimuli. In Minecraft, stimuli might include:

Maybe more. You get the idea. These are the events in the life of an Object.

You can program an object's response to a stimulus as a series of commands. A lot of these can be taken straight from ZZT-OOP:

Here's an object that tries to move north whenever it's hit with a snowball:

:hit_with snowball

In ZZT-OOP, {direction} means one of: north, south, east, west, randomly, away from player, towards player, in the direction of current movement, etc. In Minecraft you also have up and down, as well as "along the minecart track", "towards the sun", and perhaps others. In a multiplayer scenario, "player" is ambiguous, so I guess it's the nearest visible player.

Some Minecraft-specific responses to stimuli:

Here's a perimeter trap.

:can_see zombie
"Zombie alert!"

Some bits of ZZT-OOP don't make sense in Minecraft because they assume that the world is relatively small and divided into screens. ZZT-OOP has global flags, and the only conditional you can write is "is this flag set"? I propose replacing the global flags with player flags. This lets you track a player's progress and simulate an RPG's "items too important to keep in your normal inventory". It also works in multiplayer.

Conditional statements: I'm undecided. I can think of three ways to go on this, but explaining them all seems boring. (I'm eliding boring stuff throughout, actually.) So for the time being, I'll follow ZZT-OOP, and allow an if statement to check player flags but nothing else.

Now it's time to talk about named stimuli. A named stimulus is one you give a custom name and send out whenever you want. Instead of giving an object code that's triggered by :can_see creeper, you can give it code that runs when some other object emits :i_am_completely_surrounded_by_obsidian.

In ZZT-OOP, the range of a message is the current screen. But Minecraft doesn't have screens. How far should a message travel? For that matter, on a large map with many objects, how many of those objects should be simulated? This wiki talk page indicates that a redstone circuit stops working if you get more than 281 blocks away. It seems fine to say that that's the maximum range of a message, and that objects further away from that won't have their code run.

Time to take a step back. ZZT-OOP is a very primitive language, but the system I laid out above is good enough to script objects that make adventure maps a lot more interesting. It's also useful when you're just playing around on a vanilla Minecraft map. You can program objects to build bridges, lay rail track, scout ahead to light up areas, or create computational sculpture.

To build one of these Object blocks outside creative mode, you'd need something like the Replicator block from last time. Call it the Assembler. You'd load code from a file on disk, and drop in an appropriate object for each line of code: grey wool for the stimulus :adjacent_to grey_wool, raw porkchop + gunpowder for the command spawn creeper. If your object was capable of destroying blocks, placing blocks, or exploding you'd also need to provide the appropriate tools or materials.

Once you put in the necessary items, the Assembler would output your Object, which you could place and it would go to work. The correspondence between resources and code opens up a whole new type of Minecraft puzzle: that of programming an object to do what you want, given limited resources.

So, there you go. I think this is pretty good. I just ripped off ZZT-OOP, but ZZT and Minecraft have a lot in common, so it works. Another option is to rip off Robotic, Megazeux's scripting language. I don't know Robotic, but it certainly has a more active community than ZZT-OOP. The language doesn't matter a whole lot. Really all you really need from the language is stimulus/response. The fun is in tying the language into the game world so that objects can act on it.

[Part 3]

[Comments] (1) Programmable Minecraft 1: Circuit Layout: I had two distinct kinds of ideas about making Minecraft more programmable, so I'm going to do two posts. (The end of this post explains why I was thinking about this.) This first post is all about circuit design. I'm not trying to get to Python or even ZZT-OOP here, just trying to pull Minecraft up from the "do your own wiring" level without betraying its aesthetic. I don't really build mechanisms in Minecraft because the primitives are so primitive. I got plenty of that in college. I suspect other people are in the same boat, or at least other boats in the same flotilla.

If you're really into redstone circuits then any of this stuff may, for you, betray the Minecraft aesthetic. If so, take heart, for I am not a Minecraft developer and I doubt anything like this will ever be implemented except in a mod, for performance reasons if nothing else. (Here are some mods with blocks for logic gates and basic digital functions.)

My second post will be about ways to programatically interact with the environment, and I think even purists will be able to appreciate that. For now, here are ideas for making circuit layout easier.

Infraredstone repeater: When this block receives a redstone or infraredstone signal on one side, it sends out an infraredstone signal on all other sides. Infraredstone works like redstone, but it's a beam that operates across line-of-sight, rather than a current through a wire. This makes wiring easier and can also be used to make electric eyes, since an intervening mob/opaque block will block the signal.

Logic gates: Don't make players build their own logic gates out of redstone and torches. Just provide them ready-made. Logic gates don't have to be ugly boxes labelled "AND" and "XOR". I really like how a redstone torch acts as a NOT gate. You could add objects to the game that happen to act as logic gates if you hook them up correctly. For instance, the infraredstone repeater, as described above, acts as an OR gate.

Data: Now it's gonna get heavy. I want you to imagine that data itself is an object in Minecraft. You can carry it around and put it in chests and hold it in your hand and dig holes in the dirt with it. Data has no use, but unlike other objects, which are stackable up to 64, data is stackable up to 255. This lets you carry around an eight-bit value in one slot.

How do you get data objects? One way is to use a:

Display: like a tiny chest for data. It has space for one eight-bit value, and on all sides of the block it displays its current value in a big font (using IBM's CP437 character set, like ZZT). You can right-click a display and use keyboard input to set its value to any keyboard-enterable character. If you chain multiple displays together, you can type more than one character at a time, as you can when placing a sign.

A display has an "input" side and an "output" side. If you stick a redstone torch on the "input" side of a display, a single data object will appear inside it, it will start showing a ☺ (character 01 in CP437), and the "output" side will go live with a redstone signal.

But instead of the 1-bit signals of normal redstone, a display block sends and receives data through an 8-bit data bus. Basically I'm increasing the bandwidth of redstone from one bit to eight. Existing equipment such as redstone repeaters will work on an 8-bit signal just as they currently work on a 1-bit signal. Instead of "1", a redstone torch sends "00000001". If you type an "A" into a Display, a stack of 65 data objects will be placed in it, and its output side will read "01000001". By the same token, if you open up a Display and dump a stack of 65 data objects into it, it will start reading "A".

Now that we have redstone data buses, we can support some more interesting blocks:

Multiplexer: Takes two redstone bus signals: "input" and "select", and outputs a redstone bus signal. A single-block multiplexer is useless and never outputs anything, but if you chain two of them together you get a 1-bit multiplexer whose "select" chooses between two input signals based on its low bit. You can chain together up to 256 multiplexer blocks to use all eight bits of the "select" signal.

Similarly, you can chain together up to 256 Demultiplexer blocks to make a demux. I originally proposed a Register block, but the Display is almost a register already--it just needs a "set" line so it doesn't change whenever its "input" line changes.

Perhaps at this point, even non-purists are thinking, "Leonard, all these fancy blocks are spoiling my enjoyment of Minecraft! I like laying out complicated circuits in three dimensions so that I can make a frigging flip-flop! Well, I don't like that, exactly, but I do like having a relatively small number of core blocks, and I don't like where this Multiplexer/Demultiplexer/Register business is going!"

That's why I'd like to introduce you to The Item World. I learned of this insane concept when Dr. Aaditya Rangan showed me the Disgaea series of RPGs. In Disgaea, you can go through a dungeon and kill a demon and collect a sword, just like in any other RPG. But only in Disgaea do strong magics exist that let you go inside the sword, where you'll find another dungeon full of demons, which you can kill to level up the sword.

The Item World is a crazy time-sink in an RPG, but it's a really useful time-sink when you need to lay out circuits. The circuit layout program I used in college had an Item World: you could lay out a circuit with logic gates, then zoom out a level and treat that circuit as a tiny black box in a larger circuit. Minecraft could do this too. Let's introduce a block called the:

Computer. When you place this block and right-click it, you're sent into a translucent 15x15x15 room which you can decorate as you see fit. You can build sophisticated mechanisms inside the Computer block, but to the outside world it looks like a single-block black box.

The bottom four rows of one wall form the display. By putting Display blocks on this wall, you can achieve the same effect as putting a sign on a block. Only here, the message on the sign can be dynamic. This lets you do display output and keyboard input.

Opposite the display wall is the input wall. If you send an 8-bit redstone signal to the side of the Computer block opposite the display, then inside the Computer, every block on the input wall will go live with that signal. Every other wall of the block is an output wall. An 8-bit signal sent to any block of that wall will leave the Computer and be emitted by the corresponding side of the Computer block. If you send more than one signal to an output wall, they get ANDed.

With Computer blocks you can implement a logic gate, a multiplexer, a demultiplexer, or a register in a single block, without adding any code to Minecraft itself. Of course, you can put one Computer block inside another. Since this will not actually be implemented, let's suppose you can nest Computer blocks to arbitrary depth.

Building a sophisticated system will still be a huge pain if you have to craft every AND gate by hand. So I'll also introduce a new crafting block, the:

Replicator. This device takes raw materials and produces a copy of its input. Non-redstone example: I want to make a torch. I drop an existing torch into the Replicator. It says: "Gimme 1 stick and 1 coal." I drop a stick and a coal into the Replicator, and it spits out a torch. That's stupid, but you get the idea. Now say I spent five hours building and debugging a Computer block that acts as a shift register. I want another shift register. I drop my Computer into the Replicator. It says "Gimme 861 redstone, 201 sticks, 52 wooden planks, 8 stone, 29 cobblestone, etc. etc. etc." I dump all that stuff in and it gives me another shift register.

OK, you get the idea. The next post in this series will take a much different tactic. I'll accept that circuit layout isn't going to get easier, and suggest some blocks that can be used to make fun maps that aren't currently possible.

[Part 2]

[Comments] (3) Deck-Building Wargame: I was talking to Pat about the hot new deck-building wargame A Few Acres Of Snow (great game title, BTW). I was at a conversational disadvantage since I've never played the game and didn't know anything about it other than "deck-building wargame". For discussion purposes I made up a game in my head that had nothing in common with the real game, and Pat said "that's totally wrong." BUT, I think the game I made up could be a really good game. All it requires is months of work and fine-tuning which I don't have time to do:

Picture a card-driven wargame like your Memoir '44. You have units on the board, and you draw cards that tell you which units you can move. Now picture Dominion, the original deck-building game, in which you buy cards that go into an endlessly recycled, ever-expanding deck. Now... imagine that your Dominion deck contains the orders for the units on your Memoir '44 board.

Now you have the war-torn chaos of Memoir '44, in which you can't fire your artillery because you don't have the card that lets you give the order, mitigated by the strategic buying of Dominion, with which you can choose to stock up on "fire the artillery" at the expense of other orders.

Units and orders are both for sale. Maybe orders are bought with "money" cards like Dominion, while units are put onto the board with special "deploy" cards. Maybe when you buy a unit you also get two or three different order cards for your deck. I don't know; months of work go here. But it would be a fun game, and hopefully someone's already done this, or will soon.

Bonus Mashup: spice up your Memoir '44 game by introducing the drafting mechanic from Seven Wonders. Pass two hands of seven cards back and forth, replenishing when you run out. Since this doesn't require months of work, Pat and I will actually be trying this, and I'll let you know how it goes.

[Comments] (2) Loaded Dice, Round 2: At Pat's suggestion I did some more number-crunching and put the results in Loaded Dice. First, check out Standard deviation of ratings over time. Although the average rating is higher for new games than for old games, the standard deviation is always about 0.8. That is: the average rating for any 1980 game is some number, plus or minus 0.8; and the average rating for any 2010 game is a slightly higher number, plus or minus 0.8. The range of opinion is surprisingly limited.

Also take a look at the huge new section on Ownership and the Trade Market, full of graphs and tables taken from BGG's information about how many people own a game, how many people want to own it, and how many want to get rid of it. Including but not limited to:

[Comments] (2) Loaded Dice: Last month I downloaded a bunch of data from BoardGameGeek's web service for use in an art project. I'll be announcing the art project soon, but today I'm announcing "Loaded Dice", a data-mining project using the same data.

I've been writing scripts that analyze the BGG data and produce interesting charts and tables. I'll keep adding stuff to these pages until I get bored with this data. I've put up thirteen experiments so far. Here are some highlights:

[Comments] (3) Dada Dwarf Dozens: Yesterday I was a guest critic for Adam's "Reading and Writing Electronic Text" class. His students are preparing their final projects (to be performed on May 6!), and the sight was inspiring. It made me want to bring back the randomness that has kind of been missing from my life recently. In a similar vein, Adam mentioned that his poem-a-day project came from seeing his students being really creative while he wasn't really doing much.

And so, Adam and I have decided to bring our generative creativity to bear even after the end of National Poetry Month, with a feature I like to call... whatever we decide to call it when we think of a name. The idea is that we'll trade off posting poems and other textual projects, each trying to outdo the other. It's kind of like Layer Tennis, except we won't be directly riffing on each others' work, just trying to put out the best texts. But hopefully my work will provide inspiration for Adam and vice versa.

Anyway, here's my first entry, "Dada Dwarf Dozens". I took the poignant internal monologues from Dwarf Fortress and turned them into incongruous "your mama" jokes.

"Price Fixing"
Your mama's so conceited, she has suffered the pain of having to give somebody water lately.
She's so lazy, she has complained of the lack of dining tables lately.
She's so fat, she has altered the prices of goods.

"Organization Is For Chumps"
Your mama's so dumb, she became a parent.
She's so lazy, she was overjoyed to be able to help somebody to bed lately.
She's so conceited, she tries to live a well-organized life.

"Backhanded Compliments"
Your mama's so stupid, she is interested only in facts and the real world.
She's so fat, she is easily moved to pity.
She's so dumb, she conducted a meeting in a good setting recently.

"No Shoes"
Your mama's so lazy, she was embarrassed to have no shoes lately.
She's so stupid, she loves new and fresh ideas.
She's so fat, she ate a legendary meal lately.

"Production Shortfall"
Your mama's so stupid, she was upset to have disappointed a noble lately.
She's so lazy, she was unable to request weapon production lately.
She's so conceited, she is open-minded to new ideas.

"Something Unpleasant"
Your mama's so ugly, she has been tired lately.
She's so stupid, she has mandated the construction of certain goods.
She's so ugly, she saw something unpleasant in a pond recently.

"It May Actually Be Stress"
Your mama's so stupid, she was forced to eat a beloved creature to survive lately.
She's so conceited, she is impervious to the effects of stress.
She's so lazy, she is quick to wink at others.

I got the values from the Dwarf Fortress binary using strings, but I should have just scraped that wiki page. Live and learn!

[Comments] (2) The Board Game Remix Kit: I imported the book of The Board Game Remix Kit from the UK. I probably should have bought the PDF instead because it's a really small book that, pound for pound, was rather expensive to import. But, what I didn't realize until I bought the book is that it's by Holly and Kevan! So, buy that sucker. It's a lot of rules for new games you can play with the pieces from other games that you're tired of. The one into which the most care was put is a game that turns Clue[do], the game with the most irrelevant pieces ever, into a tactical wargame where you fight zombies.

There's also (for instance) a game played with Monopoly title cards that's suspiciously like our Man Bites Dog game remix. The whole thing makes me glad Sumana accepted that Trivial Pursuit game from Beth when Beth was moving. ("Dadaist Pursuit: ...every other player turns over their top card and selects the funniest answer from those printed on it...")

[Comments] (5) : Last weekend I went up to Boston to work with Julia and Kirk on the Constellation Games synopsis. Rather than complaining about the publication process, let me tell you that on Sunday Kirk and I drove up to New Hampshire. (Here's Kirk's take, with pictures.) I thought this was a big deal, but I'd forgotten that when you start in Boston, New Hampshire isn't all that far away.

Our destination was Funspot, home of the "American Classic Arcade Museum", which is actually just a functional arcade. Like, imagine that bookstores continue going out of business, until you find yourself running one of ten large bookstores in the entire country. At that point, it might make sense to rename your bookstore the "American Classic Bookstore Museum".

Funspot does have some old games of particular historical interest, like Death Race, the first game to start a "wait a minute, those pixels look like a person!" moral panic. But, they also have Skee-Ball and bad pizza. And there's nothing explaining the importance of Death Race. Suffice to say I'm a little dubious about the "museum" idea.

But they do have over 200 old arcade games, organized by manufacturer, so, seriously, enough complaining. It was great! Kirk and I played just about every two-player simultaneous game they had, including classic shoots-em-up like Contra and Heavy Barrel, as well as good old Joust. We had worse luck with Marble Madness and Xenophobe.

I was also surprised to see Donkey Kong II, since that game doesn't exist. I invested a token and quickly discovered that it's actually a brutally difficult ROM hack, put into an arcade cabinet as a cruel prank. It turns out I'm not very good at any of these games (Kirk is really good at selected games, like Pengo), but I think it's safe to say that Donkey Kong II is only for those who relish a challenge.

I'd heard lots of people talk about how much better Asteroids looks on an original vector screen than on a CRT or LCD, and kind of written them off as snobs. But I guess I have to write myself off now, because Asteroids on a vector screen looks awesome.

We arrived in Funspot on the same day as a reunion of the General Computer Corporation, the company that sold unlicensed hacks of arcade games in the early 80s, under the assumption that no one would ever successfully serve a subpoena on the "general computer corporation". That didn't work out so well, but they went legit after one of their hacks was turned into Ms. Pac-Man. Now, reunion time: lots of middle-aged engineers and their spouses.

I remembered that Ned Batchelder used to work at the General Computer Corporation, so I looked around for him at Funspot, but he wasn't there and he confirms he'd never heard of the reunion—I guess they didn't invite the summer interns.

[Comments] (4) Pac-Man vs. Fever: After Sumana bought the Wii for our household, breaking my long sojourn away from the world of closed-source video games, I did some catch-up work. I looked online to see which Gamecube games people had really liked, and bought a bunch of used games cheaply. My research was cursory, involving the application of simple heuristics like "are the words in this top-ten list spelled correctly?" and "is this not a one-on-one fighting game?"

Which is how I ended up buying Pac-Man vs. (heuristic: a Pac-Man game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto?!?!!) before learning about its draconian hardware requirements. It's best as a four-player game, so you need four controllers. But only three of those controllers are Gamecube controllers. The fourth controller is another computer: a Game Boy Advance connected to the Gamecube (or, in this case, the Wii) with a special cable.

So that's a) a Game Boy Advance, b) a special cable, c) three Gamecube controllers (I had one), d) three other people nerdy enough to put up with all this for the sake of a Pac-Man game.

OK, it's just a game, I'm out five dollars, no big deal. (The disc I got is actually the bonus pack-in bundled with Pac-Man World 2, a game so awful that its main purpose in life is to drive down prices of the bundle for people who want Pac-Man vs..) But then I met Pat Rafferty. One day Pat was browsing through my Gamecube games looking for stuff to borrow and never give back. When he saw Pac-Man vs. he mentioned that he had played it, and that it had been one of the greatest gaming experiences of his life. What's more, at his parents' house in upstate New York he had a Game Boy Advance and the connecting cable.

I treated allegations of these "parents" who had exactly the now-obsolete hardware necessary to play Pac-Man vs. with the kind of skepticism I usually reserve for supposed Canadian girlfriends (and the supposed American girlfriends of my Canadian friends). I mean, if Lake Ontario had formed a little to the south, upstate New York would be Canada. Why wouldn't Pat show me his birth certificate?

It didn't help when after Pat's next visit to his "parents' house" he conveniently "forgot" to bring back the goods. But, recently, he reported that he'd made another trip, and this time he had the hardware. Pat also owns two wireless Gamecube controllers to my one, so now it was just a matter of finding two other players.

After some false alarms, we finally got it set up yesterday, at the Manhattan apartment of Pat's friend Kevin. By this time Pac-Man vs. had acquired Lucky Wander Boy-like status in my mind due to the difficulty of even playing it. But unlike Lucky Wander Boy, Pac-Man vs. is a really well-designed game.

Here's how it works. The player with the Game Boy Advance plays Pac-Man on the Game Boy Advance. Looks just like regular Pac-Man, except instead of four ghosts (or whatever), there are three. The other three players look at the television and each controls one of the ghosts.

On the television, each ghost sees a rendered isometric view of their part of the maze. The person playing Pac-Man can see the whole maze, because that's how you play Pac-Man. The ghosts have to coordinate to trap Pac-Man and clobber him.

In an event with great implications for Pac-Man continuity, the ghost who's able to clobber Pac-Man becomes Pac-Man for the next round. Whoever made the kill gets off the couch and swaps places with the person who has the Game Boy Advance. Eventually one of the players plays a good enough game of Pac-Man to exceed some point threshold, and they are dubbed the winner. Then you immediately play another round because it's real fun.

Was it worth it? Well, I don't know whether it would have been worth buying all this gear, but it was definitely worth patience in waiting for everything to come together. Now, if I could only get Four Swords to work...

Man Bites Dog: Now Fun!: Kevan and Holly are here! They brought Sumana and me some games as gifts, including Man Bites Dog, a deck of cards with common New York Post-style headline words like "FEDS", "CROOKED", and "BLASTS". There are also some rules for a game, but upon reading the rules we came to the same conclusion as Board Game Geek reviewers ("it is totally about luck", mean rating 4.74 out of 10). Instead of playing, we started experimenting to try to make a more fun game using the same cards. Here's what we eventually came up with.

Everyone gets five cards, and when you play a card you draw back up to five. Everyone scans their hand looking for a word that can be a headline all by itself, like "HERO" or "TERROR". If you've got one, play it in the center of the board. If no one has one, exchange cards until someone does.

Your goal is to make magic squares of headlines: an NxN grid of headlines that can be read either horizontally or vertically. You start off with a 1x1 magic square:


Now play proceeds clockwise from whoever played the first card. Play three additional cards around the first one to make a 2x2 magic square:


Now you've got four front-page Post headlines: "HERO COP", about a heroic cop, "DRUGS CRAZY", about someone who really likes drugs, "HERO DRUGS", about new lifesaving drugs, and "COP CRAZY", which might be about a crazy cop or about someone who's crazy for cops.

Now do it again. Build around two of the edges to make a 3x3 magic square. You're free to play a card on top of a card already played if you really need to get rid of a problematic word, but in general you should just fill in the two new edges. Here's a 3x3 square I made up--you can see there are now nine headlines.


That's "Attacks Rare: Czar", clearly some kind of Homeland Security thing. I don't recommend playing to ensure the diagonals also work, but you can often find something fun by reading them, like "INDICTED DRUGS CZAR" in this case.

Fill in another two edges to get a 4x4 magic square, and then another two to get a 5x5 square. You've won! Laugh and learn. There is no way and no reason to keep score.

The fun of newspaper headlines, as longtime readers of either this weblog or Language Log know, stems from the fact that they've given up the short words that let you figure out what the longer words mean. In a crossword puzzle, a letter can be used in two different words. By making a crossword puzzle out of headline words, a word can be in two different headlines and pleasingly mean different things each time.

We tried a number of crossword variations, but we liked the magic square version the best. At every stage you end up with valid headlines, and the headlines grow over the course of the game, from "HERO" to "HERO COP" to "INDICTED HERO COP" to "INDICTED HERO COP NAKED" to "INDICTED HERO COP NAKED AGAIN". At the end you have a compact mass of silliness.

So, that's our variant. You can make your own MBD deck by picking nouns and verbs from actual headlines, a process that if automated would keep the game fresh and topical. I would also really like to see a magic square made from four or five real headlines.

[Comments] (2) It's All Fun And Games: Check out REDDER, the psychotropic game with the palindromic name. I'm a big fan of the strange effect that happens as you play, but I won't mention too much to avoid whatever passes for spoilers when it comes to strange gameplay effects.

Incomprehensible Joke:

S: "I always wondered what would happen if you put a disc in the Wii the wrong way."
L: "It shows a Koopa Troopa on its back."

[Comments] (1) You gained "cows" and "hate"!: Hey, check out the Global Game Jam entry of Adam Parrish et al, Humans Hanging Out. A matching game in which you must pass the Turing test against opponents who can't pass the Turing test. Some luck is involved, but once you figure out the underlying rules you can win pretty consistently. (It helps to sniff the Flash application's Ajax requests to the web service.) Unfortunately, when you win the game you get a screen that's much more disturbing than what you get when you lose.

PS: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the game includes another sweet Adam P. chiptune.

[Comments] (2) Underrepresented in Wargames #2: I'm not a big player of wargames[0] but I like the idea of dramatizing interesting historical situations and/or exploring their tactical aspects. Especially the tactical aspects of non-military conflicts like protests, standoffs, and political struggles. After posting about UATWM! I mentioned this to Sumana, and spent a couple hours searching BoardGameGeek for wargames on such topics.

By the standard of interesting wargame topics, Ted Torgerson is our favorite game designer. He created Dawn of Freedom, a Twilight Struggle mod (?) that includes a Tiananmen Square track (not really tactical, but oh well), and Free At Last, a wargame about the civil rights movement. ("If the Non-violence track reaches Non-Violence Abandoned at the end of any game turn, the segregationist player wins the game.")

There are two games about the 1999 WTO protests: Battle Of Seattle and the longer-named N30: We Are Winning: The Battle of Seattle. Steve Jackson Games also published a tactical game about the 1980 attempt to free the American hostages in Iran.

In my experience a BoardGameGeek list is a fractal timesink as bad as TV Tropes, so instead of linking to "Wargames with Odd or Special Units" and "Overlooked but Important Battles" I'll just mention their names. If you go look at them, it's your own fault.

[0] But my current not-a-big-player state includes contingent factors like a lack of space to store games and a lack of friends who want to play them. In 2008 I played some Memoir '44 with Brendan and had a good time.

[Comments] (2) She-Hulk Tie-In: When I was in Boston Kirk showed me a few of his favorite games of the 2000s, including the Gamecube tie-in game for the Incredible Hulk movie. Kirk mentioned how he liked the game's dreamlike atmosphere of running up the sides of buildings, throwing helicopters, etc.

I was not as impressed. But this entry is not about how difficult it is to impress me. Instead I wanted to share my awesome idea for a She-Hulk tie-in game. It would be a courtroom adventure game like Phoenix Wright, except funnier and with the occasional fit of smashing. I can almost taste it--the only thing preventing me is the fact that video games generally have no flavor. It's such a great idea it would almost be worth having a terrible She-Hulk movie made so that this game could be the tie-in.

Game Time:

: Origin of Mother 3's save frogs--revealed! Even if you don't know or care about Mother 3, check out the song's cute lyrics.

[Comments] (2) Apples to Whatever: I came up with another AtA (or A2A, as we in the enterprise game business call it) variant: "Apples to Placebos". Unlike vanilla Apples to Apples, Apples to Placebos can be play with only two or three people. In each round, the non-judge players play a red card to be judged, but their cards must compete against random cards from the draw pile. The judge draws one (three players) or two (two players) placebo cards from the draw pile, shuffles them into the submitted cards, and then judges the cards normally. If the judge picks one of the placebo cards, nobody gets the point.

Bonus: from the A2A game at the New Years party last night: "I just realized that 'The IRS' spells 'Theirs'. I feel like a stand-up comic should have pointed this out to me long ago. 'Where'd my money go? It's not mine anymore, it's TheIRS.'"

My original Apples to Apples variant is still the best way to end a game of A2A--proved, yet again, last night.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Multimedia: Welcome to this gala end-of-end-of-year event. First off, it's a special presentation of The year in Internet video:

Film: I don't watch a lot of movies. I think I only went to the theater four times in 2009: to see "Star Trek", "Moon", "My Winnipeg", and "Ponyo". Most of the time Sumana and I watch movies at home. That said, the Movie of the Year is "University of Laughs", a 2004 Japanese movie that I've been looking for since 2005. (We eventually imported it from Yes Asia for an exorbitant sum.) It's an awesome film. Like, imagine "The Five Obstructions", except instead of Lars von Trier playing a funny prank on you, it's a police censor and your livelihood is on the line. And the film is hilarious. We saw it with Lucian and couldn't stop laughing. Between this movie and "Game Center CX", I'm coming to appreciate how dependent is Japanese humor on body language. Truly, this is the real secret of manzai.

Runner-up: the thematically similar "The Lives of Others", which won a lot of awards and you probably don't need me telling you how great it is. If for some reason you demand that I give the 2009 award to a film released in 2009, then I give it to "Moon", despite its huge plot holes.

Television: After Battlestar Galactica ended in disaster, I watched only one TV show: the ultimate Sumana/Leonard guilty pleasure, USA Network's Psych. The show's silliness continually breaks the fourth wall and the old dictum how "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage". The "Tonight's Episode" episode titles are the clear spray-on preservative that gives the icing on the cake its gloss.

Food: Is food a "medium"? I say yes, and give appreciation for three New York restaurants that started in 2009 (or very late 2008): Vesta and Bare Burger here in Astoria, and Dos Toros (Mission-style taqueria!) near Union Square.

Books: I read 88 books in 2009 if you count the one I created, which I'm going to because that means I read exactly twice as many books as in 2008. I made a special effort to read more books this year, and it definitely succeeded. The Book of the Year is "Mason & Dixon" by Thomas Pynchon. Reread of the Year: my mother's copy of Stephen Jay Gould's "Bully for Brontosaurus", the book that originally introduced me to evolutionary theory (a ringer, it was practically my only reread of the year). "The Complete Dying Earth" was amazingly fun, as mentioned earlier. I also had a really good time with two espionage books: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Zimmerman Telegram".

I can recommend two books from 2009 that you've never heard of. First, "Monday Begins on Saturday" by the Strugatsky brothers, obtained from Susan McCarthy. Second, "A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which sat on my wishlist for 4 years after I heard about it on Crooked Timber. It's a book where I start every tenth paragraph thinking "This is it, the purplest prose ever, there's no way Fermor can pull out of this nosedive!" and by the end of the paragraph I'm like "Good show, old chap! Pip-pip, what?"

Worst book that I read all the way through in 2009: Reward for Retief, one of Keith Laumer's last novels. (My LibraryThing review: "Man, what a train wreck. Give us more Groaci!") I read it all the way through because I'm a Retief completist and because I admired Laumer for continuing to write after his stroke. Objectively speaking, he should have stopped in the mid-80s, but I'm sure he needed the money. Keeping a midlist author on your publication rolls as he passes his prime is not the most efficient method of wealth transfer, but it's a time-honored one.

I read about 150 individual short stories (ie. not part of collections), from magazines, writing group, and the TE slush pile. There is no Short Fiction of the Year this year because I recuse myself for conflict of interest. Also I can't really think of one, though you can't go wrong with Jack Cady's "The Night We Buried Road Dog".

Video games: I was talking about this with Kirk. Here's the thing. When I read a book, even a book I don't like, I learn something about writing. But when I play a video game, even a good game, I don't usually learn much about game design. There's probably fifty games I spent at least an hour playing in 2009, but I can only think of one that was both as stylistically interesting and as viscerally enjoyable as, say, "A Time of Gifts".

People who love movies might make a similar distinction. There are really interesting movies, there are really enjoyable movies, and every once in a while there's a movie with crossover appeal, the first movie to tell a really fun story using some previously introduced innovation. I think comparing video games and movies is a sucker's game so that's as far as I'm going to take this analogy.

When I think of 2009 games that are pure fun I think of a lot of entries in series: the "Metal Slug" anthology I picked up, "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" in multiplayer, Mega Man 9, the DS Grand Theft Auto game (I really love sandbox games, but most 3D first-person games make me nauseous, so I liked having a modern GTA I could physically play). All of these games combine a close allegiance to some longstanding series with solid implementation and attention to detail. I also think of "Retro Game Challenge" and my "Cave Story" replay, games that are just a collection of well-executed callbacks to older games.

When I think of games I that have a lot of innovation I think of "Scribblenauts", an amazingly creative game that has huge, huge conceptual and implementation problems. I think of "Barkley: Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden", a game that presents a deadpan sarcasm I can't remember seeing outside of interactive fiction, but objectively speaking not a game I want to play all the way through. I think of "Treasure World", a game that I was obsessed with for a couple weeks but which is not technically a game at all.

"Spelunky" is the only game I played in 2009 that I would consider fully successful in both enjoyment and innovation. It took the least popular aspects of roguelike games (permadeath and extreme dependence on randomness) and made them crowd-pleasers by incorporating them into a preexisting genre (super-difficult platformer), introducing roguelike replayability to people who hate ASCII graphics and turn-based keyboard controls.

The fact that I'm describing Spelunky in terms of other games and genres implies that it's not all that innovative. But creativity is almost always the combination of two preexisting things. The ideas in this year's innovative titles will be synthesized into 2011's crossover hits which will lead into 2015's soulless cash-cows.

OK, time to start work on the New Year's Eve party. Happy new year!

Year-End Cleanup Audio Bonus #1: More Scribbles, More Troubles : Before posting The Trouble With Scribbles I cut out a couple minutes due to the then-active embargo on public discussion of IF Competition entries. Now that the competition is over and Adam's "Earl Grey" has taken 5th place, you can legitimately hear me and Adam compare "Scribblenauts" and "Earl Grey".

Games That End With Your Suicide: Indie game trend of the year? I played four games in 2009 that end with the PC committing suicide or that won't end until the player kills the PC. Not to be all SPOILERy about it, but they were Every Day the Same Dream, Small Worlds, Don't Look Back, and Fathom[0]. These are just the (relatively) big names, the ones I saw on Play this Thing or Waxy. 2008's Karoshi Suicide Salaryman treated the topic lightly by making suicide a game mechanic, but in 2009 it was serious art.

Objectively speaking, this ending sucks. The only time I found it satisfying was in "Don't Look Back", which only has a suicide in the most technical sense. (I liked "Small Worlds" a lot, but thought the ending was a cop-out.) That's a 25% success rate, much worse than well-established indie game features like procedural generation and zombies.

I can see the attraction from an artistic standpoint: every PC death in a game is in some sense a suicide, because you could have done something different in-game, or not played the game at all. And you gotta end your game somehow, preferably in a way that separates your game from all the commercial projects. But the end of a game is always a cut scene, a place where interaction stops. And deciding what to put in a cut scene isn't a game-y choice. So I don't think you're saying much about games when you do this; you're just associating your game with a certain kind of film.

The suicide game is a subgenre of games that explore the meaning of death, or the relationship between the PC who just died and the PC you're controlling now. Death in real life is horrible, permanent, and it comes for everyone; in games it's a minor setback that can theoretically be avoided altogether. In 2008's Cursor*10, the PC's inevitable death and the player's inevitable trying again was a fun game mechanic. In 2009 we have Queens, Free Will: The Game, Lose/Lose, and a fourth game I can't remember the name of. It was a space shooter, like Lose/Lose, and it recorded your playthroughs and created ghosts, racing-game style, which you had to fight on subsequent playthroughs. (Something like that; I admit I didn't play it.) This was cool because the PC's death was a real mechanic that affected the next playthrough; it was the opposite of Cursor*10.[1]

My gaming wish for 2010: a game that looks like it's going to end with the PC's suicide, but instead at the crucial moment recreates the "WOW! YOU LOSE!" cutscene from "Bokosuka Wars". 'Cause that's how this game-ending technique makes me feel.

[0] This one's arguable, but "white light gets brighter and brighter until it obscures the entire screen, and that's the end" is common film shorthand for death. What's not arguable is that this ending sucks.

I also did not play, but watched a video of someone playing the impossibly hard platformer Super Ear Man Bros., another game that won't end until you kill the PC. This ending also sucks, but at least it's funny.

[1] I vaguely remember a sassy "ha, you can only play this game once because now the PC is dead" game from the 1990s, but I think it had no existence outside my own head. Good thing, too. There's also the infamous SMB1 hack "Air", where at one point you have to kill yourself to warp to an otherwise inaccessible checkpoint. I can't think of other predecessors, but I'm sure they're there.

[Comments] (1) : Oh, also: every time I go to the Met I mean to look up the game being played by the little statue dudes. This time I did it: the game is Liubo, and it doesn't seem like a very interesting game, despite some very Pavel Chekov-esque claims that Liubo was exported to India and underwent radical changes to become the ancestor to chess.

(The photo currently on the Wikipedia page is of the board from the Met that I see every time I go.)

[Comments] (6) The Trouble With Scribbles: On Monday, Adam Parrish came over and we recorded a conversation about Scribblenauts, the video game that's sweeping the nation with a large cartoon broom. (For the uninitiated, this Penny Arcade should do the trick.) We focused on 1) topics in game design, 2) silliness. I cut the long, long conversation down to 45 minutes and the result is "The Trouble With Scribbles", the latest in the irregular series of non-podcasts. Thrill! As we:

Plus: complaining, and pterodactyls with ropes attached to them. Includes spoilers for Scribblenauts and Nethack.

We also talked a little about Adam's entry in the IF competition, but I cut it out because competitors are still embargoed from talking about their games. I'll post it separately later.

Errata: 1. In vanilla Nethack you can't sharpen a weapon on a flint stone. There are also no creatures who can eat rock, so the code I mentioned never gets executed. 2. In Scribblenauts, you can get a generic fish-as-food by typing "fish"--but no human will eat it. 3. "Machinima" is pronounced with a soft "ch" and a long "e". 4. Nobelium's half-life depends on the isotope, but they're all pretty short. 5. There's a Scribblenauts level where the Penny Arcade trick is a winning strategy.

[Comments] (1) : Fans of The Future: A Retrospective will remember that I was really taken by the idea of a model train set in a briefcase. The same organ was tickled by this mini LEGO castle inside a wooden chest.

In other news, the 2009 IF Competition games are released, including "Earl Grey", a crazy game co-written by Adam Parrish and beta-tested by yours truly.

[Comments] (5) Video Game Soundtrack Medleys: Sumana was watching one of those videos where people play medleys of classic video game soundtracks on non-electronic instruments. I think this time it was a string quartet. Not to get all Viral Video Film School on you, but after watching a number of these videos I've discovered the two essential ingredients to a video game soundtrack medley:

Other than that, you can do whatever you want. I was trying to figure out the value proposition here--do people like these videos because the songs are great, or is it just nostalgia? A question with an obvious answer, and I'm not even gonna try to be contrarian: some of the songs are legitimately great, but it's nostalgia.

Argument one: some of the songs are in fact terrible. The Legend of Zelda overworld theme is in most of these medleys, and it's a bad song. It's a theme with no variations, an annoying ripoff of Ravel's famously annoying Bolero (I believe they wanted to use Bolero but couldn't get the rights.) No one enjoys that song except insofar as it makes them think of a fun game.

Second, these videos are videos, and they often have some prop-comedy component where people cosplay and/or act out scenes from the games. Nobody does that for other music performances. Maybe they should, but they don't. (I gotta make an exception for Frank Zappa, who often did strange things while conducting.)

But the reason I started seriously wondering about this is that none of these medleys have any songs from the original Metroid game. Why is that? It's a very well-known game from the same era and the same publisher as the first Zelda and Mario games. It's got one of the best and deepest soundtracks in video game history. So why not include it? Maybe because it's a little more hardcore than Mario and Zelda, so it won't give as many people the nostalgic thrill.

Similarly for the Mega Man series, which no one would deny had excellent music, albeit more poppy and less classical (but therefore more accessible) than Metroid. The password entry theme from MM3 came up on our media player today and we were transfixed. The password entry theme, folks. Anyway, a big-name game with great music, but a little too hardcore to push the average person's nostalgia buttons.

You don't watch these videos to be exposed to new music. I'm not expecting people to put songs from Earthbound in their video game soundtrack medleys (though they should). But I think if you put some Metroid in your medley you'd be pleasantly surprised by the audience reaction.

I did find one excellent live performance of Metroid music. It doesn't fit my theory because it's 1) not a medley, and 2) full of synths and electric guitars, but on the plus side it features composer Hip Tanaka himself--I think that's him on lead guitar. I guess that's pure upside, there.

PS: I declare the comments a place to link to or cite cool reinterpretations of video game music. I'll start with this well-known but awesome acoustic version of the Wind Waker title theme.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1984/05: This was a quick one because the bulk of the issue is the first 25% of Vernor Vinge's The Peace War. It's a pretty good novel but I've already read it, and if you want to read it it's easier to just buy the novel.

What else is there of note? Two things: David Brin's speculative nonfiction "The Deadly Thing at 2.4 Kilo-Parsecs", which I remember reading online but can't find now, and Allison Tellure's story "Low Midnight", which has cool sea monsters. That's it, really. But! I love the ads in old Analog! They've got lots of ads for role-playing and computer games. I took pictures of my favorites and put them up for you. Highlights:

[Comments] (5) : We got a Wii Fit with our credit card points and I gotta say it was a good deal. I've always hated exercise and I still hate it, but Wii Fit taught me that exercise is just like grinding in an RPG. You do something boring and repetitive for long enough and a number will change a little bit. And so I'll do the thing I hate, obsessively, just to get that number to change. Currently my favorite activity is jogging in place, because I can watch Internet videos while I jog. I'm jogging over an hour a day now.

But the thing I wanted to tell you about was the Ben Sisko experiment. See, probably the worst thing about Wii Fit is the way the balance board is anthropomorphized as a super-passive-aggressive coach, the embodiment of the reason why I exercise in private, away from the judgemental glare of society. In fact there's an Internet video about this. Sumana and I both dislike the balance board with its chirpy voice and wanted to see if there was anything we could do that would make it angry or otherwise make it break character.

An experiment was carried out where we added one of our spare Miis to Wii Fit. We chose Ben Sisko (pictured) because he's the coolest. Then we weighed in as Ben on alternate days. I weigh about 100 pounds more than Sumana. So day-to-day, Ben's weight fluctuated by about 100 pounds. When Sumana went on a business trip I replaced her with a heavy box. How did the anthropomorphized balance board react?

Totally unflappable. "You've gained/lost 100 pounds since last time!" I was hoping for "Hey, you weigh the same as one of my other tormentees!" or at least "HOLY SHIT, DID YOU SAW OFF YOUR LEGS?" But no. It just congratulated us.

The best part is that Ben Sisko would be seriously underweight if he weighed the same as Sumana. So whenever Sumana weighed in, the ABB would invite him to set a goal where he gained some weight. Then the next day, when I weighed in, "That's incredible! You've... you've reached your goal ahead of schedule!" And so on with Sumana "losing" weight for Ben.

I could say that this trickery was the most fun part of the game, and it's certainly the most interesting, but honestly it was a pain to weigh in twice each day just to keep fooling the ABB. So I think the experiment is over now. Ben was also useful as a testbed for questions like "what is the worst Wii Fit age you can possibly get?" (75)

[Comments] (1) : While I polish off those fictional Twitter posts, my sister Susanna weighs in on the Nostalgiaudit:

Thanks for saving me from having to write a NYCB post today, Susanna!

[Comments] (1) Nostlagiaudit, Part II: Previously on Nostalgiaudit, I explained how I got hooked on electronic simulations of impossible scenarios, and how I was eventually given specialized hardware to feed that addiction. This time around, I take a look at the aftermath, and then give a detailed analysis of the years I lost to the NES.

Update: I've removed one of the stories about how I was a jerk when I was a kid, by way of apology to the person affected.

Later arcades

A corner store near the middle school had Smash TV. CJ and Ivan and I would stop occasionally and admire its hamhanded satire of consumerism. I never had the money to play it.

Throughout junior high one or another of my classes would take trips to a bowling alley in Bakersfield. Two trips a year, maybe. Instead of bowling I spent most of my time hanging out alone in the small arcade, playing Arkanoid and Ms. Pac-Man. Well, I probably didn't spend that much time in the arcade because that would have required more money than a couple dollars, but I remember the arcade better than the bowling.

I remember watching CJ and Ivan play the four-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade brawler at a laundromat in Bakersfield, while we waited for CJ's mom to pick something up. Arvin was not so small that you had to drive twenty miles to get groceries, but you did have to drive twenty miles to get something dry cleaned. I didn't join in because I didn't like that kind of game.

End of the NES

Early in 1991--probably in April or May, maybe in June when school let out--I suddenly stopped playing my NES. Of the NES games released in 1991, I've played only three. I admired the Super NES during my Target visits, but I never wanted one or asked for one. Same with the Game Boy.

My last issue of Nintendo Power was probably the August 1991 issue, which makes sense if I had two one-year subscriptions. The March issue was the last to feature any games I've played. I read Nintendo Power on its own without asking for or renting any of the games, and then I let my subscription lapse.

I don't know why this happened. In an earlier draft I suggested my father's death might have been the trigger, but I got the dates mixed up--my father died in 1992. Maybe it was puberty, or maybe I was just bored with NES-style games. Cartridges weren't getting any cheaper, and by 1991 I had competition for my pocket money: the Prodigy dial-up service and an endless series of $20 AD&D rulebooks.

I'd still been buying PC games at retail. I remember playing Rampage a lot, and Marble Madness. They weren't as good as the corresponding NES games, but they were much cheaper.

I'd also been buying disks of shareware games from various places: a factory outlet store in Barstow, the Association of Shareware Professionals catalog, etc. Most of the games were crap, but I made three lucky discoveries. In 1990 I bought a disk of the Adventure Game Toolkit, and a disk that included an early version of Hack. In 1992 in Barstow I bought a disk with ZZT on it.

(I loved the idea of the ASP so much that in 1990 I wrote fifteen terrible GW-BASIC games and other programs, each ending with a nagging shareware registration message, and sent a disk off to the ASP so they'd distribute it and I could rake in the dough. I got a letter that said they'd given my program to someone to review, and then I got another letter politely declining my contribution to the shareware world. Among the reasons given: the fact that my disk contained the Microsoft-copyrighted GWBASIC.EXE, and most painful of all, "Programs appear to have no defining purpose." Thankfully, my GW-BASIC programs have by now ascended to software heaven and cannot be found on the material plane.)

In late 1992 I learned about BBSes. Within a month I was neglecting the Prodigy boards in favor of local BBSes. By the beginning of 1993 I was planning my own BBS. I launched it in 1993 and directed my game-collecting expertise towards stocking it with shareware. After this I bought some of SSI's AD&D games, a collection of Infocom games, and I registered some shareware games, but not until 2007 would I again buy video games on a regular basis.

I don't know what happened to my NES or the cartridges. I'm pretty sure they were still in the house somewhere when I left for college, but a couple years into college when I wanted them back they were gone, and my mother vague about what had happened to them. Hopefully everything was given to some younger kid who put it to good use. It's also possible I just took the NES apart--in high school I often took things apart to see what was inside, often destroying things I would have valued later.

From my mother's perspective, the NES and video games in general were something I'd grown out of. I'd lost interest only a year and a half after getting my own NES. My sister's obsession with The Nutcracker lasted about that long. And that's not a bad point of view. I was still interested in computer games, but my interest in specialized gaming computers wouldn't resurface until the Wii was released, fifteen years later.

After high school

I briefly rediscovered console games in college, in the form of emulated NES and SNES games, but I was busy with other entertainments--writing music, learning about Unix, and exploring the Internet. One of my freshman year roommates had an N64, and I played Bomberman with the guys a couple times, but I hardly ever played games, and when I did they were PC games like Nethack or Command and Conquer.

My sophomore year of college, my friend Andy Schile gave me an Atari 2600 and a bunch of games. I thought this was a cool gift, I played the games for a few days, and then I disconnected the 2600 and put it in storage at my mother's house. In 2005 I found it again and passed it on to another friend, Adam Kaplan.

Here's one theory about why I lost interest. After graduating from high school I went on a vacation to Washington D.C. and stayed with my uncle. My cousins also had an N64 and I played some Super Mario 64 and even a bit of Ocarina of Time, but it didn't stick with me. Why? Because these games had a first-person perspective, and I couldn't handle that. I grew up with two-dimensional side- or top-view games and I just wasn't dextrous enough to maneuver in 3D. As a PC gamer I was terrible at Wolfenstein and Doom, even though they didn't really require moving in three dimensions, just mastering a first-person perspective. In the 90s more and more games went to first-person, and I reacted by just not playing the games.

NES cartridge audit

This list was the original point of this essay: an attempt to classify my scattered memories of specific games. The essay part came out of my growing realization that there were a whole lot of auxillary memories and non-NES experiences that needed to be put into place.

I realized something while compiling this list: when I was a kid, I almost never had a bad experience playing an NES game. I played games now considered among the system's worst (Deadly Towers, Super Pitfall), games that today are fuel for snarky entertainment, but I generally had a good time playing them. I didn't know enough to hold the assumption, prevalent today, that a game should be beatable by a skilled player and that games existed to be beaten. I thought a game was a simulated world for playing in. When a game started to frustrate me, I just turned it off and played something else. My only bad experiences came from wasting a rental on a terrible game.

Games I owned

By and large these are the games that I had to own, because they were too complicated to rent and my friends didn't want to play them. You can build up a pretty good idea of the kind of kid I was from this list. For instance, I'm a science fiction guy now, but back then I really loved high fantasy.

[Comments] (2) Nostalgiaudit, Part 1: OK, I started getting people I don't know asking me about "Nostalgiaudit", so I'm just gonna post the whole essay. This thing is longer than "Awesome Dinosaurs" and a lot less interesting, so feel free to skip it if you're not interested. I'll post it in two parts so that it's less to read in one chunk.

Premise: although video games feature in some of my most vivid memories of my childhood, the memories themselves are a disjointed, jumbled mess with no overarching narrative. I wrote this essay to put things in chronological order, to see how my interest in video games developed in childhood and temporarily flared out as I entered adolescence. And in the process, hopefully capture some more general information from the tattered remnant of my memory.

Names and dates are as best I can remember them, names in some cases backed up by old yearbooks. I've tried to omit any information my childhood friends might not want published on the Internet, and partially or wholly redacted some names. Although I'm pretty unsparing of my own childish attitudes (see esp. Ultima II, and my relationship with Sammy C.), I've tried to be more generous towards other people.

Earliest memories

My very first video gaming memory is of watching my cousin Brian play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man at my grandmother's house. It was probably sometime in 1982--maybe just after Brian's birthday or Christmas. You might not think of this as an auspicious memory, because the 2600's Pac-Man was a disaster, but I didn't know from Pac-Man. I was three years old. I saw a world on my grandmother's previously dull television, and my cousin manipulating that world from outside.

My second memory is of being in an arcade without any money. I was five, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and I was allowed to briefly wander through an arcade in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center as we walked to the Chinese restaurant we'd be eating at.

The year was 1985, and it was one of the old-school arcades that don't exist anymore. It was loud and dark and I was short. I watched someone play Donkey Kong. I watched the attract mode from Pengo. I had no quarter to spend and I only spent a couple minutes in the arcade, but I was hooked. Much to my parents' dismay, video games were now a part of my life.

Around the same time my mother acquired a Hewlett-Packard computer for some contract work she was doing (for HP itself?). I'm not sure what the work was but it involved a piece of software called FALCON. My great-aunt LeJeune, who worked at HP, also sent along two floppy disks of games. One of them had hangman and other somewhat pointless games, including one where you typed in how many tacos you think you could eat and the computer boasted that that's nothing, its brother could eat N+2 tacos. Not really a fair game. I played the hell out of these games through kindergarten, never even looking at the other disk.

Then one day my mother told me LeJeune wanted one of the game floppies back. Which one did I want to keep? In retrospect, I think my mother really wanted to stop me from spending so much time on the computer. But I chose to get rid of the disk I'd played so much, because I'd never tried the other one. For the first time I booted up the other disk. It contained the Colossal Cave text adventure. I happily played this game for a year and a half.

My father worked at a company that rented time on mainframe computers. He'd take me into the computer room, where it was cold and the floors were made of removable panels. Data was stored on big reel-to-reel tapes and I'd run through the tape library, looking for the right data to give to the operator. I also typed my name into punch cards, and played games on the teletype. The only one I remember playing is the old Star Trek game where you punch in commands to navigate the ship or repair the shields.

My father wrote about this in a journal entry from February 4, 1986:

Sunday afternoon, I went to work, as Ed Simon and I were testing MVS/SP. Leonard went with me and we were there for 8 hours. Leonard had quite a time playing battleship and tic-tac-toe and then later he mounted and dismounted tapes. We took food and ate periodically. At one point Leonard said, "This is the best time that a kid ever had that went to work with his dad." Which made me feel very warm.

My first console gaming memory comes from about 1987. My mother took me to a Circuit City in Los Angeles, where there was an NES demonstration system (the controller was mounted on a semi-flexible rod) and an older kid hogging the system. I was transfixed by Super Mario Bros. I waited patiently for the kid to give me a chance at the NES, whereupon I ran right into the first Goomba and died. The older kid took the controller back and my mother hurried me along.


In August 1987, just after I turned eight, we moved north from Los Angeles to Arvin, a tiny agricultural town south of Bakersfield. For a few months my father was still working for his Los Angeles-based company, and he brought home an IBM PC with a monochrome monitor so he could do work from home. One of his co-workers had loaded the PC up with a lot of pirated games. I played all of these games happily, but my favorite was the DOS version of Rogue. At a company picnic in LA I was excited to hear the kid of another employee talk about playing Rogue on a color monitor!

I soon discovered that my next-door neighbor, Sammy C., had an Atari 2600. I'd go over to his house occasionally and play games--I especially remember Moon Patrol on the black-and-white TV in Sammy's room. The only other specific game I remember is the terrible The Empire Strikes Back tie-in. Maybe the TV was a color TV and I thought it was black-and-white because those two games weren't exactly colorful.

I'm not sure what Sammy's father did, but his family was pretty well off, and for Christmas 1987 Sammy got a NES. My next console gaming memory is coming over to Sammy's house in the afternoon on Christmas day, and seeing Sammy and his father downstairs going through the first dungeon of "The Legend of Zelda".

After that I went to Sammy's house nearly every day after school. I remember two distinct phases here. In phase one, the NES was upstairs in Sammy's room, as the Atari had been. The games we played were early titles mostly published by Nintendo: Kung Fu, Pro Wrestling, Excitebike, Pinball, but also Top Gun.

In phase two, the NES was moved down to Sammy's living room, where I originally saw it. The games were more sophisticated: Contra, Goonies II, Castlevania II, and so on. When I started the NES cartridge audit (in part 2) I soon noticed a pretty clean partition between cartridges I'd only played in Sammy's room and games I'd only played in his living room.

There's a chance that I've got it wrong. Maybe Sammy got the NES before Christmas 1987, plus a few safe first-party choices. Then for Christmas that year he got a lot of more sophisticated games like Zelda, and the NES was moved downstairs. But it doesn't really matter.

Early arcades

There was no video arcade in Arvin, but the grocery store had a Galaga and a Rush 'N' Attack, and Bear Mountain Pizza had about six cabinets including my favorites, Gyruss and Golden Axe. (I'm collapsing the timeline here -- Golden Axe didn't come out until 1989, but the grocery store games were there when we moved to Arvin.)

And yet, my secret desire to run unaccompanied through full-blown arcades would be granted, thanks to Chuck E Friggin Cheese, Nolan Bushnell's pizza restaurant/animatronic nightmare/kid-friendly arcade. There was one in Bakersfield and we went there every few months. I went to at least one birthday party there, though it wasn't mine or my sisters'.

I don't think I recognized at the time that Chuck E Cheese was at the low end of arcade experiences, but it was all I had, and the games were magical. (I also liked the pizza at the time, and the orange soda--all you could drink!) Along with Skee-Ball, my favorites were Paperboy, Gauntlet, Super Sprint, and RoadBlasters. Now that I think about it, all of those were Atari games! Did Nolan Bushnell seed Chuck E Cheese with Atari games? I was generally given a dollar per Chuck E Cheese visit to spend on games.

Miscellaneous arcade cabinet memories: I remember seeing the mystical Nintendo PlayChoice 10 game once, probably in a Bakersfield pizza restaurant other than Chuck E Cheese. We went on vacation somewhere and the hotel laundromat had a Galaxian cocktail cabinet. (Not sure why we were staying in a hotel--my father never did that unless someone else was paying. Maybe that was in Hawaii too.) I remember being transfixed by a Ms. Pac-Man cocktail cabinet in a dimly lit restaurant.

Outside Arvin

In mid-1989 Sammy got a TurboGraphx-16, and got rid of his NES and all the games. He had put away childish 8-bit graphics and now he was a man! A man playing freaking "Keith Courage in Alpha Zones". I thought this was a dumb move at the time and history has vindicated me.

It's sad to realize that my relationship with Sammy was based entirely on the fact that he had an NES. I didn't come over to play his TurboGraphx, and he never came over to my house to play Rogue. (I did show Rogue to one of my school friends, and they didn't get why you'd want to play it.) Sometimes we'd play in the huge vacant lot behind our houses (still a vacant lot, according to Google Maps), but more often I was alone back there. Sammy's backyard had a swimming pool; I never swam in it.

Around the same time as Sammy's defection from Nintendo to NEC, my family moved out of Arvin, into the grape fields, and I no longer had a next door neighbor. After this, Sammy and I hardly ever saw each other. He was a year ahead of me in school, so we didn't interact as a matter of course.

I remember playing Tetris on Sammy's Game Boy, but the Game Boy didn't come out until July 1989, by which time we'd already moved. So who knows. When I went to the Bakersfield Target with my mother, I'd always rush to the electronics section and play Super Mario Land on their Game Boy. That's still as close as I've ever been to an original Game Boy.

During the year I spent playing games with Sammy I also acquired more software for the PC, probably as gifts. I remember playing a Jeopardy! game a lot, as well as Infocom's Planetfall.

The Nintendo Power years

Where did I first encounter Nintendo's journal of agitprop, Nintendo Power? Almost certainly not at Sammy's house. The first issue came out right around the time we moved out of Arvin.

I remember the friend's room where I first saw the cool clay SMB 2 sculpture on the first issue's cover, but I don't know which friend it was. By default I'm going to say it was CJ Cullins, my post-Sammy NES buddy, even though the room doesn't feel like his room as I remember it. Maybe his family moved.

Unlike with Sammy, I had a non-Nintendo friendship with CJ, a tall skinny kid with bronze hair and freckles. We'd met in third grade when we were both newcomers to Arvin, and though it cooled over the years as our school clique identities solidified into "nerd" and "skater", our friendship, held together by a mutual love of Nirvana, lasted in some form until I graduated from high school and moved back to LA.

(CJ doesn't show up in my junior high yearbooks, but he is in my high school yearbook. If I recall correctly, he moved away for a couple years and then moved back.)

CJ lived in Arvin proper, a few blocks from the school. My house was six miles away. So my middle school years of two-player gaming often took the form of Friday night sleepovers at CJ's house. Although the year I spent at Sammy's house was formative and looms larger in my mind, many of my favorite old gaming memories were formed at CJ's house: killing each other in North and South, winning Kid Icarus, and getting multiple endings to Maniac Mansion.

For Christmas 1988 I got my own NES. I don't think I got any other games at the time, but the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in was plenty of excitement for me. I remember my father helping me set up the A/V cables that Christmas, but my memory of playing SMB that day has blended in with all the memories of the dozens of other places I've played that game. The NES also came with a printed game catalog, which I loved to read. To this day I get a nostalgic thrill from the pixel art used on the covers of the NES launch titles.

From my earlier coveting I knew that the NES cost a hundred dollars at retail, a princely sum at my age. For several years afterwards I would envision large amounts of money in terms of how many Nintendos it would buy. I'm pretty sure the NES came from my grandparents. They were pretty generous, and $100 was about what they'd spend for a grandchild's big blowout Christmas present.

(I had a friend, not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, who very memorably did not get an NES that Christmas. But I've already written a fictionalized version of that occurance, so you'll have to wait until I sell the story to read it.)

In July of 1989 I got my first issue of Nintendo Power. I remember doing an insane amount of work to pull a big stump out of the back yard for $50 so I could pay for my subscription, though I may have done that in 1990 to renew my subscription.

It's hard to overestimate how much I loved Nintendo Power. I read it all the time and everywhere. It was full of detailed information about pieces of software! Its maps let you explore a game world mentally without ever buying the game!

It never occured to me that Nintendo Power was corporate propaganda designed to do just that--submerge you irretrievably in Nintendo's world. The unsavory aspects of Nintendo Power are clearly visible to my adult eyes: the "tips" that were workarounds for bugs in the games, the artfully worded blurbs for terrible cartridges, the back cover's constant shilling for the Nintendo Seal of Quality (which was a joke in your town and every other), and most of all the letters, which were carefully selected to give kids talking points when arguing with adults about the merits of video games.

(Looking at those old issues of Nintendo Power, the most interesting parts now are the crazy cartoon monsters at the bottom of the pages, delivering gossip about upcoming games and totally unconstrained by normal rules of corporate synergy.)

Parents, including mine, were concerned about their kids spending so much time on the Nintendo. My parents grudgingly accepted my obsession as another aspect of a) my interest in computers, b) the end of civilization. Looking back, I suspect their attitude towards my Nintendo usage was "as long as his grades hold up..." My mother must have seen Nintendo Power for what it was, but she never said anything to destroy my illusions.

(My standard punishment when grounded was confiscation of my NES controllers for a week. It was aggravating but not a terrible punishment because I could still use the PC. Also, I found where the controllers were hidden, so I could still play before my parents woke up.)

But even the propaganda aspects weren't all bad. A game might be terrible, but the Nintendo Power writeups were always entertaining. A two-page spread for a mediocre game would show all the cool power-ups, kind of like a trailer that gives away all the good parts of a movie and you don't have to see the movie. A tiny blurb for a terrible game would give you enough ideas to design a decent game or fantasy scenario in your head. As long as you didn't try to play the games, you were fine.

I drew my own Nintendo Power-style maps in sixth grade. I designed a Mega Man game that featured enemies like Ink Man (his minions could blind you with ink, turning the screen temporarily dark). I designed an exploration game that was a total ripoff of Goonies II.

Large as my Nintendo obsession looms in memory, the audit in part 2 shows that I didn't own that many cartridges. Almost all the ones I did own were Christmas or birthday presents. At this point in my life I almost never had enough money to my name to afford an NES cartridge. And so the games I remember best weren't necessarily ones I owned. They dated from time spent with Sammy C., or I only knew about them through Nintendo Power. Or, most commonly, I rented them.

Look in the NES audit in part 2 and you'll see a lot of rental games. Arvin had two video rental stores and by this time they'd branched out into renting NES games. Many's the Friday my mother would take me to one or the other of these stores and let me pick out a game for the weekend while she picked out a movie. CJ and I also rented games for our sleepovers, though I'm not sure how that worked because neither store was particularly near his house. (No, I remember now: CJ and I and Ivan Orozco walking to one of the stores from school and renting a game and walking to CJ's house. I remember because I was in the lead walking home, walking backwards to explain something to CJ and Ivan, and I ran into a signpost. Bonk.)

At some point during this 1989-1990 period I stayed over at the out-in-the-boonies house of yet another friend, whose name I won't mention. His house had an Atari 2600 with a huge selection of games. It also had bugs. Bugs that would run across the floor at night and bite you, making it impossible to sleep. We played those games all night. The games were not too hot compared to the NES, but they were totally new to me. I'd never heard of them or read previews of them in gaming magazines, and each one was a surprise. In particular I remember Adventure and a bizarre little shooter called Plaque Attack.

(Much later, near the end of high school, this person's mother would yell at me, believing me through a hilarious misunderstanding to be a bad influence, a product of negligent parenting, a long-haired freak who did nothing but drive a fast car and cause trouble. This was the coolest I ever felt in high school.)

Although most of the kids in Arvin were Hispanic, most of my NES memories are of playing with other white kids. The exceptions are Ivan, who would sometimes join me at CJ's house, and Ricky Garay, who's now a comedian in LA; but I don't think they had their own systems. If you look through the cartridge audit in part 2 there's a lot of one-off mentions of being at some other kid's house, and the other kid was always white. Although nobody in Arvin was really well off (except Sammy's family, apparently), immigrant families tended to be even less well off, and less likely to buy an expensive machine that their kids would play all afternoon instead of doing homework. This changed gradually: in 1997, Dario Espinoza, my best friend from high school, got an N64. Though I don't know whether his parents got it for him or if he bought it himself.

Next time: the end of the NES years.

[Comments] (6) : Instead of writing in this weblog or working on my secret project, I wrote a huge essay called "Nostalgiaudit". This project came out of the fact that my memories of 1987-1991 are really bad. Well, that was twenty years ago, of course they're bad, but as early as 1993 I could tell that big chunks of my memories were missing. Almost the only detailed memories I have from that period involve Nintendo games.

So I went through all those memories and cataloged them, putting them in chronological order and adding in other video-game-related memories where appropriate, in hopes that it would make that part of my life make more sense. And it kind of does. I was able to reconstruct a few chunks of my past out of memories of which games I played with whom, and what issues of Nintendo Power I remember reading.

The essay runs about seven thousand words and I'm a bit reluctant to post something so long, minutiae-obsessed, and self-indulgent, but on the other hand it's the sort of essay I'd enjoy if I read it about someone else. If you'd like to read it, email me or comment, and I'll either send it to you or put it up.

[Comments] (1) : I enjoyed this picture that uses airplane imagery as the background for a video game. There was a brief vogue for this kind of thing in the year after Google Maps launched, but the games weren't terribly good (they were Javascript games integrated directly into GM) and I'd like to see something more sophisticated. Thanks to GM it's pretty easy to grab scrolling tiles of much of the earth at decent resolution--I did it for Dada Maps.

Dada Chess Statistics: At Kevan's suggestion I changed Dada Chess to keep track of how the games ended. I was tired of how slowly the numbers were ticking up, so over the weekend I ran several thousand games of chess on my PVR. Here are the statistics as of this writing. This is how chess games turn out when both players play randomly.

To avoid arbitrarily long games, Dada Chess forces resignation semi-randomly when the number of moves exceeds 500. Pretty much all of those games are destined to be draws. So 4459 draws (77.1%) total. About 16% of games have a winner, and there's no advantage to moving first.

[Comments] (1) One Town's Very Like Another When Your Head's Down Over Your Keyboard, Brother: Version 2 of Dada Chess features textual representations of the games for those with chessless browsers, highlighting of the piece that just moved, and improved stalemate rules so the game ends instead of the kings chasing each other all over the board.

I also heard back from the original ChessPy author, who for complex reasons invited me to make my bug fixes public by forking the project. So here you go. It's also got unit tests for the stuff I changed. It's really easy to use, and recommended if you have some Dada Chess-like project that needs to run simulated chess games that don't require an AI.

: Sumana has complained that my NYCB entries often turn into cranky complaining. Ironical that she should complain about this. No? Okay, false alarm.

Anyway, here's an entry with no complaining, just greatness. I do have complaints, but they're minor and for once I'll keep them to myself.

I first read about Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" stories as a teenager, in prefaces to AD&D manuals which listed the game's literary precursors. I took no interest in Vance at the time for a number of reasons, the least complaint-like of which is that when it came to old fantasy books that I couldn't find, "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" sounded a lot cooler.

But recently I become interested in those literary precursors as precursors, and sought them out. About a week ago I started reading "The Compleat Dying Earth" and it blew me away. It's inventive and rich, refreshingly cynical, and delivers sense-of-wonder in a way I've almost exclusively associated with SF. (Technically it is SF, but it's at its best when the SF element is in the background, which is nearly all the time.)

I was especially interested in the specific influences of Vance on the mechanics of D&D. Turns out Gary Gygax wrote an essay about this, but I'd like to mention a few other things I noticed.

I knew that D&D's magic system came from Vance, but it always seemed gamelike to me and I'm amazed at how well it works in the stories. And it has the same effect as in the game: to keep magic-users from being so powerful they ruin the plot.

Ioun stones first showed up in Vance as IOUN stones, the all-caps name making them sound like a piece of advanced technology. It turns out they're not technology, but it was a nice Richard Brautigan-esque touch. It's great to see how the effects of the stones in the books were turned into game mechanics.

"Vecna" is an anagram of "Vance". I'm pretty sure I noticed this once and then forgot.

One could argue that the notion of reversible spells comes from Vance. Spells in "Dying Earth" are like computer programs, and swapping two instructions can cause a reversed effect.

Update: Oh yeah, Vance invented grues (though Infocom really fleshed out what they are).

[Comments] (5) Song Opposites: While we were having dinner, "Don't Stand So Close to Me" came on the restaurant radio. Sumana and I decided that "Stacy's Mom" is the opposite of that song. Then we started thinking of what songs are the opposite of what other songs. But it turned out this wasn't a game I really enjoyed playing, though it sounded fun in the abstract. So I give this game to you, in hopes that you'll have more fun with it.

[Comments] (4) : My recent burst of game-related reading has come to a close as I finished Matt Barton's Dungeons and Desktops, a history of computer role-playing games. This is a really straightforward book that mostly describes games in chronological order without doing a bunch of theory or rehashing a lot of things I already knew. Very recommended. I especially enjoyed the chapters describing the late 80s to the late 90s, roughly the times when I wasn't paying attention and that aren't covered by other books. Minor downsides: the prose doesn't glisten, and screenshots were not previewed in black-and-white before printing, so the fact that they're practically unreadable in the book was not caught.

[Comments] (3) A Boy And His Buildings: There's a remake in the works of A Boy and His Blob, the game that should be one of my all-time favorites. Its awesome mechanic takes the kind of operations you get by typing or clicking in a text or graphical adventure, and makes them digetic. But it was ruined by terrible game design. Exactly the scenario where a remake makes sense.

As is well-known the original game takes place in Hoboken, New Jersey. The remake starts off with the same lovely view of a skyline across the water, but it's been Standards-and-Practiced and it's not the New York skyline anymore. In fact I don't think it looks like a real city skyline at all; the city would have to have two or three downtowns. Way to ruin the realism, game about a shapeshifting blob!

(If there is a real city with a skyline like that, I'd consider that a more interesting fact than you'd think, so let me know. I guess I could see the New York skyline looking like that if you rotated Central Park 90 degrees.)

[Comments] (1) : The thing that jumped out at me from this review of early roguelikes XRogue and Advanced Rogue is that XRogue could be the first and only roguelike in which you get to fight trilobites.

: You know how I love interviews with opinionated video game pioneers. So here's one such interview, with Jerry Lawson, creator of the first cartridge-based game system.

[Comments] (5) Scrabble Rule: I was thinking about the point at which Scrabble stops being fun for me: the point at which I reach the edges of my vocabulary and start gambling on things I think are words, because I can't play anything else. Why don't I trade in some tiles? Because that costs a turn, which is BORING.

So here's an idea for an additional rule that should keep Scrabble play in the realm of actual words. On your turn, you can trade in n tiles and then play up to 7-n tiles. If you play, your play has to incorporate at least one of the new tiles. (That's so you can't trade in tiles and then play the small word you were going to play anyway.) It's worth a test run.

Retro Game Master: That's me. That is to say, someone who just beat"Retro Game Challenge." This was the first commercially-sold game I've played right after the release date, such that there was no online help when I got stuck. Definitely worth the money, especially since the sequel is supposed to be even better, and no one will translate it unless the first translation makes money.

I was bewildered by the fictional game title "Haggle Man", which sounds like the most boring Mega Man villain ever, until random commenter asserted that the Japanese name of the game is "Haguruman", "haguruma" being Japanese for "cog-wheel". So it's a deliberately bad translation.

Which brings me to a kind of gutsy game design decision made by "Retro Game Challenge": to reproduce the aggravating aspects of 8-bit games along with the pleasurable aspects. Today's 8-bit-style games try to improve on the classics. RGC does this, both in terms of adding depth of story and great new game mechanics, and in terms of not doing stupid things like restricting when you can save in an RPG.

But a big chunk of your time is doing things that are basically unpleasant: level grinding, playing a lame racing game[0], playing a rebranded version of the same racing game, etc. It's the other half of the gaming-as-sadomasochism argument started by "Mighty Jill Off". And this, more than anything to do with the archaic game technologies or the cultural differences, is what probably makes the game not speak to people who weren't gamers in the 80s.

All in all, it's a great piece of verisimilitude, with enough improvements over the thing being verisimiluated that it's not an empty exercise in form. Guadia Quest is more fun than Dragon Warrior, and Cosmic Gate is more fun than Galaga, although the latter mostly takes the form of me realizing that Galaga's not as fun as I remember. The Mega Man-like power-up system in Haggle Man 3 deserves especial praise.

Deserving of antipraise is the voice acting, most glaring of the game's anachronisms, which kept me from getting immersed in the retrosity. In an interview, one of the localizers says "we’re confident that we made the right choice" in re the voice acting. I'm not privy to the inputs into that decision, but hopefully they involve child actors being impossible to work with, because the frat-boy-sounding voice actor they got for Arino does not work. It's true that kids are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, and Arino in the game is trapped between childhood and adulthood, but at this point you're just making excuses.

[0] Although unlike racing games from the 80s, "Rally King" has Mario Kart-style drift boosts, which is cool.

[Comments] (2) How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning: It's been a long series, so long that it's even scared people away, but I now have a good idea of what where game titles come from and at least some guesses as to what makes them good or bad. For those who demanded an easy way to link to this series as a whole, here you go. It's still in reverse chronological order, though.

One technique I haven't covered is to combine words without regard for their meaning. ("Melty Blood", "Radiant Silvergun") A technique favored in Japan and one I don't know whether or not I like, but one I found I'd been using in the absence of information about how game titles worked. Relatedly, and more common in America, the technique of making up totally new words with high-scoring Scrabble letters. (Zaxxon, Qix, Sqoon, Zzyzzyxx) Which I'd also used, but intentionally, to create a game name that wasn't very good.

And really, that's it. I wrote down a bunch more interesting game names that I wanted to look at, but they were all classifiable under these millions of rules without much further complication.

So, why these rules and not some other rules? The big reason, I think, is that games are experienced in the second person and the present tense. This is most obvious in text adventures, but every game ever made tells you what is happening to "you", and then you complete the feedback loop with the controls. The title of a game is a promise of what that experience will be like.

This models the early no-frills game titles like "Soccer", and all synecdochal games, but especially the ones named after the protagonist or the protagonist's job. Such titles explain what role you adopt when you complete the feedback loop. Games named after the antagonist, the goal, or a weapon or tool, make a promise of what the overall gameplay experience will be like for you, as do a lot of metonymal game names.

The societal context is also relevant. Nearly all the games I've talked about are commercial products developed in capitalist societies and sold separately in individual boxes. They were made as works for hire and the copyrights are owned by corporations rather than individuals. They run on hardware that's soon to be obsolete, so they'll either make people happy (or not) and sink into obscurity, or they'll be brought back again and again in different guises. It's a lot like the context for film.

What effects does this have on naming? Well, games get named like cleaning products. It used to happen for all kinds of games. Now it mostly happens for casual and child-friendly games (Bejeweled, Peggle, Boom Blox, Petz). Steven Spielberg wouldn't name a film like a cleaning product, but he presumably had some say in the naming of "Boom Blox" and it seemed okay to him, because a game gets used. It's picked up in the hands (via the controller) and manipulated and eventually used up.

One alternative is the world glimpsed briefly in the time before video games were a commercial concern. In that 10-year period you got, yes, "Baseball" and "Star Trek", but also "Hunt the Wumpus" and "Spacewar!", which--look at it!--is named like a musical. And maybe I'm sentimental but I think the amateur spirit is the surest route to a good game name.

90s shareware was full of unmemorable names that tried to copy the big-name names. The only two that come to mind right now are "Mission: Mainframe", which I should have analyzed yesterday[0], and "Reaping Jupiter", which isn't that good a name but I just love that game. But today the big buzz is around the indie games and, whatever you think of the games, they've got great titles, whether or not they're commercial endeavors. (In addition to the titles I mentioned earlier: Everyday Shooter, Meat Boy, Everybody Dies, Crayon Physics, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, Cave Story) They've even brought new life to the cheap name-design tricks I denigrate in this series (Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Castle Crashers, Desktop Tower Defense--spot the cheap tricks!)

The secret to better titles is not to name games like films, as happens with today's big-name titles. They're not films--films are third person. Just to pick another divergence, you never see a flashback in a game outside a cut scene (ie. movie).[1] But if you really understand the gameplay and you put the same respect into naming your game as you would your movie, you'll get a title that says something. Indie game titles are much better than big-name titles, which is interesting because I don't think the same is true for movies.

As I write this I'm discovering I could go on and on, but think about "Citizen Kane". Not the movie, the title. Kind of a sarcastic title. In fact, it works much the same way as "Leisure Suit Larry." It wouldn't make a good game title, and "Leisure Suit Larry" wouldn't make a very good movie title. But there's some subtle work in fixing on that one of all possible titles for the movie--a title with some sarcasm and some sympathy--and that's the same kind of work you need to do to come up with a good game title.

[0] Lightning round. Alliteration, cliche-kitbashing (would make a great TV episode), comic register shift achieved by using an everyday concrete noun as the predicate of "Mission:". Whew!

[1] Actually, just after I wrote this, I saw what looked like a playable flashback in The Spoony Experiment's video review of Final Fantasy VIII. But it's very rare, right?

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles: Overall, I think game titles have gotten better over time. Not because we've gotten better at naming games, but because all the obvious names were taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, the trademarkable-word technique and basic metonymy were used to gobble up big chunks of the namespace. So if you're making a game in 2009, you have to be creative. It's like domain names. Everything that's not a little bit out there has already been taken.

Today I'm going to look in-depth at some titles I like. These titles don't break the rules I laid out earlier, but rather exploit the rules to create a sense of action. A game title is usually a single word or a short phrase: if something that short can do some character development or advance a conflict, it's probably a good title. So I don't like trademarky titles or most synecdoche. I also don't like the attitude-laden titles, but I think that's just personal taste.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite titles (never mind how I feel about the games), with explanations of how I think they work.

I've mentioned "Spacewar!" before, but that exclamation mark is great. It takes what's objectively a horrible concept and treats it with Dr. Strangelove-like comic fatalism. Given that "Spacewar!" was developed at a time when computers mainly did the bidding of the military and big business, this is also a title with attitude.

"Hunt the Wumpus" is not the best title, but it's probably the first one to exploit the second-person nature of games. For reference, it came out around the same time as "Pong".

"Grand Theft Auto" uses synecdoche to describe the lifestyle of the protagonist (a criminal) in the vocabulary of the antagonist (the police). It's also got a bit of attitude, in that this is also the vocabulary of those purple-lipped censors who blame violent video games such as GTA for society's ills.

"Leisure Suit Larry" is a great title for a similar reason: the protagonist is being described the way the player sees him, not according to his own self-image.

"Gauntlet" is a pun, describing both the gameplay and the fantasy setting. Again, not the best title, but a cut above most 80s arcade titles.

"Mario Bros." says "this game has two-player simultaneous play" in a subtle way.

"Harvest Moon" combines the mundane with the fantastic effectively. It's a bit of metonymy that implies a job, a setting, an activity, a time of year, and a mood, all in two words. Great title.

"Grim Fandango" uses metonymy to describe the mood, the subject matter, and the setting.

"Altered Beast" smashes the antiseptic, ass-covering passive voice of corporate mad science ("Altered") into the feral immediacy and Victorian judgementalism of "Beast". It's a case of a game that doesn't live up to its title.

"Startropics": Remember how I said that "Star" could be either familiar or alienating imagery? This title uses it both ways at once. At first the title gives the impression of being on a tropical island looking at the stars, away from the light pollution. This is the imagery used on the box cover and title screen. But why are the words jumbled together? How can "star" modify "tropics"? "Star Ocean" is clearly a metaphor, but "star tropics"?. Suddenly "star" in the title looks like an intruder. And indeed, that's what happens in the game. The stars have come down to the tropics for nefarious purposes. This is a one-word title with a plot.

"Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden" is a great satirical title, taking another game's terrible title and appending a pretentious-sounding (at least in English) suffix. On the other hand, "I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game" would be a stronger title if it lost the suffixes and became just "I Wanna Be The Guy". Its strength comes from its unusual use of the first person. Relatedly, BSUaJ is a terrible title because it's unclear whether it's supposed to be first, second, or third person.

"Mighty Jill Off" is not really satirical, per se, but it's another example of an effective title that parodies an earlier title.

I tenatively like game titles that adopt a person other than the second. "I Wanna Be The Guy" is great, as mentioned earlier, and "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" does a good job breaking the rule that a game named after the protagonist is implicitly in second person. But the more recent "I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors" doesn't work for me. Possibly because it also uses the past tense, which doesn't exactly scream "gameplay".

"Nobunaga's Ambition" is a strong third-person title that does a lot of character development in two words, one of which is a person's name. Oda Nobunaga was so ambitious they made a game about it!

A lot of game titles are just boring (most media tie-in games fall into his category) so I haven't covered them. I would like to highlight another title I don't like, even though it's an interesting title from a good game: "Q*Bert". I always felt Q*Bert was trying too hard, the Bonk the Caveman to Pac-Man's Sonic. It's a short step from the trademarkable misspelling and random punctuation to nonsensical Japanese-style names on the one hand, and "extreme" comic-book-style names on the other. I wrote a little rant about Q*Bert here, but I think I'll save it and maybe use it for the secret project.

"Dactyl Nightmare" is so-bad-it's-good. Unlike "Nightmare on Elm Street", which is third-person and merely promises to recount someone else's nightmare, "Dactyl Nightmare" pledges that you will live the nightmare. But "Nightmare" takes the stage after "Dactyl", which although technically an English word, is a word that refers to poetic meter. Sure, it's an abbreviation for "Pterodactyl", but that kind of chatty informality isn't really appropriate for a nightmare. And even "Pterodactyl Nightmare" is kind of silly. So the two bits of incompatible imagery create a humorous instead of a terrifying effect.

I think it would be fun to go over other peoples' favorite game names with these newly-developed tools, so leave a comment.

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home: I thought I had come up with a hard-and-fast rule about games that mention celebrities' names: that they're limited to the category of sports games and other games based on real-world activities. My reasoning is that celebrities (as opposed to any characters they play) engage in real-world activities, so that's what the games would be about. Then I remembered "Shaq-Fu" and "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". In defense of the rule, Shaq and Michael Jackson are kinda crazy, albeit in different ways.

I have three other naming techniques to talk about. Combined with the previous rules I think I've classified most of the interesting and a lot of the not-so-interesting English game names ever created. Of course this is mostly because "metonymy" is such a vague term.

All three of these naming techniques seem to take a cue from some other kind of media. It would be interesting to explore how these work in more detail, but not right now. Also I haven't come up with a lot of examples.

Sometimes the title gets in your face with some attitude. (You Don't Know Jack, No More Heroes, The World Ends With You, Devil May Cry, Doom) Most of these could also be the names of rock albums. These names have only a tenative connection to the game's subject matter; they're more oriented towards describing the mood or atmosphere of the game.

Some games have names based on cliches. Either you adopt the cliche wholesale or you modify it to make a pun. (A Boy and His Blob, Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Devil May Cry again). Episodes of TV shows are also frequently named this way. I don't know why episodes of TV shows have these stupid punny titles, but if I ever figure that out I bet the reason will be similar for games. These tend to be games from Western developers, though presumably there are similar names in Japanese that don't translate. A lot of licensed and franchise games have subtitles based on cliches.

Some games are named the way you would name a book or short story. Well, lots of these rules also apply to story titles. I've mentioned before stories named after characters or settings. But here's what I think I mean in this instance.

When game titles have a tense or a person, it tends to be present tense and second person. All those job-title names have an implicit "You are the" prepended to them. "Hunt the Wumpus" is one game that makes this more explicit. Titles of stories are more commonly third person and past tense, so pretty much any game title you come up with that fits those criteria will have a literary, un-gamelike feel. This is why those seen-from-outside titles like "Leisure Suit Larry" are so interesting: they're implicitly third person.

A lot of Infocom's games fit this pattern. Sometimes they used the "job" type of synecdoche, which almost never appears in book titles, but the "jobs" were things like "Witness", "Suspect", and "Infidel": descriptions with a third-person, seen-from-outside quality rarely seen in video games. It's hard to say whether "Suspended" is second or third person, which is also true of the gameplay. "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" achieves a literary sensibility (albeit a lowbrow one) with a neat third-person trick. The singular, "Leather Goddess of Phobos" could conceivably be second person, but you can't use the second person plural in a single-player game. ("Mario Bros." is second person plural, as I'll mention later.)

Now let's move on to sequel rules. The obvious way to name a sequel is to tack a number onto the name of the original. This is surprisingly rare. I thought it was more common than it was because a lot of NES games had one or two numbered sequels, as did some computer games when I was growing up. All those Sierra adventure series used this technique, and the Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Metal Slug series still do. (I like to imagine the Metal Slug series sticks to numbered sequels so it can be the video game equivalent of the Rambo series.)

The march of technology makes long-term sequel numbering (ie. more than two sequels) untenable. Those NES games were all on the same system. Someone who bought Zelda II wasn't left wondering where the original Zelda was. But I still don't know where Mega Man 8 is. The Playstation or something. When a series spans consoles, you need to name your games such that people don't feel like they're missing out.

So how are sequels named? Sometimes they get totally different names and you're just supposed to know it's a sequel. The problem with this is illustrated by the Riven box, where it says "THE SEQUEL TO MYST" in big letters. More often, subtitles are deployed.

A subtitle is just another game name stuck onto the name of the franchise. When people talk about the game they use the subtitle as shorthand. Applicable are a subset of the rules for naming games. The trademarkability rules don't really apply because you've already trademarked the francise name, and because "Sensible Phrase: Nonsenseword" looks stupid and "Nonsenseword: Anothernonsenseword" looks stupider. But the name-it-after-a-cliche rule is in full force. Maybe for the same reasons it works for episodes of TV shows but not so well for the TV shows themselves.

Metonymy and synecdoche also work well (the Castlevania series uses this). Even franchises that use a numbering system (Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto) need to also use subtitles when the family tree passes a complexity threshold.

Sometimes instead of a subtitle the original title gets mutated using one of the rules mentioned earlier. This is how you get tech-demo titles like "Super Mario 64". This avoids the Riven problem while keeping the game name down to a reasonable size. There are also a couple sequel-specific mutation rules that I don't want to discuss in detail. (Super [whatever], Ms. Pac-Man, N+)

Although movie sequels often have subtitles, the rules for movie subtitles are different from the rules for game subtitles. I don't have a good grasp of how they differ, but try this thought experiment. Take the most famous set of movie subtitles, for the Star Trek series, and apply them to The Legend of Zelda, the most famous video game series.

Though they're in different genres, both Zelda and Trek are fundamentally about exploration. There's no thematic reason why you couldn't have a Zelda game called "The Wrath Of Ganon" or "The Search For Link" or "The Voyage Home" or "The Undiscovered Country". They just don't feel like game subtitles (except for the single-word subtitles, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis", which might be a clue).

Next time: close readings of my favorite game names.

[Comments] (1) How Game Titles Work, Part 3: Misc. Metonymy and Synecdoche: One thing I didn't mention earlier (because I didn't realize it earlier) is that war-themed games, like sports games, make heavier use of metonymy and synecdoche (America's Army, Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor, Delta Force, 1942) because they're based on real-world activities and even specific historical periods. This is reinforced by the fact that you don't want to give a war game a cutesy name. (Unless it's Rush'n Attack, which is a frightening game when you're a kid playing it in 1987.)

Kris commented on an earlier entry saying basically, why is this a mystery? When you name your game you pick a name that has something to do with the gameplay and that hasn't been chosen before. But even this high-level overview of game names is different from the way other things are named. You wouldn't name a book or movie or album or any other cultural artifact using the techniques normally associated with cleaning products. Books and movies are often named with synecdoche (name the book after something in the book), but full-blown metonymy (name the book after something thematically related) is less common and can seem pretentious, where it usually doesn't for games.

I haven't found any rules for metonymy, because there probably aren't any, but there are some interesting patterns. Fantasy games have epic names, as you might expect--specifically, they have names that sound like bad fantasy novels. This connection is strong enough that fantasy RPGs often have literary imagery in their names. ("Adventures of", "Legend of", "Tales of", "Book", "Scroll", "Odyssey")

Naturalistic imagery is also common. In fantasy RPGs the imagery is familiar ("Mountain", "Ocean", "Wind", "Rain", "Tree"). In science-fictional games of all kinds it's alienating ("Space", "Planet", "Galaxy", "Asteroid"). "Star" and "Moon", astronomical phenomena you can see from Earth, can be either comforting or alienating. Compare "Harvest Moon" to "Moon Patrol".

One unexpected thing I found was a vein of aspirational language in the names of fighting games. (Karate Champ, King of Fighters, Urban Champion)

Like I say, any rule about metonymy is shaky. But there are some pretty well-defined kinds of synecdoche that cover a lot of game-naming ground.

What's left in this series? There are two more interesting title patterns I'll cover next time, as well as rules for constructing sequel names. Then I'd like to analyze some of my favorite game names in detail. I tend to like game names for their complexity and literary value, attributes not traditionally associated with trademarky or synecdochal names. Finally, I need to figure out which of these patterns happened because of the nature of video games, and which are artifacts of the economic context in which most games were developed.

[Comments] (3) How Game Titles Work, Part 2: Trademarkability: I'm not gonna keep posting these huge entries one after another, but here's another big entry. First, a summary of the previous entry.

  1. It took a while for non-nerds to grasp the concept of electronic games. Naming games after real-world activities (whether or not there was actually a resemblance) created a bridge between the real world and the electronic world.
  2. If a game is based on a real-world activity, it's a good bet its name will be based on synecdoche or metonomy, assuming it's not just flat-out named after the activity. Random examples: Pong, Pole Position, Double Dribble, Pro Wrestling.
  3. All else being equal, a game that demonstrates some new technology--hardware, software, game mechanic--will have a more generic name than a game that doesn't. It's likely the game will just mention the new technology in its name. Hardware examples: Computer Space, Super Glove Ball, Sonic CD, Yoshi Touch and Go, Wii Sports. Software examples: Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Fighter. Game mechanic examples: Portal, World of Goo.

Now I'll carve off another chunk of the space of possible game names. Game names can be constructed with techniques used to come up with other trademarkable words and phrases. Misspelling doesn't happen as much in game titles as in, say, cleaning supplies, but it's pretty common, especially the fake abbreviation. (Petz, Cruis'n, Mortal Kombat, Rush'n Attack, Toobin'). Alliteration and assonance happen pretty often. (Excitebike, Final Fight, Bubble Bobble). I'd like to give special notice to "Elevator Action", which really seems like there's alliteration there but it's actually just very easy to say.

Nonsense compound portmanteau words happen very often, possibly because this construction is common in Japanese (Excitebike again, Gradius, Gyruss, Pengo). But it happens even in non-Japanese games (Tetris, Myst, Skulljagger (see future entry), BioShock, Starcraft, Carmageddon, Populous[0], Gravitar, Q*Bert). Combine with metonymy and you can come up with many plausible-sounding game titles for a given game.

Metonymy, you say? Yes! Even games not based on a real-world activity usually have some connection to reality, and the title can use metonymy on those parts. Just as an example, consider (the game) Bubble Bobble. It's a pretty nonsensical game but there are two points of contact with reality: dinosaurs and bubbles. The main game mechanics are blowing bubbles, popping them, and jumping.

Metonymy on "dinosaur" yields lizard, reptile, dino-, -saurus. Metonymy on "bubble" yields blow, pop, and float. Bubble Bobble could be called "Float Fight", "Dino Pop", "Pop 'n Drop", or (with less cutesy graphics) "Reptile Rage". That's just names that are the same kind of name as "Bubble Bobble." They're not as good as "Bubble Bobble," though "Reptile Rage" has an interesting baby-Godzilla thing going on, but I bet similar names were considered during development. And this is a common pattern. "Dig Dug" is the same name as "Bubble Bobble", just for a different game.

[0]"Populous" happens to be a real word, but I think whoever named the game liked the Greek-myth-sounding "ous" suffix better than the dictionary meaning of the word.

[Comments] (9) How Game Titles Work, Part 1: Skip to: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

My secret project stalled recently, and today I figured out why. I don't really understand how the names of video games work. For "Mallory" I made up a bunch of fake arcade game names, and they're pretty OK, but it took a long time to come up with them, and some of them (mainly "Mutant's Revenge") don't quite ring true to me.

Looking on the Internet, repository of all video game related-knowledge, I discovered that no one has really looked in-depth at the names of games. There are lists of best and worst[0] game names, but no one has tried to figure out a set of genres and rules for game names. Which is odd because when I started thinking about it I came up with a lot of patterns and even a rule of historical development. Which I now present in part 1 of an epic series.

A couple bits of logistics, as they say in college. First, when I mention a game, eg. Pong, I'm generally talking about the name of the game and not the actual game. Second, these are not ironclad rules because we're talking about the fruits of creativity here. I'm trying to ferret out the underlying rules of game names so that I can tweak them and apply them to my own purposes. Also, I'm not really clear on where to draw the line between synecdoche and metonymy.

Electronic games started out as representations of real-world activities, and they started out being named after those activities: Noughts and Crosses, Tennis for Two, Football, Pong, Tank, Gunfight, Watergate Caper. The most abstract names from this era are Gran Trak 10 (a racing game) and Simon, where the name has only a metaphorical relationship to the game. (Simon is a rare case of a game's name referencing a different game!)

The big exception is Spacewar!, which was way ahead of its time both in terms of gameplay and naming. Even if you consider Spacewar! a representation of a real-world activity that's not possible yet, that exclamation mark makes it clear the designers considered the name of a game to be the same kind of thing as the name of a movie or book. There are some more games for computer nerds in this category, like Hunt the Wumpus and Adventure. (Later I'll talk about "Computer Space", an attempt to market Spacewar! to non-nerds.)

Why this pattern? I can think of a couple reasons. People had to become acclimated to the idea that you could inhabit the virtual space of an electronic device and play a game there. It made sense to create games that simulated or could be tied to real-world activities. Also, because graphics were so primitive, the name of the game had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. All the 2600 sports games are basically Pong. If Spacewar! had had 2600-quality graphics, it would have been Combat.

Over time the graphics got better, and two things happened. First, you started seeing games that were not based on familiar everyday activities. Sometimes they had generic names anyway: Asteroids. Sometimes the names were more abstract: Space Invaders, Battlezone, Breakout, Defender, Pac-Man.

Second, games that were based on familiar everyday activities started using synecdoche. You can't have more than one game called "Sprint" so you got "Night Driver", which was a little more abstract, and then "Speed Freaks", "Turbo", and "Pole Position." A single aspect of racing is used as shorthand to inform you that this is a racing game.

At this point technological progress acts as a reset switch for the synecdoche. On a home system, the graphics suck compared to the arcade. Home systems go right back to games that are named directly after the real-world activities they replicate.

Here are some titles for the Magnavox Odyssey: Baseball, Basketball, Dogfight, Football, Handball, Hockey, Roulette, Shooting Gallery, Shootout, Ski, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball. But there are some more abstract titles: Analogic, Cat and Mouse, Interplanetary Voyage, Percepts, Prehistoric Safari, Win (?). And even some synecdoche, with "Wipeout".

Here are some Channel F titles: Tennis/Hockey, Baseball, Slot Machine, Bowling, Backgammon. Some more abstract titles: Casino Royale (an early media tie-in?), Alien Invasion, Pac-Man, Cat and Mouse, Dodge'It, Pinball Challenge, Space War. A little synecdoche here too, with "Drag Strip" and "Torpedo Alley".

One more. Here are some Atari 2600 titles from the year the system launched: Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Flag Capture, Race. Some more abstract names from the same year: Canyon Bomber, Brain Games, Maze Craze: A Game of Cops and Robbers. Now there's significant synecdoche and metonomy with "Home Run", "Outer Space". "Indy 500", and "Video Olympics".

Here are some games from Nintendo's sports series for the NES: Golf, Ice Hockey, Tennis, Baseball, Volleyball, Pro Wrestling, Slalom, Soccer. Other notable early NES titles reproducing real-world activities: Pinball, Duck Hunt. But by this time, people are comfortable enough with video games that you can call a game based on a real-world activity Excitebike (alliteration, nonsense compound word), 10 Yard Fight (synecdoche), Mach Rider, Urban Champion, or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (synecdoche, celebrity tie-in, gratuitous exclamation marks). Even if there wasn't previously a game called "Football" or "Boxing" on the system.

History progresses from this point and we start seeing franchises. We get RBI Baseball 1, 2, and 3 (synecdoche), Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl (synecdoche, corporate self-insertion, sequel naming by word association), up to today's tie-in-laden Madden, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, MLB 2K, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, etc. etc. These are "canonical" game series based closely on the comings and goings of the real-world sports franchises.

Today these franchises have pretty much taken over the market for sports games. Their names are very predictable. On the other hand, games that don't simulate real-world activities have had their names get more and more unpredictable since the days of Breakout and Battlezone.

But when a new technology or console is introduced you get some generic-sounding names. A generic name or franchise name gets the name of the new technology stuck onto it: Sonic CD. Super Mario 64 or Advance. Virtual League Baseball. Wii Sports. There was a published game called "Golf" as late as the Virtual Boy.

Sometimes you get a game name that sounds like a tech demo: Super Glove Ball. Virtua Fighter. Computer Space is kind of in this category; the technology being pitched is the very act of playing a game on a computer.

It looks like the same pattern occured earlier, in the world of electromechanical games. Games based on sports were the first to show up in arcades in the 1930s. The first baseball-style pinball games (in 1932) were called "All-Star Baseball" and "All-American Baseball Game". Then you got the synecdotal "World Series 1934", "All Stars", "Box Score", and so on. Sega put out a submarine game called "Periscope" (synecdoche) in 1968, and then Midway ripped them off with the even more abstract Sea Raider, Sea Devil, and Sea Wolf.

I find it even more interesting that this did not happen for pinball in general. Pinball games have always had abstract names: the first four names I could find are "Bagatelle Table", "Baffle Ball", "Whiffle Board", and "Ballyhoo". Pinball games are usually skinned to remind the player of some non-pinball field of endeavor, but when that happens the games tend to have abstract or synecdochal names. 1972, the year Pong was released, also saw the release of pinball games with names like "Fireball", "Sky Kings", "Magic Carpet" and "Grand Slam". (In 1973, Williams released a Skylab-themed pinball game!) You could think of pinball as being less like a video game and more like a sport: the kind of real-world activity being simulated by video games up to the present day.

[0] Of course such lists are highly subjective. One of my favorite game names of all time is "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!", which makes #11 in that "worst names" list.

Tactital Toe: Continuing the theme of talking about games nobody wants to play: tic-tac-toe. I've long been fascinated by the mental process of mastering a game, and tic-tac-toe is interesting to me because I remember the process of mastering it.

Initially my opponents and I played tic-tac-toe according to rules of thumb. The first player always played the center square because it was the best-connected square and it was part of the most winning combinations. Then, I discovered forks. With this tactic, you capture two edge spaces while your opponent takes the center. If you're lucky, you can block their third move with a move that sets you up to win two different ways. This is the most satisfaction possible out of a game of tic-tac-toe.

But soon enough, certainly by fourth grade, everyone had figured out how to block forks, and games of tic-tac-toe always ended in draws. But even then there was a certain meta-game that was fun for a while, playing five-second games of tic-tac-toe in quick succession, reveling in our newly acquired powers of always being able to tie, playing until one of us would slip up and lose.

[Comments] (3) : Adam Parrish and I had a long talk about game design recently and got over our hatred of Candyland. Not that we want to play it or anything, but it's useful as a null game. Candyland teaches kids about the ritual of playing a game, with a minimum of real game content that might confuse them. While reading this history of Pong I'm getting the impression that Pong is the same kind of thing for electronic games.

Little-Appreciated Mother 3 Fact: The relaxing hot spring song is just a slowed-down version of the Funky Monkey Dance.

[Comments] (2) Maraudering Beatnicks: I put up a text dump from one of my favorite old PC games, Flightmare. Just because I felt like doing it. It was a fun game and its writing covers the spectrum of game humor: intentionally funny jokes and puns, over-the-top writing that you're not sure if it's supposed to be funny, and hilarious spelling errors.

Christmas Chiptunes: This year everyone is a-twitter (and a-Twitter) about 8-Bit Jesus, the excellent album of Christmas carols done in the style of NES games, an album that has doubled in size since the last time I looked at its webpage. But if you can't bear to listen to music not synthesized by a 6502, it's not your only option.

A few years ago the twittering was about The 8bits of Christmas (that really does seem to be the best way to link to it; scroll down to "8bp038"). And this guy puts out a Christmas album every year. There's also this "8 Bit XMAS 2008" which actually comes on an NES cart. If you ask me the first two albums I linked to are the best, but nobody asks me these things.

Sumana listened to some of the music and said, "You won Christmas!"

[Comments] (2) One Bad Mother: I've completed Mother 3 (see previous entry). On the "offensive" note, I forgot to mention that fairly early in the game you get covered in soot from a fire, and everyone talks about how wacky it is that you look all black. I don't want to be the blackface police, but I guess I kind of am.

In non-offensive news, there's an dream sequence that's not as weird as the Magicant sequence in Earthbound, but is creepy and horrifying and would probably scar you emotionally if you were a kid playing it. Except what kid would play it? You'd have to have played Earthbound to get an interest, which at this point means you'd be into retro gaming, an odd hobby for a kid and one that probably indicates you could handle a super creepy dream sequence. The sequence does go over the top into ridiculousness in one place, which if you've played it you know exactly what I'm talking about. But all in all, well done with the creepiness.

Around the point I wrote the previous entry in this series of weblog entries, the game stopped being focused around changes to one place and became much more Earthbound-like, shuttling you off from locale to locale like a Bond movie. That was a bit disappointing. The secret of the game, revealed about two hours before the end in a huge infodump, is decent and exactly the kind of poignancy I was hoping for, though if your multi-part infodump involves a special recording device that lets the player refer to the infodump later, your infodump is too big.

There are some connections to Earthbound and although I'm a huge EB fan I think the connections made Mother 3 a lesser game. I'm thinking especially of the main villain. If you've played Earthbound the villain's identity will not be a secret for long, and if you have a functioning brainstem the identity of the villain's henchling will never be a secret at all. I'm going to just accept this in the name of dramatic closure and move on.

There's a tendentious video-game logic that says that bad things are caused by people who are evil, and that the evil people do the bidding of a boss, and that if you kill the boss you've solved the problem. This causes big problems when applied to real life, but it's hard for me to get worked up about it in a video game. And yet, if there's one video game that could take a more realistic approach, it would be a Mother game. Especially Mother 3, whose plot, for all its ridiculous rock video television-enslavement, teaches the realistic lesson that bad things happen because people sacrifice their long-term interests for short-term satisfaction. But no, the boss is behind everything, and you defeat the boss. And then something else happens that is difficult to describe and that I'm still thinking about. Suffice to say it's cool but not as cool as the end of Earthbound, which I'm still thinking about after a longer time.

In conclusion, huge thanks to the translation team, without which I'd never have been able to appreciate the game. Because as much as I'd love to, the odds of me learning Japanese from scratch now that I'm pushing thirty are pretty slim. And, seriously, thanks for not hiding or (I assume) toning down the offensive bits, because it's better to have this kind of thing out in the open where it can be called out.

PS: Check out this stop-motion Mega Man video, which is certainly better than this weblog entry.

[Comments] (2) Mother 3: Oh yeah. The fan translation came out when I was in London. This weekend I loaded it onto my DS and played it. Except playing it on my DS didn't work too well, despite me having bought a doohickey specifically so I could play the Mother 3 translation on the DS. So I'm playing it through Mednafen. (Note: Mednafen may cause drowsiness. Use only as directed.) I'd say I'm halfway done; below my spoilerish thoughts.

There are many reasons why there will never be an official translation of this game, but upon playing it the main one that jumps out is that it's pretty offensive by Western standards. In Earthbound, the Japanese technique of jumbling together random stereotypes about America resulted in the charming Colbertian nation-state of Eagleland. In Mother 3 it results in a "generic minority" character who embodies different racial stereotypes simultaneously. There's also a central-casting "greedy Arab" character. And the, uh, fairies, who make Tingle look like Cary Grant. I appreciate that Japan is a different country where the mere fact that homosexuals exist is considered hilarious, but the past is also another country, and that doesn't excuse the past. So: grow up, Japan.

If you can get past that, there's a great game here. It's basically a text adventure with sprite graphics: a linear plot with lots of places to explore and people to talk to. The writing and game design is as good as Earthbound. There's less all-out wackiness but the places fit together better and there are lots of great changes to the environment over time, and variations on themes. Example: your game is saved by talking to frogs, which is a) awesome, and b) implemented by scattering thematically appropriate frogs throughout the game: ghost frogs, frogs in tiny cars, old frogs in wheelchairs, floating frogs dangling from balloons, etc. It's cute and funny.

The plot is interesting--this is the only Mother game to actually be about someone's mother. As with the game design, the plot fits together a lot better than Earthbound's plot. But there's something wrong. It's not that an RPG with cute sprites can't tell a dark story--that's bathos, and it's delicious. It's that the Mother 3 story mixes different kinds of darkness.

There's the darkness of the death of a loved one and of being compelled to work on an evil project and of having your home town invaded by aliens. And there's this goofy rock-video darkness where people are being enslaved by their television sets and corrupted not by the love of money but the existence of money. They don't fit together. You could tell one story or the other with cute RPG sprites but it's asking a little bit much for cute RPG sprites to glue them together. (And for good measure there's also the pro forma high-fantasy darkness of Prophecy Fulfilled and Are You Pure Of Heart which is just an excuse for Collect A Bunch Of Similar Things, which I find very tiresome but Earthbound had the same thing.) The old text adventure "The Legend Lives!" has a lot of these same problems, but its television scene does a better job, I think.

So, Mother 3 makes visible in retrospect some problems with Earthbound. Earthbound's huge sprawling map alienated you from what was going on in the game world. Mother 3 takes you through a series of persistent changes to the world, which forces you to invest emotionally in what's happening. Except for the thing at the very end, which loses its punch if described rather than played, Earthbound has the emotional depth of a sitcom episode. Mother 3 starts off by breaking your heart, and manages to break your heart two or three more times before it gets really goofy and rock-video-ey.

The best thing about Earthbound was the feeling of subjunctive nostalgia you got wandering around Eagleland, a replica of an American/Japanese culture that never existed. Mother 3 yields this poignancy, which I also find in the Miyazaki films with European-looking settings. I almost said Mother 3 "nails" this poignancy, but there's all that offensive stuff that won't play in real America, so I deny Mother 3 the prestigious verb "to nail".

If my opinion about any of this changes by the time I finish the game I'll post a follow-up. All in all, a great game made available through an amazing translation effort.

Update: see follow-up entry.

[Comments] (5) : I've made no secret of my distate for the ridiculous Robot Masters in Mega Man games. But upon playing Mega Man 9 my wrath abated somewhat. It's an expertly crafted game, except for the damn amorphous blob in Dr. Wily's castle that's impossible to beat. But more than that, the bosses in that game made me appreciate Drs. Light's and Wily's business plan.

It's pretty simple, the same as the car companies. They keep making the same robots over and over again with cosmetic differences, so they can sell you a slightly different model every year. Among their offerings are:

That's 44 of the 70 Robot Masters. The others are mostly terrible one-offs, with a couple products that failed and tried to make a comeback later. Do you really need a specialized robot just to cut things? (Cut Man) No? How about now? (Sword Man) The secret is to ignore all the weird one-offs like Centaur Man and Clown Man and focus on the core business. If you're interested in a more sophisticated analysis the Mega Man Knowledge Base groups the Robot Masters by their weapon types, rock-paper-scissors style, and comes to much the same conclusions.

Not only does Mega Man 9 have great level design, it's got the best boss weapons of the series. Yeah, I said it, better than in Mega Man 2. The Crash Bomb and Quick Boomerang are fun, but the Black Hole Bomb and Concrete Shot are more fun. I, for one, welcome our new Robot Masters.

: Does it get any cooler than this clip of Shinya Arino playing Mega Man 9? It does, but not that much cooler.

[Comments] (3) : I'd forgotten about this cool hack until it showed up in a book I'm reading. MIDI Maze was a sixteen-player game that you networked by daisy-chaining your computers' MIDI ports. In an even more inappropriate use of technology, there was also a version for the Game Boy.

Immediate update: Not even the first time I've written about MIDI Maze.

[Comments] (2) : I was reading an interesting article about competitive video game players. Some of these players express a strange attitude towards a game's "kill screen", the point at which the game breaks down because the authors didn't anticipate anyone getting that far.

From a programmer's perspective the kill screen is something to be decoded and understood. It is comprehensible and can be fixed. But when the kill screen comes at the end of a grueling ritual there seems a temptation to see it in esoteric and mystical terms.

With Pac-Man, there has always been a powerful appeal surrounding the notion of "The Doorway" -- a prospective passageway to the other side, a way past level 256... the final prize Pac-Man collects is not a fruit but a key, the last of nine--and why are there keys if there is nothing to unlock?

Before I go on, let me make my position clear: I am a total video game nerd (though not a particularly angry one). Songs have I written and stories that draw from this pixelated well. My cohort has a fascination with video games: old ones, new ones, the people who make them, the ones we make ourselves, their distribution mechanisms, their similarities and basic building blocks, the ways we push ourselves to best them, the stories we tell about them, the relationships they create and mediate.

So don't take it as "Get a life!" when I say there's nothing special about the games themselves. Like books, they only have the power we give them. Pac-Man has a bug. It's not even an Easter Egg. There's nothing to unlock. The kill screen is not in the realm of the meant. If you spend years mastering Pac-Man and prefer it to Ms. Pac-Man because it's totally deterministic, why get mystical about the way it crashes at the end? This is real life, not Lucky Wander Boy.

I could see writing fan fiction about bugs, the same kind of fan fiction that explains what it means to make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, but this kind of talk about the bug's mysterious meaning leaves me cold.

PS: Feel free to apply this attitude to everything else in life! Other people will love it!

PPS: The keys are for use in Super Pac-Man.

[Comments] (4) Das Komputermaschine Ist Nicht: I saw a German ad for the Commodore 64 and it got me thinking about how many C64s made it into East Germany. The PolyPlay was made in the mid-80s, and it was extremely popular despite the games being terrible by 1985 standards, especially compared to the C64. (You can play the PolyPlay games on MAME, or in Flash here.)

Well, in a move that can only be described as "astounding" I did some searching and found this translated essay on the topic. It's excellent. It takes you through the adolescence of an East German computer nerd, with its PolyPlays and its Robotron computers and its sections in the back of state-sponsored ham radio magazines. Once nerds got their own computers they were able to clone the PolyPlay games and distribute the clones through the mail.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between West Germany, which took a Music Man anti-pool-table approach to video games, and the East, which coopted the mania (or, I suppose, cöopted it).

Computer gaming was made a matter of the State – and computer gaming was officially labelled "Computersport", which means "computer sports" [thank you. -LR]. Connecting computer gaming to politics had a huge impact on the future development of computing in East Germany... In West Germany, in 1984 a new youth protection law prohibited gaming computers at public places. The new technologies were denounced to have a bad influence on young people, who from then had to go to bars if they wanted to play. In East Germany, the government had realised that computers were to become an important economic means in the future... Inspired by the Polyplay, or by visits at relative's places, many youths started putting together their own computers, or to program their own games.

And at the end, the essay answers my question.

Even before the borders were opened, and in spite of an import prohibition, advertisings in the Funkamateur [the aforementioned ham radio magazine -LR] offered C64 computers for 5000 East Mark, a horrendous price. But nevertheless, the commodore took over in the Berlin scene.

After that, unfortunately, "programming was less important here than cracking and copying C64 games." Thanks for the essay, Thilo Mischke and Kerstin Grosch. And Melanie Swalwell, for hosting the essay and also creating some sort of interactive oral history of video games in New Zealand.

One thing that didn't occur to me until I started writing this entry was that the people who made PolyPlay must have played a bunch of decadent Western games to figure out which ones to clone.

: While I wait for the dubbed edition of GameCenter CX to come out on DVD, I've been watching Frankomatic's "Obscure Game Theater", a mile-long series of YouTube videos in which the aforementioned Frankomatic gives retro games his ganbatte best, except with more cursing than you get from Shinya Arino.

While watching one of these videos I realized that A Boy and His Blob, possibly the NES game to combine the coolest concept with the worst execution, takes place in New Jersey. You start off looking at what seems to be the Empire State Building across a body of water, and as you run to the right (ie. south) you see the Manhattan skyline with the World Trade Center at the far right. It's a very nice graphic, actually, probably digitized from a photo (Wikipedia and the SEC agree that Absolute Entertainment was based in New Jersey). I think the game is supposed to take place in Brooklyn instead of Hoboken, because it's got a subway station, but basic directionality says the game board is to the west of Manhattan.

[Comments] (4) : ZZT returns! In the web browser. Sort of. (Pushers + sliders == ZZT, by the Fundamental Theorem of ZZT.) It's The Tombs of Asciiroth, but the name is misleading; this is another in the still-strangely-small trickle of Unicode Roguelikes. Live the frustation!

[Comments] (2) Mega Man 9: Coming soon! Surely Adam P. will be pleased. In honor of the revamping of the series I created Mega Man MMVIII, the latest Crummy feature, which pits Mega Man against random nouns. While testing I got Nerve Man, Daughter-In-Law Man, Zirconium Man, Sin Man, King-Of-The-Salmon Man, and the deadly Programmer Man. Enjoy! Comes complete with rarely-seen gynoid code.

The Record: Now Straight: About three Earth years ago I reviewed a game called XGalaga++. I said that I prefered a predecessor game, XGalaga, because of "smoothness of gameplay". Yesterday XGalaga++ author Mark Mongenet emailed me to ask what the heck I meant by that. I had to admit that I don't remember.

Due to old-library problems I can't play XGalaga or an old version of XGalaga++ (which sucks in and of itself), but here's my guess. Smoothness of gameplay has to do with the feedback loop between the controller and the avatar. When I play Pac-Man, just nudging the joystick sends Pac-Man off in a different direction, and because Pac-Man moves fast, I can change directions quickly and tear through the maze. When I play a tile-based game like Dragon Warrior, I can't change direction until Dragon Warrior guy has traversed the tile he's currently walking. And he moves sloooowly. Games like Ghosts 'n' Goblins, where you can't change direction during a jump, are more realistic but less smooth than games like Mario where you can. You might or might not argue that thrust games like Asteroids are more realistic but less smooth than steering games like Defender.

A lot of open source games have smoothness problems, disconnects in this feedback loop, usually because their quantum of movement is large. The problem with this interpretation of my 2005 remarks is that XGalaga++ doesn't seem to be one of these games. The ship moves just as well as the ship in Galaga. So I'm not sure what I was saying.

It's true that the ship in XGalaga++ moves more slowly than I prefer. I like games like xkobo or PowerManga or more modern shmups where you can cross the screen in a second or less. And the XGalaga++ screen is wider then the Galaga screen so you really feel the low speed. So maybe that's what I was thinking. But there's no problem with the feedback loop.

Reaping The Dungeon: The Reapening: That story tired me out and I decided to do something nonproductive. I pulled out Reaping the Dungeon, a 1993 DOS game that tormented me with its mix of interesting gameplay and unfairness. It's kind of rare now (well, it was always rare), but you can download it from the "Sysop's Picks" directory from my old BBS.

RtD, later renamed "Dungeon Rogue" in a bizarre decision, is a science fantasy roguelike game. I say science fantasy because, although my definition of science fiction is pretty broad, it does not encompass games that take place below the surface of Jupiter. Like I say, you go down into Jupiter and you have to get down to level 65 to shut down The Machine. Let me tell all you young engineers something I learned in college: don't call one of your projects "The Machine". It's just asking for trouble.

When I played this in the nineties I think I got down to level four, once. This game's difficulty structure is totally different from any roguelike I've played. There are two numbers you've got to watch: "oxygen cells" and "health cells". Both are being constantly depleted and the best you can do is slow down their depletion slightly. They're replenished by the aforementioned reaping.

You see, growing in the caverns beneath Jupiter's surface are plants that operate on a life cycle of several hundred turns. If you find a plant that's in one of the flowering stages, you can cut it down and harvest 30-300 cells of one type or another (in addition to oxygen and health cells, there are also "energy cells" which power your devices and weapons). Otherwise you need to wait around, or come back to the plant later. But I'm not sure if it's worth it because the amount of oxygen you expend waiting around is likely to be pretty close to the oxygen you get by harvesting the plant.

There are some other annoyances, like shops selling things there's no way you can afford, but all the annoyances are dependencies on this one: you die before you can do anything. To balance this out there are awesome weapons and equipment. This is the only non-fantasy roguelike whose equipment feels like it works on technology instead of magic, except maybe Alphaman. But again, you die before you can afford any of the weapons and equipment, because your starting weapon is so poor and there's no such thing as armor.

But now, there's hope. Reaping the Dungeon now runs in a window in a GUI environment rather than on a singletasking DOS box, which means we can cheat. RtD has orbs that do the magic mapping/object detection/monster detection duty for this particular Roguelike. The problem is that you only get to look at the map once and then it disappears. But thanks to multitasking, it's possible to display a map using whatever orbs you have handy, take a screenshot of the map, and consult it as you play the level.

When you cheat this way, the game is almost fair. You know where to go to get treasure, and what dead-ends to avoid to save oxygen. I got down to level 9 before dying, which is pretty good given that the levels are large (like Angband) but the stairs are one-way (like Rogue).

With that in mind I invite you to play Reaping the Dungeon with your game design hat on, take everything that's good about the game (the atmosphere, the reaping, the equipment, the player enhancement), and make a new game with all the good stuff and none of the waiting 200 turns to get 250 oxygen or dying before anything interesting happens. Again, my top suggestion: armor. And actually the microwave from Alphaman, which speeds up the maturation of plants, would be useful too.

[Comments] (2) Discussion Topic: Super Paper Mario is the best ZZT game ever created.

Make Your Own Markov Chain: As per Fafner's request, here's a Surrealist-style word game I made up, the textual equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse. It probably already exists but you get what you pay for.

This is a game for at least 2 players, though 3 is probably the realistic minimum. The rules for n players are as follows.

  1. Pick an ordering of the players.
  2. Start with an empty string. Going in turn, each player adds a word to the string, possibly including punctuation.
  3. Now continue looping around the players, adding one word each time, but now each player can only see the last n-1 words of the string.
  4. Stop after a while.

Now you've got a manually-created text with some Markov chain-like properties (because people have imperfect memory, and the text has many authors) and some human-written text properties. To bump up the Markov chain quality, reduce how many words of the string each player is allowed to see.

[Comments] (3) But That's Just The Palette Colors Talking: Adam P. let on that his fancy college education had taught him the true meaning of Mega Man. Specifically the part of the ending credits of Mega Man 2 where the palette turns pink to symbolize the coming of spring (skip to 44:10 in that video to see it). When I was a kid I thought that was the game's tribute to Quick Man, but no, pink means spring in Japan because of the cherry blossoms.

I asked Adam if he'd made this connection because all the other ITP people were obsessed with Mega Man like he is. Actually he'd made the connection because there are a lot of Japanese students in the ITP program and they often did cherry-blossom-related projects.

Game Non-Design: Sumana pointed out the other day that has the same lame web TV show tie-ins as any other basic cable channel, featuring games that are rebranded versions of games you've played elsewhere. For instance, there's Frakjack, which you may know as blackjack. Seriously, it's exactly the same. The game blurb says: "It's a friendly game of 21... until Starbuck hits the hooch", but although I heroically played several good-faith rounds for review purposes, Starbuck never hit the hooch, or me, or anything for that matter. Nobody even told me that I had no choice or ordered me to do my job.

Big deal, they subcontracted with some company that's got a bunch of prewritten Flash games and skins them for whatever the client is plugging. I don't really understand the point of these games but it's doubly stupid here, because there already is a card game in the Battlestar Galactica universe, and it's not frakjack. It's Triad. Unlike blackjack, Triad is "a friendly game" instead of a game of one person against a dealer. It's played with cool hexagonal cards instead of standard rectangular cards with the players' own faces on them. And it makes a nonzero amount of sense to do it as a tie-in game on the website.

I'm well aware of the reasons why this didn't happen, but all those reasons just throw into stark relief the stupidity of what did happen, and what happens whenever you do a tie-in game without doing any game design.

[Comments] (3) : I couldn't sleep, and my upgrade to Hardy broke my test suite runner, so you get a weblog entry. Sumana was laughing it up at re-titled Atari cartridge cover art. They're pretty good and they gave me a couple ideas.

There's an art game similar to Telephone where Alice describes a picture, Bob draws a picture from the description, Carol describes Bob's picture, Dale draws a picture from Carol's description, and so on. This page is basically one step in a similar meta-game played with video games. There was a design document for a game called "Casino" which got turned into a 2600 game and a cover art painting. The cover art image was doctored to depict another game called "I Am A Vegas Showgirl". That implies a very different game, which once made would have different cover art. And a game made from that cover art would be Deja Vu or something.

Second, "Salvador Dali's Pinball Thrills" is a great game idea. Short-, medium-, and long-time readers will know that I generally prefer Dada to surrealism, parce que je n'aime pas l'amour. But any pinball table is already a work of surrealist art, so why not do one themed around, say, The Temptation of St. Anthony? And now that we have good-looking software pinball, we could create a pinball board that's a dreamworld of shifting symbols.

I'm also wondering what's with the 1910s theme in several of those Atari cover art paintings. Not a time remembered fondly (or at all) by your typical Atari 2600 purchaser.

[Comments] (2) Intertextuality in Games: I love it when a game references another game. What was the first time I saw this? Maybe in an Infocom game; those all had references to Zork, but I didn't actually play Zork until pretty late, so it was lost on me.

I dunno where to draw the line because a lot of games are flat-out clones of other games. If your game doesn't bring something new to the world of games it's less "intertextuality" and more "plagiarism." Also I'm not as interested in the way later games in a series reference earlier games in terms of plot or graphics or music, or when one game includes a related game as a minigame or Easter egg. In a very 80s move I borrowed the Wii Zelda game from Steve Minutillo (thanks, Steve!) and I'm about halfway through. Its mechanics are very different from any other Zelda game I've played (ie. the first three) but there are lots of references to the old games; for instance the old musical themes are now used as accentuating stings. Unfortunately they haven't reused the awesome death theme from the original Zelda (stay tuned for my mashup of the Zelda death theme, "Stairway to Heaven", and the one song from Earthbound [Update 2008-06-01: the Winters song]). And also all of this is just callbacks to earlier Zelda canon.

Of course, if one game references a totally different game, that's more interesting. I think almost all the Infocom games, even the mysteries, have some reference to Zork. I liked how Jeff Lait tied You Only Live Once into POWDER in a really obscure way. But this is still the same as when a book/painting/song references another book/painting/song. Games are capable of a totally different kind of reference, because they can steal gameplay elements from other games.

In Game Roundups past I've mentioned a couple games with full-on ludic intertextuality: Tong and The Bub's Brothers. Tong is a straight-up hybrid of Tetris and Pong. TBB is a Bubble Bobble clone but it's got powerups that, eg. turn Bubble Bobble into Breakout. Game ideas like Tetris and Breakout are so well-cloned that it's not difficult to imagine sticking them into some other game.

There's also parody. Kingdom of Loathing incorporates a huge number of other games, not just in the playable sub-games like the text adventure but by adapting other games' mechanics to the KoL schema. My own Guess the Verb! did something similar with text adventures, focusing on treasure collection and magic words for the cave crawl, on NPC interaction for the college game, etc. Super Smash Bros. is a parody game, which is why I'm interested in it even though I hate that kind of game. Ditto with Parodius, as the name implies. Also the GameCenter CX game for the DS (which will probably never be released in English), which parodies the whole culture of late-1980s console gaming.

Super Smash Bros. and Parodius get away with intertextuality by being made by the same company that owns the source material. The other games I mentioned get away with it by referencing generic games like Pong and Breakout or open source games like Nethack. Or, most often, they just file the serial numbers off the source material. But a new kind of game is starting to show up. This kind of game achieves intertextuality the same way contemporary art does: copyright infringement.

Games like Mega Mario have done this for years, but without really thinking it through. The earliest example I can think of was a couple games I found in 2006 where you play various non-Mega-Man platformers as Mega Man. Now, let me point you to I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game. Due to its extreme difficulty I recommend experiencing IWBTG:TM:TG solely through the medium of speed-run videos, making it IWBTG:TM:TG:TM. Apart from having a satisfying number of original dirty tricks up its sleeve, this game is notable for ripping off graphics, sound, and gameplay elements from most of the well-known 8-bit games and several 16-bit ones. And it often combines them in ways that create new gameplay elements. I look forward to seeing more of this sort of game, hopefully ones that I can actually play.

Update: If you like this entry, you might like my just-published science fiction story "Mallory".

[Comments] (3) : I have been paying only fragmented attention to the ongoing saga of Peter Hirschberg's awesome retro arcade as it garners more and more coverage. I don't have much interest in retro arcades for the same reason I'm not really interested in emulating the ZX Spectrum: there weren't any where I was growing up.[0] There was Galaga and Rush 'N' Attack at the Safeway, and later on Smash TV at the convenience store near the middle school, and... nothing else! In my day we made our own fun. Using cartridge-based home consoles.

Nonetheless, I really admire Hirschberg's attention to period detail, and so this part of a recent interview caught my eye:

I insist that people use the quarters I provide. The change machines are set to dispense quarters for free. My rules are "don't use your own money" and "don't take my money home with you."

Obviously there are many reasons why you might make those rules. But you'd really want to make those rules if you had gone through a Scrooge McDuck-like bin full of quarters looking for the ones minted before 1985, so that your restored arcade games would feast only on period coins. Then those rules would be the only thing protecting your machines from cross-contamination with quarters from the future, where arcade games are played with "drum kits and full-scale Army tanks" and you pay for them with a magstripe card.

Would this be the most awesome real-life Easter egg ever? My sources say yes. Ordinarily I would have been content to just post this idea as speculation. But Andy Baio's recent forays into investigative journalism have held me to a higher standard. Was it really that hard to just email the dude and ask? As it turns out, no. He does use a spam whitelist, and my client obediently treated the whitelist challenge message as spam, but that's nothing I haven't dealt with before. I was a journalist! Advantage: blogosphere!

Well, it turns out he doesn't use period quarters:

You're partially right. I use quarters instead of tokens because tokens didn't come along until the mid-eighties. But no, I don't use vintage quarters. That would be over the top. Even for me. :-)

I'm not one to say people should do things they think are over the top for them, but... let's look at this in terms of ritual. The original arcades were magic circles: places circumscribed from everyday life where you could perform a sacrifice and achieve the experience of another world. Hirschberg's arcade is a nested magic circle: a place circumscribed from everyday life where the otherworldly experience is you get to visit the sort of magic circle they don't have anymore.

Inside this nested magic circle, the ritual invocation comes without cost: this is why people in comments sections often compare Hirschberg's arcade to heaven. But it's still a real invocation, and since the object of the sacrifice (a quarter) is reusable and durable, the most powerful invocation would come from an object that had been used in similar invocations back when there were real magic circles dotting the landscape. Similar to the logic that sends people after the Holy Grail even when wine transubstantiates just fine in a Dixie Cup. The odds are good that any given pre-1985 quarter has been through an arcade machine at least once, so for maximum ritual impact, period quarters are actually one of the more important details. Advantage: making-stuff-up-sphere!

In case you're wondering, the real reasons behind the quarter rules are about what you'd expect:

The reason I don't have people use their own quarters is because I have to be careful that I do not make money with my gameroom, lest it be labeled a 'commercial' venture, and not covered under my homeowner's policy. Not to mention I want people to be able to play without paying.

Similarly, I don't want people taking my quarters home with them because it's real money.

[0] Last time I was in CA I asked Danny O'Brien how were the games on the Spectrum, and he thought a second and said, "a bit crap really." Yes! Best Commonwealth English phrase ever! I almost wish more things sucked so that Brits would say "a bit crap really" more! But then I remember the lessons of Jet Set Willy.

[Comments] (3) One Guy Who Publishes Anything: I've managed to go over ten years on this weblog without slipping up and mentioning my obsession with the old LucasArts graphic adventure Maniac Mansion (there are a couple MM links in my account, but only one casual NYCB reference from 2007). No longer! I am a Mansion Maniac. Catching up on my syndication feeds I saw a link to a long, dirt-dishing appreciation of the game, complete with description of an ending I'd never discovered and modern-audio-format encodings of the excellent NES soundtrack I've had stuck in my head for almost twenty years--including a live surf-band version of the useless surfer dude's song, and a Castlevania-esque song that's in the ROM but not used in the game. Bravo! All I can add is an anecdote about the intersection of MM with my childhood.

I never owned MM but I rented the NES version more than once, and more than once played it into the night at CJ Cullins's house. It was probably the first nonlinear game I'd played, and we spent a lot of time trying to get all the endings or trying random mail-order stunts, which if you've played MM you know means a lot of waiting. To pass the time we heaped scorn on Dave, the main character of Maniac Mansion.

Man, we hated Dave. Dave had it all: fancy pixilated clothes, a girlfriend (a cheerleader girlfriend!), a purpose in life (to rescue said girlfriend), and friends from across the B-movie teenager spectrum. Everyone from the school nerd to the punk chick wanted to help Dave out.

And why? In retrospect, they probably wanted to help Sandy. But why team up with Dave, a man with no marketable skills whatsoever? It's true. Every character except Dave had some special ability that would help you achieve one of the endings. Even useless surfer dude Jeff could fix the telephone in the library. Dave had nothing except an awesome soundtrack (credit where due!), yet you had to include him in your party. He was the "Human" on the D&D species table of Maniac Mansion, the bland standard by which more interesting deviations are measured.

Winning a game of Maniac Mansion then was always a bittersweet experience, because it meant reuniting Sandy with her lackluster boyfriend. There was always the knowledge that as soon as they escaped the Nintendo of America-policed confines of the text, Dave and Sandy were going to go off and make out. Despite this, it never occured to us to kill Dave off before the end of the game, which I think reflects well on us. (It's just as well, since looking at online walkthroughs I see that a dead Dave gets resurrected at the end of the game!) Instead we let him languish in the dungeon, positioned by the loose brick, ready at a moment's notice to help someone else get out of the dungeon. We called him Dave the Dungeon-Dwelling Dunlop.

Now's a good time to explain that "Dunlop" was our own designated derogatory term. There were a number of company names we'd adopted as insults because they sounded like insults: the other big one was "Bechtel". We also really liked "dolt" (which I got from Pogo) because it sounded adult. A rarely-used corporate insult was "Obex" (I think this was a sportswear company?) and that's all; we didn't have like twenty of these brand-name insults, but I think the practice deserves to be brought into the modern age.

Anyway, so there we are in 1991 or whenever, having a great time exploring this game while hating on the Designated Hero with our made-up insults. In my tellings of the fiction the real romance was always the one between Bernard and Razor. Not realistic within the 80s B-movie universe of Maniac Mansion, but as it turns out not an uncommon pairing in real life.

: Recently I discovered another robotfindskittenlike game: Space Kitteh. It's like a 2D Flash version of Super Mario Galaxy. Also this GameMaker remake, which isn't on the list.

: Fun essay with code: Can a Bayesian spam filter play chess?

Overlooked Wargames: Napoleon at Chattanooga

: I can't get enough of the Super Golden Crisp that is John Harris's writing. Not content to write the @Play column for GameSetWatch, he also plays Peter Schickele at Gamasutra with his "Game Design Essentials" series (1 2 3 4). Man, it's better than actually playing games.

[Comments] (4) SR: is there a game that you can creare your own dinasaur with evry day problems No, but that's a great idea! Get to work, game designers!

"You die. You are no longer bleeding.": I heard good things about radically-altered Angband variant Steamband, so I gave it a try. I really like the classic Jules Verne science fiction aesthetic, and Steamband mixes that well with Lost World stuff and imperialist pulp stuff. It's got a hilarious parody of the typical Angband race-selection menu, eg.:

[T]he British expand throughout the world sharing their superior way of life to [sic] those not fortunate enough to be born under the rule of Queen Victoria. They are the standard by which the rest of the world is judged.

Said menu also lets you play as a rakshasa.

The game mechanics are well-thought-out and intended to make it less of a slog than other Angband variants. Once you get firearms, the game really gives you the feeling of blasting Compsognathi in the face like Dick Cheney only wishes he could. So, overall, recommended.

Here's a big problem: in my inventory I've got a Device [spellbook], a Mechanism [scroll], a Generator (rod?), and a Tool (wand). In vanilla it's bad enough that there are rods, wands, and staffs, but they all do kind of the same thing. Giving half the objects in the game similar names is just crazy, especially when they're still activated with different keys. At least "mechanism" makes more sense as an alternate name for "scroll" than "floppy disk".

Here's another big problem: I still don't like Angband variants. I spent fifteen years getting good at Nethack and by my learning curve so far I can tell it's gonna take another five to get good at *band. However I am going to keep Steamband around on my disk drive because 1) the author has put thought into making less tedious the endless cycle of death and rebirth that is the Angband variant, and 2) I finally got one of these SOBs to compile, I'm not throwing that away easily.

Better Have Known A Game Roundup: People on the net are raving about Passage, a game by Jason Rohrer. It is a good game (yeah!), but in an Indie Rock Pete moment of triumph I'd like to point out that I discovered Jason Rohrer years ago, reviewing his previous innovative games Cultivation (review) and Transcend (review) in Game Roundup.

Next Stop: Livejournal: Sorry, I don't want to write about the thing I was going to write about. I keep typing words and erasing them. Instead, check out these fascinating wargames about the Cold War and the civil rights movement.

[Comments] (3) : First, there was The Lego Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Then, there was BrickQuest. Now, there's BrikWars, the game of ultimate LEGO-like carnage.

How Many Levels?: I was playing the 2D fan version of Portal and basically figured it had 40 levels. I was right. Then I wondered why I'd thought that. Probably something to do with the pacing as new game mechanics were introduced. But when I was a kid, puzzle games had 30 levels and then you had to register for two more sets of 30 because it was shareware. How many levels are in a typical video game that has a discrete number of levels?

I decided to do a semi-scientific test where I measured this by searching for game "X levels" and comparing the numbers of results. I did a few Google searches until I remembered that Google doesn't want my business for this. I switched to Yahoo!, which has a handy web search service.

I graphed the number of search results against the number of levels for every X in 1 to 100:

Graph for games with 1-100 levels.

According to that, most games have 10, 50, or 100 levels. 4 levels is also extremely common (though I think there's a lot of pollution there from things that have 4 levels, like malls). A number divisible by 10 or 5 is the most common, but you can plug in any small number of levels and find some oddball game (random example).

Then I graphed X=1 to X=1000, with a skip of 10 between 100 and 1000. I had to use a log scale because 90% of the total matches are for X=1 to X=100.

The left side of the graph is a "long tail" type graph, but there are very popular data points near round numbers. I also graphed X=1 to X=2000, again with a skip of 10. As we can see the adventure continues. Between 1900 and 2000 there's significant pollution from years ("returning to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions").

I collected data up to X=5000, but 2000 levels is really the limit of how many levels one entity can create for a specific "game", unless that entity be a computer generating them randomly. I don't think I've ever even seen a Rocks 'N' Diamonds level set that had more than 2000 levels. So I won't show you another graph. But if you want the raw data I put up a Gnumeric spreadsheet with my original graphs. Around 3500 there's a lot of financial crap from India for some reason ("support at 3575 levels from the past three trading sessions").

Random tidbit: judging from hits, the least popular number of levels 1-100 is 79. However, 46 stands out from its neighbors as being especially unpopular. Also mysterious: why is 80 more popular than 70?

Bake A Cake, You Know I'm Coming: I haven't played and probably won't play the game, but I saw a couple videos for Portal, and listened to the Jonathan Coulton closing-credits song, and enjoyed them a lot. I was thinking about why that game (or at least the video I saw) is funny. Obviously it's because of the character of the AI NPC, but you could reskin Portal so that the AI was replaced by (say) a powerful space alien who took the same attitudes, and it wouldn't be as funny.

I've always enjoyed AI and robot characters in all kinds of fiction, but the AI NPC is powerful in a way that's unique to video games. This is partly because a video game is itself a primitive AI, and partly because there's a closer affinity between the player and an AI NPC than between the player and their own PC.

An alien is not human. Game aliens are either humans with foreheads, or they're cannon fodder and you're not supposed to identify with them. The latter works out great because aliens are alien to the extent that you can't identify with them. Outside of games, the space-alien concept is powerful because it forces you to confront the difference between an enemy, who you can identify with but you're not supposed to, and someone who might be friendly but whom you can't identify with. Games usually pull a cheap equivocation: you can't identify with the aliens because there's nothing there.

An AI is a broken human. A well-conceived alien, as John Campbell said, "thinks as well as a man... but not like a man." An AI is the alien we get when we try to make something that thinks like a man but we fail. Usually we fail because an AI doesn't have a human body. It's traditionally embodied in an immobile computer and it sees the world through cameras. It can't identify with other in-fiction people, so its behavior tends to be at odds with what its designers intended.

We get a game when we try to replicate some aspect of real life and fail. A game just isn't real life. Not only will the graphics and physics never be perfectly accurate, but the ludic lessons we learn in games never apply directly to real situations. Except for Math Blaster. Man, I can't even tell you how many times that saved my bacon.

Now let's get heavy. When we play a video game we embody ourselves in an immobile screen, looking through a camera at the game world. We send electronic commands into an interface box to change the game world. The AI NPC and the player have the same relationship to the game world. In a sense we can identify with an AI NPC better than we can identify with our own PC! We share the feeling of being right up against the edge of the world but not really part of it, the frustration of not being able to do something because of the coarseness of our controls.

The AI in Portal was designed to be helpful but has "ridiculously base assumptions about human intellect and motivation." It's broken in the same way HAL is broken: it has human desires but it can't interpret them in terms of the real world, only in terms of its hard-coded mission goals. It can't even empathize with itself. So it treats the satisfaction of its desires as an optimization problem. Similarly, we often have trouble empathizing with the PC's desires, even though according to the fiction of game-playing we are the PC. We optimize the PC's behavior for our own convenience or other goals, even if that's certainly not what the PC would want.

So I think the trick of Portal is that the AI NPC is really the player. The NPC addresses the PC in the same patronizing tone I address characters I control when they suffer ten consecutive bad die rolls or slide off the platform I tried to land them on. The player identifies with their antagonist over "themselves". That's what makes it funny.

All part of my ongoing plan to out-Adam P. Adam P. More on how a corporation, another kind of artificial human, has the same empathy problems as an AI, and how this ties into the atmosphere of Portal, will not be forthcoming.

PS/Update: Sumana suggests I explain the title of this entry, my beautiful obscure reference which violates all audience-retainership rules about the title serving as a summary. Here you go.

PPS: The best thing about the Coulton song is that now, all other songs that use vocoder sound like they're sung by the AI.

[Comments] (2) Notes on Notes Towards a Roguelike: Zack wanted me to comment on his Notes Towards a Roguelike, where he talks about his problems with Nethack. Nethack does have serious problems, but some of them are coupled with the things that make Nethack fun, so they can't just be ripped out.

Anonymous commenter on Zack's Livejournal says to take a look at Dwarf Fortress. I definitely think everyone should take a look at Dwarf Fortress, but the roguelike part of DF is pretty lame. Instead I would suggest Zack take a look at ADOM, which has most of Nethack's fun features, few of the aggravations, and not many of the second-order aggravations that come from fixing the first-order aggravations.

Zack's complaints about Nethack:

More later as I need to go to sleep.

Update: The promised "more".

[Comments] (5) : Damn airplane germs. Instead of doing anything useful I'm going to write about video games.

Atticus and Samuel love video games. They mainly love the feedback loop: they seem just as happy with a cheap toy from a cereal box as with a DS or GameCube. (However at any given time they must be using consoles with similar capabilities, or strife ensues.) Alyson and I played some Mario Kart Double Dash with them. They also like a game for the DS with the promising title of "Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2" (however they are not terribly good at that game, so I secretly unlocked some of the mini-games for them).

I have been out of the gaming console loop for about 15 years, and playing these games with the kids really drove home to me that Mario has become a frozen brand. There are about fifty Mario-branded games but the vast majority are not what I'd consider "Mario games", ie. platformers. MvDK2 looks just like (say) Super Mario World, but it's a puzzle game with no more action element than Lemmings. Mario Kart has the trappings of the Mario universe, but it's a racing game like every other branded racing game. Mario is now a figurehead, like Mickey Mouse, except Mickey's figurehead role has made him milquetoast and neotenous, whereas MvDK2 and MKDD actually succeed as games.

When I was a kid--no, this is going somewhere--there was one Mario game and rumors of a second. (Even this is complicating the issue because there were non-platform Mario games in arcades, but we didn't think about those.) At this point the universe could go one of two ways. Nintendo could release in the US the "Super Mario Bros. 2" they released in Japan, or they could change the sprites on a totally unrelated platformer and call it "Super Mario Bros. 2". The Japanese SMB2 is a good game, but it's a straightforward level hack of SMB1. Option 1 would lead to a world in which one Mario platformer was pretty much like the last. Option 2 would lead to a Cambrian explosion of totally new gameplay elements like picking things up and throwing them, and entirely out-of-left-field characters (like Birdo, now apparently Yoshi's transvestite boyfriend).

We got the second, and in my middle school the result was pandemonium--some sort of pre-release hype grapevine I don't remember, followed by desperate borrowing of cartridges from the kids whose parents had bought them. Nowadays it's fashionable to treat SMB2 as the odd man out it objectively is, but at the time it was a huge deal, and part of the huge deal was that 2 was radically different from 1. Then the same thing happened with 3, which was radically different from 2, in the same direction but not the same as 1.

I'm losing control of the narrative and I'm about to go off on a little fanboy tangent, but my larger point is that up to, say, Super Mario World, every Mario game was the same kind of game but added major characters and/or gameplay mechanisms. With SMW and Yoshi, the Mario brand froze and you wouldn't add more characters any more than you'd add more characters to the Disney lineup. The idea of new core mechanics (turtle shells, boxes containing power-ups, picking up and throwing things, etc.) stopped being meaningful because any sort of game could be given the Mario brand. And without new core mechanics that can be deployed in multiple games, the brand is frozen.

Here are the major changes I've noticed in the Mario universe since I stopped playing console games in the early 1990s: 1. Donkey Kong came back, started wearing a tie, and had a bunch of kids, Bowser-style (who's the mother?). 2. Pauline also returned after a long absence, probably causing some angst on Princess Toadstool's part. 3. Some kind of parallel-universe Mario named Wario showed up. There are also baby versions of Mario and Luigi (neoteny!), but I'm not counting that since obviously M&L were babies at some point. Even if you count them, all this stuff is revamps and standard twists on stuff that was canon already, like the fourth season of Enterprise, or if Disney tried to bring back Clarabelle the cow. The Cambrian explosion is over.

(Wow, I managed to push the fanboy tangent off past my main point. Here it is: it took a while for the SMB2 changes to be integrated into the Mario universe. The only part of SMB2 in SMB3 is the Bomb-ombs, and nothing further is in SMW except the cacti and a couple Ninjis in the last level. But by the time of Double Dash and MvDK2, the weird masked SMB2 enemies are everywhere.)

Since you've read all this way, you'll probably enjoy this collection of videos of hacked SMW worlds in which Mario triumphs by doing nothing. And if you like that, you'll like level 3-2 of Air, and some of the user-defined levels of N. Anything else?

: Dennis Jerz's primary-sources paper on Colossal Cave is awesome. Reminds me of the IF game I never wrote based on my Colossal Cave experience, where you have to get into the cave despite the inconveniently scheduled tours and unhelpful people in the park station.

What Jerz's paper doesn't tell you is that near Colossal Cave is the best-named cemetery ever.

The original CC source code, long thought lost, was discovered in 2005! How did I miss that?

: Another interview with Eugene Jarvis! (The other one.)

EJ: The whole thing was kind of a mistake!

I wish I could say that in every interview. I've got one tomorrow; maybe I'll work it in.

: Cool old map of the original Dungeon text adventure that turned into the Zork trilogy.

: Great cranky interview with game pioneer Ralph Baer. You know I love these cranky interviews.

I was once up on the range after having had all four molars pulled -- you know, the cornerstones in your mouth -- with one dentist in the Army. One dentist holding a chisel, the other one hitting it with a hammer. And after I lay down on my bunk, the platoon lieutenant comes in and says, "Hey, we're firing for record, get up! Get off your ass." And he drove me up to the firing range in his Jeep, and I was standing out there with my jaws swollen and firing, alternately hitting bulls-eyes and missing the target. And then he forgot about me and I had to march back to camp. That was the Army.

: Here's the No Twinkie Database, a more general list of game design flaws than my platformer-specific list.

Retrogaming Times Monthly: There used to be an online magazine called Retrogaming Times. Its publishing schedule became erratic and it eventually stopped publishing. Some of the contributors started up a new magazine called Retrogaming Times Monthly. Since there's a publication frequency right in the name of the magazine, it can never go under! And the back issues are still fun, since the topic is not one that requires news hooks.

: I discovered Game Set Watch when it did an article on robotfindskitten, and since then it has maintained a similar level of quality. In the past couple days it's linked to two interesting and related items: Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Movie and I, Mario.

I went looking all over for a video of Super Mario Movie, but of course it's not a video, it's an NES cartridge. Get it from Cory's site. It's 15 minutes long and if I'd done it it would be about 7 minutes, but it's pretty fun and has great 8-bit music. You can also get the source, which reveals that there's a BASIC-like language for the 6502. Here's some info from a class on Game Design for the NES.

I, Mario is pretty funny but less interesting. Rather than making new things with the original Mario graphics, it retells the Mario story as accurately as possible within modern game conventions and using modern, anti-cartoon graphics. Rather like the disturbingly literal paintings of video games that if you know what I'm talking about you know what I'm talking about, and if you don't you probably shouldn't try to find out. It's a good concept but it suffers from a surfeit of world-building and belief that this will turn into a real game, and a shortage of people like the aforementioned painter who will just force their vision on the idea and let the chips fall where they may.

: Early history of Atari:

In case anyone is mistaken in thinking Grand Theft Auto was the first videogame to have players willingly commit a felony, Watergate Caper tempted gamers to “Break Into Watergate Yourself” 30 years prior.

Here's a Watergate Caper flyer.

Some Lists of Games: We went to Connecticut today -- a totally different state -- and then came back. Doesn't make sense.

NES games: Top 100, bottom 20 with obviousness filters applied. All selections arbitrary.

[Comments] (4) : I came up with a new genre of game by combining two game genres I really like in the abstract, but which cause me only frustration when I play them. These would be the gravity game so beloved of the Finns (old-school example: Lunar Lander) and the robot programming game (old-school example: Core Wars). In the hybrid game, you would program a spaceship to fly through the spaceship caves of Finland, destroying other spaceships and not crashing into the walls. Sounds exciting! Sounds boring.

[Comments] (6) Antigamesgeburtstagsdinosauriergewinnspiel: I used to wonder if Germans ever made up really really long words just as a joke. I stopped wondering this when I saw das Antigamesgeburtstagsdinosauriergewinnspiel, a production of German video game weblog Then I translated "Antigamesgeburtstagsdinosauriergewinnspiel" as "Antigames birthday dinosaur contest", and I started wondering again. It sure looks funny but was it intended to be? Presumably that's just how you say "birthday dinosaur contest", and maybe it's acceptable to incorporate the name of your website in a word. The German sense of humor is a mystery to me.

Antigamesgeburtstagsdinosauriergewinnspiel (I can almost pronounce that now) is a Something Awful-style Photoshop contest presenting video game screenshots that have been modified to include a dinosaur. This is in accordance with Kevan's discovery that any game can be made more fun by the addition of dinosaurs. The winners are here and here. Highlights include Tetris, Grand Theft Auto, and Nintendogs.

I discovered Antigamesgeburtstagsdinosauriergewinnspiel via referer logs, when a post-contest entry presented Nethack with dinosaurs, and a commenter pointed out that I already put dinosaurs in Nethack.

: "This book is dedicated to the ninja in everyone's Dad." Why didn't I think of that dedication? Via waxy.

: Game Set Watch now has a column about Roguelike games. Will it be able to keep up with my level of obsession? Only time will tell.

[Comments] (7) Keyboard Madness: Sumana and I play a Tetris game where we use the same keyboard. It gave me an idea for the game that the most people could play using the same keyboard.

It's a spacewar type game with a separate spaceship for every key on the keyboard. When you press a key, that character shows up on the screen as a spaceship and joins the game. You control the spaceship with the corresponding key. Tapping the key rotates your ship clockwise, and holding it down accelerates.

The health of a spaceship is represented as a color from green to red. Accelerating drains your health, and so does colliding with another ship. You kill other spaceships by ramming them: this does some damage to you but more to the other ship. If your health goes to super-red your ship explodes.

In theory you can have as many players as there are keys on the keyboard, assuming they've all got long tentacles for fingers. In practice you will only have a few players, but each player can try to control multiple ships. Will you use ships as disposable missiles or try to set up pincer movements? Or just try to hit the other player's keys and mess up their navigation?

[Comments] (3) IF Score System Design, Plus, a Writer's Plea: The above-any-adequate-alliteration-allowance 'First-Timer Foibles' guide to writing IF got passed around a lot among my friends, so I want to talk about that a little bit. This is mostly based on email conversation with Adam Parrish, who I just realized has the awesome job of studying interesting things like IF. I knew about his job, but not that when we talk about this over email I'm slacking off and he's working. Actually now I might be just making stuff up.

First a note about pages like that, which as a good IF writer but a middling static fiction writer, I find kind of frustrating. The page is oriented towards beginning writers. Like most web pages that allege to help you be a writer, it's heavy on "don't misspell words" and less heavy on "don't have a hackneyed plot" and "don't create puzzles that make no freaking sense" and things I don't know or can't articulate. Such pages turn bad writers into readable bad writers, but won't get anyone's work up to really good quality. As I've found out the hard way, good ideas and a good grasp of English don't automatically translate into readable stories. There are additional skills.

These pages chop the head off of a Sturgeon's Power Law that says the vast majority of bad writing is bad for obvious reasons (scroll down to the handy "context of rejection"). With static fiction I can routinely hit the midway point on this particular ring-the-bell carnival game, but I haven't found many good resources for getting higher. I have found one extremely useful page, but the higher-level craft seems to be something you have to learn one-on-one with someone who already knows, or something subjective you learn with practice. Or something that no one has written about because existing documents are enough to get the unintersting people out of your hair.

The problems in the first-timer list are divided into problems of fiction and problems of game design. I'm not going to discuss the problems of fiction because I don't find them very interesting. I can, however, tackle the problems of game design because much less work has been done exploring elementary problems in game design. Because this entry is already huge I'm going to cover one item at a time, over a period of several centuries.

Item 1: bad point systems. There are actually two possible problems here. The first is a poorly-scaled point system where you get 100 points for finding a key. The second is an overgenerous point system where you get 5 points for getting out of bed.

If a piece of IF has a scoring system, it imposes a limit on the score. I don't know of any counterexamples. In general, your score goes up when you do a one-time action that progresses you toward the conclusion of the plot. Your score at any given time is a measure of your progress (Zork III is a notable, and obnoxious, exception).

But if a video game has a scoring system, it imposes no limit on the score (except any imposed by the hardware). Again, I don't know of any counterexamples, though I can conceive of games where your score is represented as a percentage. The score of a video game has nothing to do with the game per se: your advancement towards the end of the game is measured by things like stage numbers. It's just a way of keeping... score. I think this problem is caused by treating a piece of IF like a video game.

It's fine to give the player 100 points for finding a key in a video game, but ridiculous to do the same thing in a piece of IF. This is because people don't handle big numbers well. If your maximum score in an IF game is a big number, it's difficult to tell how close you are to the maximum, and how much 100 points really contributes towards the maximum. A big inscrutable number is cool when you're claiming to be an awesome dude, but it's not as cool when everyone who completes the game gets approximately that same score.

By the same token, you shouldn't give out points for actions that don't advance the plot or don't involve any cleverness. If you do, the score will cease to have meaning as a way of measuring the state of the plot and your cleverness so far.

[Comments] (2) Pac-Man Heresy: I was looking at this list of official Pac-Man franchise games and ports (caution: page uses "gay" as a pejorative). And a couple things occured to me. First, what would be much more interesting (and longer) would be a list of unofficial Pac-Man games and ports. Like, uh, this page, except more opinionated. The other thing is the monsters/ghosts. According to Pac-Man orthodoxy, the monsters who chase Pac-Man around the maze are just that: monsters. Generic monsters. NOT ghosts. To call them ghosts is counterrevolutionary. Some fools think they are ghosts because the horrible Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man had really bad flicker, and called them ghosts to cover up the fact.

But come on. They look like ghosts. Specifically they look like Charlie Brown ghost costumes, baggy sheets over the head with holes cut for eyes. That's why people think they're ghosts, not because one port twenty-five years ago couldn't handle five moving objects on the screen at once. People don't see random things flickering and say "oh, that must be a ghost". There has to be some preexisting resemblance to a ghost. So don't blame people for thinking that the monsters are ghosts.

Instead of simply asserting that the monsters are not ghosts, it's pretty easy to prove it, a la Aristotle. A ghost is the disembodied essence of a dead person. When Pac-man, under the influence of a power pellet, eats a monster, the essence of the monster is separated from its body and goes into the penalty box to regenerate. What is that disembodied essence but the monster's ghost? How can a ghost have a ghost? It does not make sense.

Hopefully this proof can bring some civility to the enlightenment of those who think the Pac-Man monsters are ghosts. This is my Pac-Man heresy, brought on, I believe, by Pac-Man fever.

: It's well-known to we Game Roundupologists that a large class of games can be improved by replacing the humans with dinosaurs or cars. Now, a Flash game programmer who demonstrates that any NES platform game can be improved by replacing the protagonist with Mega Man. Found via Adam Parrish.

Unpopular Games #2: "Salivator Action"

[Comments] (2) : Kind of worked on my story tonight but I was really just typing stuff up from notebooks. Does that count?

Anyway, here's a Windows game that looks pretty cool.

: Buncha game clones. I dunno, I got nothing. Once again I've stayed up too late.

[Comments] (4) : I'm having a lot of fun playing with this game that uses Super Mario Bros. 3 as a game engine. It really messes with your preconceptions of what a Mario game is like. Reminds me of the first ZZT game you play that uses the weirder features of the ZZT Toolkit or whatever that was called. Highly recommended.

Shoot the Messenger: Today instead of writing the book I wrote rules for a game (don't worry, Lyle is okay. I mean, don't worry, I got my book quota for the day done eventually). It's called Shoot The Messenger and it still needs some work, but it's got an interesting mechanic (simulating a language barrier using the inaccuracies introduced by online translation services) and a good source of paranoia. A lot of the games the Dispatch people come up with have a theme of paranoia. I wonder why that is. I wonder who else wonders why that is.

Game Title: Manahpoly

[Comments] (1) Apples to Apples Variant: This variant was discovered at a CollabNet retreat in 2004, but I remembered it last night and we played it. The variant is that you can't draw new cards until your entire hand is used up. As the game goes on, you have to get more and more imaginative about your cards' connections to the adjective cards, and it gets funnier and funnier.

You can also use this to wind down a standard game of Apples to Apples.

[Comments] (1) : Playground is a shared space for building things out of virtual click-bricks. Opens up lots of possibilities for games. Are there any networked games with Lego-like mechanics? I'll settle for LEGO-like mechanics.

Collector's Edition: 3D Settlers of Catan set for $380. From an old email Rachel sent me that I happened to see just now.

: I'm ahead of my self-imposed arbitrary schedule for the book but I don't want to use any of the slack time because then I won't have it. I guess that kind of makes sense because there might be an emergency in the future.

Anyway, today when I wasn't writing I spent a lot of time playing Angband spinoff #300, Troubles of Middle-Earth. As the name indicates it's sort of a Tolkien-themed Angband variant. Yes, Angband itself is supposed to be Tolkien-themed but it's just not enough for some people. This game lets you gallivant all around Middle-Earth and jumbles the three ages all together for your delectability.

There's also a bunch of weird stuff like Deathmolds. I don't think any of those supplemental volumes of Tolkien's obscure myths mention Deathmolds, or any kind of sentient molds for that matter. I think I'd have heard about that. This obsessive eclectiveness (really the defining feature of the roguelike genre) yields some weird features though. As usual with Angband clones, I was having a great time until my carefully constructed character was cloberred by something significantly more powerful than myself.

[Comments] (2) Game: Play a game of Twenty Questions. Then invert the answer to the first question and try to think of a different object that fits all the questions. Alternatives: invert the earliest answer you can, invert all the answers.

[Comments] (2) Fool! That's My Strawberry!: Going down south for a wedding. Not in the mood to do a bunch of driving but oh well. I leave you with this game, in which you drive around a badass motocross bike to... gather strawberries. Needs to be in a Game Roundup. There needs to be a Game Roundup, in fact.

: Print out games and play them. Great time sink; like BoardGameGeek, a better time sink than actually playing all those games would be. Includes, to pick one at random S-P-O-N-G-E, which appeals to so many of my friends in so many ways.

[Comments] (1) Two Makes A Genre: It's clobberin' time!

[Comments] (1) I Stole Zack's Stuff: Specifically, some books, and a tool chest. (Zack is moving to San Diego and doesn't want this stuff). We also played a fun Cheapass game called The Big Idea, which is kind of like Kevan's Prior Art-O-Matic... but with a card-matching interactive component! I triumphed with my "Beer Cow", a surefire hit at Midwestern university fraternity parties. It gives beer, and by the time it's empty, you're drunk enough to have a good time tipping it over.

Take That: "Intelligence is whatever humans can do but machines cannot."

: Thank you, Lazyweb, for coming up with stuff I really had no interest in writing or even using, yet felt that it should exist: Dancing Monkeys analyzes MP3 files and generates Dance Dance Revolution step files for them. The end.

: Are your Nethack bones files dull because you always play the exact same character? Sign up for Hearse and it'll deliver other peoples' bizarre bones files straight to the directory in which you put bones files. Other, inferior bones file sharing services put the bones files in inappropriate directories like the current working directory, or /usr/bin/. Not Hearse!

[Comments] (1) : Is Rogue not realistic enough for you to consider it a true tactical simulation? Perhaps playing it on a hex grid will help.

: Remember the Game Roundup about a year ago where I gushed about a game called Metal Blob Solid? Well, the game is now complete, and there's a postmortem along with postmortems of the designers' other games. I've always loved game postmortems, especially for open source games.

[Comments] (1) : I have read a few chess tutorials in my time but none has held my attention like Predator at the Chessboard. Maybe it's just the dinosaurs.

This site is titled Predator at the Chessboard, and is decorated with dinosaurs; yet the dinosaurs pictured are herbivores. Is this not a contradiction of some sort? In fact it isn't; and this, patient reader, for two reasons.

Yes, now it is the plants who are the prey.

[Comments] (1) : Here's a fun little DHTML game; not as elegant as Kirk Israel's games whose interface is the form submit button, but still nice. Yeah, "DHTML". We used to call it "Javascript", but that got a bad reputation, so we renamed it. Now, it sounds like a standard!

[Comments] (3) Games Games: It's games they say, on the other side of the hill. Brendan started a fun new collaborative weblog about game design, and through it we were all reminded of Kevan's random game idea generator. It was the best temporal-displacement Christmas ever.

I think I'd be a good game designer, but almost everything I've heard says it's a miserable profession, and far better to just dabble in it as an amateur. But they say the same thing about writing, and I'm kind of headed in that direction, so maybe I can take it. They probably say that about software development, too, and carpentry.

[Comments] (6) Time Meddler: This is the game that makes our fortune, Leonard me boy. Time travel game! In other such games you experience time travel from the perspective of a human: you turn back the clock to a specific point and relive events from there. In this game, you are a four-dimensional being! To you, the timeline looks like the pages of a flip book spread out before you. Like a Trafalmadorian you can visit any segment of the timeline that strike your fancy. Unlike a Trafalmadorian you can also change the timeline. Your changes have ripple effects into the future.

The game board looks like a 2D grid. The squares contain people and objects in different states over time. That is, the x axis is stepwise "time" and the y axis is stepwise "state of person/object #y". Your job on each level of the game is to meddle with the timeline to achieve a certain result (eg. to make two people fall in love). You can insert items into the timeline, move objects around, etc. Every time you do something at time x, the timeline is redrawn from x+1 onwards. With the right modelling the possible actions and resulting events could be very flexible.

It is a turn-based puzzle game because of course it makes no sense to have any time-related operations since the whole point is you exist outside of time.

How do I know this game will make my fortune? TIME TRAVEL, DUH!

Next time on NYCB Game Design Brainstorming: Captain Compliance! The game where the object is to get permission to play the game! Inspired by my review of oki. I'm still not sure exactly how it will go, though.

: Having lots of fun clicking around Board Game Geek's GeekLists, which are much more interesting than the similar product lists on Amazon, or, indeed, more interesting than writing about network protocols.

: This depiction of game auteurs basking in the glow of game mega-auteur Will Wright (who writes the games I've always wanted to write) is a little odd to me. It seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Wright's technique of saving money by rendering graphics dynamically instead of paying someone to animate every possible sprite you might see in a game.

I'm no artist, so I've always accepted that I'd need to do this for any fancy-graphics games I might write. I've never had a budget for paying anyone for anything, and a "we need an artist" announcement is a near-sure sign of a moribund open source game ("Our ambitions have overshot our abilities! Who has some spare ability?"). So maybe it's just a different worldview.

The thing in that presentation that seems really interesting and novel to me is the tactic of creating in-game content by reusing the products of other users' normal play. Now that I write it down I see it's not totally novel: for instance, bones levels in roguelike games do the same thing. That's a lot more limited than what Wright is describing, though.

This type of hack, interpreting the normal behavior of users in a way that yields new information, is one of my favorites. In a game context it could cause privacy problems or be a Tar Pit From Hell, but you could structure games to avoid those problems; game state need not be a general-purpose communication mechanism.

[Comments] (2) : The Lego Fantasy Roleplaying Game gives purpose to all that Lego frippery (ghosts, pirate cannons that don't work, pirate cannons that do work, etc.) by turning each piece into a game rule. This confronts my hatred of Lego frip-pieces with my love of intricate RPG rules. Touché, Lego Fantasy Roleplaying Game, and well done. What I'd really like, though, would be some sort of Lego/Crystal Castles/Nethack type game.

He Did The Risk: He did the Zombie Risk.

[Comments] (7) : I think this would be a great game but I can't think of a mechanism: "Disconnect Four".

[Comments] (3) Blasts From The Past: Some folks set up a Java NES emulator on their site and will let you play all the old-school NES games in an applet, as well as the games of lesser contemporaneous systems. It's like they're the coolest kid in school, though their coolness is of a peculiar completionist kind not generally found among middle school students.

Speaking of maxima of cool: I really hate comic books, but there's going to be a Buckaroo Banzai comic book series which I think I pretty much have to get. Yup, there's no way around plunking down my cash for the next item in that franchise. Nothing gonna swoop down from the sky and save me from this predicament. What's taking them so long?

: I saw the Piececlopedia over at our old friend the Chess Variant Page. Looking at all the wacky new pieces people have come up with for chess variants I was reminded of those less intellectual games where in between levels you buy items from an enormous stock of weaponry. Since there are already standard accepted point values for the standard pieces, why not extend that to the weird pieces as well, give each player some number of points, and let them pick and choose from the list to populate their army?

It turns out that when I thought this I reinvented BuyPoint Chess, which is less enthusiastic about allowing every single chess variant piece but was written by someone who's actually good at chess and can figure out game balance, and also who came up with it eight years before I did. I've got other ideas for introducing basic other-game mechanics to chess: bidding on pieces, drawing pieces from a Scrabble bag. But if I just spend enough time looking through I'm sure I'll find any idea I might come up with on my own. It's the Library of Babel for chess variants.

Bonuses: semi-derogatory names for "real" chess by variant enthusiasts: "orthochess" and "FIDE chess". And the funniest chess variant I've seen: Accounting Chess, with two sets of rules.

[Comments] (1) : Hm, the first entry of 2005. What to say? Something profound--but not too profound. Perhaps a convocation for the new year, something to usher in peace and goodwill. Or I could just squander it by talking about games.

Hey, you know what games are cool? The ones by Steve Hardt. I've played his masterpiece XEvil for years, enjoying its ingenious set of moving parts, cartoony ultra-violence, and randomly-generated 2D playing field. Only recently did I learn that XEvil is Steve Hardt's second released game. XDeathlord was written earlier. It's got the same fun-style (there must be some German word for that) as XEvil, but in a vehicular combat mode instead of a personal combat mode. As such, it uses the X and Y axes instead of X and Z. I haven't been able to really get into the game yet, though, and I'm not sure why. Hopefully it's just my short attention span.

Steve Hardt also wrote a PalmOS game called TREADS, which I haven't tried out yet but it kind of looks like a more refined version of XDeathlord. The screenshots show Steve Hardt's game design philosophy, which I think is sorely lacking in a lot of the games I play for Roundups: a flexible set of techniques to use towards your goals, and lots of random variation within well-defined parameters. Almost every game I like has one or both of those traits (the rest I like because of minimalist simplicity), but they seem uncommon in the games I test for the Roundups. Not sure why.

[Comments] (1) I'll Write Your Weblog: Thanks to Mike Popovic for sending me some links to write about.

: There must be a better game to play with these dictator cards than the morbid-yet-milquetoast War variant suggested, though I guess War is thematically appropriate.

[Comments] (1) : Before Pong, there was, well, more Pong.

[Comments] (4) : I like these Pac-man paintings from cognitive scientist Jim Davies. They remind me of, but are better than, the paintings I did in high school when I thought painting was an effective way for me to express things without actually thinking them through or knowing how to paint. Excellent work, especially Pokey's Problems One Through Three. The ghosts' different Pac-man-chasing algorithms turn them into symbols.

[Comments] (15) Godzillopoly: Here's a first stab at my ideal Monopoly game, based on an idea of Kevan's. This version makes a couple small changes, all in the spirit of the existing rules, and evens the game out a little by making the endgame less depressing and hopeless for the players who aren't winning. However it does not inject any additional element of skill into the game, so it's not perfect.

Basically you add Godzilla(tm), or my non-licensed, freely-usable character Freezilla... uh-oh, let's call him Lizardbeast and get rid of the spikes on his back. There, we're perfectly safe! Anyway, as I was saying. you add the loveable and completely original character Lizardbeast as a player in your Monopoly game (tiny metal Lizardbeast tokens sold separately). When the first building is placed he is placed across the board diametrically opposite that building. For instance, if you build a house on New York he is placed on Boardwalk. Subsequently he rolls the dice (actually, the banker rolls for him) and moves as any other player, after the last player has moved. The only differences between him and a human player are:

If Lizardbeast lands on a square that makes you do one of these things, he stays on that square and does not do them. When he passes Go, he does not collect $200.

If Lizardbeast rolls doubles he gets to move again, just like a human. If he rolls three doubles in a row, he does not move the third time, but neither does he go to jail. How is that supposed to work anyway? "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts are clear. The puppy dog you see before you rolled two threes. Then he rolled two ones. Then, in the presence of numerous witnesses, he rolled two sixes. The state rests." Anyway.

If Lizardbeast should ever land on your property, woe betide you! He will crush one building on your property. If your property has no buildings on it, nothing will happen. You may collect rent as usual while Lizardbeast is on your property.

"I noticed you said 'one building'," you say tenatively. "Does that mean--" Yes! Build a hotel, if you dare, in your hubris! When Lizardbeast checks in, your hotel does not check out! He will stomp it as easily as he would a single house!

Should Lizardbeast succeed in destroying all buildings on the board, he becomes bored (so you don't become bored moving him around all the time when he can't do anything) and leaves until such time as someone once again dares to develop their property. At that point he is reintroduced opposite the first erected building, as before.

Discussion: This variant alleviates some of the rich-get-richer that makes a Monopoly endgame infuriating if you're losing and boring if you're winning. However it does this by simply disrupting the endgame at random and moving you back into the middle game. It doesn't solve the fundamental problem of the endgame where it turns into a stochastic grind and you just want to make the computer finish it, but you're not playing on the computer. My current thinking involves buying Lizardbeast bait to leave on your opponents' properties, but it is as yet unformed.

Crap, I forgot to change the name of the game.

[Comments] (1) Mea Culpa (And Carpa): I'll check this out tonight, but I have it on the good word of anonymous that GearHead will indeed let you use Roguelike keys to control your mecha if you tell it to. This is great news since it would let me give an unqualified recomendation of GearHead, though it doesn't explain why the other interface even exists much less is the default. Grumble grumble.

Once I Was The King Of Loathing: Now I eat key lime pie. If you're looking to waste some time, you could do worse than by playing The Kingdom of Loathing, a fun little MMORPG with stick figures and a Da Warren-esque sense of humor. It gave me enjoyment for about a month, until I won all the awards and I drank all the beer, and I reached the end which hasn't been implemented yet. Now I'm stuck in this limbo where I'm not sure if I should go in every day for a couple minutes to bulk up for the as-yet-unimplemented conflict, or just go in every month or so to keep my character from being deleted while I wait for the end to come and then go. Agonizing indecision! Don't let this happen to you! Stay away from the Kingdom of Loathing!

Wait, how did that happen?

: Found some MP3s of a synth-orchestral arrangement of the music to the two coolest-music-having NES games: Kid Icarus and Metroid. This is not some fanboy project; it was an actual cassette tape released in the 80s by Hirokazu Tanaka, who wrote the music for the games, is now president of the company that makes Pokemon, and is a HotEA candidate if ever there was one.

Unfortunately it's hard to arrange for synths music originally written for different synths, so there's some unneccessary ornamentation in the tape tracks. Example: this version of the Metroid intro makes it feel like the opening music to a Jerry Bruckheimer film, rather than the creepy civilization-overrun-by-weeds dirge that fits in with the game. And there's a weird tooty synth patch that I'd only previously heard in actual video games trying to be cute. It's not cute, guys.

Incidentally, in addition to having the coolest NES game music, Kid Icarus and Metroid used the same game engine and were released on the same day. Metroid became a huge hit and remains a Nintendo cash cow; Kid Icarus, like its namesake, plummeted to a watery death. I certainly appreciate the greatness of Metroid, but sometimes I wonder what the world would be like it things had happened the other way around.

[Comments] (3) Problems That Aren't That Interesting: I decided to find the answer to the Tootsie Roll Pop-like question of how many moves it would take to move a chess piece to any given part of the chessboard. I don't know why I bothered because it didn't take long to find out that the problem is not that interesting. Every space on the chessboard is accessible from the standard starting position in at most three moves.

On the plus side, while seeing if anyone else had duplicated my puny results, I came across the awesome Trading Agent Competition, best described as Core Wars for those intelligent agents we hear so much about that look for the best prices online. In fact, that link deserves to be the star of this entry. Okay, I'll move this paragraph above the diagram so you'll see it. I couldn't find source for the agents, but here's an overview of the strategies employed.

And here's the chess diagram:


The only thing remotely interesting about that diagram is that it's not symmetrical, because of the positions of the king and queen.

Another chess-mentioning entry coming later today, if I write it.

The Game Of Molas: Apropos my longstanding quest for games in which you can play a mola mola, I have it on good authority that Parodius 2 lets you play a mola, and that a mola is a recurring character in the annoying Kirby series of Nintendo games for various platforms. I welcome this development, and hope that molas will infiltrate more games in the future. Now, stay tuned, as we bring you a Special Report You Can Bruise:

Parodius 2: An Unlikely Champion. Tonight, we'll trace this mild-mannered Gradius parody from its obscure origins, through development, to its current height of fake fame caused by its exploitation of the cheap button-pushing trick of letting you play as a mola mola. And whose idea was it to create a hagiographic documentary for a video game? Not even one anyone's ever heard of?! We pull no punches as we investigate our own sorry selves!

Coming up next: Kirby Kirby Kirby: An Unlikely Runner-Up.

Ok, back to fixing that NewsBruiser comment bug.

: In Bakersfield for the weekend. This is one of those rambling entries I write when I'm in Bakersfield and I don't want to miss a day writing in NYCB. Current mood: tired but awake. Thinking about: Bayesian text analysis, capabilities and limits of. Reading: Infinite Jest, which I got for $6 at the used book store by Greens. That's a lot of words for not a lot of money, so merely on the books-by-the-pound scale my purchase was justified. The funny titles of in-book cultural artifacts are just a bonus.

Oh, today we went to a multifamily yard sale where they tried to sell me old Collier's Yearbooks on the pound-for-pound principle; rather the books-by-the-foot principle, claiming that I could impress my friends by filling up yards of empty bookcase space with these old instant-history books. Since this would require getting new, empty bookcases and new, easily impressed friends, I declined. I wonder why they were selling them? Did their friends tell them "You know, those books used to impress us, but the novelty is kind of wearing off."?

I bought two Ian Fleming James Bond novels, and they were kind of pushy about me buying more books. I compromised and bought their ugly 1970s copy of the card game "Pit" that you always find in some distant relative's shelf of games. I guess I'm going to be that distant relative for the next generation.

Oh, I should mention the awesome yard sale (I love yard sales!) Sumana and I went to last weekend. There were lots of antiques, including a player piano, a Polaroid Land Camera, and a lovely 1950s refrigerator ($350, due to its tiny freezer compartment not really practical as your only refrigerator). The woman holding the garage sale said that swarms of antique dealers had descended on her garage sale and that what we saw was merely the carcass they had left.

I bought a hand-made tablecloth and Sumana bought a folding chair. When I'm rich and have my own house I want to do my kitchen in that can-do 1950s industrial aesthetic. To me, "retro" will always mean the 1950s, the first style I can see someone wanting to get back as opposed to just liking because it's old. The same way "modern" art as a term of... art... is stuck in the 1920s.

[Comments] (8) An Approach To "Twisty Little Passages: An Approach To Interactive Fiction": I've read Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (cf.), and it's not for you and me, faithful readers. Its goal is to convince people in English departments that, despite the occasional presence in interactive fiction of spaceships and dragons, the medium is a legitimate form of aaaaht. Just like hypertext fiction!

Now, it's already received wisdom in parts of acadamé that video games are a form of aaaaht, but I guess not in the English department. Perhaps they resent video games intruding on their turf, so they lash out in anger at the most story-like form of game. This book is intended to soothe them and get them thinking about IF using whatever vocabulary is hot in textual analysis these days.

I, and everyone who expressed interest in this book to me, is in another group: people who self-interestedly stipulate that interactive fiction is a form of aaaaht, and who are interested in figuring out the theoretical underpinnings so they can make better artifacts. This book is not so good for us. I will demonstrate.

Twisty Little Passages starts off promisingly for us by comparing interactive fiction to another folk-art-ish form: the riddle. I recommend reading this part because while I don't think the analogy is complete, I think the comparison is useful; that by examining what makes a good riddle you can get some insight into what makes good interactive fiction.

But unless you want a refresher course in the history of IF I recommend not reading past page 80, where after an interesting take on IF precursors, ELIZA makes her appearance and the book takes a plunge into the canonical. The well-known-to-us history unfolds (Adventure, Zork, Scott Adams, Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, bust, post-bust independents), with nary a reference to the riddle analogy. You think it'll be used as a lens through which to view the history of IF, but it's not used for anything, really. Over time it becomes clear that the riddle comparison was mainly intended to get the people in English departments to start thinking of IF in terms of other art forms. It's like a skeleton key in a game that only has one locked door; you carry it around to the end wondering why you only used it once.

The book closes with a roundup of references to interactive fiction in non-interactive fiction, hoping to clinch the argument with the awesome power of intertextuality. This section is a little embarrassing, like those late-80s letters to Nintendo Power touting the hand-eye-coordination benefits of video games. But it too is easily explained if you consider the market: antsy English majors who see a new form of writing intruding on their turf and eroding the overall quality of literature. People who will feel a little better if they know that non-interactive authors have sponsored interactive fiction by inclusion in their works, if they see that not all thinking on the subject has been done by dragon-obsessed, spaceship-loving nerds like me.

The best I can say for this book is that it should get more people thinking about interactive fiction, writing the sort of books that will be fodder to the minds of those of us who write interactive fiction. Maybe Nick Montfort will write another book for you and me, a book called Hey, Remember That Riddle Thing? Well, Have I Got Some Ideas For You.

Fundamental Theorem of Felicific Calculus: Utilitarianism: the game!

If a person is very happy, the player can "suck" some of that person's happiness (or sadness) and give it to some unhappy sod by rapidly hitting the circle button.

[Comments] (1) Dactyl Nightmare: You all know my good friend Checkerboard Nightmare. But what about other things named "[Incongruent noun] Nightmare"? I believe I have found one.

There was an old VR game (that was what we called these games before we called them "first-person shooters") that ran on Amiga hardware, called Dactyl Nightmare. It had a sequel called (surprisingly) Dactyl Nightmare 2. The ad copy promises you will be "plunged into an ultrareal setting trying to avoid the menacing intentions of giant swooping pterodactyls in this game of unprecedented realism" and "You won't sleep through this nightmare."

Hey, wake up! Nightmare! C'mon! You're missing it!

OK, good. Here's a contemporaneous review of Dactyl Nightmare from an Amiga separatist site. The other thing I wanted to show you is this screenshot from Dactyl Nightmare 2, in which the pterodactyl has had big posters of herself printed up and hung in her nest. An egg theft countermeasure?

Man, what a great name. The trademark has been cancelled; does that mean I could write a completely different game with the same name and get away with it?

[Comments] (1) Retraction Of Notice Of Intent to Mock: Wikipedia: Salon has an article on Wikipedia, a site that is great even though I've mocked it in the past (I can't find where I mocked it; did a Wiki zealot delete that entry?). The article reminds me I should anti-mock Wikipedia. What can I say? It looks like it works, thanks to the hard-working people who obsessively mantain it. Since I am lazy and want things to work automatically, I tend to discount things that will only work if you make its maintenance your pet project. Thank you, obsessive Wikipedia mantainers.

Even so, I would only care in an academic sense, but sometime in the past Wikipedia surpassed the point where the articles were tedious clean-room implementations of preexisting encyclopedia entries. Now they tell me about interesting things like The Fundamental Theorem of Poker (which inspired me to seek out other fundamental theorems) and what the SysRq key is for.

In celebration of the article and the server-crushing load it will no doubt send Wikipedia's way, I declare today WikiDay on News You Can Bruise. I can think of two other Wiki-related things to write about, which should be good enough for a Day.

[Comments] (8) They're Playing Sports!: OK, I've kept you waiting long enough. Remember that Game Roundup where I speculated that many games could be improved by replacing humans with cars, a la "Soccar"? Well, Kevan has upped the ante with his discovery that you can improve any game even more by replacing the humans with dinosaurs! Witness Football-o-saurus, a shareware Windows game in which dinosaurs play football (they are British dinosaurs). Brilliant execution; only one thing bothers me, Holmes. The spectators seem to be human. Why?

Now that the scales have been lifted from my eyes I see that all those stale game genres can be revitalized by refocusing them on their rightful subject. Imagine a first-person shooter that's actually a first-person mauler--you are a dinosaur biting or clobbering other dinosaurs. A real-time strategy game in which you deploy your herd of dinosaurs against a rival herd. Even, say, a Monopoly clone in which everything has some strained connection to dinosaurs!

Since the pure, eternal "idea" portion of a project is the hard part, and since the implementation work and will to see it through to completion pales in comparison, I expect these games to start coming out next week now that I've done all the heavy lifting. Hey, I'll even help you out. Look--I started a SourceForge page! It's as good as done already!

Update: despite their British origin, Kevan assures me in comments that the dinosaurs are playing American football. I was kind of wondering where the goalie was in that screenshot. This conclusively identifies the dinosaurs as Paralitian stromeri.

[Comments] (2) "Do you have a problem defending your country?": Salon has an interview with Eugene Jarvis, creator of Defender and Robotron. He's as cranky as I could hope any HotEA programmer to be, and he loves making up random numbers to prove a point:

[Now] you look at the PlayStation 2 or Xbox controller and there's, like, 27 buttons on the thing and three or four joysticks.

"Madden 2004" is a hell of a lot like "Madden 1004."

There's 3,000 channels of everything out there and there's just a million games where you're running around in tights with a sword and you're playing in 1542.

Really, what it's about is the five people that actually send the 3 million letters to their congressman.

It sounds like he wouldn't approve of Burrell Smith's Defender strategy. Incidentally, how does Smash TV fit into your anti-amoral gaming philosophy? Smash TV fascinated me and my pre-adolescent peers precisely because it presented such an amoral world. Does Defender somehow cancel out Smash TV? Are you going to reach for the 'heavy-handed satire' excuse? Answer me, dammit!

Wait, I'm not the one interviewing him.

[Comments] (3) Cue Ball Wild Pool: As promised. This is a pool variant that you play when your pool table has two cue balls but no eight ball (as did the pool table at the retreat). It's just like regular pool, except you can make a shot using either of the two cue balls. This is faster and more fun than regular pool.

Niggly sub-rules: when you choose a cue ball, the other cue ball is the eight ball for the duration of that shot (so if you sink one cue ball using the other, you lose unless it's the endgame and you were trying to sink the eight ball). If the other player sinks the cue ball they used, you have to put it somewhere appropriate on the table as in regular pool, but you don't have to use it on your next shot.

Rules for the horrible pool variants Andy and I used to play (with rules for cue ball bowling, bonuses for making a ball jump off the table and hit the potted fern, etc.) not forthcoming.

Throwing My Vote Away: Got back from the retreat in time to go and vote for Clark. Sorry for the downtime. I'm qualitatively better at pool than I was before the retreat (I've discovered how to hit one ball at an angle using the other ball). Inadvertent but fun pool variant coming tomorrow. Etc. Etc.

[Comments] (9) Proceedings Of The First Congress Of Future Old Farts: Resolved: that the newfangled video games the kids love nowadays can never be as inventive or interesting as Metroid or Mega Man.

Quick, Look Over There While I Distract You!: Patches to chess, which is funny but ignores the actual patches to chess, like the en passant rule.

"[T]he living have priority over the dead when it comes to picking up darts.": Patrol, the MIT-developed first-person shooter with an unbeatable framerate. Other good quote: the preemptive strike against rules lawyers: "All Gamemaster's decisions are final even if they contradict the letter of the rules." (from cl)

: Degeneracy Part II: This Time It's Monetized! (from Sumana)

Don't Tell Seth #2: Don't tell Seth about the Java applet version of Set.

I thought I'd have a set of roundups for you by tonight, but I haven't even gotten all the way through the list of new projects on Freshmeat since the last time I checked (May).

Know When To Mold 'Em: For Sumana's birthday I made a chocolate raspberry ganache cake. It is also my birthday cake, since I didn't get one. It's very tasty and incredibly rich; my secret is to add neutron star matter to the genoise before baking.

Very few people came to Sumana's birthday party yesterday, which is fine because it was not really her birthday party. Let me switch gears here and talk about poker.

The best part of poker is that when you are the dealer, you have the opportunity to make up some bizarre variant of poker. One variant I came up with that I liked a lot, but which needs some refinement, is one in which instead of drawing cards you designate a rank of card to be wild. I have not playtested this, but I would like to try some combination of poker and blackjack in which you can combine two or more cards to get one virtual card of higher rank. I am sort of tempted to search for a big database of poker variants, but most of the fun is in coming up with the variants (and stupid names for them) during play, so I will abstain.

Camera Man killed in duel, all future shots to be from Mega Man's perspective: Did you know that there was a Mega Man cartoon? According to one Amazon review, there is an episode in which "Dr. Wily uses [a shrinking ray] to shrink major cities and sell them to criminals." I guess there would be a big market for that among those criminals who turned to a life of crime because there weren't enough Franklin Mint collectible plates to hold their interest.

Attack Poker: I went to Sumana's party last night, and learned how to play poker (more precisely, I learned why playing poker is fun). More of that anon. Right now I want to tell you about a game that Angel and I made up, which we call Attack Poker (possible alternate title: "Wittgenstein's Poker". I would rather come up with a different game for that name, though.)

Angel and I were the only ones who played, but the game would be fun for more than two players. Each player is dealt a five-card poker hand face up in front of them. All remaining cards are put face down in the draw pile in the middle. There is also a discard pile which is initially empty. The goal is to improve your poker hand while ruining the hands of your opponents.

A player's turn consists of drawing a card, from either the draw pile or the discard pile, and playing it. You always have the option of playing the card you drew face up onto the discard pile. You also always have the option of playing the card you drew face up on top of one of the cards in your hand. This changes your hand (hopefully for the better) and the card underneath the card you played is effectively removed from play.

If you draw a card and you have a card of the same rank in your hand, you also have the option of playing the card you drew on top of an opponent's hand, hopefully reducing the quality of their hand.

If you draw a card and an opponent has a card of the same rank in their hand, you have the option of taking one of their cards and replacing it with the card you drew. You can then play the card you stole onto your hand, or discard it.

Once the draw pile is empty, the game is over and the player with the best poker hand wins.

Those are the rules. Here's an example:

I have 4H 4C 5H 9D AH. My opponent has 6C 8C 4C 9C 7C. I draw 9H. My viable options are:

I was surprised at how replayable this game is. There are actually two strategies: go for of-a-kind hands (these make it more difficult for opponents to steal your cards, but also make it difficult to attack other players), or go for straights and flushes (these give you lots of opportunities to destroy opposing hands, but also give your opponents lots of opportunities to destroy yours). Neither strategy is obviously better. Sometimes you have to sabotage your own hand so that an opponent won't get a card that would help them a lot. Emergent behavior: nice!

You Might Be A Redneck Game Designer If: Cranky, domain-specific Game Development Truisms.

: A gaming magazine recruits a former mobster to play and review various crime-themed video games. He can't figure them out and doesn't like them much, but the control non-crime game turns him into a coffinfish:

HH: I will master this frickin' game! I gotta take this home.

From 101-280 (our paths cross again, mysterious stranger).

Constitutional Monarchy Chess: Sumana asked me why a chess queen can move arbitrarily far in any direction. Does this correspond to some great political power held by queens in feudal Europe? Seems unlikely. I made a wild guess that perhaps in the original Indian version of chess, the "queen" piece was some sort of king's advisor which didn't translate well to European terms.

Then I started thinking about all those stupid chess sets where the pieces look like Simpsons characters or Civil War soldiers or Wizard Of Oz commemorative plates and it doesn't make any sense. I thought, "I want in on this not-making-sense action!". So I decided to bring the game of chess into the modern world by changing the pieces to depict a political battle between two parties in a constitutional monarchy.

The chessboard is a country with a thirty-member parliament. There are two parties, the Social Democrats (white) and the Democratic Socialists (black).

The purpose of the game is to get the king to put his support behind your platform. Each side has a piece representing one of the positions the king could take, and you must corner your opponent's representation so that the king has no choice but to accept your side's position.

Each player controls eight non-cabinet members of parliament (the Pawns) and a seven-member cabinet or shadow cabinet (depending on whether or not they are the party in power).

The King, as previously discussed, is the king (more precisely, your party's wish as to the political position the king would take). The Queen is the prime minister or shadow prime minister. The cabinet positions are:

If you have more pieces on the board than your opponent, your party is in power and your ministers are actual ministers; otherwise you are in opposition and your ministers are shadow ministers. In the event of a tie, as in the beginning of the game, the Social Democrats are in power. This is because the king breaks ties and he is a Social Democrat. Unfortunately, none of this has any direct effect on the game.

Let's consider an example to see how Constitutional Monarchy Chess livens up the dull chess notation. "Qg7" would instead be "PMg7" or "SPMg7". The unspeakably boring "Bxe5" might become "SMfFAxe5". Now that's excitement!

I also forsee doing a brisk business in my specialized Constitutional Monarchy Chess pieces, which depict people in black and gray suits and dresses who can only be told apart by the ministerial logos on their briefcases.

: Jason sent me a link to Programmers And Problems, a pedagogical card game developed by one of his colleagues to teach software engineering practices to college students. If you like games that nip the escapism aspect right in the bud, this one is for you. You play a project manager trying to get a software project developed. Will you go for broke, forgoing design and working your employees 16-hour days? Or will you carefully gather requirements, plan, and document, then realize that it's 5PM and make your employees work another 8 hours actually writing the code? Will you devote valuable time to code inspection, or leave all bugs unrevealed until the final showdown with the client? With Programmers And Problems, the schedule is yours to beat! My main beef: the structure of the game forces you to use the waterfall development methodology. It would be interesting to develop an XP variant in which programmers interacted more with each other, etc.

PS: PAP is the second game I know of in which feature creep is a bogeyman.

Silly Sign Update: We are no longer the "ect" building. We are now the "Wily Technology" building. Any day now, I expect Megaman to come charging through, one floor at a time, blowing up the armies of impractical zooform robots that have started to infest our offices. By the time he reaches the final battle on the roof, he'll have gained the ability to facilitate distance education, collaborate on software development, collaborate on knowledge management, perform some sort of charity work, and manage Java applications for the enterprise.

: Also from Sumana: "Settlers of Canaan" and "Race to the Kabah" (registration required).

One Last Thing: Before I sleep, a funny line from this review of a Tolkien Roguelike game:

The author is very concerned with the poor realism of allowing humans to become mages...but does not bother to explain why hobbits and half-elves are shop-keepers in down-town Minas Morgul.

Game Author Roundup: One of my favorite things on the web is the webpages of people who wrote famous pieces of software (usually games, as it turns out) back in the pre-web era. If they humor me by putting up a little page about what it was like to write the software, I'm happy. If they remain obsessed with the software that brought them transient fame, and can talk of nothing else, then I start to worry a little, but so far I don't think that's happened.

I've got several of these websites and I'm thinking of doing one every once in a while as an NYCB mini-feature (suggestions for mini-feature title welcomed). Today's entry is one I just found: Jeff Lee, one of the authors of Q*Bert, has a Q*Bert page. I have never been any good at Q*Bert, but I've always admired its sheer strangeness and eclectivity, and the page demonstrates how this occurred: it looks to have been designed by a committee of geeks with no management pressure to make it coherent and marketable. Other interesting fact: an early version of the Q*Bert code was equivalent to that OpenGL screensaver with the Slinkies.

: Brilliant! Tim works around the nonexistence of a Hiptop SDK by hooking up to AIM a Unix implementation of the software he wanted to implement on the Hiptop. Specifically, you can now play IF games on your Hiptop.

(Found via referer logs thanks to Mike's tendency to mention GTV! and Degeneracy everywhere; thanks, Mike!)

Unpopular Games: "Marble Sanity"

What's The Difference Between A Tetris?: Quack is a Tetris clone in which your game is watched by an enormous raytraced duck who quacks when you complete a line. Benny Kramek, the author, says:

I never was a really big fan of tetris, so I'm not sure why I decided to create this.

This bolsters my "spontaneous generation" theory of Tetris clone creation.

Previously, on Game Roundup...: I tried to do an Aaron Sorkin-type intro here, but my review of Rocks'n'Diamonds is notably deficient in characters running around saying pithy things that advance the plot. Indeed, it is deficient in scenes, characters, dialogue, or plot of any sort, because it's a review of a game, and not one of those fancy reviews that looks on the surface like a dialogue concerning two world systems. So let's take it as read that I earlier wrote a review of Rock'n'Diamonds.

One of my remarks in the review was that I wished people would come up with interesting puzzles combining objects from the different games cloned by Rocks'n'Diamonds. Well, a while ago I heard from a fellow who calls himself Equinox "Eq" Tetrachloride. He's written a bunch of R'n'D levels, and sent them to me to try out. They're the cleverest levels I've played yet, and they mix items from different games in interesting ways (in one exciting level, you must complete the first level of Sokoban while being chased by a butterfly monster from another game). Hopefully Eq will put up his R'n'D levels for general consumption.

Eq has this to say about the mysterious yellow gemstones into which you decompose when you die in R'n'D (Yellow gemstones are made from people! THEY'RE PEOPLE!):

It was originally a Boulder Dash thing, as you probably know. [I didn't. -ed. Me neither.] I suppose it's like Sonic the Hedgehog being hit and losing all the rings he collected. In R'n'D, the other coloured gems come from other things, like player 2 being killed or a mole being smashed.

: Three choice pictures from last night:

  1. The mysterious Sean Neakums
  2. Me and Pete Peterson II showing off our hopelessly out-of-date driver's licenses.
  3. The game of Settlers of Catan

Anecdote: during the game of Settlers, Pete got a harbor that gave him two-for-one trades for sheep. The conceit throughout the game was that this was not a harbor for trading sheep for other things, but an offshore sheep rendering plant which produced sheep-fat brick, wooly wood, sheepwheat, and decidedly inferior sheepbone ore.

Game Roundup:

: Kevan, Claydonia is another fun build-your-own-everything combat game played with children's creativity toys (in this case, modelling clay or Play-DoTM).

: Here's one for my mother: Scrabble variants that reward a naturally large vocabulary rather than obsessive memorization. (via Kevan)

: Here's a game that might be more or less interesting than the 15-puzzle: lo.

Game Roundup: I haven't actually played any of these games, but they look cool. All of tonight's games are clones of existing games. But first, a slight digression.

There are four DOS games I'd love to see cloned [Do it yourself! -- Ed. Bite me! I'm just sayin'!]. Strangely, three of them are set in mines (one of them involves mines inside a mine); I must be a sucker for games set in mines. All four were once Da Warren files.

THE POINT of that digression was that

Three Funny Things About Diablo II:

  1. At one point you enter a creaky old tower... and the only place you visit is the cellar! It's got a five-story cellar even though the tower itself is only about 20 feet tall in game terms!
  2. Another problem of scale: in act II there's a big fancy palace which at first you can't enter. You finally get to enter it and all you see is this big stairway overlaid with the game text: "To the Harem level 1". This guy's palace consists entirely of his harem!
  3. There is a unique monster named Creeping Feature.

When The Unix Philosophy Goes Further Than You Expected, But Not Neccessarily Too Far: Powermanga has a case-sensitive high score list.

I'm a tiny bit addicted to Powermanga. The power-ups are a lot of fun, though there aren't as many of them as there should be, and the ones that cost more are not that powerful. The damage system (insofar as I can figure it out) is pretty neat too. Finally, it's a game with guts; it treats entire, classic games (Galaxian and Asteroids) as mere parts of a level.

Mola Mola Digital Infiltration: Kevan sent me a screenshot of what is, as far as I know, the only appearance of a mola mola in a video game (thanks, Kevan!). Kevan cites as his source the 1993 Capcom comic book license "The Punisher". How long until a video game is released that actually stars a mola mola? It's intuitively obvious that that would be the greatest game ever.

I Was Meaning To Search For That Myself Search Requests: pimps ahoy. They were probably actually looking for Pimps at Sea, a joke webpage for a nonexistent Bungie game which I'd been meaning for a while to re-find and link to. I forgot where I saw it first, which gives me license to mention it on NYCB without crediting anyone.

: So it turns out I was using the 6/10 Inform library for Degeneracy, so I made some diffs and packaged up the source code. Here's the April link to Degeneracy. I should add a third navbar up at the top that I change when I add a new deliverable to the site. Note: the presence of the word "deliverable" in this entry signifies irony.

I'm uncertain as to the value of releasing the source code to and bug list for a work of IF immediately after releasing the work itself. Of course, those who want spoilers at any cost can always disassemble the .z5 file. IF is sort of a special case in programming, and even in game programming, since it's so story-driven and artsy. I don't think I could develop an IF story publicly. I mean, I could do it. Psychologically I would adjust. But it wouldn't feel right, and I don't think it would be as good as it would be if I was able to sit on my vision for the game and not tell anyone about it until I was ready.

That said, I think the basic game structure of Guess the Verb! could have been done a lot better, and that a design session with someone else early on could have made it a much better game. (See upcoming GTV! post-mortem.)

Speaking of which, I really like the developer-written game post-mortems at Gama Sutra, even though I've never played one of the dissected games. I wish that post-mortems could be done for more types of software, but games are 1) relatively unimportant, obviating the need for compulsive litigators to sue because a developer mentioned publicly that a product actually has a defect; 2) a category where, eventually, you can actually claim to be done, rather than just having attained a certain version number.

Back to IF: a whopping *two* bugs were found in the djinn game. I am amazed and flabbergasted, and both bugs have been fixed. It's true that there is always one more bug...

: I did not implement any crazy idea last night. Instead, I slept. But here is a crazy idea which I've had for years but which I probably will never implement since it's pretty obvious it won't work.

The idea is to implement Tetris but to change the way it gets harder over time. Instead of the blocks dropping faster, the shapes of the blocks get more complex. You'd start with regular Tetris and then move to 5-block Tetris, 6-block Tetris, etc. Probably at around 7-block Tetris you would get very angry at the person who wrote the game.

: American McGee's Alice: It's like Alice in Wonderland, but it's really twisted! Coming soon, American McGee's Juliet: It's like Romeo and Juliet, but they both die in the end!

No, the thing that really pisses me off about that game is the characters. The Snark and the Boojum are two completely different creatures with completely different habitats. Hello?

: Kevin Maples showed me a cool slot machine which he wrote in C.

That's all for now.

: I made up and used the throwaway phrase "attack of deadly onions from planet deadly onion" a few days ago in an entry in Jake's notebook, and I can't get it out of my head. I love the redundancy. I love the lack of any articles in the sentence. I love the implication that someone named a planet "planet deadly onion". I love all phrases of the form "Attack of the x from Planet y" (especially "Attack of the Good Ol' Boys from Planet Honky-Tonk").

I'm not too crazy about the actual deadly onions; too much like killer tomatoes. But even that makes the whole thing seem like a goofy, poorly-translated video game in which you are a fighter pilot commanded to "defend attack of deadly onions from planet deadly onion!" and when you beat the game you are told "attack of deadly onions is repelled! but this is not the end of your quest!" and then it makes you do the whole thing again, only with cabbages or something.

: Dan and I were discussing how dull the game Missile Command is. One of the few games that actually makes doing homework seem fun in comparison. The question is, what are the worst games ever made? Arcade classics, CGA clunkers, right up to the state of the art. The worst. Let me hear what you think.

: Great Planetfall quote: "I see nothing special about the mobile man-eating plant."

: Opus, the sad truth is that Lo Wang from Shadow Warrior is Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly on his days off.

: I went through all the Gnome Aisleriot card games. Good ones: Elevator, Fortunes, Freecell, Pileon, Scorpion, Spider, Yukon.


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