Gamebook store

Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack of all trades vs the one-trick pony

Cast your mind back to the start of the year, and a discussion we had about how digital interactive fiction is breaking out of the gamebook ghetto by using maps, comics, animations and audio instead of prose. Or as well as prose, anyway. Among many good points he made in the comments, Emanuil Tomov said this:
"There's a useful tension, even a moral one, in reconciling minmaxing with possible unsalutary effects this could have on the narrative. Imagine a system where you can either spend or hoard XP, spending being linked to short-term benefits, hoarding being linked to 'advancement' through a richer background for the character, learning skills through interesting narrative that deepens your understanding of the character, forming certain bonds with powerful allies, etc. XP literally represents your experience in the world. Now imagine a PC who spends all their XP short-term and they're really, really, really good in a pinch; but they're completely flat, a competent, one-trick bit player in a story where they could've been much more. It's an interesting trade-off both on the minmaxing and the narrative front.
This point about the value of versatility reminded me of a section in Game Architecture and Design, which I co-wrote with Andrew Rollings to get the horrors of working in the trenches at Eidos out of my system.

The book is twelve years old now, and games have sure moved on, so don't feel you have to run out and buy it. By the time I was working at Elixir Studios, only a few years on from the Eidos of the late '90s, software development for games had been completely revolutionized, and that made my job as designer a pure pleasure. But I digress; we were talking about versatility...

Versatility in gameplay
A useful rule-of-thumb for anticipating gameplay is to ask what is the best and worst thing about each of the player’s options. For instance:
  • This maneuver does the most damage, but it's the slowest
  • This maneuver is the fastest, but it leaves me defenseless
  • This maneuver gives the best defense, but it does little damage
And then there's a unique kind of choice:
  • This maneuver is never the best or the worst, but it's the most versatile
So a useful question to ask yourself when designing a weapon or strategy for your game is "When, if ever, is this the best option for the player?" Most choices that you put into the game should be the best in some way. And one of these can be the choice that works only moderately well, but in many different ways: the jack of all trades option.

The more unpredictable the game environment, the bigger the payoff for having versatility of choice. Beginners in particular will benefit from versatile options in a game, as it means there's something they can do while working their way up the learning curve. But versatile options are handy for expert players too. When fighting an expert opponent, you must expect the unexpected, and choosing the versatile maneuver or unit may buy time to put together a more considered response.

One obvious kind of versatility is speed. The fast moving character or unit can quickly go where it's needed. So, normally, you won't want the fastest units to also be the best in other ways.

Also, the value of a fast-moving unit depends on the game environment. On the battlefields of the 14th century, a knight was deemed to be worth 100 foot soldiers. That wasn't because knights were each individually as tough as 100 men, but rather because, in a terrain of hedgerows, ditches, ploughed fields and heathland, the knight had more chance of being at the right place at the right time.

There are many other ways to make an option versatile. If a beam weapon can be used to mine asteroids as well as to destroy incoming nuclear missiles, then that versatility can make up for a disadvantage elsewhere. Of course, if there is no compensating disadvantage, there's no interesting choice. Be careful not to make the versatile choice dominant over all others. Also, be aware that the versatility of a choice may not be obvious even to you as designer. In the last chapter, we saw how the designer of the fantasy game Arena hadn't originally anticipated the way players might use the fireball spells.

You can measure versatility by looking at the switching costs in the game. This is how much it costs a player to change his mind about the strategy he's using. An example in an espionage game might be if you recruit a spy and later realize you need an assassin instead. The switching cost is however much you wasted on the wrong character, assuming for the sake of argument that the spy is not usable elsewhere. So, say that both cost $1 million. When deciding which to buy, at first you'd think, "If I buy the spy and I need the assassin, I'll end up paying $2 million. If I choose right, it costs me just the $1 million. On the other hand, suppose I buy both now. I only need one, so I'll have definitely wasted $1 million."

Now suppose there is another character, the ninja, who can function as either spy or assassin. How much should the ninja cost? It depends how unpredictable the game is. In this example, if the game were completely predictable, the player would know in advance which character to recruit and so versatility is of no value - the ninja should cost $1 million just like the others. In a completely unpredictable environment, the average cost would be $1.5 million ($1 million if I choose right, $2 million if I choose wrong), which is what a good gambler would pay you for the ninja. Since the truth will lie between those extremes, the versatile unit should cost more than $1 million but less than $1.5 million.

Versatility is more prized in an uncertain environment. No multiplayer game is completely predictable, since you can never know what the other player(s) will do. Even in a relatively predictable game, some levels are more uncertain than others. All of which makes the choice between specialization or versatility an interesting one because it all depends on the circumstances.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Making a list, checking it twice

Sorry, I'm going to mention the C-word. Or should that be the Ch-word? Anyway, the excuse is that it's just a month away and so you might want to start ordering some presents. If so I have a few recommendations, which in the absence of any objective criteria I am basing on cronyism. So here are the books my friends and associates have ready to fill that esurient stocking.

To begin with, Oliver Johnson's classic Lightbringer Trilogy, recently re-released by Gollancz as ebooks. For the virtual stocking, then:

Seriously, how many fantasy epics do you know of that adhere to Aristotle's unity of time? Next up, how about James Wallis's justly award-winning parlour game meets RPG, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen?

It's hard to describe, but here's the official version:
"Can you keep up with Baron Munchausen's extraordinary adventures as he travels to the Moon and the Sun, rides cannon-balls, defeats armies single-handed, meets the gods, and escapes from bandits on half a horse? The stories of the legendary nobleman come to life as players battle to outdo each other's fantastic feats and amazing accomplishments. It's a role-playing story-telling game of outrageous originality and swashbuckling exaggeration, stretching the bounds of truth until they twang. How is this possible? If Baron Munchausen is involved, anything is possible. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen contains full rules, more than two hundred adventures ready to be played, mechanics that replace dice and pencils with money and fine wine, and many insults against the inhabitants of various nations, but principally the French. This expanded edition is a facsimile of a suppressed volume originally published in 1808. It contains additional rules for playing in an Arabian style and a complete supplementary game, 'My Uncle the Baron', designed for children, the inbred, and those who are very drunk."
Moving on, those of a more serious disposition may prefer the writings of Tim Harford. All of his books are elegant, entertaining and eludicatory, but for my money none is better than The Undercover Economist. It's that rare animal, the informative work that actually makes you feel smarter, not dumber:

Hang on now, Christmas is for children, right? What gift would I suggest for them? Well, if they're older kids then there's no reason why they wouldn't eagerly devour The Undercover Economist or play the alcohol-free variants of Baron Munchausen. But for the younger ones, 6-8 years or so, what about a subscription to The Phoenix comic, which includes the Dirk Lloyd strip by our very own Jamie Thomson?

I also highly recommend the Dark Lord audiobooks, read with spellbinding brilliance (and barely audible flatulence) by Jamie himself - but I can't find the links to those - so if anyone knows where they can be got, please leave that info in the comments below!

As another gift for the little 'uns, take a gander at Martin McKenna's very original picture book The Octopuppy:

"Edgar wanted a dog. Instead, he got an octopus named Jarvis. Jarvis is brilliant and does his best to act like the dog Edgar wants, but nothing he does is good enough to please Edgar. Ultimately, Edgar recognizes that while Jarvis might not be the dog he wanted, he is special in his own endearing way."
Talking of Martin, middle-graders, teens and adults alike should enjoy the Mirabilis graphic novels that I created with him (on covers) and Leo Hartas (on interior art). You know the premise by now:
"A mysterious green comet grows bigger in the sky. In the comet’s glow, miracles multiply like orchids under a tropical sun. Myth, magic and marvels are in the very air. Everything you can possibly imagine is now part of everyday life."
And the first book, Winter, is so perfect a fit for the festive season that I know of at least one person who read it on the night train out of Moscow on Christmas Eve! So maybe you'll forgive this lapse into self-promotion:

Since Mirabilis is a creative group effort, Leo deserves to have a place on this list all his own - so let me steer you towards his website, where you can contact him to buy original artwork that will make you the envy of fantasy geeks everywhere. As well as his maps for Fighting Fantasy, Leo has lately been colouring his illustrations for my first ever gamebook, Crypt of the Vampire - and doing a bang-up job of it, too, as you can see from the image at the head of this post.

Christmas is also a time for telling scary stories. Not all of John Whitbourn's unforgettable Binscombe Tales are about ghosts, or even strictly fit into the category of horror, but all are weird and wonderful, and manage to be both icily disturbing and warmly funny:

Having started on the precipitous slope of cronyism, I may as well fling myself right over into the chasm of nepotism by mentioning my wife, Roz Morris's, latest novel Lifeform Three. This is literary SF in the tradition of Bradbury and Ballard, perhaps with a dash of Pixar and Pinocchio. In a future where mankind have lost their souls to commercialism, an artificial "bod", built only to serve, starts to question his place in the universe as a result of forging a relationship with a quite unlikely pet.

Anything else? Oh yes -- happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Vivian Stanshall and the Telstars

‘We need a writer for an animated TV show. It’s from a concept by Viv Stanshall – ’

I was off like a shot. Viv Stanshall? The Bonzos. Do Not Adjust Your Set. Sir Henry Rawlinson and Cumberpatch the gardener – not to mention Old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer. Work on something cooked up in that great rambling, fecund greenhouse of a mind? You bet.

Well, even the best of us fires a blank from time to time. Viv’s “concept” was of a bunch of kid tadpoles living in a canal. The leader’s name was Walthamstow. That was the first red flag. It was where Viv grew up, but dammit, I don’t call any of my characters Stoke Poges, do I? The first gag in the script was a pun on Henry Ford’s comment that “history is bunk”. In a show for 7-10 year olds. A writer, they said they needed? I had to explain I’m not qualified to administer the Last Rites.

Other characters in the original pitch were Taddy Boy, complete with frock coat and Chris Isaak quiff, and a frog called the Wise Old One. Along with the name of Walthamstow’s gang (the Telstars) that rather stamped an expiry date on the whole package. There was also a Scottish tadpole who wore a Tam O’Shanter and always carried tartan bagpipes. Let’s not even, as they say. To help sell all this there was an animatic for which the production company had somehow managed to rope in Stephen Fry and Neil Innes. (Innes isn’t too big a surprise, admittedly, being Viv’s old mucker and therefore bound to do it for Old Times’ Sake, but what Fry was thinking I don’t know.)

The guys at the production company were excited because they had shown the animatic to a BBC exec and he had expressed a flicker of amusement. I wasn’t there, but I’m familiar with those Matrix-like halls and I’m willing to hazard that it was really just a hiccup after a long lunch. Encouraged as they were by this apparent evidence of approval, the production company nonetheless realized that the whole thing needed to be torn down, sown with salt, and rebuilt in pristine materials.

‘That name Walthamstow…’

‘Yeah. No. That’s shit, obviously. You can get rid of that.’

‘So what do we have to keep?’

‘Well, it’s got to be called Tadpoles.’

That’s what you want in a brief – ie, it actually was. I had just finished working at Elixir Studios, so I was familiar with the canals of Camden Town and liked the idea of dropping an edgy feeling of urban clamour and detritus into the canal – a development that I don’t believe Viv would have objected to.

As it often helps to have a writing partner when you want to spin up the levels of energy needed for comedy and/or animation, I roped in a friend of mine. (She is quite well-known these days, though wasn’t back then, and as I haven’t sought her permission to talk about this, I’ll be a gentleman and leave her name out of it.) We knocked out a script (this is one of several versions) after first changing all the characters:
TADPOLES Aquatis Personae

Finzer – aka (only to himself) "The Finz". Desperately wants to be cool, so the fact he's a tadpole AND a kid really gets him down.

Bino – Finzer's cousin. An albino tad; big and tough (for a tadpole).

Izzy – a wannabe tad. Don't call him a newt to his face.

K8 – pronounced "Kate". She’s sweet on Finzer, although she's in heavy duty denial about that.

Sprat – brainier than the rest and boy does he like them to know it. Sprat is a fish and, brainy as he is, he still can't figure out how come he and Finzer are half-brothers...

Dad Pole – dumb as ditchwater, but doesn't realize it.

Massy – Dad Pole’s girlfriend; the mother-figure of Finzer's household.

Mrs Todpuddle – the gang’s teacher. The longest suffering tadpole in the canal.

Spikey – the local bully/menace. He’s a mean-eyed fish and he’d like to eat you, but not before he’s sold you a dodgy timeshare in the Norfolk Broads. Think Arthur Daley at 78 rpm.

The Frogs – three grand old figures who are only glimpsed at the water’s edge, turned half away in profile like brooding Easter Island statues. Everyone thinks the Frogs are enormously wise and the source of all good fortune, but they never speak to tadpoles and might very well not even know they exist.

What came of Tadpoles? I’m not sure. I was busy with Leo Hartas preparing our comic strip Mirabilis: Year of Wonders to appear in The DFC, as well as developing book concepts with Jamie Thomson such as the Dark Lord series. Meanwhile, my Tadpoles writing partner had projects of her own. And the production company that hired us went out of business with the new animatic only half-finished. So, shrug. You get a lot of things like this to work on if you’re a freelance writer, usually for no money up front, and most of them deserve to be deep sixed. It’s not like it was a project very dear to my heart. The only regret is that it would have been nice to do something in memory of Viv Stanshall. Maybe this show, though, would have done him no favours.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The fantasy podcast

If you want to interview Jamie, invite him down the pub. Oliver McNeil, who recently ran a sort of theatrical Knightmare-type Kickstarter involving Tom Baker instead of Tregard, cornered the Thomsonian one in The Snowdrop in Lewes and there grilled him with questions about the Fabled Lands, Dirk Lloyd, and various other projects.

The only bit Jamie was evasive about is when Oliver asks him how he got his first job on White Dwarf. The truth is that Jamie's mum got him that job. Knowing that he wouldn't bother to apply, she rang up Ian Livingstone and told him all about her immensely talented, smart, personable, diligent son. Unfortunately his elder brother Peter couldn't make it to the interview, so Jamie got the job instead.

If you don't have the time to watch it, download the mp3 podcast here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The road more traveled by

Following on from the previous post, I don't want to give the impression that all of my collaborations with Jamie consist of me writing something and then him taking over and cutting out half of it. They do say murder your darlings and, as Hitchcock and Highsmith pointed out (above), it helps to get a friend to do it for you.

Here's a case where it went a little differently. We were talking to the Fabled Lands agent, Piers Blofeld, about digital gamebooks. I mentioned time travel and how for it to really grip as a story it has to be personal. We talked about the old Falcon gamebooks that Jamie wrote with Mark Smith in the 1980s, and how those were very much in the 2000AD adventure style, but how maybe they could be rebooted with a little more relatability for a wider audience.

So I wrote this as a possible new way in to the story of a protagonist who gets to "fix" mistakes in time:
You always had a sixth sense. And people laughed at you for trusting it. But you knew better. The time your friends at high school piled into Billy’s older brother’s car to drive out for a picnic, and Billy had only had one beer but you felt something like a physical dread. Couldn’t get in the car. You watched them drive off and six hours later you watched the crane haul the car out of the west river.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” the cop asked.

“I had to study.”

Because you’d already learned not to talk about your glimpses of the future, even then. When people thought you could see what was coming up, they blamed you if it went bad. Best to say nothing. Keep the sixth sense – or whatever it was – to yourself.

But you learned to trust that sense. Right up till the last day of your life.
Okay, so then there's an elision to a scene in which you are in a plane crash...
A bang. It just sounded like a tyre blowout until the gravity switched off.

You wake up in the wreckage. Not too badly hurt, as far as you can tell, but you’re completely trapped in a cage of twisted seats and crushed fuselage. A liquid drips on you, causing an icy stab of panic until you realize it’s not aviation fuel but some kind of air con coolant. Even so, you can dully hear screams through the wreckage, and the smell of burning.

An overhead locker pops open and a bald man in a neat dark suit and grey trilby hat drops into the crumpled seat beside you. “You’re thinking you should’ve trusted your instincts,” he says.

“What? Who are you?” You strain to look past him into the locker. Is there a way out?

“I’m just guessing,” he goes on. “I can’t read minds or anything. Though I know what you’ll do now.”

You strain as far as the vice-like grip of your crushed seat rest will allow. The locker is empty, no escape route through to the outside. “Where did you come from? What happened? Was it a bomb on the plane?”

“A bomb?” He’s amused. “Like a terrorist incident? That’s ego talking, my friend. No, no terrorists. The universe has plenty of ways to kill you all on its own.”

He drones on and you listen with half your mind. He's telling you that many pasts and futures exist. Likens it to driving along a motorway. Spacetime can drift like a driver who’s nodding off, and that’s okay as long as the driver gets jolted awake when the tyres hit the hard shoulder. But if not he can go right off the road. And then there’s no getting back.

“Romulus can kill Remus, or vice versa, and you’re still on the blacktop. But if the wolf eats them both – that’s what we call a train wreck for time.”

“I thought we were talking about cars?”

“Ha! You see, right there, that’s what I’m looking for. You keep your wits about you. And then there are your premonitions, of course, where you see a few tracks over, what might happen or what could have been… That’s why we want you to join us.”

“Join you? Who the hell are you?” You struggle in the seat, but a wave of pain tells you there are at least a few broken bones. To think, you’re going to bleed to death or burn in the wreckage and your last conversation is with a madman.

He takes out an old-style fob watch with too many dials. “I’ll need your answer within 32 seconds. The fire hits the tanks then. To answer your question: we are the Curators. We locate the precious key moments of time, and if there’s an instability – a crack, if you like – we fix it.”

“And you want me to do that? But I have a marketing meeting in Seattle in four hours.”

“No you don’t. You don’t have a future. You don’t have a life. And you most certainly don’t have four hours. You have – “ he consults the watch “ – fifteen seconds. Yes or no? In or out? Life or death?”

Either way, this is the last day of your old life. But you could have a new life. If you agree to his offer, turn to 1. Just don’t take fifteen seconds to think about it.
We didn't use it. Why? Because we realized that the folks buying those old gamebooks aren't looking for a reboot. They want the untouched text. The classic edition, if you like. That's why we eventually released Blood Sword without completely overhauling the baroque tactical combat rules that I loathed. And similarly, Falcon came back to life exactly as if the intervening 30 years had never happened. And that's real time travel, I guess.

POSTSCRIPT: The time repair agency concept is one that's often explored in classic SF. To take one example: Philip K Dick's characteristically paranoid  "Adjustment Team", which inspired the movie The Adjustment Bureau. A rather more successful film adaptation was Predestination, based on Robert A Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies".