Linux Games

Now is the perfect time for a revival of Linux gaming. By that, I mean middle-tier commercial games running on Linux natively.

The state of the desktop and Ubuntu in particular is advanced enough to be comfortable for many casual users. I know people for whom I feel gaming is the big drawback, the reason why it’s not worth living in Linux. It’s certainly a common lament on the Internet.

People keep saying ‘this could be the year of desktop Linux,’ enough so that the phrase is a joke. I’m not going to claim that (if it even has any meaning), but it’s ready. Gamers are just the sort of user that would warm to Linux. People that don’t balk at installing custom drivers for their video card or going through the kind of hoops that most games ask of you can certainly handle the learning curve of Linux. Or at least are familiar with searching online for troubleshooting.

If Linux could at least start being competitive on the games front, it would be a big win for it. It doesn’t need to be all games, or even many top-tier games. The goal would be reducing the need to reboot. Enough that one can live in Linux, and use Windows just for a couple games.

Technically, the biggest barrier is probably OpenGL. OpenGL works fine in Linux, but there are now common user-space programs that also want to write to the screen through 3D hardware. Like Vista’s UI. Video drivers are going through some API changes to flawlessly support that (and for other reasons), and we’re still in transition. An example of the problems this can cause are having to turn off desktop 3D effects before playing a game. A bit of a turn off.

Also audio. Audio works fine on Linux, but it’s not a cross-platform API. A developer would have to do the work of creating a little abstraction layer themselves. And learn ALSA.

Strategically, the biggest barrier is obviously Microsoft. They encourage DirectX, Games for Windows, and their whole ecosystem. Which buys a developer a lot these days, in terms of easy portability to the never-more-relevant console world via the XBOX.

I doubt it’s currently worth it for any single developer to bother with a Linux port. It would be too much work. They’d have to hire expertise in porting, they would have to figure out how to distribute it, which is non-trivial. If I wasn’t intimately involved in Linux land, I would be very intimidated by what I’d have to know to make a game that worked on the largest amount of distros. And to make it integrate well into the user’s computer (you know, install into the menus correctly, be a package that can be removed, installed, or updated via the user’s package manager), would be an extra level of complexity.

However, all’s not lost! The best hope I have is for someone at Valve to see the Linux light — or a competitor to arise and see the light. 🙂 If they ported Steam over, it would solve the distribution issues. The developer would still have to write a game that could work in Linux, which is non-trivial. But once accomplished, they just have to flip a Steam bit and be done with it. The various ‘accessories’ around a game, like an installer, an updater, and OS integration don’t need to be written. I think it would be a compelling story for a developer. There’s vague (denied) rumors of Valve already looking down this road, but I’m not holding my breath.

Still a lot of work to port a game. But smaller game houses already do that work, because they’re more desperate for any slice of the market. Games like Rain Slick Precipice or Savage. Steam carries those kinds of games (and does carry Savage).

It’d be a good way for them to generate some buzz and goodwill without too much effort (they only really need to make a little bit of middleware work). And if it succeeded, they’d be ever more entrenched as the distribution medium of choice. But still, it’s a gamble in which few game companies have had interest. But I maintain that now would be a good time for them to try it (recession notwithstanding).

Magic, Vs Style

A while ago, Casey introduced me to the card game Vs System. It had a neat resource system where you could play any card as a resource of the same type. In Magic terms, you could play a black card as a Swamp, a green card as a Forest, etc.

What’s that you say? “What a brilliant idea!?” I agree! I’ve been thinking about how exactly such a system would work in the Magic universe.

It turns out that Wizards has already toyed with this idea, via their Magic Online Vanguard series of avatars. The Dakkon Blackblade avatar reads:

You may play any colored card from your hand as a copy of a basic land card chosen at random that can produce mana of one of the card’s colors.

Since I’m considering playing not online, but in meat space, where it can be a pain to make random decisions and keep track of them, I’d probably just make that:

You may play any single-colored card from your hand as a copy of a basic land card that can produce mana of the card’s color. You may play any non-land colorless or multi-colored card as a land that can produce one colorless mana.

Here’s how I think this plays out, after having played it this way a couple times:

  1. No mana flood or screw ever — you can’t have too little or too much mana, though you can definitely still get yourself in the position where you don’t have the right colors. Sort of. If you put in too many gold or colorless cards, then you can run into problems. So just be careful about providing enough solid color cards. If you were to use Dakkon’s rules (pick a random color), this point is relieved somewhat.
  2. The mana curve shifts right. Expensive cards are much more playable (you can guarantee playing it by just waiting X turns).
    Thus, bombs are more omni-present. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (might make the game more interesting as a whole). People should just pack more insta-removal and Naturalizes. Plus, each player should have bombs, and neither player should be
    stuck at 2 mana. More grand clashes.
  3. Choosing which card to use as land and which to play was excruciating sometimes. Every hand was like a little puzzle. “If I spend this for mana, I can play these four other cards, but if I wait, I can do this and this on turn 5.” etc. This will get worse as the quality of decks goes up. It sucks to have to use an Oblivion Ring as a Plains. You have to really plan for the future. Lots of opportunity to mess up. I several times cursed using a certain card as land later in the game.
  4. Mana ramping is still good (playing cards like Druids that give you more mana faster). Mana smoothing becomes worse, but not useless, because it lets you play both your good black cards in your hand, rather than tossing one to play the other.
  5. Splashing colors is far less dangerous. Though you still need to draw at least two cards of the appropriate color to play any of them. So you have to be smart about your splashing. But that one red card in your hand that normally is useless just become a land.
  6. Color hosers and various sideboard cards will be maindecked. Situational cards of all stripes become playable. In fact, although I know this is a completely irrational response, I was often relieved to see a useless card in my hand, because it meant an easy choice for what to play as land.
  7. I don’t think the game necessarily slows down. I just think it makes all phases of the game important. You can still have a deck that rushes early before its opponent gets all the bombs he stuffed his deck with. Getting in that 10 points of damage before the end-game is still huge. But it does make it harder to maintain that early advantage.
  8. Land removal is crappy. It was always crappy, though, unless your deck was very well tuned for it (sligh red for example). There is an argument here that land removal becomes very close to discard, since your opponent is likely to replace the land with a new card from their hand. And discard is very good, since your opponent likely has bombs… But it’s a bit circuitous, and land destruction doesn’t usually net card advantage.
  9. Speaking of which, card advantage of any sort becomes huge. You’re not wasting your draws on puny Forests anymore, unless you want to.
  10. Not only does revealing cards from your deck as you play lands show your opponent what your deck is like, it shows your opponent what your hand is like and/or what you’re thinking (I got real worried when I saw that Ring being tossed). There is an interesting opportunity here to send signals to your opponent.
  11. During playtesting (with very terrible, hastily-thrown-together decks), after we got around six mana sources, we kind of stopped playing them, and started playing off the top of the library. A little like Off the Top, which was somewhat worrisome to us. But we figured normal Magic is like that too, once you get six lands. This just was more efficient about getting to that point and staying there.

Anyway, I’m super pumped to play this way. But no one else seems to be as excited (with the notable exception of Matt Cheung, my fellow playtester). QQ

Unity Games

Elaine and I recently went to Unity Games, at Ben’s suggestion. It was way more awesome than I had thought it would be.

You pay $15 at the door (or $12.50 ahead) and you go into this giant hotel ballroom. There’s the standard quick-set-up tables in rows with geeks sitting in them, but along the wall are all these card tables with stacks and stacks of obscure board games.

Each stack seemed to be brought by a different participant and you just borrowed a game, played it, and then returned it to the same stack. It was a very great way to play new games, and the people there were nice.

Notably, we found two new awesome games, and one particular stinker:

Dominion
This game is a great little card game. You and the other players each try to build your own deck of cards, containing a mix of money, victory, and action cards. You draw from your own built deck, so choose your ratios wisely. Whoever ends with the most victory cards wins. Unfortunately, it’s only for 2-4 players, but we played it with 5 once, and it didn’t explode. By playing with a different set of available action cards each game, you get pretty good replayability.
Robo Rally
Yes, this game is as old as dirt, but it was the first time I played it. I bought it later, I liked it so much. You play a robot in a factory trying to reach various flags before the other robots do. But the catch is that you submit move instructions to the robot at the same time as everyone else. When they get executed simultaneously, hilarity often ensues. The various maps, with their extra challenges and team play, add a lot of replayability. Plus, you can play with 2-8 players, which is a nice range.
Timber Tom
This game looked really neat, with a crazy three-dimensional board and little figurines, but we ended up voting No Confidence within 15 minutes. It was just too much work for not enough fun.

Unity Games happens every 6 months. I’d recommend it!

Chaotic

My brother Steve has long enjoyed playing and analyzing games, like I do. So he was excited to start an internship with the company that makes the Chaotic trading card game, over in San Diego.

He has basically a great job, helping design and test new cards. He reminded me about the game recently, and I checked it out more thoroughly.

It has some neat mechanics. I’ll describe them in Magic terms, because that’s how I forever relate to card games, and how my friends would understand. Sorry, Steve.

Basically, you put all your creatures for the game out on the table at the start, each with a hidden aura. You have two shuffled pile of instants, one for creature attacks, one for anytime. The attack pile is limited to 20 points of what I assume are ‘quality’ points — each card consumes some amount of that 20 points, and presumably they balance better cards by making you spend more of the points, though I haven’t yet seen examples of that.

When you put your creatures out, you put them on an inverted triangle layout. So does your opponent, with the two top sides of the triangles touching:

▯
▯ ▯
▯ ▯ ▯
▮ ▮ ▮
▮ ▮
▮

And to attack, you have to move your creature up to one square away, onto an enemy creature. So there’s a bit of positional strategy.

When you first attack a creature, both hidden auras are revealed. Then you keep going through rounds of battle, playing new attack spells, until one creature dies. The other creature then becomes healed and moves onto the spot (or stays there if defending). When all your creatures are dead, you lose.

One interesting twist on the game is that each card has a code on the bottom, that you can enter onto their site. This adds the card to your virtual collection, with which you can play free online too. Magic should do that. No reason not to, since they have the whole online collection/interface thing well tested; they just need to drop a code on the front of the cards.

Language Evolution

I’m a big fan of rules. And I’m guilty of loving the rules of grammar. Never end a sentence with a preposition, that sort of thing. But ultimately, I can’t care too much about it. I’ve always loved how versatile English is.

That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with constructed languages like Esperanto or Ido. Ido appeals to my order-loving half, but I ultimately find it too restrictive to be practical. Let loose upon a large body of speakers, I can’t help but feel it will be contorted and bent. Particularly once it starts adopting words from other languages (as it largely does now, with some extra -o’s stuck on).

English is too good at picking up bits of other languages, Katamari Damacy style. It’s ability to evolve and change is a virtue, not a problem. (Stephen Fry did a podcast about it recently, if you like him.) Although this mutability does make it a bitch to learn, after centuries of rolling around the Earth, picking up dregs of slang, prickly with cows and islands sticking out at all angles.

I’m fascinated by the future of English. It’s currently the lingua franca du jour. But will the Internet congeal that state or break it? I hear that all other countries are learning English as quickly as possible. That Japan and China have a voracious demand for English tutors. But I don’t know how true that is, relative to the demand in other countries to learn Japanese or Chinese. I have a very English-centric viewpoint of the world, and sources of news.

It certainly would be nice if it’s true that the world seems to be adopting English. It would be ever so convenient. And by adopting it in various regional pockets, it’s sure to grow odd, evolving in somewhat isolation. I’d be interested to know all the regional English jargon that must exist in non-English-majority countries.

It’s too bad, I really like Ido.

Dominick the Donkey

Man, I hate this song. The radio station that kicks in when the morning alarm trips has a habit of playing it.

I thought it was a new thing that the radio station invented, it was so god-awful. Something they came up with on a shoe-string budget. Something crafted to grab your attention long enough for you to reach the radio, but that would cut out right before you could reach the power button.

Then I heard it in a store. Looking it up on Wikipedia suggests that it’s been around since 1960, and that Rachael Ray put it on her Christmas album (natch). Sigh.

Quote of the Day

I saw this on a license plate frame, and I took it in what I assume was the intended spirit: as an example of everything that is wrong with the religious right’s slide from Christianity to Christianism.

“Angels are watching over me”

I think it would have been infinitely more Christian to have said “Angels are watching over us.”

English Axiom Set

If you take a dictionary, there must be a small set of words with which you can define all the rest of the words, proof style. So, say words A and B let you define word C. Then with all three you can define D. That sort of thing.

These original words would be English axioms of sorts. I suppose a computer could find them very easily.

This set of words would be the only words that need to be manually taught to students/kids. It could be assumed that any English speaker would already know them (since they would be the core must-haves of the language). Kind of like the set of words that the Simple English Wikipedia uses (though they actually try to use just the 1000 most common words).

I wonder how big the axiom set would be, in comparison to that 1000 most-common-words set.