Games * Design * Art * Culture

Friday, September 26, 2003
Game Documentaries
Hmm.... Jason Scott, Boingboing's current guest blogger, pointed me to two documentaries on games I hadn't known about. I just ordered both. Gamers: Clans Mods and a Cultural Revolution is about Counterstrike and its players. Avatars Offline is about MMG players. Jason also points to The Joystick Generation, about the early days of digital games, but it doesn't seem to be out yet.

Thursday, September 25, 2003
Savage Reviews
There's been a bit of a controversy over the last few days about a review of Savage that Gamespot ran and then yanked.

I haven't played Savage, and don't intend to comment on its merits, or lack thereof, as the case may be. It's an RTS/FPS hybrid, in which most players play in FPS mode, but their commander has an overhead view of the battlefield, and plays an RTS game, building structures at which the players can gain new equipment and ammo and such. This strikes me as a good idea--again, whether or not the idea is well executed or not, I'm not in a position to say.

The review, or at least the first page of it, can be founded archived by Google here. Gamespot's explanation for why they yanked the review can be found here.

Evidently, the substance of the complaints from the publisher (iGames, which owns S2, the developer of Savage--basically, the game is self-published) is that they know the reviewer's ID, and that ID only spent a few hours in the game. This, they claim, is inadequate to really get into and appreciate the game's quality.

On the one hand, I've been on the receiving end of some sharp--and, in some cases, I felt, unreasonable -- reviews. Computer Gaming World gave Evolution, one of my games, something like a 30%. (Computer Games liked it, though.) I whined a fair bit to my buddy Johnny Wilson, then CGW's editor, but he basically told me to stuff it, even though I've been known to buy him a single malt or two. The bastard.

On the other hand, I've certainly poked people (sometimes the wrong people) in the eye with a sharp stick (metaphorically speaking), and I've appreciated editors who've stuck by me even under pressure (hi, Jason).

But here's the thing:

1. As originally reported on the DiGRA listserv, the game was rated a 5.4 out of 10; at least per the Google archive, it was actually rated 6.7. This isn't stellar, but it's respectable. If I'd been the publisher, I don't I'd have wanted to make a fuss.

2. Typically, a reviewer gets $200-$300 for a game review. Yeah, I know, by the standards of science fiction, that's a fair bit of change for a 750-1250 word piece (short science fiction typically earns 7 cents a word)--but look at it from a freelance writer's perspective. To make a bare subsistence living, you'd have to write 100 fucking game reviews every year. The reality is that you get a game to review, you jam the disc in, you play it for a bit--probably not more than a few hours, unless it really grabs you and you WANT to play it more than that--and then you bash out some words.

That's all the publisher expects, and that's all they can reasonably expect. The readers may have inflated ideas of the commitment of the people who write for the zine, but more fools they.

This is not a problem limited to game zines (or game websites which, I imagine, pay on the lower end of the scale). It's endemic; Publishers fucking Weekly pays $200-$300 per review. And careers can be made or broken on the results.

So.... iGames bitched to Gamespot, and because they log usage and knew the fellow's ID (presumably because he was comped because he was a reviewer) they could actually prove that the poor sucker had only played the game for an hour or two.

Personally, it rarely takes me an hour to decide a game sucks. Or rocks. It's only the ones in between that might take more time for me to judge. Albeit, if I love a game, I'll play it for a long time, both because I love it, and because I want to figure out why. And that might make for an informed review--but reviews inherently aren't informed. There isn't a zine (or website) in the field that publishes intelligent informed game criticism; bare reviews are all we can expect. (A rant for another time, perhaps.)

So... I almost don't care how long this guy took to form his opinion. He formed his opinion, he wrote it up for whatever pittance Gamespot pays, and that was all that could reasonably be expected of any professional in this field, given what a pittance they are paid.

Then iGames looked at the log, said "Gotcha!" and whined to Gamespot. In iGames's position, I might have done the same. I mean, how often do you actually get the goods on these guys? And they had the logs to prove it.

Where I start to assign some blame is with Gamespot. They know how the system works. They were evidently adequately satisfied with the work of their writer to publish it in the first place. Surely they know that their writers do not play every game to exhaustion before writing a thoughtful review, informed by vast experience with the artform of game design and a career exploring the possible in this nascent and exciting field, a critical essay that will withstand the storms of time and someday stand as a shining examplar of the game critic's art....

Hardly. They commissioned the review, knowing full well that this guy would take his coupla hundred smackers, spend a few hours with the sucker, and turn out readable English prose. That's all they, or anyone, can reasonably expect.

Gamespot should have stood by their man.

Sez I.

Monday, September 22, 2003
My Life with Master
by Paul Czege, Half Meme Press, no ISBN, city not identified, 2003. 64 pg. 7"x8.5" trim, center stapled, b&w;, 2-color cardstock over. $13 in print format, or $8.95 as a PDF, from Half Meme Press.

My Life with Master is a tabletop RPG of the Gothic Romance. Actually, that's not quite right, as I doubt Czege has read, say, Castle of Otranto; it's not a game of the literary genre, but of the genre as interpreted over the course of the 20th century, mainly in film.

The System

Each of the players takes the role of a minion, who serves an evil Master. The specific nature of the Master--his needs and wants, the "outsiders" whose respect s/he strives for, the degree to which governed by base lusts or inhumane reason, and the specific style in which the Master attempts to achieve his/her objectives--are arrived at through negotiation between the gamemaster and the players. That sounds quite freeform, but actually, Czege provides a sufficient set of defining characteristics (is the Master a Feeder or a Breeder or a Collector?) that the results of this negotiation should be a reasonably well defined personality, and a well-defined set of goals.

A Master has only one characteristic: Fear, which represents his ability to enforce his commands on his minions. There is also a global characteristic, not tied to any individual character: Reason, which represents the Townsfolk's ability to resist the minions--and to respond favorably to minions who make positive overtures.

Once the Master is defined, the players each create a character, again with the GM's participation. Minions have three characteristics: Self-loathing, weariness, and love. Love always begins at zero. The player divides 3 points among the other two--it doesn't really matter, actually, as both self-loathing and weariness are likely to increase during play. The player must also devise a "more than human" characteristic, and a "less than human" characteristic. Each must have an exception, and each is an obvious method of creating story hooks for play. As examples, the book provides:

Less Than Human
    Example: Is mute, except when signing hymns.

    Example: Walks with an uncontrollable limp, moving slowly and awkwardly, except when swinging from the ropes and rafters of the belfry.

    Example: Will transform into a stone every evening, unless fed by a child that day.

More Than Human
    Example: Powerfully persuasive, except between midnight and 2 AM.

    Example: Can heal the sick with the power of his mind, except not animals.

And finally, each minion needs one or more "connections" with Townsfolk--people they have some emotional tie to, and who are potential sources of love as the game progresses. E.g., "I like watching the little girl who plays ball in the graveyard."

Unlike a conventional RPG, the game is not played under the assumption that all PCs are together in a party; rather, the game is played round-robin style. The gamemaster introduces and resolves a "scene" with one player--then with the next--and so on, around the table. Ultimately, he returns to the first player, for that player's next "scene." The players are tied together by mutual service to the Master, and may at times assist (or thwart) each other, but they each experience their own aspect of the story.

I may have missed something, but there seem to be only three types of scene:

  1. One in which the Master orders a minion to perform some horrific act; the minion may, if he chooses, attempt to resist the order. In either event, the Master's confrontation with the minion, and the minion's response, are roleplayed.
  2. One in which a minion attempts to carry out an order from the Master; his/her success or failure is determined; and the results are roleplayed.
  3. One in which a minion chooses to "make an overture" to a connection in the town.

In each case, the scene is set; the player roleplays, with input from the GM, to the critical moment; a die-roll is made; the player then roleplays the outcome.

A die-roll means rolling some number of D4s, treating 4's as 0, and summing the results; while rolling an "opposing" number of D4s using the same scheme. If the first total is greater, the action succeeds; otherwise, it fails. (There's a minor ability to 'escalate' and get an extra D4, D6 or D8, but never mind.)

The number that determines how many dice rolled depends on the nature of the scene and/or confrontation. For example, when a minion attempts to resist a Master's command, the Master rolls as many D4s as his Fear plus the minion's Self-loathing; while the Minion rolls as many D4s as Love minus Weariness.

And the result of an exchange depends on the type of scene. In a "Master orders" scene, if the minion fails, he is obliged to follow the command. If he succeeds, and has sufficient love, the end-game may occur, in which the master dies. In a "obey orders" scene, the outcome is less discreet, and depends on whether violence is involved, but it may result in an increase in the minion's self-loathing or weariness. In an "overture" scene, success means an increase in love; failure results in self-loathing.

The game continues, until eventually a minion is able to resist Master's orders, and has greater love than weariness; in this case, the Master inevitably dies in some ensuing struggle, and the outcome for each PC is determined. The outcome depends on the minion's stats at that point, and can range from "becoming a new force for evil" (that is, a new Master) to peaceful integration with the townsfolk--with suicide or death at the hands of the enraged townsfolk the most likely outcomes.

The Paradigm

I have not closely followed the tabletop RPG scene in many years, and it is entirely possible that My Life with Master is less innovative than I give it credit for--indeed, Czege very properly credits bits of his system to other designers. But I want for a minute to contrast this game with what you might call the "standard model tabletop RPG"--exemplified in its most primitive form by Original Dungeons & Dragons, but not hugely changed in commercial games such as Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, et al., and only modestly changed in the White Wolf games.

In a standard RPG, player action is tightly constrained on a moment to moment basis: Essentially, the skill system, combat system, magic system, et al. combine to offer a player a limited set of options at any moment. The player selects an option, and rolls dice to determine whether or not he is successful with the chosen action (or, in some cases, the action is sufficiently simple that the player succeeds automatically). However, the narrative is conceptually open ended--any narrative arc is imposed through gamemaster fiat (or post-action reconstruction)--and there are few, if any, constraints on the sorts of narratives that can emerge through play.

In Master, by contrast, there are no literal constraints on action, on a moment-by-moment basis; there are no systems to resolve the success or failure of actions, so that the only real constraint is gamemaster acquiescence, which is unlikely to be withheld unless you are doing someting inappropriate from the perspective of narrative coherence. On the other hand, the narrative is highly constrained; inevitably, Master will die, and each character will achieve or suffer one of five possible outcomes. Moreover, the only NPCs who can appear in this scheme--townsfolk, the outsiders whose approval Master seeks, NPC minions, and Master him/herself--are tightly limited in role. There are only three types of scenes, and the outcome of each is governed by a single resolution roll, rather than many.

To put it another way, a standard RPG is character-centric; its rules define a set of abilities that each character possesses, and the rest is up to the gamemaster and players to negotiate. Master is, by contrast, narrative-centric; its rules define a narrative arc from which there is no escape, and the rest is up to the gamemaster and players to negotiate.

I can conceive of two possible criticisms of this game style. The first is that one might argue that a game of this type requires very sophisticated roleplaying gamers, who are willing to subordinate the desire to "advance the character," the main driver of gameplay in most RPGs, to the desire to "cooperatively tell a good story." If you look at the Blacow player types (which, pace Bartle, precede his), this is a type of game that will appeal to roleplayers and story-tellers, but not to power gamers or war gamers.

I'm not sure that criticism is valid, however; it is true that a power gamer will find little to like in this style of game, where outcomes are essentially predetermined, with minor fluctuations allowed. But if I were to sit down with a group of 13 year-olds who had never played any RPG before, I don't know that I would have any more difficulty getting them into this type of game than D&D...; It requires a somewhat different mindset, is all. Improv rather than dungeon-crawling.

The other potential criticism is that while My Life with Master is an admirable treatment of its particular narrative niche, there are genres and narrative styles for which it is inappropriate. Thus, for example, Dungeons & Dragons would not be improved by trying to impose Master-style narrative consistency on what is essentially a "generic fantasy" game--with fantasy being an extremely widespread and variable genre.

But if you look at it, this is not a problem; this is a strength. There are settings for which a constrained-character RPG works better than a constrained-narrative RPG--but there are also settings for which a constrained-narrative RPG works better, too.

In fact, I can immediately think of a whole series of settings that would never work with classic-style RPG rules--but would absolutely work with Master-style rules. You need a genre in which outcomes are pre-determined, or can vary only within strict limits; in which the shape of the narrative arc is also predetermined, or variable only within strict limits; and in which the narrative importance of character action can also be categorized strictly. As examples, here are some games you could unquestionably design, using a Master-like system:

EPIC FANTASY: Unassuming hero gets the gizmo from Point A to Point B in order to thwart the Dark Lord.
ROMANCE: {Adjective} heroine meets {in adverb fashion} {adjective} love interest, and after {N number of obstacles} they come to realize their true love for one another.
THE LOVE BOAT: In this week's episode, {character} with {life issue} comes aboard the Love Boat and after {meeting and having N number of scenes with other character} plus {Y encounters with stock characters in which trite bits of wisdom are brought forth} finds happiness and/or cheerful resignation to his/her current circumstances. Music by Paul Williams.

Now.... Okay, "The Love Boat" is funny, and intended to be. But yes, I believe I could do a Master-style game based on that dreadful TV show, and it would work, just fine. Apart from the fact that yes, this obscure hobby game has potentially profitable and licensable implications, there's another point, too: The standard tabletop RPG model, the D&D; model would never work for The Love Boat. What are your skills? What are your powers? Where are the monsters to kill? And.... Who cares?

One other minor thing that occurs to me, before we pass to the final section for tonight: I wonder if this is an example of the "photography > abstract art" phenomenon. By which I mean that once photography was possible, painting was forced to respond by finding something to do other than producing realistic images of real-world things: photography could do that better than someone daubing in oils. I'm sensitive to the criticism that I'm a technological determinist, and I'm sure there were other cultural forces--but really, it seems so obvious.

In this case, I wonder whether the advent of MMGs, which do a pretty good (far from ideal, but not bad) job of satisfying the same jones as classic RPGs--with really pretty graphics, albeit much inferior storytelling--is forcing tabletop RPG designers away from the classic RPG style and toward styles that reward real storytelling, which nothing digital (despite Chris Crawford's best efforts) can provide as tenth as well as a skilled GM.

The Ludological Perspective

I'll begin by pointing out that I'm on the ludologist side of this particular debate, not the narratologist side, and in fact have been since before the people on either sides were born, and indeed long before these terms were applied to them. Nonetheless....

We have in My Life with Master a game that certainly challenges ludological ideas about how games are shaped: It's a game that depends utterly on narrative, and for whom outcomes are minor lacunae to be resolved in "epilogs" after the main action. Interactivity, in the sense of meaningful impact on outcomes, is irrelevant, since the outcome is pre-determined (Master will die); and neither "exploration of space" nor "exploration of the system" is a player motivation, since "space" is "master's demesne" plus "the town", while "the system" is a minor appendage to provide a guide for role playing.

Contrariwise, My Life with Master is a resounding and (I think) successful refutation of my argument that making a game more like a story makes it an inferior game, while making a story more like a game renders it an inferior story. In this case, we have a game that, by moving away from "game" and toward "story" has created something quite novel--and quite interesting. It has done so through one fundamental insight: That we can keep the system "a good game" by constraining the narrative arc at the expense of freeing the moment-to-moment action. Thus, what My Life With Master seems to say is that: Good story depends on constraining action through narrative consistency; good games depend on constraining action through adherence to system (within which free interaction is permitted); and both can be achieved by providing a system that enforces narrative consistency while permitting freedom in other spheres.

This is.... almost a mind-blowing idea from my perspective... and I do hope Mark Barrett is reading this... Albeit I understand if it seems less important to most readers.

And it's also not at all evident to me how you go about "enforcing narrative consistency while permitting freedom of action in other spheres" in digital media. Certainly Crawford's (valiant if ill conceived) Erasmatron didn't fit the bill. But I find it interesting that Czege has made it work in a print medium, at least.

Additionally, My Life With Master is interesting, from a ludological perspective, because many prospective definition of "the game" would not include it. There are no quantifiable outcomes, really; indeed, outcome is pre-determined (or variable only within a very limited range). I think my definition ("an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal") still works pretty well here, but then, I can be a smug bastard at times.

In short, except for those jejune dweebs who classify all non-digital media as outside the realm of "games", or rather "games sufficiently meritorious to be included in the category of games that we study," My Life with Master is an important, challenging, and highly original work.

Monday, September 15, 2003
More on EyeToy
James Reilly (a Yank currently living in the UK) writes:

    We bought [an EyeToy] for my kids 2-3 weeks ago... The game play and graphics are
    relatively simple, and there is certainly a lot of novelty value. But I was
    surprised at how much fun it is for me to play with, or against them with it.
    One can certainly work up a sweat with EyeToy trying
    to outscore their ten year old son in 2-player Kung Fu...

    Kids seem to really enjoy the aspect of seeing themselves in the game,
    vs. being abstractly aware of themselves playing some character in a game.

    The range of games is also quite nice. They seem to
    have included at least one game that each member of a family might
    be interested in (disco dancing, kung fu, fireworks competitions, etc.).
    There's ~twelve games altogether.

    I can confirm that although simple, it is a cool toy if one already owns a PS/2.
    If I was having a party with a bunch of friends some evening, one way of livening
    it up at some moment certainly could involve the Eye Toy. All in all I'd say it was
    very good value for money for us so far, which I unfortunately can't say for all the
    PS/2 games we've bought.

    I hope it's available in the US soon, so I can
    order one for my nephews by Christmas :-) !

Apparently it will be; Chris Morris wrote to point me to his column on CNN Money where, among other things, he reports that the US release date is November 4th.

Friday, September 12, 2003
EyeToy: Play #1 in UK
Now this is interesting...

According to ELSPA game sales chart, the number one best-selling title in the UK at present is EyeToy: Play.

The package includes a camera connected via USB to your Playstation 2, along with a series of mini-games. The camera captures your image while you play, displaying it onscreen; you use your hands and body to interact with game objects.

The games look pretty primitive; I'd assume it's selling for its novelty value primarily. And I'm not sure I see a big future in camera-mediated games. Still, I've long been of the opinion that one of the problems with console games is that even as we've increased the machine-to-human bandwidth enormously, pumping huge numbers of pixels and going to CD-quality audio, the human-to-machine bandwidth has increased only marginally. That is, a PS 2 controller does have more buttons than an Atari 2600 controller, but most games are still dependent on a joystick plus a few button presses. This channels console games into being, in most cases, an exploration of space. As genres popular on the PC side show (RTS, god games, sims), if you have a richer method of input (keyboard + mouse), you can support more sophisticated game styles.

I don't think a camera is the solution--but hey, this does look like a cool toy.

No word on when it will be available in North America, however.

Thursday, September 11, 2003
Husky & Starch: The Wonderful World of Sucky Licenses
Today's meditation is brought to you by the letter "Suck."

I don't recall exactly when, but sometime in the 70s, it became acceptable to say "suck" on TV, despite the clear derivation from "cocksucker." I don't remember whether it was Starsky & Hutch that broke this particular taboo--but even if not, they sure did say "sucka" a lot.

The thought comes to mind as a result of the pending release of Starsky & Hutch from our good friends at Gotham Games.

Now, there are licenses and licenses. To give you an example, twenty years ago, when I was at West End Games, I negotiated for and obtained the rights to do paper RPGs based on Star Wars. One of the competing bidders for the rights was TSR. We paid $100k. They offered $70k.

That same year, TSR licensed the rights to do games based on Buck Rogers. They paid $100k. In their clear commercial judgment, the Buck Rogers license was obviously more valuable than the Star Wars license. I'm sure their decision was not influenced by the fact that the then-president of TSR was the literary heir of the creator of Buck Rogers, owned the IP, and happily pocketed the money. It was purely an unbiased business judment. Sure.

Needless to say, the Star Wars game outsold the Buck Rogers game by a whole lot, even though the Buck Rogers boardgame wasn't bad (and was, in fact, designed by Warren Spector).

I'm digressing a bit, but the point is: The Star Wars license was definitely worthwhile. The Buck Rogers license? Give me a fucking break.

I'm old enough to remember when Starsky & Hutch was on TV. I'm also old enough to be outside the target demographic for games, even though the age range is increasing. Basically, with few exceptions, people in their 40s don't play games.

In other words, the people who actually remember this TV show don't play games and aren't going to buy this thing. Those few of us who DO remember the show also remember that it sucked. No, make that, it sucked huge wads of crap. It blew. It was, like, really bad, sucka. So those few of us who both know the show and play games are also likely to look at the game and say....

What a bad idea.

Admittedly, it's not a hard game to develop. The show was mainly about gunplay and car chases. If there's anything game developers know how to do, it's gunplay and car chases. Easy enough to slap this sucka together. But... why would you want to?

To recap the argument: Original IP is better than licensed IP. If I buy a tenth-rate license, and by some miracle make it sell, what I've really done is revitalize someone else's IP, and when I want to do the sequel, I have to go back and pay them even more money. Contrariwise, if I do an original title, and by some miracle it sells, I now have IP I can go out and flog myself, and people have to come to ME to license, say, the swizzle stick or beef jerky rights. Or whatever.

So.... Why in God's name would you license something like Starsky & Hutch?

This morning, I went looking for some other moronic licenses. They weren't hard to find, although actually, nothing was quite as silly as Starsky & Hutch. They tend to fall into categories.

One category is licenses from paper RPGs. The Dungeons & Dragons license is an opportunity to mint gold--but very, very few other RPGs have ever sold more than 100,000 units, and have created any real name recognition. So--why would you license Hunter: The Reckoning? Vampire, yes; Werewolf, probably not; Hunter; no way. These are White Wolf's RPGs, and Hunter is by far the weakest of the three. Perhaps the strangest license from a paper RPG was for a Jorune game. It's out of print now, but was developed by Alien Logic. Jorune, co-designed by Andrew Leker (who has since gone on to a reasonably impressive career in computer games) was a beautful little game--but very obscure, even by the standards of the geeky hobby games industry. I doubt it sold as many as 10,000 units in its life.

Why do these licenses sell? I have to believe it's because digital game developers played RPGs when kids, remember them fondly, and have an inflated idea of their value.

Another category consists of "titles I could get funded because my corporate masters own the IP"--and presumably want to flog it however they can, regardless of whether or not it's actually valuable in a game context. This we have Bruce Lee: Quest of the Dragons from Universal Interactive. Jackie Chan, yes; Bruce Lee, no. For basically the same reasons as Starsky & Hutch. Or as another example, Castles & Catapults from Atari. Castles & Catapults was one of the weakest of the Milton Bradley "gamemaster" series of boardgames; released at the same time as Axis & Allies, it died, and was canned. Not what I'd call a strong candidate for computer game adaptation.

Or how about Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead Go On Vacation?

Then we have our final category: Stupid kidvid licenses. Any piece of shit is licensable, apparently, so long as it appeals to kids, and never mind all the talk about how gamers are aging. Thus, we have:

Lionel? Give me a BIG fucking break. The average model railroader is in his 60s. Model railroading has the opposite problem of the games industry, but for the same reasons: Leisure-time activities are set when you're a teenager, and you tend to do the same things as you age. Kids haven't played with train sets since the fifties, and so train sets aren't really for kids any more. I can see why Lionel would want this game on the market--maybe it might help to spur some takeup of train sets by kids, a forlorn hope to be sure--but surely Sierra has enough brains to realize that this is a title that no kid will want, and the demographic that might want it doesn't play games?

Well, no, perhaps not. We are talking about Sierra, after all.

This crap has got to end.

To my mind, when someone approaches me with a license, the burden of proof is on them. They need to demonstrate that buying this license makes sense, that it will spur enough additional sales to more than justify the cost. Because I =could= be spending my time and money on something original.

But at the moment, things are ass backwards. Any piece of crap license will find a home, but if someone approaches a publisher with an original idea, the burden of proof is on them. It has to be really fucking amazing for the checkbooks to come out.

Starsky and Hutch? Where do I sign. Original idea? Hit the road.


Incidentally... Anyone want to license the digital game rights to Paranoia?

Thursday, September 04, 2003
Bluetooth Games
This morning, Gamespy Daily linked to a piece on Bluetooth for games which struck me as a piece of goshwow nonsense of limited utility. But then, I've been looking at Bluetooth recently with a view to its use for games.

First, forget the idea that Bluetooth and WiFi are competitive technologies; they're quite different. WiFi is optimized for use as a gateway to WAN (read: Internet) services, while Bluetooth is intended to create short-term LAN (read: local) network connections among nearby devices. You can make WiFi work for local networking, and in principle you can use Bluetooth on one Internet-connected device to provide net access to other Bluetooth devices--but in both cases, you're not using the technology for its optimal purpose, and the Bluetooth stack isn't really designed for TCP/IP.

When a Bluetooth enabled app starts up on a device, it first performs what's called "device discovery," whereby it determines what other Bluetooth devices exist nearby. Typically, "nearby" means "within about 10 meters". It then performs "service discovery" on those devices, to see what "Bluetooth services" they provide. In the case of a game, this is something along the lines of "Hey, do you know how to play Quake too?"--and if the device isn't currently running Quake-for-Bluetooth (not that such a thing exists, at least yet), the answer is "say what?"

Bluetooth networking is exclusively hub-and-spoke--no token rings or the like here. So in a game context, this would mean I start up Bluetooth Quake, and tell it I want to host a game (in Bluetooth terminology, this means my device will act as master). It will then perform service discovery, and find that, say, two other people with Bluetooth Quake are nearby. I can then invite each of them to play (in Bluetooth terminology, the master device offers slave initiation to the others). My buddies say "OK," and we're off to the races. Or to the deathmatch, I suppose.

Bluetooth calls this a piconet: one master connecting to multiple slaves, with all data communication routed through the master, and no direct connection among the slaves. This is fine; that's how most small-scale multiplayer games typically run, with one device appointed as server and other players connecting to it. In principle, the Bluetooth spec permits what are called "scatternets", in which one device can be slave to two different piconets, or master to one and slave to another, serving as a bridge to pass data from one piconet to another--but in practice, most Bluetooth stacks don't support scatternets. (I'm saying "most" just to hedge; I don't know of any that do.)

So we're limited to 10m, and to one piconet. A piconet, per the Bluetooth spec, can consist of one master and up to seven slaves--I presume the limit is to reduce bandwidth contention. So we're limited to games of 8 or fewer players.

Latency is typically 20-100ms; if you plan for 50ms typically, you're probably fine. (Don't be misled by Bluetooth's claim that one 'slot' for data is .625 microseconds; this is true, but it says nothing about real-world latency. The 20-100ms number is based on actual testing with real devices.) Given that you have to allow 100-200ms typically for Internet gameplay, this means Bluetooth is plenty speedy enough for fact-action gameplay locally.

Latency increases with data traffic, and with the number of players in the game; for that reason, you're probably best off limiting yourself to 4 players, unless you can be sure of keeping the amount of data that needs to be exchanged small over time.

This is all pretty hypothetical at present; the only Bluetooth devices out there at the moment that can run games are Series 60 phones (from Nokia and Siemens, with some other manufacturers announcing S60 devices but not yet delivering them). I haven't actually seen any multiplayer Bluetooth games for them, although I suspect there must be some out there. But the first time we're likely to see them in any number is with the release of N-Gage.

Of course, the drawback with this model is that in order to play with someone, they do have to be within 10 meters of you. I'm doubtful that N-Gage is going to be a huge hit when first released, so even if you go and buy one, you may find it hard to find someone else with an N-Gage to play with. That is, of course, one of the advantages of Internet gameplay; even if a game doesn't sell well, there's bound to be someone out there who wants to play it.

Interestingly, Sony's PSP announcement says it will support 802.11j (the Japanese version of WiFi, and I assume that the North American version of the device will support a more common US version). This has one big advantage over Bluetooth: If I have a WiFi hub in my home, I'll be able to play over the Internet from the PSP. I'm not clear on how good WiFi is for establishing local-area networking, however--my impression is that is provides no direct support for it, so that you'd need to have some software on the device to provide that facility. It'll be interesting to see whether Sony goes that route, or just uses WiFi as an Internet gateway.

Monday, September 01, 2003
Cheap Update Time
A few minor things:

The Beeb, reporting from GDC Europe, says some developers believe average console development costs could rise as high as $10m, spurring further industry consolidation. Which reinforces my point about how Moore's Law drives costs but revenues increase more slowly. We gotta get out of this place.

Also Matt Mathews read my rant about how few original games are published, and decided to perform an analysis of GameBoy Advance titles:

    "For example, of the 373 games I catalogued, well over 50% were tied to a
    license from outside the video game world. And, using a somewhat
    restrictive description of 'original,' less than 10% of the games
    released in the lifetime of the GBA have been original games. Of those,
    most are unknown and many are not very good."

Of course, choosing GBA will skew the results; GBA is much more dominated by licensed properties than most other platforms. But it's nice when one's loudly stated opinions bear some resemblance to fact, of course.

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