Thursday, March 7, 2024

On Writing With AI

 This post was written without AI, beyond maybe Google autocorrect.

Doing this stream of consciousness. Need to answer the question: Why do people want to write with AI, is that evil, and is it ever justified?

Start with the "why". Go back to my own experiences. Experience one: 

I'm a published author of multiple works under CURSED PEN NAMES REDACTED, but the one thing I take credit for is The Assassin's Dilemma, a Warhammer Fantasy short story in the Death & Dishonour collection. 

I do not plagiarize and I have never used AI, but if you happen to read that story and you're familiar with the old Warhammer fiction you might notice that I was heavily aping William King's style. Not ripping passages out or anything, just trying to channel the cowardly viciousness of the Skaven he wrote so well over multiple Gotrek & Felix books. This is something that's generally considered accepted practice while you're learning - Stephen King calls it out in On Writing, to name one example.

Does this somehow make it acceptable to train an AI on the books of an author you like and use it for your own work? To my mind, no. In a legal sense, probably "fuck, no". Mimicking an author's style as a starting author is about gaining insights, like "Terry Pratchett doesn't spend a lot of time on character description and averages one joke per sentence". Having an AI play word scramble might provide some insights, but it's more likely to create non-actionable data analysis fodder like "Nathaniel Hawthorne frequently uses the word 'is'" (I have no idea if this is true).

Okay, author self has ruled out AI. Moving to experience two. Brace for tangent:

I'm currently building a top-down role playing video game based on Hansel & Gretel. (Everyone starts somewhere.) I am currently using RPG Maker MV. RPG Maker is a game engine where most of the features you need to build an RPG are baked in, including tile maps, character sprites, items, switches, rooms, enemies, combat mechanics, etc.

I originally started the game in GameMaker Studio. GameMaker has a lot of pre-built features for games, but they are non-specific, which means you need to build a lot of them yourself (see: everything I listed that RPG Maker has above). I got to the point where I had a game where a character could move between rooms using grid-based movement and have a second character follow them around, which is *pretty good* but I had a long way to go.

Because this Hansel & Gretel game is me proving a point to myself and not my dream project, I elected to use RPG Maker instead and cut out a lot of the engine work I'd have to do to get things going with GameMaker. I am very conscious that when want to make a different style of game, I am going to have to abandon RPG Maker for something else, but it provides the tools I need for now.

Which brings me back to the topic: RPG Maker is a tool to make games that ships with a bunch of pre-built assets for you to use. And you can use these assets and the tool as-is. But but BUT, the truth is that a game made with stock RPG Maker assets is going to be dismissed by most people because all those included tools and assets are pretty bland. The RPG Maker games that succeed are the ones that take the engine, replace all the stock assets, and bend the hell out of the defaults to create something unique, some new gaming experience.

So one might argue: what if I prompt an AI to generate a book, based on my own ideas and characters, and then edit the hell out of it until it's something unique, a new reading experience?



Well. First, this doesn't solve the problem of AI being trained on content that the authors didn't consent to offer up for that purpose. That's one of the sticking points of the whole practice. But let's argue that someone creates an AI that's trained on public domain content *only*.

The next problem is that writers are lazy stumblebums. (Or: I am a lazy stumblebum, and I am generalizing my inferiority complex to an entire profession.) If you're already using AI to write the first draft of your novel, what exactly is stopping you from leaving in great chunks of purely AI-generated content? I mean, it's not impossible that the AI came up with a really great sentence you wish you'd thought of. Who would know, right? (Probably everyone.)

And that hints at the last problem, which is: writing is a learned, practiced skill. Using an AI to generate great swathes of text you revise does not teach you how to structure a story. It does not teach you how to write believable, sympathetic, hateable, hilarious characters. It does not teach you how to make people laugh, cry, shout, or just put the book down for a second and stare into space.

An inexperienced writer using an AI to write their book is going to create garbage at worst (which to be fair is true with or without the AI), but at best it's going to be work that's like an RPG Maker game made with just the default assets. It will lack evidence of craft.

An experienced writer using an AI to write their book... may write a good book. A great one? I don't know. I doubt it. But to my mind, any AI available now will just be a distracting addition to the writer's existing process.

I'm going to call Joanna Penn out a bit now just because she's the first author who tried to sell me on using AI in my writing through her mailing list. (I unsubscribed.)

Her basic process for writing a short story as described on her website was: 1. write a basic story, 2. use a tool to expand on sensory descriptions and flesh out events, 3. incorporate the text into her story after heavy editing, 4. run the story through an online editor software, 5. run the story through a human editor, 6. use an AI to generate a book cover and 7. brainstorm a title.

In line with my thoughts: 1 and 5 are obviously fine. 7 I don't really mind, it's like using a random word generator or a jar of word magnets for inspiration. (Disclaimer: I may use anagram generators for vampire names in some yet-to-be-published works.) And 4 seems reasonable given that it's suggestions on how to modify existing text, rather than writing it in full.

But 2 and 3 run smack into the problems I see with trying to edit an AI's text - it's not yours, and the temptation is to leave more and more of it in, without learning what's good about it and what isn't. And 6, the book cover, is the poster child for content-stealing AI.

I do get the temptation to delegate descriptive text to an AI. I'm shit at it myself. But it's a compromise. You can argue it's the same compromise a one-man-band game developer makes when they buy an asset pack or a sound library. Maybe that's a fair argument. But until AI can clean up its ethics issues, I don't think it's one that will win me over.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Dave Does Dev: Introduction

 Welcome welcome welcome, thank you for coming to my humble blog. My name is David Earle and for the past few years this place has been... kind of deserted!

sounds of wind rushing past, a screen door flapping

But prior to that this was a place I talked about my creative endeavors, sometimes politics, media, etc. I'd like to revive that and, for right now, the plan is to focus on my next big project:

Developing A Video Game

Well, specifically:

Developing Three Video Games

Or, to be more exact:

Developing Two Small Video Games And A Proof Of Concept For What Could Be A Full Video Game Sometime Far In The Future

If this sounds ambitious to you: you're right! Any software development project you care to name is a months-long effort, and video games are more involved than most. You've got to create features, develop scripts for any plot or dialogue, create or buy game assets like art, sounds, fonts, etc., and then playtest, tune and revise whatever you end up making to ensure that it's actually, you know, fun!

If you'll permit me the comparison, trying to create a game has a lot in common with trying to write a novel. You have to plan out a structure for the final product, you have to show amazing scenes and lovable/hateable characters, and you have to make sure the person taking it all in enjoys themselves to the very end. Also, there's a lot of revision and trying to figure out why things don't work!

The main difference is that creating a game is a multidisciplinary effort (programming/art/sound) right from the get-go, whereas a novel is mostly a solo act - at least until you get to trying to publish the thing and have to deal with editors, marketing, cover art, etc. and remember that books require a team of people with different skills just as much as video games. So it's not really a difference so much as a shift in weight.

But just like Amazon and other sites have opened up the world of self-publishing, indie game development is more accessible than it ever has been. Storefronts like Steam reward big commercial products, but indies still have a leg in, and even smaller less commercial projects can find a place on Which also happens to be one of several great resources for free or low-cost art assets to help an indie game dev create their dream project.

Maybe even a hobbyist like me.

Some background: I went to college at Washington College in Chestertown, MD to take part in their Creative Writing program, which was and remains great. But I did consider that I'd need a way to make a living wage if writing didn't work out, so I took a wide selection of classes my freshman year. One of those classes was an introductory Java class, which included an assignment to draw a snowman using Java's built in graphics functionality.

From that moment I was hooked. I'd always loved video games; the idea of creating one was irresistible. I ended up majoring in Computer Science, pushed my teachers for a 3D graphics class, and did my thesis on matrix math, submitting a little First Person Shooter demo as my final project.

And then... I didn't do much. Which is to say I published a short story, and a non-fiction article under a pen name. Tried some self-publishing under a different pen name. I got a job in IT and stuck with it. I got married, got a dog and a house, had two great kids, even went to Disney World a few times.

And for game development? I'd read a book on the subject, try the exercises. Then I'd pick up a different book, try those exercises out. And so on, until I had a very heavy stack of books and the realization that I was just going through exercises without trying to create anything on my own.

It was that multidisciplinary weighting, in part. I had no idea how to create my own graphics, or get my own sounds together. And at the time game engines weren't as well-developed as they are now, so I kept trying to roll my own and falling into a trap of writing code for hours without anything to show for it. And most of that code was copied out of a book. So I set aside my ambition for nearly two decades.

But recently, something - random chance, fate, the little butterflies of time and space - started dropping breadcrumbs in my path.

I think it started with this video by Super Eyepatch Wolf, on a game called Fear & Hunger. It's very NSFW (think Berserk but grosser), but it piqued my interest.

Around the same time RPG Maker, a game engine I've poked at and left alone repeatedly over the years, had another sale on Steam. And somehow the fact that Fear & Hunger was made in that engine entered my consciousness.

If you've seen an RPG Maker game you'll know the engine trends to very Japanese RPG stock art and gameplay, but somehow it had been used to make this chaotic hellscape of a game. I had to know how. So I got a copy of the game, found a decompiler for it, and opened it up in RPG Maker to see what made it tick.

After that I started going through the tutorials for RPG Maker. I learned about tile maps, events, characters. Picked it all up in a week. And then I wanted to do something for myself. Just a small project, nothing ambitious - but as I said at the start, even a small project is pretty ambitious.

So here and now, I write my goals, and sign them with my name:

1. I will make a 2D RPG retelling the story of Hansel and Gretel - a project that could very easily be done with the stock assets and features of RPG Maker.

2. I will make a Pokemon clone proof of concept - mostly for something my son can enjoy. This has also been done in RPG Maker but is substantially more involved as a project, and would require implementing features the base engine doesn't have.

3. I will create a 2D turn-based strategy game in the style of the Shining Force Sega Genesis series. To start with, just two battles, but with an eye to something more - maybe.

David Earle, 11 November 2023

And so it will be done. But whether it will be done in RPG Maker... that's a whole different question, and one for another post.


Saturday, May 27, 2023

Modern Civics

Well hello there! Would you like to know how the United States works? I knew you would!

Okay, so, if you live in the United States you are what they call a citizen. (The United States of America is called a country.) As a citizen you pay a subscription fee, called taxes, that is based on how much money you made in the past year. In return for your subscription you get benefits such as well-maintained roads, clean air, a functional legal system, and a chance to vote periodically for the country's leadership.

(If you are not a documented citizen, you may be here on a trial period (refugee). If you do not pay taxes you are either a pirate (criminal) or a VIP on a complementary membership (wealthy). Oddly enough the people on the trial period are considered the most problematic by half the country's leadership.)

Now, you may notice that the roads are not very well maintained and the air is kind of smelly and overheated. That's because for the past forty years (at least), around half of the country's leadership (the same ones against trial periods) have insisted on a subscription plan where the majority of the country pays at the highest tier, but the people with the most money get complementary memberships. And despite the accountants pointing out this doesn't work and isn't good business (governance), this faction insists on sticking with it and lowering subscription fees.

Why are they doing this? Well part of it is they tend to have the most money, and so do their friends. But also, they want the country to get in enough trouble that they can convince the subscribers (citizens) to vote them into total control. Once that happens they can change the subscriber rules so the subscribers don't get to vote at all, and chance their benefits to what they think citizens should have (rights based on being white, male and wealthy), and all the members who disagree with them can be removed from the service (deported/arrested/executed).

Does it seem like they should be allowed to do this? That's right, it doesn't! But we let them because a lot of subscribers get told by marketing (the press) that this is a good thing for them and a bad thing for people they don't like. And the people who aren't trying to get the country in trouble, don't want to admit to the subscribers that a good part of the leadership wants to tear the service down - it's bad P.R.

So why is this important? Well, a while back the leadership passed a rule that if the country built up a certain amount of debt, they would stop paying their bills. There wasn't an actual requirement to do this, but leadership thought it was a good idea and assumed everyone would stick to it.

Anyway, next week we might hit that limit, and the anti-trial period faction would be very happy if the country stopped paying its bills so they can blame the CEO (President) and have him voted out. So they're forcing the rest of leadership to agree to a bunch of changes that will also hurt the country, but not as obviously.

So what can you do? Not much! The main thing is to vote against the people trying to wreck the service, but that system is heavily weighted in their favor so it's not easy. You also need to vote for people who are trying to fix the service, but again, that's an uphill battle. Still, try your best!

Monday, April 10, 2023

Resident Evil 4, Microtransactions, and Paying for Cheat Codes

Fair warning, this post is not on-brand, I'm working through my feelings on a video game so just bear with me.

Anyway. Resident Evil 4 Remake! Played it. Finished it, on standard difficulty, once. Great game. I've been playing Resident Evil games since the series began and haven't missed a mainline game yet (if you don't count Code: Veronica), and this one is up to standards.

Normally after beating a Resident Evil game I would, per tradition, unlock the Rocket Launcher with infinite ammo and go on a vengeful spree through the game, destroying my fear of the various monstrous enemies by blowing them into pixelated chunks. Capcom has, as of last week, decided to make that a question of moral difficulty so now I'm blogging instead.

Background: the infinite Rocket Launcher typically unlocks after beating the game with a sufficiently high rank, usually S, which used to mean doing a speed run. Resident Evil 2 Remake tweaked that a bit by requiring a speed run on Hardcore difficulty, and then Resident Evil 3 Remake and Resident Evil 8 introduced bonus stores where you could unlock and purchase the weapon after doing some challenges. 

So far, so good, except RE2Remake also provided an option to just buy the infinite Rocket Launcher for five bucks. This flew under the radar because the option took about a year to come out and by that point no one really noticed.

Fast forward to now, and RE4Remake, which has more weapon upgrades but has added microtransactions to the mix, in the form of "exclusive tickets" you can buy for $3 a pop in real money. These let you unlock high-end weapon upgrades that you'd otherwise have to do multiple playthroughs of the game to earn.

Is the infinite Rocket Launcher locked behind this? Oddly enough, no, you can't use a ticket to get that, probably because it would break the game's hardest difficulty in half. But, you can get a Handcannon (Magnum) with infinite ammo using the tickets, which has kind of the same effect. And that's something you can't do by just grinding out in-game money, at least if you want to go for the trophy tied to beating the hardest difficulty with infinite ammo on your side.

In short (too late), Capcom is charging three bucks for what used to be a cheat code.

Is this a good thing? No. I miss cheat codes. Bring them back.

Is this evil then? Also no, at least not in comparison to some of the truly predatory microtransactions out there. At most I think you can spend $10-$25 on these tickets. And the game is single-player so it's not a thing where you're paying to beat other people.

Am I going to buy these things?


I confess, I prefer to cheat my way through games whenever possible. I am time-limited for gaming, but I do like to see as much of the games I like as I can, and I like unlocking the trophies. So if $3 saves me a couple of hours of grinding I consider that worth it. (And this is why I need to avoid anything with pay to win mechanics.)

With that said: Capcom's been getting more and more willing to load up microtransactions in their big franchises, and this is the first time where they've done it in a way that the game may have suffered for it. The weapon unlocks in RE4Remake are weird and grindy in a way that's not been the case in most any previous game. They aren't quite at the point where I think open greed influenced the game design... but they're close.

There's been some muted backlash over the tickets already, but not a lot. As I said, these aren't egregious next to stuff like Diablo: Immortal. But if Capcom decides to keep pushing their luck on this sort of thing going forward, it could get ugly.

Probably right in time to screw up a Resident Evil 6 remake, if one happens. Wouldn't that be funny.


Saturday, December 31, 2022

What Comes After

 Megatron was in Trypticon's command hub, studying the various maps that laid out the coming campaign, when Starscream returned. He left his back to the door - an unsubtle dare they both understood. Starscream didn't rise to the bait.


"As you commanded, mighty Megatron," Starscream said, bowing ironically. "The Combaticons will be with us for the assault on Earth."

Megatron grunted acknowledgment, not taking his eyes from the maps. "I have never understood why such fractious soldiers agree to follow you."

"I make Onslaught laugh."

Now Megatron gave Starscream his attenton. "What?"

Starscream shrugged. "Oh, not the only reason I suppose... Swindle considers me a good customer, and I've certainly kept quiet about some of his more ambitious dealings. Brawl hates me, but he can't touch me, and that amuses Vortex and Blast-Off."

"So you're their jester," said Megatron.

"Perhaps. But they also recognize one of their own. We're well aligned in how much we hate you."

Megatron might have scowled. At other times he might have simply blasted Starscream into the hub's armored wall plating. This time, he just narrowed his optics.

"That is remarkably candid of you."

"I think you and I are past the point where deception's useful, you and I." Starscream grinned. "Despite the name."

"Then if I might take advantage of this mood," Megatron said, "let me ask: why follow me?"

"The Combaticons are no friends of the Autobots, or Primes," Starscream said. "They're aligned with your goals, they've just been used too many times as blunt instruments and disposable tools to ever admit it. My... reputation... makes me a useful go-between, as I'm sure you already know."

"True enough. But I was asking about you."

"Really?" Up to now Starscream's tone had been light, but now there was a bitter edge to it. "You actually have to ask?"

The Air Commander fell silent for long moments. Megatron waited.

"My reasons for following you have never changed, Megatron," Starscream said at length. "I fight with you so I can shape the new Cybertron we all seek to create."

"And yet you betray me. Constantly."

"Because I grow impatient," Starscream snapped. "Do you recall what I was when I joined your uprising? I was the Senate's chief science aide."

"An ambitious one, as I recall," Megatron said dismissively.

"Of course. The unambitious never made it to the halls of power I walked." Starscream sounded almost wistful. "My dream was to use my influence to bring about needed reforms. Of course the Senate was so gear-locked that became obviously impossible. Which is where you came in."

"Implacable problems require unstoppable force." Megatron folded his arms.

"And the Senate certainly isn't a problem anymore," said Starscream. "But this was drags on down through the millennia. And as long as it does, there's no room to better our species. My goals wither on the vine, as the Earthlings say. Forever unmet."

Megatron made a sound Starscream barely recognized. The Decepticon leader chuckled. "Your ambition is to be a politician," he said unbelievingly.

"Don't treat it like some joke," Starscream warned. "You've fought this war for ages. How often have you considered what comes after? There will be a need to rebuild Cybertron, to put the bots who are sick of fighting to some useful purpose. You'll need leaders, administrators, at all levels if you want to have a functional people to rule."

"Really," Megatron said, his voice a low growl of threat. "You think I overthrew Cybertron's labyrinthine bureaucracy of oppression just to rebuild the same system?"

"Of course not," said Starscream. "But did you think you'd be issuing edicts like some fleshling king? Or a Prime, Matrix help us?"

"So long as I remain the one with the will to see our people rise."

Starscream snorted, a burst of static. "Of course. Still, even you understand chain of command and delegation. There will be room for me to pursue my ambitions."

"Then why undermine me at every turn?" Megatron growled.

"I've said it already, Megatron. To end the war."

Starscream saw the telltale flash of Megatron's optics, the red glare of Energon flaring brighter, and his combat protocols readied. Then it faded.

"You would never surrender the Decepticons to Prime..." Megatron said slowly.

"Of course not," Starscream sneered. "But as you said, we serve at your will. If you were to perish, there would be room for negotiation. Armistice. A chance to build for a while, instead of destroy."

Megatron was silent for a time, his gaze never leaving Starscream's face. "I see," he said at last, turning back to the campaign map. "You are dismissed, Air Commander."

"That's it?" Starscream had trouble believing it. Megatron didn't reply. He considered blasting his leader in the back, just on principle, but decided it wasn't worth the beating that would follow.

As he opened the door to the command hub, Megatron spoke.

"I've considered it, you know."

Starscream turned. Megatron's habitual growl was absent, his voice softened.

"Sue for peace. Surrender myself  to Prime's justice. I've thought of it more than once, down the cycles. Do you know what stops me?"


"Because if I admit I was wrong to do what I've done, that will be it. The Autobots will rebuild what was. Maybe it will be better for a time, but the old abuses will rise again."

Megatron turned again, and the earnest expression on his face was so unexpected that Starscream had to stifle a cry.

"Keep to your treacheries, Starscream. I will never stop fighting for the cause, and I will not allow you to win... but if you do, I wish you well."

Starscream didn't know what to say. Thankfully Megatron did not wait for a response, turning back to his war. The Decepticon left him to it, his mind churning, considering fresh possibilities.