Friday, April 30, 2010

Children of the 21st Century

One casualty of our municipal budget cuts this year is going to be the elementary school computer program. These children of the 21st century will grow up in a world that is ever more divided between the technological haves and the have-nots. The personal computer, and its high-tech spawn, will be central to much of what they do throughout their lives on whatever paths they happen to take. In their wisdom, during the annual belt tightening, this is what our public servants decided to cut. The computers.

I'm ok with that.

My kids are plenty familiar with computers. And they didn't learn it at school. Each school day already starts with me yelling at them to get off the computer because we're going to be late for school. Presumably the curriculum is more edifying than learning how to level-up your Vanquisher in anticipation of her inevitable confrontation with Ordrak. They may skip extended lessons on the proper flora for warding off back-yard zombie infestation. Still, I'm not sure what they are learning in computer class.

Isaac and Leo have grown up with mouse in hand. They're unsure what the "chan" button on the TV remote is for. The telephone eludes their understanding. We can blame the parents for that. They are comfortable with watching shows on iTunes and the subtleties of NetFlix streaming.

The virtues of the computer were discovered early. The pace of exploration has been rapid. My kids were quick to discover the endless video bounty of Star Wars, Lego, and Lego minfigs enacting scenes from Star Wars that awaited them on the internet.

There are hazards of childhood internet exploration. "Eat plasma you stuck up bitch!" - made a surprise appearance during a kindergarten-era game. We had a talk. Our concern isn't that they can't navigate the computer. It's that they can.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Portsmouth Budget Letter

To Members of the Portsmouth City Council,

I grew up and went to school in Lebanon, New Hampshire in the 1980s. Lebanon was not a wealthy town and did not have many of the advantages Portsmouth enjoys today. We had our schools and our classes. We had the basics. We had sports. We had music, art, and computer classes.

When my wife and I moved to Portsmouth we moved here to stay and to have and raise our family. We chose Portsmouth because of its rich history, because those who came before us built such a wonderful civic foundation, and because Portsmouth is a city with an eye on its own future.

As you navigate the budget process this year, in these uncertain times, I ask you to consider that future. We know that times are tough, that state support has fallen, and that some belt-tightening is required. In the proposed budgets each of the departments has made tough choices. The school budget eliminates many teaching positions, cuts the crossing guards, and the computer program. These are smart sacrifices. We can accept them, but only with great regret.

It is inconceivable that these cuts would not be sufficient.

Cutbacks beyond what has been proposed will endanger athletics, art, and music. They will require unacceptable cuts into the core functions of our schools and would not leave us with a system we can be proud of. The schools are already making do after years of tight funding. The fat has been cut. Once these vital programs are gone they will not easily return. Cutting this budget even further would not provide a level of support for our schools that this community can accept.

Thank you for your consideration. Thank for for looking to our future and insuring Portsmouth remains a great city to live and raise children. Thank you for your service.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Day I Joined the Tea Party

The Tea Party held a tax day rally in Portsmouth. I went to the rally to see what the fuss is about and check it out for myself. I was surprised more by what it was not, than by what it was. For better and worse, the New Hampshire seacoast chapter of the Tea Party doesn't live up to it's reputation.

There were plenty of signs on display. I didn't see signs with egregious spelling and grammar errors and the messages were relatively tame. Nothing racist. No Nazis. Nothing that seemed overly hysterical. No Fox News references.

I expected the general mood to be one of anger and defiance. But it wasn't really. Cranky, yes. But the partiers seemed to be mostly just enjoying the opportunity to curse big government, complain about onerous taxes and root for freedom.

I didn't see any guns. I thought implied violence might be a theme. But it wasn't really. At one point the MC was explaining a mock tea party bit where costumed reenactors were going to dump "the things we don't like" into the river. When someone yelled out "But Obama's not here!" the MC responded with a jokey agreement. He quickly followed up. "You know that's the one line they'll use in the papers." Big laugh.

Another thing the rally wasn't is large. The newspaper estimated the crowd at 250 which seems about right. Prescott Park has certainly seen bigger events. The annual Chowder Fest, for example, draws crowds more than 15 times that size. And they have delicious chowder.

In addition to talking in the scene, I was there for the speeches. I wanted hear what the fine minds of the Tea Party had to say-- to bathe in their vision of human liberty. There was not a lot of thematic diversity. The speakers struck the same notes again and again. I'll outline their arguments. I had some quibbles.

Founding Fathers

The Tea Partiers are big fans of the Founding Fathers. They are under the impression that the feeling would be mutual. Apparently the Founding Fathers would unanimously support every Tea Party utterance. I'm not so sure.

One memorable sequence was called: "Obama or the Founding Fathers". The speaker was going to say a phrase. We, the audience were supposed to call whether it should be attributed to President Obama or the authors of the Constitution. I was looking forward to this. I was genuinely curious what excerpts from the Federalist Papers or out-of-context Obama quotes might be used in service of the Tea Party thesis. I was disappointed.

Rather than draw material from anything the subjects ever said, the speaker just tossed out slogans. "Honest work", "Government handouts", "Freedom from oppression", "Federal control". A few times the speaker said something like "Projecting American power" and the crowd was genuinely confused about who we were supposed to be calling for.

Some notes on the Founding Fathers: They invented the federal government. The reason they invented the federal government is they had already tried the independent states approach and found it to be a disaster. They knew a strong nation would require a strong central government. So they created one.

The authors of the US Constitution held a diverse set of political views. They didn't agree with each other. No matter what your beliefs are, they would not all agree with you. They did ok despite their differences. So do we. Imagine if, by some miracle, we could resurrect James Madison today. Suppose we could invite him to see what has come from their little experiment in Republic-building. He would be impressed. America today is much more than anything they envisioned. We've build a great nation upon the foundation they established. We've kept their principals intact and inspired the world with our example.

The Founding Fathers would not be joining the calls to tear it all down.

Taxes and Deficits

If I hadn't already known that we had a trillion dollar deficit and that 47% of Americans don't pay federal income tax, I could have learned these facts from the speeches and signs at the rally. They neglected to mention that Obama has lowered our taxes or that income tax rates are now the lowest they have been in 60 years. Many of the people there complaining about the oppressive federal tax burden are among that 47% that pay no income tax at all.

It is no coincidence that we have historically low taxes and historically high deficits. One naturally leads to the other. The TPers claim they want to reduce spending. But their lack of specifics is damning. I want to "eliminate wasteful government spending". Everyone wants to eliminate wasteful government spending.  The problem is there is no consensus on what counts as waste. And you can't build consensus without offering specifics.

An energetic call for tax cuts paired with vague hand-waving in the direction of spending cuts is a clarion call for increased budget deficits.


God got number of shout-outs (Jesus Christ, not so much). My favorite: "God was the first entrepreneur. He created the universe with His own toil and His own imagination. He derived the pleasure from His work and reaped the rewards. He would have us live by His example."

No. The first artist? Maybe. But God was not an entrepreneur. He may move in mysterious ways, but we can safely assume that God isn't in it for the money. The universe was not created as one big franchise opportunity (The Almighty Dollar Store?). If that is the altar at which you worship then your faith rests on a very shaky foundation.


Speaking of shaky foundations, much of Tea Party rhetorical edifice is built upon an simplistic house of straw. Each of the speakers was building a bulwark against some imagined, imminent assault on our civil liberties. Apparently, Obama and "the liberals" have some big plans.
I don't claim to speak for all liberals. Like all vaguely-defined labels, liberalism is a many-splendored thing. I am an Obama supporter.

So, to all you Tea Partiers:

I'll happily defend your right to speak your mind. I don't dispute your right to own firearms. I want your employer to thrive, prosper and expand. If you own a business, I wish you luck and hope for your success. I am also deeply concerned about the federal deficit and am concerned that the American people will not support policies that lead to its reduction. I don't believe in federal expansion for it's own sake. I don't like paying taxes. I don't think tax dollars should be spent on initiatives that are unrelated to the public good.

We aren't coming for you. Really.


While I was hanging out listening to aspiring Republican senatorial candidate Bill Binnie I was approached by aspiring Republican congressional candidate Bob Bestani. Mr. Bestani was kind enough to entertain a few of my questions. I pressed him on how we'll reduce the deficit, control health care costs, and why American health care costs are vastly higher than those in other countries. His responses were not wildly divergent from typical Republican talking-points. He concluded by suggesting I audit his economics course at Stanford for the full extent of his wisdom.

My encounter with Mr. Bestani left me pondering the fate of Congressional aspirants. What is it like to reach such a position in life? You to put yourself forward. Your quest to be a member of the United States House of Representatives leads to skulking about at the back of a rally, shaking hands, passing out fliers and hoping to score a few votes. The guy at the podium is excoriating the legislative body you hope to join. You're trying to become one of the bums the crowd is demanding to throw out.

By the end of the rally, I had my fill of the New Hampshire chapter of the Tea Party. These people are not part of some formidable, fearsome movement. But nor is it a party I would care to join or in whose hands we can entrust our future.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Building a Better BioWare Game

The search for Kasumi's stolen memory has brought me back to Mass Effect 2 and back to the topic of stories in video games. I've been bemoaning the limitations of video games. BioWare, the studio behind Mass Effect and other excellent games, has been pushing against those limitations. In this post I'll take a look at the BioWare approach to game design.

I want to be able to shape a story in two different ways. I want be able to influence the plot and I want to be able to influence, and be influenced by, the characters.

BioWare provides some illusion of plot control, but this is limited. You have missions and objectives. You can skip some missions and have options regarding the order you'll undertake them. But the story is their story. Most players will end up doing the same things.

We're a long ways away from (and may never see) a game world where the consequences of all your choices have real ripple effects. The studios have a story to tell you and they don't want you to ruin it. There aren't an infinite number of writers devising an infinite number of exciting paths to follow. But they could, and should, design a few inflection points where you have real choices and deal with the consequences. Some of those consequences should be dire. The game should let you screw up and force you to fight your way back.

It's amazing BioWare games are as good as they are given the limitations of their engine. Most glaring is the absence of characters that can move outside of cut-scenes and combat. BioWare worlds are populated by people rooted to a single spot. Some mobile bystanders would make the worlds less sterile.

The engine limitations are also apparent in the combat missions. But some of the limitations maybe be just limitations of imagination. Mass Effect does a reasonable job of presenting some tactical variety and variation to its firefights and action sequences. But far too many missions devolve into corridor crawls. You move from one conveniently-placed spot of cover to another. Enemies pop-up, four at at time, to be dispatched with biotic blasts and head-shots.

Every mission should have some wrinkles. Some options:
  • Have enemies approach from all directions
  • Take away some or all of your weapons
  • Add non-combatants to be saved or imperiled
  • Have swarms of enemies
  • Have stand-off situations where combat can be avoided or risked
  • Neutralize powers
  • Add time constraints
  • Use 3-dimensions with enemies coming from above and below
  • Undertake missions alone with 1 or 3+ companions.
  • Go without Shepard
  • Tactical retreats where escape is the only option
  • More environmental dangers and effects
  • Reduce visibility
  • Deal with character injury and limitation
  • Enemies that can't or shouldn't be killed and must be trapped or evaded
  • Take away the cover
  • Limit or remove ammunition
  • Limit or remove medi-gel
These variations can be mixed and matched for even more variety.

The old BioWare injury model is overdue for redesign. Your companions go down in a hail of blaster fire. Wherever you are, you push a button, lose a dollop of the mysterious medi-gel and your friends bounce back. Even if you can't be bothered with the medi-gel administration, as soon as the last enemy in the room falls, everyone immediately gets up suffering no ill-effects from taking those mass-accelerated metal slugs to the face.

This model lacks a certain verisimilitude. It also lacks drama. It would more interesting if Shepard had to play medic, fight her way over to the injured companion, and apply the medicine in person. After their revival, downed characters should suffer a bit -- make them sit out a few missions in sick-bay while they recuperate.

When Shepard takes a hit players are treated to the old Game Over screen. Mass Effect should never show a game over or reload screen. They are tired, drama draining, and unnecessary. What are space-faring friends for if not to help up a Shepard when she's down? Your companions could revive you. Or Shepard could be shown to summon the strength to apply her own medi-gel. Or team members from the mother-ship could come bail you out. Or you you could fail. Very few of the Mass Effect missions are essential to the core plot. Letting you fall short on a few and face the consequences would be more interesting than the string of endless do-overs and successes.

Game Over is a crutch. Players and designers lean on too much. It's time to throw it away.

BioWare has built its reputation on the strength of its characters and quality of your interactions with them. Good character interaction rests on three requirements:
  • Characters that are interesting and fleshed-out enough to care about
  • Having some ability to define and control the relationship between you and your companions
  • Allowing your choices and actions to determine the fate of other characters
BioWare does a solid job with the first requirement. They've created a number of interesting and memorable characters over the years and are getting better at it with each release. Mass Effect 2 also allows you to have an impact on your relationship with you shipmates. More than any other game, you get to opportunity to explore their past, shape their destiny, and get them killed. But here again there is vast room for improvement.

The loyalty system is fun but should more flexible and less binary. Every action, choice, and conversation should make your various party members more or less loyal. And that loyalty should have a significant impact -- influencing how effective, aggressive, accurate, and helpful they are.

The inclusion of so many character-based missions is great for the game and an excellent device for developing the characters. I was saddened when one of my party members started to shun me. And Jack, you never gave me the chance to tell you this, but I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't confront Miranda about how Cerberus tortured you and made you a psychotic, biotic killer. That was wrong. And I'm sorry that big rock fell on your head during the cut-scene and killed you.

The character-based missions worked and I want more of them. Every mission should have one or more characters volunteer to take part. Including the ones who step forward might be optional, but would offer the opportunity for extra dialogue, scripted awesomeness, and heroic sacrifice.

BioWare is notorious for their in-game romantic options. I was torn. Do I choose the bland but anatomically compatible Jacob or grizzled Garrus. In my heart of hearts, do I go for the black guy or the green guy? Garrus won me over and the inter-species liaison was handled with remarkable tact, humor and affection.

I want to explore a deeper relationship with all the characters. Offering a few romanceables should be just the beginning. Every relationship should have a next level. And there should be more variety. I want jealous rivals, greedy high-maintenance mercenaries, subtle betrayers, zealots following their own agenda, moral beacons, reliable right-hands, jilted lovers, and manulative lotharios.

These relationships shouldn't just be incidental to the game but central to it. BioWare's given us a tiny glimpse of the possibilities of character-driven computer games. I love them. Now it's time to take them to the next level.

Part of the Game Design Workshop series.