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A Look Back at the VR Design of Archangel: Hellfire

This blog post is about Archangel: Hellfire, a competitive multiplayer VR game that I worked on at Skydance Interactive during 2017-2018. We were given the task of creating a follow up to our single player VR narrative game, Archangel. We took some of the art assets from the original title but programmed and redesigned most of the game systems from the ground up. After a year of hard work, we were about ready to wrap up Archangel: Hellfire.

Archangel: Hellfire is a valuable case study because we were forced to push against the grain of standard VR first person shooter games. Hellfire’s premise (as a cockpit-based mech game) allowed us to focus a lot of our development time on game design rather than VR specific feature development. By dialing back the amount of simulation and touch control based interactions, and iterating on combat mechanics, movement systems, and multiplayer gameplay experience, we discovered several valuable insights into VR game development in general.

Design Principles

Every time new hardware technology comes out, developers are pressured to prove its worth by designing products that showcase what it can do. The problem is, there is no truth in the idea that using all of the new features of hardware makes for good software. Sometimes it does, but in the case of a VR game, we are dealing with such a big jump from a regular video game that everyone stands to benefit from taking a step back and contemplating what is truly advantageous about gaming in a VR headset. With so many new options for things that you can do in VR, it is easy to let your imagination run wild and think of a million different things you can simulate (steering a wheel, shooting a gun, flipping a burger, petting a cat, bowling a ball etc…) However, perhaps it is better to momentarily forget all of that, and think about what it takes to make a great game that uses only a few features afforded by VR and mostly aims to be something people actually want to play more than once.

Popular culture gives a wildly inaccurate representation about the capabilities of VR, as well as the function of VR in a contemporary setting. Thus, people tend to gravitate toward the marvelous aspects of VR and have unrealistic expectations about what it should be. You will hear over and over “The technology will get there.” But if you think about it, the current technology is pretty great if you just use it correctly. Films like Avatar and Ready Player One plant the idea that the ultimate gameplay experience is one in which you inhabit a virtual body which feels and functions exactly as your own – and then you engage in warfare. In this way pure VR is the truest simulation of the most treacherous of human experiences. But you must ask yourself – is this really better than what other experiences have to offer? We already have sports: football, lacrosse, paintball, hockey, and these activities already give all of the violent adrenaline you could ever ask for. Reading a great book can be more immersive than any technological experience on earth, and it requires zero technology. Given this, what can we achieve with the VR technology we have today without assuming that a future version of VR would be automatically better?

Did we already run out of ways to create great games on PC, console, and mobile? Market trends would suggest not. 2017 revealed a complete reinvention of the first person shooter, PUBG and the battle royale style. By simply changing around a few systems, Brendan Greene and his team at PUBG Corp were able to take the world’s gaming community by storm. People are completely content playing games on their desktop in their living rooms. There is no real market demand for something more immersive than screen based gameplay. When contributing ideas to Archangel: Hellfire, I always kept this in mind. We were creating a game that not only competes against other VR titles, but also regular first person shooters like PUBG. Why would someone want to try our game when they could just keep playing Fortnite? Being in VR is not enough. 

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At first experience it seems like walking around in a room (standard HTC Vive room scale VR) with a headset on your face and getting to interact with a 3D virtual space is the coolest thing ever – you feel like you are in another world! You can crouch to dodge bullets flying at you. You can pick up a coffee cup and drink it. You can throw a plate at your grandpa. You have never experienced that before, and it feels so visceral! Who would have thought this could be possible? Except unless you are at a location based experience like “The Void” you realize you are confined to a 40 square foot virtual cell which limits your ability to travel through virtual space unless by awkward teleportation or weird floating. If you look at the history of video games, the vast majority of them involve traversing space in an engaging way. Room scale VR immediately revokes that possibility. The novelty quickly wears off. Games tend to be based on moving through levels using a joystick or directional pad. Movement and world exploration is a core part of engaging gameplay, and the first thing room scale VR hardware did was make that a low priority by necessitating that your physical space (which is more often than not limited to a tiny room) match the virtual space in order for movement to be intuitive. The solution to this situation is free movement VR experiences with deep game mechanics that focus less on VR quirks and more on gameplay. Thanks to the Oculus Rift touch controllers, we were able to able to execute this solution in Archangel: Hellfire.

Movement and Motion Sickness

In the first several months of development, the biggest challenge that we faced was the implementation of a movement scheme that was fun and did not make the player sick. The original Archangel game was a rail shooter so there was no user-controlled movement. When we were given the opportunity to make Archangel: Hellfire, we had to design and program a movement scheme from scratch. Initially, we were going to try to make a control scheme that worked well for PSVR, Vive, and Oculus Rift. Because the PSVR touch controllers do not have joysticks or directional pads, we were trying to design a way to handle motion via waypoints and other non traditional modes of input. After 3 months of experimental development, many arguments, and iterations on different waypoint systems to accommodate the PSVR touch controllers, we gave up, and decided not to include PSVR in our designs. Our executives noted that the waypoint controls were awkward, and not reactive enough for people accustomed to FPS style movement. Because of its joysticks, the Oculus Rift handled great. The Vive would handle about the same as the Rift but slightly worse due to the controller’s touch pads and lack of accessible buttons.

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Our entire development cycle was focused on the Oculus Rift. The game would be playable on Vive. But by focusing on the Oculus Rift, whose controllers are most similar to most console controllers, we were able to line up our sights on making an intuitive control scheme. It was about 6 months into development when we settled on what our game’s core design would be, and that is when development became quite fun.

At the time, our game is unique because you move fast, jump, fly, and spin all over the place and you never feel nauseous. We spent a lot of time trying to make the best movement scheme possible, and we were constantly fighting against the specter of nausea invalidating our designs. Nonetheless, by disregarding popular opinions, taking risks, and making thousands of small adjustments, we achieved something nausea safe and highly functional. 

Gameplay and Combat Design

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Edmund Burke, an 18th Century Scottish Philosopher and Politician, wrote about beauty and the sublime. One of his claims was that a metaphorical poem about hell will emotionally affect a human more than a perfectly detailed painting of hell. It is a general premise that giving a clear picture of something is actually less pleasing to the human passions than an obscure (verbal) depiction. Obscurity ignites emotions more powerfully than does clarity.

When developing VR features, the granular control afforded by touch controllers prompted every single first person shooter developer to add in hyper realistic, gesture and motion based gun mechanics. You could pump your shotgun by moving your hands to and fro, manually place a new clip into your gun, rotate the chamber on your revolver in order to empty all of the casings, aim down the scope of your gun while you awkwardly bump your headset into the controller. In short, the developers of many of these games tried to make it feel like as close to handling a real gun as it would be in real life. They were simulating what it was like to use a gun. This was certainly endearing to those who knew how guns worked, but it eluded a very particular point – simulation is usually not the thing that sells. In contrast, simplicity is entertaining and accessible to everyone. I would argue that Burke’s claim of the clarity vs obscurity is analogous to simulation vs. representation in game development. Coming up with a good representation of something in a game often ends up being more entertaining than simulating its functionality with exact precision to reality. In Hellfire, we skipped a lot of potential VR weapon simulation so that we could throw players straight into the action, so that we could toss a stick of dynamite on their laps.

VR needs accessibility and replay-ability. When I played most of the gun simulator VR games, I could hardly figure out how to kill an enemy, let alone traverse through the menu screens. This made me realize what I wanted for Archangel: Hellfire: get into the action as fast as possible, make the game so intuitive that a first time player will effortlessly rack up kills and feel like a boss. No simulation or gestural interference necessary.

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There is a quote by Quentin Tarantino that goes something like this “When I make movies, I light a stick of dynamite and throw it in the viewer’s lap.” Ingmar Bergman said something similar, “My films must always retain the purpose of entertainment, even at the peak of their ingenuity.” I like these quotes because at the end of the day, video games are also an industrial art form and must be profitable and entertaining in order to persist as a medium.

When we take a step back and look at the top selling first person shooter franchises in history (Halo, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike) they did not simulate anything. Tap a button to reload, and use a crosshair to see where your bullet is going to go. You do not get a crosshair in real life, yet every single great first person shooter uses one because it is a great representation of how to aim a gun. Adding VR gun simulation is sacrificing a lot of space in our innovation economy because it is different from prior successes. If you are going to make your game about gun simulation, there isn’t going to be a lot of room or time to add in anything else unique or interesting. How much bang for your buck are you getting out of a unique feature? We decided that gun simulation was the least important fun factor in our game, so we did not even attempt it. Like Archangel, Archangel: Hellfire uses on screen crosshairs that project from the touch controllers out into the world. Even though you never get to hold a gun, Archangel: Hellfire is more similar to gun based console shooters like Call of Duty and Halo than any of the other VR games because it represents shooting instead of simulating it. We were fortunate that having a mech game essentially forced us down this path due to the fact that you are in a cockpit instead of on foot. Admittedly, shooting a gun in VR is enjoyable, but not having to worry about gun handling in Archangel: Hellfire allowed us to elaborate on other aspects of game design.

This concludes my review of the design behind Archangel: Hellfire. I felt compelled to share this year old writing, which would have otherwise remained unpublished on my google drive, because all of this thought leads directly into the game design of Extreme Tactical Executioners (xTx), the game I designed and programmed with Baby Rage Games. Had I not worked on Archangel directly before xTx, I would not have approached the game with the same design sentiment on “minimal VR features and maximal game features”.

Book recommendation: “No Ordinary Time”, by Doris Kearns Goodwin for an informative look into the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Baby Rage Games: An Introduction

My business partners Alex Davis and Billy Cavanaugh started a VR company called 2020xr a little over a year ago. I joined as their CTO in July and have helped on board two more programmers and a 3D artist. This past month we changed our name to Baby Rage Games. We are creating a PC/VR multiplayer cross platform game and we will be releasing a single player version later this year. We are waiting to start development on the multiplayer mode due to Unity’s change in networking tech which is affording our lean team time to experiment and iterate on the design of our single player arcade mode. Our long term plan is to enter the eSports world with our game allowing players to compete either on PC or VR, but still drawing inspiration from the way that new VR games like Onward are hosted at VR tournaments.

From day one we knew we wanted the game to be more or less the same on VR and PC so every time we add a new feature, we have to make sure it works for all platforms. This is resulting in a design approach that is very gameplay focused and not so much VR focused. Unlike other VR devs, we are not trying to add cool VR-only features in our game. In fact, we are stripping them out to create a balanced experience when playing against someone on a PC. Keeping our design simple will allow it to be fun on both platforms.

Sometimes we will go for weeks with out touching a headset and will only test our game with a mouse and keyboard. But inevitably someone will say “Hey does Oculus even work right now?” and we will have to go in and make up for lost time. Here is a screen shot of a test level along side some scripts that we use to toggle between platforms while we develop:

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Our current goal is to wrap up an arcade mode similar to Call of Duty Zombies and get it out on the market as soon as possible. From there we plan to release rolling updates and move forward with the multiplayer mode.

We will be releasing more information soon. Follow us on Twitter or contact us if you have any question.

20/20 XR Update

Since I left Skydance Interactive and the Archangel: Hellfire team to join 20/20 XR I have been working on a new VR/PC cross platform game IP that is currently unannounced. Here is a very early stage screen shot:

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At 20/20 XR I have been spending most of the time doing early stage start-up things: recruiting, planning, setting up the office, doing research on tech that we will be using for our first game, etc… However, for the first few weeks in August I worked on a VR architecture walk through prototype which we are still shopping around in order to close deals with real estate developers. This would allow us to extend the runway for our original game development. All of the art is “programmer art” for both of these screen shots so pardon their lack of quality.

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Book Recommendation: For anyone interested in learning how to motivate your employees in the year 2018, check out “Drive” by Daniel H. Pink.

 

Archangel: Hellfire Update

I recently wrapped up Archangel: Hellfire with the team at Skydance Interactive. It is currently available to play as a beta and the full free release will be available July 17th 2018.

Archangel: Hellfire is a valuable case study because we were forced to push against the grain of standard VR first person shooter games. Hellfire’s premise (as a cockpit-based mech game) allowed us to focus a lot of our development time on game design rather than VR specific feature development. By dialing back the amount of simulation and touch control based interactions, and iterating on combat mechanics, movement systems, and multiplayer gameplay experience, we discovered several valuable, yet subtle secrets to VR game development that I will cover in this section.

With a limited timeline and budget for the game, we wanted to create something that got as close to a classic first person shooter as possible. We wanted to create a fast paced, tactical experience that felt familiar and fun to play, but also complex enough for a high level of replay-ability. The last thing we wanted to see was people taking off the headset after a couple minutes and saying “That was cool, I have never experienced something like that before.

No. We wanted to see people slam the headset on the ground, scream “what the f–k”, get pissed at their opponents, and say “Put me in again so I can avenge myself.” We wanted people to get competitive as hell. We wanted to push the VR eSports universe to the next level.

And even though we wanted these things – we knew it was going to be hard to get them, simply because of the fact that relatively few people actually own headsets today. However, whatever time players would spend in Archangel: Hellfire, we would make it as intense as possible. We would set a benchmark for competitive game play in the VR space.

I will talk more about the development of Archangel: Hellfire in my upcoming book: Silicon Beach GameDev. Follow me on instagram for further updates.

Book Recommendation: “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, for a deep historical look at the evolution of the human being as well as the society and ideology that surrounds it. Many intriguing patterns and perspectives on human kind are revealed here, all of which are incredibly relevant today.

VR + AR Telepresence Applications

Paul Graham states that a product needs to be wanted/needed by the customer…desperately…like a child with a cut finger needs a band-aid, the need must be strong as possible in order for the product to succeed. If you want to sell a band aid, go to a kitchen full of sharp knives with many cooks working under pressure…. Etc..

What does a person want/need ordinarily?

  • To be with his family
  • To live in a comfortable place
  • To do well at work

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Unfortunately, these things conflict with one another. Families are expensive, work is hard to find, and comfortable places are not always where the work is. Many companies exist in places that are not ideal for raising families, like New York City. Say you run a company in NYC, but wanted to live with your family in Colorado. How would your family take it if you had to travel to New York every week? Your children would miss you, your partner would grow unhappy, and your life would be painful – and on the other hand, if you worked remotely from Colorado, your company would lack your leadership presence.

 

Right now, many working people have long commutes and travel which actively detriment the things that matter most to them, many people are forced to live in cities they despise because of the localization of certain industries.

 

What if we could introduce a technology that could alleviate the suffering that comes with long commutes, travel, and uncomfortable domestic situations? Well, it is called AR/VR, and it already exists. What we will discover is that the greatest strength AR/VR possesses is that of allowing the telecommunication of HUMAN PRESENCE in a way that surpasses all pre-existing communication technologies, it will change what it means to be AN EMPLOYEE, to be IN THE OFFICE, it will change what it means to BE, at least within reasonably effective limits.

 

As it stands now, there is a major issue with remote work: communication. Most remote work style communication is done via text, video, or audio. These are all subpar to sitting down face to face with a team member, and while they suffice for relaying directives and specific instructions, they fall short in the realms of creativity, collaboration, spontaneity, and empathy. VR/AR can capture 95% of a human presence and represent it in 3D space – only in the realms of touch and smell does it truly fall short – both of which are not usually important aspects of work life.

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If we can simulate the presence between two people in a room we can increase the collaborative potential of remote work ten fold and cut costs on travel, real estate, and improve QOL on all employees. Imagine that you work at a web design company – you could have a remote meeting with a client and bring her into your office for a virtual white boarding session where you could both write on the same white board while looking each other in the eye. The level of communication and understanding would completely trump that of a Skype call by relaying facial expression, hand gestures, and human presence. This would allow for unrestrained collaboration without the cost of travel, and an expedited communication of expectations with the client – ultimately resulting in a cleanly executed development process.

 

The ultimate success of AR/VR will be in telecommunicating human presence and physical space, this will be able to unlock the most important aspects of human communication: collaboration, creativity, spontaneity, and empathy for use across a network in ways that will expedite and improve the quality of remote work, delocalize industries, and give liberty to professionals to live where they want and work where they want.

Book Recommendation: “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki, for anyone looking for an introduction into how to think like a rich person.

The VR Advantage

What I have learned after examining VR video games is that they are not enhanced by AR/VR in a meaningful way.

I believe that interactive systems are highly functional when they use their input systems to effectively communicate information and allow users to interact with that information in a natural, intuitive way.

Looking at all of the games I have played in VR, the only ones that have made we want to come back for a second go are the multiplayer games. In fact, the first VR project I made was a multiplayer game.

When you play a multiplayer game, another human is sending you information and communicating with you in a way that makes you engaged and interested. The difference between a VR multiplayer game and a regular multiplayer game is that you get access to a deeper amount of information about the player on the other side than you could with just a computer, and this information is entirely to do with their BODY and HUMAN PRESENCE.

After reading books like Charisma Myth and People Skills, it becomes very clear that human communication is about much more than just the words you say, but rather the posture you maintain, the hand gestures you make, the pauses in your speech, the eye contact you transmit. VR/AR has the potential to capture all of these expressions and represent them in virtual space, and this is the true advantage of VR/AR over regular computers.

A single player game will not be superior in VR than on a screen, because no game will ever be able to be designed to interpret the minutiae of human expression and use it in a system of deep game mechanics. Only a human or AI can interpret this sort of information in a useful way, games only require simple binary inputs on behalf of the user because they are essentially static systems whose depth is not built on deep input but rather on shallow input being processed in a variety of contexts. This is not to say that single player games are not fun experiences in VR, it is to say that they are not evolved or more game-like.

I believe that the ultimate strength of VR/AR will come from humans coming together in virtual environments and communicating through immersive interactive systems, utilizing the complex input data generated with AR/VR in conjunction with creative and analytical VR tools that can help record and capture the communication between people. This will not only drive the success of remote work and telecommunication, but will also allow for new modes of streamlined, uninhibited human collaboration – two people will be able to draw on a white board at once while overlapping in virtual space. The ability to learn, collaborate, and instruct from remote spaces will see a major improvement and the distance between individuals will impede their work life communication and collaboration less than ever before.

I will be expanding on this topic with much greater detail in an upcoming video presentation, please stay tuned.

Book Recommendation: “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami, for anyone interested in Japanese history, surrealism, madness, and what is perhaps one of Murakami’s best works.

Becoming a Game Developer in LA

Chapter 1: The Value of a Dollar

On a Saturday afternoon in a Mandeville canyon residential courtyard, I was conversing with one of my mentors about why game companies fail so often. After some careful thought, Nolan Bushnell set down his dry martini and made an aphoristic declaration: “A successful business should be focused on generating outcomes, not just ideas or intentions.” What he meant was that when you decide to build a product or start a company, you have to envision how to generate a real outcome as fast as possible. A real outcome is a finished product that puts money in the bank. If you are not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, you should not start a company. If you meet someone who is not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, do not go into business with them. You should always err on the side of pragmatism, especially when you are young.

If you want to make an original game, you need investment capital. Video games are an industrial art form and they ordinarily require lots of teamwork combined with lots of money to yield a successful result. In order to receive investment capital, you need to have already made money off of a game and proven that you know what you are doing. If you have not already made money off of a game, you will not receive investment capital – unless you have great connections.

The reality is that people do not understand how hard it is so make just one dollar doing what you love. It is a major achievement which takes time, experience, dedication, and repeated failure. Even the most creative or artistic person must confront the reality of having a solid revenue stream if he or she wants to get serious about having a lasting creative career.

The ultimate challenge in video game development is making enough money from your own games to continue to make more games without having to do contract work. Like any problem, it can be dissected and broken down into constituent parts. One part is that people do not have a basic need for video games. In order to sell a video game, people have to be convinced that they need it. Here are a couple of ways that someone could be convinced that they need to buy a game:

  • Joe has a crush on a girl named Sally who likes a certain game called Fire Dash. Sally loves talking about Fire Dash, but since Joe has not played it, he cannot keep up the conversation. He goes home and buys Fire Dash just so he can have a better conversation with Sally. Sold.
  • Wendy’s little brother has a birthday coming up. He likes video games. She asks a store attendant for a recommendation. The store attendant says Fire Dash is the perfect gift. Sold.
  • Alex wants to be in the know regarding the latest indie games on the market. Fire Dash comes up on Steam as a top new release. Sold.

It is obvious that there is a market for video games. A huge one. But achieving the aforementioned sales scenarios in a saturated market is very difficult and almost impossible for someone just starting out. Selling even a few copies of a game is incredibly hard. Finishing a game and having it accepted by an online store is incredibly hard. Working on a game by yourself can be a deathtrap.

The first thing you need to do in your mission to become a game developer is join a game company and work for someone else. This is the first step in getting experience and making connections.

If you are not qualified to work for someone else, work for free until you are. If you cannot afford to work for free, save up money until you can. Every obstacle is a problem that can be broken down into constituent parts. Getting a job at a game company is about being in the right place at the right time and having the evidence that you are going to add value to someone else’s team. To provide evidence, have sample work, prototypes, and a CV ready at all times. To be in the right place at the right time, well, you just have to move to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is without a doubt the best place on earth to become a gamedev. Given USC’s constant stream of newly founded game projects, AAA studios including Riot and Naughty Dog, and weekly networking events helping newcomers integrate into the scene, if you are not in LA and you are trying to become a game developer you should pack your bags and fly out tomorrow “Mulholland Drive” style because no where on earth is there better opportunity for gamedev success than here in Silicon Beach.

No matter who you are there is a niche for you in this city. With LA’s rich history in art and entertainment you find a lot different types of artists, writers, and musicians coming into the game world making LA’s games the coolest and best. Video games are just beginning to be recognized as an artform capable of self expression. LA is a breeding ground for this type of direction in games due to its booming indie game developer scene concretized by groups like Glitch city a game dev collective or the youtube celebdevs like YandereDev. However, LA is a brutally isolating and unforgiving place. Between the traffic, urban sprawl, cost of living, heat, and generally closed off social climate, Los Angeles is the type of place to chew up and spit out a newcomer who does not have the hustle and thick skin to endure the dramatic ups and downs that come during the acclimation period. It is for this reason that Los Angeles produces such incredible works of art. People constantly struggle to exist – whether the struggle is social, financial or psychological, many people here are suffering and the only way to alleviate that suffering is by working hard.

Spending money is an essential part of living in most big cities and to spend money you have to earn it. The differences between earning 20k, 40k, 60k, and 80k per year are quite different. You do not become comfortably independent until you are making between 40k-60k, and you do not really get to buy things you want or save money until you make more than that. This is just for taking care of yourself. If you throw another person into the equation it is another story.

The reality of money hits hard in this city, but it is important to remember that everyone started out broke and that successful people are not expecting you to be rich. Even if you are not making a whole lot of money, if you are passionate, humble, hardworking, well mannered, and fun to be around, you will find that helpful people will give you the benefit of the doubt. These people will provide you with the support to find your path and make money off of a career that you believe in.

As a creative person, it may be easy to say “I do not care about money, I am just going to be an artist and dive right into an ambitious project and hope that it gets picked up,” but the unfortunate truth is that you will most definitely fail if you have that attitude, especially in Los Angeles. You need money to survive and connections to achieve your dreams, you cannot do anything on your own.

There are a lot of ways to become financially successful in LA, but if it means working with people you do not like or doing something you are not passionate about, you will find yourself with a state of depression and regret. People with power will see talent in you and want to keep you around so they can get a cut when all of your work pays off. These people will employ you or even help you out when you need it most. But they will also hold you back once you are on your feet. Remember that just because people appear to care for you does not mean they do. You have to be skeptical of almost everyone and truly get to know people before getting into serious business. The worst thing that can happen is going into business with someone who you cannot trust.

Book Recommendation: “Genealogy of Morals” by F. Nietzsche, for a look into the history of good and evil, good and bad, power relationships, societal organization, and the study of asceticism and its effect on the individual.