A bit of nostalgia today for Netrek, one of the best online games ever. It’s from the early 1990s and is an important game design precursor to team based online games. Also its netcode was a huge breakthrough in real time Internet gaming.
The game design is brilliant. It’s an 8v8 team game. You mostly play in the upper left window, a Spacewars-like game where you fly your spaceship around and zap other players with your phasers and torpedoes. But the real game is in the upper right, the galactic overview map. The goal is to fly to planets and take them over by beaming down armies while fighting off the enemy players. That combination of high level strategy and local tactics is a hallmark of RTS games like Starcraft, MOBA games like League of Legends, and squad FPS games like Battlefield. I’m not saying Netrek invented that whole idea (Netrek itself was based on PLATO Empire), but it took 5–10 years before mainstream games became as interesting as Netrek. There were even classes in the game, different types of spaceships for different roles.
The network code was also hugely innovative, particularly the UDP code from 1992. Back then the Internet was overloaded and slow, 56 kbit/s links were common. Andy McFadden rewrote the original TCP netcode to use UDP and suddenly the game became way more playable on congested links. The key insight is UDP lets the game client decide what to do about packet loss rather than relying on TCP retransmits. Netrek could afford to lose the occasional packet; you might not see a torpedo coming your way but then again you didn’t have to wait 3 seconds for that packet before seeing the 25 other torpedoes launched afterwards. Weirdly most contemporary games use TCP (despite drawbacks), although League of Legends at least is UDP.
Netrek partly benefitted from the great community of the academic Internet of the early 90s. I’ve run into a few old Netrek buddies in our later careers as working software people: Andy McFadden and Jeff Nelson at Google and Stephen von Worley of DataPointed. I wonder if any of the Netrek folks went on to work in the gaming industry?
Riot Games has found that in the League of Legends community, bad behavior comes mostly from people who are generally good. The problem with the LoL community isn’t that there’s a few jerks who spoil things for everyone; it’s that a lot of people act like jerks occasionally.
This factoid comes from a talk by Riot showing statistics from their player community. “Toxic” means raging during an online game, insulting and threatening other players. They use the word “toxic” because they’ve found bad behavior is contagious. One person acting badly can make other people angry, who then act badly in subsequent games. Dangerous problem.
That finding has all sorts of implications for how to stop toxic behavior in an online community. It’s not enough to just ban the jerks; good people have bad days too. Instead you have to teach the whole community what the community standards are. And quickly identify people who are having a bad day, intervene before their toxicity infects too many other people. I think it's a hopeful finding; if you can just remind people of their better nature, you can prevent a lot of bad behavior.
Two really unfortunate stories of Internet bullying over the weekend. Indie game genius Phil Fish says he’s canceling Fez II after a bunch of focussed harassment. And the Call of Duty studio director has gotten a bunch of truly disgusting invective for a game balance change. All part of the Internet’s war on creatives.
Get lost you waste of talent. Shitbag telling others to kill themselves, you dont deserve your fame, money or attention. • Hahaha get fucked you pathetic fucking blowhard Fez was shit by the way • You may have made a decent game but you are still a terrible human being.
The gaming “community” are mostly a bunch of monsters. I agree with Anil Dash that the community itself is responsible for fixing the problem.
I’ve been playing a lot of League of Legends lately, a team PvP game notorious for its toxic community. The developer Riot Games took a strong step towards solving the problem, The Tribunal, a way for the community to judge whether players violate the game’s code of good behavior. In my experience it works pretty well as a deterrent. Riot has stats showing that warnings and punishment are discouraging bad behavior.
It’s basically a community moderation system. After every game anyone can flag a player for bad behavior. Enough flags and a tribunal case (example) is created. Players randomly review cases (chat logs mostly) and vote on whether to punish. Mild penalties are automatic, severe ones are reviewed first by Riot employees.
There’s a lot more to say about the Tribunal, I hope to have some follow up blog posts. One particularly interesting aspect is that the review cases are public. Most moderation systems are private to avoid disputes but I think the open discussion makes the system more effective.
I’ve been having a grand time playing the Minecraft Feed the Beast Ultimate Pack. It’s a ginormous mod pack for Minecraft throwing together some 45–70 mods to extend Minecraft in various ways. It’s terribly complex, occasionally inconsistent, but surprisingly stable, balanced, and fun. I definitely recommend it if you like Minecraft and want to add more stuff to tinker with. I think it’d be particularly good for kids.
There’s a huge number of mods with varying degrees of documentation; part of the fun of FTB is figuring out how stuff works. The unofficial FTB wiki is a good place to start. Some of the big mods I like… BuildCraft and IndustrialCraft add machines, engines, pipes, pumps, all sorts of automation. Thaumcraft adds a beautifully designed magic system. ComputerCraft embeds a Lua scripting engine, letting you write programs for robots that mine and build structures and stuff. And Forestry adds a bunch of agricultural stuff including a crazy apiculture system of bee genetics.
If you want to play it, get the FTB Launcher and use it to install the Ultimate pack. It’s good about installing stuff in its own directory. Unfortunately Java on the Mac is a total mess; you have to set JAVA_HOME to run Java 6 and also configure the launcher to add the XX:PermSize flag when launching the game.
Proposed: Just Cause 2 is the perfect video game. I finished it soon after release, then played it through again about a year later, and am now playing it again a third time. I almost never replay old games, there’s so many new games to try. But Just Cause 2 is the perfect game when I just want to sit down with a beer for an hour and have fun blowing stuff up.
The game is a great combination of elements that all came together. Open world sandbox, fun blowing stuff up, and an amazing movement mechanic that lets you jump and fly and do all sorts of improbable stunts. The world is incredibly detailed and seamless. The rendering is fantastic, particularly the lighting. So much variety; snowy mountain towns, dense jungles, cities, the desert, it’s quite an impressive world design. And there’s a variety of emergent gameplay, particularly in the way you can make mayhem grappling things together and blowing stuff up creatively. I even like the story and voice acting: it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s certainly James Bond. And the thin veneer that somehow you’re a force for good despite the “we destroyed the village to save it” thing is hilarious. (Seriously; you blow up water towers to help The People.)
Just Cause 2 joins a few other open world games I’ve had serious fun in: Saints Row 3, Spiderman 2 (console), Crackdown 1, and Red Faction: Guerrilla. These games are all way more fun for me than any Grand Theft Auto has ever been. GTA games are amazing, particularly technically, but they are so ponderous. Just Cause 2 gets out of the way and just lets you fuck shit up. So much fun.
Article 7 of the gamer bill of rights: the player is allowed to skip the end credits after 60 seconds. Not so in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III, the recent AAA title. The end credits clock in at 18 minutes and 15 seconds, can’t be skipped, and the game doesn’t save until they’re over. Those credits are bookended by 6:35 of cutscene before and 1:45 of cutscene after, for a total of twenty-seven and a half minutes of non-interactive crap at the end of the game.
Here, watch for yourself. No spoilers starting at 19:29 unless you didn’t want to know who the poor bastard was who spent weeks testing the accuracy of the Finnish localization or that Kathleen Parent is the “Human Ressource Director (Interim)” (sic) of Ubisoft Québec.
Credit creep is growing in movies too, but at least you can walk out at the end of the film. What’s particularly offensive is if you quit out of the unskippable credits it doesn’t save, so you can’t keep playing in the after-game until you have half an hour to leave the console running. Awesome.
The game itself is only OK. It shows signs of being rushed to release; the second half of the story makes no sense for all the things cut, there’s lots of animation glitches, etc. I love the core Assassin’s Creed game mechanics but AC3 frankly has too many different things in it, none polished to be really fun. And that final cutscene is pretty lame, they failed to deliver on the grand story they set up back in 2007 with the first game. The best part of the game is the multiplayer, an entirely different game, and a subtle alternative to the Battlefield / Call of Doodie / Halo shooter franchises.
Contemporary games are designed so the player can never lose. No matter how badly you play you can always recover or reload and keep going. It’s good design, it encourages players to explore, it avoids frustration. But not being able to fail removes some challenge. If you can’t lose, then is winning really that interesting?
I’m proud because this weekend I got my Hardcore Monk to level 60. Hardcore mode in Diablo 3 is a game you can lose. It’s permadeath; if you screw up your game is done, your character is gone, you have to start over. Most players of Diablo don’t play hardcore; in a normal game if you die you just reload. I played through the game in normal mode first myself. But hardcore is more exciting. And while I didn’t beat the hardest challenge in the game yet, I have played the guy for 45 hours without ever screwing up too badly.
The tension is amazing. For example the boss fights; once you jump into the arena with Diablo you can’t leave. One of you is going to die. But the bosses aren’t the hardest part of the game, the optional champion packs are. And there the anxiety is incredible. I see a group with something hard like molten + frozen + vortex and have to make an instant choice. Do I risk fighting them? Do I avoid them and look for easier targets?
Most of the time I engage because I’m playing for the challenge. And then sometimes things go badly and I’m running for my life, for my 45 hours invested, and those moments of fear and excitement are some of the most visceral experiences I’ve had playing a game in years. Since playing Eve Online, really.
So I’m loving hardcore Diablo. It helps that I’m winning, I imagine I’m going to be pretty angry when I finally screw up. I’m not a very good loser.
Skyrim is one of the finest computer games ever made. I was curious how people played through the game, so I set up some scripts to monitor achievement completion on the Xbox and drew graphs of how people progressed through the game.
The graph above shows completion of the main story quests; as a bar chart (on Jan 17) and as a time series in days since release. Unbound is 100% because the statistics only count players who’ve completed one achievement. There’s a big falloff after “The Way of the Voice”; only 57% of players started Act II of the game. And 34% of players finished the game after two months; most players who get as far as Elder Knowledge in Act III complete the whole game.
I’ve made graphs for all 50 achievements. The bar charts show which parts of the game are popular. For instance 74% of players joined the Companions compared to only 45% joining the Dark Brotherhood. I suspect that’s mostly due to game structure; it’s hard to avoid meeting the Companions at Whiterun but the player has to actively seek out the Dark Brotherhood. Faction completion is also interesting; mages complete their faction line the most while precious few people finish the Thieves Guild. Only ⅓ of players got married; I think the option may have been too hidden. I’m impressed 12% of players got Oblivion Walker; it takes a significant commitment to get 15 Daedric Artifacts and if the player screws up they can make it impossible.
Unfortunately the time series graphs don’t give a lot of extra insight. There’s a big dip in completion percentages around Christmas, when a bunch of new players started playing. But the basic velocity of completion, the slope of these graphs, is about the same for all of the achievements. In retrospect that’s not surprising but I was hoping it would be more interesting.
Some caveats about the data. It’s Xbox only, a self-selected subset of players that True Achievements tracks. The data is daily and has a few bad days I fudged out. This graph isn’t really a finished work, but honestly the data didn’t turn out to be very interesting so I’m done with it.
Update: you can see bar charts of PC achievement completion on Steam. To compare to Xbox, normalize PC numbers to who completed Unbound (92.4%) and look at current Xbox data. Fewer people have finished the main quest on PC (31%) vs Xbox (40%). And only 2.5% of PC users have completed Oblivion Walker, compare to 15% on Xbox. Far fewer finished the thieves guild, too (7% vs 21%). Maybe PC players aren't as completionist as Xbox players? It's not just time played; 63% of people hit Level 25 on PC, 68% on Xbox, that's pretty close. Maybe it's the Xbox sample bias; TrueAchievements tends to track players who are worried about completing achievements.
The new Deus Ex game is fantastic. If you like intelligent, complex games run out and buy it right now. I played it on Xbox which was fine, PS3 is about the same and PC may be better.
The new developers absolutely nailed what made the original Deus Ex so great: gameplay options. You can sneak through levels avoiding the bad guys entirely, or go in guns-a-blazin and murder everyone, or hack your way through security, or find the hidden air ducts. It's amazingly fun and they really got the gameplay right. The story's quite good, too, with some good characters. Also some beautiful set design despite some limited graphics capabilities.made by a third party. There's various ways to cheap you way through them, best to just kill the boss quickly and move back to the fun game. And there's a whole lot of fun in the game. May end up being the best game of the year.