Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Currencies of the Realm Part 1

This was going to be a single post, but as I've typed it, I've realized that no one in their right mind would read all of this at once.  So therefor, for your sake, here is part one of my rant on MMOG's.

Today I want to share with you something I came to realize while killing time at a Starbucks in the middle of rural Georgia (yes, I appreciate the irony too).  I've been giving MMOG design a lot of thought in recent weeks.  This may be due to the fact I've got a pet project in the wings that I'll share with you when the time is right, but for now allow me to continue.  I'm fairly certain I am not the only person in the world currently frustrated by the homogenous nature of the MMOG scene as it stands today.  With only slight variation and with rare exceptions, every MMOG released to date seems to simply be a repackaging of the same tried and true swords and sorcery formula which has changed little since our parents used to play it and it was called Dungeons and Dragons. This even goes for games which aren't high fantasy but are instead repackaged in a science fiction or "modern day".  That is merely different window dressing on what is essentially the same freaking window.  So what kind of a formula are we talking about here? Mostof us could probably rattle it off in our sleep, but for redundancy's sake lets spell it out:   

You are (insert character name here) a young and promising (insert gender, race, and profession here). You have arrived in (world name here) to find it a place full of danger, strip malls selling armor and weapons, and a seemingly endless supply of weak creatures to pillage and plunder.  Early on you are informed of the grave impending danger of (antagonistic power here) and are inevitably given a unavoidable quest which will surely lead to more unavoidable quests which will unquestionably set you on a collision course to go head to head against the dreaded (antagonistic power here).  But before you can Save the World (just like the guy who signed up right after you) you must prove your unswaying dedication to your goal and complete submission to the Powers the Be (the game devs) by grinding.  What is grinding you ask? Grinding is what game developers stick between Meaningful Content when they want to slow their players down. Its what makes MMO's financially feasible and it's what keeps the story team from absolute nervous breakdowns.  

But as a lowly player you're not supposed to remember any of that and focus on the task at hand.  In specific, you must plow your way through the faceless and oft nameless hordes of Slightly Weaker Beings in persuit of the coveted Experience Points.  Nowhere is it explained why on earth experience points(and their much more easily recitable cousin level points) are so damn important to everyone in (world name here) or even who in the world is even keeping trak of such a arbitrary statistic but its commonly accepted that they are Very Important indeed.  Provided you are a persistant and easily baited player, you will inevitably not only accumulate the sacred XP, but also a small landfill worth of Marginally Valueable Stuff which for some unexplained reason,  was being toted around at random by members of the faceless hordes you slaughter. 

Through your travels you learn that some of these items can combined together through some arbitrary process to create Expendable Items of Average Utility. They're always expendable, becuase if they weren't you might start to realize what a absolute drag grinding is.  Every blue moon or so, one of the faceless horde will drop the highly prized Rare and Obscure Item of Great Value, which of course can be used to either further your genocidal spree or to create a Very Expendable Item of High Utility. So you play on, as the quests begin to blur into each other, the story line lurching along in syrupy hiccups between hours of grind.  Then, just when you've fallen into the groove, the plot reaches its inevitable climax and you, the (gender, race, profession here) must summon your greatest effort and several friends with questionable attention spans and bad internet connections to defeat the One True Evil.  

Then its over.  You've reached the top and suddenly the grind has lost its meaning because now your experience points and your level suddenly seem so arbitrary.  After all, what does the person who has defeated the ultimate evil do after?  You hope that the developers will hurry up with that promised expansion, the one which will unlock a whole new world of faceless creatures and a extension to the plot, and along with it a reason to start grinding again.  But until then you are a lost soul, wandering about the world fighting the few surviving Very Difficult Creatures in the hope they will provide a challenge and more rare items.  But there's never enough of them, and even when you do defeat them, you've only joined the swelling ranks of the Players Who Have Done Everything, and you realize you look a awful lot like all the others. Depression sets in, and you stop playing, vowing to never play a MMO again.  Yet before long you find yourself sitting at your computer excitedly, with the brand new and highly marketed (game name here), hoping that this one is somehow different from the last.

I nearly fell asleep typing that.

 Now as I said there are exceptions, as there are to any sweeping generalization.  Games like Planetside and to an extent EVE Online try to mix things up by making it about PvP territory control. Some get more serious with their content creation tools, others try and mix it up with encouraging socialization.  But the truth of the matter is the sheer rank and file of the MMO scene follows the same pattern, and frankly as a gamer and as someone with game design aspirations, it's getting a bit old.  

Up next in part two of this rambling diatribe: I'll attempt to describe the beginnings of a system that actually lives up to the stratospheric expectations I've just set for myself.  

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Food for Thought

Bit=0 or 1
Nibble=4 Bit
Byte=8 Bit
Kilobyte=1024 Bytes
Megabyte=1024 Kilobytes
Gigabyte=1024 Megabytes
Terabyte=1024 Gigabytes
Petabyte=1024 Terabytes
Exabyte=1024 Petabytes
Zettabyte=1024 Exabytes
Yottabyte=1024 Zettabytes
Xonabyte=1024 Yottabytes
Wekabyte=1024 Xonabytes
Yundabyte=1024 Wekabytes
Udabyte=1024 Yundabytes
Tredabyte=1024 Udabytes
Sortabyte=1024 Tredabytes
Rintabyte=1024 Sortabytes
Quexabyte=1024 Rintabytes
Peptabyte=1024 Quexabytes
Ochabyte=1024 Peptabytes
Nenabyte=1024 Ochabytes
Mingabyte=1024 Nenabytes
Lumabyte=1024 Mingabytes

We are currently in transtition from the era of Gigabytes to Terrabytes. Already, there are predictions that by next year there will be a Zettabyte of information on the Net. Assuming Moore's Law remains true, what will we be capable of in a era of Udabytes, and how soon will that be?  Keep in mind at this early juncture we've already got enough storage to store a entire human genome.  Its also worth noting that I entered high school in the era of Megabytes and by the time I had graduated we were firmly in the realm of Gigabytes.  Over my stay in Maine I read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Internet demigod Cory Doctrow (I highly reccomend it, by the way).  Perhaps we aren't quite as far away from a world of complete mental backups and digitally imparted imortality. 

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Regarding Silence

I fear I've put this post off for far too long. I created this blog as a way of communicating my thoughts honestly with anyone who cares to listen, so its a bit silly that I find myself trying to edit myself in regards to what to talk about.  Part of my hesitation I suspect is a deep seated need to appear as a capable and competent professional.  While such a need is a worthwhile consideration, I have recently come to the conclusion that using it as the determining factor regarding what I say here in this blog is counterproductive.  What is the point of me having a personal blog if I'm not using it to share what's on my mind? Is it really such a sin to actually talk about what's on my mind (within reason of course)?  Now this may be nothing more than literary navel-gazing, but as the saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is to admit you have a problem.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

Maine, Haircut, and a new Painting

So its been a few days, ok more than a few.  Here's what's been happening in my little corner of the universe.  The last week or so my fiance and I were up in my home state of Maine to get some prep work done for our wedding, and boy what progress we made!  We not only managed to get a cake baker and a florist, we picked up the dress (which I'm not allowed to see, so I can only operate under hearsay evidence), and also managed to blast down to Boston for a day to do our engagement photos with the awesome folks from JAGStudios.  I've been told they'll be posting the pictures tonight, and hopefully I'll have a link up to them in shortly!  While I wanted to have done in time for the shoot, I procrastinated and ended up getting a long overdue haircut. As much as I love the shaggy look, it just doesn't cut it down here in Atlanta during the summer.  Now I'm back down here in Atlanta, and by way of a apology for not posting during the last week I present a corporate monster:

Cute, neh?

I've also got about 4 or 5 ideas floating around in my noggin that need to be written down.  Perhaps later tonight I'll find the time to do it, or maybe Star Trek and engagement photos will consume my evening!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Deep Eye Viewer, or how to turn the SL machinima scene on its head.

I love the concept of doing machinima in Second Life.  No other platform gives a machinimatographer such absolute control over their work.  But by the same token, no other platform is quite as frustrating.  Second Life was never made with in depth character acting, dramatic lighting, advanced graphics, or cinematic camerawork in mind.   Lag, limitations in the graphics engine, and even in the avatar models themselves hold back a lot of Second Life's potential for high quality compelling cinema.  That said, the quality of work produced by SL machinimatographers is a testament to their creative will and technical savvy.  But is the nature of SL in and of itself the problem, or just one part of it?

I'd like to back up for a second and challenge one of the assumptions common in most forms of machinima today.  Nameably, the assumption that machinima is the direct per-pixel recording of live game engine output.  Why do we do this?  In closed game systems, such as Warcraft it makes sense, what appears on the screen is pretty much the only accessible output. True, you can perform a GL rip and get what ammounts to a 3D photograph of the game geometry, but in terms of using a engine as a filming apparatus, this method doesn't hold much mainstream value.  Some games such as Halo 2 and 3 open things up a little bit by providing a replay tool, which allows for more advanced shot sequences and interesting camera angles.  Yet nothing comes close to the openness of SL, which is literally streaming data about not only the characters surroundings, but also up to the second changes in status, all in a data stream accessed and interpreted through a open source viewer.   Why are we settling for a system of capturing the pixels cranked out by a video card working overtime, only to recieve footage of so-so quality when we could be capturing event data from this stream and saving it to a file for later rendering and yes, even editing.  Imagine what could be possible if you could shoot a scene, decide that your character came into the scene a bit too close to the camera, and instead of having to reshoot the scene, you could just select the character and shift his performance into the desired position.  Imagine being able to apply such forbidden wonders such as depth of field and raytraced lighting to your shots, where the only limitation to visual quality would be how long you wanted to wait for the final footage to render.  Machinima is supposed to marry the advantages of live action and animation, and a system like this would make good on that. It would also knock down the performance barrier, allowing those with less than stellar computers to still shoot beautiful works of machinima.  Call it crazy if you want, I call it the Deep Eye Viewer.

In essence the viewer would operate as follows.  The machinimatographer would set up their scene as normal, taking into consideration all of the normal concerns of staging, props, animations, etc.   They would then activate hit a pre-record mode on their viewer, which would scope out the surrounding area and take note of all major assets present.  This would include terrain, object UUID's, and position data (NOTE: not actually ripping the prim parameters, just getting a reference for later recall), avatar appearances and their intital positioning, and finally windlight settings.  This in essence creates a snapshot of everything that will be required later to re-rez the scene in a semi-local "sim" for rendering and editing.   Once ready, the viewer will prompt the machinimatographer who could then activate the "recording" mode.  This would begin capturing realtime animation and position data from the pre-recorded avatars in addition to the camera position and motion.  Once the machinimatographer is satisfied with the take they can stop recording.   The recording process can be repeated ad nauseum, with each recording saved as a unique "take" within the data file.  

To review or edit a piece of recorded footage, the machinimatographer would select a file from their hard drive and the scene would be loaded into a semi-local (assets are still being called from the grid) "sim".  The user could then play, pause, rewind, and fast forward through the captured data, edit scene element properties, and mute scene objects from visibility.   Muting is useful in cases where the user wishes to either specifically isolate certain scene elements (opening up the possibility of green screen for machinima) or to remove certain extraneous bits of the scene which detract from the overall effectiveness of the shot. The user could add additional cameras to the scene, in effect allowing for multicam setups of the same action.  Also addable would be advanced lighting setups to enhance the pre-existing lighting, such as spot-lights and negative-intensity lights to add areas of shadow. 

One particular addition to the scene data that would be exceedingly useful is the ability to overlay facial animation data onto a avatar's performance.  Lets face it, the current expressions in SL are clunky at best, and downright offputting at worst.  Imagine shooting a scene and then recording the facial acting through a computer vision system that uses a webcam to interpret your expression (oh yeah, its possible).  The same could be done for the hands, which right now are little more than just great big clunky mitts.  The level of nuace these enhancements could bring would be significant to say the least.  These are advanced functions, to be sure, but something which is going to end up having a major impact on the quality of machinima that is produced using such a system, and something for which Deep Eye would be uniquely suited for.

There are of course questions to be addressed before any of this can leave paper.  For example, would SL allow for the sort of on-demand asset-rezzing described, and if so what would its limitations be?  Additionally there are the obvious concerns of the scope of this project and the amount of effort that would be required to bring it to fruition.  Another valid question is how to marry this data playback to a rendering system.  My hunch would be to leverage existing rendering engines such as Blender's, although leaving the interface open to allow for user choice may very well be a valid option too. 

All in all this might be a crazy rant, but hey, that's what I'm here for.  

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Duo Pic Post!

Alrighty then! Gonna get things started off with a double-post of pics I finished yesterday. First off is "The Interface" This one started off really, really red.  I toned it down as I went along, and hopefully I hit the right balance.

Up next:  A guy who despite my best efforts, ended up with the bleh name of "Northern Nomad"
I've discovered that a brush that emulates a palette knife is just what I've been missing.  It gives a nice sharp bold line that allows your eye to suggest novel possibilities.

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