Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Historic Inspiration 2: Sumer and Civilization

Hello everyone!

This week for historic inspiration I'll be looking into Sumer, the first urban civilisation - credited with a fair amount of important developments that persist to this day! With this in mind - I'll be looking into the elements of a civilisation - things to that can help when designing a civilisation within a fantasy context.

A Word on the Provided Information

Please note that research was done using mostly secondary and tertiary sources of information - so keep this in mind as you are reading through. What this means is that the information present is not directly from documents that speak of these events. Information used is from, not exclusively Museum visits, and online research. Whilst this information may hopefully be useful for the sake of inspiration for example - I do recommend further research to confirm the information if you are seeking solid information on the history of Malta for the sake of things such as, but not exclusively, academic work. Think of this as more of an exploration and research of an individual.

Map of Sumer

Raising Cities

When we say that Sumer is credited to being the first urban civilisation - it is because they were the first to construct large cities - some of which housed tens of thousands of people. Given the time period of around 3500 B.C. - this is an incredible achievement. To help put this figure into perspective - a Roman census at around 508 B.C. 130,000 assumed over 17 males were counted in the Roman populace - if we were to double that to assume the female population we would have 260,000 Romans. One of the larger Sumerian cities may have very well had around 80,000 citizens. 

Mesopotamia - the home region of the Sumerian - was dotted with a number of city-states that the Sumerians dwelled within. Each of these city states would be centered around the worship of a particular god or goddess - ruled over by a priest or king. The name of the region itself - mesopotamia - meaning the land between two rivers in Greek - would have offered the Sumerians a beautiful landscape with food and water being available close-by. The rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates themselves had a much deeper important to the civilization outside of food and water - it served as a major method of transportation. The waterways also became a critical component for trade routes - particularly due to the type of terrain that the civilization was located in.

Some of the city states of the Sumerians include Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, Shuruppak, Uruk, Kish, Ur, Nippur, Lagash and a number of others. After a number of hunter-gatherers began planting gardens, as well as growing crops that needed permanent settlements - this would have encouraged a more permanent residence for the societies. This needless to say - opened vast opportunities for the society to begin developing in ways that would have been difficult had they been nomadic. Building houses, planting crops, developing tools and ideas that would have been innovative at the time. 

With food taken care of - individuals could begin specialising in new occupations - pottery, smithing, trading, carpentry, weaving and so on. As the Sumerian economy grew - the need to calculate and record the supplies and goods of the economy grew. So came the development of one of the oldest - if not the oldest forms of writing. Sumerian writing was done on clay tablets - using streamlined pictures to represent ideas or goods. Developing further into phonetic letters later on to develop cuneiform - for symbols of spoken sounds.

As the city-states grew - the need for land grew, more over, boundaries that once separated city states became questioned; leading to war between Sumerian city states. War acted as a major driver towards pushing the boundaries of technology with the Sumerian city-states. Warriors of the time would have been armed with mostly copper and leather based equipment. Most likely copper helmets, a spear, sword and leather shields. Certain stela designs show what seem to be a phalanx formation used by warriors of certain Sumerian kings. This would pre-date the use of the phalanx within Greek society by a fair margin. 

Other equipment used and developed further by the Sumerians are chariots as well as the sickle sword that would become a standard infantry weapon used by the Egyptians at a later date. Certain socket-axe designs may have also been developed - as body armor designs improved within the region. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of this period is the fact that the warriors of Sumer may very well be the first standing professional army in human history.

Decline of Sumer

The decline of the Sumerians came primarily in the form of hunger, malnutrition and disease - as the land used for farming had increasing amounts of salt due to evaporating waters left behind salts in the soil after the water level had risen. The salt - having been spread due to the irrigation channels, meant that vast areas once useful to grow wheat - became far less fertile as the years went by. The salt itself - hardened by the sun, whiting the terrain and prevented further cultivation. Another large factor that lead to the spreading of illness included the fact that garbage was often burnt - if not simply left in the streets. Weakened Sumerians were ill-equipped to defend with invaders due to this. After being conquered by Sargon the Great - the Sumerians regained their independence only after the empire of Sargon fell. Only after this period of renaissance were the Sumerians again conquered by the Amorites (Westerners) did the Sumerians slowly began to vanish as an identifiable ethnicity - as the Amorites adopted the Sumerian culture. Another aspect that seemed to have lead to the decline of the civilization seemed to be due to rigidity. Whilst at the start - the Sumerians were innovators and built new ideas and concepts - they eventually seemingly became highly restricted in terms of their freedoms. As to why this was the case - is debatable. The Amorites slowly began to expand and Hammurabi was one king that began to expand his influence throughout Mesopotamia.

Like Sargon before him, Hammurabi built networks of roads and postal systems to help connect the vast cities under his rule. Delegating power to governors to rule his in stead. Babylon - became a city where trade routes crossed - becoming a centre for skilled artisans, architects, and businesses. The city was surrounded by vast fields of crops - such as melons and barley - and previous materials including timber and metals were imported - if they were not available locally. In 539 BCE - Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon. The ideas and concepts, the knowledge and techniques used by the Sumerians - rather than lost to history - continued through the Greeks and Persians. 

Sumerian Developments

Whilst one must keep in mind that many technologies, ideas and concepts might have developed independently through the world - be it in China, Mesopotamia, or South America for example. It is still worth noting the ingenuity of the Sumerians. For example, the Sumerians had issues of flooding - so they developed irrigation and dams that not only helped them relieve the issue of rising water levels - but also help in agriculture.

As trade flourished - the Sumerians were very fond of lapis lazuli - this lead to the creation of contracts. These first contracts were done by rolling cylinder with a relief onto a clay tablet. The relief on the clay tablet - became the contract. This eventually would lead to the creation of the first laws. The code of Hammurabi is a well preserved Babylonian code of law that helps us see what the laws of Sumerians may have involved.

Below are a few credited concepts or items to the Sumerians.
  • Creation of the Wheel
  • Cuneiform Writing
  • Mathematical Measurements and Systems (Time Measurements for example)
  • Sail Boats
  • Agricultural Processes [Irrigation]
  • Concept of Cities
  • First Legal code

Civilisation in Fantasy

Aside from the inspiration to be taken of the Sumerians and their civilisation - as I did my research I asked the question as to what exactly qualifies a civilisation to be a civilisation? Charles Reman - based on work by Gordon Childe - create 10 characteristics that may help look at civilisation. 

Primary Characteristics of a Civilization
  • - Urban Settlements
  • - Full Time Specialists not involved in Agricultural Activities
  • - Concentration of Surplus Production
  • - Class Structure
  • - State-Level Organization (Government)

Secondary Characteristics of a Civilization
  • - Monumental Public Building
  • - Extensive Trading Networks
  • - Standardized Monumental Artwork
  • - Writing
  • - Development of Exact Sciences

However - an important criticism or aspect to keep in mind - is that these are not always true. Aztecs did not have writing, the Mongols had little urban settlements, the civilisation that built stonehenge seemed to have no state-level organisation nor writing etc. These provide a framework - however one should not fall into the trap of thinking these are must have characteristics. Other elements we can keep in mind are;
  • Art and Architecture
  • Writing
  • Social Structure
  • Religion
  • Culture
However again - we must keep in mind that these are guidelines - and not necessarily a must have characteristic. These do however provide a means to imagine what exactly would it take to create a civilisation in a fantasy setting that feels alive in a way. That has depth and makes sense if that is the aim. 

I hope you found this to be interesting as much as I did, and useful if you are looking into the creation of a civilisation! There is much more to the Sumerians that one can learn that would have likely taken up multiple posts - so I do encourage you to delve deeper into areas you may find to be of particular interest!

Until next time,

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Linear Vs. Open World and Adventure Building

Hello everyone,

This week I wanted to reflect on a concept I've been working on as of the last couple of weeks - that is the idea of building a world for an open adventure - rather than a linear one!

This challenge came to me - not in the form of developing a game per se - but from the fact that I will be acting as the Dungeon Master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons within a months time approximately. My previous experience - as well as that of my colleagues - with Dungeons and Dragons is minimal; however I came to it from a more unique perspective as someone delving into game development and someone who appreciates the strength the game offers. 

Even though I am new - I knew that I wanted to play on the game's strength to offer my colleagues an interesting and fun experience - that is of openness. Dungeons and Dragons allows you - as a player; to do whatever you please - so long as your Dungeon Master can 'accommodate' for it. I say 'accommodate' because as I've been learning it's often a case of improvising and providing building on elements as you go. This did make me think more deeply as to the notion of designing an open world rather than a linear one in a way. 

In a linear situation - you simply need to offer the players the information they need, some information to keep them entertained, and ensure that whatever the players can touch - you can explain. In an open situation - this is extremely difficult, the players are human beings - more over, the game offers them large freedoms that you as the Dungeon Master should embrace rather than restrict as much as you can. There is simply so much in an area - let alone a world - that it seems to be a far too enormous task for any one person. Tolkien - the individual who built the wondrous world of Middle Earth, created it little by little. However one can always realise that the world itself can house so much more stories than Tolkien himself wrote. If Tolkien simply wrote a story and built a small world to accommodate for it - individuals interested in perhaps creating their own stories would likely have a harder time to keep it close to the source in a sense.

The same goes in an open world situation - the approach I am currently taking is building a world the players can explore - a small plot that will happen - regardless of the player's intervention or not. This key point means the players will experience the world in their own fashion. The world is open and alive - the players are inside of that world, and they are not stuck in a linear position where the story requires they do A or B before anything else happens. 

How a system like this can be implemented effective within a digital game setting - is a more difficult concept. Adaptive systems or AIs that change the world according to actions taken by you is a step towards that direction. However - the difficulty still remains that the content present in the game - is the content present in the game. It is difficult to simply create a whole new model if a new character is interacted with - unless you are using simplified sprites and create a generation tool within the game that creates new characters as needed. That being said - there are ways and means to getting around these obstacles - more over, as technology gets better - so will our capabilities to create a more open world within games. 

Tynan Sylvester's A Guide To Engineering Experiences has a number of pointers that really fit well with this idea of open design in a sense. Within the book - you read about Elegant systems - systems within the game that are so useful that they create a large number of possibilities in terms of game-play - but do not make it incredibly difficult to balance and modify. 

As to how my approach to designing the experience for the Dungeons and Dragons game will go remains to be seen - however this is proving to be both a fun activity and a useful insightful one! I look forward to exploring more ideas and concepts like this in a more digital games fashion - as the idea does interest me highly!

Until next time,

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Audio Production and A Small Update

Hello everyone!

The last month has been rather quiet - primarily since I will be starting my master's programme in the beginning of October - so having a small respite to meditate and regroup as I embark on the next part of my journey felt important!

A small update however; a couple of weeks ago I finished a short introductory course on audio production - which was very insightful! The lecturer himself was very helpful and had a number of applications to show how audio can be utilised in unorthodox ways!

The course itself focused a lot on general audio production using MIDI within a Mac-based software GarageBand - however the truly insightful parts of the course came from the idea behind MIDI and ideas surrounding the field that the lecturer shared! This course - with the skills, ideas and insights, will definitely be valuable as I move forward! 

On another note - as I start my master's programme next month, blog posts will continue! There is a small chance that I may increase the frequency of posts - this depends both on my time available, as well as my ability to create content that I consider to be worth sharing! Historic Inspiration series will continue as well with the Sumer most likely coming up next! For those of you who do not know who the Sumer were - they were the first civilisation to create a city at around 5500 BC! More on the Sumer in the Historic Inspiration post however!

Until next time,

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Flowchart Planning

Hello everyone,

This week I wanted to bring attention to flowcharts - something that the programmers among you probably know about already. However - the application of flowcharts in planning goes beyond software - particularly in the realms of designing systems for your games! For those of you who have never worked with flowcharts; flowcharts are diagrams that connect various shapes that represent concepts, ideas and so on. 

Flowchart Example
Flowchart Example

The various shapes used in flowcharts often have a meaning in themselves - it is a good habit to get into ensuring you follow a standardised meaning for the various shapes. For instance, the Diamond shape signifies a user choice, the rectangle a process, and in this situation, a circle or oval indicate the start or end of this flowchart's program or system. You can find the meanings of various shapes online - and use that as a reference as you work. 

The benefits of flowcharts is - as the name suggests, in looking how a system or program will flow. The above flowchart is a simple look into a main menu. As you work on the actual menu - you might change elements around, however the bare bones basic in representing that is similar to the example. 

Flowcharts can be used to plan out more than coding however. You can also use it to help think about how your various game systems will work together! Think about the game's economy for example; in simple terms - when you create a game's economy you need to make sure you have ways to 'inject' gold into the game, as well as a way for it to 'leak' out of the game. Otherwise - the player will either have too much, or too little gold to use.

In-game Economy Example
In-game Economy Example
The above flowchart is a very simply representation of how gold can be affected within a hypothetical game we have in mind. The player can earn gold via loot drops, selling items to vendors, and through quest rewards. If we stopped just there - gold would firstly be worthless outside of being a simple score - since the player can't spend it, plus the player will have a lot of it. We injected gold into the game's economy - yet there is no reason for it to be scarce, since there is no way for it to be leaked out so to speak. Knowing this - we can create a player respawn penalty that will take a portion of gold each time a player respawns, we can require the player to purchase certain quest required items, and we can also let the player purchase equipment. These two in combination - injections and leakages, allow the player to both earn gold and use it to their benefit. 

This is a very simple system we have listed here - but imagine if we had a lot more different ways to inject and leak gold out of the economy, what if we had even more types of currencies? The flowchart in this case would get more complicated and larger - but it would also be very useful in helping us both plan and balance out the game's economy!

Needless to say - you can always make flowcharts on paper, even in paint! I personally use yEd Graph Editor. It a both intuitively made software and it is also freely available to use at the time of me writing this post! So give it a try if you think it can help you!

I hope this has given you a view into the benefits of using flowcharts to plan out your systems - as well as code! It can be time consuming at times - however it is well worth it when you are working on a fairly complicated system! 

Until next time,