Gamebook store

Wednesday 31 July 2013

In the Land of Hello Kitty

Land of Ninja? What Avalon Hill meant by that was Japan, for this was one of the then-controversial "RuneQuest Earth" historical sourcepacks of the mid-1980s that did away with the talking ducks and intelligent vegetable elves of Glorantha in an attempt to get gamers to see RQ as a - what could we call it? I know: as a generic universal roleplaying system.

Surprisingly, sourcebooks for 1930s America (Land of the Bowery Boys), 1970s England (Land of Morris Dancers) and the 19th century Raj (Land of the Thuggees) did not follow. But ninja were like hot cakes to the mid-eighties roleplaying market. Ironically, you saw them everywhere.

In the scramble to create the modern mythology of medieval Japan, game publishers weren't too bothered about the details. They just wanted to print the legend. When Jamie and I submitted Tetsubo to a roleplaying company (who shall remain nameless) we were told, "We don't want a simulation of medieval Japan right down to [sic] the level of the Japanese people themselves." In short, can we have Caucasian samurai, midriff-baring geisha, and clans of professional assassins? This thing has to sell to 15-year-old kids in Peoria, you know.

My litmus test was how a game referred to seppuku, a self-sacrificial act carried out to expunge shame or to admonish a lord. As it's not a crime, you do not "commit" seppuku, you "perform" it. A lazy designer, not taking the trouble to think their way inside the culture, invariably used the former. Will the court please refer to Exhibit B, the back cover of the Land of Sushi sourcebook, below? And I rest my case.

Now the confession: this post isn't really because I have any interest in old RQ sourcebooks. I just noticed Land of Ninja in a box in my wife's study last night (she's selling it on eBay) and it reminded me of a big announcement that's coming up on the Fabled Lands blog tomorrow. Nothing to do with Japan, RuneQuest or seppuku, but everything to do with the sneaky fellows in split-toed sandals. Easy, tiger.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Tin Man has a brand new shine

Lately this blog has been focussing more on print than digital. That's not because I've lost faith in ebooks, just that Fabled Lands LLP is in the process of bringing all our gamebook back catalogue back into print, so page sizes and printing costs have been occupying our attention.

And mostly I think that if an interactive story is going to work in digital form, it needs to be written for that medium. In my digital version of Frankenstein (available for Android now as well as iOS), the interactivity is designed in the form of a conversation with the narrator. The relationship would not be nearly so convincing in a print version, where you'd get to see his Trust and Empathy variables.

So it's interesting to see some revolutionary new changes being hinted at for Tin Man Games's forthcoming Fighting Fantasy titles. Rather than just convert the old text to digital form, Tin Man are giving the books a thorough overhaul (with the authors' blessing) to make them suitable for digital format. Among other things, this means getting rid of nostalgia features like the dice (hooray!) and making the books a lot more visual.

There's some speculation that this revamping is in response to Inkle's recent app-daptation of Steve Jackson's Sorcery, but I suspect the seeds of what Tin Man is doing now were planted earlier, in their visually rich Judge Dredd gamebook app.

My own gripe about dice is not in the clattery cubes themselves - bonkers as those are on the screen of a digital device. It's that when I'm reading an interactive story on iPad, I don't want to be bothered with the mental arithmetic of adding dice scores to combat skills and subtracting defence levels and then dividing by... Sure, the device can do all that for you, but it was never a great part of gamebooks, it was just a necessary evil. At any rate, it fitted with the pace of reading a print book, but feels like steam radio in the era of e-readers.

Putting more graphics into the apps also makes sense. After all, how many text adventure games are released these days? Unless framed within the structure of a novel, interactivity is always going to be more convincing in the context of immediacy that images and audio provide.

I'm also hoping Tin Man will do away with all the "turn to 273" legacy stuff. I should just tap on the option and be taken to the next section. Well, we'll see. It's a bold move, as I see they've already got a comment on the blog saying, "You changed something! How dare you!" (I'm still bracing myself for the snit-storm that'll come when diehards see that the new edition of The Lord of Shadow Keep now has artwork by Harry Clarke.)

The first of the new-style Gamebook Adventures is Appointment with F.E.A.R. and it's due to be released in October.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Necklace of Skulls

This is one of my very favourite Russ Nicholson illustrations for one of my favourite gamebooks. It's a Maya nobleman who tries to commandeer your boat to evacuate his family after the fall of Teotihuacan in Necklace of Skulls.
Two days' sailing brings you to Tahil, a busy trading settlement on the far coast. The others squint warily as they bring the vessel in to the harbour. You can see at once there is trouble here. Instead of the stacks of trade goods that would normally be piled up along the quayside at a port like this, there are milling crowds of refugees carrying everything they own on their backs. As you tie up at the quay, a man whose elegant clothing marks him as a lord of the Great City comes striding towards you.
We're currently formatting this book, along with three other titles from the Virtual Reality series, for re-release in the autumn. These were originally supposed to come out as part of the Infinite IF gamebooks we planned with Osprey, but that turned into a digital-only venture and I think readers prize these books enough to want to own physical copies.

Fabled Lands LLP's agent is talking to other traditional publishers, because it would be great to get proper bookstore distribution - for as long as high street bookstores survive, anyway. If those talks go nowhere, Fabled Lands LLP will publish the books, the only difference being that you'll have to order them from Amazon.

The four books have all-new covers by Jon Hodgson and if Fabled Lands LLP publish them I'm going to spend some of my spare time cleaning up some crisp 600dpi scans of Russ's original drawings. After twenty years, the VR books are a bit yellow and blotchy (just like Jamie) so getting a good scan involves razor-blading them apart, followed by far too much time in Photoshop - and me an author, not a graphic designer, after all.

If you just can't wait, Russ has put up all the Necklace of Skulls images on his blog. And thanks to the magic warehouse robots of Amazon, you can still buy the original mid-90s edition.(That's UK; US readers go here.)

Monday 22 July 2013

Dirk's new jam

Today we have a guest post by Jamie - a rare treat indeed, as normally he won't even write shopping lists. It's inspired by my wife Roz's weekly column The Undercover Soundtrack, in which authors describe the music that helps them to create. So without further ado:

*  *  *

Dirk Lloyd says:

"My corpulent minion, that blubbing wormling, Jamie Thomson told me about your blog, in which you ask great authors and writers to tell you about the songs they listen to while writing. My slave writer, Jamie, claims he cannot abide music while he is writing as it distracts him from the work in hand - i.e. writing up my biography according to my dictates.

"I must say, I have to agree with this. He is a weak-minded old sot, easily distracted by the most simple of things, like cup cakes or the buzz of a bumble bee or the smell of burgers frying in the morning. I have enough trouble keeping him focussed on the task at hand, let alone introducing music into the mix - my cattle prod would run out of batteries in no time!

"Nevertheless, perhaps the readers of your Undercover Soundtrack blog-thing would be interested in the Dark Lord's favourite songs? If not, I shall create my own Underworld Soundtrack and force that other minion of mine, Dave Morris, to put it on his Fabled Lands blog. These are the tunes I listen to whilst my biography is being written. It is indeed a pleasure to listen to these fine works whilst watching my slave chained to a desk, scribbling away! Every now and again, the music is enhanced by the cry of the Thomson as I jab him awake. Ahhh, simple pleasures eh?

"Thankfully, you puny humans are quite good at making music. Here are my top twelve favourite tunes..."

Dirk Lloyd’s Playlist 

1: The Imperial March (Darth Vader theme tune from Star Wars) - John Williams 

I went through a phase where I hid some speakers in a full on Dark Lord's outfit and swept into rooms with this blaring out at full volume! But then I realized that I was pandering to the fame and greatness of a different kind of Dark Lord. I knew I had to find a signature tune of my own, so for now I use this:

2: Dracula – Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet

Spooky but also short, which sometimes is a good thing. Shame the vampire had to die like that - I could have made good use of the Count, may Van Helsing suffer the Curse of the Withered Plums! But it's good as my entrance music. Gets peoples attention. Until I can get one especially written for me.

3: Waltz in Black - the Stranglers

It really sounds like Agrash Snotripper, one of my Goblin Captains, sniggering in the background. Could the Stranglers have somehow travelled to the Darklands and recorded some of my goblin servitors all those years ago? I will have to investigate further.

4: Yoshime – the Flaming Lips 

The only problem is that the ‘those evil robots’ don’t win in the end. Wish they would. Get rid of those blasted humans once and for all.

5: Iron Man – Black Sabbath

Heh, heh, I know how he feels. He can come and work for me, anytime!

6: Bela Lugosi’s Dead - Bauhaus

I think they are confusing an actor with a real vampire, but still. If only they knew.

7: Cantara - Dead can Dance

My kind of chanting weirdness, like a witch dancing around a fire and casting some a hex or a curse! Oh yeah! Well, maybe. Maybe she’s just singing, but still, I like to imagine, you know, that’s she’s an evil witch and that.

8: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Ennio Morricone

Christopher’s the Good, I’m the Bad, and Sooz is the… no wait, what am I saying?

9: Our Darkness - Richard Hawley

Nice guitar but also lots of good stuff about darkness.

10: Heaven must be missing an angel - Tavares

This is a real ‘oldie’ apparently from some kind of almost mythical age on earth you humans call ‘The 70s’. I don’t even like it, it’s all happy and lovey dovey, but I thought it would be cool if I could get someone to do a cover version but with new lyrics so it was about me. You know, like ‘Hell must be missing a Devil, Missin' one devil child, 'cause you're here with me right now.’ That type of thing.

11: I can’t die, if dying is without you - AngelBile

Classic Death Goth tune.

12: I like my coffee black and bitter, like my heart - AngelBile

Sooz's favourite. Though apparently AngelBile aren't real!!! How can that be? Next thing you know people will be telling me I'm not real!

*  *  *

Jamie Thomson has been a writer of books and computer games for many years. He is now the minion and slave of the Dark Lord, Dirk Lloyd. He lives in the dungeons below his Master's Iron Tower, chained to a desk, where he spends every day writing for his overlord. Or else. 

As for the Dark Lord, Dirk Lloyd, it is best to let him explain who he is in his own words: 
I am a Dark Lord. Well, I say a Dark Lord. Really I mean THE Dark Lord. I ruled from my Iron Tower of Despair in the Darklands for many ages but then my arch enemy, the White Wizard Hasdruban got lucky, and defeated me in a great battle. He cast me out of my world and I fell to earth, landing in one of your disgusting little supermarket car parks. Worse, that monster Hasdruban (may he suffer the Curse of the Withered Plums!) regressed me into the body of a weak, pitiful, pasty-faced 13-year-old human boy. Oh, the horror! And - indignity piled upon indignity - the witless loons of earth refused to believe my story, and put me in a foster home - with a wretched, human family of sickening do-gooders, no less! And then... and then... did they chain me in the deep caverns below the world? Did they cage me with Holy Bonds or wrap me up in Adamantine Chains and such like? No, no, much worse than that! They forced me to go to school! SCHOOL!!! NOOOOOooooo!
Their first book, Dark Lord: The Teenage Years, won the Roald Dahl humour prize 2012.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

A traveller from an antique land

Fabled Lands LLP is undertaking to bring back into print all the gamebooks in the ‘80s and ‘90s written by me, Oliver Johnson, Jamie and Mark Smith. There’s about three dozen of them in all, and none of us have Jovian parentage, so it won’t be accomplished overnight. But in the course of the next six months you should at least see my four Virtual Reality books and another old-time gamebook series that we can't talk about yet, but that will also include a new prequel and maybe a new sequel that I have been specifically asked to note is not licensed to Fabled Lands LLP, so in other words we'll publish the old paperbacks of those but not the new books, if there are any. Hope that's completely clear.

This week, as an amuse-bouche to that feast of gamebook awesomeness, we’re releasing Oliver Johnson’s Curse of the Pharaoh. This has been out-of-print for over two decades. It was originally published in the Golden Dragon series, which also included Eye of the Dragon (which, judging by Mrs Giggles's uncompromising review there, I had better do some revision work on!) and The Lord of Shadow Keep. Egyptology is one of Oliver’s hobbies, so you can expect something a little bit more authentic than the usual mummy’s curse adventure.

Curse of the Pharaoh is on sale on Amazon now. And, if you played and enjoyed it back in the day, please go on over and give it a review. The only way we can keep doing these books is if the wider world starts to take notice of them, and there’s no better way to achieve that than by word of mouth.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Lost souls found

The Castle of Lost Souls is one of my least favourite of my own gamebooks. I guess that's what's called a soft sell, seeing as what I really wanted to tell you is that it's back in print again for the first time in over twenty years. Still, you don't have to take any notice of what I think. There are plenty of people who do like it, and the author is dead, after all. Well, not really dead in this case, thank goodness, but irrelevant.

I don't think very fondly of Lost Souls for probably just the same reason that its devotees would give for enjoying it. The style is quite tongue in cheek, almost to the point of being a send-up, and that's not the kind of fantasy gaming I go in for. No Scottish dwarves and Monty Python clerics in my role-playing sessions, no sirree.

It began life as a serial in White Dwarf magazine, and you can read that version by starting here and following the tags. The subsequent Golden Dragon Gamebook edition was softer-edged, the hero less cynical, less opportunistic and not so arbitrarily cruel to children. You can read that version as a free PDF here. And that's the version that Fabled Lands Publishing have released in paperback this week. The blurb should give you a sense of whether it's your thing:
Beyond the hills and haunted swamps towards the sunset lies the grim castle of the arch-fiend Slank. For centuries this demon has plundered the souls of mortal men, gathering them to his terrible abode to dwell in eternal torment. Now the secret magic that can destroy Slank is known at last. You agree to undertake this perilous adventure. But can you rid the world of the demon’s dark shadow, or are you merely destined to become his latest victim?
Blimey. Well, that was the tone of gamebooks in the early eighties. The flavour of the adventure is quite folklorish. If it were a Fabled Lands adventure it would be set in Golnir, probably somewhere west of Delpton. Spriggans in thorn hedges, meadows full of fairy rings, that kind of vibe.

You know, put like that, it's starting to grow on me. Not one of my best, perhaps, but maybe it deserves another look.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Mean genes - part 2

  • A sport featuring virtual stars
  • A TV show where content is created by the audience
  • A league that anyone can enter
  • Sit back and watch, or sit forward and join in - it’s your choice
Players breed a stable of nonhuman gladiators called “myrmidons”. Each myrmidon is a named character with unique attributes based on his underlying “genetics”. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the player to teach him how to fight.

Training prepares your myrmidons for battle. Myrmidons learn to employ the maneuvers and tactics that you teach them. When you set them against another player’s team, the myrmidons’ AI takes over and the battle is fought without intervention by the trainers.

Each week, the top contests in the league are rendered in high-quality graphics and broadcast on television, complete with human commentators just like any other televised sport.

Individual gladiators will become internet/TV stars and can be hired to other players temporarily or sold outright via the official Conquerors League server. You can play the Conquerors videogame on local networks with friends, or enter the official league online and pit your team against the best in the world. The broadcast content is created as a shared participatory process, and you can enjoy the TV show as a spectator whether or not you choose to enter gladiators in the league.

The great potential of an interactive entertainment product like Conquerors is that it takes in the whole spectrum of involvement, from “lean forward” videogamers to “lean back” television viewers.

Conquerors is a virtual sport that viewers can watch on TV and can actively participate in via the internet. It is a virtual sport that gives everyone in the audience a shot at being owner and manager of a world champion team.

The Conquerors software package will be bought at retail or downloaded for a fee. The Conquerors software allows players to breed, mutate and train teams of non-human gladiators called “myrmidons”. Training teaches the myrmidons to survive in different environments and to use their natural weaponry (claws, horns, etc) in battles to the death. You can pit your gladiators against AI-run opponents or against other players’ teams over a local network or internet connection.

Players can also submit their trained teams to the Conquerors server where they will be placed in competition against other teams from all over the world. On the Conquerors site, players can post challenges, discuss training strategies, buy or exchange useful genes, auction their champion gladiators, etc.

Each week, the premier division battles will be rendered in high-quality graphics and broadcast on conventional television. Ideally, viewers with an Xbox or Playstation2 will be able to move seamlessly between the TV show and their training stable.

Hence, Conquerors is a theatresports show like WWF except that the athletes are tamagochi-like virtual creatures. And at the same time it’s an open participatory show like Robot Wars, except that anyone in the world can download the core product and enter their own personal team for competition.

In summary, Conquerors viewers/players will be able to do any or all of:
  • Watch the regular non-interactive show on TV (high-quality rendered 3D graphics)
  • Create their own Conquerors team on PC or console
  • Train their team offline or online
  • Play offline on PC or game consoles
  • Submit their team for official league battles online
  • Trade gladiators and training tips online
  • Place wagers on matches
  • View any match on demand on the internet
The game
In essence, Conquerors is a TV show based on an internet videogame in the same way that Popstars was a TV show based on a manufactured band. That is, a product is created (in this case a videogame) that generates a fanbase and feeds back into the show itself.

At the same time, Conquerors is a tactical videogame with an online dimension in which players can put forward their own four-man gladiatorial teams to do battle in various terrain "arenas". Individual gladiators (called Myrmidons) have their own strengths, and their own ways of applying those strengths in combat as part of a team.

Players post challenges on online. Being registered on the server's league table costs a subscription fee, and there might be an additional fee per bout. It's also possible to play local network bouts for free, of course, the downside being that the results of such bouts don't become part of the official league. Subscribers to the Conquerors League can download any bout and watch how it went on a pay-to-view basis, using their local software to reconstruct the bout from the match data. The top bouts will be rendered with a higher quality graphics engine for broadcast on TV.

The gameplay itself has two main features:

(1) Instead of directly setting their team's initial stats, players mutate the Myrmidons using a set of genetic algorithms. Every mutation yields a new generation of Myrmidons each with a unique set of attributes. You continue the mutation process until the Myrmidon has the attributes you're looking for.

(2) You don't directly control your Myrmidons during an on-line battle. Instead, you carry out training bouts beforehand that involve you body-hopping between your Myrmidons as you tell them what to do. As you do this, each Myrmidon is learning the tactics you want him to use. A stealthy scout-character might learn to always shoot and run away when a tough warrior is coming for him, for instance. This learned behavior is what the Myrmidons will use when fighting a real contest on the server.

Creating A Myrmidon
In CRPGs you often start off by allocating characteristic points (either by choice or randomly). Conquerors is a bit like that except that the characteristics are derived from an underlying character gene-string which is mutated to give a wide range of Myrmidons - some with wings, claws, scales, gills, horns, even wheels.

Genetics specify the Myrmidon's potential, but it's in "growing" the Myrmidon that his potential is realized. The growth process builds bone, muscle and hide - all at a cost in points called Chrome. Spending more Chrome makes the Myrmidon bigger, generally increasing his speed, strength, hit points, armour, etc. But you only have so much Chrome to spend in breeding your whole team, so making one of them gigantic will mean another might have to be small and sneaky.

Myrmidon abilities are also limited by the underlying physics of the game environment. There are always trade-offs. If you want a fast Myrmidon then you can't have him heavily armored, if you want him to fly then he can't be too big, and so on.

The procedure for generating your stable of Myrmidons is described below:

1 The parent
A random "parent" is generated and shown on screen. This individual might have long or short legs, wings or fins, claws or fingers, horns or huge ears - all based on a string of numbers that are read as genes.

2 Mutation
A new generation of Myrmidons is created by mutating the parent chromosome (asexual reproduction). Two types of mutation can occur. Firstly, numerical values of genes may change by a small amount in either direction. That’s the most common form of mutation. Secondly, the Gene Reader (which decides the locations on the chromosome that relate to each body part) may slip for one of the body parts - so that the creature's left arm is no longer read from the same sequence as its right arm, for instance. The probability of this second type of "embryological" mutation is small, and is likely to be pre-set to certain sequences that will correspond to different “species” types.

3 Selection
A number of mutants from the original parent are displayed on screen. The number doesn't matter, except that it needs to be sufficient to give you reasonable choice over the direction the mutation is tending. Say half a dozen. You now select one of these to be the parent for the next generation.

4 A Myrmidon is born
Continue with successive generations until you have an individual that you want to add to your stable. Before proceeding, save this individual's genetic code - you might later want to clone him.

Now, what you've got displayed on screen is the nascent Myrmidon's basic morphology - his shape, but not his size. The body template still has to be scaled up to yield the adult Myrmidon. Just as in real life, building bone and muscle costs energy. This energy is provided in the form of Chrome, which you feed to the Myrmidon. Bone has a given cost in Chrome per unit, muscle another cost, and so the amount of Chrome you allocate to the Myrmidon will determine how big he grows.

Myrmidons can also have special abilities including webs, poison attacks, chameleon skin, sonar, and so on. All of these also have a Chrome cost.

In filling your stable, you could produce just the basic four Myrmidons needed to make a team. Or you might prefer to have more to choose from, so as to be able to hand pick each team for the terrain they'll be fighting in. But you only have a limited stock of Chrome to feed all your Myrmidons, so greater versatility has its cost in that each Myrmidon can't be as individually tough.

We want to encourage versatility rather than terrain specialization, as this makes it easier for any two players to field teams against each other. Therefore you do get more Chrome if you're generating more than four Myrmidons - but not in direct proportion. So if you get 100 Chrome Points to generate four Myrmidons, you might get 120 to generate five, 135 to generate six, and so on.

Although Chrome establishes an upper limit to how tough your team can be to start with, two teams can never have exactly equal toughness. How would you define absolute toughness anyway? Differing abilities can't be so easily compared. To take an extreme example, suppose you breed a group of armored Myrmidons - so massively armored that they only move around at a crawl. Confronted by a team that had even a single member with armor-piercing potential, your guys would be doomed. The Chrome you're given to spend at the start thus sets an upper limit on any team's initial toughness, but many other factors (specifically, the game physics and the tactics you use) will play their part in the final outcome.

Formal game theory is all about trade-offs: such-and-such a feature makes a Myrmidon stronger but it also makes him slower. Consider two Myrmidons with the same lower body morphology and size. One is given little spindly arms, the other huge biceps and massive claws. Obviously the second Myrmidon has the greater offensive capability. But since arm strength doesn't affect locomotive power, and that extra bulk only has the same leg strength to move it around, he'll also be the slower of the two.

The virtual physics system is there so that players can get an intuitive grasp on the game mechanics. Flying requires a lot of energy, for example, so the ideal flying Myrmidon will be very fit and probably unarmored. Also, wing lift goes up with L-squared while mass goes up with L-cubed, so the bigger you make the Myrmidon to start with, the less viable he'll be as a flyer. A big hefty guy will have to win a lot of extra Chrome (building up his muscle efficiency) before he can fly for more than short distances.

The game physics specifically relates to dynamics; that is factors such as:

Based on thrust (leg strength, etc) minus resistance of the medium, divided by body mass.

Maximum speed
Depends on stride and leg flexibility (or equivalent for swimming and flying), traction, resistance of the medium, and the power delivered by the Myrmidon's metabolism (ie, heart/lung system).

 Determined by the Myrmidon's strength, mass, and his ability to get a grip on the medium he's moving through - hoofed or clawed feet are better than toes, for instance.

All muscle mass consumes energy even at rest. In use, the muscle consumes extra energy equal to force times the distance it is applied through. As energy stored in the body is used up, fatigue sets in and restricts the muscle's ability to exert maximum force. The Myrmidon's stamina (based on his heart/lung genetics) is a measure of how quickly lost energy is replenished.

A Myrmidon's main goal in life is to collide his armaments with the enemy's vulnerable bits! Visual acuity and manual dexterity decide if he is successful or not.

Damage potential
A question of weapon mass, speed and sharpness matched against the target's armor and body toughness.

Special abilities
Special abilities will be modeled generically in the design. For example, there will be entangling attacks that all have the same gameplay effect of immobilizing the target for a time. Graphically, various entangling attacks could be shown as a web, a net, a viscous spray, a paralyzing volley of sparks, etc, even though they are functionally the same at root class, only with differences in duration, defenses and counters.

The game is set in a true 3D environment which forms the main screen view. There'll also be a small top-down window which you could open to get a view of the whole arena. Different arenas would vary in size, but on average they'd be maybe 9 or 16 times bigger than the scene shown on the main screen. (Smaller arenas favor brute force, larger arenas favor stealth, sniping and ambush tactics.)

Myrmidons could rendered by morphing between the basic body types to reflect the specific mix of attributes for that individual (long arms, horns, webbed feet, or whatever). We would need a set of body-part anims for each leg length, arm length, etc, and these would be assembled at runtime to create a set of procedural animations unique to that Myrmidon. (If it sounds a huge task, remember that we can constrain the phenotype ranges for a force-to-fit solution.)

An alternative system would be to generate each Myrmidon as a 3D model and animate these with a full IK (inverse kinematics) system. This has the advantage of directly incorporating the physics within the game environment (as distinct from precalculating it and applying the effects). The downside is whatever time we'd need to allocate for developing an IK system.

How the game is played
The game has two phases: practice bouts, which allow a player to pit a team of his own against one run by the computer, and contests, where you put forward a team to fight against another player's myrmidons.

Practice bouts
Practice bouts are single-player combats played out in realtime in randomly generated arenas. You control a team of four Myrmidons drawn from your stable, pitted against a computer-run team. The prevailing terrain might be jungle, desert, forest, swamp or hills and, obviously, this affects how well your Myrmidons can use their abilities.

Practice bouts are single-player games in their own right, but the main point of them is to train your Myrmidons in tactical use of their abilities. In a practice bout, you will body-hop between the Myrmidons.

The interface presents you with a range of options specific to that Myrmidon and his weaponry. You might have bred a charioteer with javelin attacks, a lance and a smokescreen ability, say. Maybe you tend to use him to ride in close discharging javelins and then wheel off, using his smokescreen to avoid close combat. Only when in rocky or marshy terrain, when he can't get away quickly, do you favor using the lance. Over time your charioteer's AI will learn these preferences, so that when he goes into the arena for a real bout he can apply the moves you've taught him.

Contests occur between teams put forward by two players. This can be by direct connection, of course, but the official Conquerors leagues will be run by games centers accessed over the internet.

On the day of a bout, you will need to adjust your team’s exercise regimen throughout the day, tamagochi-style. Myrmidons with high stamina will be enhanced if they are told to spend the day working out. Others are better left to rest and gather their strength. The individual myrmidons’ psychological factors will also have a bearing – some are serene, others will have nervous energy that needs burning off, and so on. It’s envisaged that expert players may change their team’s regimen several times in the hours before the bout (probably via cell phone) and this can have a significant effect on the team’s performance.

Any potential latency issues are avoided because you do not have continual direct control of your Myrmidons as you do in practice bouts. Instead, your Myrmidons will reference the attack priorities and tactics you've taught them to come up with a game plan of their own.

There is no compulsion for players to take part in league contests. Players who aren't involved in a bout can still pay to view it, and (just like in real-life sports) it's possible that most revenue will be generated this way. Many players may prefer to practice at home and never participate in real online battles. This is just the same as the guy who kicks a ball around in the park with his pals on Sunday afternoon and then goes home to watch the football on TV. The fact that Conquerors can be played in a variety of ways to suit the individual player or viewer is what will give it true mass market appeal.

A call to arms
Players name their teams and post challenges online, possibly specifying their choice of battleground or other terms. ("The Spine Suckers will take on anybody in the Jungle Arena. 100 Chrome says we’ll send you home in body bags.")

Fighting it out for real requires both teams to be sent to the official server. The players would pay a fee for this (although maybe the first couple of challenges would be free) and anyone who wanted to spectate would also pay to download the bout.

You won't actually get to find out a rival team's Chrome value before fighting them, but you could study their previous bouts to make sure you weren't outclassed - and to see the tactics they used. Also, there would be no shortage of advice from other Conquerors players on the Arena Newsboard.

Chrome won in a bout is distributed among all your team. Unlike the Chrome you spend when generating a Myrmidon, this doesn't make the individuals grow any more. Instead it increases the toughness of bone and hide, the efficiency of muscle, and the efficacy of special abilities, to superhuman limits. (So a Myrmidon who was once too heavy to use those wings you started him with may eventually be able to get airborne, and so on.)

Money transactions
As well as Chrome, contestants could stake money on the outcome of a bout. Money will be used to trade equipment, healing services, training from expert players, etc. You can use it to buy anything in game that you can convince another player to sell. You might even be able to buy a champion Myrmidon from another team.

Myrmidons will be identified by a code number on the server so they can't be endlessly duplicated. If you sell a veteran Myrmidon to someone else then you can't continue to play him in contest on the league - though you could still use him during practice bouts or in LAN challenges. (However, you could of course sell a Myrmidon's genetic code any number of times, allowing the player who bought it to start a new Myrmidon with the same abilities as your veteran began with.)

Myrmidons as virtual sports stars
The key elements that will captivate an audience are the ways that we will personalize the myrmidons. This will not require complex AI, it is simply a question of having certain distinct “personality types” that will manifest in various ways. (This section was omitted from the version of the treatment requested by the BBC.)

Why teams?
The question may be raised why feature a team of myrmidons. Surely it would be easier simply to have one-on-one battles?

The answer is that one-on-one battles would lead to a very trivial game. You can liken optimum species in an ecosystem to attractor points in an n-dimensional space, where the dimensions are different attributes. When you are competing one individual against another, the solution for an optimum individual will be fairly trivial. For example, boxing trainer Cus D’Amato recognized that the winning heavyweight in a match is almost always one who is stronger, so he set his fighters to weight-training..

At best, in a one-on-one Conquerors match, we would occasionally see intransitive relationships. Eg, Aegis beats Feral beats Speedy beats Aegis. That's at best. More likely there would just be one optimum solution and the TV show would become a tedious process as players homed in on the attractor point representing that specific set of winning attributes. In order to see an interesting variety of winning myrmidons, tactics have to be a major factor in the game and this necessitates teams. We must hope (as development of Conquerors will require collaboration between ourselves and a broadcaster) that the broadcaster will understand this crucial point and wouldn’t end up wasting development time on a fundamentally flawed concept.

The biggest tasks to be faced in developing the game will be (i) the Myrmidon AI and (ii) the artwork for different genetic patterns.

The AI will need to correlate multiple inputs (terrain, proximity of opponents, current wounds, fatigue, type and range of weaponry of self and opponent, etc) in order to intuit a strategy (attack, defend, support or evade). This is effectively a pattern-recognition system that is defined by the semantic categories we specify as the Myrmidon’s senses. The way that the output strategy is then enacted would be through tactical scripts, a bit like preplanned plays in football. This is not in fact a difficult AI task; it is merely a question of limiting what the Myrmidons can look for (inputs) and what actions they might take (outputs).

The artwork could be handled one of two ways: either by developing a morphing program that generates a custom-built 3D model for each chromosomal makeup, or by building a whole range of models (probably in the form of separate body parts) that are fitted together as needed. The first is more computationally complex, the latter more labour-intensive.

We envisage Myrmidons as being quite alien - more like some kind of reptile/insect hybrid than humanoid fighters. The main reason is exotic visual appeal, but there is also the advantage that animation is easier to get looking right for a nonhuman creature, and by not seeming at all human there will be lower expectation of the AI. Players will be glad their trained critters can learn anything at all, rather than grumbling that they don't act as intelligently as human fighters.

It needs to be emphasized that the game is not the sole (or even necessarily the main) product. The game itself is the hook for capturing larger audiences and revenue via television and the internet. The idea is that viewers enter the “funnel” as casual spectators, then get interested in placing bets, then maybe start buying and selling myrmidons (which they can do without owning the Conquerors software), and then the true aficionados buy the product, subscribe, and become our next generation of content providers.

By comparison, a show like Robot Wars has high barriers to entry in terms of time, cost, resources and ability. But all anyone will need to create a team is the Conquerors software – available in its simplest version free on the internet. Looking at other online games, Everquest has more than 400,000 regular players putting in 20+ hours per week. And Everquest’s followers are just the narrow point of the “funnel” - ie, the active participants - without the publicity boost or audience size possible with a TV show.

Conquerors is truly a new genre – a virtual sport that owes as much to football and tamagotchi as to traditional computer games. Players can choose the extent of their participation, from solo practice bouts through friendly competition on LAN (the “amateur league”) right up to full participation in one of the official internet competitions (the “professional league”). The pleasure of spectating will be as great as taking part, making this a game with true mass-market potential.

Monday 1 July 2013

Mean genes - part 1

“It’s harnessing nerd power to create television content!” said the guy at the BBC.

Inward sigh of relief. At last, I thought. Pitching anything to the BBC can involve so many meetings you feel like you’re trapped in the afterlife arrivals hall from A Matter of Life and Death. That’s what the first BBC exec I encountered had told me: “You’ll go to a lot of meetings.” He said it like his spirit was broken. More than a dozen meetings later, I was getting to know how he felt. I’d tried explaining this particular concept (Conquerors, by the way – be patient, we’re coming to it) two or three times to an assistant producer. But this new guy was the Big Swinger, just back from his hols with a tan and a breezy attitude, and he got it right out of the gate.

“This is so refreshing,” I may have said. At which point the soundtrack would have carried a portentous note, the kind of musical sting Hans Zimmer loves to write.

Conquerors was the main reason I’d drifted across from games into television. I had the idea originally about five years earlier, while working at Eidos on Warrior Kings. After reading Richard Dawkins’s book Climbing Mount Improbable, I told Ian Livingstone my idea: “You create a stable of gladiatorial monsters. You have to breed, feed and train them, then you pick teams to go up against other players’ teams. What we’ll do, we’ll put the monster creation part free on all Eidos game disks – ”

Ah, you spotted the blunder. It was 1996 and I said “free”. Short of matching wits with a Sicilian, what could be worse?

As I thought about Conquerors, I realized it was more than a game. See, in order to render the battles nicely (quite an issue on mid-nineties PCs) I planned it that you wouldn’t control your team online. The training part was like a regular hands-on game, but once you herded your team off to fight some monsters from Argentina you just had to sit back and wait – and hope they’d learned the tactical lessons you’d taught them. Yes, they only had simple AI and would sometimes do some dumb things, but so would the other guy’s monsters.

Then it struck me. You didn’t have to have a monster in the fight to enjoy this game. It was also a spectator sport. And, because the battles were run on our servers and rendered out in rich 3D, we could edit that into broadcast-quality TV minutes.

It had to be teams, of course. If you pitted single monsters against each other it just became virtual Robot Wars. The qualities required for victory would then become trivial. Kind of like modern heavyweight boxing. The tactical element is needed because physical attributes plus behaviour is what makes for interesting outcomes.

I don’t think I ever got around to explaining that part. If you’re familiar with BBC pitching, you’ll know that the pattern is, first, those endless meetings I mentioned, the long hell of trying to break through indifference, incomprehension and bureaucracy. Then the moment it catches – the guy in the room who gets it, who likes it, who asks you to send over all the details of design, development and costs.

And it's about this time they lose your phone number...

Oh well, Conquerors is still there waiting. Not only could I do it better now, I could bypass the broadcasters and games publishers and BBC Worldwide and just take the whole thing to market via the App Store.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the design document. It’s over fifteen years old, remember, so I’d make some changes if I did it now. Still looks pretty innovative, though, if I do say so myself.