ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms


Games and Musings17 Mar 2009

I believe I have made my feelings on chainmail underwear and other ludicrous video-game garb clear. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan. So I was quite pleased to find this a little while ago while researching a Secret Project(tm) that I may or may not be cooking up in my spare time lately.

It’s the box art from The Bard’s Tale, a computer RPG from 1985, and here are some adventurers that nobody wants to see in their skivvies. These blokes look like they can get the quest and the drinking done, and both without any nonsense. I’d trust them to liberate the town of Skara Brae from the clutches of the evil wizard Mangar long before I’d turn to a barbie doll in a titanium bathing suit. Gaming needs more heroes who don’t wear high heels. My only complaint is there don’t seem to be any women in sensible shoes among the lads here. Oh well, can’t have everything.

Bonus content: here’s an old magazine ad from the era when the graphics were mostly schematic and they actually had to tell you about their game.

Games and Musings26 Nov 2008

Video games are full of improbably-shaped women wearing even more improbable clothing. I am far from the first to remark on this.

There are lots of reasons to object to this (sexist/idiotic/insulting/not-all-gamers-are-14-year-old-boys, etc.), and a few weak arguments to trot out in defense (it’s just fantasy/people like to look at someone attractive), and I think most gamers largely ignore it.

One of my pet theories about games-as-media is that games can excel in the creation of worlds. Compared to books and movies, games are handicapped when it comes to storytelling (though there’s much ink spilled over the possibility of “emergent stories” in games – I’ll save that topic for another time) and, to a lesser extent, when it comes to character (though I think there is fertile ground to be farmed by games here too), but games have setting pretty much sewn up. In no other media can you inhabit a world like you can in a game. You can’t walk around inside a movie or a book, but for games, plunking you in a world and letting you explore it is just a basic fact. Games have an amazing opportunity to transport the player to fantastic places and let them “live” there. Unfortunately, when you arrive in some new fantastical digital land, the first thing you usually notice is most of the female inhabitants are wearing chain-mail briefs.

Now, you might say, “But Scrim – living in a fantastical land full of pneumatic women attired in chain links and dental floss sounds like a really really good idea! Sign me up!”. Well, fine. But, as Peter Cook discovered, you can put as many naked ladies in story about coal mining as you want, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a good story.

To an example: I have been playing Heroes of Might and Magic V, a fantasy strategy game. Like most such games, it seeks to create a sweeping, Tolkienesque setting full of melodramatic elves and scheming demons. It does a reasonably good job, most of the time (though not nearly as well as some other games have), but then you run into something like this:

As an aspiring dark-elf warlord, I can fill my armies with such recruits as the “Blood Maiden”, a sword-wielding woman warrior. I think, as a player, the reaction I’m supposed to have when confronted with a cadre of Blood Maidens is “Oh good, boobies!”, but instead I start thinking about what kind of person dresses up in a burlesque outfit and high-heeled boots to go to war. What if we have to fight on rough ground and my poor Blood Maiden twists her ankle? What if we fight in the snow and she gets frostbite? What kind of general am I, not providing my troops with proper combat clothing? It’s as realistic as a coal mine full of exotic dancers, and it breaks the immersion. I’m no longer a dark elf general conquering a real country, but a gamer playing a fairly ridiculous game. The opportunity to draw me in to the setting evaporates.

I’m not asking for much. I don’t mind fantasy, just try to make it somewhat internally consistent and not too laughable. Keep the Blood Maiden and her sisters, but give her some proper kit so she looks like she’s actually a soldier. I don’t mind having attractive women in my game worlds; I’d just like to meet some who look like they might actually live there.

Games and News and Software17 Feb 2008

It’s finished.

You can go here to download “The Trials of Soscaides”, a mini role-playing game. If you tried it out before, you can now finish the adventure. With any luck, you won’t even run into any bad bugs, because I think we caught all the major ones =)

After spending a fair bit of my free time over the last couple months creating and testing the game’s adventure, and ending up with about two hours of playing time, I have a new appreciation for people who make full-length games. It’s a lot of work!

Special thanks to Jamie for finding some bugs and of course to Gaelan for going on this crazy adventure with me.

Games and Software01 Dec 2007

A couple weeks ago, an RPG development forum I hang out on held a “game in a weekend” contest, challenging people to create a complete game in two days. It’s a bit like the “three-day novel contest”, in that you have to be slightly nutty to enter.

I decided to enter, and I’m not one to be nutty alone, so I roped Gaelan into working on it with me. Starting with some code I’d previously written and one generic grass tile, our aim was to produce a small-scale RPG in the time allowed (which was eventually extended by three days. Yeah, the two day contest turned into a five day contest. Weird, but useful…). Both being antiquity buffs, we decided to set our game in Ancient Greece, and drew some inspiration (i.e., outright stole a few things) from the Odyssey. Thus, The Trials of Soscarides was born.

The contest is over now, and “Soscarides”, reasonably complete by the deadline, tied for first-place with another entry. We are both quite proud of our little game.

I’d been holding off on posting it here because I was hoping to finish it first (the contest submission only has a little of the game content in place), but that is starting to look like it will take a bit longer than anticipated, so I’m posting it now. You can follow the link above and download the limited (and slightly buggy) contest entry, but you’ll have to wait a little while for the final release. Gaelan and I are both plugging away at it. I think the story is about 40% implemented and nearly all the art and mapping is done. I’m working on a few refinements to combat (which I wrote from scratch in 12 hours on day two of the contest) and a few other aspects of the game as well.

If you try it out, let me know what you think.

A.I. and Games and Musings15 Aug 2007

I’ve been working on my slides for my thesis defense talk, and it reminded me of this particular observation.

The game of Go presents incredible freedom of choice to its players. At any juncture, a player my place his stone on any unoccupied vertex of a 19 x 19 grid. That means there are 361 possible first moves, and for each one there are 360 possible replies, and 359 possible replies to each of these, etc, until the game finally ends, typically about 300 moves later.

So how many unique games of Go are there? The simple way to describe this number is to write 361!

The exclamation point, a rather fitting piece of math notation, is called a factorial, and what it means is take every number between 1 and 361 and multiply them together. Try it on your calculator: it’ll probably explode. The result is roughly 10^700, which is another way to express the same number, but really doesn’t give much more intuition as to its actual size than 361! did. We are way beyond the realm of what humans are capable of wrapping our little heads around.

Consider this: if you decide to take every possible game of Go and play them out side by side on separate boards, you couldn’t do it. You run out of matter fairly early on in the process. There are, after all, only 10^80 atoms in the universe, and if you used them all to build Go boards, you’d still come up woefully short.

A.I. and Games and Musings20 Jul 2007

Chess genius Bobby Fischer once tried to popularize his own version of his game. It replaced the standard starting arrangement of pieces with a randomized back row, making the players’ knowledge of the standard opening plays irrelevant. Fischer was reacting against the trend towards increasing memorization of lines to play among the chess elite; his version of the game would force the players to rely instead on their innate talent.

I think he felt that if one plays moves according to the “book”, one isn’t really playing a game so much as participating in a mechanical process that might as well be automated. Of course, playing chess has increasingly been automated—culminating in the famous Kasparov vs. Deep Blue series in which the super computer defeated the super human. Computers typically don’t play chess openings well, and so Deep Blue employed a “book” of many many game openings, and chose moves from that. Deep Blue, in other words, was playing “from memory”, exactly what Fischer didn’t like human players doing.

I was talking about computer game playing with a chess-playing friend and he remarked that against machines, one plays “anti-computer moves”—that is, unconventional plays that will force the computer to abandon its “book” early and switch to heavy calculations instead. This is what Kasparov tried to do in ’96: force the computer off its script as early as possible.

It’s probably a good thing that Fischer played chess and not checkers. For a number of years, a checkers program by Jonathan Schaeffer from the University of Alberta has been better than the best humans. That program, while essentially unbeatable, was not actually perfect. It is now, though.

I read today that checkers has been “solved”. Schaeffer and his group have crunched the numbers, played out every possible avenue, and have proved that it is always possible to force a draw. You can only win at checkers if your opponent makes a mistake. What’s more, they’ve saved this information in a giant database, which you can “play” against (but never can you win).

It turns out playing checkers doesn’t have much to do with checkers: instead it’s a problem of searching a huge database.

The question I find myself pondering: is checkers any fun anymore? It’s certainly not much fun to play against Schaeffer’s program, but what about against another human?

There are something like 10^20 possible checkers positions. As the human brain only has around 10^11 neurons, it’s a fairly safe bet that no human will ever memorize their way to perfect play. Still, does knowing that, at every juncture, a perfect move has already been found and recorded in a database ruin the game? The checkers player can no longer aspire to invent a perfect game, he can only rediscover what has already been written.

I wonder how long until someone solves Chess…

A.I. and Games and Musings18 Dec 2006

I stumbled on a rather unusual approach to Computer Go. (Go being a popular Asian strategy game and getting computers to play being the subject of my thesis). Computer Go is an interesting research problem for AI because the “standard” min/max search techniques that have worked so well in Chess and other games don’t work.

There are two important reasons for this. The first: the number of moves available to a player in a given turn is much larger in Go than in other games (roughly 10 times the number available in chess, for example), and so considering all available moves, plus all possibly replies to each one, plus all possible rejoinders to each possible reply, etc., becomes unwieldy very quickly (this is known as exponential growth, a phenomenon found in this approach to all games, but for most games the large numbers involved are still tractable for a number-crunching computer). The second: unlike chess and similar games, the question of which of two positions is better in Go cannot be answered easily. Taken together, it means that in Go, there are many more moves to consider, and greater difficulty in “considering” them. The end result is that Computer Go programs play badly, and often slowly as well.

Various people are working on a technique they call “Monte Carlo Go”. (For an outline of “Gobble”, the first program to use this technique, go here). The basic idea is this: to test each candidate move, make that move and then play out the rest of the game making random moves. Do this several thousand times, making note of the final score each time. Choose the move that scores the best.

The advantages are twofold. One, there is no search through an exponentially-growing game tree, since a fixed number of random games are played at each juncture (though this can still be slow if the number of random games is high enough). Two, move evaluation is easy to perform, since the only positions to evaluate are the end of the game, and all that needs to be done is compute the score and see “who won”.

How do such programs play? Quite badly, even by computer standards. However, the original Gobble didn’t “know” anything but the rules of the game. There have been some attempts to introduce Go knowledge to improve playing ability: for example, an early program by this fellow doesn’t choose moves that fill a player’s own eyes (a usually suicidal move). That program plays slightly better, but seems to play a rather odd game of making small amounts of tightly-defended territory in the middle of the board while leaving the edges to its opponents, thus losing badly.

Putting aside playing ability, this approach to Go, while fairly typically of AI techniques, is completely unlike the way an real Go player operates. Even if a real player had the superhuman ability to play out 10,000 random games per second, doing so would not help them nearly as much as playing normally. Not only is this unfeasible for a human player, it is quite unnatural. When was the last time you solved a problem by trying a bunch of random solutions with random results and then picked the “most promising”?

To paraphrase David Parans, I’m starting to think the name “Artificial Intelligence” is very apt, in that AI it relates to intelligence in much the same way “Artificial Flavor” does to flavour: AI goes to great lengths and fakery to create the illusion of the real thing. This is a bit of a shame since it would be much more productive to learn the real principles of intelligence. And yes, there are such things: if intelligent creatures like ourselves can be created by nothing more magical than the process of natural selection, the principles intelligence itself, while highly complex, are not inherently unknowable. To think otherwise is to believe in eyes but to think Optics is ineffable.

Games and Links20 Sep 2006

I’d heard from “the media” that Kimveer Gill, the man did the shooting at Dawson College, had “played a computer game based on the shootings at columbine”. Here’s an interesting interview with the creator of said game.

Games and Links16 Mar 2006

This is pretty neat. It’s an hour long though, be warned.

Will Wright on the future of game content and his new game “Spore”.

Games and Links14 Dec 2005

A little marking (NP-hard graph algorithms), a little beer (guinness makes grading easier and sleep come more readily), a little reading about video game myths, and a little preparation for my exam in 13 hours, and you have my night. I’d mention “alliteration” too, but it doesn’t start with “g”.

Can’t wait to get out of here. The bus ride can’t come soon enough.

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