Random Ramblings

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Music From Next to Nothing

Now you (and I) have lost the excuse of not producing music because we don't have source material:

Music from Windows Sounds

Link via The Old New Thing, an excellent inside-Microsoft blog. That's ModPlug Tracker in the video, by the way.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Borderline Insanity or Creative Marketing?

Four years to the day after Uru shut down the first time, Cyan Worlds announced that GameTap is pulling the plug on Myst Online. It's a strange feeling to be a part of this, because I didn't even hear about the first run until it had already ended. This time I got in on the ground floor, testing the game in private beta, open beta, rehearsal (content beta), . . . and here we are at the end. I don't love Uru. Not as some do, at least. I'm not social enough. I can't be satisfied with a glorified chat room.

For me, this is proof that you can't build an MMO in the traditional sense around puzzle-solving and exploration, even if there's a story to it. Myst encourages group puzzle solving, yes, but the size of groups it attracts is down around 10 or maybe 20, tops. That's nowhere near the scale of social interaction you need to cultivate an MMO. Cyan has come full circle now, and it's time to break away from the past. Last time they stayed in the circle, developing Uru, and look where it got them: right back where they started. I believe onine puzzle-solving and exploration games are viable, but it can't be done this way. Cyan has proven that painfully and definitively. Twice.

So how can online multiplayer adventure games break out without straying too far into RPG territory? Well, many Uru players kept the dream alive from 2004 to 2007 by running licensed private Uru servers. Many of them even managed to add content and story to the game. What if we took that idea and put it on crack? What if we built a game that ran on licensed servers to which server admins could add licensed or user-made "content modules" or "story modules" that extended the game world? What if we ran many storylines at once and let people choose which story they wanted to follow?

Why go to all the trouble and expense of writing and producing content ourselves if the players can do it? What if we let the players make the game? Good question. The answer is, "because it doesn't work." The vast majority of gamers play games to be entertained, not to create art. The creative ones will take initiative, and the'll shine if you give them the right tools, but they're not as plentiful as all those executives drooling about "user-generated content" seem to believe.

But here's the thing: pricing. Want to play alone? Just buy the content packs. Want to play with others? Join a server that's following the story you like and pay a monthly fee, or join a UGC-only server for free. Want to try it out without buying anything? The first content pack is free.

Other considerations: 1. Game engine design needs to accomodate this style from the get-go. 2. Stick to the release schedule or watch customers leave. 3. Encourage user-generated content, and don't gripe about the UGC-only servers that aren't generating revenue. They're generating eyeballs and goodwill. That's enough.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

To D'ni and Back Again

It's funny that I found out about Uru (the online game of Myst) after the servers had already been shut down. It's funny because I was in the thick of it when the game relaunched through GameTap, and now it's about to go away. In a sense, we've come full circle.

My opinion - not that anyone cares, but I might as well state it - is that Cyan should take this opportunity to break free. That's hard to do, but look what happened last time: they stayed in the circle, and it brought them right back here. Either you leave the circle or you keep bottoming out.

Myst Online was a great concept: a nonviolent, social puzzle-solving game in a beautiful and immersive environment. No one had ever done that before Cyan. Now that we've reached the second end for Uru, it's clear why no one can. The kind of social puzzle-solving Myst encourages thrives in small groups, and an MMO needs extremely large groups. We need MMOs that encourage deep, cerebral gameplay, but so far it seems like those two terms (massively multiplayer and cerebral) are opposed to each other.

So now the members of the Myst community and all like-minded gamers have two options. We could just sit around and wait for something like Portal Online, which I just made up but actually sounds pretty rad, or we could form lots of small groups of content creators working within an MMO framework developed by a technical team (there's some related work going on at WPI, vaguely related to Garry's Mod). These teams would work to create their own individualized mini-MMOs on privately hosted servers. By letting the community create its own content, we would eliminate the main expense and delays associated with MMOs.

I know this sounds a lot like Second Life, but I'm talking about a much smaller system here. A system by the people, for the people, etc. so that the death knell of servers might never draw such spikes through the hearts of gamers again.

Tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Windows Media Player 11 Gets FLAC

And you thought I'd run out of bad puns, didn't you? For shame. Since I've started ripping CDs to FLAC (this started when I discovered FLAC about a year ago), I obviously need a media player that handles the format. Unfortunately, Windows Media Player does not fit that description. Winamp has built-in support, but it's getting a little long in the tooth. I'd prefer to use WMP11, if only it would actually play my music.

Enter illiminable. Simply install the DirectShow filters from that site, and your copy of WMP11 (or any other player that uses DirectShow) will be able to play FLAC and Ogg Vorbis files. There is a slightly annoying part: the 'Open File' dialog still does not recognize .flac files as playable music files, so you will need to switch to 'All Files' and visually detect the format of each file. It's a tradeoff - and there's probably an inverse relationship between your level of annoyance at this and the level of organization in your music collection. (Both of my levels are somewhere around 'medium'.)

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Friday, March 02, 2007

And, We're Back.

It appears that, after resolving some technical difficulties which prevented me from continuing this blog, everything works again. Sorry for the interruption - it was caused by yet another "upgrade" which broke critical system parts.

(Those are the best, aren't they?)


Monday, November 13, 2006

A Good Example

I got a great email today:

Hi Phil,

From the diagnostic information that was included in your email it looks like your computer uses the Intel Integrated Graphics chipset of the 810, 845, 855, or 865 series. Unfortunately, these graphics accelerators do not implement the 3D texture mapping features needed by Photosynth.

Aditya Mandlekar
Microsoft Live Labs – Photosynth Group

This email is great for two reasons: first, now I know that someone is actually reading email I send to the Photosynth team. Second, Aditya took the time to write about why my graphics card is incompatible. I'm still kind of bummed that I can't try it out (at least on this computer), but now I know why it doesn't work and what to do about it.

Eventually I'll try Photosynth again, both because I know what went wrong and because I know it wasn't a result of the developers being lazy. (I've run into similar problems in my own projects, and when you have specific product specifications to meet, there's not much you can do.) Good job, guys.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Essays and Copywriting

Why do I do this? A friend of mine just sent me a question about copywriting (not to be confused with a copyright, which is very different). I did a little research of my own, mainly confirming what I already thought, and wrote a reply. Well, no, not just a reply. An essay-length reply.

Again, why do I do this? Some days I don't answer any email at all, and other days I send out novellas. Thankfully, I've started checking my email less frequently on the days I don't feel like answering mail. That means that I probably won't forget to answer people as much as I used to, although they might still feel ignored.

P.S. Seeking a copywriter? I just happen to know a potential candidate! (No, not myself.) Email me and I'll put you in contact with them.