Features

So, in my last post I remarked that for procedurally generated landscapes to be interesting, they would need features. But what sort of features was I talking about? Population centres, in particular, tend to to be found close to certain kinds of… things. The first of these which always comes to my mind is the “defensible position.” Something like, say, this:

Edinburgh Castle

A lot of the truly great cities in Europe tend to centre around castles, but you don’t tend to find castles just plonked anywhere on the landscape. Edinburgh Castle is a good example because:

  1. I think it looks awesome. Look at the way it seems to just grow out of the rock of those cliffs!
  2. It’s pretty much unassailable from every direction but one (I think I mentioned the cliffs);
  3. It’s on a raised vantage point with a decent line of sight to just about every direction of approach.

It’s not the most castle-ey looking castle and it lacks, for instance:

  1. A moat;
  2. The sort of tower Rapunzel might hang out in.

But I think it makes a reasonable example here. I think this is a good rule of thumb: a castle should look good and be well situated (defensibly speaking).

Another feature which population centres tend to spring up around are harbors. They’re very important for trade, thus they attract people. Wikipedia served up a reasonable example:

Capri harbour, Italy

Rule of thumb number one for a harbor: it should be at the intersection of the land and the sea, ideally. If we’re playing in a fantasy sand pit this isn’t actually the only option, but that’s a story for another day. The nature of the coast is important as well, though. You need reasonably deep water right next to the land, but not too deep. Lastly, and just as importantly: it should provide shelter. The boats in the harbor need to be able to survive the harsh weather the sea sometimes serves up. A sheltered cove with high cliffs to each side sounds about right, no?

The last kind of feature I’m thinking of here is again something quite important to trade: the bridging point. You need to get your trade caravan across the river (or gorge) which separates the harbor and the castle (for example), thus you need to cross the bridge. The bride spans the river at a conveniently narrow point and it’s the only one for miles. Thus, the bridge becomes a nexus of activity and a town springs up there. Over time the town increases in size and more bridges get built. Before you know it… BOOM, Florence!

 

Ponte Veccio

This is, of course, just the tip of the ice berg. We’ve not even talked about churches, cathedrals, monasteries, oases, and any number of geological features.

Another question, of course is how to go about actual generating the population centres themselves. Well, I’m going to talk more about this later, when I actually get around to talking some other people doing some procedural content related stuff, but here’s a little something to wet your appetite:

Cool, no? More about procedural city generation from me later (I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself), but you can read more about this project at this excellent series of blogs. Start at the beginning, and be ready to loose a good hour of your time.

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The Elephant in the Room

Since I haven’t been able to do any actual work on my Clockwork Aphid project as of late, I suppose I may as well talk about the background behind it a little more. Those who talk about it the most are the ones doing it the least, and all that. I’ve spoken a little about virtual worlds before and focussed almost entirely on World of Warcraft, because it’s a the big one. It’s not the only MMORPG, and it definitely wasn’t the first. It is the one that I have most experience with, and statistically the one most other people are likely to have experience with, as well.

There are several other virtual worlds I really should talk about, but the elephant in the room is another extremely large, and very notable, virtual world. One which has double relevance, because I’ve made an oblique reference to it already in another post.

This is a virtual world whose currency has an exchange rate with the real world, and sale of virtual goods within this world has turned people into real life millionaires. There exist architectural practices whose entire portfolio exists “in world.” Sweden, among several other countries, has an embassy in this virtual world, and presumably pays staff to work there. Several musicians have given live concerts there (don’t ask me how that works). This virtual world is not itself a game (as you may have gathered), but it has the infrastructure which has allowed people to build games inside it. Despite all this, though, it has a reputation of, for want of a better word, lameness.

This is, in and of itself, slightly frustrating, because I can’t help feeling that it could be awesome. It should be awesome. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the “Metaverse” from Neal Stephenson’s fantastic Snow Crash, you see. I presume you’ve read Snow Crash? No? Well go and read it. Now. It’s okay, I’ll wait until you’ve finished.

Done? Okay, good. Those are some big ideas, right? Yes, I thought she was a little young, too. Anyway. In case you just went right ahead and skipped over my suggestion there, the metaverse can be summarised, thus:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worldsaugmented reality, and the internet.

I’m talking, of course, about Second Life. If you’re not familiar with it, it looks a bit like this:

 

One thing you might notice right away is that the graphics have a bit of a low-fi look about them, and there’s a reasonably good reason for this*. In our old friend World of Warcraft, the graphics aren’t exactly stellar either, but they’re much sharper than this. In WoW, by and large, the landscape doesn’t really change, unless (topically) a large new expansion is being released with results in sweeping changes to the world. In WoW, when this does happen, the game forces you to download the changes before it lets you start playing. This might be a lot of data (in the order of gigabytes) but it doesn’t happen often. As previously noted, the World of Warcraft is essentially static. Not so Second Life, though, as its landscape is built by its users. Just because a location contained an island with the Empire State Building rising out of it yesterday doesn’t mean that you won’t find a scale replica of the star ship Enterprise there tomorrow. Thus, the content of the game is streamed to the user as they “play,” and thus the polygon counts need to be kept reasonably low so that this can happen in a timely fashion. Even so, you might teleport to a new location, only to find that the walls appear ten seconds after the floor, and then suddenly you’re standing in the middle of a sofa which wasn’t there a second ago.

The issue with second life, for me at least, is that it’s not as immersive as I want it to be. I don’t feel as though I’m connected to it. I feel restricted by it. There’s something cold and dead about it, much like the eyes of the characters in the Polar Express. Something is missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Also, sometimes the walls appear ten seconds after the floor. That said, it is a fully formed virtual world with a large population and a proven record for acting as a canvas for people’s ideas. Given that the point of Clockwork Aphid is to tell stories in a virtual world (I mentioned that, right?), why not tell those stories in Second Life?

This is an idea I’m still exploring, and I keep going backwards and forwards about it, because I’m still not sure if the juice is worth the squeeze. I’d get an awful lot of ready built scope and a huge canvas to play with, but I’m note sure if it’s the right type of canvas. This is a canvas which comes with no small number of restrictions, and I would basically be attaching my wagon to a horse which was entirely outside of my control. Mixed metaphors could be the least of my worries. That said, did I mention that people have become millionaires trading inside Second Life? Then again, Second Life doesn’t exactly represent a living breathing virtual world, so much as the occasionally grotesque spawn of its users’ collective unconsciouses. Sometimes it’s not pretty, other times quite impressive results emerge.

Your thoughts are, as always, both welcome and encouraged, below.

* To be fair, the graphics in Second Life are actually a lot better than they used to be.

There Can be Only… Several…

As I’ve previously mentioned, this project (Clockwork Aphid) has been bubbling away in the  bearded cauldron that is my head for quite some time. As a result, I have quite a bit I want to say about it. I want to blog about the process of building it because I think it might be a good exercise to go through, and also because I think it might help me work the whole thing out. I’m going to talk more about what it actually is quite soon, partly because I want to start talking about implementation and partly because I’ve been prompted by someone else’s project which I suspect might be quite similar. More about that later.

What to do when something like that happens? I think there are two reactions you can to a situation like that: you can feel threatened; or you can feel vindicated. Clearly the second is the more healthy approach, so I’ll go with that one. This is probably for the best, since there are other parties who seem to be coming at the same problem as I am. I mentioned at the end of my post about World of Warcraft that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the static nature of its world, nor the only one attempting a solution of sorts. Specifically, I was talking about ArenaNet’s upcoming Guild Wars 2. They’ll probably explain it a little better than me, so I’ll let them:

The video was supposed to be embedded here, but WordPress doesn’t seem to want to let me. You can find it here.

Now… clearly they have more resources than I do, which could potentially make me feel a little bit like I was staring up at a shear rock face. A rock face covered in bees. Happily, though, they’re going about it in a different way, though some of our goals are the same. Guess that means I’ll just have to come up with some pretty creative solutions, huh?

It should be noted that what they’ve essentially done is polarise the world. Parts of it are shared, and these are the parts with the villages you can actually save (or fail to save), while other parts of it are instanced, which means you have your own copy. So if I kill the dragon in one of these parts, it stays dead… but only in my copy of the world. The dragon in your copy is still alive and kicking until you personally cut its head off / stab it up the bum / jam some opal fruits down its throat. They talk more about the shared, dynamic parts of the world in their blog here and here, and the instanced personal stories here. I encourage you to read just about all of that blog, in fact. I found much of it fascinating and quite insightful.

While, I’m talking about Guild Wars 2, though it is worth taking a moment to marvel over just how stunning those visuals are. The comparison I find myself making is that World of Warcraft looks like it was made out of clay:

While Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, looks as though it was made out of china:

Now before you cry foul and point out that GW2 is a much newer game, it’s worth taking into account that this china like quality was also true of the original Guild Wars:

Obviously some of this has to do with the different graphics engines being used, but I think that actual quality of the design is definitely a factor as well. It’s evident in the 2D promotional art, as well.

I’m also quite taken with the difference in the mythology of the two games, but perhaps I’ll talk about that later. Mythology will be quite a relevant subject, later.

WoW oh WoW

Sooner or later, most people go looking for a bit of escapism every once in a while. There’s definitely a spectrum of how far people like to escape. Some can’t stand anything which steps outside the bounds of the possible, others practically require spaceships and dragons to co-exist with emotionally retarded vampires. Likewise, some people look to books for their diversions, some theatre, radio, television or cinema. Some people play computer games or one sort of another. No one is saying that everyone, or indeed anyone, has make a specific and binding choice, though. You can watch a movie about the emotion and theological struggle of gay monks one evening, read a couple of chapters of a book about an adolescent wizard immediately before bed, and take on the role of a greek god laying waste to, well… everything the next day.

The point of this project (Clockwork Aphid), when you get right down to it, has to do with my own frustrations with a certain kind of computer game. Specifically: the ones I’m going to lump together under the moniker “virtual worlds”. There are a lot of them out there, and I can’t claim to have tried them all, but I have had a play with a couple of the major ones and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Where to start, though? I’ve gone backwards and forwards about this quite a bit and come to the conclusion that I should probably start at the top. The top in this case being the brute, the sprawling 500 lb gorilla that actually accounts for almost 10% of the revenues of the US gaming industry: World of Warcraft, or WoW, to give it its not exactly modest acronym. What we’re talking about here is not just a virtual world, but a massively multi-player online role playing game, or MMORPG. Let’s examine the meaning of this working backwards through the words:

Game – this is something you play, for fun.

Role playing – it contains some component of playing a role different to that of your everyday life. All games do this to a greater or lesser extent, but the difference here is that your character’s own personality and skills have more relevance to the gameplay than your own.

Online – the game is played over the Internet.

Multi-player – the game is played simultaneously by multiple people.

Massively – the “multiple people” playing the game can number in the thousands.

WoW is set in an essentially Tolkenesque fantasy world populated by humans, dwarfs and elves, acting more or less as you’d expect them to had you read or seen the Lord of the Rings. There are other races: Orcs, trolls, undead, gnomes, undead, who are a little more stylised. There’s quite a bit of steam punk and tribal culture in places. That’s not the point though. The point, as in any game, is the question “what does the user do?” and the answer in this case is:

The user takes on the role of one of a member of one of these races, with a particular profession and proceeds to battle their way through the world, fighting hostile elements and performing quests in order to gain “experience” and improve their character. They can also join forces with other players to take on quests; in fact this is practically required in some cases.

I’ve spent a bit of time playing WoW and frankly it can be a lot of fun. The world is HUGE and exploring it can be very enjoyable. There’s also a genuine sense of achievement to be gained from “levelling up” your character. Most of the time. Which brings me to the first frustration: the grind. A lot of the time you just find yourself killing monster, after monster, after monster. This is partly because a large number of the quests (which are handed out by non-player characters, or NPCs, with large yellow exclamation points above their heads) sound like this:

“Oh no! <insert description of peril>! Please help us!

Kill <insert number> of <insert name of monster responsible for this peril>”

Or even worse and with a more concrete example:

“Please bring me 10 giant spider legs.”

The problem here being that against all conventional logic, you might only get a giant spider leg for every third giant spider you kill. As you may have gathered, they don’t call it the grind because it’s fun.

The next frustration is that you don’t actually affect the world. You do the townsfolk a good turn by depleting the number of bandits besieging the town, but this changes nothing. Other players come along and do the exact same quest time after time after, because the bandits simply reappear a couple of minutes after you take them down. So, when you do the quest to take out the leader of the bandits, you arrive to find that a queue has formed. The first person kills him, the others wait for him to reappear and do the same. It sort of breaks the illusion of the game. More annoying still: you’ve been waiting patiently for your turn, but some git comes running in and kills him first. Most annoyingly, to my mind is… Well… Let me give you an anecdotal example:

I was playing as a rogue, which is a nice way of saying thief/assassin, and had been given a quest to recover a particular object from a beach. Needless to say, the beach turned out to be crawling with monsters. So I set about luring them away one by one, depleting their numbers so I could get my trophy without getting my ass handed to me (rogues can give it out, but they cannot take it). The problem being, that by the time I get the to point where I can start thinking about claiming the prize, the monsters I killed first have already started to resappear!

Here’s the problem: this is not how the game wanted me to go about this task. It wanted me to find a group of other players and storm the beachhead, quickly despatching the monsters and grabbing the prize. I was playing as a damn rouge, though! That is not how an assassin does business! In the end I got lucky. A warrior stormed the beach as I was creeping up, and I snaffled the loot while the monsters were distracted. Amoral? I believe I did point out that I was playing as a rogue.

In a regular, non MMO, RPG, everything you kill stays dead for the most part. In this case the world doesn’t have to be persistent (as in unchanging) because you’re the only one playing it and it doesn’t matter if no one else can do the quests. In an MMO, almost everyone needs to be able to do the quests, so the world generally performs a decent impression of Kirsten Dunst’s hair in Interview with a Vampire. It is a workable solution to the problem, but it can make you feel as though you and your actions don’t really matter, which isn’t ideal given that you’re supposed to be a hero.

I’m not the first person to have these sort of complaints, or to contemplate solutions, but that’s a story for another day.