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The Tamagotchi Dream

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You guys remember the Tamagotchi (たまごっち), right? The Tamagotchi was a virtual pet you could feed, clean-up after, play with, etc. It sounds kind of lame, but the cool part is that the Tamagotchi has a persistent idea of state. It’s never really off, it “lives”, even when you are not playing with it. And it has some simple evolutionary capabilities.

This has really been interesting me for a while. I’m convinced something (the primary thing?) which really makes games fun is their ability to show us something new. We don’t want to feel like we are playing something deterministic, where we press a button, the game displays the built-in response back to us and that-is-that. There’s nothing like that “Woah! I didn’t know it could do that!” feeling. That’s what I play games for.

Most simply, games have a story, or levels, or something else that we haven’t forseen that we get to enjoy because it is new. But to me, the holy grail is games which make themselves. When the content of the game goes beyond what the designer had forseen, then we really have something.

In talks in Game Development class last semester, we had a discussion about the possibility of developing true (strong) AI. Someone claimed that real AI was a pipe dream because we cannot create anything greater than ourselves. My contention is not just that we can, but that I (like many others) already have.

For instance, my Game Focus Generator. Sure, I have preloaded the program with words and formulas to develop phrases, but the truth of the matter is that the output of that program contains things I would never have thought up. I used my abilities to develop something that reached beyond what I could/would have done on my own. For the people who know my personal programming projects of the past few years, you will notice that many of them serve this same goal. My genetic creature population sim (aka “flamesex”) is designed around this principle—I want to come back to it later and be surprised by the output. My graphical hacks, like my “growth” app, are in hopes of making some kind of image that I would never have thought of.

Anyway, this is something that really fascinates me.

I would love to make a state-full game which I could run on my pc, which I could play at will, and be surprised by.

But it has to be fun. The Tamagotchi is cool because it can surprise you to some degree, but it really can’t do enough to be all that staggering. It really needs to evolve more. The flipside of that is that you need for the player to still feel that they have some control—not just have it evolving out of control—otherwise they wont play. But if the game requires too much control, then it will be a pain because you have to be there messing with it all the time, and anything that forces you out of your normal life to maintain it is just a pain, and not a game. In general, the program needs to be stable. But it’s hard to make a stable game because risk is one of the things that makes games fun.

“The Sims” captures some of the basic elements, but for one the game was not intended to be played—or rather, not played—as I propose. Also, there is a limited amount of content. Nethack actually captures a lot of the things I like about gaming, partially by (psuedo-)evolving (random generation/placement of dungeons, stats, objects and enemies), and partially by its sheer complexity. Nethack has so much fabulous content that is not documented that you can discover. The game just sets forth a world, teaches you the basic rules, and lets you loose in an alien environment. But there are actually things about the world to discover (I’m talking capabilities of the world, not story or locations), unlike most games.

Magic: the Gathering is also one of my favorite games of all time. Why? Because the game gives you a world—the cards—and says “go play it in”. You can combine cards in ways that no one ever thought of—including the game designers (might this be the same reason I am in love with emacs?). There are always, always, new things that you can discover (new card combos and such), and the things you discover make a serious difference in game. It’s like the card game Fluxx, but you actually have some control over the power(/madness).

This is my dream (or my goal, if you prefer). Now all I have to do is create it. Hmmm…

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