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Author: Paul Tschirgi

Designing design principles

Designing design principles

Everything can be analyzed from a set or group view. Iteratively both reflectively or predictively.

Good design! What is good design? Well that depends on what your goals are, and then how you rank the priorities of probably a set of goals.

For a lot of artistic mediums, aesthetic effect and conveying themes clearly is top priority, but within games the top of the wanted list is much more contentious.

Easy to learn? Well that can be a trade off with functionality or effectiveness. User error friendly?

I think it’s useful to focus on the defining characteristic of video games which is meaningful choice making in a specific context.

By that central mission, designing game mechanics should be first and foremost enhancing the key decision and not worsening it.

So how is this applied practically? Well things that get in the way are long repetitive animations that occur between user inputs because it creates an artificial window that the user cannot control, but will still contain real time consequences. However animations that give users information ahead of time leading to better or faster user decisions later are great.

But that’s something I needed to figure out because my last several attempts and multidimensional conversations in my dating game have been pretty excessive in animation and not enhancing the gameplay essence which is deciding between options and understanding their different properties and similarities and result effects.

Rebuilding the Game, Back in VR

Rebuilding the Game, Back in VR

It’s been 2 months since I was even looking at the actual Forbidden Technique game files. The writing/content creation tool for the game, Electra, is all done for now, but I can’t load and play the tests I’ve made yet. I’ve had a long history of work on the virtual reality mechanics for the game.

From focusing on stealth using players head movement, to spell casting, to locomotion, to ai movement, to conversation dialog choice and visualization mechanics.

And of course it is the conversation mechanics on which I had a complete evolution in thinking about the project and what I really wanted to build. And so here I am finally walking away from the tool I needed to be able to even comprehend what I needed for building a deeper conversation system in a game.

It may seem strange to the outsider or even myself that I would create a complex writing tool and there is no game to load and run the files at all. I have been trying to setup the game to load the files at multiple points in the past 2 years. I learned a lot, but I wasn’t that happy with the end result. Reading the text was difficult, or selecting the desired option was unwieldy. The sample content I made was dysfunctional and not interesting narrative wise. The communication of impact of the options was confusing or non existent, the animations were partially cool, but often broken and prone to glitches.

Basically it’s been really hard to nail down a satisfactory mechanic for conversation in the game. I think that at some point it dawned on me, not just that I needed to build it well, but it needed to be incredibly well done. Because the mechanic isn’t just a small aspect of the game. It’s the mind, body, and soul of the game.

It’s multiplied by 10,000 times. Because you’re selecting EVERY single step of the conversation which could be 30-100 each conversation you have with a person.

So it’s the most important game mechanic I’ve ever worked on. It’s my favorite game project of all time, and so I want to do it right. This is I think my 5th real iterative attempt. I’ve done a lot of design reflection and I hope to start uploading footage compelling the greatest writers and thinkers of the world to dive into using the tool as well.

Content Creation Tool way ahead of Actual Game

Content Creation Tool way ahead of Actual Game

Electra is becoming very stable. Definitely some unfinished finesse features like 2-dimensional layouts (incremental + on/off) for organizing thousands of chat chunks, but in general things are taking on serious polish. The troublesome all characters menu is even working fairly well with staying in sync with active individual file for editing.

There are a few need to have fixes and features such as deleting line connections in the conversation chunk editor and making the file saving system a bit more fool proof in case you change character’s names.

But the light at the end of the tunnel for me has always been moving past this stage and onto the player facing game of it all. Making this tool became it’s own massive project which I thoroughly enjoyed much of. It was incredibly difficult, but I have grown an incredible amount as well both as a designer and a programmer.

The cool part is that I feel like using the content tool with the game will be insanely fun. I can write out a few dialog exchanges at any time and then pop into the game in VR and talk it out. Along with this system I’ve launched the four game modes: Story, Cannon+, Beyond, and Speed Dating.

Story mode plays the normal game (cannon) or at least whatever stage it’s at during the development process.
Cannon+ is files added or edited by a user on top of the normal game, hence cannon plus extra. The philosophy of cannon plus is to be inspired by and extend the original story or world with new characters or new conversations, but the discretion is completely up to the users.
Beyond is a category that contains stories or worlds that are significantly different or completely new worlds and stories relative to the normal story.

Speed Dating is a new mode that is perfect for testing and developers such as myself. It allows you to select an individual character and talk to them immediately after launching the game. I’ll probably be almost exclusively using this mode for a long time because testing characters chronologically would be very slow and eventually impossible.

I think it would also be the recommended mode for other users to create in, especially when starting out. It will probably also be the most effective demoing mode because it will be time sensitive/efficient and also get to the heart of the game very quickly rather than the slower introduction the game would have normally through the story.

I have a lot of ideas and story details planned that I’ve been burning to create and save in the Electra formats and play through so I’m super excited about the next stage of work when it’s fully about the writing and playing rather than tool making.

 

The Game or the Tool

The Game or the Tool

Forbidden Technique and Electra continue to progress as a game project and writing tool that I am very proud of and can’t wait to see get a little further along.

Electra the writing tool presents a complex problem though. Its design was inspired to solve the problem of meaningless and unfair dialog options in dating simulation games, but the potential applications for multidimensional organization of speaking choices have overwhelmed me at times.

Is creating a structure to understand women creating a lot more?

I’m not sure, it does seem that way and I’ve spent about 2 years so far trying to figure out if that hypothesis is correct. The tricky part is that in order to figure out what Electra can do outside of an exciting dating game, the tool needs to have those features and I need to figure out how to interface with arrays of arrays of arrays of arrays both as a creator and on the behalf of players/users.

Nesting as a concept is pretty much at the heart of simplifying and organizing all the information, but graphically displaying it and making sure the huge number of combinations never result in error is a strenuous challenge.

Anyways, spin offs are an interesting demon. When a unique thing is created it inspires unique applications and without much experience in handling products that practically demand maturity in all directions it becomes a burden at times.

Which is frustrating and funny because I don’t even know how much all of Electra’s applications are worth, if anything across the board.

So I’m doing my best to keep my highest priorities and goals in mind and not become the servant for the perceived wishes of an unfinished product/tool.

At the end of the day, I started all this work to make a great game in a way that had never been done before. I’ve stumbled across what may be a secret treasure, but either way I’ve got what I need and I need to stop trying to understand what the treasure chest wants.

Running with the metaphor a bit further- I’ve been stopping on my journey, loot in my arms to question passerby. “Does this look like real gold to you?”
“Do you think this would be valuable if it were your treasure?”
“This treasure seems different than other treasure for these reasons, do you think that makes it special?”

Perhaps what I really need is to go find a treasure expert who knows something about the type of bounty I’m holding or even whether it’s fool’s gold after all.

I’ve spoken to many people about it, but I’m not really sure what kind of validation or evaluation of the tool I’m looking for.

I already feel accomplished and smart, but I don’t think I’d avoid an extra assurance either. I have a hard enough time knowing the value of what I’ve got and I’ve been staring at it for almost 2 years, still unsure of the majority of it’s potential.

Ah well, perhaps the best thing to do is to is to focus on what excites me about the project or how to have fun with it.

It might not be far enough along to get strong guidance, and it may be too far along for me to quit or take a break based on weak or tentative guidance.

I mean blog posts like this aren’t very relevant to other people I would guess. It’s probably more like I’m journaling online instead of in my notebook every once in a while to hope that the change of pace and style will shake out some new breakthrough or reel in a helpful guide.

Perhaps this is more like an emphasized record for myself in the future to look back on. Since I go through a hundred or more pages of notebook a month, maybe I need a simple thought of the month on my blog to help orient myself across a longer time span.

It’s funny to think of projects as being swamped down by the actual work you put into them to the point where you have a hard time relating to the project or mission you started with, but I find it to be very true.

Perhaps it’s an unrealistic wish to have a consistent priority set and goal with a steady supply of motivation across time periods of years. Especially the fetch quests upon fetch quests you can get stuck on on projects. To save this file you need to setup a variable holder in this file, then this file has an array of those files which needs to draw parameters from another file, all of those files together are organized by a slot file, and all slot files are saved in a recentslotselector file, that file is loaded and used to display and organize all the other files.

Ugh, chain fetch quests.

Electra Done! But Who Cares?

Electra Done! But Who Cares?

I have been adamant about the importance of Electra to those interested in dialog choice and interactive stories in games. I have created a system that takes the flow chart and gives it another dimension of choice and complexity, resulting a more realistic and powerful experience for players that is also skillful and meaningful compared to ALL previous systems.

But even if my assertion is correct, why should you care? Beyond a handful of eager experimenters currently diving into Electra, the opportunity has not struck a chord with people yet.

Easily visible next to the promise of grandeur and new frontiers is the heightened demand on time and energy for you to get there. Additionally it’s not clear what exactly the player experiences of your labor.

The writing file gets loaded into a VR game, but most people don’t have a VR headset. The VR game that loads the file is incomplete and doesn’t have good visuals.

The game is not even ‘early access’ yet and so promises of getting to share your work with others, let alone SELL your writings on a game launcher storefront seems pretty intangible.

So it should not have surprised me that, while interesting to almost everyone with a gamer or philosophical interest, almost no one has taken a dedicated interest to using Electra.

Now it is true that I haven’t called Electra complete until 2 days ago, so using an incomplete writing tool may have also been a turn off for many, but about 90% of all the features have been working for 3 months. And I have been reaching out to people I think would be interested or gifted for using it.

I hope to change people’s minds, but one thing is clear: Whatever I’ve been trying up until this point has not been working.

I definitely am more of an ‘ideas guy’ than a salesman. So the marketing and outreach is something I really want to work on and get help from people on. I remain absolutely convinced that I am offering one of the most valuable game content creation tools of the era.

And if I am correct then the only missing piece is getting that across to the people who can take advantage of Electra.

The most exciting thing about this stage in the process is I can FINALLY move beyond discussing theory and potential. I can start capturing video of what I’m able to build with Electra myself through the VR game that loads the files.

Showing is incredibly superior in almost all ways than telling. I was probably too arrogant to think that sharing the theory would connect with more people than it did without much of any ‘final product’ material to show alongside.

I also mistakenly thought the barrier to entry was more so explaining how to USE Electra, rather than why they should get excited or into it.

There remain, many reasons not to get into Electra YET. But I firmly believe that a larger portion of the creative community will want to get involved as I make a stronger case with actual videos of the end result, more engaging tutorials, and trailer pitches.

Dialog Pyramid Branching Theory – Electra

Dialog Pyramid Branching Theory – Electra

I am happy to announce that Electra is complete and working in its feature set for creating interactive conversations with game characters. Some of the final features added have completely transformed using the writing tool. For the first time, I personally sat down with the tool for more than 30 minutes and really had a blast. Now part of the fun was I have totally changed my Electra design theory in what the best approaches and goals should be.

Basically what I’m calling ‘Pyramid Branching’. The theory is that ‘branches’ are macro decisions that are forks in the road and because branches are significant you should attempt to give players some information or at least context in a conversation before pushing on them big decisions. Now you could make early macro branches not very important decisions (doesn’t change much in conversation or game), but then you’re probably annoying the player by giving them somewhat meaningless decisions.

So instead of starting out the player with a choice about whether they want to end world hunger, or cure cancer. You would allow players a chance to talk through some of the ideas surrounding both of those options. Such as how many people are currently dying from cancer and at what age. If you wanted to take a utilitarian view you could compare that to how many people are dying or have worsened quality of life from hunger or malnutrition.

You would also start to learn a bit more about the character you’re talking to as you discussed the issue. In many cases the player may prioritize the impression and feelings of the the character they are talking to. More likely than not, the Player will only deal with the result of hunger v. cancer abstractly or through non-gameplay related cutscenes so it’s not a bad wager to try and figure out whether your decision will have more relevant/ immediate impacts with present company.

This idea is not obvious when designing a conversation system with the ability to infinitely branch and organize that complexity decently well. It’s kind of like being at a buffet table and deciding that you should eat normal portions and then think about binge-ing later on if you feel like it.

One of the other fun aspects of this is that macro choices have increased significance and meaningfulness to players further down into a conversation (pyramid!), so you should start out with a relatively thin set of macro options in most cases, BUT you can experiment with micro options to great success.

As with real life, if you want to take a strong stance on an issue, or detect an approaching conflict/decision point- you’re going to want to feel out the other person. Now in many cases the other person’s temperament will not change the meat of what you’re saying, but it will change your delivery.

One of the great things about a conversation starting with relatively little meaningfulness across choices is you can get a feel for the other person with limited risk. Needing to make a complicated calculation about how receptive someone will be to the most confident version of what you have to say is not often realized in real life.

So a cool thing happens where playing around with tone and analyzing the characters replies becomes really important to do before things come to a decision point.

Hopefully by the time the big macro options come along, you have a decent idea of what the person likes and dislikes and maybe even what their position will be.

This same relationship plays out across the entire game. Early in the game a combination of lack of information (hence exposition) and the game’s requirement to establish the premise that can then be branched from, leads to providing not many macro choices.

The premise is important because without a constrained world to some degree, creating enough content and ensuring enough meaningful options becomes very difficult.

There is so much room for choice and meaning within very specific premises that I don’t think it’s a negative at all. People struggle enough in their normal lives with having a near infinity of choices. You might say more choice more meaning- Aha! Incorrect, I say. Many choices are novel and not very meaningful, do I take out the trash, do I do dishes, do I play some video games, do I watch this youtube video, do I go to sleep now.

Now as an accumulated habit or series of choices these things can be very important, but on a case by case basis these things won’t change your life.

So I want my approach to using Electra to reflect that games represent a specific premise with a set of extremely meaningful decisions to be made. I don’t necessarily need to compare it in game to a series of not important decisions. The form makes the comparison automatically.

Also of course Electra deals with person to person decision making within conversation so it’s already escalated to a more important premise. Systematizing the set of all life’s choices, including the mundane is not only difficult, but at least at this point not of interest to me.

Electra 2.0 & FTE Changes

Electra 2.0 & FTE Changes

Forbidden Technique and Electra have undergone a massive journey. Starting back in late 2016, it’s close to 2 years since the beginning of the project and so much has been accomplished.

 

I’ve already talked about exchange variety and the ramifications of multi meaningful segments within monologue exchanges both from player or from ai. So that’s the big big update still that will take a long time to out do, if ever.

The newest change is the integration of Context modes and functional Condition settings per root chunk (conversation starts).

This allows for the game to property organize and expose options for the player to initiate conversations without dumping dozens or even hundreds or even thousands of options at once.

One feature I do want to investigate is still the brain dump/ exploratory conversation start within VR. This would allow for a metaphorical ocean of conversation starting point nodes that the player could see the meanings of (summaries). This would allow for such incredibly high levels of natural divergence across all players (given cannon game application) that it’s a frightening and chaotic thing to chase after/work on.

Of course decentralizing the order of chunk selection this broadly makes the impact of chunks almost completely unpredictable if it’s not already. That said predictability is not really a good goal, it’s just convenient for developing theories and trying to conceptualize emergent behavior of players.

There is also a relatability/ common experience continuum/timeline in which at a certain point, the choosing of certain topics causes the experience of talking to the same person so different that it could be hard for people to talk about characters with enough overlap to feel they are talking about the same person.

Now I’m getting caught in consequentialism for limiting player choice. BUT I HAVE TO! Damn, okay fine I’ll circle back once the new version is updated and working in the game again, and add an experimental mode, code name Brain Dump, or Thought Wanderer, or Free Thought. Anyways a mode that can be turned on in the testing version of the game that enables access to all chunks with some options of what conditions to ignore, maybe time or just simply uncapping the number of root chunks that can be viewed at once.

At the moment there are 3 categories of chunks:  Seek (curious about the character), Reflect (expressing your own feelings), Sway (attempting to get the character to do something).

Each of these categories currently can have 3 chunks. So at anytime depending on how I deal with stacking and OnGoing conversation chunks there would be about 9 max conversation routes/path starts to choose from. Each of which branch indefinitely as created, and with internal complexity of course too.

Anyways unlocking from 9 chunks to realistically maybe like 40 – 100 chunks floating around in 360 spherical layout around the players head in VR does interest me, even if the lack of control and predictability scares me.

For the 99% of people who this is nonsense to, but are interested be sure to check out my youtube channel where I record podcasts that are much more comprehensible and conversational rather than note based. (BadPlanGames).

Anyways, I gotta let alone Free Thought mode, and focus on the actual purpose here which is sharing enthusiasm about the newest version of Electra which will be the operating version compatible with Forbidden Technique for the foreseeable future of the demo mode.

Very cool!

So two forces wrestle for influence over Electra, awesome and important features, and then a stoic call for minimalism because if this tool is capable of transforming thought and language formation it needs to be accessible to as many people as possible.

But simplifying and cutting is what iteration is for right?

So what’s new?

Context modes! Now there is a way to organize all your chunks temporarily during writing and editing based on dynamic properties. It dramatically reduces the amount of headspace (RAM) you have to dedicate to remembering what your plan and focus of a set of dialog is about. It also helps you fill out all potential dynamics the player may have with the ai character.

One context variable is BOND. This represents how much the character likes the player in a platonic or friendship-minded way. If you set that variable as an active context mode then you can layout all your chunks that have BOND as a condition and then you can see what conversation chunks pop up when the character hates the player (BOND = 3) neutral feelings (BOND = 5) or very positive (BOND = 7) and of course everything in between.

It allows organization of two completely exclusive relationship dynamics. Of course anything exclusionary has a negative impact on the relationship between a playthrough and percentage of content available at a time.

That said maybe you would be able to rollercoaster a bit and experience extreme highs and lows of a relationship. It’s really pretty impossible to say.

So layouts should greatly organize the accumulation of hundreds or maybe thousands of conversation starting chunks.

This blog post is extremely disjointed, but I still feel like posting it. Sorry for the mess, but you should be very excited about the new version of Electra and try it out for yourself!

Electra Launcher/Patcher Live! (Forbidden Technique VR game coming soon)

Electra Launcher/Patcher Live! (Forbidden Technique VR game coming soon)

http://paultproductions.com/downloads/Patcher.zip

 The Launcher/Patch client for Forbidden Technique (VR game) and Electra (3D writer’s tool for interactive conversation) is live! So now you don’t have to check for new downloads, all you have to do is open up this patcher app and it will grab the latest versions of everything. At the moment Forbidden Technique is not added to the files as it is not ready for a demo stage at the moment, but it will be coming soon!

Romantic Ai Philosophy & Electra Progress

Romantic Ai Philosophy & Electra Progress

The newest version of Electra represents a very mindful reflection on the graphics and flow of using the writing tool. Pairing the 3D flow chart with the text message output remains the bedrock of the app. One of the key missing features was clear connection between tone properties of the player options and the impact on the ai character’s reaction and chosen response.

Now that symbols have been developed in game to represent these factors as the player plays the game, they can be placed next to the corresponding tone sliders in Electra. This allows writers to focus on options they want to provide to the player without checking the calculator tab for impact.

I have also now exposed the filter metric for processing player tone choice and Ai response. The default processing formula is Tone (ai character personality’s positive and negative reaction to each tone type). But in many contexts, such as romantic, Charm can be selected instead. Charm is the attraction/dating counterpart to the Tone metric. It processes the player choice properties differently, putting priority on what the ai character’s personality is attracted to or not rather than what they platonically like or dislike. Something fantastically interesting about this approach is that some characters will actually be attracted to qualities that they otherwise very much dislike.

This ambiguity allows for a very intentional strategy for players in which they can prioritize the Friendship (Bond), or the Ai’s Attraction to them (Spark). Of course players can also choose to ignore the questionable morality of tactics for emotional dialog option selection and choose based on purely what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Ideally, given the system reflects real life successfully, player’s choosing to express themselves naturally and in line with their personality will cause a self selection of developing relationships with Ai’s that are drawn to who they are and distancing Ai’s with hostile or non-receptive reactions to them.

Of course the creator’s writing style also plays a huge role. Also similar to real life (assuming natural player expression), there could well be Ai’s that are absolutely in love with the player (like their choice in expression, and are attracted to how they express themselves as well), but the Player may not be interested.

I think that creates a really realistic dating environment where the combination of all relationship dynamics are possible. Because of the way the system is setup, Player’s options are each centered around the Ai they are talking to. In some ways this is challenging because it can easily cause an inconsistency in available options and types of expression. For example Funny & Mean options (teasing) may be relatively light hearted and enjoyable talking to one girl, but another girl’s conversational options that are property wise still Funny+Mean may feel overly cruel or tasteless.

So in a fascinating way, the player is not just selecting for Ai characters that accept them for who they are, and are attracted to them, BUT also choosing between Ai characters based on who they themselves (player) are allowed to be when they talk to that character.

Metaphorically this is also similar to how in real life, you are significantly impacted by the people you keep as friends. They encourage or discourage you to be a certain way.

In a literal sense however the system is limited in that there is not a direct user input to the character beyond expression choice (emotional options), physical actions (eye contact, hugging, etc), and the accumulation of other character interactions and relationships that the Ai is aware of.

In other words, the player can not type out a completely original response to the Ai. But I absolutely believe and can make a strong case that original input with limited meaning in response (traditional Ai approach) is inferior to limited input options with full meaningfulness in response.

Is the expansion of the tool to include new timeline parameter, variety in exchange, multiple metrics, and multiple character conversations causing an exponentially intimidating effect for writers/users of Electra? Time will tell. I do think that Electra has a high end skill cap that is almost limitless.

It requires the skill of conversational writing (both sides of a conversation) exponentially expanded based on the Set of All of meaningful options and sub-expression choices.

That said, the tool was initially created purely for my own use. And so almost all the features and design were inspired by my own desire for the best possible experience and efficiency in writing advanced ai characters into the game and hopefully other games one day.

So I find it useful for many objective reasons to have all these new features and graphics so I expect other users will as well. Unlike video games which must contemplate access to casual users, creation tools should significantly consider peak performance design decisions and systems as higher priority than a easier learning curve.

Especially given the system being potentially one of the most difficult content creation tools ever created, I have to take care of the people that I know for sure CAN use it. This goes out to all the pros in the process of learning it already and the people who will pick it up one day: I hope you like what I’ve done with the place!

I fully expect to be making changes and updating it as I go however so feel free to reach out and offer suggestions, criticism, or encourage expansion of existing systems. I am also down to make the case for the superiority of all the core principles and design decisions regarding this approach to Ai in both platonic relationship building, as well as the romantic dimension.

I am heavily engaged with philosophical research and invite all theoretical objections, challenges or curiosity. And congratulations in becoming a pioneer of 3Dimensional writing, should you pick it up or continue to use it!