Projection (... or what do you do if you can't sleep 'cos all you dream of is Tetris)

How can you tell when you have an absolutely fantastic brand new game mechanic which is going to take the world by storm?

Surprisingly, it's really easy. If it's fundamentally that different, enjoyable, and - dare I say it? - addictive, you're going to dream about it.

(And yes, I know, addictive is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to games... it has bad connotations... but heck, if you're going to play a game a lot and keep coming back for more, it'd better damn well be at least somewhat addictive. If you don't prefer the entirely way too honest approach, please pretend that I said fun instead).

Seriously. I've known people who after playing Tetris nearly nonstop for a week started dreaming about it. All they saw in their minds eyes as they got the necessary RDA of beauty sleep was falling colored blocks. Most of them asked for their money back, claiming that they'd had better dreams after watching horror movies.

It's not limited to dreams though. In my own personal experience, I've played Crackdown and found myself staring off the deck at work thinking "Yeah, I could jump that!". Of course, a saner head prevailed, and also, of course, I wouldn't have been able to. I'd have been in traction, probably taking all my meals through a straw. But for some reason, the game had attached itself to my brain in such a fundamental way that I had entertained the notion for a tiny moment of time. Okay, for a week or two. Yes, I'll admit it, I was looking at most of the buildings around me as I walked into work figuring out how to scale them. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a powerful game mechanic.

Katamari Damacy? After I played that for the first time, I found myself wandering around idly wondering if I could roll things up. All kinds of things. Usually huge things like cars and buses.

Midnight Club II? Well, let's just say that if I was driving the car I am now back then, I'd probably have enough speeding tickets to roast a nice steak*.

Viva Piñata has never had quite this effect on me. Halo 3? Nope, sorry, it didn't do that. (Mind you, neither did the first two, and Half Life - as much as I love that game... as much as my old producer at Sierra told the AP who gave me a copy in my first month there "not to give the programmers crack when we're trying to ship a product" didn't cause as much as a peep).

Portal though... Portal is a different matter. Portal had that effect. I spent a good while dreaming about how I could create holes in things that led to other holes, allowing me to travel through those holes, in an altogether wholly weird dreaming experience.

So what does this have to do with projection?

OK, imagine that you're holding a screwdriver. Put the screwdriver into a screw head. Feel yourself turn the screw. The weird thing is, as you're slotting the screwdriver home, you can feel the tip of the screwdriver touching the screw as if you had little touch sensitive nerves right on the end of the screwdriver.

This is a wonderful human ability. It allows us to do all kinds of things from driving to using a mouse. (If you're wondering what I mean by that, slam your cursor to the top of the screen right now. Note the word slam; because when it stops there, it feels like it hit something. Of course it didn't - and your mouse kept on moving... but that's what it felt like). If you will, it allows us to push our senses outside of our body, and manipulate our environment with tools as if the tools themselves were part of us. And it's cool.

I've got a theory that new gameplay experiences actually trigger a whole new projection learning experience in the brain. It's like you've never experienced this way of interacting with something before, and you need to digest it. If it's compelling enough, and fun enough, you'll need to process it harder. And if it's something just a little out of the ordinary, you'll end up dreaming about it.

Maybe that's what great gameplay is all about... pushing the boundaries of our experience outside of these fragile little shells and into a whole new vista.

I just wish that it was easier to reverse engineer. The problem with this kind of massively compelling gameplay mechanic experience is that while it'd be awesome for every game to have the power to make you spend your nights dreaming about it, it's really hard to come up with those kinds of mechanics. It's easy to spot them - but hard to create them.

But heck, I really know them when I see them. And apparently, my dreams know them too.

* First take your steak, marinade it, add salt and pepper. Then take a charcoal grill. Use the speeding tickets to light the grill.

This post was originally written for the Surreal Software Game Design Blog.

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#Games, #Game design, #resyndication, #Surreal Game Design Blog
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Little Miss Litty - The Treatment is Complete

I finally finished the treatment for Little Miss Litty, and I think it's good :)

I write these things in stages. I know that for me, the biggest hurdle I hit when I'm writing is that if I know how the story ends, I stop actually writing it down. I tell it to people instead. Nowhere near as useful, or as satisfying as a well crafted story - but unfortunately at that point, my personal need to understand and tell the story has been met.

This time I tried something else; Little Miss Litty is a short story I first worked on about 12 or so years ago. I never completed it, but I came across it recently and it seemed like a great kernel for a longer story.

So I took what I had, and expanded on it, this time in screenplay form.

Once I ran out of that source material, I started "rolling" on the story. I normally hate planning stories too far in advance because once things get going, the characters like to do their own thing. I can push them in one direction or another, but the rest of it is really truly and honestly up to them.

Sounds kind of weird, I know, but the characters do know what's going on better than I do at any point.

So my new process involves writing a chunk of treatment in OneNote - enough to get me going for the next 20 to 40 pages, and then a very brief outline following that of the next 30 or so pages after that, in italic so that I know it's not yet fleshed out.

(I do the same thing for any bits I get stuck on - just put them in rough, in italic, so I know I need to do some research or expand on them later - this stops me from getting stuck, or letting myself succumb to writer's block).

Next, I write this up in Final Draft in screenplay format, striking out bits of the treatment as I go through it.

This method seems to work well. It means I have a guide-rope (so to speak) that I can follow through the story, but without blowing it all for me as I'm discovering it. It's just enough to keep me going without having to make it up on the fly in long-form.

Some writers keep note cards to plan out scenes, and rearrange them once they have a script going. I don't do that - I don't need to. Programming (for better or for worse) has taught me all the tools I need to do that in my head. Once I have the script written, I've got a visual map of elements and blocks that I can rearrange to make sure the structure's right. To be honest, I don't need to do it that often - like with my day-job, I seem to have gotten that down to an intuitive process, so most of the time it comes out right first time.

OneNote as used for my script treatment

I also use OneNote to throw elements of story ideas I come up with in there. That way I can mine it later for bits and pieces that I want to use later. The other advantage to this is that once it's written down, I can drop it out of my brain until I want to pick it up again later, rather than spinning on this latest greatest idea for too long and letting it get in the way of the real writing work.

That doesn't, of course, stop me from wasting time on the blog though ;-)

Current screen-play page count: 69. Dude. About 30 more to go, give or take.

More medical writing to come soon, btw. It's such a heavy topic, and things have been rough at work with the crunch, so I needed to switch to something a little easier for the time being... More soon on that topic, I promise.

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#fiction, #script writing, #film, #writing, #horror
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The State of the Nation: Lies and more lies

The US federal budget for 2008 cut large amounts of funding from physical science projects. Of the ones I can get references to (with a quick search 'cos I'm at work), they cut:

  • $88MM from high-energy physics programs.
  • Completely killed the US's contribution of $149MM to the International Fusion Project.
  • Cut funding for the International Linear Collider by $45MM (from $60MM to $15MM).
  • The National Labs Argonne and Fermilab had their funding slashed.

(Source: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/us-basic-science-decline-15233.html )

Last night's state of the nation address?

Bush pledged to double funding for physical science programs.

It's not hard to double funding for a program when you've already halved it that year.

Can we get rid of this administration already? I'm sick of the lies, and the fact that they're run this country directly into a recession.

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Crunch time again

It's crunch time at work again, so my posting volume is going to go down for a little bit. I'll try to find time this weekend to write at least two medical posts.

(Just in case you were wondering where I'd gone)

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Technorati Weirdness

Strangely, it appears that my last post didn't make it up onto Technorati. It claims to be pinging my blog, but the post itself? nada.

I wonder if I've fallen foul of some spam filtering software or something.

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#technorati
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