Monday, December 24, 2012

A Talmudic Shipping Problem

We don't do Christmas but I do encourage my kids to take advantage of Christmas specials. So when ThinkGeek offered a 20% discount on orders over $100 my kids knew they had an opportunity. 

It turns out that working out what you might want is quite tricky. This is because ThinkGeek has clearance items like Giant Inflatable Robot Fists that apparently no one other than my son wanted. But they eventually did it and their cart looked like this.

They came to me to enter credit card information.

"OK but I need to know what I am taking out of each of your bank accounts?"

"Well, just what each of us paid for what we wanted."

"Yes, but what about shipping? That's $42.84 to Canada. What are each of you paying for that?"

"Well, we will divide it by three."

"Then your 8 year old sister, who is ordering one Hair Bow and a few Guitar picks will end up paying $14.28 for that alone when her stuff only cost $3.98. You need to come up with something fairer."

And then the problem ensued. What was fair? They would allocate the shipping costs using some other dimension. 

Child No.1 argued that they divide it on the basis of the number of items ordered. Child No.2 argued that they divide it on the basis of the price paid. So they did the maths. This is what they came back with.

Well, Child No.1 was shrewd. While dividing on items had her pay much more than Child No.2 for shipping it was the better deal. It was also better for Child No.2. However, the amount for Child No.3 was still above what I would have regarded as fair. So they proposed to use the price-based cost allocation.

"I'm still not sure that is fair. Your sister is order very light weight things. Surely they don't contribute as much to shipping?"

"Well, how will we tell? We don't know what ThinkGeek is doing."

"You'll have to work that out."

So they went back and decided to look at what it would cost to ship each of these separately. For Child No.1 it was $29, for Child No.2 it was $31 and for Child No.3 it was $6.95. It turns out that weight was a consideration but there was some fixed component for each order -- perhaps for the box. The two eldest then tried to assert that the original $1.67 allocation to their sister was fair.

"But is she really causing that amount of cost? What happens to shipping if you just leave off her order?"

With a sigh, they went back and did that run. It turned out that it made no difference to shipping cost.

"So shouldn't she pay zero then?"

"No, she is still getting a benefit of sharing our box. What is more, she is getting a discount. That wouldn't happen if not for us."

"Then how much should she pay?"

"She should pay an amount equal to the discount she is getting. She should pay $1."

"But that means you two get her discount. Why should you get all of that?"

I argued, on Child No.3's behalf, that she should only have to pay 50 cents and she should share half her discount with her siblings. Child No.1 dug her heels in and argued with Child No.2 who want to accept the deal. 

That took a little while but eventually they came back and argued Child No.3 should share 50 cents of her discount and contribute 50 cents towards 'the box.' While it was the same as the previous accepted deal, it was better argued so I accepted that.

Many will recognise this as a classic cost allocation problem. Eventually, with prompting, the kids ended up with a solution that was in the 'core.' This is something that Talmudic scholars had discovered centuries ago

It was then time to finally order the goods. Unfortunately, this negotiation (and maths exercise) had taken too long. By the time it was resolved an hour or so ago, ThinkGeek had ended their promotion. The discount and an important basis for the whole exercise was gone. It turns out that this was one of those time sensitive negotiations but we didn't quite know it. Another lesson to accompany the maths and social choice of the day.

I persuaded the kids that they might be better waiting until December 26. There was argument over that. I fear this issue will last all week.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Fear Tolerant Equilibrium

Like everyone else, it has taken me some days to even begin to process the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. There is a part of me that wonders if we ever will but then again, evil things have happened before and somehow life goes on.

In thinking about this, I kept coming back to the strangeness of what Americans find acceptable and how different the experience is for those who come from many other countries, like me, from Australia. Let me provide a story that illustrates this. 

From 2010 to 2011, we lived in Brookline MA. This is a fairly prosperous community with a very strong public school system. The strength of that system attracted residents who cared about the education of their children and that, in turn, fostered a community around those schools. One of the aspects of that community were regular meetings between parents to discuss issues. We hosted one of these meetings, which is why I was at it, amongst Grade 7 parents. The attendees discussed many things but one topic for conversation was "rules for where your children can have playdates." As it turned out, this is not something we had thought enough about to really have rules but I guess we implicitly had them. And I can't remember what rules emerged in the discussion except for one; the very first one mentioned. "Well, I don't allow my kids to go over to a house that has a gun." There were nods all around in broad agreement but to my partner and I, our jaws dropped. 

This was a level of experience that had never occurred to us. We had simply not thought that there might be a gun in people's homes anywhere, let alone Brookline. But as it turned out there were. And I guess our initial reaction was that that sounded like a pretty good rule and we should probably adopt it.

It didn't take us long to start to wonder more about this. First of all, how do you know? Do you like ask the parents if they have a gun and then implement your rule accordingly? How does that discussion work? 

Second, what precisely was the issue with the gun in the house? The first thing that I thought about was that it wasn't safe. The kids might play with it and it is safe to say that is a bad idea. But actually it wasn't clear that was the issue the other parents were worried about. The guns were usually locked away because, after all, the house had kids too. What the other parents seemed to be worried about was the type of person who would have a gun in the house. But I didn't know what to think about there either. I mean there are so many things that I might not like about other parents and having a gun is not necessarily at the top of the list. What would I be worried about? Were they violent? Were they too scared? Did they have a strong protective streak? Or was this a sign of mental instability? Something did not sit right about screening on guns. After all, some of the weird views parents express at these parent meetings gives me much more pause!

In the end, we left the US and moved to Canada where there is no need to have a 'gun in the house' policy so it became a moot point. But the whole experience was a wake up call as to how different it is in the US.

At some level, the US seems more tolerant of living in a fearful equilibrium. It seems obvious to so many outside the US, that it is better to keep guns tightly controlled, if only to keep them out of the hands of the mentally unstable that time and time again, the reaction to events where guns have been in the hands of the mentally unstable and done harm has led to more gun control rather than less. For instance, when 35 people died at the hands a single assailant in the town of Port Arthur Tasmania, the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, instituted strong controls (although not a prohibition) on semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Moreover, realising that stopping future sales wasn't enough, engaged in a buy-back scheme  to remove 600,000 existing weapons from the public hands. Think about it, this was expensive costing half a billion dollars and requiring a 1 percent tax on all income. (The scheme actually had a statistically significant effect on both gun related homicides and suicides). Here is Howard's response to the Newtown tragedy.

But what remains true is that there is no 100 percent protection. Someone determined and calculating can do terrible things as the Norwegian 2011 massacre demonstrated. That led to serious policing reorganisation but gun control was already tight. Interestingly, it did not lead to a weakening of gun controls.

Why do I say that is interesting? Well, it is worth considering the baseline argument in the US underpinning the right to bear arms. It comes from a belief that guns and gun proliferation actually deters gun crime. The quintessential case would be a mentally unstable person opening fire in a public place only to be cut short by gun carrying citizens. Better still, and this applies less to the mentally unstable, a would be murder would be deterred entirely. The point here is that the fear of armed crimes fuels a baseline argument for more gun ownership. In that respect, it is as much a symptom as a cause of that fear.

But how does this relate to the particular problem of protecting school children? One thing that gun control advocates and detractors appear to share is that school children should be protected from gun crime. The gun control method is to remove the guns. This won't prevent calculated criminals from getting guns but it may well prevent the mentally unstable ones from so doing. One of the things that came with the Australian gun laws was very strong monitoring of gun ownership

What is the alternative view? The idea is that if there were more guns at hand, a gun criminal entering a school could be either deterred or stopped in their tracks. Now, for the mentally unstable, it does not seem plausible that deterrence is the issue. What about a gun-led response? 

This is tricky on a number of levels. First of all, it is not necessarily an issue related to gun control at all. For instance, regardless of whether there is a right to bear arms, you could permit certain forms of security in schools. You could have guards or even arm teachers in some way. The point is that whether you choose to do that is unrelated as to whether you control guns elsewhere; although the need would be related. 

Second, can it work? What would the plan be to defend a school? Should all schools in the US receive some combat training plus drills and contingency plans? That sounds expensive but what is interesting is that those who fear gun crime and believe counter-force is a response do not appear to be advocating this. 

More likely is that trained security professionals are installed in the schools. Now I have had a taste of this. In Australia, my kids attended a Jewish day school. These schools received bomb threats and so there was always some security concern. There were security guards but they were not armed. The basic idea was that if there was some agitator, they could be dealt with. Perhaps if a bomb were being delivered there may be a little more warning. That was the idea.

One day some parents became concerned that that wasn't enough. So they moved to train more parent volunteers in hand-to-hand combat. As it was put to me, the logic was two fold. In both cases the logic was flawed. First, we were told that the security guards were low paid and so we couldn't expect them to really risk their lives for the children. Better to have parents there. Well, that was already wrong. If you believe the incentive issue for the security guard, it was even worse for the parents. They were parents of other kids. Did people really think that was better protection for their own kids? If I was the parent out there, I can tell you that it wouldn't be. In any case, as we have seen recently, teachers -- also low paid for what they were asked to do -- did have the motivation to protect the children.

The second argument was that with clearly visible parent volunteers (they would wear jackets) a would be criminal would see this and, if they are intent on doing damage, go to another school. While this argument was one that worked for one school it seemed to me to be morally abhorrent. You want to train parents in protection to get the crime to move to harm kids in other schools? That didn't work for me.

I wasn't alone amongst parents though of thinking that visible security was not what we were after. Yes, there were risks but living in a way that reacted to and acknowledged very low probability fears was not going to work.

The point, however, is a stronger one. When there is a non-zero probability of a gun related attack on schools, there is no way of countering that perfectly. You could put security into the schools but there is actually an incentive issue there, there is certainly an economics issue and there is an issue of the allocation of security strength. The last thing an education system needs is an arms race on protection. After all, the goal would be to be the most protected school in an area. That is a race to the bottom.

The alternative to all this is more guns in the community to prevent crime where-ever it might spring up. But the same issue -- you cannot eliminate fear -- remains. Israel which comes as close that situation as anywhere has not been able to stop terrorist attacks within its borders. 

In any case, this is a digression. To the rest of the world, gun control is natural and obvious. Many in the US, were surprised when Rupert Murdoch tweeted as such two days ago. I wasn't surprised. He is an Australian and to non-US people, gun control seems obvious.

The question is why isn't it so obvious within the US. It could be a bad equilibrium. There are so many guns that it is (a) impossible to do anything about it and (b) that level of gun ownership leads to others wanting to have guns. 

But I think there is also a tolerance for living in fear that exists in the US that doesn't exist elsewhere. To gun control opponents, they would rather live with the fear of another person with a gun potentially harming them and have that fear be acknowledged by a delegation of control to deal with that person themselves. This is the idea of putting safety in their own hands. They fear other people and also fear no other person can protect them. 

To gun control advocates, they fear those with guns. This was the reaction of the Brookline parents. They fear that gun owners cannot be relied upon to be responsible. The vast majority are. So they often favour outright bans rather than the more intrusive licensing and regulations that other countries have put in place. In other words, they shy away from a nuanced response to gun control in favour of blanket bans. But those bans only last so long as someone invents around them. 

The US is tolerant of fear. In this case, it manifests itself in lax gun control laws. But it also appears to lie at the root of other policies where the US differs from the rest of the world. Not having universal health care, comes with the notion that there it is alright for people to live in fear of a personal health crisis. And airport security perpetuates the fear of terrorism. In each case, the argument that something might be doing just because there will be less fear in the population does not win in the political process.

For the rest of us, last Friday was one of those days that reaffirmed our choices not to live in the US. We just can't understand it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

High-Level Storytelling Design

I recently started to play the demo for the upcoming adventure game Primordia. I really like the art-style, the setting, themes and the characters (perhaps with the exception of a somewhat annoying companion). Despite this I am finding myself not being that engaged when playing it. The main reason for this is that the game is in a very traditional point-and-click form, which means that it is mainly all about solving puzzles. Despite some good design and an in-game hint system, its gameplay back-bone is holding it back.
Note: This does not mean that Primordia is bad game though, more on this in the end notes.

At the same time we have currently been in the middle of going over some design thinking in our upcoming Super Secret Project. We have been trying to evolve the type of high level design we have used for our previous games and in that process encountered a few problems and come to a few intriguing insights.

The problems I had with Primordia and the issues we have had with our own project are closely related and deal with the high level design used for games focusing on story-telling. This sort of design is what this post will be about. I will start by going over the basic problems, then cover more recent advancements and finally outline our own approach.

The Immersion Conjecture
Since the middle of the 90s or so, the image of adventure games as the kings of videogame storytelling has slowly dwindled. Instead they have given way to more action oriented titles and nowadays most of the major storytelling efforts lie in the action-adventure genre. What has happened is that the puzzle-centric design has been replaced by one where some sort of core mechanic makes up the bulk of the experience.

I think neither of these approaches is a good way to properly do storytelling in a game. The problem with both are that they have a strong focus on the competitive aspect of games. In both of these designs the main goal is not about being immersed but about beating challenges. I have discussed this to great lengths in the paper The Self, Presence and Storytelling. The points important for this discussion are the following:

  • Challenge-oriented games have a core design which I call "black box design". This means that the main goal for the player is to intuitively figure out the game's underlying systems and to beat them.
  • When the focus is on a system of a game, it detracts attention from, or even directly contradicts, its fiction. As a result it diminishes the story aspects of the game.
  • The main focus of  games with storytelling should instead be on creating immersion or, more precisely put, a sense of presence. This is done by having a strong continuous input-out loop between the player and game.
Before going into high level approaches that focus on immersion, the normal adventure design need to be discussed. 

The Puzzle Approach
This approach is pretty much how all of the classic adventure games are built. In essence, they are made up from a set of interconnected tasks that need to be completed. In order to get to A you need to B and C, C requires that D and E are done and so forth. The entire game basically becomes a big puzzle for the player to solve.

This approach has its root in the very first adventure games ever made: Adventure. The game started out as a mapping of a cave system that the author, William Crowther, had been part of exploring. When making an interactive version of it, various puzzle elements, partly inspired by D & D, were added. Apparently the author did not find the virtual exploration of the caves engaging enough on its own. Something more was needed, and the puzzle elements was added to fill that void; a decision that would go on to influence the coming decades of adventure games. (I wonder how different history would be if Crowther had added some Dear Esther-like narrative instead!).

The reason why this approach is so successful is because it makes it very easy to weave an interactive environment together with a story. The puzzles always give the player various tasks to do which provides motivation to go forward. More importantly it serves as a mean for the player to become part of the game's world. It makes it meaningful to converse with characters and it forces players to understand how the virtual world works.

This comes as a cost though. Because the focus is on constantly providing riddles and quests for the player, the game must have a story that support this. There must be a reason for the player to question characters, ways to provide clear goals, plenty opportunity to set up obstacles and an environment that support clever puzzles. The result of this can be seen very clearly; most adventure game are either some variation on mystery/detective story or a classic, fairytale-like, grand quest one.

On top of this comes the problem discussed in the paper, namely that the constant scrutinizing of the game's world eats away on the player's make-belief. It is simply not possible for players to let story-engagement be their main focus. If they fail to stay in a puzzle solving mindset the game will refuse them to advance. This often leads to the somewhat weird situation where playing the game with a guide is more enjoyable than playing it the proper unguided way.

These problem have been known for quite a while, and in recent times some games have popped up that try to do things differently. I will now discuss the most widely used, and most successful, alternative.

The Linear Plot Approach
The basic premise for this approach is to craft the game like a normal non-interactive story. One then looks for parts were it is possible to insert some sort of player interaction and add these to the otherwise passive experience. (This is not how would go about creation such a game exactly, but it describes the type design quite nicely.) The first game I know that did this was Photopia, and it used it very successfully. It is widely regarded as a highly rewarding and emotional experience. The approach has been more popularized by Fahrenheit, which unfortunately got a much more negative response. More recently the approach gained a lot of success in Telltale's adaption of The Walking Dead and here this approach have really showed its advantage to a bigger audience. I think it is by far the best usage of a linear plot design done so far. To The Moon is another, and different, example that also uses this approach to great effect.

What makes this approach so effective is that it is much better at keeping up the narrative momentum. When using the puzzle approach, it is highly likely that players will get stuck and taken out of the experience. With the linear plot approach this happen very rarely since the game is so focused. Right before it is time to give the player control, the protagonist can pretty much explicitly state what is needed to be done without it feeling out of place.

What I find striking about this approach is the very strong scenes that the games let you take part in. Heavy has the basement capture and self-mutilation scene. Walking Dead has the staircase stand off and mercy killing scenes. By having a very strict and controlled path throughout the game, it is possible put the player inside very specific scenes that would have been hard to set up in other kind of games.

Another big advantage is that it allows for a lot more diverse stories, as there is much less pressure on building everything into a puzzle structure. The approach has focus on the presence building qualities of the game medium instead of the competitive (black-box) aspects. Games like Photopia and Walking Dead clearly show how effective this is and there is probably a lot more that can be explored here.

Of course all is not well with designing a game in this way. There are some areas that are really problematic. The main issue is that there is not really much interaction, especially when it comes to building a sense of presence. The basic premise of the approach is just this, so it is really an intrinsic fault and not that interesting to discuss. However, more subtle, and intriguing, problems arise when it comes to picking the actual parts where the interaction happen. Two main issues arise here.

One is that it is very hard to have some sort of consistency in interaction, partly because activities can be so diverse and partly because they happen so rarely. Heavy Rain went the route of QTE's and the result is not that good. While there are some really good scenes, as a whole there are just too many arbitrary button presses. Walking Dead does it a lot better with having a few types of more intuitive input, such as aiming a cross-hair and mashing a single button. But the infrequent usage and not always clear functioning makes this problematic still. Dialog usually work better, but that interaction lacks a tight feedback loop instead. (However, an interesting way in which both games try and make this more immersive if by having a time-limit and banging on about how every choice has consequences).

The other issue is that much of the sense of exploration evaporates. Whenever players are given a space to explore it is very confined and static. The cause of this is that the game always need to make sure that you can go back into "cut scene mode" after an interactive section is over. There is a bottleneck that needs to be reached with very specific requirements met. This means one has to be very careful about moving characters, changing the environment, and so on, in order for the next cut scene to feel coherent. There is also the problem of keeping the quality of characters when starting a less controlled section that lack the tightly polished look of a cut scene. This means only so much can be done with characters during these more open sequences. Finally, because you need to have some overall unity in the control scheme, any open sections can only have the simplest of input. Usually only movement is allowed and the rest handled by some sort of menu like system (basically like a point-and-click game). In the end interaction during these part come off as clunky and contrived.

There is also a big problem when it comes to production. Simpler games like Photopia and To The Moon do not suffer so much from this, but in a game like Heavy Rain it is very evident. Because much of the game is not actively played but passively watched , the need for high quality cut scenes is a must. It needs to be made sure that the player can be engaged when the presence-feedback loop is weak or completely missing. This means tons of assets, which in turn requires the game to be planned far ahead. For instance, Heavy Rain had the complete script written before the production started. And then all motion capture and voice recording needed to be done before gameplay could be tried out. When it comes to making the actual game there is little room for change and iteration, and one basically has to stick with the script. This is a big disadvantage for interactive media as much of the real good stuff can come from unexpected directions.

While linear plot design gives a better sense of flow in the narrative and a more coherently immersive experience, it still feels lacking. The main problem is that there is so much interactive down-time and great loss in the feeling of exploration. There needs to be some other way of doing things. For our upcoming Super Secret Project we wanted to try a different route and craft an experience where you play the whole time.

The Scene Approach
The design that we have come up with is something I will refer to as the "Scene Approach". The basic idea is that you give the player an area, a scene, where they are free to roam. When appropriate players are able to leave and enter the next scene. Each scene should have a strong focus on some form of activity and/or theme  and be self contained. Moving on to the next scene should be evident, either by a very simple interaction (e.g. opening a door), some form of activity (e.g. starting a generator) or by reaching some sort of state (e.g. waiting for a 2 minutes). The same underlying base mechanics should be used throughout the game and interactions should behave in a consistent manner. The wanted end result is to have an experience where the narrative flows throughout the game, but retains a tight interaction loop and a strong sense of agency. It is basically about taking the better interactive moments from the linear plot approach and stretching them out into scenes with globally coherent interaction.

Is this really possible? The moments in the linear plot approach have been carefully set up and are normally extremely focused and contained. Is it really possible to recreate this in a more open environment and without any cut scenes? The scene approach cannot possibility recreate every situation found in a linear plot game, but if done correctly it should be possible to come pretty close.

The first requirement is that the levels need to be designed in such a way that players are rewarded and driven towards behaving in certain ways. For instance, in early designs we tried to give tons of freedom in what players could do, but much of this freedom resulted in actions that went against the narrative. This is negative freedom. Instead we have tried to limit actions into "what makes sense for the protagonist to do" and do so without breaking any sort of consistency. This is positive freedom. The goal is then to eliminate the negative freedom and maximize the positive one, which is very simple to say but have proven hard to do in practice.

Even with a neatly designed scene, all is not set. There is still the problem of communicating the goals. Early on I thought that it was just a matter of having an interesting enough environment and players would partake in the activities provided. The problem is that the larger the environments become the harder it is for players to figure out what is of interest and what is not. It is also very easy to loose ones sense of direction and become unsure of what to do next. This problem is even more severe now that we pulled back on the problem solving focus. Players are not in the mood for constantly looking for clues but are instead focused on soaking up the narrative and having an immersive experience. This is how we want them to be, and should thus not be something that hinders progress.

To get around this, we have had to made sure that the larger a scene is, the more clear and obvious your end goal becomes. Also, any activity in a large area should always be optional unless it is closely related, both spatially and conceptually, to the object or state that makes the game progress to the next scene. Whenever the player is required to carry out some activity, the scope of a scene need to be decreased. The greater the freedom is in terms of possible actions, the less actions must be compulsory.

The scenes themselves are not the only problem though. A perhaps even greater concern is how to connect them. At first I thought this would not be a big issue and that you could get away with pretty loose connections. Problems arise very quickly though, the main being that the experience simply stops making sense for the player. There must be some sort of logical connection and narrative flow between each scene. If not it becomes increasingly harder for player to figure out what they should be doing. This means either lowering the degrees of positive freedom or to have more set up for each scene. The first option gives something like Thirty Flights of Loving and the second is basically to use the linear plot approach. We do not want to do either, so having clear connections is a must.

This results in an a sort of curious conclusion. One of our goals in storytelling is to rely as little as possible on plot in order to give an experience with a strong sense of agency. However, in order to provide as much positive freedom as possible, it is essential that the scenes are put together in a very tight and engaging fashion. In other words, on a scene level there is a great need for a strong plot in order to have as little plot as possible in the actual scenes.

In turn this limits what kind of scenes that are possible. Now that the connections need to make sense, it is not possible to simply fill the game with scenes that lends themselves very well to our core mechanics. So far we have to been able to pull this off quite nicely, and we are slowly wrapping our minds around these concepts.

End Notes
This is not some final verdict on how to improve upon the adventure game genre. It just summarizes a bit on the design direction that we are taking for our next game. Nothing is final yet, so I am not sure how it all will turn out in the end, or how much of the above we will be actually using. This is at least our current thinking and what we are working on now.

Also have say few ending words on adventure games in general. It might sound in the beginning like I loathe traditional click and point games, but this is not the case. I have enjoyed playing a lot of adventure games, and using puzzle approach for high-level game design is a very valid one. The best adventure games really take advantage of this, for instance Monkey Island and Broken Sword. These games are made in a way that makes the design really works and creates a really memorable and unique experience. However, for some games, like Primordia, my main draw is not to have this kind of experience. In this game I am more interested in exploration and getting immersed in the world. The classic puzzle design does not do this properly and I feel as if my experience is not as good as it can be. Primordia is still a good game and it uses the setting nicely to create some interesting puzzles. But it feels like they could have taken a lot of the game's essence and packaged into a form that would have delivered it much better.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seven Economist Mistakes About Parenting

This post is a reaction to the post at FoxNews by PhD economist, Gertrud Fremling, “An economist’s seven rules for raising kids.” The fact that I have titled my post here “economist mistakes” implies that I disagree with Fremling but I
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10: Austan Goolsbee, cha...
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10: Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, speaks during a discussion on the Economy at the National Press Club, on June 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. Goolsbee spoke to the Committee for Economic Development about the status of the U.S. economy and job creation. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
should preface that the word “mistakes” is harsh. There are different parenting styles and some work for different parents. I have no doubt Fremling’s choices work for her. My qualms here are, first, that her rules are actually natural, first principles, applications of economic logic but, second, for reasons that relate to the failings of that logic, are unlikely to be of use for many parents. Indeed, they could hardly be described as “parenting rules” in the same way that, say, not leaving a toddler wandering around in traffic is not simply good advice but is a rule.

Let’s begin with posited Rule No.1: “Limit Their Options.” Here Fremling basically says that her kids do not get anything beyond basic needs without having to work for it. No TV, restriction of video games and probably much else. Now it is unclear why this rule is implied. This seems like an imposition of parenting preferences on the preferences of children; something that is usually considered pretty anti-economic and free choice. But as we progress through the rules, you will see that this is essential for the running of a market-based household. The Fremling household creates scarcity and with that creates demand from their children, in terms of what they are willing to work for. Without that, it is hard to get the rest to follow. From this perspective, they start their market economy with a state-run monopoly.

Which gets to Rule No.2: “Economic Incentives — Offer Plenty of Jobs.” The Fremling household is the land of opportunity. Everything is an employment opportunity for which a child can receive a set amount of pay. That sounds like a pretty neat economy but so much can go wrong with pay. I pretty much wrote a book on the basis of the difficulties of applying this to young children. But a recent tweet by former Whitehouse Council of Economic Advisors head, Austan Goolsbee, recounted the time he paid his young son a fee for each cricket he disposed of in his Washington DC home. The arrangement ended when he found his son opening the back door to let more crickets in. But even with unintended consequences, how do you know what price to set? $1 for a dishwasher load? That seems high to me. I can’t imagine having to work this out for every chore and task in the house. So much better to have a broad deal like we have, do the tasks you are supposed to, or else? There’s an incentive. It is a little vague but it does save on transaction costs.

Of course the Fremling household have that covered in Rule 3 “Bidding/Auctions” although that doesn’t seem like a rule but rather a mechanism. They have five kids and so sometimes there can be actual competition to undertake a task. In that case, consistent with good principles of competitive bidding, they let them low ball each other. Sometimes they even have an outsourcing option to compete against their own internal workforce. My kids would never go for all this. The first thing they would do is collude and as they have more time than us to work out these things, they would likely get away with it too.
Now Rule No.4 “Encourage your kids to come up with ideas” is hardly an objectionable rule but it isn’t an economics rule. They let their kids suggest other things they could do to earn money. I’m not going to say more about that here.
Then comes Rule No.5: “Respect for Property Rights.” This hits the economist the minute a child goes to pre-school and there is a broad philosophy of sharing. When a kid proclaims that they were told that they “like to share” I recall vividly the Alex P. Keaton alternative in Family Ties, “I know what’s mine.” In the Fremling household everyone knows what’s theirs. Their kids don’t share, they negotiate exchanges. Having set prices for the work required to get stuff, it is not to hard to set prices to rent stuff to each other. But there is a hint that all is not well here:
Property rights also mean you are free to sell off a game or toy to a sibling, as long as the buyer fully understands the consequences of the deal.
See that last part. I think a bit of exploitation occurred in the Fremling economy at some point and they weren’t free market enough not to impose some judicial oversight on contractual arrangements consistent with consumer protection laws.
The problem here is obvious. If everything has a price, it seems natural to vest control rights with one person. But there is so much in a household that is of a public good nature. Unless you start with everything being privately acquired, there is ambiguity over ownership and in that case you require collective decision-making. Some might argue that that doesn’t prepare kids for the economy. True, not for the pure market economy. But so much of what people do as economic transactions — especially those who work for businesses — is not a pure market economy. Property rights are ambiguous and so kids need to be prepared for that too. To be sure, that can be messy but it is still learning.
Rules No.6 and 7 have to do with contract law. Good parenting involves commitments. In the Fremling household that means parents sticking to contracts and, as it turns out, they have found that hard on occasion. But kids do like these things and I have to admit that this is where the Gans and Fremling households come closer together. To that end, let me quote from anolder post of mine on contracting.
Recently, my 8 year old daughter complained that her mother kept reneging on promises. She would promise one thing and then when the time came to keep the promise, she would change it or move it further away in time. It was, of course, all true.
So we had a discussion as to what to do about it. I suggested that perhaps she would like to get things in writing the next time Mummy made a promise.
“What good would that do?”
“Well you would have a record of what the promise is.”
“So what? She will just change it again.”
“In that case you could point out that it is a binding contract.”
“What does binding contract mean?”
“It means that if Mummy doesn’t keep her promise, the government will step in to enforce it.”
“Really, how?”
“You could take Mummy to Court and a judge would order her to keep her promise.”
With that she whipped up Microsoft Word and drew herself up a contract including her consideration not to complain about the broken promise unless it was broken. Her mother was surprised to get the contract, in duplicate, but signed it anyhow.
Tonight, I found myself being presented with my own contract terms. I had, over dinner, promised to let my daughter stay up late over the Spring break if she went to bed early before it. An hour later I was asked to sit down and sign a contract to that effect, including the standard ‘no complaint’ clause. I happily signed and our signatures were witnessed and the contract was filed away. 
I am a little worried that I have opened a can of worms here. Everything has suddenly gone from informal to highly legalistic. I guess our daughter has a few trust issues. But at the moment I have no complaints. 
The Fremling household has its own “Mom’s Court” but it involves not only contract law but tort law. In their rigorous private property household, infringements occur.
Most families seem to practice “time-out” as punishment. But that requires considerable monitoring and fails to give restitution to the victim. And holding long moral lectures is boring, both for the parent and the child.
Imposing fines instead worked very well. Most cases were trivial and routine. Such a minor offense as saying “bad words” resulted in a quick judgement of a small fine to the household.
When it comes down to it, punishing is hard. There is something hands-free about parenting with set fines and punishments. But it is rarely the case that an infringement does not uncover deeper issues of understanding and getting along. You just can’t avoid hands-on management even if it is long and boring. This is what was borne out in the Planet Money podcast featuring my daughter. Economists like to think that they can offer simple, market solutions to all manner of problems. But within the household as in the real world, things are never so simple and you cannot avoid management by enforcing an economy. The Fremling household has chosen to put their efforts in establishing an economy. I tried that to once but time and again, it is has taught me more about how hard that is and why it is mistaken to think that there are economic rules that can be applied carte blanche to good effect. 

Learning should fit the child

Ericsson have produced a new video on the Future of Learning. It is about what technology can do for education.

There is often a sense that technology is a toy. That if it engages kids it is because it is more exciting and bright than tired, old books. This is, in many respects, the rhetoric at the heart of moves towards ‘interactive’ textbooks. The issue, of course, is that while that may be true, the real potential for technology in education is to break us from the requirements of standardization.
Standardization in education came from resource constraints. We have a fixed number of teachers and, in the past, a lack of access to technology. But that resource constraint is being shattered. That means that standardization can feasibly be challenged. No longer do we have to education children based, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, on “their date of manufacture.” We can allow both self pace but also multiple channels that may resonate and work with different children. One example of that highlighted in the video is Knewton. But it is just one of many experiments in non-standardized learning including Khan Academy andCodeacademy.
Perhaps no place more does this issue arise than on the issue of memorization. My biggest parental challenge in education comes from convincing my children to memorize things. Now when it comes to a foreign language or even spelling that may make some sense (but it isn’t a given). But just last night my daughter was busy learning the countries and capitals of the EU. She was suffering immensely from a problem I didn’t face when I was growing up; that break-up of Yugoslavia. That made the memory challenge exponentially harder.
So I helped her by testing her on what she had learned. But all the way, the question was why? Why was she memorising this? Why in this way? The best we have is that sometime in the future some political issue could arise and it will be important to know what the capital of Slovenia is. But even that is weak. Can’t she learn that later? There is no clear rationale.
What is more, the exercise was even obscuring the point of about the EU. Along the way, I asked her: what’s the capital of the EU? “The EU has a capital?” she responded. “Yes, it’s a form of government. It needs a home.” In other words, the forest had been completely obscured for the trees. (By the way, it turns out that, in this case, there is no one capital).
Anyhow, if you haven’t been following these developments, this video is a good place to start.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Humble beginnings of the HPL Engine

I recently stumbled upon some really old videos with gameplay tests in the HPL engine and decided they would be fun to show off. This was not our first foray into 3D first person horror (Unbirth was), but it was the first time the the HPL engine was used. All of these are gameplay videos are from a student project then know as "The Hatch" and later became the "Penumbra Tech Demo".

6th of December 2005 - First Gameplay Test
I had now been working on the engine from scratch since late July, so a little more than 5 months. It is fun to see that most of the important interaction features are in at this point. The sound system for the physics is actually pretty much the same we have used until Amnesia. Jens is the one who recorded this.

7th of February 2006 - Improved Gameplay Test
The engine is now a little bit more refined, mainly with interaction and speed I think. I think that the portal visibility system got added during this time (I actually remember that I came up with a solution in the parking lot when buying groceries for Christmas). Recorded by Jens as well.

23rd of March 2006 - AI Test
The first proper AI test. It now has all the basic systems in, pathfinding, hearing and so on. Most of these features actually survived until Amnesia as well (and still use some variants). It is great to see how the AI works with the physics and shoves the door open as you try to close it. Interestingly, this creature has the most complex pathfinding we have used so far since it had two separate ways of moving about. I recorded this myself and the resolution is so crappy because my computer was unable record and play the game at the same time otherwise.

4th of April 2006 - Kind of Proper Gameplay
Pretty much all features needed to power the gameplay in the tech demo is in now. I think I recorded it.

The final version of the tech demo can be found here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

First There Was Apple's MapGate, Now Welcome ParentGate

[This post was originally published at on 3rd October 2012]

One of the virtues of a Mac that I have always heralded to anyone who might ask was their parental controls. Unlike PCs, these were built right into the operating 
Merle & my macbook
system. And in a typical Apple way they have always been very easy to use. You can set it up to allow your children to open certain apps, you can set the time limits on use sensibly (including time of day as well as total time per day) and you could manage the websites they visited. What is more, if there was an issue, you could simply create an exception with a username and password. What is more, it would keep logs of precisely what it was your child was doing.

Put simply, it struck the right balance between control but also annoyance. So many other gatekeeper programs I had experienced would lead to continual restrictions. They basically handcuffed children so that you might as well be sitting there with them. Apple's solution allow the children to roam relatively free. In other words, they were a hands off approach to being hands on. And when I would explain this to other parents, it was often the key factor that caused them to switch to Macs.

But Apple recently updated its Mountain Lion operating system and completely broke parental controls. My 8 year old, started to complain that she wasn't able to access websites. This included the school sanctioned, IXL program. A message would pop up saying "Parental controls restricts access to secure websites." I then could supposedly sign in and give parental permission to add the 'secure' website to the list of permitted ones. The first time this happened I duly entered that permission thinking it was just something new. But then, each and every time the website reloaded or who knows what, it would ask again. For the very same website! I shouted at the computer but to no avail. No Siri to complain to here. I entered it again and again. I tried other websites. It was a continual problem.

So I did what most people would do. I rebooted. Nope. I reset the parental conditions to allow her to visit all websites. In fact, that didn't work either. I then searched Apple's forums to see if the issue was widespread. I found this one but alas I was logged on to my daughter's account and wasn't able to give myself permission to view it. Apple were blocking their own darn help site!

Anyhow once I logged on as myself, a verified adult, I could access the site. I was joined by one hundred or so other grieving parents. It was there that I discovered the term 'parentgate' or something to its effect. This had been going on since September 21.

The evolution of that forum is interesting. First, there was denial. "I think it must be me, but is anyone else having this problem." Then there was anger. "I can't believe that Apple have let this happen." That was my current stage. Then I read on to bargaining. "Is there anyone out there who has come up with a solution to this?" or another "[m]akes the mac almost unusable for them.  FIX THIS PLEASE SOON APPLE." And there were some solutions some of which required the use of the terminal program which, of course, led to depression. "It has been three weeks, I can't understand why they have abandoned us to run code."  And finally there was acceptance.

I jumped right to that. Like many others on the forum I decided that parental control was gone and I would just have to let go. I opened up system preferences, selected my daughter's name and switched parental controls to off. She was completely free. (Well, as free as you get with out the coveted administrator control). Apple had forced my daughter to grow up too quickly. How could they. Oops moving back to anger, need to look to the future. It will be OK. How bad could it be?

Chances are I won't find out how bad it can be until she hits puberty but by the then her web surfing will probably be the least of my worries.

Following the Apple parent group's acceptance of the situation and its confirmation that someone in Apple had acknowledged the issue, their focus turned to "how?" It is pretty clear that they didn't test the new operating system upgrade properly. Let's face it, that is kept to employees and some developers and likely not to anyone with children to control. Quality control failed because Apple has so much secrecy that it cannot deal with kids.

For the moment, Apple have shipped a faulty product. I am an Apple fan and so this distresses me. I can't sell this feature on their behalf anymore as it is turned into a bug. But I did note that with all the MapGate controversy there has been no attention on tech blogs to ParentGate. Hopefully this post will fix it and spur Apple to action soon.

[Update: Well, less than 24 hours after I first posted on this Apple has released a 'supplemental' update to OSX that is reported to fix this issue.]

[Update 2: I have tested the update. It works but what has happened is that Apple have changed the way websites are approved. Previously, this was done in the background with the occasional problem. Now it seems that you have to approve every site for your child. Suffice it to say, if your child is experienced this is a big fat pain. I ended up opting for unrestricted website usage and decided to use Chrome as the browser rather than Safari. That way I could use Google's safe search to at least prevent unwelcome sites randomly popping up.]

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hiring: Level Designer Wanted

Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia and Penumbra series, seeks a Level Designer for a new game project. Taking what we learned from our previous games we aim to take horror and interactive story-telling to the next level. We are looking for a talented individual to help us design and implement this vision.

Main Responsibilities:
  • To take creative decisions on how puzzles, events, layout are to be designed.
  • Through scripting implement gameplay in a level.
  • To place sounds, tweak lighting and similar things to create atmosphere.
  • Communicate with writers and artists on how to achieve the goals of a level.
  • Provide feedback on design suggestions and implemented gameplay.

Work conditions:
The job will be carried out on a distance so you need to be able to work from home. This means you must have a fast internet connection, strong work moral and live in a timezone near the Swedish one (which is GMT+1). If you are not living in Sweden, you must also be able to invoice (or at least be willing to set this up). The work environment at Frictional Games is quite open and you need to be able to schedule your own time and take initiative when required.

Required qualifications:
  • Having designed and implement gameplay for a commercial game or a released mod/indie project.
  • Progressive view on video games and a will to evolve the medium.
  • Excellent understanding of game design for adventure games and immersive simulations.
  • Good enough coding skills to implement your ideas.
  • Experience in working with 3D level editing software.
  • Good understanding of lighting and architecture in 3D scenes.
  • In-depth knowledge on how to create an interactive narrative.
  • Not be shy of learning new things and work in areas out of your comfort zone.

Further Qualifications:
  • Experience in writing fiction.
  • Skills in 3D modeling.
  • Experience in the horror-genre.
  • Interest in science and science-fiction.
  • Experience with Fmod and/or sound-editing.
Send your application to Attach your CV to the mail, but provide links for other files or images.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Amnesia - Two Years Later

It has now passed a little more than two years since we launched Amnesia and one year since the last report, so time for another! One would think that there is perhaps not much to be said this long after release, especially for a single player game with no built-in social features. But the fact is that Amnesia is still going very strong and 2012 will probably be the best financial year here at Frictional Games, which we would never had expected two years ago.

As always, let's start with the sales and some numbers. The first thing will be to figure out how many units we have sold in total, which is actually really hard to pin down. The biggest reasons for the uncertainty is that Amnesia was part of the Humble Indie Bundle (HIB) earlier this year and Potato Bundle last year. Both of these account for quite a lot of sales. Without counting the units bought there our total lands at 710 000 units. Adding all HIB and Potato Sack sales gets us to 1 360 000 units in total, which can be called the optimistic figure. This means that, optimistically speaking, Amnesia has sold almost 1.4 million units! This reasoning is not strictly speaking invalid, but I think that one should not really count anyone that bought the bundle and already owned Amnesia as a proper unit. A slightly pessimistic guess (not far from reality I think) is that 2/3 of every bundle and pack buyer already owned Amnesia. This gives us about 920 000 units in total, pessimistically speaking. So saying that we have sold a million units seems fair. Wait... a million units! Oh shit!!

Despite that huge number of sales, what I think is more interesting is how good the monthly sales still are. Not counting any discounts, the monthly full price sales lie at over 10 000 units. This means that less then every 5th minute someone in the world is buying a copy of Amnesia. This is totally insane to me. The figures themselves are far beyond any guesses we would have made two years ago. It is also insane, because this number is actually higher than it was around three months after initial launch. That a game can still be going this good two years after is truly remarkable.  This success is due to many factors, some of which are the uniqueness of the game (horror games without combat do not really exist on PC), the large modding community (more on this later) and the steady flood of YouTube clips (which is in turn is fueled by the modding community output).

Also worth noting that our Penumbra games are still going on at the same rate that they always have. They are still selling about the same numbers (a little more actually) as they did three years ago. This totals to about 900 units per month. Taking all sales together is more than enough to support the company, financing A Machine For Pigs (more on that later) and having some left over. This means that we are in a very good position and aim to use it to take more risk and try out new things (more on this later).

I think we have never disclosed how much we Amnesia cost to make, so might as well do that here. The (exactly) three years of development cost a total of 360 000 US Dollars. It has since earned more than ten times that. Take that investors we talked to in 2009!

It has been over a year since we even thought about piracy. With sales as good as above we cannot really see this as an issue worth more than two lines in this post, so screw it.

I mentioned it a bit in last years summary, but feel it was not given enough focus. When we created the possibility of custom stories, it was something we thought of very late and I think Luis implemented it in less than a day. We put a few days on adding documentation our wiki as well, but all in all, it was a tiny effort compared to the rest of the game. Despite that, this aspect as been immensely important for the game and while it is hard to give any exact features in terms of sales, the influence on our community is easily seen. Before modding started, we had one or two daily post on our message boards. But as the modding community has grown, it is now up in over 40! (Remember this on the boards of a 2 year old a single player game.) There is even a long meme thread regarding the custom story community. What is interesting is that there are even internal expressions used, like "poofer", that we at Frictional did not know about and that was specific to Amnesia modding.

The output of modding community has been quite big as well. Amnesia is as of writing the 2nd most popular game at ModDB and sports 176 finished mods. Not only do this amount of user content lengthen the life of the game, it has also increased the amount of YouTube movies made with an Amnesia theme. There are lots of popular Let's Play channels that have devoted quite a bit of time with just playing various user-made custom stories. As mentioned earlier this have probably played a large role in keeping our monthly sales up.

It is quite clear that allowing users to create content is a feature worth putting time into. I also think that we managed to have a pretty good balance between having simple tools and still allowing a lot of possibilities. It is far from perfect though and for our new engine (which AMFP is not using) will have lots of improvements. It will still be possible to use the simple scripting as before, but now you can pretty much remake whatever you like and do not have to use a complicated total conversion to do so.

The next big thing for us will be the release of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, which is a follow-up developed by thechineseroom and produced by us. This release will be very interesting in many ways. First of all it is a big experiment for us to do this sort of collaboration, so from the start we had no idea how it would turn out. Judging from the latest build we have nothing to worry about though, and so far it looks great. Another interesting aspect is how well it will sell compared to the initial Amnesia launch. Not only is the market a lot bigger now than two years ago, Amnesia is more known. The result will be very important to how we plan our future. Release for AMFP is expected early 2013.

At Frictional Games our main concern is our new super secret project. We do not want to say much about this project yet,but we can disclose that it will be horror and that it will be first person. One of the things I was most disappointed with in Amnesia was that it never really managed to deliver any deeper themes, but was more like a shallow fright-fest. For the new project we want to change that and really try and bring a certain theme to the front. Our hope is that this will create a very special experience, creating horror in a much more disturbing way. For the curious, some information on the path we are taking can be found in this paper. The game's current status is that we have pretty much all tech working, and have started to playtest the first parts. Still, a lot is up in the air and the current design is bound to change. While we do not want the project to go on forever, we want to use our good financial situation the best we can and make sure we do not just rush something out (which we did with Amnesia actually). Release will probably be some time in 2014.

Frictional Games have also grown over the last year and we now employ 11 people, which feels very close to the maximum. At least the way we run the company right now. We also do not want to lose the small underdog spirit that has fueled us in the past. When you have such financially different situation compared to when you started I think it is easy to get caught up in expansion, wild ideas and basically do not get much done. So, we do our best to keep our feet firmly on the ground, to be strict on deadlines and to always remember our humble pasts. At the same time we will not take any easy solutions and play it safe. After the successes we have had, I think it is our responsibility to use our money and independence the best way possible.