Posts about gaming

Introducing civilfritz Minecraft

I started playing Minecraft with my brother and old college roommate a few weeks ago. My expectations have been proven correct, as I've found it much more compelling to play on a persistent server with a group of real-life friends. In fact, in the context of my personal dedicated server instance, I'm finding the game strikes a compelling chord between my gamer side and my sysadmin side.

There's already some documentation for running a Minecraft server on the Minecraft wiki, but none of it was really in keeping with how I like to administer a server. I don't want to run services in a screen session, even if an init script sets it up for me.

I wrote my own Debian init script that uses start-stop-daemon and named pipes to allow server commands. Beyond that, I made a Puppet module that can install and configure the server. You can clone it from Git at git://civilfritz.net/puppet-minecraft.git.

I also really like maps, so I started looking for software that would let me generate maps of the world. (I was almost pacified when I learned how to craft maps. Almost.) I eventually settled on Minecraft Overviewer, mostly because it seems to be the most polished implementation. They even provide a Debian repository, so I didn't have to do anything special to install it.

I've configured Minecraft Overviewer to update the render once a day (at 04:00 EST, which hopefully won't conflict with actual Minecraft server use), with annotations updated once an hour. You can see it at http://civilfritz.net/minecraft/overview.

I couldn't get Overviewer to display over https for some reason I don't understand yet; so all access is redirected back at http for now.

I wrote about Astro Warrior for GameSpite Journal 12

My article on Astro Warrior was actually published on Telebunny.net, so feel free to go read it over there. As with my Spore article, it was included in an issue of GameSpite, Journal 12. Unlike GameSpite Journal 11, though, I don't have a physical copy. I'll probably order one some day; but I'm already having a difficult time dealing with the glut of stuff (a large portion of which is books) I've had to cram into our new Manhattan apartment.

This article kinda came out of nowhere—who would have thought that a random Master System vertical space shooter could serve as a memorial for my mother?


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GameSpite Journal 12: Astro Warrior

Astro Warrior box art

By all accounts, Astro Warrior is unremarkable. It's a competent 8-bit shooter; but being, as it is, a product of the 1980's, it falls victim to many of the nostalgia-shattering tropes that plagued early consoles in their first strides away from their quarter-hungry arcade brethren. Unforgiving controls are the worst offender, with speed powerups making it simultaneously easier to evade enemies and more difficult to avoid crashing into them. Add to that the kind of relentless difficulty that justifies a game with only three zones. Every powerup is greedily and hastily accumulated, culminating in a multi-option death machine that slices through entire fleets of enemy fighters... until any single mistake strips you back down to the base ship, stranded in a now-overwhelming sea of enemy units and fire.

But I was young and oblivious to concepts like design and quality. I played the first stage over and over, each frustrated rage-quit lasting only a few minutes before my next attempt. (After all, my only other option was Altered Beast.) Glossed over as my memories are of the game, I'm sure I never conquered Zanoni, the first of the game's three bosses; but that didn't keep me from playing the game, nor did it keep me from remembering it as awesome twenty years later.

See, my mother worked part-time at the local hospital. A few days a week, after picking me and my brother up from school, she'd take us back with her to work the last few hours on her shift. That Master System in the children's recovery room was the most advanced video game system we had ever seen. That we had never seen past the first stage was a detail as easily ignored then as the game's design flaws are now (with the benefit of rose-tinted glasses, of course).

Playing through the game again now, I think about everything that was just a little bit beyond me at the time: about my younger self, always falling just short of getting to that second level, all the while blissfully unconcerned with the hard work that brought me there.

Today, Astro Warrior can only really survive through nostalgia. For some, that might strip the game of all value; but, in the end, nostalgia isn't about the object of a memory as much as the context that it returns us to. Astro Warrior might be objectively unremarkable, but to me it will always be a reminder of my mother--a symbol of her dedication to her children and her family. For that, Astro Warrior will always be a classic in my book.

Astro Warrior action shot

I wrote about Spore for GameSpite Journal 11

A while back, I wrote an article about Spore for GameSpite Journal 11. I was waiting for it to be posted online before I posted it here; but it's been long enough now (and Jeremy seems to have moved on to his fantastic Anatomy of a Game series) that I think I might as well go ahead and put it here.

GameSpite Journal 11 turned out really well. You should probably go purchase a copy. I certainly did.


[[!inline pages="gamespite-journal-11-spore" raw=yes]]

Gamespite Journal 11: Spore

At the 2005 Game Developers Conference luminary Will Wright of Maxis Software amazed attendees with his seminar, "The Future of Content." He began simply, outlining for his audience the trials and travails of developing content for an increasingly high-definition medium. No one could have been surprised when he supported his arguments with experiences from his widely successful titles SimCity and The Sims; no one should have been surprised that his content strategies were being prototyped for a new game; but no one could have been prepared for Spore, or for the scope of the demonstration that promised an ever-growing, seemingly boundless galaxy filled with content birthed from players themselves.

From his perspective in the gaming industry, Wright had seen development budgets explode. Creating content to fill increasingly higher-fidelity worlds was getting more expensive every day; and though a developer might spend twice as much to create HD-ready models and textures, that expense carries a diminishing return in value for the player.

At the same time, Wright had noticed that some of his most engaging gaming experiences had little to do with anything the developer had defined beforehand. This had always been true of Maxis's own games; but, with the advent of the Grand Theft Auto series and the era of sandbox gaming it had inspired, more and more players were creating their own stories in these virtual worlds. More importantly, these were the stories that players related to each other, often ignoring the story that had been written for them by the developer.

It seemed a perfect fit: on one side, an industry struggling to keep up with the cost of creation; on the other, an ever-growing mass of players eager to create. So Maxis created Spore: a set of intuitive content creation editors that would bring players and developers closer together, amplifying the player's own creative abilities with procedurally generated models, textures, and animation.

Wright aimed beyond simply equipping players to create: Spore needed to inspire that creation as well. Inspiration comes from the context of the world we're placed in, and the scope of what Wright had in mind was more than anyone present in the conference hall could have anticipated. With brief diversions into the philosophies of creation, play, and Care Bears, he unfolded Spore's world. A single-celled organism grew to inhabit an ocean. He added legs to his creatures and they crawled onto dry land. Given tools, they formed tribes and built cities. Their starship carried them to other planets orbiting the sun and, then, to other stars, each with its own unique planets, cities, and creatures. Each iterative expansion of scope was met with another round of amazed applause.

This presentation was my first exposure to Spore, separated though I was from the event by a layer of Google Video. I was awestruck by the game's depth: it seemed to be a world without end! As the player I would be able to create creatures, vehicles, tanks--entire planets! I could explore every drop of water at microscopic detail, or fly across an entire galaxy; and, thanks to Spore's content distribution network, each new corner of that galaxy would be full of unique content created by other players.

Which is to say: I bought into the hype.

When Spore was released three years later, it seemed a shallow reflection of what had been on display at GDC. The creature editors were still intuitive and the galaxy was still near-infinite, but the magic of watching the game unfold was missing. I had imagined a world with depth to match the amazing breadth on display; but Spore lacked the essential details that make virtual worlds feel alive. The final game was, in fact, even shallower than what had been shown before. Exciting features like emergent abilities and behaviors, procedural verbs, sea creatures, and underwater civilizations were conspicuously missing. Creature evolution, originally rooted in iterative experimentation with the emergent properties of the game engine, was replaced with a linear tech tree of parts. Social interaction, once experimental and unpredictable, now amounted to little more than a repetitive game of "Simon Says" powered by static bonuses granted explicitly by parts purchased in the editor. Military conquest and religious proselytization were nearly indistinguishable, both playing out as a tank parked outside a city, shooting missiles (or is it music?) at an opposing population.

But what if my disappointment with Spore was simply the product of my own unrealistic expectations? The game I had imagined was the perfect fulfillment of every pipe dream that 2005 Will Wright had for it, but reality rarely matches up with such high expectations. Perhaps now, another three years divorced from the romanticism that had preceded the game's launch, I would be able to appreciate Spore for what it is. After all: I don't even remember my creature from my first session at launch. Resolved to approach the game on its own terms, I did my best to take ownership of my worlds and creatures this time around. As a result, I created the Qwertz: a race bent on conquest, dominance, and vague Klingon pretension.

Even as the simplest of cellular life the Qwertz survived by consuming and eradicating others. On land they preyed on those around them, quickly rising to dominance over Handwalkers, Skyles, Flirgle, and all manner of strange creatures.

The Qwertz were terrestrial conquerors, but the final frontier was cold, strange, and empty. Unable to anticipate the strength of other space-faring races, they fearfully allied with neighboring species: the Ixplix, snake-oil salesmen of the highest order, ready to sell of their goods and their lands to turn a profit; and the Leafel, quiet, continually distressed over this diseased native or that ecological collapse. For a time, the Qwertz lived in peace--in a different world, this peace might even have survived--but it was not to be. The Algernon Empire, ministers of the Spode, introduced its philosophy with the heated end of a laser cannon. The Qwertz had seen their fair share of religious fanatics at home and, finding security in the smallest foothold of familiarity, they met the Algernon threat with new-found ferocity.

Reassured by the fresh taste of victory, the Qwertz resumed their conquest. The Ixplix were the next to fall; then the Kirgle and the Ashonas, mutual opponents in the Spode. One by one the Qwertz hunted ever-greater opponents, leaving behind a trail of smoldering colonies and fallen empires as they made their trans-galactic pilgrimage to the core. There they finally met the Grox: the uncompromising, overpowering, infamous scourge of the galaxy.

This story that I told myself--of the Quertz, their conquest of the galaxy, and their eventual encounter with an oracle of their future selves--may have been birthed from my own imagination, but Spore lacks the depth to bring it to life: it exists almost entirely in my mind. My return to Spore left me sometimes frustrated, sometimes bored, and sometimes compelled to keep playing into the early morning; but I'm not sure that I ever found myself having fun. The content creation editors are as easy to use as they have always been, but they quickly start to feel like a chore. The player can meticulously design every building in every colony on every planet, but why bother when doing so has no impact on the game itself?

The pervasive absence of detail leaves Spore feeling soulless. I could play again--create another creature and make up another story--but the structurally uniform game world doesn't provide any incentive to do so. Every planet has three plants (one small, one medium, and one large) and three creatures (two herbivores, one carnivore) per T-Score. Every sentient creature is shoehorned into the same handful of archetypes, and interactions with any creature within an archetype is identical to those with any other. I could terraform every planet in the galaxy to T3, place the maximum three colonies on each one, and purchase every item in the game; but the galaxy will always be mostly empty space homogeneously populated with pallet-swapped versions of the same shallow "characters" I saw when I first entered the space stage. They will always cry out with the same restricted vocabulary of mission templates: they're either under attack, nearing ecological collapse, suffering a labor strike, conducting a planetary survey, or in search of some special artifact. One mission in particular sent me, to my surprise, to exterminate members of a rival religious group; but the mission framework, unable to distinguish even between religious homicide and disease control, instructed me to "exterminate the infected creatures."

Yet, as disappointingly shallow as the narratives that emerge from the gameplay are, Spore does have at least one worthwhile story to tell. It's a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of modern game development, starring the plucky hero Maxis and his fall from grace.

Spore was a dream of a new era in game development. It was an experimental response to the unsustainably ballooning budgets of the industry. In the best tradition of the original SimCity, Maxis sought to counter this trend while, at the same time, equipping the player to be creative, to experiment, and to share that experience with others. Wright wasn't alone in his vision of the future, and his insights as shared by others are responsible for the burgeoning small and independent game development market that is thriving on digital distribution services like Steam, XBLA, PSN, and iOS. The Maxis of SimCity would fit right in with the likes of Studio Pixel, Amanita Design, and Frictional Games, creating focused conceptual experiments in gaming that inspire audiences and developers alike; but the Maxis of The Sims, toiling now in exile at the behest of the corporate behemoth that is Electronic Arts, is no longer afforded the freedom to commit to a singular vision (least of all a risky experiment) at the potential expense of wider market appeal. Spore's pedigree begot a budget that crushed the life from its initial innovation, spreading it so thin as to be nearly inappreciable.

Spore's ultimate failure to deliver on its potential might have robbed mainstream gamers of the experience of losing themselves in a world of their own creation, but the intent of its design lives on in a new generation of developers independent of the pressures of traditional game publishing. The communities that surround relatively niche titles like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress are rooted in the same emergent storytelling that I had hoped to find in my procedurally generated galaxy. Spore might lack the depth to tell players a worthwhile story of their own creation, but perhaps it can tell developers large and small a story about a little studio called Maxis and what happened when innovation was exploited, rather than fostered.

USA 2011, game bounty

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During my recent trip to the states I visited with family and friends; traveled via plane, bus, and car; wandered the streets of Chicago; and climbed [[!wikipedia Medicine_Bow_Peak desc="the highest peak in the snowy range"]]. But today I'm going to talk, in stead, about the pile of games that I acquired.

GameStop has apparently decided to get out of the used PS2 market. I can hardly blame them: they have an incredible inventory with a low signal-to-noise ratio. The Illinois stores that I visited all had "buy two, get two free" sales ongoing, and the Wyoming stores still had lots of boxed and unboxed games at pretty low prices.

I only got my PS2 in 2009 while I was stuck in hotel rooms waiting to move to Saudi. There's a lot of good PS2 games that I have yet to play, and the huge GameStop inventory means I'm bound to find at least a few good games. The aforementioned low signal-to-noise ratio meant that I spent a lot of time leafing through the same Guitar Hero, sports, and racing games. That said, I almost never left a store empty-handed.

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I also picked up a few DS games. I ordered Dragon Quest V and Retro Game Challenge from Amazon before we left the kingdom: Dragon Quest V has always interested me since I read Jeremy Parish's writeups on GameSpite and 1UP; and I played Retro Game Challenge back at Argonne with Daniel and Cory, but... less than legitimately.

I've been tangentially aware of the Professor Layton series for a while, but never with any detail. I originally thought it was some kind of RPG, but my interest waned a bit in the face of its more traditional puzzle structure. Andi took to them quickly, though: she's already finished "The Curious Village," and we got a copy of "The Diabolical Box," too.

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Like I said, I've come to the PS2 a bit late, so I'm doing what I can to go back and visit the classics. I found boxed copies of "Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance" and "Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence"... awesome! I've already started enjoying MGS2 (though I must admit that I have been disappointed by Raiden in comparison with Solid Snake, even without any preconceptions or hype.) I later found out that Subsistence contains ports of the MSX versions of "Metal Gear" and "Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake." Very cool: now I won't have to suffer through the horrible NES localization.

I heard about "Space Channel 5" on Retronauts' Michael Jackson episode. Knowing that it (and its "Part 2") were just forty minutes each, I tackled those first thing when I got home. Aside from possibly Incredible Crisis, these are the most Japanese games I've ever played. The first in the series had a few technical flaws (at least, the PS2 port I got did), most off-putting being the incredibly picky controls. That was cleaned up in the second game, along with the VCD-quality pre-rendered backgrounds from the Dreamcast original.

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I jumped on a disc-only copy of Suda51's "Killer7" on Yahtzee's recommendation: "As flawed as it is, get it anyway, because you'll never experience anything else like it." I haven't even put this one in the console, yet, but the last game I played on a Zero Punctuation recommendation was Silent Hill 2: one of the best games I've ever played. I don't expect Killer7 to be as significant (or even comprehensible) as that, but it should at least be interesting.

A copy of "Oni" seemed familiar, but only in the back of my mind. Turns out it's pre-Halo Bungie. (Actually, Bungie West.) The Marathon influence is obvious, but the default controls are really twitchy. Hopefully I can adjust the sensitivity a bit when I come back to it.

I didn't have any multiplayer PS2 games yet, so I picked up copies of "Soul Calibur II" and "Gauntlet: Dark Legacy" for parties. Of course, I forgot that I only have one PS2 controller. Hopefully I can pick up few more up along with a four-player adapter. (Otherwise, what's the point of Gauntlet?) Soul Calibur is as well-made as I expected (though the disc is FMV-skippingly scratched); but Gauntlet comes off as a bit cheap. The gameplay seems good enough: it just doesn't feel as classic as it deserves.

I keep hearing mention of the "Ratchet and Clank" series, but I haven't touched a PlayStation platformer since MediEvil. It hasn't really caught my attention yet, but maybe "Jak and Daxter" will.

I picked up a copy of "Batman Begins," but I apparently had it confused with "Arkham Asylum." "Tokobot Plus" was actually a "new" game, but priced down such that you couldn't tell. I guess it didn't sell well: but it reminds me of the "Mega Man: Legends" world. Hopefully it will, at least, be interesting.

All told I got twelve games (fourteen if you count the MSX games included with Subsistence). [edit: turns out that I only got disc 1, so no MSX games.] Despite Batman's misdirection, I think I did alright--all for less than you'd spend on two current-generation games--and not one generic brown FPS in the lot.

Bioshock Infinite might finally convince me to by an Xbox

I just read Jeremy Parish's interview with Ken Levine of Irrational Games where they discuss the AI of the non–player characters in Bioshock Infinite. The original Bioshock was the first game that made me want a 360, but I eventually played it on Steam. I bet my poor iMac couldn't handle this, though... maybe I'll have to purchase a 360 after all.

The AIs are constantly watching each other, too. There's a part where a guy runs into another guy and knocks him over and starts beating on him. The way that works is, that's not a script, it's an A.I. going, "Hey, I'm available for something cool." And another A.I. goes, "You know what I can do? I can come over and beat the shit out of you." And the other A.I. says, "OK, cool, let's do that." But they can only do that in the right situation. Are they being shot at? OK, then no, they can't do that. Is something else going on? No, they can't do that. We have this whole library of content -- that library, for instance, or Elizabeth saying this or doing that -- but the system is constantly monitoring the playing and saying, "Is this the right time? Is this the right time?" And that's the most challenging thing we're doing with this game.

~ Ken Levine

Pathfinder reference document

Need to look up a rule but don't have access to your sourcebooks? It turns out that Paizo publishes a reference document that contains only the "Open Game Content" as specified in the Open Game License. It's available at http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/.

It'd be cool if, eventually, I'm able to translate that to markdown for better internal reference and whatnot, but you can refer to the reference document for any rules questions. I certainly will.

Playing pathfinder online

I want to get a play-by-post Pathfinder game going. Maybe doing it online will make it easier to play consistently. Maybe I'll be able to get Jordan to play too.

I've got ideas for most of the issues that will come up in this forum. I already have a proof of concept for the actual play posts that should work pretty well, and have worked up a quick stylesheet to make the default comments interface less annoying for this use case. I figure that we can eventually archive the stream (manually at first, but automatically eventually) and possibly even keep a (collaboratively-edited, in the wiki spirit) prosaic writeup of what happened in the campaign.

(Note to self: I need to check what happens to comment numbers if previous comments are removed. If it fills in the missing numbers, that could make it difficult to archive the stream to a single point. I can think of a couple workarounds, but it'd be better if the comment numbers stayed unique within a stream.)

I need a die roller that converts die text like [[!dieroll 1d6+1]] to <span class="dieroll" title="1d6+1">5</span>, rendering like 5. That way our die rolls will be consistent and fair.

I might also want the roller to sign the roll with an encrypted key. It will need to include the date of the roll, too. Maybe "1d6+1 @ 1 January 2010 12:00 => 5".

Or maybe it can just log the die rolls server-side.

Really, though, nothing would be standing in the way, now that the post interface is ready, of us starting, baring the creation of characters and campaign notes.

Speaking of campaign notes: I need a way to protect sections of the wiki from player eyes, probably in a /users/$user/private area or similar.

beat Myst V

Andi and I beat Myst V last night. It certainly wasn't bad; but like old-man Atrus at the end, it hobbled to the series conclusion.

In fact, the ending was the worst part: so terribly over-dramatic; and, as always, Yeesha just wouldn't shut up.

Some of the puzzles were pretty good, but because most of them centered on the use of the slates, they tended to feel samey. The abysmal interface and level of environment interactivity didn't help matters either; virtually the entire world was static, with only puzzle elements offering any manipulatability.

Still, it was good to have some Myst to play. I might eventually even get around to the expansion ages for Uru... but that would mean playing through all of Uru again.

Maybe I'll do Grim Fandango first.