Monday, July 19, 2004

Copyright Feudalism

Imagine a feudal land, one in which land is held by a coalition of powerful lords and minor landholders. There are many other people under this system, peasants and serfs who are under the nobility. These people are unable to produce anything from the land without the permission of the nobility, and the nobility charges whatever prince they choose.

The land is recorded on deeds, but the deeds are held privately—they are kept by the owner of the land. The responsibility of defending those claims falls upon the property owners as well, which means they all maintain personal armies to defend their land. When someone attempts to work their land without their permission, they send soldiers to take everything they own, leaving them destitute.

There is land out there that nobody owns. Indeed, there is much land which is not presently in use, because it has either been farmed to the point where it was ruined, or it never had any immediate farming value in the first place. There have been peasants who have gone out to this unused—and often unowned—land, with either shovels to remove rocks, or piles of manure to re fertilize the land, and eke out a meager existence, free from the tyranny of the nobility.

The problem is that it is impossible to tell who owns the land. The deeds are held privately, and though there is usually a historical record as to who originally owned the land, one can never tell who currently owns it, if anybody. There have been many such serfs who, seeking freedom, went to what seemed to be unclaimed land, created a life there, only to be persecuted by soldiers of an owner who has neglected the land. As a result, nobody finds freedom on the free lands. Only the existing nobility can afford to even attempt to work the free land, because they have money enough to exploit it.

That's the way they like it; it binds the serfs to them very effectively, and ensures that nobody will ever emerge who can compete with them in the agricultural goods market.

Such a land exists. It is called the United States of America, except instead of land, it's ideas which I am discussing. Instead of a feudal nobility, it is the existing coalition of media corporations. Instead of serfs and peasants seeking the free lands, it is creators who, much like the founders of these corporations, seek to use historical materials (as Walt Disney did with Steamboat Bill Jr.) as a basis for their own cultural creations. Instead of privately held deeds, it is unregistered copyrights. Instead of the great mix of unowned and owned but unused lands, it is the great mass of images and sounds which might be used in everything from documentaries to music videos, but cannot because their copyright status cannot be determined except at great expense (or risked at even greater expense). Instead of soldiers, it is lawyers, both for destroying those who dare seek creative freedom, and determining what of the mix is part of the public domain.

Does anybody else see a problem here?

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Master of Magic 2

First off, an apology to my political readers (there may be two or three of you :p ). This week, I will not be talking about politics or a form of government. I have done little more than play Master of Magic this week, and have had little interest in the outside world.

I was going to talk about what I would like to see in a Master of Magic 2, and I'm glad I decided to do some research into the subject before writing this. It seems that software company Stardock, maker of the 4x space conquest game Galactic Civilizations, it testing the water to see if a Master of Magic 2 would be a profitable undertaking. To me, the answer is obvious. Get the word out, get a big company's marketing department into gear, and MOM2 would certainly be profitable—though one wonders if one can allow a big company to even touch licensed material and not screw the game up. It's a bit of a catch 22. If Stardock makes it, it'll probably be good, but will enough people know about it to make it profitable? If Atari (who owns the license) makes it, it'll probably be profitable, but would the people in charge care enough to make it good?

If you're interested, go here and post about it. Now I'll ramble on about what I'd like to see in a Master of Magic 2.

First off, don't remove anything. Don't reduce the number of wizards, units, races, or heroes because you're doing it in 3d and don't want to have to pay for the sheer number of 3d models necessary to do a game that was originally done with 2d graphics. If it can't be done in 3d on a reasonable budget, do it in 2d. It can be really nice, high resolution, animated, 2d graphics, but if going 3d means reducing content, go 2d.

Don't change the magic system. Change the magic domains already provided, and you change the game. You might as well not call it Master of Magic; please don't corrupt the brand just because it'll bring in more money to call it that. Life, Death, Sorcery, Chaos, and Nature; I can't imagine adding anything to that system, nor removing anything. One might decide to subdivide the system, or perhaps make inter-domain specializations (for example, an Elemental Earth focus that makes it easier to cast Earth Elemental—a Nature spell—and Cracks Call—a Chaos spell, since they are both earth based, but makes it harder to cast wind mastery—a Sorcery spell—and... oh, I don't know, Summon Sprites). But the Nodes system is great as it is, and I don't want to see it altered too much.

I wouldn't even change the races too much. I have read that gnolls are “useless,” but I have also read that gnolls are great if you ignore ruins and nodes, and focus on eliminating the other wizards early on, before they've developed too much beyond swordsmen and cavalry (of which gnolls are probably the best in the game). And, of course, if you eliminate a wizard early on, you get their cities, and can use those cities to develop more advanced armies while your gnolls continue to harass the other wizards.

Don't remove spells. I'm sure one might have concerns about play balancing, but I suggest one of two approaches. If one simply is too lazy to really put the effort into balancing the rather large number of possible spells (and possible strategies and exploits), don't bother grabbing the license. Just make a non-MOM fantasy style civlike game. However, the other possibility is to allow the player(s) to remove spells before the game begins. Just provide an interface by which the players in a multiplayer game can haggle over what spells they will allow and what spells they won't, and let them run with it.

Now, as to what I would add. First requirement is obviously updated graphics, sound that works on modern machines, and better AI. Please don't replace the music wholesale. I can't hear it now, on my modern machine, but I remember it being pretty cool. As to AI updates, simple things like having the AI actually move about strategically even when there is a city wall (sending cavalry forth to fight a bit before returning to the fortress, if such can be done so with the possibility of them escaping alive), making it smarter about having their spellcasting heroes use their missile attack rather than cast spells under certain situations (like a node battle), and a better simulation of diplomatic behavior would do it. Another thing that would be nice is to have different levels of difficulty be based upon different levels of intelligence and aggressiveness, rather than relying so much upon production bonuses and absolute gang-up situations. Watch your people who are totally new to the 4x experience play, and make the computer act like them (less efficient exploration algorithms, squandering of resources, novice tactical mistakes, etc.) Give your Impossible level access to the nastiest exploits the players can find—and don't even *make* the Impossible level until the game has been out for a bit, and the worst exploits (the ones you don't intend to patch) are found. Release it in an update.

One poster at Stardock's Galactic Civilizations forums said something about more than just two planes. I think this is a great idea, but unless the extra worlds have more to them than a palate shifted color scheme and more space to colonize, I'm not really interested. We need more races for each plane, more terrain types, more wizards, etc. All this is more graphics, more play balancing, more work. If Stardock is really up to it, I'd love to see a system by which each magic domain has its own world associated with it. This is how each place would be justified.

Arcanus and Myrror would represent the intermixing of the mundane and arcane magic which defines Master of Magic. Arcanus is more mundane, Myrror more magical, but both contain elements of the other plane, since magic exists in both. These two worlds would remain mostly as they were in the original MOM. Towers would continue to be the chief door between the planes of Arcanus and Myrror.

Nature magic would have an “origin” plane. This plane would be inhabited by faeries, wood elves, maybe stone giants (all summonable creaturs from MOM, except wood elves), maybe beastmen, and other races appropriate to such a setting (two more would be good enough). It would be hostile to organized settlement. Plains would spontaneously change to forests and swamps, limiting food supplies and population sizes. Rampaging monsters would be very common. On the other hand, nature nodes would be 3x in power (while other nodes would have no power whatsoever).

Chaos magic would have an “origin” plane. The landscape would have lots of hills, mountains, and volcanoes. Inhabitants would include wild elves (or gray elves? gotta have some kind of elf in every world), maybe dwarves and trolls, possibly fire giants, definitely efreet, etc. Spontaneous volcanoes would threaten settlement, as well as the rampaging monsters (Hydra and Great Drakes would be a disturbingly common sight).

Sorcery Magic would be a plain of mostly islands (if not a great cloud kingdom), and high mountains would characterize these mountains. Djinn, Najas, sea elves, and others would populate this domain. Freak storms (air elementals) and sky drakes would threaten organized settlement, as would the common lack of dry land.

I'm not entirely sure what to do with Life and Death magic, if anything. Though one can imagine conquering the elemental worlds, how does one enter the world of the dead without actually being dead? Obviously, angels and demons are summoned from somewhere, but how can one tread the world of The Gods (and indeed, they do exist in MOM, since they occasionally give an artifact as a gift). Perhaps this whole thing makes the idea of creating the Magic Planes a bad idea. Or maybe one need only leave out the realms of life and death. Or maybe neither is necessary; perhaps there is a way to do it that is cool, and I haven't thought of it.

One possible way transitioning between the worlds could work is to have magic nodes, much like towers in the first MOM, be distributed evenly between the worlds. The nodes could be the doors between the worlds. Perhaps other types of nodes wouldn't even exist in the magic planes, but rather more of that plane's type of nodes would exist, unlinked to the other worlds. Under that situation, the nodes could be regularly powered (or perhaps double powered like in Myrror), and the reward is access to more nodes in the magical worlds.

The races that correspond to summoned creatures in Arcanus and Myrror would be designed under the assumption that, when you summon a creature, you're getting basically a random group, the “spearmen” of that race (unless the picture very clearly defines a sword, as in the case of fire giants). Actual military units would be potentially even more powerful, though they could only be used on their home plane at cost, which would be high, in gold, and perhaps even in food (like giants). If one wanted to use them on Arcanus and Myrror, one would have to enchant them with a survival spell... every bit as expensive as the summoning spell. The same could be true of units native to Arcanus and Myrror—they could not go through a node without a special elemental survival spell being cast, something that enables them to pass through a volcano into a world of blazing heat, or swim through eldritch waters to the other side of the sorcery node, or disappear, mist-like, into the wild world of the nature node.

But, all this is purely optional. If it's going to bog development, keep it to a slightly updated MOM. Maybe save all that fancy extra stuff for MOM3, if MOM2 is successful enough to justify doing an experiment that may potentially destroy the franchise (as MOO3 seems to have done).

While we're on 3d graphics, how about 3d gameplay? When you've got a combat involving flying creatures and land creatures, it just might be cool to have aerial dogfights and such between angles, demons, cockatrices, units of griffon riders, and such. Maybe even give flying units different maneuverabilities, looking to Master of Orion (2) for examples of how this can be implemented. Make the less maneuverable units also less hardy, able to have their wings clipped. Give them altitudes, and differing levels of advantage depending on whether they are higher or lower. Heck, while we're at it, do the same with hilly and mountainous terrain for ground units. Having the high ground is always an advantage, particularly if you have bowmen in the group. Castle walls can do the same thing.

If not other planes, then how about other areas of the game world? Wouldn't it be neat to have to deal with merfolk and fishmen at the bottom of the sea? Or how about a subterranean realm? Though the extraplanear gameplay seems a bit threatening to me (as something that could seriously ruin the game if done wrong), these areas seem like natural extensions of the existing game, perfectly appropriate to a sequel.

More places to live means you need more wizards, both more options to play with and more competing in the game itself. I was always disappointed with only four opponents (accustomed to seven in Civlization), and if you have loads of other places to go, you definitely need to potentially have competitors in those places.

And, of course, multiplayer mode. At the very least, one should be able to play turn by turn hotseat mode, by email, or over a network (including the Internet, of course). Maybe set up a way to easily hook up with other players, if not running a server themselves, then at least providing a program which interfaces with the game. Timed simultanious turns should be implemented. And while talking about this with my wife, I came up with another idea: the bathroom break button. You hit it, the other players agree to it, and the game is totally paused (ensuring nobody is penalized by answering the call of nature.)

Yes, I am very excited about Master of Magic 2. It should be very cool.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Herbivores, Carnivores, and Nuclear Weapons

So here I am, reading a fascinating book called King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz, when I find myself thinking about nuclear weapons. What's the connection, you say? Well, I'll tell you.

King Solomon's Ring has little to do with the legend that King Solomon, rather than speaking “also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes,” he spoke “also with beasts, and with fowl, and with creeping things, and with fishes...”, using a magic ring. Rather, it has to do with a man, the author, whose study of animals lead him to a profound understanding of the communications animals have with one another, the combination of instinctive automatic reactions to moods and learned attempts to influence another's behavior. The chapter I am reading is entitled “Morals and Weapons,” in which he discusses the nature of intra-species confrontations, between wolf and wolf, or dove and dove.

He describes beasts with hunting weapons as having remarkable restraint. A wolf will never bite the outstretched neck of a rival, nor a crow peck at the eye of another crow. The reason is obvious. If they did not have such inhibitions, the species would quickly disappear. I am reminded of human warriors, from extensive lines of warriors, well practiced in their weapons, who are capable, in all but the most extreme of circumstances, of settling very angry conflicts with a dual that ends with the cry, “I yield!”

He also spoke of herbivores—of hares, of doves (that ubiquitous symbol of peace), and of roe deer. These are animals which don't possess the weapons of a carnivore, but rather an extraordinary ability to escape harm. If one witnesses a battle between two of these, one can't help but think it couldn't help but be more civilized than the more heavily armed. In captivity, however, their true colors show. For while a wolf would never murder another wolf (or at least, very seldom), if you cage rival herbivores in close proximity, you see that they have no such inhibitions. Lorenz put two turtledoves into a large, roomy cage, went on an errand, and when he returned, found the larger of the two standing over the smaller, the lower one plucked and bloody. Had Lorenz not intervened, the smaller surely would have been killed.

The reason these have no inhibition is also obvious, once one thinks of it. Ordinarily, such confrontations end with one fleeing the other and, when a herbivore wishes to flee, there is generally little the pursuer can do about it. There is no need for inhibition; the ability of the loser to evade damage is far greater than the ability of the winner to cause it. Cage the two, and the loser cannot flee, and the winner has absolutely no concept of sparing the loser, the species having not had a need to evolve such a mechanism.

Where do humans come in? Well, we have two stereotypes of people with weapons: the honorable warrior who would spare an enemy who has surrendered, and the vicious murderer who would flay alive one who screamed for mercy. I would like to advance a theory regarding how these two things occur.

First, you have man in a more primitive state. His chief weapons are fists, sticks, and stones. The population density is such that a confrontation can be ended by the loser fleeing the scene, and the winner claiming his territory. This may describe man at his earliest stage of development, as well as men, in our own era, who still live in the countryside and, if they do have guns, at the very least, when they fire them, they fire them to drive off a rival, rather than killing him. So long as a conflict can end with the loser fleeing, these conflicts can remain relatively bloodless, though the newer brain-based mechanism allows more accidents with newer brain-developed weapons than ancient instincts honed on a biological weapon.

Force these people into the city, and a bloodbath quickly ensues. Every murderous urban underclass that has ever existed has always been a recent, and usually unwilling, migrant from the countryside, whether it be the urban poor of pre-American England or the minority urban poor that haunt the “bad side of town” to this day. These people are every bit as dangerous to their fellow men as flock of doves forced into captivity. Having no experience with the power to kill one who cannot escape, their anger finds no barrier. Attempting to beg for mercy just might be a bad idea, though I am not sure. I have never been in such an encounter.

Fast-forward to the urban warrior, one who has weapons which have been in existence for some time and yet remain the best one can have, and also comes from a family line which has lived under such conditions for generations. Now you might find a code of honor, some dueling system with a clear guidelines on how to proceed, how to fight, and how to end a combat without killing. When one willingly delivers himself into the hands of another, the other is stayed by a powerful cultural obligation to accept that a sufficient victory. However angry he might be with the submissive loser, his honor requires that he spare the life. Once again, the large human brain can find a way around this brain-based inhibition much more easily than the small brain of an animal can find its way around its own biologically based inhibition; nevertheless, it is created by the same kind of evolutionary pressure.

Whence comes war, then? Well, I think there are two impetus to the cruelty of war that even civilized beings are capable of engaging in.

The first is the mob mentality, that aspect of humankind that makes a group of individuals almost like an individual in and of itself. People behave very differently in groups than alone, and a human being, in defense of the group, will go to much greater lengths against an individual of the opposing group than against another individual, as an individual. One can almost analogize the conflict to the groups themselves, which wield their individuals against one another. Individuals within the groups may die in this conflict, and, once it's over, the survivors may grieve, but the groups will survive, nonetheless. When the battle looks hopeless, one group will surrender to the other, and assuming they both use the same signals, the other group will generally permit the submissive party to live.
The other is cultural in nature. Human beings are probably the least biologically diverse of all globally distributed species, and are likely less biologically diverse even than species of a more geographically limited nature. Nevertheless, we have profound differences, ones which are lodged within our brains, rather than our DNA, to the point where very biologically related human beings (an Eskimo is more closely related to an African Bushman than are lions on opposite sides of the same continent) are capable of regarding each other in a way most animals regard creatures of a different species. A band of marauders is often as dangerous to a group of defenseless farmers as a pack of lions is to a herd of sheep, for the simple reason that the two groups are so different in habit, temperament, and language (even within the same language group, inflections and slang can serve the same role) that they may as well be different species.

If we have different surrender habits, that can also cause a problem. Lorenz wrote that wild turkeys and peacocks are capable of getting into fights because they are closely related enough to recognize the other's posturing as threatening, and yet, the fight is invariably dangerous to the turkey. For while the turkey is larger and stronger than the peacock, the turkey has an evolved mechanism for deciding conflicts bloodlessly, and the peacock has no such mechanism. The turkey struts up to wrestle, the peacock takes flight and attacks from above. The turkey, unable to cope with this unorthodox technique, lays his head on the ground in a submissive gesture. Were the other combatant another turkey, he would now be completely unable to attack, held back by thousands of years of evolution which demand that he spare the loser. The peacock, however, doesn't understand. He pecks and pecks and pecks. The turkey is driven by this into further submission, prevented from escaping by thousands of years of evolution. Only intervention by another species (most likely human) prevents the death of the turkey. So it is when humans cannot understand an appeal for mercy due to difference of language and/or custom.

Human beings build weapons with their brains, not of their bodies. Humans must, therefore, develop inhibitions based upon thought, not instinct, for our instincts are based upon a creature which has nothing but his bare hands to fight with. Instinctively, we are as doves who suddenly acquired the beaks of crows and the talons of eagles, and haven't the faintest idea of their own strength. If there is to be peace, it is based upon the mind, not the body. The “soft animal within” (which a minister I know refers to so lovingly) is a clumsy brute when the mind gives him weapons which surpass those of even the greatest of predators.

On to nuclear weapons. Up to this point, whatever the inhibitions of the individuals that make up a group, the group itself has few inhibitions against fighting to the death of the individual within. At its most bestial, such conflicts are rarely destructive to the group as a whole; the rules of victory and submission can generally regulate the outcome of such battles. Genocide is the product of the individual mind, the decision that such conflicts can be brought to an end forever by eliminating the other group. Otherwise, the interplay of bravado and fear can regulate such conflicts, though they be disastrous to the individuals involved.

However, now, we have weapons that frighten even the group mind: nuclear weapons. With one fell stroke, entire cities can be eliminated. What has been the result? On the one hand, some individuals lived through the cold war in a constant state of agitation, while most, due simply to the enormity of the threat, simply did not grasp it, to the benefit of their stress levels. Though guns and bombs have made war between advanced powers more brutal, nuclear weapons have made them more seldom; the fear they evoke is simply too great. Though we may see the day when a truly nuclear war occurs, such would merely be a step on the path toward a day when even mobs treat each other honorably... that, or the human race must perish. I, for one, believe that, given the deterrent nature of the picture the imagination produces, an actual memory of nuclear war may well make all mankind as shy of total war as Old Europe is today.

Personally, I think non-proliferation is a self-serving policy by which those powers which already dominate the world through the thread of nuclear weapons deny other powers this deterrent. We are in the position now that we can invade non-nuclear powers at whim, and the best they can do is fight our troops on the field. If another power attacks us directly, however, we have the option of laying waste to their entire country, leaving nothing left to oppose us. So, we still live in a perpetual state of war. The day every bit of ground on the planet is jealously guarded by a full fledged nuclear power is perhaps the most dangerous day we will ever face. We may end up like doves with teeth and claws, pretending we can still fight as we did before, and eliminating the entire human race in the process—but, if we survive that day, the day after will be a day of true peace. The costs of war will simply be too great, and those high costs will no longer be outside the comprehension of the human animal.

And I am a gambler. I would rather stay than fold. I would rather give up the wars of non-proliferation and roll the dice that have eternal peace on one side, and nuclear Armageddon on the other. I am well aware there are many that would disagree with me on this. I wonder, however, if we can truly stop proliferation. I wonder if, given non-nuclear nations with sufficient determination, we wouldn't end up driving ourselves into bankruptcy making enemies, and then find them with nuclear weapons, anyway.