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Force Majeure

An Incredibly Delayed Posting

I had not quite realised that so much time had past since I last wrote a blog post. Initially, I had planned to write these at an approximate weekly schedule, but various distractions and duties, including a trip to visit some friends which ended up taking up a larger amount of my time in April than I expected, have kept me away.

It is a shame because when I originally envisioned this post, nearly six weeks ago, it was a concept that had me captured and invigorated. My mind was apace with Whirled and the concepts of community. I began to consider similar concepts in light of Puzzle Pirates. And then I read an article in Escapist Magazine while browsing through the recent archives.

Specifically this article on Dunbar's Number. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it is simplistically the idea that there are a maximum number of connections the human brain can cope with directly to other people. In the context of games, especially on-line games, this dictates how large a group of players is likely to become. If a group grows beyond a certain size, the connections will become difficult between members and the group is more likely to fracture.

Some of the article (and other articles linked) is on the validity of the number. There are also numerous questions to it's origin. It is possible that there is a biological or neurological limitation. Alternatively it may be entirely contingent upon time. On that I am not sure. However it does seem that in some capacity, the number is an observable phenomena.

Within Puzzle Pirates, it takes a very curious form, however. The social networks of the game are quite loose. For any given player, there may be numerous different social circles at play. At its most basic, a single account may have three pirates, each may be in a different crew, per ocean. With the number of production oceans, a single player may be a member of a dozen different crew or more.

While a single player may focus on a single ocean and crew, each other member of that crew may resolve their circles differently. So already there are multiple social circles within the game.

The second social network is the hearties list. Ironically, this is limited to one-hundred fifty individuals,  the same as the number itself. And while all hearties are mutual, hearty lists are not. I may be Nemesis' hearty and she mine, but while she is Hypnos' hearty, I am not.

Add in the extra layers of organisation available: the flags and alliances to expand upon the crews, the ranks and subdivisions of crews within, the islands and shopkeeping interaction, the parlour games, events, forums (both official and player-created), real-life parties, and so forth.

Through it all, however, is that personal limitation. Be it time, focus, memory, interest, or experience, we all have some limitation against keeping connection with everyone at the same level, all the time. I have many friends in the game I have not spoken to in months. When I became an Ocean Master, I did my best to stay active and in contact, but increasingly my new circle became dominant and my older ones faded. They still exist, as surely as friends I had back in grade school still exist, but they are not prominent upon me right now.

I have few conclusions, here. This idea is new and fascinating, but undeveloped. More, I have questions. How are your circles within the game? How far do they spread? How many players would you consider your closest circle, and do they encircle each-other?

Ultimately, is Dunbar's Number a valid application upon this or any game, or is it just correlation without causation?

Design Accessibility

It seems it has taken more than a week for me to fully recover from the invigorating madness that was the Game Developer's Conference. Hypnos has already given a sufficient recap, so I have little to add. I would like to express my excitement over Whirled, however. The possibilities for the game are nearly endless.

The key for Whirled, from the presentation by Cleaver and Sheriff Mike, is accessibility. The instant access and possibility for player-created content is a combination that is ripe for growth and depth. As the internet has shown there is an economy of scale if everyone can provide content. The nature of fan fiction, amateur music and video, and free webgames means that there is almost always something out there to entertain, if you don't mind looking a bit. Since the output potential from the general public is so much greater than any collection of companies, there's a much wider range to choose from and hopefully some of those things will stand out as products of exemplary quality.

While I am not keyed into the maturation of the Internet as much as some, I can see that a definite trend is to make it easier and easier for anyone to show up and make something. While things are not yet at the point where one can point and click to create a game, the creation of venues such as Whirled do give me hope that someday I may be able to overcome my lack of even meagre programming skills.

Similarly, accessibility is a consideration for the GCPP. When we envisioned the project, one element we wanted was to increase the traffic of Game Gardens, which is a nice site of free games with almost no players. The nature of the site also had the games programmed in Java using the toolkits and source libraries that are used on Puzzle Pirates. In an ideal scenario, any puzzles that were created could be added to Puzzle Pirates with relative ease.

While the first round of the GCPP had a successful response, it seems clear that we overestimated the desire for programmers to participate. A number of talented players did step forward and deal with the difficult task of putting the designs together in a playable format. However, it remains true that even with open-source libraries and a convenient site to upload the games to, programming in Java is still a difficult task. A few players had expressed a desire to try and learn, but the time and energy required were something of a barrier to this good will.

Thus, a change has been made for the project. Simply put, any format for the designs are fine, provided there is a clear understanding of the scoring and the format is playable online. Similar to Whirled, this allows players with other skill sets to make a contribution without waiting to see if there is a programmer available, although Game Gardens remains an option if anyone desires. I hope to see some designs as little Flash games to go along with the designs that are little Java games. And I hope that this allows more designs to be considered.

Working Vacation

I have taken a change of pace from my normal schedule to join Hermes and Hypnos this week in volunteering for the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. While we are only half way through the week, I can honestly say my eyes have been opened to games in ways I never expected.

Even as we have done small tasks to keep the entire conference organised, I have enjoyed meeting and connecting with other people, some in the industry, some wishing to join the industry in the future. The varied views and experiences has led to some extremely invigorating conversation. Rarely have I had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful new friends in such a short period.

What has been most gratifying is the high regard that many people hold for Puzzle Pirates and Three Rings. While our company and game may be smaller than most of the rest out there, the industry does know what we are doing and is impressed.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting in to watch one of Captain Cleaver's panels and take some pictures for Hypnos. He was with Charles Merrin from RealArcade, Don Ryan from Oberon Media, and John Welch from PlayFirst for a discussion on retaining users in casual games. Quite to my surprise, the captain lit a bit of a fire in a short presentation which led to a lively and controversial debate on the nature of casual games with differing viewpoints between our small independent developer and the large portal sites such as Real. While the debate was heated, no hard feelings were felt at the end.

Afterward, the captain and I had the pleasure to chat with a gentleman who was in the audience and has recently started his own game company quite by accident. His product is rather innovative and I believe will successfully target a market that has so far been avoided by game companies. I confess that I have forgotten his name, but I wish him well. I believe that the captain feels the same.

I also took some time out of my day to stop by the home port for the developers at the Three Rings office to say hello. This was convenient as the office is quite literally just a few blocks down the street from the conference center.

While there I had the pleasure to open a package from one of the wonderful governors I had the chance to work with last year. I was even given a nice puzzle:

View this photo

As I wandered through the office, I caught sight of a giant tentacle. I was not told of the origin of said tentacle, but I suspect that Cephalopod forgot it one evening.

View this photo

Hypnos and I have come back to the office briefly to partake in the wonderful napping policy to recharge for the rest of the week. While invigorating and fun, working at the conference has left my nights somewhat short on adequate sleep. The chance to take an hour or two to lie down and catch up is most welcome.

For the rest of the week, we are going to watch Captain Cleaver in some of his many panels and discussions. I expect that he will light a few more fires before the week is out and tomorrow is the highly anticipated unveiling of Three Rings' third game. From what little I know, I am terribly excited. Afterward one of the parties the developers are famed for will happen aboard Nemo's own Nautilus.

Doll Houses

I had meant to write a post this week about the nature of the changes to the GCPP. These are exciting changes and will hopefully make the entire project more accessible by all. However, I have just seen something which has sidetracked me.

As most players are aware, there are doll trinkets for each Ocean Master. We have the option to award these as we see fit. The requirements to receive one vary significantly from Ocean Master to Ocean Master and usually reflect some degree of our interests and involvement with the game.

Initially, I awarded my dolls to players who helped out with my bake-off events. Eventually, I devised a way to run bake-offs without assistance, and the number of dolls awarded decreased somewhat significantly. The change was not due to a wish to have fewer dolls in circulation, just that it was more efficient for me to run a bake-off myself than to coordinate with others.

The last time I awarded a significant number of dolls was to my judges in the Microfiction Deathmatch. Since then, I believe I have awarded two, both prizes in contests.

Somewhat inevitably, dolls were posted for sale soon after they appeared. They seem to have settled in a value somewhat below a familiar but above nearly any other item in the game. It is inevitable that any tradeable commodity in the game will be traded. Even personalising the dolls does not seem to make a difference.

Professionally, we do not care what happens. Even so, I did sigh slightly when I noticed that my latest award had been offered for sale soon after it was received. Such is the way of things.

But I confess that I was taken aback when I saw this:

and this:

and this:

I am touched.

On Player Interaction

I do not, as a rule, engage in idle conversation with players. This is particularly true when I am working and while I have tried to engage in some "docktarting" time now and again, I find it difficult to keep any sort of schedule given how much I work.

This does not mean that I dislike players. To the contrary, I enjoy players considerably and the interaction I do have with them. Often, however, at the end of a shift, when I have been working steadily and have other duties to finish up with, in those moments when I am not working, I often desire to leave the computer behind entirely. Chatting on the docks becomes difficult in such a situation.

The most notable lack of interaction is with tells. I do not respond to them unless I have initiated the conversation. Players will send me tells for various reasons, and I will take note on occasion, particularly if a vessel has been left without any means of motivation due to an officer disconnection. Often, however, these tells will not receive response and I may not notice them for quite some time if I am working in another window or ocean.

Some players understand this, and do not expect a response. They will drop a cheerful greeting wishing me a good morning and then proceed to other more piratey endeavors. Others do not quite understand and I have been berated, at length, for my non-responsive nature. There was one odd case where a player wanted to speak to me. After a few tells insisting on a response, this player decided to go ahead and have half of the conversation anyway. I confess that it was a rather fascinating look into another person's life, but had very little to do with Puzzle Pirates. I hope that, if nothing else, the diatribe was cathartic.

My favourite tell (and occasional petition) must be on those occasions when I am covering for another Ocean Master. This will usually happen during the "prime time" shifts during the American time-zone evenings. Every month or two someone will ask "Are you the new OM?"

I confess I am never quite certain how I should respond. If I were inclined to respond. But an examination of my logs shows that the tell came a good half hour ago and the player is now happily pillaging aboard the Sweet Grunion and has no wish to hear an explanation from an Ocean Master.

I suppose it is for the best.

While I am no longer a new Ocean Master, I am apparently a new one for these players. I hope that they will eventually take my lack of interaction in cheerful stride as the more veteran players do.

A Brief Pre-History of the GCPP

While the process is far from complete, we have achieved a rather stunning milestone with the Grand Crafting Puzzle Project. The early stages of the GCPP were quite nebulous but have coalesced into a handful of puzzle designs that are now being reviewed by the Developers to decide on which will become the next crafting puzzle.

The story is far from over, and there are some exciting changes in store which should make the enterprise more accessible, much of what happened to get the GCPP running has been unknown to the players. So, an explanation of the development of one of the most unique aspects of Puzzle Pirates:

I believe the first time I heard a suggestion that the future crafting puzzles be designed by players was in the latter part of 2005 or early in 2006. If memory serves, Cleaver was the first to mention this, but it could have been another developer. There were some very early stage plans drawn up and we even received some suggestions from players. These plans all had one striking similarity. They were contests.

Within the game and community, we have an extremely strong and well developed competition atmosphere. Innovative ideas are somewhat commonplace and the amount of company-sponsored events, especially those utilising outside-the-game skills such as writing poetry or making movies, continues to surprise me to this day. It is somewhat natural that as we looked to getting this rolling we would consider to work in more of the same style.

When I began to work on developing the GCPP in earnest, I saw two significant problems with the contest angle. The first is that there is a strong imbalance in designing puzzles. While a successful puzzle game has a core of a strong design, a playable puzzle requires engineering skill. This is especially true since we wanted the playtest versions to exist on Game Gardens, which is a valuable resource, but geared towards those who understand Java and programming already.

Any contest which answers this imbalance would either require that entrants were able to devise the design and program it, or they would have to build a team which could cover those aspects. There would also be the matter of artwork.

The second problem is related to the nature of contests in general. With a contest, there is a prize at the end which becomes the goal for the entrants. While in most cases this is perfectly fine, in the situation of the crafting puzzles, focusing on the prize could mean ignoring the point of the contest, which is to get the best game possible added as the next crafting puzzle.

Instead of a contest, I envisioned an open project with the players working together to achieve the ultimate goal. In some ways, this would be similar to the island designers group, but there would be no membership requirements. Conversely, the final criteria are much more strict.

With the basic idea in hand, I began to work on how to organise such a project. Ultimately, I decided to go with a "less is more" strategy, which is why, if you look at my initial posts regarding the GCPP, much of the plan for the project is vague. I deliberately wanted to have the players involved with developing the project from the ground up.

Since the GCPP began in public, I have often found my role is less of a project manager than I anticipated. It has been a learning experience, as the GCPP is far different from anything I have worked on as an Ocean Master in the past. I would hope that the wonderful players who have taken the project to heart feel the same.

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