I’d like to talk about artificial scarcity, and how I think it is generally a poor solution. I should begin, though, by an overview of True Scarcity, and its effects on our lives.

True Scarcity, like real things have. Resources are scarce, time, energy, materials, space, attention. People throw around “post-scarcity” as an achievable goal, but depending on how you draw the threshold it could have already happened, or it could never happen.

Artificial Scarcity has to do with arbitrarily limited things, like CCGs, limited runs, and modern currencies. Mimics True Scarcity in order to reproduce its effects. Can be marginally useful (currency), or deceptive (CCG). I don’t like it.

Narrative Scarcity? Resources limited to form a cohesive story (fictional True Scarcity or contrived Artificial Scarcity). Intrinsically artificial in reality (no reason the storyteller can’t solve scarcity by fiat), but percieved as true in context. Mis-used in either direction can lead to story collapse.

Artificial scarcity occurs a lot in games, but aside from people being familiar with this way of thinking, and as a tool for exploring true scarcity, I don’t see the advantage. For example, there is (effectively) no marginal cost to distributing DLC to all game owners. Or to releasing all games into the public domain. At the limit, this ties back to the “win” button. Artificially limiting story progression by game performance is… well, artificial scarcity.


A “quest” is a stand-in for AI imperative communication.

Speculative history of quests. Started with individual goals. Then transitioned to chains (multiple sequential goals), then to laundry lists (paralell goals) (Many small quests can be rolled into one big one). Very few are reactive to player performance and world state. Completing a quest often resets effective world-state. Rewards are generally in-game money, equipment, relationship points (a different form of currency), and experience (which doesn’t make sense, wouldn’t you gain experience based on how well you performed, and what you did, rather than whether you returned to the quest-giver).

Could be combined with communication (deceit) and bartering. Certainly need to be more reactive.

Pragmatic Parametric Game Design

Shamus wrote an article on procedural generation and I figured I’d follow up with a few of my own thoughts.

Parametric stuff, rules based design. Random = creators decisions. Controllable = design patterns.

Do it manually first. Teaching the machine how to act is nearly impossible if you don’t know how to do it in the first place. Continue reading

Structures, Semantics, Abilities, and Play

The structure of a game sets the stage.

The semantics of a game sets the atmosphere.

The abilities of players and characters dictate the kind of stories that can be told in-game.

Too few abilities stifles expression. Too many abilities stifles creativity.

Too few semantics stifles expression. Too many semantics stifles creativity.

Too much structure stifles expression. Too little structure stifles creativity.

I wish I could recall the fervor of the ideas with which I began this post. Perhaps too much structure.

These are all various angles one may hold a game. In order to examine it. In order to evaluate it. Play is the emergent behavior of an intelligence in contact with a healthy balance between the three.

Fledgeling Scenario

Scenarios are the thing you play in Fledgeling. They are, in essence, a “what if” proposition. While the ideaspace holds all the possibilities of the setting, the scenario outlines the particulars. But even though the scenario will limit the actual state of the world, many particulars could be left open in order to offer the player room to customize and experiment.

We want to make it easy to design scenarios.

Anything not specified in the scenario will be filled in from the “parent” scenario.

Infinite time and energy, thinking about things as sub-characters attempt to embody your fancies. Spalling off sub-universes as you speculate on different archetypes.

Pausing in slow-motion trying to make a hard decision. While that is happening, a new high-growth crisis emerges (nano-tech fire), overturning the whole point of the decision in the first place.

Player Input

The player really needs to have input in the game. As much input as possible really. The previous article about AI Assistance in mind, much of this input should be optional as well, but the options should be available.

Input is one of the defining characteristics of a game. Can we simply expose all aspects of the game world to the player? How much is too much? Continue reading

A Pointless Challenger…

Conflict is only meaningful when the outcome is in question.

Often, computer game challenges are against foes who have a noticeably different in-game status from the player character. The player character has depth, while the foes are hardly characters at all. It isn’t even a challenger. It’s just a challenge. Even the most difficult challenges, the “boss” foes, rarely have any out-of-plot motivation, duty, or even activity that they engage in. There are several causes for this (not that it’s any excuse) all of which are more or less surmountable.

Character background is difficult to convey and generate.

The rise of multi-player direct competition games has illuminated this difficulty even more by demonstrating what happens when player characters to compete against each-other.

It doesn’t mean anything to challenge a non-entity, nor does it signify to crush an inferior. “Boss” characters are often meant as a game-play challenge, but as they are presented as characters, they often fail on that merit.

Reducing the player’s character to the level of other in-game characters is important for verisimilitude. Giving the player special powers makes them special, but also adds exceptional expectations which can often not be met.

The player should compete against evenly matched foes. Whether this is symmetrical or not, there must be a balance of forces or there is no need for contest.

Narrative Momentum and Manuverability

games are not stories, but they do need momentum.

History building up to the point of interaction. NPCs and environment needs to support this momentum.

Good manuverability (high player agency) in the narrative trajectory.

Balance between the two, if too much manuverability then history means nothing. If too much momentum then the player’s choices don’t matter.

Many games neither justify the player’s character’s actions, nor give them options to make real choices.

Goals, Actions, and Posessions

What you want, what you can do, or what you have. Which is more important? Each informs the other. Each is superior to the others. Each serves the others. They all work together.

There are continually trends to move games (and everything else) toward a focus on one or the other of these aspects. An exclusive obsession with “what you have” is the basis of materialism. Fascination with “what you can do” leads to endless labor. Fixation on “what you want” produces day-dreaming and dissatisfaction. Continue reading

Influences and Paralells

Where did these ideas come from? Some are seeds which spawned concepts, others are examples of where these same ideas have cropped up independently.

Life: Most things, including deep nesting. I attribute most of the independent consensus to this aspect.

Revelation: The book in the Bible. Axies of merit and paralell spiritual hierarchies.

Dungeon Siege: Linked limitless spatial nodes.

Megatokyo: PCs with emotional stats and independent behavior.

A Fire Upon the Deep: Vast scope fiction and data-intense societal development.

D&D and GURPS: role playing games (a mixture of positive and negative examples in both).

StarTrek Enterprise Floorplans: Vessels really can be fleshed out internally.

Dwarf Fortress: Lots of deep and broad world simulation. Taking over historical characters, etc.


The current trend is to make games ever more concrete, but we must not forget abstraction. Generally speaking, abstract games challenge deduction, while concrete ones challenge induction. Put another way, games with lots of specific rules and solid metaphors force the player to form their own generalizations and strategies, while games with a few simple rules and few examples force the player to devise effective applications and tactics. Continue reading

A Reflection on: “Five Problems with Modern Video Games”

The video in question.
If you’re not interested in watching, here’s the summary:

Video Games have become lame since the 90s, because:

  1. They’re all the same.
    Targeted mostly at AAA FPS titles.
  2. They treat you like you are an idiot.
    Hand-holding, QTE, omniscient mini-map, lack of fast travel.
  3. They are too focused on realistic graphics.
    Want to be too much like movies. Continue reading

Uplift: Not Minecraft

I love procedural content generation. I enjoy Minecraft, and contributed to its development. It’s a fun… Game? Toy? Software?

Minecraft is a fun software.

And it does a lot of things right. It has a consistent abstracted graphical style. It encourages the players imagination. But it also blindly incorporates luck, refuse to give players abilities afforded to the AI, and tends to seem to suffer quite a bit from designer hubris. Overall, it like it, but I also want to improve on it. Continue reading

Definitions: Game

Learning == Gaming

I appreciate Keith Burgun’s work on defining the word “game” (See this post for a good outline. To summarize, KB defines games in terms of the layered context “Toy, Puzzle, Contest, Game” where each successive element is a sub-set of the last) but I have arrived at a slightly different objective space and corresponding terminology. I’ve addressed this topic informally already, (and the topic of the definition of game even more informally) but it bears a more thorough look.

In short: Games are active models designed to allow the user to cheaply learn important information about costly systems.

Or, put another way:

Games are simulations of serious things too expensive to play with. Continue reading

Informed Action

In the case of the people talking, it seems that the surrounding nodes would need to broadcast their shatter conditions so that the node’s currently being simulated know what factors to calculate… Perhaps even, the only factors that need to be simulated are those that relate to shatter points of surrounding nodes… Like sarcasm, its not even thought about (thus not simulated) amongst those who don’t care. Has this been thought about already?

-Excerpt from a comment by Luke

You raise an interesting point, and one I think bears examination.The idea of simulating only the bare minimum required by circumstances is a sound one. It avoids many of the problems of creating masses of extraneous information, and transmitting this information between characters. On the other hand, one of the core ideas in Fledgeling is that of imperfect perception, either by way of being incomplete, incorrect, or deluded. And, in real life, one of the characteristics of shatter points is that you rarely know where they are until you reach them. In other words, they are very difficult to perceive. Continue reading

Books, Movies, and Fledgeling

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My dad is a salesman, and works from home fairly frequently. When we were little, he used to walk by while we were watching movies, on his way to or from his home office. We had a fairly small library of shows, so we re-watched them with fair regularity. I recall him asking with alacrity, “How’s it going to end this time?” It became a running joke.

Because, of course, it always ended the same way. Continue reading

The Perception Layer

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The perception layer (in my terminology (which is what I use to communicate)) is an intermediary between reality and memory. It models the fact that, when you perceive something, your perception doesn’t always match what’s really there. In fact, it never matches it perfectly. Occasionally, perception and reality are far divergent.

I think of the perception layer as a piece of glass. If it is smooth and clean, you can look through it easily. If the glass is clouded, painted, or covered in dirt, your perception is going to be obstructed. Even worse, if the glass is uneven, warped, or otherwise malformed it can give a clear but distorted view of the other side.

Fog of War is a common example of a perception layer in RTS games. Continue reading

Visual Fidelity and Familiarity

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I’ve written on this topic before, but I was re-inspired by comments in this blog post.

On the topic of AAA games and visuals. I really like the image of building a monolith of cash and setting it on fire. It works on so many levels. I don’t even resent people doing this. It’s their money, they’re free to do what they like with it. What I resent is being told that watching a pretty currency bonfire is a life-changing experience and everyone should show up. It’s the kind of lie that, as was said, has blatant disregard for the intellect of the audience. Continue reading

Prerequisite Automation

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If you do A and B then you can try doing C. Oh, but you have to do A and B every time you want to do C. No, you can’t skip those parts. It’s core gameplay!

Seriously, what’s the deal with this? Can’t I prove to you that I’m capable of these tasks? I mean, collect some statistics on my performance or something. Even degrade it by 10%, or 50% for that matter, just let me use MY performance for the “auto calculate” instead of the developer’s expectations or the AI’s abilities.

I’ve already written on this topic before. Hopefully this article will offer another angle of approach to the concept of not wasting the player’s time. Continue reading


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You are going to need some imagination to enjoy Fledgeling. It won’t be all in your head (or will it?) but just like a lot of other games the presentation and interface only tell you enough to get you started. You have to (get to?) fill in the blanks yourself.

But this is the norm. A certain amount of imagination is required for any activity. Continue reading

“Win the Game” Button

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We need this. Badly.

If it explains how it won, then you’ve just made a self-updating tutorial and walkthru.

If you can choose which part of the game it works on, then you’ve just implemented a “skip this annoying/frustrating part” button.

If it spoils your intricately woven masterpiece of a story-line… you’re working in the wrong medium. If it ruins multi-player, then turn it off during competitions. Continue reading

Simplify! But What?

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A game can not be (and indeed should not be) a perfect copy of real life. Some things are different (fantasy), but most are simplified. This is good. We play games, in part, to escape from the complexity of normal life and focus on a few relevant details. We desire to fit the whole problem in our heads, and most of us have heads too small for the real world.

And one can only do so much. Ideally game designers could include everything in the world, but our minds are not yet broad enough (nor our game systems powerful enough) to do this. So, since some form of simplification is both desired and required, we must ask, “What do we simplify?” Continue reading

while(True): Experience and Expression

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I love a beautiful expression. Many others prefer a beautiful experience. Both are necessary.

Expression is moving something inside outward, pouring out what is already in the soul. Experience is drawing something outside inward, lapping up the un-self into the self.

Of course, rarely does one exist without the other. We experience our own expressions, and modify them even as they are pronounced. We respond to our own experiences, and express our reactions even during the event. Experience and expression each chase the other. One leads, and then doubles back, chasing the first; This recursive cycle feeds on both the other and the self, and can quickly lead to surprising places.
Continue reading

Tank Made of Paint

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One of the most frustrating things about computer games is the common focus on graphic fidelity without matching high fidelity mechanics, interface, and characters. There’s a good overview of the problem over there. I’d like to add a few points.

Graphics are like paint. A good coat of paint does wonders for a project. Paint can really solidify a design, whether code or concrete, into something stunning. Paint takes “machined” parts and turns them into “finished” ones, ready for assembly. Paint can turn a car into a statement, an expression!

But don’t build an engine out of paint. Continue reading

What is a GM?

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A Game Master, in a free-form role playing game, fulfills a variety of roles. The players in such a game “play the role” of variously limited creatures, usually individuals. One could sum up the GM’s role as “the Game Master plays the role of God”… but that’s too easy! What does God do? What are God’s duties?

Authority and agency, consistency and novelty, growth and challenge. These three pairs of attributes form the core of God’s being and thus the focus of a GM’s efforts. Continue reading

Issues of Scale

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Things come in different sizes. That’s the premise here. A given. Most games deal at least a little with scale imbalance. Fledgeling will deal with objects and organizations on vastly different scales.

But what does it mean that something is bigger or smaller? Does size really matter as much as we think? Can a difference in size amount to a difference in kind? I would say, respectively: Larger things are more difficult to work with, but also more useful. Not really. No. A single set of flexible rules should be able to account for the behavior of large and small alike.

What does scale mean? Like any distinction, scale means relative motion along several gradients. Here are five to get you thinking. Continue reading

Good Graphics are Bad

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No wait, let me explain! I like my games iconic and clean. I don’t want a cinematic experience, I want to be challenged. If you love the fancy eye feast offered by modern games, that’s great… and you should probably skip this article. Chess and Dwarf Fortress are more my style. So, that’s where I’m coming from; That’s also where I’m going.

Graphics should clearly present the game state and indicate the player’s options. Visuals which lend a sense of place, atmosphere, and proper gravity to a game world are admirable. When I say “‘Good Graphics’ are bad” I’m talking about facet count, normal projection, specularity maps, lens flares, and pre-rendered cutscenes. That stuff is great in movies. But games don’t need it. Games don’t need “good graphics” to be good games. Continue reading

Design Hubris

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Everyone thinks that their ideas are the best. No one thinks they are crazy. Yes, we can all admit we were wrong from time to time, but people don’t actively hold beliefs they know are false. We have (and must have) a confidence in our own ability to reliably perceive and interpret the universe.

Despite this, everyone is wrong all the time anyway. Continue reading

Games of Chance and Skill

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Some games are fully chance based. Some games are fully skill based.
But some games are both, and life is like this too.
The problem is when one is disguised as the other. Often chance is disguised as skill, to make the player try to figure out how to do better. The other case, where skill is disguised as chance, is far rarer.

Most games involve both chance and skill. A game that is totally based on luck is merely a lottery. However, even games where luck and ability are mixed can be deceptive. Most often, chance is disguised as skill, but it can go the other way as well. Continue reading


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Games are all about conflict. Whether it is conflict between separate players, or between players and the game’s rules, there is a tension of desires. Someone wants what they do not have. Often, it is something that someone else has (see all zero sum games). Without conflict of some sort, there is no game. Even the most peaceful and creative of games embody this axiom.

A conflict is all about understanding yourself and your opponent, using your strengths against the opponent’s weakness, and maintaining the will to win even after sustaining injuries. Lest this description sound too martial, allow me to give a “peaceful” example. Building a block tower is a conflict. It is the player (the builder) against the game (physics and gravity). Continue reading


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Materials vary. Situations vary. History, performance, results may vary. Whenever you know something, or see something, or remember something, or do something you’re experiencing a bit of slop. Nothing is mathematically certain.

This is one of the reasons games of chance are so attractive to us. We deal with small randomness all the time, and bringing it out into the open and freely admitting “I have no idea how this will turn out” is satisfying in a way. We hide and ignore the randomness in so many other situations that letting it out feels right. “It’s about time” we seem to say.

But chance isn’t everything. In fact, chance is only the lack of control on top of our skill. If there were no intent, no goal, there would be no chance. Continue reading

What does it All Mean?

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We long, with good reason, for things to make sense.

I recall my frustration with Fable when, upon finally reaching Snowspire Village, everyone speaks a totally understandable language. Plus, even though they have been out of contact with everyone else for “a long time” it’s no big deal when a foreigner arrives and re-opens the Cullis Gate. And where have they been getting food all this time? And clothes? Why haven’t they all starved to death? It just made no sense at all.

For me, the game world is the most important part of a game. Continue reading

The Metaverse

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Let’s talk about “The Metaverse”. What is it? Why is it desirable? Who cares? Sure, you can look it up on Wikipedia, but here’s the digested version.

Basically, the Metaverse is a shared artificial computer-based world. It’s like an MMO, the Internet, and Sim Everything all rolled into one. Throw in a bit of Science Fiction and a dash of the Matrix and you’ve got the Metaverse. Let’s break this down a bit: Continue reading

Games emulate Experience

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… which means that games are based on reality. Well, okay, someone’s imagination of reality.

A game (computer games included) is a way to explore experience. What is it like to lead an army? Chess can answer that, to a point. A game is a kind of metaphor. It is a tool to find the ways in which complicated things can be made simple, and simple things made complex.

But people’s imaginations interfere with both their experience and their memory of reality. Continue reading

Fast Travel

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Travel is a common mechanic in nearly every game. Moving pieces in space is a powerful symbol for changing the state of a system. Walking is a familiar experience, and draws us into the game world.

However, computer games commonly enforce a strict method of transit, with the player’s experience lasting as long as the character’s. Say you want to walk to the doughnut shop. You’ve got to walk down the drive way, go a ways through the neighborhood, travel a few blocks through the commercial sector, and finally walk through the parking lot (maybe you should have driven your car!) to the doughnut shop. Maybe it’s fun the first time… Continue reading

(No more) Busywork

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Don’t make the player do busywork. Anything the player can do easily but can’t avoid is busywork. Our subconscious takes care of these tasks in real life. Build a subconscious into your game for crying out loud!

What if there were a “Turning the key” minigame every time you start a car in GTA. Absurd? What about lock picking? Busywork shows up all over the place; Players largely put up with it; They shouldn’t.

Why do we get busywork in the first place?
  • Tutorial: It has to be long and boring!? People are forced to complete worksheets at school, but this usually requires the threat of actual physical pain. Games do not have this luxury. Make your tutorial enjoyable, and let the player quit when they get the idea. Continue reading

An Ode to The Glorious

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Some credits up front, most of the ideas that Fledgeling was drawn from are not my own. Many have been drawn from other computer games, or things other people have said. Mostly, however, the ideas have come from God’s creation (which is to say, from experience of the world) or from God’s word (which is to say, the Bible). In recognition, here’s a short psalm.

in his name, from the seat of his personality
for what you have known, the things proceeding from your understanding
right things, the firm knowledge
give glory to the origin, ascribe to Him the just Honor!
when doubt assails you, when your hope grows dim
then make your foundations firm, search out the sound basis
with Him is the right way, in Him can be found the sure path
though you may have good ideas, your reasoning understandable and convincing
all good things come from His hand, the free gifts flow without bounds
take from the Glorious One, receive the good things without shame
rejoice in firmness and health, and make good use of your powers
without Him we are nothing, lacking the Source all streams dry up
continue in His mercies, make sport in the good paths

It doesn’t do Him justice, but I hope it does Him proud. Thanks to all of you who have helped through the years. I really appreciate it.

What does this have to do with Fledgeling? Well, the philosophy of the designer works its way into everything that a game is. It affects what is put in and (more subtle) what is left out. I believe that God made the world good, and understandable. It’s going to come out in anything I do, and especially an everything-sim like Fledgeling. If you want to make a nihilistic ode to destruction, go visit some other series. I serve a different spirit, one that has blessed creation.

Storytelling and Agency

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This article was originally written as a guest article for Jay Barnson’s blog. This version is slightly edited, but supports the same core concept.

Traditional storytelling has no place in games.

Tall order? Okay, here goes. Why are a lot of “story games” these days just Simon Says with cut-scenes? Why is a good DM more engaging than fully animated AAA graphics? Why do we keep getting so many stupid stories in otherwise well executed games? The answer lies in the nature of storytelling and games. Continue reading