Author Archives: Tynan Sylvester

About Tynan Sylvester

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Video Games Feed the Male Need to Dominate

A new study apparently reveals that popular video games satisfy men’s need to dominate.

First, I’m happy to say that I called it first.

Second, I’d be interested to see if video games would be less popular in a society that provides more outlets for these instincts. Aside from rough sports, we’re pretty starved for ways to express our dominant instincts. This type of repressed aggression and boredom probably contributes to youth crime. Maybe our ancestors, who had many more outlets for male aggression, might have had no interest at all in playing shooter games.

Game Word of the Week

Degenerate (adj)

A degenerate game has very little strategic depth. Tic tac toe is a good example.
Degenerate games can be played using very simple strategies with no meaningful decision making. These are known as degenerate strategies. A good game design does not allow degenerate strategies.

Usage: I wish we could include an exploding squirrel character, but it would open up a whole slew of obvious degenerate strategies.

Comment: Degenerate strategies can be fun to add here and there, but only as a temporary exception to the rule. If players have been fighting monster X hard for the whole game, they might enjoy a few minutes with an exploding squirrel gun that kills him in one hit. The game wouldn’t work if he had that gun the whole time, though. A real example of this is the invincibility star in the original Mario games.

Escaping the Black Swan

There are fundamental differences between games and life.

Games have defined boundaries. All the possibilities are known. Cause and effect are clear and well understood. Progress is consistent and tends to be permanent. You always know how to move forward, and you can always feel your progress.

Real life is the opposite of all this. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Cause and effect are almost always muddled, and frequently impossible to sort out. Progress is slow, random, often invisible, and frequently reversed.

There’s a fantastic book called Black Swan. I read it a few years ago. It crystallized a lot of ideas that had been floating around in my head for some time. It’s been a strong influence on my thinking ever since.


The basic idea is that unpredictable events – called black swans – are the most important factors affecting how the real world changes over time. It is human nature is to deceive ourselves with the idea of cause and effect through stories and hindsight. We like to think that we can track trends, see where we’re going. That the future isn’t an impenetrable fog.

In real life, nothing is predictable. Most of the things that will change our lives over the next 50 years don’t have names yet. Take the financial crisis. A year ago, what would people say if you told them that the low price of oil would be causing problems today? They’d think you were crazy. But it’s exactly what’s happening now. Oil-dependent economies are in trouble now that their product is suddenly worth so little on the market. They were bitten by a black swan, along with the rest of us.

Black swans are disturbing. They bother people, me included. I like to feel like I’m getting somewhere in life. Like I know where I’m going. I want to see the path. I don’t like seeing my progress reversed in my bank account, my learning, or my social life. I’ve accepted that growth in all of these areas is unsteady and noisy in real life. But it’s still annoying.

Games allow us to escape from the black swans. There are no black swans in Albion or Azeroth or Rapture. All threats are predictable and quantifiable, progress is measurable and permanent. We design games this way. Don’t hurt the player unless he really asks for it. Make sure the player knows what he’s receiving and what he needs to do. Draw a glowing line on the floor for him if you need to.

Perhaps this is one reason why people play games. People often say that games are escapist entertainment, but usually don’t say exactly what we’re escaping from. We’re escaping from the black swan.

Game Word of the Week

Strategic Depth (n)

The complexity of the strategic space that the game creates. Basically, it is a measure of how many viable strategies there are, how many ways they can interact with other strategies, and how many decision branches there are that require players to choose between strategies.

Usage: Chess has a fantastic level of strategic depth for such a fundamentally simple game.

Comment: Strategic depth sounds great, but there is such a thing as too much of it. Don’t overwhelm people who are just out to have a good time blowing shit up. I honestly don’t play Starcraft very often – a game with incredible strategic depth – because it is so mentally stressful. And I usually like intellectual challenges.

Game Word of the Week

And (adj)

A gameplay concept that has too many different things thrown into the pot. Lacking in focus and design discipline.
Usage: There’s a lot going on in this system. It’s very ‘and’.

Comment: It’s common for projects to be ‘and’ early in the design phase. We just need to make sure we know that almost everything we come up with will be cut. Cream of the crop, baby. Sometimes it’s amazing how tiny the functional feature set of a good game really is.

Game Word of the Week

Minmax (verb)

To play in a style a player tries to achieve a mathematically optimal gameplay result by systematically working out the best way to play the game. Derived from Minimax, a common algorithm used by brute-force AIs to find the optimal next move in a game.

Usage: I used to really minmax the Star Wars Galaxy auction system.

Comment: Some players really like minmaxing because it lets them feel like they’re “beating the system”. In reality, we know exactly who you are. It’s fine to let a few minmaxers beat the system, as long as it doesn’t become so prevalent that they’re ruining the experience for casual players. These guys tend to be community opinion leaders as well, so it’s good to keep them happy.

The Force Unleashed: Buried Awesomeness

I played the X360 version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed recently. In a phrase, it’s awesomeness buried deep.

One of the coolest abilities in the game is Force Grip. Force Grip allows you to pick up objects and people at a distance and move them anywhere on all three movement axes. The left stick controls the movement of the object on the horizontal plane, the right stick controls the movement of the object along a plane perpendicular to your camera. This means you can pick guys up and knock them into other guys, use big objects to crush people or sweep them aside, and push active environmental hazards around to destroy your enemies.

There is one spot in the game with big lasers on gimbals which you can push around with the force. Push the laser so it passes over your enemy and he burns up. Another level features huge flexible pipes which spout a constant stream of carbonite. Move the pipe so it sprays your enemies and they are frozen into a lump and dropped on the ground.

The whole thing is damn stylish. There’s nothing like picking up a stormtrooper, gently moving him over an open pit, and dropping him straight down. Or grabbing a trio of droids and slamming them into the ceiling, killing them and creating a rain of sparks and shattered glass from the destroyed ceiling lights. You can even pick up Jawas, place them gently in front of you, and punt them like a football.


The sad thing about all this awesomeness is that most people will never see it.

I work with pro game designers who finished the game without ever learning most of the systems. One of them even sat down and decided to spend some time to learn Force Grip. He went into the training mission and just played with Force Grip. He never got it, and eventually gave up. It’s hard. It took me hours and I have years of experience messing around with coordinate systems in 3dsmax.

I personally spent 80% of the game dying repeatedly when I would get knocked down and wait for my guy’s ragdoll to settle and for him to do his getting-up animation. Nobody ever mentioned that you can arrest your fall by pressing the jump button while you are falling through the air.

But I only realized that there was a combo system for lightsaber moves when I noticed all the combo control sequences listed in my character upgrade screen.

Train Me, My Master

Having deep, expert-level moves in a game isn’t inherently bad. The problem is when many people finish the game without ever learning to control it properly.

A lot of people probably never learned to use Force Grip at all, and never learned to do things with the lightsaber besides button-mashing.  They basically only played half the game.

The only training the game really gives you are a few on-screen tooltips to tell you how to do basic new moves as you acquire them, and a series of “training missions” which you can optionally activate. The training missions aren’t really effective, though since they’re all basically just simple 20-second challenges inside the same circular room. The tooltips are great, but they only tell you the bare minimum of what you need to know.

The game should have included fun, mandatory training sequences. It should have included an on-screen combo feedback readout. It should have had a default-on optional HUD element that tells you what each of your controls does in the current context, a la Assassin’s Creed.


Difficult Targeting Makes Puppies Cry

Another big quirk of the game is that your Force powers are targeted not by the orientation of your camera, but by the orientation of your character. The advantages are:

-You can change targets instantaneously by moving your character in any direction
-The camera can be fixed during boss battles
-They only had to make animations of your character casting effects forwards.

The disadvantage is a serious lack of precision causing constant mis-targeting and you will often be targeting someone off screen.

But, It’s Actually Pretty Good

Don’t let any of my bitching prevent you from getting the game. Consider this article a guide on how to enjoy Force Unleashed. Read the damn combo descriptions and learn to use the combos as you unlock them. Learn to use Force Grip properly. And for God’s sake, when they knock you down, mash the jump button!

It’s just so sad that most people will never get most of the game. And that’s Too Bad. If you’re making a game, make sure that the majority of the awesome stuff in it is accessible. Otherwise it might as well not be there at all.


Games Affect Kids in Non-Violent Ways!

Apparently, playing games can make you a better citizen. Maybe.

It’s obvious they didn’t have a game-conscious individual on-hand when they wrote the study. They seem to think Zelda and Tomb Raider are adventure games and The Sims is a simulation.

Still, it’s great to see some people doing game research on things besides violence. I know gaming throughout my childhood shaped my mind in many ways. Most of it was positive, but not all. I wonder what kind of person I might have been, in belief, habit, and pattern of thought, without the constant influence of all the games I played. Someone very different, I think.