Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Young kids and social networks

Just a pointer to couple of interesting posts by Amy Wang and Marjie Braun Knudsen on kids and Facebook. Facebook's minimum age is 13 (not sure of the science behind that) but both writers suggest, persuasively, that younger kids would likely get lots out of it. That sounds right to me although none of our kids are on Facebook (mostly because I am not sure they are going to use it and can't be bothered setting up accounts). My 8 year old son is on twitter and posts occasionally. However, there I notice that he has picked up some strange followers and so I have had to go in and block them. It is an imperfect way of going about these things but at some point there is going to be a lesson about what such Internet behaviour means and some self-management. I suspect I'll only be really comfortable with that in a few years. For now, Club Penguin works well for social interaction.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Playing around with particles (not related to the LHC in any way)

Now for another lookie at our powerful arsenal of tools. This time I'm showing the Particle Editor, which is the app we use to do those nifty particle effects like fire, smoke and so on... you can get really nice stuff by using this thing.

Actually, the Particle Editor is nothing new in our toolset. Those who picked the HPL tools pack to make a map for Penumbra (or just for the sake of getting them) surely will have spotted a ParticleEditor.exe in there. You could create and control every aspect in a particle system with it.

Good ol' Particle Editor

It worked like this: you created a new Particle System, added at least one Particle Emitter, and then set these up with stuff like starting position, velocity, material, etc., which would be used by every particle created by each emitter.
When you are creating the Particle System, you sure need to check how it looks while you are at it, and this was the main flaw of the old Particle Editor: you could do a preview of the Particle System in the works, but the method implied saving it to a file and loading it on a viewer program. This was done automatically by the editor, so no sweat in there, but having to save to a file + loading the viewer is a rather blocking combo (meaning it makes you wait and only wait), which can last up to a few seconds.

Hey, wait a moment, this nutty is telling us to wait a few secs... what's the big deal? you might think... but if you spend a couple hours working with it, you will notice you will have to do tons of previews (even more when tweaking little details), which translate to a lot of time wasted in the end (not to mention the actual time spent checking the Particle System while it runs)... and also you will find it really annoying :P

Ahh, the old times.We spent a good time together,right? Wait, that was actually a LOT of time.

So for HPL2 we decided to make a "new" Particle Editor, which basically is the same editor for HPL1, but with a really ├╝bernice realtime preview. It still has some details that could be polished further, but it is quite nice to work with at the moment,and that's the important thing.

And now it's time to see this in action: behold while I make some strange effect in this video :)

Hope you liked it. Will get back to the Particle Editor at some point in the future. As always, you can voice your thoughts on this. I'll be happy to know those :)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Having kids over

I'm not sure what to make of this ruling as it is always hard to get the story from news accounts. But a NSW court awarded $853,396 in damages to a boy who fell from a bunk-bed while on a sleep-over. The claim is that there was no ladder but it does raise the whole notion of a duty of care will taking care of other people's children. For professional services, they get insurance for precisely this sort of thing but no one else ever thinks to do so. The story certainly gives one pause.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Parenting through the ages

In the New Yorker this week, a very interesting article about parenting magazines and books. Jill Lepore looks at a couple of recent parenting books and the origins of parenting advice. She argues that prior to the 20th century, larger families meant that many children had already had a great deal of parenting experience rearing their siblings. When this change, the demand for external advice rose. That suggests to me that we don't want to protect our children from parenting duties themselves. Hooray, now I can feel far less guilty about ordering my 10 year old to supervise bath time for her younger siblings.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hannah Montana: The Enterprise

I took the children to see Hannah Montana: The Movie. (Yes, I know it has been out in the US for months but it has only just been released in Australia; part of Disney's strategy to give Australians a moral incentive to pirate). I must admit that I was quite emotional about it. I sat there through the whole thing in disbelief at the beauty of the entire story, the poignant images, the subtle and not so subtle tensions. I just can't convey the incredible feeling to gives me to see something like this put together. Hannah Montana is as close to perfection as a business and marketing idea that I have ever seen. I cannot imagine any economist or business school professor sitting through this with a dry eye.

For those who don't know, Hannah Montana is a pop-star who is actually the alter-ego of Miley Stewart who is played by Miley Cyrus the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus who himself plays Miley's father (Stewart that is) calling himself Robby Ray until frankly it is hard to know what is going on. Suffice it to say, in this I join the majority of the world (in the TV show/movie that is) who also don't know that Miley (Stewart) is actually Hannah Montana although I'm pretty sure that I know that Miley Cyrus is both of them depending upon whether she is wearing a wig or not.

Anyhow, why create this confusion? Well, Miley (Stewart but presumably not Cyrus) wants to have "the best of both worlds." Which worlds? Well, the first is being a superstar with all of the perks. And then, apparently, that isn't enough to get to a global optimum so she also wants to attend school with her celebrity life concealed so she can lead a 'normal' life. The point of the TV show is she leads that normal life to the extent that she doesn't and is continually being faced with challenges of how to conceal it all and maintain what increasingly looks like the best of neither worlds as any superhero who has tried to do the same thing could have told you.

Now as you watch this you can see just how perfectly it appeals to the tween set. Miley, apparently ordinary, is actually not but is happy to protect and defend her right to be seen as ordinary by her, otherwise quite annoying, school peers because that is somehow better than not being ordinary leaving tweens with the no-so-subtle message that maybe they should appreciate what they have got except that really what they have got is something ordinary, they are seen to be ordinary and don't have that extra fun and hijinks that Miley (Stewart and Cyrus) seem to have. She sings "who would have thought that a girl like me, would double as a superstar?" to which the answer is being conveyed as no-one to which I as an outside observer answer, well everyone and the children appear to get that whole irony too.

Disney have put together a perfect marketing storm. It sits so well with the struggle that age group has regarding peer recognition, excitement, and wealth inequality, that it is hard to imagine anything better targeted. Add to that they actually created Hannah Montana (the actual pop sensation rather than the TV show concept) and the whole thing is staggering. And yes, you even get to sell blonde wigs in spades! Indeed, they are totally upfront in this. In the movie, Robby (or is it Billy?) Ray says to Miley (I give up) that "we created Hannah Montana so you could do this" and I nearly fell out of my chair. You mean, "do this" as in "rake it in," right? But the point is Hannah Montana is a creation and they can even throw that straight at us.

Which brings me back to the movie which only my 4 year old claimed she was excited to be seeing. My 10 year old daughter watches Hannah Montana repeatedly and mimics her expressions but apparently is not allowed to be excited about her anymore as that honor is reserved only for Harry Potter. My 8 year old son, always seems to be watching Hannah Montana although he claims it is by some sort of accident that occurs when it is on the TV that he can't avoid seeing it even though apparently he would very much want to. It was he who laughed hardest throughout the movie.

The movie deals with Robby (and probably not Billy) Ray getting frustrated that Miley is getting too into Hannah and forgetting "her roots." Her punishment for this is to be rooted back in Tennessee and embroiled in life there including -- and this mandatory for these movies -- being reminded of her mother's passing and having that old life threatened by an evil developer which ironically requires her Hannah Montana life to get them all out of that jam. A few songs and a painted chicken coop later, and Miley (Stewart) faces a moment in which she decides to throw it all away and give up the Hannah Montana franchise. And I have to tell you that I held my breath in stunned disbelief at that moment as I thought, "OMG, if she does this, Disney are giving up the whole game too." If she reveals who she really is, the whole franchise will collapse. And for a few minutes I wondered if the whole movie was Miley (Cyrus) giving up the game.

[SPOILER ALERT FOR NEXT PARAGRAPH] But it turned out that her adoring fans did not want that and all 5,000 of them at the small town benefit concert promised to keep her secret if she would just put that damn wig back on and get singing. More implausibly, a (British of course) tabloid reporter decided to forgo millions and do the same thing. The town and franchise were saved. Phew!

So we live to fight another day. For parents, this is a movie you can sit through without dying. (Although you will be likely stuck with that Hoedown song in your head for days). But don't expect to be free of the whole Hannah Montana thing anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


An article in today's New York Times on "Titlenomics":

The release of “womenomics” (by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay) this month is just the latest example of publishers trying to knock off the title of “Freakonomics,” the best-selling 2005 book by Steven D. Levitt, an economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist.

Although some critics initially complained about that book’s “annoying title,” “Freakonomics” was an instant success, generating, among other things, a column in The New York Times Magazine, a blog on the Times Web site (freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com), and a planned documentary.

So it’s no surprise that other authors hope to benefit from the reflected glory. Last summer “Obamanomics” and “Slackonomics” appeared. This year “Invent-onomics 101” made its debut. And in the fall “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays” will hit bookstores.

They mentioned every 'onomics title in existence but Parentonomics. It is hardly a route to getting a best seller if you can't even score the reflected glory of a rip-off story!

Actually, I think there is actually little commercial value to choosing titles these ways and in retrospect I'm surprised that no publisher questioned it for Parentonomics and suggested something else. It was always a natural title as I wrote the book but perhaps there is something that might have given a more accurate indication of the book's content. From the 42 Amazon.com reviewers, it seems that the title did some harm as many of them were expecting something like Freakonomics which is a very different book. For starters, it is about things away from the norm whereas Parentonomics is all about the norm. Ironically, Freakonomics stands for something serious in those reviewers' eyes which I guess to many academic economists it is a title of whimsy -- not that there is anything wrong with that.

Then again, the NYT piece suggests that there is something wrong with similarity between titles. I'm not sure. If used correctly, it can surely convey how a book stands relative to others. The variants of 'e'conomics often do that and I hope they keep coming.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A History of violence. Part 2

In this part of "A History of Violence" I will briefly investigate some of the types of combat found in horror games, compare them to films and discuss how they impact on the scare-factor.

Action-hero Protagonist
Example game: Doom 3
Example film: Deep Rising

These type of movies and games are very similar. The lead character(s) go around with big guns and wastes tons of ammo while fighting the bad guys. The protagonist is far from vulnerable and this type of horror is generally more "fun" than the others.

First of all I got to say that I like both games and films in this category, but the concern here is if they are scary. Games and movies of this type relies pretty much on having "BOO!"-type of spooks, where a monster suddenly emerge from a corner or something similar. I actually think that these kind of games and movies are on the border of being to referred to as horror.

That being said, I know that a lot of people consider Doom 3 the scariest game they have ever played, even though one plays as a bad-ass marine carrying around a minigun and rockerlauncher at the same time, singlehandedly creating a monster genocide. This means that having loads of guns does not entirely remove the scare-factor, but I would still say that it significantly lowers it.

Untrained protagonist
Example game: Silent Hill
Example film: The Descent

In this type of horror combat, the protagonist carries weapons and kills off monsters, but is by no means an action-hero. He/she has no or little combat training and monster do not go down easily.

I think that there is a very large increase in fear factor (in both games and film) compare to the action-hero type of combat, but I would argue that it is very fragile and unstable. The best example comes from Silent Hill. When I started the game I found the enemies terrifying and was genuinely scared of them. Then as I killed more I came up with a tactic using melee weapons where I lost pretty much no health when in combat and after this combat stopped being scary for me.

A way to remedy this is to have fewer encounters or a more balanced combat system, but when the gameplay awards for killing enemies most players will figure out a good tactic after a while, loosing the scare-factor.

Defense only protagonist
Example game: Siren
Example film: Friday the 13th (pretty much any film)

This type is very rare in games (perhaps the rarest of the types), but much more common in movies. Here the lead character has weapons but does never manage to kill the monster(s) and only uses combat as a mean for a quick escape.

The most probable reason for this type being rare, is that it takes out much of the fun in combat. Since enemies always wake up again, there is no real award for defeating them and thus lessening the fun-factor (which does not have to be the goal though). Films do not rely on these kind of mechanics and thus do not have this problem.

In Siren, the player has a very limited set of weapons (and some times none, but more on that type later) and can never kill any enemies, only stun them for a while. This means that there is no substantial reward in combat, making the player avoid it.

It is hard to judge how the scare-factor differs (as if it was easy on any type...) from the untrained combat type, but I think the main advantage in terms of scariness is that it is much more stable. Because of the low award for "killing" an enemy the player is less likely to use weapons, especially if they require ammunition, and will therefore have a lesser chance of learning a pattern. In the case of weapons with ammunition, this puts more pressure on the player as this sparse resource needs to be conserved, leading to more fear.

No weapons protagonist
Example game Clocktower
Example film: Blair Witch Project

Although not as rare as "defense only", there are few games made with focus on this type of combat. One big problem when making games for this genre is that there is little direct gameplay gained from it. This means that the game needs to be filled with puzzles and other types of challenges instead, which is a lot hard to implement. It is also very easy for these games to become tedious, always having to run and/or sneak, which can take the edge out of the horror. Movies do not have this problem though, as there are tons of different things to have in between encounters with the antagonist(s).

Games like Clocktower and Siren (which use this type along with defense only) can get very frustrating and thereby becoming very un-scary for some players. At the same time, this type of gameplay can deliver a very frightening experience, and excel in scare factor compared to the other types.

This type clearly shows that there is a thin line between horror and frustration which is also very evident in how people either hate or love the Clocktower / Siren games.

Example game: 7th Guest
Example film: The Sixth Sense

It is very hard to find a similar type of film for this category since the way it is implemented in the mediums is very different. I am not very sure "The Sixth Sense" is a good example either, but was the best I could come up with.

The main aspect of this type is that the protagonist (player) is never in any real danger even though scary situations are encountered. In games this "invulnerability" is told through the gameplay mechanics, while very different methods are used in movies , for example that the protagonist is a recurring character in a series of films or that the situation is never threatening. For movies you essentially have to take away the scariness in order to obtain this type, while games can still be perceived very scary, even though the player is never in any danger of dying.

An interesting question is if games of this type become scary because players fool themselves to believe that it is a very threatening situation (although the gameplay mechanics says it is not), or if simply experiencing something seemingly threatening is enough to create feelings of fear.

That concludes this rather brief, but at the same time lengthy, overview of different combat styles. In the next part I will go into a specific "combat" mechanic that is very underused in games.

Until that: Do you think I covered all the different types of combat in games? Did I miss something important regarding a specific type? What types of horror games do you prefer? And finally, what kind of "combat" do you prefer in horror movies?

Friday, June 12, 2009

The tools of the trade

Hi everyone! As my first post in the blog, I feel like I needed to do a little introduction. I'm Luis, I'm not that known compared to the 2 visible heads around here :P but I'm the other programmer here at Frictional, maybe some of you might know me from the forum, but I kinda vanished from there a while ago... But I'm here again, and this time I promise to be a little more constant than before, which shouldn't be that hard :)

As you might already know, I'm pretty much developing the game tool suite myself, and a lot of stuff has been going on for over a year now. Up to now, this suite is composed of a Level Editor, a Model Editor, a Particle Editor and a Material Editor. All of these use the HPL engine built-in GUI system, which makes it real easy to use the renderer along, that means I can actually do real time in-game previews of stuff.

I'm sure you already know about the Level Editor, and I know you have had a glimpse of the Model Editor in the last workflow demonstration video. But what's this Model Editor for anyway? I'll explain.

Outside the HPL engine realm, a model is just geometry: vertices and edges, textures and texture coordinates, maybe animation data... That's cool, and enough if you want to use it ingame as a static object (part of the world, that is)... but what if you want something to interact with?
That's where the Model Editor comes in, to actually give some "life" to that inert geometry. In a nutshell, what you do in it is pick a mesh, add physical bodies and joints (if needed), attach sounds, particles, billboards, edit animations, and then you are ready to go!
It may sound like a great deal, but the tool makes these tasks really easy for the user to do. Ever tried to mod Penumbra? Then you are gonna love this. In fact, you are gonna love it whether you tried or not :)

One of the nice features this editor offers is to test the model "ingame", meaning you can test the physics and animations of the object just like it's gonna be like in the actual game. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a nice video must rock then :P

Well, that's been enough for a nice post. I bet you're now wondering why I didn't mention the Particle or Material Editors, and you don't need to worry, I'm just saving them for later :)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Full of ideas

Scott Adams keeps coming up with the neat ideas. This time on de-cluttering:
My other de-cluttering idea is what I call the Toy Jail. It's a closet beneath the stairs where I plan to toss anything found downstairs that doesn't belong there. In any given day the family drags in many pounds of miscellaneous stuff that is, for one reason or another, too valuable to discard, and too worthless to have its own space in the house. Generally your home has no established storage area for miscellaneous, odd-shaped, crapinalia. In our new home, that sort of thing will find a final resting place in the Toy Jail, along with any toy that should have been put away and wasn't. When the Toy Jail gets full, we'll probably have to move.
Of course, in Australia, officially this would be a Toy Gaol.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

This is your brain on Lego

We aren't quite at the stage of these parents in this video but we had the 'Lego moment' whereby you realise that you are not buying Lego for the kids but for yourselves.Let me tell you once you can categorise a purchase under 'family activity' the sky's the limit. For us, every single Star Wars lego set has been purchased and all the ones that have been built are on display. But it doesn't stop there. Here was our project last weekend -- 2500 pieces built by myself and my 8 year old son and not a single game of chess played.

A History of violence. Part 1

Ever since I started working on horror games (first was a simple 2d game called Fiend) I have been thinking about what kind of combat one wants in a horror game. This question was even more important when working on Penumbra as we had some problems in Overture concerning weapons. Our idea was that player would want at least something to defend themselves with, so we gave them some weak weapons and cumbersome combat mechanics, thinking it would only be used as last line of defense. Instead all kinds of problems arose, some players thought that since there where weapons, combat was meant to be used and complained about it be boring. Others figured out some tricks with the combat and thought it was way too easy. Very few players seemed play the game like we intended it to and we had to fix this somehow.

In Black Plague we took the decision to skip combat altogether and let the player be as vulnerable as possible. Not only did this make the design easier for us (could always assume enemies where alive), but most players also found the game scarier and more fun to play. Still, I think that there should be some way to use weapons, as it seems like such a "natural" thing. For example: if some monster/bad guy traps you in a corner, you will probably grab what ever is near and try to use it as means to get away. This kind of mechanic is also very common in horror movies, for example Scream uses it quite a bit.

For our new game "Unknown" we first considered using weapons and having them as defense only. But after some playtesting, the same problems that we had in Overture popped up. Some found the combat way to easy and others found it almost impossible. As trying to configure good difficult settings would be really hard, we decided to tone down combat and make the player very vulnerable instead. Further gameplay testing seem to confirm that this was the right thing to do.

In part 2 I will discuss the different kinds of combat found in games.

Until then: What are your thoughts on the combat in Overture and the lack thereof in Black Plague? Does removing combat really make a game scarier or is just a matter of how it is implemented?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Negative christmas

As regular readers know, I have long been concerned about the growth in useless stuff that comes with children. In our household, I am the only one who throws out stuff. I have to go on annual raids of various closets and toy boxes and do a cull.

Today, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) proposes a day for a limited version of this called 'Negative Christmas.'
I just invented a new holiday. It's called Negative Christmas. On this day, rather than giving gifts, you can force a family member or friend to discard one item that he or she already owns. The selected item might be a hideous shirt that you consider an abomination, or that pair of bedroom slippers that are an insult to all footwear. The idea is that the unrecipient should be better off without the item you ungift.
He proposes June 25 as the date for this. I have one question: do you have to celebrate Christmas to be part of this one?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The "fun" in horror games?

When discussing gameplay in games, the main focus is mostly on making it "fun". The meaning of "fun" is usually that it is an enjoyable experience for the player and that boredom and frustration are reduced as much as possible. Normally this is the main priority when working on some part of the game and if it is not "fun" enough, that part will be remade or scrapped. In many horror games things are different though and focus is instead put on invoking emotions other than just "fun".

A good example is at the start of Silent Hill 2. Here the player must go for several minutes through a wood and city outskirts until reaching the town of Silent Hill. Apart from meeting a character and finding a save spot, not much happens during this section and it is only used to build up atmosphere and more imporantly to make the player feel as if they are making a long journey to reach Silent Hill. The second point is really different as it wants to give the player a special feeling and introducing things like boredom into gameplay to achieve that. This very different from how game mechanics usually work.

Silent Hill 2 is filled with situations like this. At one point the player is trapped in a well and has to find their way out by using tedious "pixel hunting", increasing the sense of being trapped. In another situation the player is locked in a room of cockroaches and the puzzle needed to get out cannot be completed straight away, invoking panic in the player. Both of these showcase how inducing some kind of emotion has been more important than making the gameplay "fun".

In our upcoming game Unknown we are going to use unfun gameplay in order to enhance emotions of fear. We aim to do this by letting the player get negative gameplay feedback whenever in a scary situation and therefore be more careful when exploring. We are hoping to get something along the lines of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where investigators (the players) are very cautious when encountering anything unknown.

I think discarding the notion that gameplay always needs to be fun is crucial if games shall evolve as a medium and to really take advantage of its form. The things made in horror games is a step on the way, but I think there is still plenty of avenues to explore. For example, what about a game where the gameplay focuses on creating laughter?

Do you think games always need to fun? Can recall any more situations where the gameplay was "unfun" in order to invoke emotions?


Welcome to Frictional Games' newly created for blog for all of you interested in our work and/or horror games.

The aim with the blog is to not only cover what is currently happening at Frictional Games but also to discuss Horror Games in general. Having tried to create emotions of fear for a couple of years now, we would like to share our thoughts on the subject. As horror games are one of the few (if not the only?) game genre that focuses on invoking emotions in the player, we find it very fascinating and think that it touches many areas other games don't.

As we are currently in the middle of developing our new game called Unknown, we would also like to keep everyone up to speed on that. We have previously done so in a work log at our forum, but have not been regular with updates, something we will change with this blog!

Hope you all will enjoy!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Learning to argue

One of the things we decided early on as parents is that our children would not be discouraged from arguing. Indeed, they would be rewarded if they made good points by winning. I had been meaning to post about this for some time especially as our 4 year old has the ability to argue relatively coherently while engaged in a full-flung trantrum. It is an amazing ability and a sight to see but given that she is coupling good argument with a trantrum, she doesn't get to win.

Anyhow, this piece by Jay Heinrichs does a better job than my (perhaps never to be written) post could possibly have done. I recommend it highly as it describes the philosophy of the approach, how to teach your kids to argue and peppers it with some classic arguments.