Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Merry Christmas!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas all!

I’m off spending time with family, so don’t expect to see me around much. But for a couple of cool Christmas-ish links:

John-RomeroGOG.COM – Free Release: Akalabeth: World of Doom

John Romero Gets His Own Head on a Stick for Christmas… kinda …

Anyway, I hope you have a very happy day. Be excellent to one another, and have fun!

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Updated Video Policy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 24, 2014

Since I had trouble finding a previous blog post where I granted permission to people to make “Let’s Play” videos, I decided to turn it into a separate, permanent page (which is part of the menu bar at top – “Video Policy”).

It’s not a long policy. The short version is – yes, go ahead and make videos. Feel free to even monetize the videos. I just ask that you please provide attribution and a link back to a legitimate sales page (for example, here, or one of our authorized distributors or affiliates, like Steam or Desura), but as long as you aren’t trying to represent the game content as your own (and what kind of jerk does that?), have fun.

Official Video Policy


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The Game Biz is the Same All Over

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 23, 2014

I am happily back from Japan. I had enough time to wash my clothes and turn in an expense report, and now I’m heading off to Cedar City, Utah to spend Christmas with the in-laws. It is in months like these when my laptop becomes my primary development platform. Le sigh…

But hey, this was my first time to Japan. I got to ride a bullet train past Mt. Fuji. Here’s a snapshot from my window as I rocketed past:


And a little pic of me from the ruins of Yoshida Castle in Toyohashi (I’d heard of neither the castle nor the city until I took this trip, but hey, cool…)


We were partnered up with another company on this project. As I sat inside a little break-room at the training facility eating lunch with the representative from this other company, we got chatting about our careers. And it turns out, he’d previously worked in the video games biz as well. In his case, he’d been a 3D modeler working for Nintendo during the Nintendo 64 years.

We compared notes, and man… tales from the trenches. Different country, different culture, but our stories were remarkably similar. Brutal hours, canceled projects, and the amazingly restrictive technical limitations of the platform, and the clever hacks they did to try and make the best of those limitations. I think he told me they were restricted to 32 x 32 texture sizes, but I think that was only with full-color textures… they had to get creative with two-color textures to help hide the limitations, which may have been able to be at a larger size.

But yeah – the industry had the same chew-em-up-and-spit-em-out mentality in Japan as in the U.S.  Are / were European game companies the same? Anyway, it seemed like we enjoyed a moment of camaraderie that came with swapping tales of working in the biz.

I would like to believe that the indie revolution has helped bring a little bit of sanity to the industry in that respect, but I don’t know. Much of that mentality originated back in the old days when things were… well, a lot more indie. When you had a tiny number of people with a serious personal investment in the games (and the chance for big personal rewards on success), they’d be fully motivated to move heaven and earth to build their masterpieces. What happened was that over time, as this mentality flourished, the big companies took over. The personal investment (and personal gain) went away, but the big studios did all they could to keep the mentality alive.

So people (usually “kids” in their 20s who didn’t know any better) were still killing themselves, but this time to make someone else rich.

At least in the indie world, the ownership is (usually) back where it belongs.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism, Retro - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

I Can’t Tell Great from Good

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 22, 2014

I’ve been playing video games for… um, a long time, okay? Seriously, when I was little we had one of those Telstar  game consoles with the built-in knobs that had three variations on Pong. So… yeah. Been a while.

And in that time, I have (occasionally) reviewed games, made games, had my games reviewed, and played a lot of games. I think critically about games. I like to believe that I think deeply on games. But I have a confession – perhaps not a new one, as it’s not exactly a new realization, but something I keep getting reminded of as time goes by:

I can’t tell a great game from a good game.

Seriously. I mean, I can generally tell a bad game from a mediocre one. I can maybe tell the difference between mediocre and good. But it gets harder, especially when a game is not consistently bad or consistently competent. I mean, what if a game has poor graphics but good gameplay? Or vice versa? What if it has a lot of great ideas but execution doesn’t meet the ideas’ potential? That’s bad enough.

But aside from clear production value differences (which I feel are artificial and clearly designed to sway people like me who have the same problem), it’s difficult for me to put my finger on what really sets the “great” games apart from their merely “good” counterparts. I can identify some parts that seem brilliant, but whether or not that really sets a game above the others is something I can’t answer.

For me, Super Mario Brothers was a “good” game. It wasn’t really my thing, but I could see how it was well-executed. When my girlfriend introduced me to it and was singing its praises, she was mainly going on about the quality of the graphics. (Yes, how’s that for a switch?)  I thought, “cool,” and I enjoyed playing it, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered how well it had aged, and began to really understand what made it “great.” Likewise the original Legend of Zelda. I had a blast playing it, even though I would have preferred something that was more of a “real” RPG. Super Meat Boy is an indie example where I can recognize the skill that went into the game, and I have to admit that I end up playing way too much of it even though it’s a style of game I don’t usually prefer (which I should probably treat as a clue for future estimations). But I don’t love it.

Likewise, there were a few games I really thought of as impressive that haven’t strongly resonated among gamers the way I’d expect a “great” game to do. Like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which has kind of become more of a cult classic, although I recognized at the time that some of its flaws and bugs held it back from true greatness. I’m still a major fan of the indie RPGs Din’s Curse and Knights of the Chalice, which I consider absolutely great games that few people have ever played (and even fewer share my opinion of them).

Not that becoming a mainstream “hit” is required for a game to be considered “great,” but I do end up doubting my tastes sometimes. I know I’m not entirely lined up with the average joe gamer.

So…  I guess I’m not destined for a career in games journalism. Or something. Beyond certain clear thresholds of quality, my opinion of a game becomes highly dependent of my own biases and preferences.

But I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not entirely alone in this. Why is there such pressure among game reviewers (or from their editors) to make sure that their reviews don’t deviate too far from the norm established by GameRankings or whatever? Is it because they are not confident of their own ability to determine subtle shades of quality?

That’s why – if I were ever in charge of rating games – I’d like to limit it to three possible ratings: Bad, Okay, and Good.  Or, “Hated it”,”Liked it,” and “Loved it.” I just don’t know that I could really nail things down to a greater level of detail than that.

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RPG Design: An Imperfect Union

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 19, 2014

When this article posts, I should be in the air with most of the Pacific Ocean behind me, on my way back from Japan. Didja miss me? Didja even notice I was gone?

Persona4_1Spending a week and a half in the Land of the Rising Sun kinda made me want to play Persona 3 and Persona 4 again. Maybe it’s all the kids in school uniforms and being able to buy Octopus Jerky. Not that I have actually bought the stuff, mind you… it’s just available. The little Japanese culture references in those games – which probably aren’t even conscious references by the designers – make the games stand out a little in my mind. Dang those were good games.

I managed to do a little bit of RPG playing during this trip (though it’s been pretty busy…). I had a total party wipeout in Wizardry 6 (since I had only one, you can infer correctly I didn’t play a lot of it), re-explored more of the gigantic basement of Lord British’s castle in Ultima Underworld 2, got cracking with a deadly spoiled brat in Loren the Amazon Princess, and revisited my old standby Din’s Curse for some quick hacking and slashing. I expected to get really serious about Dead State once I get home.

As I’ve been dividing my productive time between fiction writing and game development, I’ve once again been mixing and matching lessons from each creative endeavor. As writing is a far older, more popular, and far more developed field, there is a greater quantity of useful (and useless) information available on the subject. I found myself reading about the development of first chapters of a novel, and immediately considered the applicability in computer role-playing games.

In principle: Lots. In implementation: Iffy.

In the early 90s, there was a pretty clean delineation between “Western” RPGs (wRPGs) and Japanese RPGs (jRPGs). The jRPGs really started taking advantage of solid storytelling technique, and their popularity soared. Meanwhile, for a while, the wRPGs kind of went into a popularity decline, as the storyline of “Hey, dungeon! Beat it!” didn’t compare too well, even though the dungeons were becoming really pretty dang cool and interactive.

We still end to use those distinctions, although the styles of games have probably had more in common for much longer than they were really separate. Unfortunately, some of the wrong lessons were learned (IMO) – both styles of games accrued insufferably long intro sequences before the player is allowed significant interaction (and as much as I praise the Persona games, yeah, they are like that, but hardly the worst offenders), and clicky-actiony interaction masquerading as gameplay (because keeping the player busy leaves them less time to think about how the gameplay sucks, I guess).

It sometimes feels like we kicked the happy medium to the roadside.

Of course, I’m exaggerating, especially when it comes to the slew of cool indie and “big indie” RPGs that have been released lately. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement, there’s at least a sense that they’ve learned the right lessons.

Narrative and gameplay form an imperfect union. Simply put – players play to win the game, not to make better dramatic choices, which spoils the narrative; but forcing those dramatic choices upon the player spoils the interactivity and gameplay. However, those competing forces can be carefully balanced to form something really cool. Maybe it cannot be the best story in the world or represent perfect gameplay, but it can be something greater than the sum of its parts. The two competing elements can enhance the flavor of their counterparts.

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“Crap Happens” – Risk Management and Gaming

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 18, 2014

CivLogicWhen you play Chess, you never have to ask yourself, “If my Knight is unsuccessful in taking my opponent’s Bishop, what is my fallback plan?” Sure, you may have to come up with a plan B if your opponent chooses another (viable) move than the one you expect, but the outcome of a single move is never in doubt. There are no percentages, no tables, no dice rolls, no hit points, no chances.

For some players and game designers this represents a purity of gameplay – a perfection. I scratch my head at this view. I guess that’s why Chess isn’t my favorite game. Sure, it’s fine and enjoyable. I kinda prefer Go, myself, but that’s another game with no chance involved. It’s all move / countermove. Is this purity of gameplay – with perfect knowledge of the board and purely deterministic outcome for each move – an ideal? Sure. Is it *the* ideal for which all games should strive?

Not by a longshot.

I’m a simulationist at heart. While I’m cool with the occasional abstract game, I prefer games that represent something – a narrative, or a piece of reality. And one of the things about reality is that nothing ever goes as planned. Guns jam. Key players get injured. Matches get called on account of rain. Somebody forgets to carry the nine. Luke gets in a lucky shot that blows up the Death Star. An early snowfall causes ice to build up in the gaps between the tank treads, slowing the advance. Ewoks beat the Empire. The lead actor gets the flu. Brilliant tactics undermine a “perfect” strategy. A black swan event takes place. In short, crap happens.

For me, in strategy games (and RPGs), that’s part of the fun. No, I can’t say I enjoy it when I have a 90% head-shot chance and I miss. But that sort of thing is offset by the times I have only a 10% chance of a head-shot and I hit. Those are the moments I remember.

For me, I like the tough decisions when you can have a perfect understanding of the odds but still have a tough time making a choice. Do you take a guaranteed loss of 50% of your forces, or a 50% chance of a total victory with no losses but with failure meaning a total loss? While mathematically both options are equal (AFAIK, not being a mathematician), to me that’s an interesting decision. It’s the kind of thing riveting gameplay is made of.

Uncertain results means having to manage risk. It means contingencies. It means you may not want to expose your sniper for that “killer shot” because it might not pay off, and the enemy is going to be mighty pissed and see an easy target. It complicates things in a good way.  So while there’s always a place for “pure” strategy, I reject the notion that it’s somehow a superior game form. In the real world, crap happens.

But even in the game world, maybe what  a good strategy game needs to spice things up is a little bit of craps.

Filed Under: Strategy Games - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology Cover Reveal

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2014

It’s still a couple of months away, but my publisher has revealed the cover of the next Steampunk anthology, which includes the story “The Van Tassel Legacy” by yours truly:

MMII imageWe’re in the final stages of editing right now.

I haven’t read any of the other stories, but I know some of the authors and read their previous works, and I’m excited for what they have in store. The stories are all based on classic American literature this time around, with a steampunk twist. It sounds like one of the stories is based on / inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories (Princess of Mars, etc.), which would have put this book in the “must read” category in the first place.

My story is something of a sequel to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, taking place about fifty years after the events of the original story. I’m pretty sure that my own story is probably not anything like Irving had in mind when he wrote Sleepy Hollow, but I hope he’d be amused. As for me, well, I’m never going to read or hear the original story the same way ever again. Katrina van Tassel and Brom Bones, in particular, have been forever transformed for me.

Anyway, I thought the cover looked awesome, and wanted to share.  More information forthcoming in the next few weeks!

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Guest Post: Why I Love (and Sometimes Hate) Adventure Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 16, 2014

The following is a guest post by my good friend Greg Squire of Monkey Time Games. He has graciously offered to help out while I’m off in the Land of the Rising Sun. Enjoy!

The adventure game genre is filled with tons of evangelists and also tons of antagonists. And while I imagine that may be true of any game genre, it seems they are especially vocal when it comes to adventure games. Many laud the merits of the genre as an interactive storytelling medium, but many others decry that the genre barely passes the minimum qualifications to be a “game”. Many, myself included, have loved to see the resurgence of the genre in the past several years, but there are others that would like to keep the genre buried forever. In this article I hope to convey what I like and sometimes dislike about the genre.

Encyclopedia_Brown,_Boy_DetectiveI was first introduced to the concept of interactive stories in reading some of the old “Encyclopedia Brown” and “Choose your own Adventure” books as a kid. The idea that the story could change based upon your own choices was a powerful notion to me then. And granted these stories were fairly limited in their “interactivity”, they still opened my eyes to the possibilities. Later I was soon introduced to the world of interactive fiction (then known as “text adventures”) through a game called “Zork“. I played it for many hours on my Atari 800XL that I had purchased with my paper route money. It opened up a new world to me. I could type anything into that little prompt for the game, and it magically talked back to me. Often it would respond with “I don’t understand that” type of messages, but on occasion I’d be surprised with humorous responses. As I told the game what to do, it would comply and respond with words that advanced the story along. It was as if I was really was in that world at times, and it seemed endless. Of course that was an illusion, but it really seemed like I could do most anything that I wanted in that imaginary world. I went on and played many other Infocom and Scott Adams adventures that were popular in that day. I was hooked. The door had been opened and there was no going back.

Fate_of_Atlantis_artworkBy the time the 90’s rolled around, adventure games had evolved into the familiar graphical point-n-click format that’s still in use today. I have fond memories of playing many of the Lucasarts adventures as a young adult. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis are some of my particular favorites of that era. Perhaps the nostalgia of looking back on that era is partly why I like the genre so much. Most people have fond memories of things they grew up with, but I think that’ nostalgia is only part of the equation.

I feel a big part of my draw to adventure games is the exploration aspect of it. The genre encourages the player to look around their surroundings and examine the virtual environment. It’s through that exploration that items are uncovered, which are then used to solve puzzles and advance the story. It’s like a treasure hunt at its core; and who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt, right? Also it’s a mechanic that helps pull the player in and help them to feel a part of that world.

Another big aspect is story. I heard it said by Tracy Hickman and others is that the human race is wired for story. Since the dawn of man, we’ve told stories by the campfire. It’s an essential part of our being and probably why we get a lot of fulfillment from stories. It’s part of how we learn and understand the world around us. When we hear part of a story, most of us will be drawn to know how it ends. It’s part of our natural curiosity to know the ending. It’s just how we are wired, and that’s why story is such a powerful tool. Adventure games are heavily story driven, and that helps drive us to complete the game, as we want to know how the story ends. Perhaps this is the greatest reason I love the genre, as I love great stories.

The puzzle aspect of adventure games is also another draw for me. I’m a very cerebral type of person, and I tend to be a problem solver. Since my youth I’ve always liked puzzles of various types. I love the ‘ah hah’ moment you get when you figure something out on your own. That can be exhilarating, and is part of the inherent reward you get from the game. However I realize that for some, puzzles can become frustrating and can even become a deterrent. It’s a reason that some people don’t like the genre. Puzzles certainly aren’t for everyone.

Now adventure games aren’t perfect I admit, and there are some things that I and many others sometimes hate about them. Most of these boil down to bad design decisions, but they are something that has plagued the genre from time to time (mostly in the early years). The first problem is “pixel hunting”, which is when the hot spots of particular objects are made too small, thus making them hard to find. In some bad cases, the user would literally have to hunt for that one pixel (or small group of pixels) to find the needed “hotspot” to advance the game. This was a particularly bad practice in the 90’s when some designers thought it would add to the challenge and make it more fun. However it only succeeded in adding more frustration to the player.

MI2_JojoSecond is the problem of getting stuck due to overly difficult or nonsensical puzzles. This is still a problem in many adventure games today, because puzzle difficulty is relative. What might be an easy puzzle to one player, might be extremely difficult for another. Some games try to alleviate this problem by implementing a good hint system, or by making such a puzzles optional instead of mandatory. Also it’s considered bad design if the puzzle doesn’t fit naturally into the overall story and/or environment. Unfortunately many games have included nonsensical / lateral thinking puzzles, and the solution to those puzzles are so bizarre that it just frustrates the player even more. I have experienced this problem many times with adventure games, and I have had to turn to walkthroughs on the internet in order to progress through the game. In these cases of bad puzzle design, the only way to solve them is to either look up the solution in a walkthrough (cheating), or do “option exhausting”, which is where the player tries every dialog option or tries to use every object on every other object. Obviously this is very tedious to do, and most players would either cheat or quit the game. On the bright side, I haven’t been frustrated with many puzzles in adventure games these days. Not sure if that’s just because I’ve gotten better at them, or if designers have learned from the past and have made better puzzles. Hopefully the latter.

Another problem I see in the adventure game genre is confusing user interfaces. Now this is an area of debate because some people love the old Lucasarts “click to construct a sentence” interface, and some love the old Sierra “verb coin” interface, where you use the secondary mouse button to change the mouse icon to the action (verb) that you want to take before clicking on an object. However I feel that both of those interfaces are overly complex, and are a hurdle to new players not familiar with the genre. I personally don’t like either of those interfaces. However it’s true that those interfaces do give you the flexibility of doing any action with any object, but I would contend that this just isn’t needed. Usually there’s only one or two actions that make sense to do on any given object. You wouldn’t TAKE a door, but you would UNLOCK or OPEN it. You wouldn’t UNLOCK a person, but you would TALK to them. You wouldn’t TALK to a banana (at least not usually), but you would TAKE it. The context is usually enough to determine the action needed. I am a big proponent of the K.I.S.S. philosophy (Keep It Simple Stupid), so I’d rather keep the player’s learning curve down with a simple interface. I much prefer a one button interface that determines the context based on the kind of object you are interacting with. Many of the Telltale and other recent adventures have used such a simple interface successfully. It can be done.

GK2Lastly is the issue of time commitment, and depending on who you talk to, that can be an upside or a downside. I guess this one comes down to personal preference. Some people want a long drawn out experience, and feel slighted if the game doesn’t last 10+ hours. However I prefer a comparatively shorter, faster paced, but enriching experience, because my time has gotten more and more limited as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s the case with many older players, as they’ve taken on the responsibilities of work and family. I have to take my games in bite size chunks these days.

So despite the shortcomings of the genre, I still love adventure games and what they bring to the table. I think that games have the potential to be the most powerful storytelling medium, but I don’t feel that it’s there yet. I think there’s still plenty of innovation ahead. So where do we go from here? Hard to say for sure, but I’ve always imagined something like Star Trek’s holodeck technology as the holy grail for interactive storytelling. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more immersive than that. Perhaps with advancements in virtual reality and automatic story generation, we may eventually get to something akin to that. But for now we’ll have to settle with the current state of gaming. Further, there are some that still claim that adventure games are dead, or were dead but have seen a small comeback, but the reality is that they never died at all. They just morphed and evolved, like all game genres do. We don’t always call them “adventure games” anymore, but many games these days have “adventure” or heavy story elements in them. For instance, the action adventure genre, which are games like the Tomb Raider and Zelda series, are essentially adventure games with action elements thrown in. They still have strong story, exploration, and puzzle elements, but we don’t think of them in the same way as the adventure games of yesteryear, but yet they are still “adventures”. They have morphed and mutated, and for better or worse, adventure games are here to stay.

Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Indie Game Dev Thought of the Day #1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 15, 2014

Dumb thought for the day:

Being a game programmer will teach you that there’s a very fine line between genius and stupidity. very fine indeed. What sounded brilliant in your head last night may prove to be absolutely unworkable, shortsighted, and stupid when you try to implement it.

Or… it might not.


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Making Money Making Games – Part 4 – How the indies have always done it

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 12, 2014

So in parts 1 and part 2 of the series, I discussed how the games biz has changed over the decades. In part 3, I talked about how many different ways there were to make money from games if you are willing to step outside of the box. That’s a lot of changes and variation.

Is there anything that stays the same? Any consistency? I think so, yes.  While everything else changes, a few things stay the same.

For this last article, I want to focus on the indies, and how the indies have been making it work from the get-go. Here’s the thing: The games biz started out pretty indie. Almost by definition – there were no big publishers to rule the landscape to begin with. So it began, and so it continues. Even during the 90s, which was they heyday of the giant publishers (well, mid-90s to mid-2000s, probably), indies were taking it to the streets and doing a painful but sometimes profitable end-run around the establishment.

In each era, the indies had to adopt different technologies, distribution methods, and so forth to get their games out to their potential audience. But here’s the cool part – in spite of different times, different technologies, there were some really consistent patterns.

Let’s start  with one of my favorites, the creator of the original Ultima series, Richard Garriott. He made 28 role-playing games prior to his (moderate) success, Akalabeth: World of Doom, sometimes called “Ultima 0.” These games were called DND1 through DND28. They weren’t big games, and they were for technology that few had access to – the PDP 11 at his school. Akalabeth sold somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 copies – not a stellar success even at the time, but it was enough. It made Garriott about $150k. Ultima 1 did better, selling around 20,000 copies in the first month, eventually selling around 50,000 copies at $39.95 retail. After the second game, he “went indie” and Origin went into self-publishing titles.

Many members of id Software started out making games for SoftDisk – a subscription-based, monthly software service. They made tons of games on a regular schedule with steep deadlines. They made their first three games as a company – the Commander Keen trilogy – in 3 months on a $2000 advance. Eventually, Doom would go on to sell over a million copies via “shareware,” which made the founders millions, and also paved the way for more traditional releases of Doom and other games.

The story continues. Terry Cavanaugh? He made a crapload of games before the success of VVVVVV. Popcap? Before Bejeweled, founder Jason Kapalka had been making & designing games for YEARS with TEN / Pogo. Rovio had 51 previous games, published by themselves and by third-parties. They weren’t all hits, but they weren’t all “failures” as the press likes to call them – before hitting the motherlode with Angry Birds.And then you’ve got Notch, who labored for years making dozens of games – mainly web-based titles and even one MMO – before becoming an “overnight success” with Minecraft.

Do you see something interesting here? I do. There’s almost a pattern to their success. Or a formula, if you decide that the formula is making lots of games and sticking with it. Being prolific and persistent. Of course, there’s no guarantees there, either, but if I were to suggest what indies should do to be successful, my list would look something like this:

  • Start Small. Small is bigger than you think. In other words, what may seem ridiculously small in scope will actually be a much bigger project than you expect.
  • Make Games – start at the beginning and make games. Small games, probably.
  • Keep making games. Because it’s easy to give up after 1 or 2.
  • Finish Games. Don’t just call it done when it gets hard. It’s good to learn what needs to go into a game to make it ready to sell.
  • Release / Sell Games – by “sell” that includes any means available (from yesterday’s list… or not). You learn a ton unleashing your game into the public. Including the paying public. It may not be perfect feedback, but it’s something.
  • Keep making games – Because the first games’ sales are almost guaranteed to disappoint.
  • Play & Study Games – Don’t be in a vacuum. Learn what’s come before.
  • Play Retro & Indie Games – There are a lot of brilliant ideas to be mined, here.
  • Don’t stop making games. Some of the biggest successes came from the guys who were on the verge of giving up.
  • Love Games – It’s apparently possible to make games and not actually like them. I don’t understand this. But if you love games, you aren’t going to be making the kind of crap that some of these companies crank out that clearly don’t love games but do love exploiting their customers.

It’s a pretty consistent path, and not just in games. Again: be prolific. Be persistent. “Make games a lot.” (Which isn’t exactly the same as “make a lot of games.”)

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20 Ways to Make Money Making Games (part 3)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 11, 2014

A continuation from my talk at BYU. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

So… throughout our relatively short history, video games have been treated by the industry as an analog to toys, books, movies, magazines (subscriptions, you know?), services, drugs (first one’s free…), widgets, television shows (advertising-supported), as a benefit of club membership, as add-ons to sell hardware, and just about everything else.

So how should one really make money and make a living making games?

By any or all of the above means, IMO.

The industry keeps changing. The way that games are made and sold (if “sold” is even the correct term… but I don’t like the term “monetized” as much) constantly changes. What seems obvious and natural today will seem weird and ridiculous twenty years from now. The next generation of gamers may look at the fact that we used to sell games individually on physical media like a cartridge or CD-ROM with a mixture of awe and horror.

Right now, if you want to make income of any kind making games, there’s two basic approaches: Indirectly, by getting paid to make a game (via employment or contract), or directly by your audience. I don’t want to talk about the former too much because it’s pretty straightforward. As someone trying to make income from games, how many ways are there?

A lot:

  1. Get a job – the old standby
  2. Contract work / Commissions – the work of the independent (not indie) studio or contractor
  3. Direct Sales – the classic approach. Sell the game to the end customer directly
  4. Portal Sales – Like direct sales, only go through a middleman, like Big Fish Games or Steam
  5. Get Published – Which ultimately means you sell or license rights to profit from your game to a third party. All terms are negotiable from there.
  6. Contests – Yes, there are game-making contests with cash and other prizes.
  7. Ad-based revenue (Kongregate, etc.)
  8. Patronage – an old idea for sponsoring the arts.
  9. Sponsorships – Sort of the inverse of ad-based revenue. A sponsor licenses your game to help advertise a product.
  10. Freemium” – Offer the game for free, but sell virtual goods & unlocks through it.
  11. Licensing – You license some aspects / rights to your game to a third party. If a game or brand is successful enough, there are all kinds of IP rights that become valuable.
  12. Subscription – The classic (but now old-school) approach to MMOs.
  13. Crowd-funding – A popular, recent approach. Get paid in advance to make the game. I consider this a subset of patronage.
  14. Donationware – another old idea from the early shareware age. Sometimes it works.
  15. Bundles – It massively devalues games, but it’s a bargain for budget-conscious consumers and can get new customers to your game
  16. Customization – Create special, custom builds (for a price) to a particular customer to match their needs. First done (to my knowledge) with a special military version of Battlezone.
  17. OEM – Bundle your game with hardware as a “free” (to the customer) bonus. Similar idea to software bundle, above.
  18. Affiliates – An old (but still viable) concept that predates shareware. Other people sell your game, and get a cut.
  19. Merchandising – Make money from other products related to the IP
  20. Sell IP / Company – Cash In and Be done With It

These aren’t even all the possible ideas, and variations on these ideas abound. If there’s one thing the history of the games industry should teach you, it is that there is no one, true way for game-making to pay or itself.

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Making Money Make Games – Part 2 (More History)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 10, 2014

Continued from Part 1…

BYUTalkPic3The 1980s

Okay, this is the part of the story where I personally started paying attention and getting involved, if only as a consumer. At this point, especially as things were starting out the decade, there was still a huge question of what kind of industry “video games” were going to be. Like book publishing? Like toys? Consumer electronics, like televisions? Appliances? Rock & Roll? Coin-op amusements? All of the above (and many more approaches) were tried. The industry grew, and stabilized somewhat, especially when the periodic downturns hit and forced consolidation.

Notable games of the era are so numerous I’m not sure where to begin, and I’m going to be leaving off some big ones just to list off the variants. But: Pac-Man, Ultima, Wizardry, Galaga, Dig-Dug, Star Wars, Asteroids, Elite, Pitfall!, Sim City, Commando, R-Type, M.U.L.E., Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, King’s Quest, Jawbreaker, Tetris, Defender, Dragon Warrior, Dragon’s Lair, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Legend of Zelda, John Madden Football, etc. etc. etc.

Platforms included arcade machines (often with programmable hardware rather than custom solutions), consoles (Colecovision, Intellivision, Vectrex, Atari 7200, ), handheld (custom hardware galore, the “Game & Watch”, the ultra-popular Nintendo Gameboy, and Atari Lynx), and Computers (VIC-20, TRS-80 Color Computer, Commodore 64, Sinclair Zx80 / ZX81, TI-994a, Amstrad, Apple Macintosh, etc…), and the platforms of the 1970s that hadn’t yet been discontinued. But the decade ended with a strong finish with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Sega Master System, and the Sega Genesis.

Development team sizes ran the gamut at this point, from one programmer and an artist to a moderately-sized (by today’s standard) teams and subcontractors. While the big publishers were taking over the scene, the beginning of the era was dominated by small teams and small publishers selling games however they could – including mail order. That model hadn’t completely disappeared at the close of the decade. A new term was devised in an era of dial-up networking and “sneakernet” (floppy disks delivered by somebody wearing sneakers) that allowed grassroots distribution: Shareware.

BYUTalkPic4The 1990s

Now, my heart may always belong in the arcade of the 1980s, but honestly, if I were to pick a “golden age” of gaming, it would be the early to mid 1990s. Like, 1990 to 1996 or so. However, if you were to ask the games biz what sort of industry it was like around the middle of the decade – or at least what industry it wanted to be like, there’d be one answer an order of magnitude more common than any other: HOLLYWOOD! The games industry wanted to be like Hollywood, but (IMO) it tried to cherry-pick the “best” parts of Hollywood (from the corporate perspective), not realizing that a lot of bad came with the good.

Notable games from this era were plentiful and awesome. I’m gonna just note Twisted Metal, Warhawk, and Jet Moto for the record, because while they were only moderate hits, in my little biased world they dominate my memories of the era. So there. :) Many of the big names were continuations of series from the earlier decade (Mario, Ultima, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Street Fighter),  but there were some fresh games and new series here as well that met with critical and / or commercial success: Doom, The Secret of Monkey Island, Links, Wing Commander, Warcraft, Oddworld, Quake, Diablo, Goldeneye 007, Crash Bandicoot, Master of Orion, Chrono Trigger, Fallout, Resident Evil, Unreal, Baldur’s Gate, Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon, Smash TV, Mortal Kombat, Pokemon, Starcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, Age of Empires, Gran Turismo, Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, Spyro the Dragon, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Tomb Raider, Myst, X-Com, The Sims, and the list goes on and on…

The PC gradually became standardized (especially under Windows 95+), and came into its own as a great gaming platform, especially once 3D hardware caught on. The arcades and arcade games diminished significantly during the course of the decade, but were still a force. On the home console front, the big entries (at least in these parts) were the Super NES (AKA Super Famicom), Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, Sony Playstation, Atari Jaguar, and the Nintendo 64. On the handheld side of things, notable entries included the Nintendo Gameboy Color, and Sega GameGear.

Throughout this era, most game studios grew to medium-sized to large teams. The publishers ruled the world. Exceptions existed, but even the successful smaller teams that kicked serious butt doing “shareware” titles grew to a much larger size over time. It was a time of massive growth — and, in my opinion, the origin of the indie “push back.” And boy, did they push back.

BYUTalkPic5The 2000s and beyond

For the first half of the new millennium, things continued as one would predict from the 1990s. But then everything started to change. The era of the big publishers and ever-increasing budgets began to crumble. Where there was once something of a monolithic “games industry” of a few major warring publishers, things went really, really fuzzy. Digital distribution – via any number of mechanisms – fueled this change.

Notable games of the last fifteen years? Where do I begin?!?!? The names range from massive major studio productions down to tiny single-person development teams (or at least started there). Halo. Minecraft. Bejeweled. Bioshock. Call of Duty. Farmville. Angry Birds. Flappy Bird. And of course, plenty of older series from previous decades continue to be mined for value – from  Legend of Zelda and Mario to Sim City and Grand Theft Auto.

Platforms become increasingly diverse in this era. You still have personal computers (running whatever flavor of Windows / Linux / Macintosh you want), and consoles (notably Playstation 2, 3, and 4, the Xbox series, the Nintendo Gamecube, Wii, and Wii-U), and tons of dedicated game handhelds (Gameboy Advance, DS, DS3, Sony PSP, Vita, etc.).  But now you have things like browser-based and mobile gaming. And so-called “microconsoles” and virtual reality and “wearable computing” may yet be a thing.

And game development? It’s all over the board. Lone wolf developers may compete directly against giant 100+ member development teams with budgets into the hundreds of millions.

Common Threads

The rest of this series will be about the common threads running through all of these eras. At first glance, things seem like they’ve changed so much and the industry has redefined itself so many times there’s no way you can possibly nail down any sort of consistency.

But they are there. One thing that I’d like to note  – as I’m still something of an “indie evangelist” – is that throughout all these eras, there’s been an indie contingent. From the hobbyists of the 1960s and 1970s to the mail-order guys of the 1980s to the shareware folks of the 1990s through the “indie revolution” of today – “indies” by any other name have been a constant.

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Making Money Making Games – Part 1 (History)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 9, 2014

I gave a presentation at BYU for their game development club a few weeks ago called “Making Money Making Games – a Historical Perspective.” I didn’t do my best job ever on it, and ran out of time for the “important stuff” at the end, so I kinda breezed through the end. So I thought I’d post it here this week, as I’ll be in Japan and need some prepared posts. I’ve adapted it for the blog, and hope you’ll find it interesting.

How do you make money making video games? I’m not talking about getting rich or anything, a different topic for which I clearly haven’t found an answer yet. I’m not even talking about making a living. I managed to do that successfully for several years as a full-time employee developing games. That’s the ideal, right? Make enough that we don’t have to take on another job to finance our game-making habit.

But I’m talking about the whole concept. Whether it’s an indie like me scraping by enough part-time to be able to afford to keep making games, or how the entire industry builds and sells the games that we want to play, I want to talk about how that’s been addressed in the past, present, and maybe how it will be addressed in the future.

Some people may consider it a gauche topic, but it’s critical to how we make and play games. Even if you don’t intend to ever make a game for any kind of profit, or even make games at all, it’s important. It has to do with how we all, as players, pay for these games to be made. We may find some ways acceptable and some – not so much.

Of course, a big part of my objective here in this series is to illustrate how many things have changed and continue to change (which means – opportunity!), and how many things are tried-and-true principles that are a foundation for everything else. If you are an aspiring or beginning game developer, you need to pay attention to both!

Historical Perspective on the “Industry”

First off, how has the games biz – when there was one – considered games? How did they try and turn this hobby into an industry with actual budgets and stuff?

BYUTalkPic1The 1960s

Ah, the 1960s. The era of the Beatles, the space race, and… video games. Actually, one of the candidates for the very first video game is Tennis for Two, which actually came out in 1958, but I didn’t want to devote an entire decade to one game, so I’ll lump it in here. It’s sparse enough as it is.

In this era, there was no industry – no biz to speak of. Video games were little more than diversions for engineering students, or “gee whiz” displays for visitors. Teams were extremely small – often individual tinkerers who would make changes to the code or spawn off new versions.

Notable games of the era (besides Tennis for Two) include little programs that played Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, and of course Spacewar!

The platforms of the era pretty much dictated the market (or the lack thereof) – big mainframes or “minicomputers” (which only took up a wall, not an entire room) costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. This wasn’t consumer technology, and so the games were freely distributed to those institutions that had the machines.

But some people were already getting some ideas of turning these things into a commercial venture. It was only a matter of time… and for the price of the hardware to get low enough that consumers might get their hands on it in one way or another.

BYUTalkPic2The 1970s

In the 1970s, we finally had the video game and computer game era take off. You still had the freely-distributed (and often deleted & lost forever) games on the big university and business systems, but you also had Nolan Bushnell – who had seen Spacewar! in action at the University of Utah and wanted to bring it to the masses – in the form of an arcade kiosk.

And so the video game industry had its beginnings.  You had the first arcade games by Nolan Bushnell, with expensive dedicated hardware that would finance itself by selling gameplay at a quarter per session. And you had the first game console by Ralph Baer, an expensive bit of consumer electronics that would plug into televisions (light gun sold seperately). And the beginnings of purely digital games (no electronic hardware required) for early consumer computers. Even then, there were a few different business approaches.

Notable games of the era were Computer Space, Pong (and tons of variations), the Colossal Cave Adventure (under various names), Star Trek (AKA Trek), Hunt the Wumpus, Oregon Trail, Zork, Space Invaders, Galaxian, Scott Adam’s early adventures (Adventureland!, Pirate Adventure, and Secret Mission), the original (limited) release of Akalabeth: World of Doom,  and MUD (the first massively multiplayer online RPG – well, for very small values of “massively”).

Platforms exploded in this era. You had several consoles – the Odyssey, Odyssey2, the Atari 2600 (AKA VCS), the Apple II, numerous arcade platforms (many with dedicated hardware), the TRS-80, and – squeaking in at the tail end of 1979 – the Atari 400 and Atari 800 computers. And more.

At this point, games were still developed by small teams or individuals. It was a time of entrepreneurs, trying wild ideas that were as “indie” as anything we see today. You had video games as site-based amusements that were paid for a session at a time. You had freeware at universities. You games as an integral part of stand-alone consumer electronics. You had games as a separate but critical component of consumer electronics that you bought individually. You had mail-order game businesses. You had games sold in computer stores in plastic baggies. Games as a mail-order business.

But the explosion had only begun.

To be continued in Part 2…

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Dead State is Alive

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 8, 2014

DeadState1Dead State has been released.

I wish I could give you a detailed run-down of how awesome this game is, but I avoided playing it during the pre-release, and it hit full release just as I was hitting a convention and getting ready to travel out of the country AND had my editor demanding some significant (but much-needed) changes to a short story. So… triple whammy. It was force of will to avoid playing the crap out of it so I could get all my necessary things done.

Anyway… I’ve been waiting for Dead State for a long time. Long before the Kickstarter.  Part of me is terrified that after such a long wait, it’s not going to live up to my expectations. And… I’m hearing some rumblings that there have been some bad hiccups / glitches on release, so maybe it’s good that I wait a few more days (probably not until I return from my business trip) before playing.

The concept is thrilling. It’s a “zombie game,” which was popular when the game was first announced, but has gotten pretty stale since then. However, the real focus is on survival and dealing with human enemies, as opposed to the zombies, which are supposed to be more of an environmental force.

I guess folks can tell me how awesome (or not) it is while I’m away. Go ahead. :)  For me, it’s one of those things that truly represents the “indie revolution” and its effect on one of my favorite genres, the RPG. This is not something I can easily see being made back in the old studio / publisher system.  Maybe with the popularity of zombie games a few years ago it might have been possible, but… not likely. Especially not a more cerebral, turn-based, party-based, base-building RPG like this one promises to be.

Anyway, it’s a long time coming. Glad to see it has finally made it to release!


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Game Dev Quote of the Week: Gygax vs. Meier Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 5, 2014

white_plumeFrom the world of both dice & paper gaming and computer gaming:

Designing games for Gary Gygax was certainly very inspiring, but I’d have to say that working with Sid Meier at MicroProse was even more influential. Gary taught me how to make complicated games; Sid taught me how to make simple ones.”  — Lawrence Schick

Taken from “Reminiscing About White Plume Mountain” at nerdragenews.com.

I could probably use some lessons from Sid Meier. Honestly, so much of my formative years and thoughts on gaming came from the works of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the books derived from their rules, or games inspired by them. I’ve no doubt it’s given me a permanent bias in my design approach, in spite of years of experience pushing me in different directions.

I really do tend to over-complicate things. Part of it is that I love digging into intricate systems and futzing with all the moving parts and seeing how I can leverage the interactions. And part of it is because I really dig the simulation side of things. This isn’t always a good thing. While it can be great for a game to have verisimilitude, and it can be great for a game to have a strong narrative, we can’t ever lose sight of the fact that games must be allowed to be games.

Though I’d encourage you to read the whole interview. It’s not long. But I want to include one extra quote, because it’s awesome:

If you want to become a game designer for video games, study tabletop board games and RPGs, because their game mechanics are all right there on the surface; you can see all their systems, tinker with variations, and analyze what works and what doesn’t.

So there you have it, aspiring game designers. Go beyond studying other video games!

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Twenty Years of Kicking Butt and Making Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 4, 2014

PSX-Console-wControllerThe original Sony Playstation is twenty years old now. At least if you count its Japanese release.

I suddenly feel old.

I got my first professional game development job in October 1994. My studio, SingleTrac, was a new startup (I was employee #16!) under contract with Sony to produce a couple of new games for their upcoming console. Back then, when I was allowed to tell people I was making games for the Playstation (after it launched in Japan?), they’d look at me and say, “What’s that?”

When I explained it was a new game console, they’d ask (even if I’d said it was by Sony), “Is that one from Nintendo or Sega?”

Twenty. Frickin’. Years.

I remember riding on the bus to a Microsoft event at GDC (called CGDC back then) a year or so later and hearing a conversation behind me with a guy who had made games for the Atari 2600 back in 1980. I thought, “Wow, that was fifteen years ago! How incredible that he worked on those ancient games!” Now my first games are even more ancient than the Atari games were back then. Well, some of them.

Amusingly, back then I was the “game guy” surrounded by a bunch of people who came from the simulator industry. Now? I’m the guy (well, one of the guys) from the video game world in a simulator company.

Working on the PS1 was a joy. Seriously. It had some excellent tools for the time. The tools were all C / C++ based, which was actually a step up for developers who were used to dealing with 8-bit or 16-bit systems (or so I have been told). It was designed to be 3D, although its 2D capabilities were certainly up to the task. It got away from the cartridge system, which made duplication & distribution a lot simpler, and with the CD-ROM could provide video (often used to terrible effect, including from us…) and play high-quality redbook audio music – a major step up for video game audio.

And at the time, before 3D cards became a thing, it was capable of displaying graphics superior to what was available on the PC at the time.

It’s hard to say looking back how much I’ve changed, and how much the games biz has changed. I mean, the whole indie thing has happened. That’s HUGE. And the consoles are no longer the only game in town. Not only do they still have to contend with the PC, which while no longer in the heyday it was in the early 90s but is still a consistently popular platform, but they’ve got to deal with handhelds, with mobile devices, with web-based gaming, upstart microconsoles, and quite possibly (in the near future) VR systems and wearable computers.  I think that represents a healthy, if highly competitive, ecosystem.

Making games remains hard. At least, making good, competitive-quality games is hard. As it has gotten easier to actually do the coding and development of games and better tools have made asset creation easier, there’s been a corresponding increase in competition. Thus, you could argue that the difficulty has stayed almost constant.

Twenty years is a very long time in the tech world, and in video games it is positively ancient. It seems that the details, tools, platforms, technology, and the hot trends may change (a lot) over time, but the fundamentals seem to be the same now as they were 20 years ago… or even 32 years ago, when I first started making hobbyist games as a kid.

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