The life I want has been taking a back seat to the life I need, and this blog has taken the brunt of my neglect. I just wanted to check in and say, I'm still grinding away. It has been about as humbling as I expected, and I've had to re-adjust my expectations a few times with regard to timeline and the scope of what I can do on my own. Right now the plan is to get some very simple sandbox games under my belt before moving on to Infinite Gymnast and Action Potential.

As the year winds down, I've been reflecting on how short this year felt, and also just how much has happened. I'm not much closer to my goal of stability and stasis, but I'm starting to accept that a lot of what I want just isn't possible, and that acceptance is a wonderful thing. By realizing an option is completely off of the table, I can stop focusing on the things I can't have and start focusing on all of the opportunities that are available, all of the possibilities that I do have in front of me.

My world got a bit smaller in 2013, but it also got a whole lot bigger. My understanding of computers is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a year ago, just as I had intended, but in that same time my understanding of games has deepened as much or more. I had kind of thought that I'd figured out what made games good, and I just had to make games that fit that model, but over the last year, and even just the last few months, my understanding of the ways in which games can be good has expanded in some profound ways.

My core driving principles are the same. What I've learned this year has only served to confirm my belief that gamers will always be more creative than game designers. Every day I'm more in awe of the plurality of ways of being in the world, and I am as eager as ever to celebrate and affirm the endless variety that makes up our world.

I hope your year was also pretty good or better.
 
 
Up in the right corner I've added a new link to a page that is pretty bare right now. One of the things I'm interested in that I want to feature prominently in my games is generative music, and I've put a lot of thought and research into different ways of generating music out of individual elements. One of the stranger methods I've come across is something called "Bytebeats."

This method takes the concept of generative music to its purest, most minimal form. The entire piece of music is defined as a function of time, and the output is just the sound of that function applied 8000 times per second. The results have quite a lot of variation, and can become quite complicated. The functions that describe these pieces of music are so simple that people often talk about "discovering" them rather than "composing" them.

The Compositional Process

There are certain atomic operations that can be composed, which contribute different qualities to the resultant music. You can't put these together in any of the ways familiar to composers: you can't string them together into a melody, nor can you even really play two of them at the same time. It is more like you only have effects to work with, and no sounds; you apply effects to silence, and the result is somehow music.

Some of the more important elements turn up in many different bytebeat pieces, often multiple times. The one I used most often in the piece above is something called "sierpinsky melody" after the shape that the waveform makes when you graph it. (You can play around with these sounds and see them visualized here.) The basic form is (t&(t>>k)) where t is time and k is some constant. The '&' is a bitwise "and" operator, and '>>' is arithmetic shift-right.

Just with this one building block, there are quite a variety of different effects. Different values of k can have wildly different sounds, and the 't' on the left side can be multiplied by a constant to give subtler variations. (3*t)&(t>>8) was one of the first Bytebeats to be discovered.

Another important building block is the pattern t*(x&t>>k). The specific example t*(42&t>>9) was another early discovery that has a distinctive melody. It should be remembered though that these are distortions of a line, they aren't fixed melodies. They can only be combined with mathematical operations, not musical operations.

The Music

The music produced is generally harsh and electronic sounding, as might be expected. Some of it might not even sound like music at all to some people; I have always had a taste for very abrasive music, so it fits with my taste quite well, but I know that I am unusual in that regard. It also tends to be fairly repetitive, I'm quite proud of the piece I linked above because it is less repetitive than most of what is possible with this technique, but it is still a very harsh and repetitive piece of music by any other standard.

It reminds me quite a lot of the music of Masami Akita, who performs under the name "Merzbow." It's actually a little bit hard to call what he does music, but it is a deliberate arrangement of sound to create an intentional aesthetic experience, so it's pretty darn close. I quite like listening to his stuff; he's very prolific but my favorite of what I've heard is an album called "Cycle". It has the same harsh electronic sounds of Bytebeats, but with a more deliberate organization, and he often incorporates non-electronic sounds like car horns, dogs barking, and other stuff like that.

This kind of abrasive noise-music is appealing to me for a few different reasons, but the one I find easiest to articulate is the way that it changed my relationship to noise in general. Listening to these deliberately chosen noises has tuned me in to hearing the background noises of the city in a new way. Rather than tuning out things like passing cars and rattling air-conditioners, I can listen to and appreciate the sounds they make as though it were music. It isn't the same as listening to music, but it's the same kind of deliberate, careful listening to all of the sounds being made, and the way that they interrelate.

This sort of pure listening is very important to the way I appreciate music. It isn't the only way that I listen, nor is it the most important part of listening to music, but it informs both the kinds of things I listen for and the kinds of things I compose. In creating generative music, one of the things that is very important for me personally is that the sonic texture does not get stagnant. It is easy for generative music to fall back on the same sonic textures every time, because the resources from which the music is built are necessarily limited. Bytebeats are somewhat promising in that regard because the music is built up from parts that are smaller than timbre and tonality. They all end up having the same sonic character anyway, but they do so for different reasons, and they may yet prove a fruitful source for new generative sounds.
 
 
I've heard a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons, say to me that they did not feel like anyone was making the games that they wanted to play. Some people said it was because the things that they liked most in games were always treated as afterthoughts, peripheral to the heart of the game. Other people complained that they just couldn't identify with the playable characters in most games.

One story I've heard a few variations on is the father who is trying to introduce his daughter to the games he grew up with, and finds out that she wants to be able to play as a girl, which in many of those games was not an option. We got some gems out of that, like the Donkey Kong hack where Pauline has to rescue Jumpman, and I'm trying to do the same thing: spread the privilege that I have as a target demographic, share the particular sense of rightness that I get just because I am the kind of person that game designers expect to play their games.

More than a few people have said that they wanted to be a bigger part of the gamer community, but they found it so hostile that it just wasn't worthwhile. I've seen a lot of problems caused by the incredible sexism in the community, in the games, and in the industry. Sometimes games bring out the worst in us.

But I've also seen the great good that games can inspire. I've seen incredibly strong, friendly communities build around games, and I've seen those communities come together to do real good. Games have the potential to bring out our best.

I want to make games that reflect the world I want to live in. I hope that those games will encourage the world we do live in to move a little closer to the world I want to live in. I've seen how much power game designers have over the kinds of communities that form around their games, and I've seen the way that the stories and ideas in games can shape our thinking, for better or for worse. That's what I'm trying to do.
 
 
I am a big fan of games that allow or encourage unstructured play. I believe that, given the means, gamers can be far more creative than a single designer or team. I'd like to highlight a few different ways that games have been particularly successful at giving the player a versatile toolkit and enough freedom to come up with their own objectives:

Fuel

 Fuel is the game that most perfectly captures the heart of what I mean by "unstructured play": give the player some physics, suggest some activities to get them started, then turn them loose in your world. It is an off-road racing game with an open-world map; races and challenges are scattered around the map, but the entire game takes place in a single area.

The game does a few things that particularly favor unstructured play. The first is that the game gives you the ability to stop whatever you are doing at any time, and go do something else. This includes quitting a race midway through to go investigate some hills. There is always an option to enter free-play mode, and it is always clearly marked. From free-play mode, you can either drive to the location of a race, or you can teleport back to the base-camp and launch any of those races and challenges from a menu instead.

The entire user experience is designed to emphasize and encourage player choice, which is something that a lot of games strive for, but it does it in a very different way. Whereas a role-playing game emphasizes player choice by creating meaningful consequences, Fuel does away with consequences entirely. The player's options are always open.

Another thing that facilitates unstructured play is the physics-based driving. Vehicles are effectively indestructable, and there is always a reset button, so the player has a lot of leeway to play around with the way that different vehicles interact with the terrain. There are a lot of different combinations of surfaces and slopes, ranging in scale from large gulleys and bluffs to little dirt-heaps and creeks. The different surfaces have different amounts of friction, and the vehicles in general don't have a lot of grip, so there are some interesting things you can do with sliding around, spinning out, and of course trying not to spin out during a race.

Street Fighter IV

Street Fighter is not a game known for its unstructured play. It is a game with clearly defined goals, and there is always a winner and a loser in every match. Even so, it is a good example of a game that gives players a lot of different things to play around with, and it's a good example of how gamers can take a system like that and do incredibly creative things with it.

One Youtuber who goes by the name Desk has come up with some particularly creative videos by editing together footage of himself performing very tricky combinations of moves to create unusual effects. "Combo videos" are a staple of fighting-game culture, but Desk goes beyond just stringing together long sequences.

Here is a video where he exploits a quirk of the game that once an opponent has been knocked out, and the game is officially over, it is sometimes possible to fit one more move into the end, while the game is displaying the "K O" screen. It took a lot of work to set up each shot, because the conditions under which this happens are not particularly common, and he always figures out a way to lead up to it with a combo that is as flashy as anything else in the video.

In another video, part of a series, he takes the armor mechanic in the game, whereby a character can absorb a hit without being stunned by it, and uses it in a number of highly impractical but amusing ways.

Another group took that idea even further by creating a series of videos exploring all of the different ways that characters can avoid taking damage. Most of these techniques have disadvantages that make them useless for competition, but that's not the point: players create their own objectives and work very hard to reach them even when the game presents itself as rigidly structured.

Skyrim

Skyrim takes the idea of unstructured play in a very different direction from either Fuel or Street Fighter. Like Fuel, it has an open world and does not prevent the player from going where they want, when they want. Like Street Fighter, it has a well-defined structure that nevertheless encourages exploration.

The skill system in Skyrim gives the player a lot of leeway to do what they think is interesting. You have to do most of the activities in the game if you want to make a lot of progress, and most of your options are restricted at the beginning; for example, the powerful "shouts" that players gain can only be obtained by playing the central storyline. Even so, one does not need to do everything, and in fact it is not very practical at all to try to gain every skill.

Leveling up a character always involves a choice of some new tool that you want your character to have available to them, and there are a large number to pick from. This gives the game a good sense of variety, because there's always some new toy that looks interesting, and you are always getting new mechanics to play with.

Much like Street Fighter, even though Skyrim's design strongly encourages a certain approach, it does not force the player to do anything. The fact that players can modify almost every part of the game's structure enhances this. I knew one person who made it into a survival horror game where they were constantly threatened by hypothermia. Another person used graphical tweaks to change the game's appearance, the color balance, even the way light behaved; he would switch some of these settings around, look at the results for a while, then shuffle them around a bit more to get a totally different look and feel.

On top of all of that, the designers saw fit to put in a large number of tangential activities for the player to try. One could earn a living as a migrant farm laborer, or serve as a vigilante fighting bandits, or as a bandit robbing travelers. The player can join virtually any of the many different organizations in the game, or none of them.

The notion of "unstructured play" is a very broad one, and it imposes very few constraints on the game designer. As long as you give the players some physics and some control, gamers will be creative enough to find new and interesting uses of your game.
 
 
I'm still grinding away at Action Potential, but I've added a new mile-post, I'm going to put together a smaller game with the same logic. This will be a test of sorts, to see if I have what it takes to finish an entire game. It will also be a sandbox to refine my techniques and get more fluency with the whole process.

I've also taken on another side project, a big ambitious Unity project that someone proposed on Reddit. Working on someone else's project will give me another angle from which to view this mountain that I'm climbing.

I have another, better blog post in the works, about the value of unstructured play in games. I want it to be good, but I also want it up soon. We'll see which of those desires wins out in the end.

And finally, an update on the drawing tablet: I'm using it every day so far, taking a few minutes to draw circles until I'm too frustrated to sit still any longer. I have struggled with drawing my whole life, and I am not optimistic about this attempt, but so far it is going as well as I think it could go. I think the next thing to do is get a sketchbook that I can take on the bus. I have a long layover most afternoons when I could get some real practice in.
 
 
So here's where I'm at, and what I'm working on:

I took a little break from Action Potential, because I am having trouble finding an interested artist, and it was getting hard to keep up the hype while knowing that it is going to end at rectangles for the time being. I did re-write a lot of the core logic to be more compact and clearly defined, and I would put it at about 50% completion.

I've put a lot of work into a side project that I am currently calling "Coppelia," it is my attempt at a story-engine like Bethesda's Radiant system. I see this as being the core of the open-world games that I want to make in the future, when I have more resources available.

I've bought a new computer, a custom one that some good friends helped me put together. I'll be able to do a lot of things with it that I just can't do on my current computer, and it will stay at home instead of going between home and my day-job, which will smooth things out a bit.

I also got a drawing tablet, so I will be trying to learn me some art as well. I've studied even less art in my life than I have studied programming or business, so this will probably not be any more fruitful than my search for an artist.
 
 
So the personification of the waves fought against the personification of the currents, until the personification of the sea took away their form, so that they could not fight. They are of the sea, without the sea they do not even exist. But what does it even mean for two abstract concepts to fight? How can one abstract concept frighten another? When we give human images to these ideas, we expect them to behave in human ways, but they are still fundamentally not human.

Do the Gods Spar?

The game Action Potential is in one sense an exploration of this question: between two beings who cannot be hurt or killed, what sort of competition could arise? Between two ideas given human form, or two human images projected onto two ideas, how would their conflicts play out?

A major idea driving the development of Perpetual Dawn is to imagine these gods, these personifications, as in some way embodying ideals or aspirations. I don't envision them as perfect, because I want them to stand as ideal models that reflect our human contradictions and complications. Action Potential is one sort of game I imagine these ideal entities might play.

Action Potential is like the little bit of martial-arts sparring I learned as a child: you aren't fighting to win, but sparring to learn. The conflict serves as a context for the sparring, to give it purpose and direction, but we enter the ring as friends and we leave the ring as friends. It embodies the ideals that I learned as I was learning to play games like Street Fighter, the things that some of us aspired to even as we fed off the rush of winning, even as we demeaned each other, there was still that ideal to move toward.

When Garos and Fodos spar in Action Potential, it is not completely without drama. They still harbor some resentment, and still desire to defeat each other. Even so, they enter the game knowing that it is only a game, that it has defined rules, a beginning and end.

When Mirabella spars, it is for the pure joy that comes from doing a thing well. She has no desire to dominate anyone, though she certainly would like to impress them with her skill. For her there is no hostility in the game, and so she feels none  of the fear that she felt when her brothers were really fighting with hatred for each other. The context of the game makes it safer.

Old Wander does not spar. Before the time when Action Potential takes place, Old Wander became tired of the stories he had begun and never finished. He chose to cease existing altogether, and in his place he created Melmoth and Gloria, his last two stories, who would go and finish all of his stories in his place. Melmoth and Gloria do spar, they do so together, acting almost as a single being. They spar for the challenge and purpose that it provides, because it is something they take on for their own selves, not a story that they are cleaning up for Old Wander's sake.

There are others who might be introduced to the game later. For now I think that five characters are enough to begin with. Later additions could include the Sculptor who made the world at Old Wander's request, and held it in place until Melmoth and Gloria were created to take that burden from her. There are also the Insect King and the Usurper King, of the ancient and mysterious insect-people, who are close friends and rule together, even though half of the insect-people think that one should be the rightful ruler, and half think that the other should be king. 
 
 
Perpetual Dawn is the name I use for the shared context in which all of my games and stories take place. It is a fantasy world that was born largely out of my love for ancient literature, and for what I call the "stories between the stories."

The World Is Made of Stories

The world of Perpetual Dawn is made out of stories in the way that our world is made out of atoms. A character and the stories about that character are inseparable, and the same is true of places, objects, everything. These stories are all tangled together, they refer to each other, and they nest one inside another. The most important of these are not the broad over-arching frame narratives, but the little tiny stories stuffed into the cracks between the other stories.

This comes from my love of ancient literature. The best example of the "stories between the stories" that I know of is a short passage near the beginning of the Mahabharata. As part of setting the stage for the story, the genealogy of the author is given as a sequence of miraculous conceptions and births, the first of which goes:
"And when king Vasu took his seat in that crystal car, with the gift of Indra, and coursed through the sky, he was approached by Gandharvas and Apsaras (the celestial singers and dancers). And as he coursed through the upper regions, he was called Uparichara. And by his capital flowed a river called Suktimati. And that river was once attacked by a life-endued mountain called Kolahala maddened by lust. And Vasu, beholding the foul attempt, struck the mountain with his foot. And by the indentation caused by Vasu’s stamp, the river came out (of the embraces of Kolahala). But the mountain begat on the river two children that were twins. And the river, grateful to Vasu for his having set her free from Kolahala’s embraces, gave them both to Vasu. And the son was made the generalissimo to his forces by Vasu, that best of royal sages and giver of wealth and punisher of enemies. And the daughter called Girika, was wedded by Vasu."
It's a weird little story, and it isn't really connected to anything around it, except as one step in a chain of begats. It raises more questions than it answers, both intrinsic to the story, (how did the mountain come to life?) and in regards to its role as a story (who came up with such a story, and did they base it on anything? How did such a story come to be included?) The only certainty is that it lends a certain amount of credence to the claim on the previous page that there is no kind of story that is not contained in the Mahabharata.

The Stories The World is Made of

The world is not about us humans, we're just there in it. There are many beings we could call gods or giants, or just beyond the world that is right in front of us. For the humans in this world, the most important of them are Old Wander, who commissioned the construction of the earth as a stage on which to act out his stories, and Mirabella, who makes up all of the stories about humans.

Old Wander is remote and disinterested; he abandons everything he makes before he has finished it. He later is replaced by Melmoth and Gloria, who are tasked with holding the world in balance and with striking the set once the last stories have been resolved. When the earth was ready to be a stage on which to act out his stories, he had not yet selected actors, and so he called upon Father Sea and Mother Sky to populate the earth.

Father Sea and Mother Sky had three children:
Garos, the waves,
Fodos, the currents,
and Mirabella, the still waters.

Garos and Fodos were jealous brothers, and they fought over imagined slights. They fought so much that they frightened their sister away, and so she hid in caves and deep pools, far from her brothers. While she was alone, she made up stories to keep her company, and soon began to fill the world with her own stories.

Father Sea and Mother Sky were also upset by their sons' fighting, and angry that they had frightened their sister. Father Sea withdrew himself, so that suddenly Garos and Fodos found themselves without form and unable to continue fighting. Finally then they stopped, and they agreed to a truce, and so Father Sea and Mother Sky gave form to them once again, that they might still act out their own stories.

This is just one little slice of the world of Perpetual Dawn, and it sets the stage for the first game I am working on, which is called Action Potential. Next time I will look more specifically at the premise 
 
 
I recently saw a greenlight campaign for a game in which the creators insisted that the player's character could be and do "absolutely anything they wanted." The premise seemed to be an open-world game with extensive and highly modular character creation, including the ability to create and combine superpowers, abilities, and weapons. Unfortunately, from the material they provided, it's impossible to tell how extensive and flexible the system was, because the only thing the creators could think of to do with this system was to kill people in different ways.

I have to give props to them, they came up with a huge range of different ways to kill people. It also makes good business sense to focus on that aspect of the game, since killing people is certainly one of the most common activities in popular and successful video games. I'm not getting all moralistic here, I enjoy indulging my shadow as much as the next guy, I just think it highlights an industry-wide lack of imagination around in-game activities.

This is something that the core gamer audience wants, and it's the most obvious thing to put in a game. It makes sense from a lot of different angles. That said, I think there is significant demand for more varied and interesting in-game activities. There are a few games, like Dear Esther, Journey, Proteus and Flower, that eschew violence altogether, and some of those have been pretty successful. There has also been a recent surge in popularity of survival-horror games, which are usually violent but also have a wide variety of other activities. In some survival games, it's better to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

What is Anything, anyway?

I am a big fan of sandbox games. Skyrim is one* of my top favorite games ever, and it has had a huge impact on my growth as a player and designer. It is, without question, an extremely violent game, but it is also one of the only games I've played where I really came close to feeling like I could do "anything." A quick, top-of-the-head listing of some of the ways I spent my ~200 or so hours in Skyrim:

  • Purchasing and decorating 5 different homes
  • Wandering around looking at the landscape
  • Learning the elaborate alchemy system
  • Searching for potion ingredients
  • Smithing and enchanting
  • Mining ore for smithing
  • Farming (literally)
  • Traveling the world in search of teachers
  • Helping people fall in love
  • Making my own character fall in love
  • Supporting a family
  • Dressing up in different outfits
  • Swimming
  • Base jumping

And that's before counting all of the different things added by mods, and the whole process of choosing mods, trying them out, swapping in different ones to see how they changed the world. There were also things I didn't find particularly interesting, like thievery and guilds.

Of course there was also a lot of creativity in the violent side of the game, incredible variety, but my point here is just to highlight how much else there is that we could be doing. I haven't yet played another game that captured the level of freedom and variety that Skyrim offered.

The Missing Link

The core of Skyrim is a world torn by civil war and beset by dragons. Most of the other things you can do are in some way subordinate to the core activities of fighting battles, slaying dragons, and crawling dungeons. The smithing game is centered around making weapons and armor, the alchemy game is centered around making battle potions, mining supports smithing, and so on. So where I'm really going with this is a suggestion of where I hope to go with this whole project:

  • Make more games where the violence is a subordinate activity.

Games like this already exist, but I think that this is a huge conceptual space that has only been explored a little bit. This isn't the only direction I want to go in, and it isn't where I expect to go with my first game, but there is huge potential here and it's one of the main avenues I intend on exploring.

*I'm terrible at making top-lists, so if you try to keep score you'll probably end up running out of paper. There are just too many variables. If I made one list of my favorite games to play over and over, another of the games that gave me the best experiences, and a third of the games that I consider most important, there would be little if any overlap. Skyrim is one game that I would put on all of those lists -- but not even close to the top of any of them!
 
 
I am fortunate enough to have some friends who are much better at this whole programming thing than I am, and last night at the pub they were quite free with their advice. I admit to having a rather inefficient approach to coding, because for me it has more often been a recreation than a profession. Whenever I see something inefficient, I see it as a puzzle, optimization is a game to me. This is fine for silly personal projects, but I've now learned that it is a very bad way to do legitimate coding.

So this is a good way to open things up, a fitting first post: I really have no idea what I'm doing, or what I'm getting into. I know next to nothing about running a business, only a tiny amount about writing software, and effectively nothing about sales and marketing. Every step of the way is going to be a learning experience from start to finish, and probably the same lesson over and over for a while.

I have some advantages here: one is that I'm not frightened by that prospect. I love learning new things, I love sticking my hands in and mucking about and then learning how to muck things up a little less every time. So I'm excited, I'm ready for this.

Second is that I do have a fairly analytical mind, and I think about code in ways that are very useful, even if they aren't particularly graceful. My past experience with esoteric programming languages has I think made me more able to read and maintain optimized code, since I am able to visualize low-level processes sometimes better than high-level processes. On the other hand, my experience with very-high-level languages like Scheme and SQL has given me a basic toolset for working with more abstract structures.

Third is that I have the passion I need to turn insurmountable obstacles into interesting puzzles. I spent a long time being grumpy at people who said "all you need to do is find your passion, and you'll find a way to make it work." If you are reading this, I'm sorry I was so grumpy at you! I hadn't found it yet.

And of course I have people supporting me, giving me advice, and encouraging me. There are a lot of challenges ahead, so it's good to be aware of every advantage that I do have. Sometimes it just takes someone else's viewpoint to make it past a hurdle.

Here's hoping,
Xifeng