Friday, 6 December 2013

What Am I Looking Forward To?

It's December and with no news of the alpha release slipping it looks like we'll be getting our hands on something playable from Frontier Developments very soon. My prediction is Thursday December 12th 2013.

With FD on lock-down and noses to the grindstone, I feel like we're experiencing the quiet before the storm. So I thought I'd take this time to put down what I'm really looking forward to in the final game. Perhaps we might even see some of these things in alpha!

An entire galaxy

Not trying to start a turf war with other space sims in the pipeline, but Elite Dangerous will undoubtedly have the biggest game universe; with an entire galaxy being simulated and only 1% of it being explored at launch. This will be a great game for those who like to seek out new places.

A simulated sky box

Unlike other space games where a static texture is used for the background, Frontier have said Elite Dangerous' background will be dynamically generated by the game engine, depending on where you are in the galaxy. Each star will be somewhere you can travel to.

The Cobra

I was almost starting to think Frontier were intentionally toying with backers' emotions by not showing a Cobra. But then Michael Brookes went and posted this. Although I'm more of an Anaconda fan myself, I got to say that the Cobra is looking very sexy.

Dynamic lighting

A nearby star or the glowing engines of a ship will light up your cockpit. if you haven't seen it already, check out the latest development diary video around the 5 minute mark. An interview with James Avery, senior VFX artist, reveals there's going to be some dynamic and very impressive explosions too.

Space battles!

Combat is one of the things I didn't really rate about Frontier: Elite 2. I'm looking for a more visceral experience and judging by the game play videos I've seen so far there's a good chance they might deliver.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Quad Core Conundrum

A recent post on the private backers forum by Michael Brookes revealed what Frontier Developments regard as the minimum spec to run the Elite: Dangerous alpha build. It makes for interesting reading:
  • Direct X 11
  • Quad Core CPU ( 4 x 2Ghz is a reasonable minimum)
  • 2 GB System Ram (more is always better)
  • DX 10 hardware GPU (my reasonably low end machine has a GTX 285 with 2GB)
When asked if faster dual core processors will be able to cope, Michael said they would run the game but it would likely be unplayable. Some people are sceptical of this claim, even after reiteration from Michael and further explanation.
Michael made reference to multi-threading as the reason why 4 cores are required, but I think he was actually referring to multi-processing. The reason some people are sceptical is because of the way the most games have been developed in the past.

A computer game is basically a very tight loop, made up of reading user input, updating (AI, networking) and then rendering. Each one of those steps is dependent on the one proceeding it and so they can't be run in parallel (or there is very little gain in trying to do so). This has led to the practice of keeping everything in a single process (although I'm sure there are a few exceptions).

However, a space sim such as Elite: Dangerous may offer some unique opportunities to have some heavy tasks put in separate processes. A few examples spring to mind:

Galaxy Simulator / Procedural Code

OK, there probably isn't any need to simulate the entire galaxy but certainly a star system. If they're complex enough then there may be a significant amount of work involved which would benefit from being done separately. Don't forget, there are going to be procedurally generated textures and bitmaps required which may not be suited to being generated on a graphics card.


Keeping track of thousands of objects and particles (velocity, rotation, collision) may warrant a separate process which is then queried by the main process. I imagine handling the interactions and gravitational effects of planets, moons and belts made up of thousands of asteroids is not trivial. If the amount of physics work going on far exceeds the overhead of implementing it in a separate process then this could make a lot of sense.

Scripting Engine

If the user interface and some other features are done through a scripting engine such as LUA then there may be a real opportunity to keep it in a separate process and leave the main process worry about the tight-loop. In the future, if user scripting is supported, then dodgy user code may not impact the game so much.

Then again, perhaps this is all speculation and the alpha build will happily run on dual core processors. Remember, Michael is in a difficult position and doesn't want to make promises which then get broken. It may just be simpler to give out the spec of a machine he knows to work and then refuse to be drawn on lesser deviations.

EDIT: Thanks to Maxeren on the forums for pointing out the existence of fragment shaders in relation to procedurally generated textures on graphics cards. I have now changed it to reflect the fact that whatever method FD use it may not necessarily be implementable on graphics hardware.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Still conflating PvP and Griefing?

My previous post wasn't clear enough. People are struggling to understand my position that issues of PvP and griefing/bullying are entirely separate. My bad; let's try again.

One of the points I made was that in any discussion about PvP gameplay, there is invariably an interjection with talk of griefing or bullying. However, these are quite distinct topics.

I will use the terms bullying or harassment as they are much better than griefing which is fast becoming my most hated word in that nobody can agree on  what it is.

Bullying comes in the forms of verbal (voice chat), written (text chat) and game actions (killing, spoiling). Game actions could be considered the equivalent of real life physical bullying. I think we can agree that therefore bullying is not simply an extension of PvP, but that PvP can be leveraged in the act of bullying.

Whenever bullying gets brought up in a discussion about how PvP gameplay should be implemented the waters are muddied. People should not be asking "What can be done to PvP to prevent/reduce bullying?" They should be asking "What can be done to prevent/reduce bullying in game?" If we just think about preventing bullying in terms of hobbling different game aspects then we end up with a blunted experience and a poor solution. Instead we should be talking about how we can identify bullying behaviour and prevent it across the entire game; a different conversation entirely.

Previously there were calls on the Elite: Dangerous forums for a separate PvE group system. If we are charitable and assume people wanted this because they didn't like bullying behaviour then they are misguided because it would not come close to preventing it. There would still be huge scope for other types of bullying and even other game actions which could spoil the experience for other players. It may placate those people with a bizarre like for NPC combat but not human combat, however ;)

I searched for the terms "bullying" and "harassment" in thread titles on the forums and, surprisingly, turned up no results. If people are genuinely concerned about in game bullying then I implore them to start specific threads and engage with the developers that way. It should be a lot more productive and you are far more likely to get answers to your questions.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Elite Dangerous: WARNING! May contain pirates

Another one of my threads on the Frontier Forums devolved in to a PvP vs PvE shouting match. I don't mind much because they're fun (especially since I put some of the more uninteresting and annoying people on my ignore list*) but I can understand if some people find it tedious. Luckily, if people don't like it, they can just not read it! Isn't technology wonderful?

This made me think that perhaps it would be good to explain my position in the debate in relation to what appears to be two extremes.

First, we must avoid the fallacy of the middle ground, better known as the argument to moderation. Whether you like it or not, sometimes one side is just right and the other one is just wrong. It frustrates me when people who enter a debate and look to find the middle ground as they are not interested in truth, just not upsetting people. Unfortunately many Internet forum moderators fall in to this trap when dealing with conflict.

So, are the PvPers right to bemoan the existence of some cuddly people who don't like to engage in as much combat with other humans? Are the PvEers right to complain that their game will be ruined by psychopaths?

I think I am inclined towards the PvP crew simply because the PvE position is inconsistent and bordering on delusional.

The old Elite games were single player and featured ship-to-ship combat. The good news for fans of these single-player games is that this game mode is still supported; you can just remain in a single player group. However, the unique selling point of Elite Dangerous is that it now features a persistent, evolving world occupied by other players. Now it is possible to engage with fellow humans in exactly the same way we did with NPCs in previous games.

It has been argued by some PvE players that they want to get on with the task of mining, exploring or trading without the hassle of unwanted combat. However, this completely ignores the fact that they will most likely be operating in areas that contain dangerous NPCs that will engage them. To say they are happy to fight NPCs but not players is totally bizarre.

Once this objection is raised then there follows a bait and switch. All of a sudden the conversation will move to griefing which actually has very little to do with regular PvP. This conversation can get really ugly when there are various definitions of griefing being used and people usually just end up talking past each other. The only useful definition of griefing describes (hopefully) very rare events, whereas some of the more sensitive people seem to think any unwanted PvP is griefing (I kid you not).

Put simply: Elite is a space trading and combat sim. It's in the name of the genre for goodness-sake.

* Let me be clear: putting someone on my ignore list is a last resort. I never remove voices of disagreement from my feed simply because they disagree (I relish the debate!) However, as you'll find on every Internet forum, there exist individuals who can only be described (politely) as intelectually dishonest. These are the people who, instead of addressing any points or arguments you make, try to help correct typos or spelling mistakes, attack strawman positions or who quote you out of context so they can feel smart. And also the people who, once you've eviscerated all of their shaky reasoning for their position, declare everything "subjective" and everyone is entitled to an opinion. These people aren't interested in actually discussing the merits of anything, they just want to score points by being dishonest or obtuse.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Path of Least Resistance

Where I discover I was wrong to consider this a straight forward question of player choice/freedom versus designer dictat.

The Elite Dangerous Design Decision Forum is a forum system set up by Frontier Developments to capture the suggestions and feedback from the Kickstart project backers who pledged to that level.

Since becoming a member of the DDF I have become aware of a bit more detail surrounding the thoughts of the developers and some of the forum members. Much of it is very interesting, with regular new topics appealing for ideas and thoughts on different aspects of the game design.

A great deal of what gets posted is blue-sky thinking. Much of it is simply ideas, thrown out for others to consider. Some people go in to a bit more depth, really fleshing out their ideas and so give their fellow members something to really contemplate. Most of it is quite good!

One concept that has been described by the developers, and repeatedly referenced by fellow forum members is the path of least resistance. In the context of the forum and game development it has been used as the metaphor for the behaviour a game player exhibits when presented with multiple choices. Each choice has some value of resistance (effort required) and so the observation is that players (on average) tend to take the easiest route.

What we're talking about here is not some law of reality, but an observation which is supposedly supported by statistically significant data. What evidence there is for this I am not sure, but I am willing to accept it for the purposes of this post. If anybody does have some interesting research which relates specifically to games then I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Anybody who has read A Treatise of Human Nature will know that Hume identified a particularly egregious form of sloppy thinking and elucidated the is-ought problem (examples to follow, don't worry). There is striking parallel between the factual/moral non-sequitur in the naturalistic fallacy, for example, and the factual/aesthetic proclamations about about certain player behaviours (particularly the path of least resistance). So, in the absence of some newly discovered propositional logic we can move on from the idea that there is some inherent rule of game design hidden in there somewhere.

My first example would be the statement "in nature, animals to not give consent to copulation; therefore rape if morally acceptable". Most people would disagree with this. You may even say it's obviously a nonsense statement, but please considering my next example.

How about the statement "in nature, there are no homosexual animals; therefore homosexuality is morally wrong"? Ignoring the fact that there does exist strong evidence that there are gay animals, this has been a staple of irrational bigotry for as long as it has existed and has been taken very seriously, even though it's a non sequitur just as with the first example.

So back to our topic: what drives design decisions about features or mechanics in relation to the path of least resistance? As usual we find that it is subjective and value driven. In fact, two schools of thought emerged on the forum, one of them being championed by myself.

The first was a libertarian principle that valued player choice and freedom (as long as it didn't infringe on the gaming rights of others). I still hold this position in a very general sense. The second was an authoritarian principle which assumed the developer had an obligation to prescribe game play and players should submit to the designer's vision. However, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong to think that it is as black and white as I originally claimed. Both positions ignore real issues.

The authoritarian position is based on the assumption that something needs to be done about player behaviour and that the designer is the one who must take steps to prevent the existence of a path of least resistance. Why is this assumption made? The reason often cited is fun i.e. if players take the easy path then they miss out on fun.

The fun argument is weak and a thought experiment can show why. Imagine a top-down shooter where you had to kill hoards of Allen Stroud clones. We'll call it Allen Breed. The designer/developer decides that a mere 100 pixels from the starting point on level 1 is a portal which takes the player straight to the game's closing credits and an epic high score. Does this "feature" take the fun out of the game? In short, no, it can't. The player can simply restart the game and choose not to use the portal and then proceed in a more normal fashion. The amount of fun in the game is preserved.

You may try and object to this conclusion by saying that if you jump to the end then you've made the whole game meaningless. But this argument admits that the overriding value of the game is to complete it. It assumes that seeing the closing credits is more worthwhile than the journey and experience to get there. That would imply that playing the game is not fun or even un-fun (a chore). If playing the game is a chore then rationally the most fun thing to do is not play the game, or use the shortcut. It suggests the game is badly designed. The thought experiment works no matter what the destination of the shortcut: the end credits, just before the last boss, 50% through the game.

But the fun argument is even weaker because it is based upon the assertion that designers should be dictating what players should be doing to have fun because they know better (hence why they're in the job). This has been the prevailing attitude for most of the existence of video gaming. However, recently there has been a move towards empowering the player to find fun wherever they want and the open/sandbox game was born. When it comes to player demand, the likes of WoW, GTA and Minecraft are top dogs. Personally, I want to see Elite Dangerous as an open game where players can discover and make their own fun, without adversely effecting other players. Once you consider who it is that actually decides whether something is fun or not, you soon realise that perhaps the designer isn't as responsible as originally thought.

So, if fun can't tell us what to do about the path of least resistance then what can? I'm leaning towards popular vote. If players like it then keep it. If they don't then cut it. This includes features that allow some players to adversely affect or ruin other players' games. However, the fact some players don't like a shortcut or think it morally objectionable doesn't warrant cutting it if they have the option not to employ it. That would be some players enforcing their ideology on others like the Saudi Arabian morality police enforcing a strict dress code on women.

There exists an argument that a feature that benefits a player and gives them an advantage necessarily hurts other players' games unless they make same use of that feature. But this is less enlightening than you may think because it is a truism. Having multiple monitors conveys an advantage, a certain controller will have an edge over others, young people have faster reflexes, unemployed or retired people have more time on their hands. There is always going to be inequality; that's a fact of reality. The question for the designer is therefore one of degree. I'm not so sure the Saudi Arabian morality police are really put out by having to deal with sexual urges brought on by seeing women's hair. But I'm sure that greedy and careless short selling of stock can harm our pension funds. You may disagree.

At the end of the day, given that modern multiplayer games are extremely complex and inherently asymmetric, we need to consider that removing any and all paths of least resistance may be impossible. I'm reminded of competitive Street Fighter players who would converge on optimal strategies which would be employed to such an extent that battles became those of physical stamina rather than competing styles. This was until somebody discovered a more optimal strategy and dominated until everybody else adopted. Check out Episode 7 of Game Developer's Radio for an interesting discussion on asymmetric design and balance, plus some interesting links.

The only recommendation I could give to a game designer is to be wary of using the path of least resistance as shorthand for good game design. It would be futile and sometimes even harmful to pursue the extermination of easy routes; sacrificing interesting and useful features on the alter of fairness, a cruel and elusive goddess.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Backer Views #001

As an experiment I decided to put together a new short podcast, kind of like the Writers Interviews that we have made previously. It's called Backer Views and each episode I'll be interviewing a member of the Elite Dangerous community to get their thoughts on the design decisions and development of the game.

I've already recorded and edited the first episode, featuring John Harper. We discuss some very interesting topics such as PvP (oh yeah), smuggling and alpha/beta testing.

Let me know what you think. I'm trying to find a short burst of intro/outro music at the moment, but didn't want to delay releasing it to the public. If you have any suggestions about who would suit being the next interviewee then feel free to make suggestions (even if it's yourself!)

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Debate: Part I

Debate is a great thing. It can be a fantastic opportunity to educate and entertain an audience and it is a great way to develop your critical thinking skills and arguments.

The Internet has a real problem with debate, however. What constitutes debate on Internet forums and chat rooms is actually closer to shouting matches and Fox News "celebrity" panels. The quality of debate varies greatly, depending on the particular forum's demographic.

The Elite Dangerous section on the Frontier forums is middle to lower in debate quality. That's not to say it is a melting-pot of aggression and insult; the moderators are very good at stepping in and calming things down. However, there is a lot of potentially beneficial debate that quickly goes down hill due to poor reasoning or debating skills. Here's three of them:

People mistaking criticism of their ideas for personal attacks

This can be an easy one to fall in to. We all feel passionate about these things, otherwise we wouldn't be debating them! However, unless you're happy to walk away from every encounter with the feeling that you're hated by almost everybody, you need to focus on when comments are directed at your ideas or at your person. 
Sometimes you may express an idea or conclusion that is wrapped up in or results in a very human concept or emotion. If people criticise this outcome then they are not necessarily accusing you of it.

People conflating their opinion with demonstrated fact

It's not even funny how often this occurs. How familiar is this story: you start debating someone who has espoused some ridiculous position. As you carefully and logically deconstruct their arguments, they're left with some nebulous assertion; at which point they claim that "it's all subjective" or "everyone has an opinion". Yeah, those people are really annoying.
You can spend tens if not hundreds of posts leading someone down a logical path, suddenly to find out that, actually, that thing they swore was gospel at the start of the conversation is just a hunch, intuition or opinion.
Tip: If your position is purely subjective then consider stating it as so from the outset. You may even want to refrain from expressing it if the conversation is one devoted to facts. If you find yourself appealing to subjectivity after debate on a regular basis you may want to start giving your posts thought before hitting the submit button.
Moderator tip: Not all opinion is equal. Some opinions are based on fact. Reward intelligent posts, not niceness.

Poor understanding of the English language (by people who supposedly have it as a first language). Also: people who think Latin is for academics only.

Let's face facts, not everyone is educated to the same level, and that's before you even start thinking about the idea of inherent intelligence. Nobody is omniscient and so there is always going to be a time when there is some idea or word that you are ignorant of. The easy thing to do is assume that the speaker is an elitist prick who is out to confuse you with big words.
I believe it was Richard Feynman who said that if you can't explain an idea to a class of graduate students then perhaps you don't know it as well as you thought. There is a lot of truth in this; I think debaters do have a responsibility for ensuring their ideas are communicable. However, the student also has a responsibility to learn. If someone uses a word, phrase or idea you don't understand why not use the power of the Internet to find out more? If a Wikipedia article exists for it then you've just learnt something. If you can't find anything, or the results are equally unintelligible then you may have a case against the speaker...
You need to be aware of words which can have related multiple meanings. Don't assume the speaker is using it the same way you would. Ask for clarification.
Don't assume words are being used as a pejorative. There are useful meanings behind the words ignorant, stupid and (this week's candidate) luddite.

That's all for now. Just waiting for the first person to comment saying that the fact I've produced a top-down critique of debate on a forum is elitist and condescending...

LAVECON & Late Night Buckaroo

I wanted to take the opportunity to thank all those that made LAVECON the success it was.

Firstly, thank you to Fozza. He was the one who pushed to have it as a public event and then to have it in the convention format. He did a lot of the running around, speaking to the venue, organising posters and putting cash up front to make things happen, even though there was no guarantee he'd get any of it back.

Thank you to Chris Jarvis and Allen Stroud for all their efforts, including a rather cool musical finale. Their input on the day was instrumental in making sure the event ran smoothly.

Thanks to Michael Brookes for being the official face at the event. His presence confirmed that both he and Frontier Developments care about the community.

Thanks to Drew Wagar for his epic reading of the prologue to his upcoming book: Elite Reclamation.

Thanks to all the other panel members: Dave Hughes, Darren Grey, Kate Russell, Lin Chen and Ramon Marrett.

And last, but not least, a big thanks to all the attendees. All of you were great, without exception.