Your kung fu is faulty

B.L. : A friend of mine can speak a single sentence in Mandarin, and he claims it is enough. All he can say is "Your kung fu is faulty." I like that. He's my hero, all the way until he gets killed by the Chinese mafia.

Incapable of empire

This post is part of the EVE Blog Banter, a monthly EVE Online blogging extravaganza created by CrazyKinux. Any questions about the EVE Blog Banter should be directed to him. The tenth topic comes from xiphos83 of A Misguided Adventurer, who asks us: "Victor Davis Hanson argues that western culture, comprising of ideals such as freedom, debate, capitalism, and consensual government, are what make western society so successful at waging war. These ideologies create a warrior who's direct participation in government, ability to think freely, and desire to remain free, fights harder and is willing to suffer more than his conscripted foe. Though a military must remain a structured oligarchy to fight a war effectively, why in a world where military conflict is as familiar as breathing are there so few alliances that embrace these ideologies when governing their members?"

Consensual government: how many divisions has it got?
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. In mine, Victor Davis Hanson, here, instrumentalizes history (especially, I guess, the study of Ancient Greece, craddle of democracy); he has clearly a bunch of ideas to market and he contemplates history through ideological lenses. This text would not seem out of context in the mouth of a veteran from Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. It is all right. Some of the values mentioned are dear to me. I would like, also, to believe that the current set of ideals that shape (sometimes) the decisions of our Western governments and fellow citizens are inherently superior in practice to any other one, including when it comes to waging war.
However, you could argue the exact opposite: that tyranny, coercion and fear are powerful motivators in wartime, while democratic values best thrive in peacetime. After all, Athens, the democracy, did lose the Peloponnesian War against the kingdom of Sparta. Yet, its citizens used to (temporarily and reluctantly) relinquish some of their freedoms each time they appointed a stratego as supreme commander. Two thousand years and a half later, the war against terrorism is used as a convenient excuse to limit our individual freedoms. And many more fictional thousands of years later, democracy can best be found in some institutions of the Gallente Federation and in a very few (as far as I know) corporations of modest size and certainly not within the major players of the perpetual war.
In this excerpt of The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (431 BC, translated by Richard Crawley), Cleon spells out to his fellow Athenian citizens why they would not be able to keep their equivalent of a 0.0 empire if they were to tolerate dissent within their alliance (the Delian League):
"I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mitylene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is ensured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty."
(In comparison to the fate that almost befell the people of Mitylene, the Tortugua pilots had it easy when Band of Brothers regained control over Period Basis.)

Built-in autocratic model
Alliances are the extension of corporations, that is, capitalist organisations. When was the last time you elected your boss at the office? Instinctively, just by the virtue of reading this word "corporation", players are going to mimic corporate life, which is anything but democratic. Plus, the way corporations are coded in the game largely incites the players to adopt an autocratic model, with an all-powerful chief (the CEO) and a clique of trusted directors. Had CCP named the groups of players "free communes" or something to that effect, and implemented a real elective process, you can bet the political landscape would be different.

The participation game
I do not challenge the part of Mr. Hanson's premise stating that warriors fight best when they feel committed. That's oh so true, in what is essentially a participation game - a game. Strength is found in numbers, but people will show up if they so wish; if they don't, they will just log off. In real life, the pursuit of fun is not usually your primary motivation, and you cannot log off when the hostile army is in sight. (Hey, there is an idea for a novel. Logoffski armies or soldiers.)
In a participation game, it is only natural that the players who invest more of their time reap more rewards and, for many, the ability to discuss and decide strategic-level choices is where the fun can be found. The first members of a corporation, or of an alliance, hold more power than the late-comers. They built a toy and they are not going to give it away. To some point, it is possible to rise in most organisations by proving one's commitment and willingness to get a share of the logistical headaches. However, many players just want to blow stuff up and, while not willing to commit time in decision-making, they would just like to be considered as partners and not as children to be herded.

Three imaginary corporations
My roleplayer's mind wandered and I somehow ended up sketching three models of governance that are not democratic, not efficient-minded, but come with a background a bit more developed than "let's do it".

The Base is an exercise in AI-assisted government. Except, the AI is crazy. Somewhere, hidden in the cluster, and communicating through the pervading instant communication network, lies a super-computer unlike any other. It has been authorized to evolve beyond its parameters through genetic computing technology. The Base is the name of the corporation which owns Shalmeneser. The word of Shalmeneser is the discussion-ending justification to decisions taken.
Organization: a player or a group of players are assumed to have contact with the super-computer. They can ask him questions and the answers are up to them to make up. They have then full authority to implement the decisions suggested by Shalmeneser. That backstory would fit a schizophrenic corporation, with multiple trusted directors / friends on an equal footing. When they actually need to debate a decision, the meetings would be dubbed reprogramming sessions.

The System is a meme bent on universal conquest. The System is a complex memetic algorithm that includes functions of government, fulfilling obedience and iterative thought reprocessing. If you have joined the System, the System will give you all the answers you need. The System makes individual thought slightly redundant. Oh, and the System is your Friend. Who is you Friend? (The System.)
Organization: this Borg-like sect has no prominent leadership role. Everybody can take decisions as long as they abide by the System. The nature and ideology of the System can be something very simple, transhumanism nihilism translating into full-blown piracy, for example. Everybody is supposed to adhere to the tenets of the System, and failing to do so would result in ostracism and eventual rejection from the System.

The Kingdom is what its name implies: a corporation founded on allegiance to a power-thirsty capsuleer. Its national anthem relates to growing corn on some planet or to heavy drinking, and its ultimate purpose is to make the nobility (capsuleer members) affluent.
Organization: every player is supposed to respect the hierarchy of the Kingdom, which includes a queen, knights, counts, dukes, etc., and to take oaths each time he or she is promoted. Harsh taxes can make the life of the lowly commoner difficult, but the King promises and delivers riches to his most-beloved followers.

Check other Eve Blog Banter articles on the same topic.

African minutes

G.P. : I will leave in 20 minutes.
C.P. : 20 African minutes?
G.P. : 20 European minutes... 25 minutes.

Worlds of Darkness 3: where is it

It all lies in the back of your brain
First of all, the "World of Darkness" is not a geographic notion. It is more like a situation or a feeling, one of dereliction and life -of a sort- in the abyss. Even when your character will triple lock the door, pour hot water into the bathtub and try to relax, he will not be able to dismiss the fact that the darkness is out there, gnawing at everything. So, if the MMO tries to stick with the concept of the World of Darkness as defined in the pen-and-paper game, it will present us with a world like ours, but with shadows stretching a bit longer, something inimical lingering in the air, a hint of despair and corruption permeating every city's skyline. No zombies in the mall, no elvish enclave, no space vampires, no mind-blasting psionic mutant super-villains. Just, to begin with, Mr. Smith looking forlorn, his personal finances teetering on the edge of a repossession nightmare, and Mrs. Smith carrying really unwholesome stuff in her handbag, but no one pays attention.
At the same time, (and this is a gut feeling) this vision caters to "serious roleplayers" who are only part of the traditional audience of White Wolf games. A large part of their customers, I believe, just enjoy playing high-powered, ass-kicking, supernatural creatures with their version of the American hero guilt syndrome. Nothing wrong here, this play style, though not the principal guide to the construction of the MMO, can be accommodated with.

Dark is the new black
There are some pictures ingrained in the mind of every White Wolf fan, thanks to artists such as Leif Jones, Christopher Shy, John Bolton, Larry MacDougall, Guy Davis, Timothy Bradstreet, among others; one such image is the ugly but thematically powerful cover picture of the first version of Chicago by Night, one of the very first books of the Vampire: The Masquerade line. Clark Mitchel's artwork features a vampire staked through the heart, falling down, the Hans Gruber way, from a skyscraper. That says it all: monsters in a modern setting, timeless evil and modern-day boardroom violence. (Nowadays the challenge would be to successfully mesh secret supernatural creatures with a world of social media and ubiquitous phone cameras. Once met, it might justify and rationalise the unique flavour of a World of Darkness with fast-moving hordes of lunatics spewing "fofofo" on passers-by. The Masquerade could be retitled the Joke, or the Game; "impressive Photoshop-fu, dude"; but I digress.)
So, all kinds of pictures come to mind, and the developer's task is to create the conditions for this dark landscape to come to life. First of all to build the abandoned slaughterhouses, sound-washed nightclubs, subterranean temples, glassy casinos, art galleries, sinister precincts, unwelcoming crack houses, unexplored caves, old sewers, 24/7 supermarkets, etc. Then to arrange the props, screw the bulbs and tune the shadows. And finally to unlock the door for your character to step in, capture the limelight and look like he just sprung out of a Most Wanted line-up, so that you can look at him and sense the fear and the loathing and just quack to yourself "man, I am the shit".
The World of Darkness will be in your ear too, playing with your nerves. Hopefully, there will be sound, there will be music, and there will be pacing and silence and sudden trepidation when silence is broken.

A tale of many cities
The World of Darkness is not on Google Maps but, still, the action needs to take place somewhere: in the dungeons of our time, as implied above.
It could certainly be in a huge city, let's call it Damnation City, like the city-building toolbox of the same name for Vampire: The Requiem. Indeed, the city is the nuclear setting unit of your typical vampire chronicle. There, you can have a Prince, perhaps about to get overthrown by dissenters, enemies trying to infiltrate the local society, etc. City denizens provide enough entertainment value for a vampire to live its whole undead existence there. Plus, it makes sense as a Dunbar's number-compatible unit for social interactions.
But it would not justify the "massive" aspect of the game, which can bring so much enjoyment. First of all, in my opinion, one megalopolis cannot justify being sprawling and huge enough to host hundreds of thousands of special people with fangs and spells and unusual diets, without stretching the definition of the setting from "contemporary horror" to "cyberpunk horror", thus diminishing its emotional impact (you relate more to stories that hit close to your home). At least conceptually, the setting needs to feature multiple cities.
City life is just part of the experience the World of Darkness can provide. For the rest, you need a world. If you have a world, you can have world-spanning conspiracies; you can have occult wars on a global level; you can have madmen proclaiming themselves King of the Night and sending squads of goons to quell opposition; you can have the powers that be constituting a cartel, an Inner Circle or whatever, and giving interviews to the New York Times.

Hardcore cooking about to take place
Even if we suspect what the ingredients are, there is a whole MMO mayonnaise waiting to be prepared here and no shortage of recipes. Which one would make the perfect fit? How does the nightclub relate to the city and the city to the larger world? How do we navigate from the places where we socialize (the nightclub) to the places where we live our random lives of darkness (the street)? If you have a clue, please tell.

Worlds of Darkness 2: magic

Let's cast spells!
In the World of Darkness, the vampires, the werewolves and the mages are the core supernatural races, sort of. In the future MMO, I hope that mages are going to be playable. Is it planned? Certainly. For release? I doubt it, but who knows. If there is indeed a mage part to the game, I think the main selling point will be spellcasting itself, that is, cheating with the universe. The kids get all excited with Harry Potter and we are no different. "What if I could..." Peripheral activities, be them warfare, research, exploration, crafting or trade, would all support spellcasting.

Free-form spell design
World of Darkness (the MMO), as far as magic lovers are concerned, will be the latest iteration in a grand tradition of roleplaying games: the pen-and-paper games Ars Magica (1987, a fifth edition has been published in 2004 by Atlas Games) and its spiritual children Mage: The Ascension (1993, last release in 2005) and nowadays Mage: The Awakening (since 2005). The rules for magic, in each of these games, allow players to create new spells by describing what effect they want to get and how - using "techniques and forms" or "spheres of magic" as building blocks, components of formulas. An Order of Hermes wizard who masters the technique 'Creo' and the form 'Ignem' can create fire, but the exact way this capacity manifests is up to him. Essentially, the system allows each player to craft his or her own spells, and rewards his or her creativity to some degree.

Even though the WoD designers may aim to resurrect the qualities of Mage: The Awakening into the MMO format, the computer format remains, at this stage of technology, quite different from the pen-and-paper one. I remember that the 1988 Dungeon Master computer game used a system of combinations of runes to reward the players for experimenting with magic. You would discover spells by semi-randomly combining different runes. However, there was no real creativity involved; it was just a game of hit and miss to find the spells, and the tips page in a gaming magazine provided the universal shortcut. Players were unable to cast any spell but those coded in the game. On the contrary, players of Ars Magica or Mage: The Awakening are free to use the spheres of magic as guidelines and come up with very specific, never-seen before effects.

Common sense suggests it is impossible for a computer game to be as free-form and open-ended as a pen-and-paper roleplaying game, where imagination is the only limitation. However, the multiplication of parameters and possibilities might provide an illusion good enough. For example, spells could have different results depending on location, skills, items or some magical variants such as "flux", "astrological factor" or whatever.

At the same time, increasing complexity makes it very difficult to balance the system in order to prevent a few techniques to put all others out of business. The mage community would, after a phase of experimentation, find the most efficient combinations (for example best spell for a specific task, best counter to that spell, best anti-counter) and neglect 99% of the possibilities because they are not efficient enough.

The nerf game
The premise of magic would be that its implementation cannot be scientifically industrialised: you cannot do mass magic and expect it to keep working in the same way; you cannot reduce magic to mathematics. Another premise is that any action has consequences. A strong theme of any mage game is hubris. Magic should not be used foolishly and recklessly. What if, each and every time magic is used, a possibility is lost, something gives way, the substance of this magic in the larger world shrinks? In MMO terms: magic gets nerfed when it is used. Each time a spell would be cast, the spirit in the machine (server-side) would take notice, nod silently and register the information in a database. All information about spellcasting would be daily processed. Each day, over-used magic would become less potent or riskier.

Now, let us imagine a very complex set of magic building blocks, which, combined in different ways, allow for the same basic effect (kill or maim somebody, for example) to be created through dozens of different methods. With an automated nerfing system, the most popular kill spell would progressively lose in potency, making other kill spells more and more attractive and encouraging spellcasters to find other ways to kill people. The game would automatically balance itself. Individual mages would be encouraged to find diverse ways to use their powers and would not be forced into a unique playstyle. The most interesting combinations of magic would be kept secret as long as possible in order to prevent them from losing their potency. Protecting the formulas of good spells would become a necessity. Obviously, this kind of system does not work well with the social aspect of a MMO. Left alone, it would incitate mages to stay on their own, jealously preserving their secrets while trying to steal the recipes of other players.

But what if you need a group for some aspects of magic? Maybe the really powerful spells need to be cast by assemblies of mages. Maybe unlocking the knowledge of the spheres of magic cannot be performed by one awakened mind alone. Maybe, also, guilds of mages could be able to defend somehow their magics against the nerfing process, by performing rituals and accepting some corresponding disadvantages? Maybe occult wars in some astral plane would determine whose magic will have it easier? To make a parallel with Eve Online: perhaps the mages would not have territories per se; they could leave that to vampires and werewolves. Their own 0.0 would be a map of magic in the world, and their high-end moons would in fact be the wells of magic able to power high-level enchantments.

Creating an ambitious magic system is a difficult task. I hope the magic system in World of Darkness will strive to reward inventiveness as well as the Mage roleplaying games managed to do it.

EDIT 6th of Nov., 2009: The Asheron's Call precedent
Justin Quimby wrote a chapter in Massively Multiplayer Game Development 2 (2005, Charles River Media), entitled: "Great in Theory: Examining the Gap Between System Design Theory and Reality". Then lead engineer at Turbine Entertainment, he describes the design and implementation of a spell economy not unlike the one proposed above: "The spell economy is a deceptively simple concept: the power of a spell is inversely related to the frequency of its use." This mechanism was used for the MMO Asheron's Call, released in 1999, before being removed from the game in 2002.
The system was meant to create an information economy where players would trade spell formulas. In fact, the need to maintain secrecy in order to maximize the power of a spell ended up not being compatible with the players' natural tendency to brag about their achievements. Justin Quimby explains also that the system's unpredictable and arcane nature disappointed the players, who felt unable to make educated choices based on dependable damage outputs. Other issues plagued the system, including server load and the creation of spell-finding bots by the players. (At launch, Eve Online did not have any wiki and understanding how the game worked was part of the experience. Nowadays, such a policy seems impossible to enforce.)
As both a balancing tool, a way to promote a diverse spell-casting experience in a thematically sound environment, and an endgame playground for large groups of players, I still think a "nerf game" is the way to go.

They meet the world every night

I have been reading taxi blogs for a few years now. Taxi drivers have many stories to tell; each and every day or night, they cruise in the city, meeting complete strangers and watching bemusing events take place. Here are the five blogs I used to read the most, but there are many more to be found, some of them pretty well written. Just follow the rabbit, as the saying goes.

Diary of a Mad DC cabbie.
, by Mad Cabbie from Washington, D.C., is all about the night shift and the kind of characters who get in your car with guns or fake legs.
Dublin Taxi is a collection of snapshots about working in cab-ridden Dublin, Ireland. Jackeens see so many faces every day... they are bound to experience a feeling of déjà vu.
las vegas cabbie chronicles's MrFunkMD is a great entertainer as befits a taxi driver from the City of Sin in Nevada. Check this moving Christmas story.
Road Rage and Taxi Tales, by Cab Guy from Phoenix, Arizona. Discover the practices of feeding and ghosting.
Taxi Tales, by Bob from Barrow in Furness, Cumbria. Read what happens when Frisco cabs challenge Lucifer.

If you like their blogs, think about it the next time you get to give a tip!

Where are the clones?

"Isn't it great?
Isn't it keen?
Living in complexes ruled by machine?
Where are the clones?
There ought to be clones.
Send in the clones..."

(Send in the Clones by Allen Varney and Warren Spector)

Worlds of Darkness 1: activities

Where are the vampires? There ought to be vampires!
Recently (well, ever since 2006 when CCP and White Wolf merged), I have been thinking about the ways CCP might create an interesting MMO based on the World of Darkness (WoD) brand and universe. (For those who have yet to enter the World of Darkness, check the website.) Lately, these random thoughts have coalesced more and more as I keep playing Eve Online and wondering how some mechanics might translate in a completely different setting.
This post is thus the first one in a series set to describe or rather imagine the shape of things to come. It is an impossible task and I do not seriously believe that my outsider vision is any closer to the truth than your average economic forecast or even old-fashioned futurology prediction. For this reason, I am curious to read other speculations about the World of Darkness MMO. If you, the reader, wish to participate in a constructive manner, please feel welcome to comment.

By the way, why don't we hear more about this game? According to one document, the MMO is due next year. Where are the artwork, the videos and the promotional site chock full of fanged womenfolk? I bet CCP keeps things in development under wraps for multiple reasons. The first one is that they cannot afford to give good ideas to their competitors. Funcom, the Norwegian makers of Anarchy Online and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, are preparing what really looks like another contemporary horror MMO: The Secret World. This fact is enough to give pause to CCP, until it becomes useful to show their hand. Which leads to another reason for silence: it just does not make any sense to "build the hype" too early. The recent history of MMOs is full of disappointments and suggests it might be technically simpler and commercially sounder to foster the progressive and long-term growth of a community rather than force-feeding the gamers with massive hype and making a one-month hit, followed by withdrawal, hangover and marketing headaches. Plus, it actually takes a lot of work to deliver updates about the work in progress to the community and the press and monitor buzz, and it makes sense to focus one's efforts on the product first, especially when it is still far from being complete.

Humble beginnings and grand destiny
I will draw parallels between Eve Online, the science-fiction MMO, and the World of Darkness MMO-to-be, obviously because the latter is being prepared by the same company which to this day keeps developing the former. CCP has this great MMO technology and they will make sure to use it to the fullest. It means a large part of the technology used to power the games will be the same; and technical constraints inform gameplay choices. "Corification" is something that White Wolf (CCP North America) has been doing for quite some time in their pen-and-paper game lines, what with World of Darkness being the basic rulebook to Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Mage: the Awakening and the other games. Plus, I see no reason for the designers to change a gameplay philosophy (the sandbox in a single shard) that has proven successful.

Eve Online today is very different from what it was in 2003. Many features have been added to the game since. It means that, instead of trying to propose the end-all of science-fiction MMOs from the onset, CCP did release a game with a limited, yet solid, set of features, and expanded its scope ever since. They keep making their game more attractive to an ever broadening array of gaming styles. And the future looks promising with many pillars of science-fiction literature left to incorporate in their game: planetary conquests, artificial intelligences (rogue drones are basically just mineral-flavoured pirates), aliens, mutants, Space-Hulk style combat, time travel, futuristic cities, etc.
The same reasoning will certainly apply to World of Darkness, the MMO. The gothic horror, or contemporary horror, universe presents us with a dizzying quantity of supernatural races, alternate dimensions and secret powers, even in its new, somewhat smaller, incarnation. CCP cannot provide us with the full content of their dozens of books from the very beginning; they need to make choices and to make sure that what they provide us with is good enough to make us stick to the game.

Now that we're undead, what do we do?
My question is then: what would be the core activity available to players, the main selling point of the game?

In Eve Online, the answer is easy. The core activity around which the game revolves is spaceship combat; there is a proven gameplay model for that kind of activity, with a long list of computer games dedicated to it. Players either fly ships in combat, or mine minerals to build ships, train skills to pilot ships, organise social structures to ensure they field more battalions of ships than the enemy, etc.

What about World of Darkness? Truth is, I have no idea.
I know, at least, what I did in the pen-and-paper version of WoD: I tried to unravel mysteries; I fought for territory and dominance, for elusive freedom and night-to-night survival; I plotted the murder of my enemies and the construction of magical kingdoms; I manipulated and assassinated and booby-trapped my refuge; I fled into basements, and swayed the minds of mere mortals; I spoke to spirits and walked in the land of the dead; I spent considerable amounts of time hiding various dark secrets from the characters of other players. Those were thrilling evenings.
I am trying to find the common points, the one in-game activity which would provide enjoyable and marketable enough for a whole MMO to revolve around it, and I always come back to the idea of combat, more specifically some form or another of player-versus-player combat. When I hop into my Internet spaceships, I know that, given the right set of circumstances, I can find battle quite quickly, get the adrenaline running for a few minutes, and log off. The gratification is not as instant as a first person shooter, but, still, it is a strong part of the appeal of the game. Mind you, World of Darkness and Eve Online, while both set in pitiless universes, may not aim at the same demographics, the same species of players. Physical combat is not the focus of the WoD tabletop roleplaying games (though, as in the immense majority of such games, simulating confrontations is the heart of the rule system); it would rather be the inner emotional conflicts of monsters lost in the dark. Before anything, the World of Darkness is an oppressing setting where kindred spirits gather by necessity rather than friendship. There, you can cripple your enemy by corrupting his friends, eliminating his pawns and exposing his intimate fears. Shooting him in the head comes almost as an afterthought.

I would be mightily interested to discover which proven gameplay model, if any, the developers are using as the basis for their game. For the time being, I leave a big question mark here. Now, it shall not be told that I allow mere ignorance to stand in the way of brash predictions. I will make sure to come up with something in other posts.