Thursday, December 17, 2015

A summary of a year

As 2015 is slowly drawing to an end, I looked back through Evennia's repository to see just what was going on this year. And it turns out it was a lot! I honestly didn't remember some things happened as recently as they did.

Note: For those reading this not familiar with Evennia, it's a Python library for creating MUDs (text-based multiplayer games).
 

Making Evennia into a library

In February of 2015 we merged what was likely the biggest change happening for a good while in Evennia - the complete refactoring of the Evennia repository into a library. It used to be that when you cloned the Evennia repo, it would come with a pre-made game/ folder where you were supposed to put your custom files. Mixing the stuff you downloaded from us with your own files (which you might want to keep under version control of your own) was not a very clean solution.

In the big "library update", we instead created a stand-alone evennia program which you use to create your own "game dir" with pre-created templates. Not only does this allow you to treat the cloned evennia repo as a proper library, you can also use the same evennia install for multiple games and makes it a lot clearer just what comes from us and what is your custom code.

Below is a fun Gource representation (courtesy of Youtuber Landon Wilkins) of how the Evennia repository structure has changed over the years. You can see the latest library-change a little after the 3minute, 20 second mark.



Typeclasses into proxies

At the same time as the library change, I also completely overhauled the way typeclasses are represented in Evennia: Typeclasses are Python classes that links back to a database model under the hood. They used to use a custom overloading of varioust get/set methods, now they instead utilize django proxy models extended to support multiple inheritance. T

his radically increased performance and made the code considerably cleaner, as well as completely hid the core django model from the end user (no longer a need to track if you were dealing with a model or its typeclass - you only ever run into typeclasses). This, together with the library-model led to some changes in people's source codes.

Even so, this change led to a lot less problems and edge-cases than I had anticipated: it seems more people had issues with upgrading django than with adopting their codes to the new typeclass changes ...

Evennia Autodocs

Following the big library merger I sat down to write a more comprehensive autodoc utility. We had been distributing a Doxygen config file with the repo for a long time, but I wanted something that integrated with our github wiki, using markdown in the source (because frankly, while Sphinx produces very pretty output, ReST markup looks really ugly in source code, in my opinion).

The result was the api2md program, which is now a part of our wiki repository. It allows our source code to be decorated in "Google style", very readable output:

def funcname(a, b, c, d=False):
   
"""
    This is a brief introduction to the 

    function/class/method

    Args:
        a (str): This is a string argument that 

          we can talk about over multiple lines.
        b (int or str): Another argument
        c (list): A list argument
        d (bool, optional): An optional 

           keyword argument

    Returns:
        e (str): The result of the function

    Notes:
        This is an example function. 

        If `d=True`, something amazing will happen.

    """



This will be parsed and converted to a Markdown entry and put into the Github wiki, one page per module. The result is the automatically generated Evennia API autodocs, reachable as any other wiki page.

The convertion/prettification of all core functions of Evennia to actually use  the Google-style docstrings took almost all year, finishing late in autumn. But now almost all of Evennia uses this style. Coincidentally this also secures us at a 45% comment/code ratio. This places us in the top 10% of well-documented open-source projects according to openhub (gotta love statistics).

Imaginary realities / Optional Realities

Spring of 2015 saw some more articles for the Imaginary Realities e-zine as well as some for the newly-opened Optional Realities web forum (unrelated, despite the similar name). The latter was made by a team working on a commercial Evennia-based sci-fi game, but the forums were open for other games (of any engine) and general discussion on mud and mud design.

Optional Realities published an impressive range of articles (one every week for several months) and organized several very interesting mud-related contests. It did, I think, a lot for bringing some new life to the mud-development scene.  Unfortunately Optional Realities suffered a complete database loss towards the end of the year, forcing it to sort of reboot from scratch. I hope it will rebound and that the articles can be put back online again!

Ainneve

Over summer I put out a general roll call for developers willing to lead the development of a small but fully functioning Evennia demo game - a project separate from the main Evennia development. The idea is to have something working for people to rip out and start from. The response to my request was very good and we relatively quickly ended up with two devs willing to lead and direct the effort.

The work-in-progress demo game they started is called Ainneve. It uses the base Open Adventure RPG rules and is distributed using the same liberal licence as Evennia.

Ainneve has been sputtering along throughout autumn and winter, and while progress has been a bit ... sporadic, it seems to attract new volunteers to help out. As more of the base systems gets finalized there is going to be even more "low hanging fruit" for people to jump in and help with.

EvMenu, EvMore and EvEditor, RPSystem

In July I merged some new systems into Evennia's utilities library. EvMenu is a class that builds an in-game menu. It uses multiple-choice questions for the user to navigate its nodes. I had a "menusystem" in our contrib/ folder since many years, but it was showing its age and when I found I myself didn't really understand how it was working I found it time to make something more flexible.

The EvMore is a page-scroller that allows the server to pause long texts and wait for the user to press a key before continuing. It's functionality is similar to the unix more program.

For its part, EvEditor has existed for a while as well, but it was moved from the contrib folder into the main utilility library as it turned out to be an important and common resource (it's basically a mud-version of the classic vi editor).

Finally, some months later, in September, I added the rpsystem and rplanguage contribution modules. The former is an author-stance recognition system similar to what is seen in some rp-heavy muds (where you don't know/see people's name off the bat, but only their description, until you manually assign a name to them).

The rplanguage module is used for handling foreign (fantasy) languages by obfuscating words heard by different parties depending on their relative language skills.

Python 3 ... some day

As we know, Evennia uses Python 2. In autumn of 2015 first one and then two of our users took upon themselves to help make Evennia a little more ready for running also under Python 3. After a lot of work, Evennia's core is now using code syntax that is compatible with both Python 2 and 3.

We don't run under Python 3 at this point though. This is not something under our control, but is due to Twisted not supporting Python 3 yet. But when it becomes possible, we are now better prepared for transitioning to a point where we can (hopefully) support both main Python versions.

EvCast

In September, user whitenoise started his "EvCast" video tutorial series on Evennia. There are so far two episodes, one on installing Evennia and the second on general Python concepts you need to use Evennia efficiently:




 Python.__init__ Podcast

In the end of September I was interviewed by the hosts of the python.__init__ podcast. Turned into more than an hour of discussion about Evennia. T'was fun! You can listen to it here.

Nested inlinefuncs

Towards the end of the year I got (via Optional Realities) lured to participate in another text-gaming related website, musoapbox. This is a forum primarily populated by players from the MUSH-side of text-gaming. After some back and forth they made a strong case for increasing the functionality of Evennia's inlinefunctions.

An inlinefunction is, in Evennia, a function call embedded in a string sent to the server. This is parsed and executed (no, there is no dangerous eval happening, the call is parsed as text and then called as a normal function call). It allows for text to be dynamically replaced at run-time. What the MUSHers suggested was to also allow those inlinefunc's to be nestable - that is, to implement a call stack. The nestable form of inlinefuncs was merged with Evennia master at the end of November.

Patreon

This actually happened already back in February: after some requests for more ways to support Evennia development, I opened a Patreon page. And here at the end of the year, a whole ten patrons have signed up for it. Very encouraging!

Next year

In 2016 the first upcoming thing that comes to mind is push out the changes to the webclient infrastructure. That has been a long time coming since I've been unsure of how to proceed on it for quite some time. The goal is to make the webclient a lot more "pluggable" and modular than it is, and to clean up its API and way of communicating with the server. Overall I think the web-side of things need some love.

I'll likely put together some more general-use contribs as well, I have some possibles in mind. 

We'll continue squashing bugs and work down our roadmap.

I'll also try to get an Evennia Wikipedia.org page together, if you want to look at how it's progressing and help editing it, see the Evennia mailing list for the link.


... And a lot more I don't know yet, no doubt! On towards a new year!
.
Griatch

Thursday, November 12, 2015

MIT uses Evennia!

Evennia was recently used as a test bed to train an AI system to attempt to play a MUD as a human would - by only reading and understanding the text on the screen.

Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) recently presented the paper Language understanding for Text-based games using Deep reinforcement learning (PDF) at a conference on natural language processing. A summary is in the MIT press release.

I was contacted by these fine folks some time ago so I knew they had plans to use Evennia for their research. It's great to see they now have an article out on it! Evennia devs are also mentioned in the acknowledgements - so something for the Evennia dev community to be proud of! 

MUDs are tricky

The main complication for an AI playing a MUD is that the computer has no access to the actual game state but must try to surmise how well it's doing only from the text given (same as a human would). The researchers compare the results from a range of deep-learning neural network algorithm that they train to play.

To test their AI, the researchers first used Evennia to build a simple training "Home World": a 4-room "house" where the simple goal is to find and eat an apple while refraining to go to sleep. The room descriptions used here were pretty formulaic although not trivial to give a challenge. This they used to train their AI system.

They then took this trained neural network and applied it to the real challenge, playing the Evennia Tutorial World. You can yourself try this out in our demo install or by just running a single command when starting Evennia. They call it "Fantasy World" in the article.

The tutorial world has hand-written descriptions and often describes the exits as part of the room text. The article actually makes a comprehensive analysis of the tutorial world, including the available game states and transitions as well as the number of words and number of commands per state. Interesting stuff in itself. I presume the scientists have modified their copy of the tutorial world to provide better metrics for their analysis.

A bridge too far

As far as I understand from the article, the AI does understand to use commands with one or two arguments (like eat apple or the move red-root right), but they note that actually finding the tomb of the fallen hero (the main quest of the tutorial) is too hard for the AI:

[...]However, this is a complex quest that requires the player to memorize game events and perform high-level planning which are beyond the scope of this current work.
So instead they evaluate the AI's performance on a more mundane task: Getting across the bridge to the castle. It's not clear to me if the AI actually plays more of the game too or if their test just exposes the AI to the bridge itself. I suspect it does play more due to the examples they use from other rooms; evaluating the bridge-crossing is just a clear-cut metric to use for "success".

The MIT press release claims that the AI is also scored on how much health/magic it has, but I don't see that mentioned in the article itself (and the tutorial world only has magic if you find the hero's tomb which they claim they cannot do).

The bridge in Evennia's tutorial world is actually a single "room" that takes multiple steps to cross. At every step the room description changes to describe the progress. Random texts will appear as the bridge sways in the wind and various environmental cues are heard and seen. There is also a small chance of falling off the bridge if one lingers too long on it.

So although all you really need to do is to walk east repeatedly, I can see why this can be a challenge to a neural network having no mental image of what a bridge is. It can only work off the text it's given at any given time.

In the paper, the algorithms are evaluated both on their ability to actually cross the bridge and on how optimal their solution was, for example by not issuing invalid commands to the situation.

Beyond the bridge

The results are that after being trained on the training house setup, the AI will eventually be able to cross the bridge. The particular algorithm proposed also perform slightly better than the comparison ones (and a lot better than simple randomness).

So from the perspective of the researchers this seems to be a success. Even so, this reinforces the fact that quite some way to go before an AI can *actually* play a real MUD successfully. Using MUDs for this type of research is a good idea though, and I do hope they expand and continue this line work in the future.

Who knows, maybe the AI will even find that ancient tomb eventually!

Image from MIT news

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Illustrations and soaps

I recently made an article presenting the infrastructure and main coding features of Evennia using a series of nifty diagrams.

It can hopefully help newcomers get a feeling for the grand structure of an Evennia server/game a little easier. It's published as a feature on Optional Realities and you can find the article here: Evennia Illustrated.

I also recently joined MU Soapbox, a forum predominantly discussing MUSH games, to answer some technical questions on Evennia. Unsurprisingly, some (although so far surprisingly few) MUSHers express concern about Evennia's explicit lack of softcode (that is, the ability for players to use a safe in-game language to code their game rather than to use external Python modules). Their argument is sound:  They are used to in-game coding as a way to easily express creatitivy and easily garner help from players.

Evennia's stance here clash a bit with those opinions: Our philosophy is that our command system is powerful enough to offer players any complexity of build commands they want. The design/coding of the game itself should be done using proper coding IDEs and modern version control tools.

There is no denying that compared to a softcode-coded game, a player-level contributor to an Evennia game needs some extra tools to create and contribute code over version control. The admin also needs to check such contributions for malicious code before merging it into their running game. Now, these are differences I actually consider advantages from a code-quality perspective. And for finding help, people on average are more likely to know Python than a custom softcode language. But here opinions differ and in a given game community those language adoption numbers can be severely skewed.

So far, the MUSHers that have adopted Evennia seems to have done so very much to get away from softcode. It will be interesting to see if things like Kelketek's in-development Group building Evennia contrib will be stirring some interest from those on the fence, or if coding their entire game in softcode is indeed an irreplaceable source of their gaming fun.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Emoting system, or how to chat up a girl

A few days ago I pushed an emoting contribution to Evennia. A "contrib" is an optional plugin system that is not part of core Evennia but is meant to be easily picked up and used in people's own designs.

If you are not familiar with what an emoting system does, it is a way to decribe the actions of a character in the game. The simplest form of emote is a single command (like the command dance leading to some canned response, or in the case of a graphical game, a dance animation). This contribution offers a more sophisticated system though, allowing input like the following:

emote /me smiles at /cheerful as he sits at her table. "Hello!" he says.

Now, this includes /keywords that relate to the objects in the room. So assuming there is a very cheerful girl in the room, this string will come out as 

Griatch smiles at a very cheerful girl as he sits at her table. "Hello!" he says. 

But she will actually see only my outward appearance (the short description) since she doesn't know me. So the cheerful girl (let's say her name is Sandra) would for example see

A man in flowing robes smiles at Sandra as he sits at her table. "Hello!" he says.

The emoting system has the following features: 

  • Short description replacement in emotes and in searches, as seen above. This means that you can do look cute and the system will know what you want to look at (in vanilla Evennia you'd need to use look Sandra).
  • Multi-word searching and disambiguation. If there is a cute girl and a cute puppy both in the same room, your referencing of /cute will  give an error listing the alternatives. You can then either include more words to make your reference unique or use an index (1-cute, 2-cute) to make it clear who you mean. This mimics normal object-key disambiguation in Evennia.
  • Recognition. You can assign your own aliases to people. If Sandra introduces herself you could assign her the name Sandra and henceforth be able to reference her as such and see that name appear. But you could also name her The girl calling herself Sandra if you didn't believe that's her actual name.
  • Languages. Everything within double-quotes is parsed as spoken language (like the Hello! above). By using writing this as (elvish)"Hello!", this could be spoken in another language and those who don't speak elvish would receive an obfuscated string.
  • Masking. A person wearing a mask can force people's recognition replacement to deactivate so that they are not recognized anymore.
The emoting contrib comes as two files in evennia/contrib/: rpsystem.py and rplanguage.py. To use them fully, make your Characters and Rooms inherit from the supplied classes and/or add the new commands to the Character command set. Enjoy!

image ©Griatch, from griatch-art.deviantart.com

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Evennia on Podcast.__init__

So a few weeks back I was contacted by the general Python podcast Podcast.__init__. They had stumbled on Evennia and were intrigued about MUD development still going on - and in Python even! 

As it turned out at least one of the two hosts were an old-school MU* gamer and between the two of them they had plenty of good questions both on multiplayer text games in general and about Evennia technology in particular. 

You can listen to my accent via one of the links below:
 

Podcast.__init__ logo borrowed from their homepage.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pushing through a straw

Recently, a user reported a noticeable delay between sending a command in-game to multiple users and the result of that command appearing to everyone. You didn't notice this when testing alone but I could confirm there was almost a second delay sometimes between entering the command and some users seeing the result. A second is very long for stuff like this. Processing time for a single command is usually in the milliseconds. What was going on?

Some background 

Evennia has two components, the Portal and the Server, running as two separate processes. The basic principle is that players connecting to an Evennia instance connects to the Portal side - this is the outward facing part of Evennia. The connection data and any other input and output will be piped from the Portal to the Server and back again.

The main reason for this setup is that it allows us to completely reset the Server component (reloading module data in memory is otherwise error-prone or at least very tricky to make generically work in Python) without anyone getting disconnected from the Portal. On the whole it works very well.

Debugging


Tracing of timings throughout the entire Server<->Portal pipeline quickly led me to rule out the command handler or any of the core systems being responsible - including both sides of the process divide was a few milliseconds. But in the transfer between Portal and Server, an additional 900 miliseconds were suddenly added! This was clearly the cause for the delay.

Turns out that it all came down to faulty optimization. At some point I built a batch-send algorithm between the Server and Portal. The idea was to group command data together if they arrived too fast - bunch them together and send them as a single batch. In theory this would be more efficient once the rate of command sending increased. It was partly a DoS protection, partly a way to optimize transfer handling.

The (faulty) idea was to drop incoming data into a queue and if the rate was too high, wait to empty that queue until a certain "command/per second" rate was fullfilled. There was also a timed routine that every second force-emptied the queue to make sure it would be cleaned up also if noone made any further commands.

In retrospect it sounds silly but the "rate of command" was based on a simple two-time-points derivative;

rate = 1 / (now - last_command_time)

If this rate exceeded a set value, the batch queuing mechanism would kick in. The issue with this (which is easy to see now) is that if you set your limit at (say) 100 commands / second, two commands can happen to enter so close to each other time that their rate far exceed that limit just based on the time passed between them. But there are not actually 100 commands coming in every second which is really what the mechanism was meant to react to.

So basically using a moment-to-moment rate like this is just too noisy to be useful; the value will jump all over the place. The slowdown seen was basically the DoS protection kicking in because when you are relaying data to other users, each of them will receive "commands" in quick succession - fast enough to trigger the limiter. These would be routed to the queue and the sometimes-delay simply depended on  when the queue cleanup mechanism happened to kick in.

Resolution


Once having identfied the rate measuring bug, the obvious solution to this would be to gather command rates over a longer time period and take an average - you will then filter out the moment-to-moment noise and get an actually useful rate.

Instead I ended up going with an even simpler solution: Every command that comes in ups a counter. If I want a command rate limit of 100 commands/second, I wait until that counter reaches 100. At that point I check when the time difference between now and when the counter was last reset. If this value is below 1, well then our command rate is higher than 100/second and I can kick in whatever queuing or limiter is needed. The drawback is that until you have 100 commands you won't know the rate. In practice though, once the rate is high enough to be of interest, this simple solution leads to an automatic check with minimal overhead.

In the end I actually removed the batch-sending component completely and instead added command DoS protection higher up on the Portal side. The Command-input is now rate limited using the same count-until-limit mechanism. Seems to work fine. People have no artificial slowdowns anymore and the DoS limiter will only kick in at loads that are actually relevant. And so all was again well in Evennia world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A wagon-load of post-summer updates

Summer vacations are over and work resumes in Evennia land! Here's a wagon-load of small updates on what's going on.
 

Ainneve

The Ainneve project, the creation of an official, open-source Evennia demo game, has gotten going. The lead devs of the project are keen to make this a collaborative effort and there is a lot of good discussion and code being written. After some slowdown at the end of summer it's bound to pick up again. 

Ainneve's a rare chance to see a full MUD getting developed from scratch out in the open. The current issue list includes tags for difficulty and allows also newbie Python coders to jump in. Not to mention you have a chance to get valuable feedback on your work by seasoned coders!

So if you are at all interested in making a MUD, try out Python/Evennia or just get involved in a semi-big programming project, this is a great chance to do so.

Imaginary Realities

Since a few weeks, there is a new issue of Imaginary realities (vol 7, issue 3) is out. As usual I have an article in it. This venerable e-zine was revitalized to include articles on both MU* as well as roguelikes, Interactive fiction and others. Not only is this issue the most content-rich since the reboot, with this issue they have also spruced up their interface to make past issues easier to navigate.

  • "A text MUD with a working ecology system" - in this article Molly O'Hara  details the concepts behind simulating a functioning ecologic network in a game. Interesting stuff and some parts of this is certainly worth considering for any open-world game design. I wonder at which level of detail the system become more complex than the players can appreciate though.
  • "Dispelling the gloom" by Tomasz Gruca is an interesting essay on the author's history growing up in the former Soviet Union and eventually finding text adventure games and interactive fiction, a passion he has apparently lately re-kindled. He makes the observation that the current "retro" trend of games have not really reached back to the text-based game world when it comes to mainstream acceptance.
  • "How integral are letters and text to ASCII gaming?"by Mark R. Johnson goes into the practical use of ASCII in traditional rogue-like games (beyond nostalgia). This is a meaty article that goes into both text-as-graphics as well as the use of text for aiding imagination and suggest subtle puzzles in some classic rogue-likes. 
  • "Legend and the lore" (Hugo Zombiestalker) proclaims the death of the traditional point-and-click adventure game and but then moves on to try to distill just why those games nevertheless was so appealing to him and how it can be applied in modern game designs like zombie-survival MUD Epitath which he is a senior developer for. Plenty of good observations here!
  • "The bonds of mudding" by Clint Itan Kuranes Knapp writes about the community that can spring up on a long-running MUD, the interactions the friends and the relationships that could persist already long before "social media" became a buzz word. A warm text with plenty of anecdotes and examples and things to ponder for both designers and staff when wanting to cater for this type of player bonding. 
  • "The mercurial temperament at the end of the world" (Drakkos) discusses NPCs and how they rarely are as interactive as one would want (the term "vend a chat" is a good one I think). He then goes on to how they have implemented their "Mercurial" system for NPCs in Epitath. This seems to be a state-AI system where NPCs have moods that affects what they say based on their circumstance and relation to other actors in the world. Sounds really cool and since he goes into some details on the implementation there is a lot to ponder here. 
  • "Where do I begin?" by me, Griatch, discusses one of the more common questions we get in the Evennia chat - 'I want to make a MUD, but how do I begin?' This article starts before Evennia's Game planning wiki page - it discusses assessing your capabilities and resources in the form of programming skills, code bases and motivations to help you figure out what you can realistically accomplish. 

 

Evennia Web client

In the pipeline I have some updates to Evennia's websocket/JSON MUD-web client component. These are changes that are intended to make the webclient easier to customize and hook into Evennia output using only HTML/CSS. More details on this will be forthcoming when I have more solid stuff to show.

______
Image: The troll here a-cometh by Griatch