Sunday, December 30, 2001

Began a new job this week. Computer sales. As I posted last week, I've become something of a dinosaur; it's interesting to see exactly how much. I know next to nothing about scanners, photo printers, hooking up strange hardware, and so on. And of course, learning a bit about what the options are takes time. I've been quite surprised that a major chain is not that helpful in learning how the system works, that is, how can I get the customer the best price, or beat the deal he has at Store X?

Oh well. When I get the sales, I maximize them the best that I can. But I don't get the sales, not yet.

(Rant coming soon about traffic laws.)

  Sunday, December 23, 2001

I've begun speaking to my father and his brothers, to extend the "family history" that his youngest brother began in 1993. (When complete, the history will probably make an appearance on this site.) I once thought I should be a newspaperman; interviewing my uncles makes it apparent that it's a lot harder than one would guess. One has to draw out the information one wants or needs, without giving the interviewee the impression that he's being grilled. And, I've been interviewed for the papers several times; each time I've been disappointed with the article as it appeared. (This has also been true when I've written the article--damn editors.) I wonder now if most of the response I get will be about how I missed the inclusion of some of the (admittedly entertaining) stories I heard. In any case, here's a note to aspiring newspapermen: It's harder than it looks.

---In tweaking this site I've had to learn a fair bit of HTML. I've been pleasantly surprised--HTML, qua HTML, is easy. It's the fancy stuff that one does with tools outside of HTML that makes it hard. I don't need XML or SSI or the others I've read about for this site, at least yet, but I've got another project cooking that requires me to learn Java. I'm not complaining, it's a volunteer project, but the learning curve for Java is a whole lot higher. I've downloaded 75MB of crap so far, which is no small cheese over a dialup connexion (to which I've been limited for the last six months). I don't expect to be able to go through what I've downloaded for a few days yet, but I fully expect to find that (a) I didn't need to download most of it and (b) I need to download a bunch of other stuff.

All of this, and the language itself I don't expect to pose a significant problem. It's object-oriented ... not a big deal in itself; I introduced myself to that when playing with Inform a few months ago. The API concept is new, but from what I've read so far it seems just a fancy way to access the libraries.

I've been rather surprised this year that by being out of programming even on a hobbyist level for, hmm, ten years or so, I've become something of a dinosaur. Oh well; it's just another area of my life in which I'm old-fashioned. As a so-called spaghetti-code programmer from way back, I'll actually agree that object-oriented languages make thinking about projects a bit easier. For my project (a Java version of the board game Supremacy, ca 1990), I was conceiving of the board in spaghetti-code terms as a giant array, or group of arrays, but thinking about the board and its territories as objects makes conceptualizing the game a lot easier.

There will likely be more forthcoming about Supremacy; perhaps posting occasional progress reports will encourage me to keep plugging away at the game. (In case you were going to ask: I'll seek permission before making any attempt at commercial use of the game. That point, if it comes, is far off.)

  Thursday, December 20, 2001

I had a thought concerning "Blogger" and the nature of weblogs. I draw an analogy.

Many law books (I'm told) are written on two levels, to decrease the complexity of the sentences on the "main" level (which are already often terribly complex). For example:

     9.1.1. Whenever any person* shall act** in such a way ...
         * "Person" here does not include a corporate person.
         ** A person who acts at the behest of another shall be held to have acted under his own volition.

The footnotes add important detail to the law or act or contract, while rendering the main text more readable and understandable. In most cases the footnotes are an essential part of the law or act or whatever. Although I don't know of this being done, there is no reason that the footnotes (which can themselves be quite long) can't have a further level of text below them, to increase readability and understanding. (It strikes me that case law could be considered to be this very sublevel.) These sublevels could be continued ad infinitum. (Regular readers of this page--I hope there turn out to be some--will notice that I make lots of parenthetical comments. This paragraph contains two. If "Blogger" made this fairly easy, I might abstract some of these parenthetical comments into footnotes to increase the flow of my main thought. Of course, perhaps I'm the one who should extend "Blogger" in this way. Actually, I don't know HTML; it may turn out that HTML already has this capability. Note to self: check.)

The analogy to "Blogger" and weblogs is this. Life in general contains any number of intellectual and semi-intellectual exercises. This can be a conversation that extends deeper than the weather and "How you been?" "Fine", or it can be one's reaction to a book, movie, whatever. This conversation or book, analogous to the primary level of text (ie, ยง9.1.1 above), are not likely to be represented in a Weblog such as this. (It is, of course, possible to link to many of these, and many Weblogs do.) The Weblog represents the second level of text, the footnotes. My parenthetical comments could be a third level, or might be considered tightly bound to their text and hence something like level 2½.

In any case, this is my insight of the day. "Weblogs are the footnotes to life." You can quote me on that.

  Wednesday, December 19, 2001

"Fellowship of the Ring" opened today. I didn't see it. I hope to see it this weekend, because Theatre One at Studio 28 in Grand Rapids is the largest single-screen theatre in Michigan, and I'm guessing that this is the type of movie that I'll want to see on a big screen.

I did just watch a biography of JRR Tolkien on PBS, though. One thing that people find appealing about Middle-Earth and the books that are set in it is that the world is magical and mysterious, which (they feel) the real world isn't. I suspect that the books get knocked for "escapism" because so many people feel they would rather live in Middle-Earth, that is, that they would like to escape there. The world of Middle-Earth is also admired for seeming so much deeper and richer than the real world.

(The documentary had Christopher Tolkien recounting his father's frustration with the attacks on Lord of the Rings as escapist. JRR Tolkien felt that, in the absolute sense, the books were escapist--but why must this be the escapism of a deserter "escaping" from his army, rather than the escape of a prisoner from his bonds? A good question--but it causes one to wonder if it's not only Tolkien's fans who are escaping.)

My own take on the documentary (and hence the books) is that the real world is infinitely richer and deeper than Middle-Earth's world. Lord of the Rings is long ... but even including the ancillary publications the "source material" for the lore and legends of Middle-Earth comes to less than three thousand pages. The main tale in LOTR is a heroic epic, with some of Tolkien's source material, the history presented over the course of the story, sprinkled in in doses which hint at further epics.

I suspect that the idea of "heroism" has simply been confounded by misuse. Social critics are right to point out that Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter are not heroes. (Actually, this isn't wholly true. Even in sports, an incredible comeback against overwhelming odds can indeed be told as the story of a heroic struggle—in the pure sense of "heroic.") The social critics, however, almost invariably point to the exact same person as their ideas of a "true" hero: a teacher. Don't get me wrong: I respect their calling. (At least the good teachers—but that's a subject for another day.) But a teacher, merely by being a teacher, is no more a hero than a sports figure is a hero merely because of what he does.

I'm of the opinion that a true "heroic" tale involves a great struggle against terrible odds. By engaging is such a struggle one would become a hero. (Scale enters into this in some way I can't figure out ... if 10,000 men stand their ground against a deadly charge and prevail, the heroism of any one of them is somehow lessened.) My father has said that many of the acts which I see as particularly heroic are "great acts of defiance." I can't disagree with this.

What I think "escapists" are missing is that the real world is full of heroic tales. It would have to be, because even the most ardent creationists put the age of the Earth at just over six thousand years. And the best estimates put the total number of people who have ever lived in the history of the world at between twelve and fifteen billion. Twelve or fifteen billion people have a lot of stories to tell. There is a word in English for stories from the past. It's called history.

But many people claim to not enjoy history, or at least not to know anything about it. I'm of the opinion that history is presented wrong. History is, at its heart, composed of stories—and this is the way it should be told. Who remembers having to memorize a list of American explorers? Or Popes? Pretty dry stuff, and if this is what people think of as "history," it's no wonder they're turned off. But if people's schooling taught them the story of Magellan's men coming upon the straits that bear his name, in frigid water, in icy wind, with no way of knowing whether they would founder on rocks that none of them had ever seen before, they would remember. (I don't know the story, I made that up. But Magellan must have kept journals.) I know bare hints of stories about popes until surprisingly recent times bribing, cheating, and blackmailing their way into their office, but an entertaining story would make people pay attention to the history.

Those are two stories I plucked from history almost at random. I've never been told either one, at least not in a manner entertaining enough that the stories are as beloved as Lord of the Rings. But the world is full of stories that are begging to be told.

So the ultimate point of this lengthy missive (which may or may not qualify as a rant) is this: Turning to Lord of the Rings because its world is more magical than the real world is defensible. But don't turn to Middle-Earth because it has more history or more heroes. Turn to the heroes of our own world.

  Tuesday, December 18, 2001

This marks the first actual entry in my weblog, although I intend to back-date several things before this entry (assuming I'm clever enough to figure that out). [Archivist's note: I did, in 2004, when that functionality was a regular part of Blogger.]

Every web page that I've ever seen that was supposed to be updated periodically, unless it is wealthy enough to pay people, has somewhere in the updates, and perhaps everywhere in the updates, said something to the effect of "Sorry this page hasn't been updated in a while. I plan to do better."

Well, I'm telling you up front that this page will probably (likely) go through several periods of inactivity. Months will go by between updates on occasion. Since I don't plan on being apologetic about it, in the future, I'll get one blanket apology in, right now.

Sorry this page hasn't been updated in a while.

(I feel better.) At this time the page is called "Muppets and Mormons." No reason; those were two words that came to mind. And, hey, if I ever decide to register a domain for this site, I'm guessing "muppetsandmormons.com" will remain available for a long time. Having a brain which concatenates things which have nothing to do with each other can be a blessing. No offense intended to any Muppets that may be reading this. As for Mormons, well, if they take offense then they're just too high-strung.

  Thursday, December 13, 2001

I have only just begun creating my page. However, I have promised to make available a copy of "Apprentice," an incomplete and buggy, but playable, game I wrote while experimenting with Inform, a programming language designed for the creation of text adventures in the style of the Infocom classics of the 1980s.

The file itself is here, zipped: http://www.geocities.com/dmarsh3000/apprentice.zip

Unzipped, the file is nearly 200K. Most of this is libraries, including debugging libraries which add about 50% to the size of the file. Unzipping will yield a file entitled "apprentice.z5", which must be run through a Z-machine interpreter. I recommend (and use) those of the "Frotz" family. These may be downloaded from the IF-archive (www.ifarchive.org) at http://www.ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archiveXinfocomXinterpretersXfrotz.html. For Windows machines, the appropriate download is http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/infocom/interpreters/frotz/WinFrotzR53.zip.

A more thorough update to this page will occur--well, when the mood strikes me, really. But it is coming.

  Saturday, December 08, 2001

Thinking Out Loud -- 8 Dec 2001

... Lord British did a round of interviews over the last couple of days. In the one where he talks about "Tabula Rasa" the most (which is still only about a paragraph), what he describes sounds a lot like what I described in my MMORPG email. I remember the word "instantiated" being very important to my understanding of what he's doing. (This article was also interesting in that there's some jabs at LB from EA.)

OK, now, thinking aloud.

It seems to me that the successful sites on the net are the ones run by the people who are insanely dedicated to their causes. For example, if I was a particular fan of tomatoes and thought it would be good if more people ate them, I might (on a whim) punch "tomatoes" into a search engine and see what I got. Hmm, bad example; a lot of sites would likely be porn. Anyway, a fair number of the (non-porn) tomato sites would be amateurish sites that publish "Ma Graham's Tomato Soup Recipe" or a bizarre diary account of a fellow who lived for a year on nothing but tomatoes. Both of those sites are interesting (if only in the sense that a traffic accident is interesting), but there's nothing on either site that would keep people returning to the site, and thus, neither site will make money.

The successful tomato site, it seems, will collect zillions of articles and recipes and so on about tomatoes, and facilities for people to write their own tomato articles (probably with notes from the moderators which detail the specific areas of tomato lore that are in particular need of articles). There would also be fora (I refuse to use the word "forums") which allow people to discuss tomato history, legends, recipes, crossbreeding, and pretty much anything else people care to do with tomatoes.

I can't believe that I've gone this far with such a silly example.

In short, one will have created a tomato community. For gaming examples of this, see www.apolyton.net (Civ and its brethren) or www.stratics.com (MMORPGs). This community can be advertised to, and make people money.

I'd like it if it was possible to do this in the area of gaming. However, I think now that the big gaming sites (particularly GameSpy with its www.planet(game).com sites) are doing this, one would have to go up against big money to compete, and, well, fail.

So: What other areas of the universe can communities be built around [to make money]?

  Tuesday, December 04, 2001

Thinking Out Loud: MMORPGs -- 4 Dec 2001

It seems to me that the biggest problems with MMORPG's right now is their incredible "done that"ness. The current crop of MMORPG's look nicer, but in gameplay are no different, essentially, than Meridian 59, or, really, than the MUDs that have been around for æons. (You know, since, like, the '80s.) Skills and terminology that apply to one game transfer immediately to others. Characters are one of, or a combination of, healers, tanks, and nukers. (Summoners, which seem to defy this, turn out to be a combination tank/nuker.) Gameplay is often about finding the hunting grounds that are appropriate to your level, hunting there until you've levelled a couple times, and moving on to the next hunting grounds.

I think the single biggest thing that is missing from the game is the quest. I'm short on example games for current quest systems. I don't remember any quests in DragonRealms (DR). The only quests I recall in Meridian 59 (M59) were of the take-him-a-message sort. Ultima Online (UO) had traveller quests, where you needed to escort a traveller somewhere for gold, but for most players the only important "quests" were to obtain materials for crafting (eg, "black gold" is mined near Vesper; "texas tea" grows near Trinsic). Everquest (EQ) does appear to have a lot of quests, but for the most part, players hunt until a quest becomes easy enough that it's mostly about travelling.

What seems to be missing is the element that is important from single-player RPGs ... players quest, and by questing, they gain experience. When designing a single-player RPG, designers don't expect their players to spend six hours in a single room fighting a never-ending onslaught of (insert monster here). Bo-ring. I believe that the only thing that saves MMORPG's from being tedious is the interaction with other PCs.

But this isn't enough. Do you invite people to your house to engage the tedious? "Hey, Mike, why don't you and Judy come over. We have some paint that's drying, and Carol says maybe we can churn butter later." Shared tedium isn't fun for long.

My idea is that players should progress through a MMORPG much the way they progress through a single-player game -- as a connected series of individual quests. eg:

  1. Players begin in city "A".
  2. Local residents (mainly NPCs) are concerned!
  3. Journey to city "B".
  4. City "B" has been overrun by (monster)s!
  5. The (monster)s seem to come from the Ancient "C" Mine.
  6. Descend the mine: The Wizard of "D" is behind this!
  7. The Wizard of "D" teleports away, perhaps to city "E".
  8. Journey to City "E" ... and so on.

The obvious problem with this is that it's hardly possible for several hundred players to be traipsing through the same dungeon, and have the dungeon experience be at all interesting, or indeed even to be different from other MMORPGs. My solution is to rethink the way servers are split: There are very few non-dungeon servers (but the "aboveground" world(s) is/are big enough that they don't feel crowded). [Optional: Some genius might be expended in splitting the aboveground into areas (different planes, or planets, or ...) that segregate players into approximate skill-level groups. (Eg, one doesn't learn the true whereabouts of the Wizard of "T" until one reaches level 43, or a gimcrackery skill of 91%.) This prevents low-level players from being "twinked" by high-level players.]

In each area ("town"), there are people (NPCs) with quests. These could be major (Ascend to the roof of the Tower of "W", above the 66th floor, and return to me the egg of a golden roc. Oh, did I tell you that barbarians control the tower?) or they could be minor (That bastard "G" stole my chicken!). The quest-givers give out quests that are appropriate for the party which attempts them. (One thing to consider is the players' difficulty settings ... do they want a cakewalk or do they want to cheat death?)

The party (which might be one player) sets out to the quest site on the aboveground server. However, upon entering the dungeon, the party is in a world of its own: No other players are within the dungeon. And, for at least several game days, the state of the dungeon doesn't change as players enter and exit the dungeon. Once it does change, players can be notified with a simple "Oh, dear! The scary "H" monsters have refortified the Temple/Mine/Wal-Mart!"

To work as I've suggested, and to give the game worthwhile replay value, the number of quests has to be huge and continually growing. (At some critical mass, the number of quests becomes large enough that the number can seem to be inflated artificially, by rotating old quests out and restoring them six months later.) This strikes me as the most serious bottleneck: A couple of quests would have to be added PER DAY to keep interest and value (and keep generating monthly income). Perhaps the players themselves could be recruited to do much of this work; the number of superbly designed 3D worlds created by fans as mods to existing games continues to astound me. But the company must still retain a large force of "editors" who pick the best, clean up any problems or inconsistencies, and add them to the world.

I've already come up with several concerns with the above, mostly technical. I'm curious what you come up with. Part II (items) is to come.

[To come, perhaps, eventually ... but not anywhere near the time that this message was composed.]