Friday, October 30, 2009

Coming to America

You may have noticed that blogging here has been light for the last couple of months. That is because the entire family is picking up an moving to the US for the whole of 2010. I'm spending a sabbatical year at Harvard (chief advantage: no one asks you why) and we are all going to arrive in Boston just in time for the whole Winter experience.

And an experience it will be. I can count on one hand the days I have seen snow, the two children who have seen snow can't remember it and the last one is still unconvinced. The one of us who has experienced snow through a thing called skiing (don't ask what that's all about) has never lived with anything more than a Melbourne winter.

Suffice it to say, moving the five of us is a non-trivial exercise. We have a place but no furniture, we have visas but no health insurance (yet and ouch!), we have made contact with a school but have not dealt with the pages of forms and we have bags but no clothes. On the clothes front our plan is "to buy stuff when we get there." That last one is contingent on the hypothesis that we can last one day in Boston without winter clothes. But I forecast a future bleg asking for advice about all of that.

The children's excitement is mixed. No one is happy about leaving friends behind but there they have identified things that they are definitely looking forward to. The top 3 are: Number Three -- that is where Hannah Montana lives. This is a true statement but it is also coupled with some notion that we are just going to bump into her. Rather than cause our youngest any further anxiety, we aren't ruling out that possibility at this stage.

Number Two -- no school uniforms. Apparently, the desire to rid themselves of the Australian (and I guess rest of the world) norm of a uniform is strong enough to be a major reason to move countries. I'll evaluate that whole debate when I get to see more of the other side.

Finally, reason Number One, and a topical one, is: Halloween. Australia doesn't have Halloween and this has always been a constant source of disappointment to my eldest daughter. That disappointment will continue this evening. But next year it will all be different.

"I guess you are looking forward to next year where we will be in a place where people understand Halloween."

"Yes. Although I don't really understand it."

"What do you mean?"

"You know I love the whole 'let's go dress up and go around the neighbourhood getting treats 'thing but I have no idea how this all happened."

"I guess that will be something else you'll find out next year."

"Can't wait."

Neither can I. For starters, I could use more material for the blog and maybe a forthcoming (and doomed to failure judging by most attempts at such things) book, Parentonomics in the USA.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shock! Baby Einstein not educational

Bigger shock! Disney agrees and will refund any DVD purchases for the last five years! They had dropped claims these were "educational" but apparently that wasn't enough.

Well that doesn't help me too much. From 1998 to 2001, we must have purchased a ton of Baby Einstein DVDs and CDs, board books, toys (and maybe even videos). Our kids loved them and I loved the fact that the marketing was so cynically directed at the nervous (if I don't act the kids will suffer) yet optimistic (they could be Einstein) parent. The educational claims didn't motivate me. Indeed, similar claims seem to surround all kids toys and there is an entire campaign directed at selling books based on educational value.

Actually, there is a deeper point here: it seems to me that educational claims abound but only certain ones get scrutiny. For instance, the NYT's article on this news ends with:
“My impression is that parents really believe these videos are good for their children, or at the very least, not really bad for them,” Ms. Rideout said. “To me, the most important thing is reminding parents that getting down on the floor to play with children is the most educational thing they can do.”
Is it? Really? Getting on the floor and playing is the "most educational thing" a parent can do? This comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But where is the evidence for that bold claim? Looking at their site, there is a lot of statistics about children doing different things than they did in the past (including substituting TV for reading) but surely we cannot presume that various other things are "educational" any more than we can presume that DVDs might not be. A lack of evidence is always a lack of evidence.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 7.

Now it is time for the final part in these series on puzzles in horror games! This post will be about some puzzles in Penumbra that I personally find especially interesting. Because of this, the post will be filled with puzzle spoilers so if you are planning on playing any Penumbra game and have not yet done so, do so before reading!
First I am going to go through some basic guidelines we had when designing the puzzles though.

General puzzle design
Our main rule when implementing puzzles was something we called the "Island approach". What this means is that all things needed to solve a puzzle are located in the same area, the "island", and connections between islands should be very few and quite obvious. An example of this kind of connection was the hand and head needed to open the door the in residential area in Black Plague. The puzzles to get hold of the head and hand where both confined to their respective islands and where then linked together, hopefully obviously, at the biometric panel.

I think we managed to stick by this rule pretty well and it was just some instances, like at the end of Overture, when the connections became a bit too obscure. Considering the feedback we have gotten, the appraoch worked quite well and the island approach is something we will use for our upcoming game too.

Having gotten some critique after Overture that there where too many locked door puzzles, we set out to minimize the number of locked doors in Black Plague. Our main goal was to not have a single key-and-door puzzle and while we did not fully succeed, it did force us to come up with more interesting obstacle than we probably would have otherwise. Also, when having a locked door we tried to mask it as much possible or at least make it a bit more interesting by using other means of opening it. It was also interesting to see how many obstacles that boiled down to locked doors when one thought about and how hard it was to not include them.

Now for the puzzle examples:

Invisible Ink (Overture)
This started out as a puzzle where the player had to read a note written in invisible ink by using a uv-lamp and then our writer, Tom, suggested that the uv-lamp should also show text all over the walls. I really like how this combined the puzzle element with a strong horror event and from feedback we got it, people seemed to consider it one of the most frightening moments in Overture.

Exploding Potion (Overture)
At the end of of the game, the player needs to clear a cave-in by using homemade explosives. This is done by first mixing something called Armstrong's Mixture, a highly sensitive explosive, carry it through an "obstacle course" and place it at the cave-in. A fun fact is that we had to censor the real receipt for the mixture as we had to get a 16+ Pegi rating and our publisher where worried that learning kids how to make bombs would give it a higher rating. This is also the cause why dextrin was renamed to the nonexisting substance "baxtrin".

The puzzle was supposed to be solved by looking up the mixture in a book found earlier. However, it was made harder by not properly labling the chemical and a kind of cypher had to be solved. Because of some bad design in this, many people did not make the right connections and got stuck at it. Luckily, there where only 6 different chemicals and it was easy enough to solve it by brute force, something many seemed to do.

Trying to get the chemical past the obstacle course is a favorite of mine. I think many did not like it as it could be quite frustrating, but I think it did what it was intended to. It was quite tense and worked as a sort of physical endurance test as it could be quite exhausing to keep the mouse pressed down, knowing that releasing it for only a fraction of a second could make the solution explode.

The Blood Lock (Black Plague)
When designing Black Plauge another goal we had was to give the puzzles themselves a horror feeling. This puzzle does exactly that and connects quite nicely to the story giving the player some forshadwing of things to come. It is also an example of a locked-door obstacle that we tried to make more interesting and less generic. The desing of the device, where the player needs to inject blood in order to unlock a door, is not very realistic though and a silly way to lock a door in a facility overrun by alien creatures. Player's did not seem too bothered by this though and I think that as long something fits the game world and is fun enough, one can take a bit of implausibility.

The Cryogenics Chamber (Black Plague)
This is another puzzle where the element of horror was used as a base for design. To complete the puzzle the player had to nearly kill himself (making Clarence very disappointed) and then grab a severed head from a thawd cryogenics container. Hopefully this helped sending some chills down the player and still worked as a puzzle.

The Tuurngait Trials (Black Plague)
What made this series of puzzles different from any other puzzle in the Penumbra series was that it tried to convey an idea. The main goal of these puzzles was not to challange the player mentally but rather to have her think as a hivemind organsim and learn to see things their way. This was quite experimental and many people either did not get the theme (and just saw it as some puzzles) or thought that the whole section was out of place. A few people seemed to get the message though and this was very fun for us as we where worried nobody would like it. The segment was far from a success, but was at least a fun experiment and given that some people got the point it might be worthwhile to try the approach some other time (if we do, it will be in a totally different way though...).

Camera Puzzle (Requiem)
This puzzle starts the second leve andl is worth mentioning as it is probably the puzzle with the most possible solutions. The player can choose to take a different path at the beginning and if she decides to tackle the camera head on there are at plenty of ways to do so. Jens spent a lot of time with the puzzle and I was not aware of some of the solutions until after Requiem was released. This puzzle also shows that physics does not mean that puzzles have mulitple solutions "built in", instead it requires time and hard work to implement them. We put more and more time into this for each release and Requiem contains more multiple solution puzzles than the other two games combined.

That marks the end of this post and the horror puzzles series. Hope you all enjoyed it and at least gotten something out of it! As always please tells us what you thought about it and what you would like to see in the future.

For those of you who have not checked all parts. Here is a quick round up:
Part 1: Why are puzzles so suited for horror games?
Part 2: Common problems with adventure game puzzles.
Part 3: Why physics puzzles is not the "promised land" of adventure games.
Part 4: Backtracking and why it is essential.
Part 5: Things to consider when desinging puzzles.
Part6: On "brain boosters" and hint systems.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Scrooge is an economist

and his name is Joel Waldfogel. Who is Scrooge? He is someone who hates Christmas and thinks that Christmas activities are a waste. Joel Waldfogel in his new book, Scroogenomics (will the onomics trend know no end?) tell us in a series of essays why you shouldn't buy presents for the holidays. Actually, he does better than that, he calculates it. It is around $12 billion per year made up of the money value of the total difference between what a gift is worth to someone versus just having the money. And that is not counting the whole hassle of the fruitless exercise of trying to make that value less by shopping and making the thoughts that count.

Scroogeonomics is an aptly titled 170 odd page presentation of the case against Christmas but more generally against gift giving. (Note to self: don't invite Joel to birthday parties). That said, it is completely compelling. You just can't read this book without thinking about how to get out of the whole gift giving mess. And the book doesn't even mention the classic Seinfeld episode about bringing stuff to dinner parties. So Joel is like George Castanza too.

But the book is not without hope. We can end the inefficiency yet preserve the 'social' value of gift giving. One way is to use gift cards or money rather than trying the 'thought' approach. Another is to give to charities in someone's name although that is still kind of complex as you can get that wrong too. One thing you should not do is do what I have said and encourage self-made gifts. That seems to only exacerbate the inefficiency.

And what of the book itself. It is published by Princeton University Press but if you excepting the usual academic sized affair that is not to be. Instead it is 'made for gifts.' A small little book that you might see as a last minute counter purchase at a Borders. In other words, Waldfogel is capitalising on the problem and potentially creating more inefficiency.

So let me help get out of this. Don't buy this book as a Christmas gift. Go out and buy it now and send it to one friend and ask them to read it and pass it on. That would be efficiency enhancing by the book's own metric. By the time we get to December, enough may have read it to have killed Christmas for good.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Much of Parentonomics online and for free

I was lamenting the lack of Parentonomics availability on the Australian version of the Kindle. Don't get me started on that. But in doing so, I discovered that much (maybe 2/3s) of the original Australian edition (which is written in a slightly different language to the Worldwide one by MIT Press) is on Google books. You can read it here.

Media debates on parenting

In the news today, Australian PM Kevin Rudd admits smacking his kids. The headline sounds different from the text though.

Weighing in to the debate, Mr Rudd said: "And the rule that's been applied in our family ever since they were tots is that if they're doing something dangerous they'll get a, you know, whack across the knuckles."

"The key thing is a gentle tap on the wrists which is usually, if you know anything about two and three-year-olds, the cause of the quivering bottom lip and the general collapse into tears."

That seems pretty different from a wooden spoon (the thing that sparked this current round in the corporal punishment debate). Indeed, check out this picture of Mrs Cunningham from Happy Days.


She is clearly slapping Richie (who is hardly a child but let's admit that is not the point). And she is hardly the poster child for bad parent. Don't believe me, watch the video at around 26 seconds in.

Now I don't want to say I'm condoning anything. But as I have written about elsewhere, punishment is a tough parental issue. What is clear is that it is very difficult to have a national discussion on this in the media. It looks like psychologists are attacking the PM too harshly. Who would care about a rap on the knuckles?

But then let me leave you with a thought on how difficult this is. Half way through writing this post, it occurred to me that it took all of 2 minutes for me to recall and then locate the picture above. This was something I watched 30 years ago and it only appears in one season of Happy Days intros. Yet, I remembered it. What does that tell you about a rap on the knuckles?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Real life maths

A conversation:

"I hate real life maths."

"Why? Real life sounds interesting"

"But it is not real life. We had to design a theme park."

"That sounds real."

"Maybe if it was that. But who looks for angles after designing a park?"

"I am not sure what you mean. Angles are important to designers."

"But do designers do a whole design and then just circle two right angles and two acute angles? I mean what is the point?"

"I guess that doesn't sound too real."


She has a point.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Time for a smallish update

Hi there again!
This time I won't show a new tool, but a new feature for our good old Level Editor: Decals. These are used mainly to add nice details to the level without much sweat. Here is a little video demonstrating how these can be used (to create a nasty mess for example :) )

Nice to know I'm not cleaning that

As you can see, there is some stuff to be tweaked and optimized, but I tell you it's still cool to use :D

Monday, October 5, 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 6.

Yeah, late again... development is becoming more intense, but I will try and keep the blog entries coming in some kind of regular fashion!

A major feature of many games is to let the player become a another person, to play around as some fantasy alter ego. In God of War you take the role as a powerful spartan, Tony Hawk lets you become a professional skater and so on. All of these games lets you have skills and attributes that you normally do not. In God of War it is super human strength and combat abilities. In Tony Hawk it is abilities that normally takes lots of talent and years of talent to acquire. In most adventure games, the player takes the form of some type of Sherlock Holmes character and here one runs in to a problem: How does the player become Mr Holmes? How can she be given Sherlock's wit and problem solving abilities, just like she is given Kratos' strength? That's what the rest of this blog entry will be about.

Physical attributes, like dexterity and strength, are simple to put into the actual gameplay and is nothing that feels intrusive. These physical attributes can be pretty much everything that exists outside of the brain and problem only starts when the thing to boost exist wholly or partly inside of the gray lump. An example of this is aiming, which requires some physical dexterity but is also about reflexes, something that resides, to a degree, in a person's brain. This is a pretty easy thing to solve and have been done so in the form of auto aiming and slow motion systems (ala Max Payne). It would be possible to do something similar with problem solving and add help systems that guide the player. This could come in the form of A Beautiful Mind-like "number visions", where the protagonist ability to find patterns is visualized as certain numbers becoming illuminated and floating out in the air. An example of this in use, are pool simulators where player can see where a strike will go. Another example of the same type is simply to add some kind of calculator, to help offload the player's brain from some heavy cognitive challenge.

The biggest problem with having these kinds of helper systems is that they will only work on very specific tasks (like playing pool) and are not something that helps in the wide varieties of puzzles encountered in an adventure game. Another problem is that it might actually weaken the experience of solving puzzles. Giving the player extra strength to take on hordes of enemies does not feel like cheat, but being given visual tools to solve to problem feels like hand holding. It is almost the equivalent of the game taking over the controls in an action game. These two issues are probably the cause why I have never seen such a system in an adventure game (but would very much like to know if one exists!).

Another way of letting the player become Sherlock Holmes, is by putting all of the problem solving in "game space". This means that all actual thinking is implemented as game mechanisms and is determined by dice rolls or something else. In the Call of Cthulhu RPG the player has to make dice rolls against certain skills to do things like decipher runes, read books and understand the meaning events. This is a quite good way of doing more complex tasks that would require years of education (like understanding ancient languages), but is not as a fun with simpler "connect the clues" kind of challenges (where it turns into hand-holding). However, when implemented in games, where generating important outcome from random generator is not as accepted, it is quite hard to get right. What happens if the player fails the "dice roll"? Should she be able to try again? If so, how many times should it be possible to retry? Instead of using the random generator, there could be some mini-games involved, which is the way it is implemented in Farenheit (indigo prophecy) at certain places. Mini games is not much better than a random generator though, and no solution feels really good.

A hybrid solution to putting everything in "game space" is to limit the player's options according to the protagonist's skills and letting the game provide parts of the solution. The most common usage of this is in dialogs where the player is given a certain number choices of what questions to ask or what to answer. This kind of system lets the game do half the work and lets the player finish it, giving a lot more satisfaction than simply rolling die or completing an unrelated mini game. Problems can still arise though, for example in a dialog the player can come up with something more clever than the options given or perhaps the protagonist have not yet figured something out that the player has, leaving an option unavailable. This leads to "guess the action" and "missing item" problems (see this post) respectively and is something that one wants to avoid. While working pretty good in a dialog, this system can become quite annoying when applied to other areas, as it is very much like the game taking control from the player.

A game can also implement some kind of hint system which gives the player help when in needed or just continually feed the player advice. Hint systems not only let the player gain some brain power but is also a way of lessen the chance of getting stuck. However, like with the other systems described, hints can easily turn into hand holding and make the experience worse. Hint systems can either be implemented as an ingame thing or a completely separate system.

When in game, hints are dropped through character comments, notes, etc and is the main way in which we implemented hints in Penumbra. The problem with this is that it is hard for the player to ignore the hints, and while their help might be appreciated by some, others might find that they make game too easy. As they are part of the in game resources, they are very hard to remove and must thus be carefully tuned. They can also never spell out the solution to a puzzle and might not be of much help for a player that has become stuck.

By using a special hint system, the player can chose for herself how much to use it. This sort of freedom is not always good though and players might unwillingly abuse the hint system. For example, I know many cases where I pretty much stopped solving puzzles after checking a walkthrough and when playing the remake of Monkey Island, I used hints much more than what I really wanted to. A way to solve this is to use some kind of limt for hints, as in Professor Layton where hint coins are used. However, the problem then becomes that some players might have tons of hints left to use and others few. This makes it very hard to tweak correctly and those in most use of hints might end up not being able to use them.

Finally, is some kind of brain booster really needed for the player? In terms of hint systems, it is pretty obvious that they are good at making sure the player does not get stuck. But perhaps the player should just settle with who they are, use the brains given and not try and be someone who they are not? But does this not defeat the purpose of games? If we can have games that improve every other attribute in a player character, why not intelligence? I also think many would agree that being really smart would be preferable from being really strong, and providing people with such an experience would be very worthwhile! As discussed in this entry though, boosting brainpower in a game is highly problematic and has even proved to be so in real life. However, by using some of the systems above at least the problem of puzzle difficulty is partly solved and more people can enjoy playing the game.

What do you all think of this and how would you like to see a "brainbooster" implemented? If you know any game with an especially good or bad hint system, then we are very interested in hearing about it!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Horror Tip: [REC]

Name: [REC]
Type: Movie
Link(Movie details):
This is a spanish little gem in the "first person documentary horror" genre, same as the first Blair Witch movie (which I have not seen by the way). While pretty famous in Spain, I'm not sure how known it is worldwide, I think you will at least know the american remake "Quarantine". I like the original better, just my opinion.

The movie is shot from the point of view of a cameraman in a fictional TV show called "Mientras usted duerme" (While you sleep), as he films reporter Ángela Vidal during a usual Barcelona Fire Dept. work night, until there's a seemingly rutinary emergency call from an old apartment block. I don't want to give away anything further than this, so if you want to know more on the plot, you are adviced to watch the movie instead of checking the internet for details :).

The actors do a nice job, the set is claustrophobic enough, it actually gets to build up quite an atmosphere, and apart from some a bit lamish moments, the movie delivers in my opinion. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza also have some more interesting work, which I might advice sometime in the future.

Now that the sequel is about to hit the spanish streets (well, like in some hours actually :P), I recommend you watch this one, and if you already did, just feel free to discuss, but be careful with spoiling stuff.