Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: Changes to version 1.07

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 21, 2014

fktitle636x358Over the course of the week, I made some changes to Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon that go beyond adding Steam achievements.  This will be version 1.07, and will be made available for non-Steam versions soon.

The changes are small, but (IMO) significant:

* Change to the Search skill. When there is a hidden treasure within range of the skill, you will get a message to that effect even on a failed check – just no indication of range. There is no change to searching for traps.

* Weapons with spell effects on impact (for example, the Spear of Concussion and the Axe of Fiery Microdoom) now may cost additional stamina when the spell effect lands. These are generally pretty low-level spells so the endurance cost isn’t major, but it does help balance out the otherwise quite impressive effects of these weapons.

* The Endurance cost modifier for the Demotivate spell has been increased from 3 to 4.

* Fixed a bug when attempting to cast directly from a scroll onto a friendly party member – the casting dialog would sometimes have scrambled information.

* Some minor dialog changes, mainly for typos.

I suspect that the change to search will be the most well-received, with the average response being something to the effect of, “It’s about time!”

 


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Ultima IV and Rational Worlds

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 18, 2014

Ultima_IV_boxI’m gonna take a break for the weekend on the Frayed Knights posts (more next week!), and just refer you to a couple of posts by The Digital Antiquarian about a game that’s very near & dear to my heart, Ultima IV.

First, the origin story – and some conjectures about the real history behind it that go beyond the short & sweet “official” story:

Article: The Road to IV

Article: Ultima IV

Now, as much as I like to wax prosaic about Ultima IV, because it really was a pretty landmark game and IMO still a great game to play, it is still a (relatively) simple game with simple mechanics. Although the interesting thing is that while modern games with complex faction systems may be far more sophisticated, the simple rules and ability to check with Hawkwind to monitor your progress may have actually strengthened the focus of the game and increased the verisimilitude than far more murky but “realistic” systems. Go figure.

But maybe a more significant factor – and reason that the game series is so beloved today – is suggested in the second article. Though violated as often as reinforced, a logic and consistency permeated the Ultima games. This was a part of game design as well as the fictional world-building. At least through the middle of the series, the games were far more simulationist than narrativist. The game ran on consistent rules with very little special-case code. The player acquired and learned to use tools to make progress in the game – from finding an artifact to fly over mountains to using a cannon to shoot a door off its hinges.

The magic system tried to follow that same consistency – it seemed to be created of a combination of elements, which included reagents some games, and runes in Ultima Underworld. Likewise, the virtue system was a combination of a handful of base elements. In Ultima VI and VII, crafting and simple economy were introduced much the same way, with a number of basic procedures allowing the creation of items in the game.

Maybe it was the transparency of these systems – and how they permeated the same game – that made players feel like Origin was living up to its motto, “We create worlds.” And maybe there’s a lesson to be learned by game designers (especially RPG designers) about  the art of world-building.


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The Origin of Frayed Knights: Dice and Paper Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 17, 2014

Long-time readers may be plenty familiar with some of this already. But with the first Frayed Knights game coming out on Steam (hopefully a week from today) and the sequel making progress towards its first fully playable demo, I figured I’d go back over a little bit of the history of the series.

The Frayed Knights series was inspired by a number of sources. I’ll talk about the computer RPG origins in another post,  but the Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, and Ultima series (and some lesser-known games) were of course old-school classics that informed my design and I wanted to emulate some of the feel of playing those games.

But a lot of it was inspired by the source of inspiration for all of those games – dice-and-paper gaming, particularly the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons era. The characters making snarky comments as if they were players sitting around the table was a direct effort on my part to capture some of that feeling, mixed with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, of  course.

1E_DMGDice-and-paper gaming is different now. Honestly, I play Pathfinder now rather than 1st edition AD&D because I prefer the new system, and I really caught the vision of the “World of Darkness” series with its emphasis on storytelling. So don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to tell you that 1E was the be-all, end-all of gaming. But it was a different experience back then – one that was partly lost a few years later, and is only now being somewhat re-discovered by computer RPGs. The recent opinion piece at Polygon, “The dice can kill you: Why First Edition AD&D is king,” manages to describe some of that “feel.”

That’s part of the feel I was going for.

In fact, that’s kind of the strength AND the weakness of the system. In the old 1979-era Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the setting and mood built into the rules. From the race and class restrictions, racial attitude modifiers, to even things like the insanity tables. You could ignore all that, sure… but if you even moderately adhered to the rules, the setting and flavor of those old D&D games would be spontaneously generated by dice roles. Kinda like a roguelike.

But perhaps more importantly, there was a geeky subculture around those early years which spread by contact with other gaming groups, conventions, and in the pages of the manuals and Dragon Magazine. It was wild stuff back then, to play a game so insanely free-form that there wasn’t even a conventional notion of a winner.  Creativity ran rampant, from the mundane to the bizarre.

slavepitsModules and supplements back then had the really awesome pulp-fantasy names like “Queen of the Demonweb Pits,” “Assault on the Aerie of the Slavelords,” “The Caverns of Thracia,” “Tomb of Horrors,” “The Ghost Tower of Inverness,” “City State of the Invincible Overlord,” “Against the Cult of the Reptile God,” “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks,” etc. Man, I loved those titles. And the modules – while not always expertly delivering on the promise of those magnificent titles – were great foundations on which a gaming group could build an experience.

That was really the key. While everyone who had played The Keep on the Borderlands had somewhat similar experiences based on the module, it was a little (or a lot) different for everyone. When I envision an “ultimate computer RPG” – which I hope to play (or even build) one day, that’ll be a major part of it. A luxuriously hand-crafted world and plot, and the player has a ton of freedom to do things how he wants, and have the game react appropriately. It was a (distant) goal in Frayed Knights, which resulted in lots of duplicate dialogs with slightly different variations.

The banter at the table was of course a major part of trying to recapture that experience as well. My mental model for the world was a campaign setting invented by a gifted, earnest, but not entirely clueful 14-year-old with delusions of grandeur (sound familiar?), totally missing the lack of logical consistency inherent in both the world and the rules. Hey, that means I did all that deliberately, doesn’t it?  The party members are characters played by somewhat more experienced players who are playing along and just having fun role-playing their characters, papering over the inconsistencies in the world with brilliant explanations for why things work the way they do.

emirikolSome of the aspects of old-school D&D and similar games I just imitated (I won’t say I parodied or paid homage to, but maybe there was a little of both) was the ungodly number of spells (and items) in the core game. It’s both brilliant and terrible. For me, trying to balance all these items and spells was a little bit on the terrible side. But the point of AD&D was to make sure there was so many cool things for players to use (or have used against them) that the game would stay interesting through dozens of campaigns. It worked!

For the most part, I only tried to reference / parody the feel of those old game sessions of that era. There were a few specifics that I remember making fun of. The Caverns of Anarchy are, of course, a reference to the Caves of Chaos in The Keep on the Borderlands. Honestly, I don’t think of it as a great module – I think Gygax was kinda phoning it in on that one to throw in an obligatory introductory adventure for their new, streamlined, simpler version of D&D. (As an aside, I think the 1981 Basic / Expert D&D set was one of their best-designed products, ever).  But it was the first D&D experience for many players of the era, and it was a pretty early one for me, too. The “mad hermit” kinda makes an appearance, although he explains that he’s not mad, just mildly pissed-off and cantankerous.  I deliberately avoided much more by way of specific references to that module, but instead took the idea in a few directions, keeping only the concept of a bunch of monster lairs in close proximity (a “monster apartment complex” as I once heard it described).

The level of randomness of the dice & paper games is something else I emulated, although I actually backed off a good deal from my original efforts. When three or four battles in 1st edition Advanced D&D would take up a great deal of a four-hour gaming session, the randomness of the occasional die-roll feels more acceptable. But in a computer game, when combats are resolved in a couple of minutes, there are LOTS of rolls, lots of chances to die, and players (including me) get frustrated with too much inconsistency.

Some of the other stuff – well, I’ll just say I spent a lot of time going over old Dragon Magazine articles and classic modules, rulebooks, and supplements for both ideas and a proper “old-school dice & paper feel” for the game. Whether I succeeded or not is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. But I have certainly enjoyed the experience.


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Frayed Knights: A Slightly New and Improved Trailer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 16, 2014

I came to the stark realization the other day that the original trailer for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon still had the words “Coming Soon” at the end. I figured I’d jump in and just change that particular title and make a quick revision. This was mainly for Steam, but I figured I’d put that everywhere.

I guess that shows how much I know. I don’t upload much to YouTube, so while I was vaguely suspicious that you couldn’t replace an old video with a new one, I wasn’t sure about that. But that’s another story.

But one problem was that I’d had a hard drive crash and an upgrade of Windows from Windows XP to Windows 7 in the interim. Yes, I skipped Vista, and I am skipping Windows 8, just like I skipped Windows ME. So far, that strategy has worked fabulously for me.

Anyway – while much of the raw data was still there, I had to install new versions of the software which were incompatible. An older version, which I eventually had to reinstall, is buggy and prone to crashing / hanging. *Sigh*. I haven’t touched the software in a while, so I had to re-learn how to use it, and it took me a while – and several reboots of the software and re-doing previous work – to get into the habit of saving after every change. Because, of course, I couldn’t let well enough alone, and I decided to make some other tweaks. Changing the font, tweaking a couple of of the clips, changing the wording of a couple of titles that had bugged me for a while…

… And then I realized that I’d actually started with the wrong version of the project file. It was close, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d used to make the original trailer. Ah, well. I didn’t feel like going back and changing things AGAIN, so I just rolled with it. At this point, anything that seemed different felt like an improvement.

The first version I made – even published to YouTube – had a typo, so I revised it yet again. Unless I find something else embarrassingly wrong with it, this will be the trailer that will run for the Steam release (and it’ll probably replace the one I have on the Frayed Knights page, and on the Desura store page as well).

And yes, when we talk about how much stuff goes into being an indie that doesn’t involve making the game, this is one of the many, many, many things we’re talking about. You either take time you don’t have to do it yourself, or you pay with money you don’t have to have someone else do it.

Anyway, if it looks good, feel free to give it a thumbs-up or comment or something.


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Frayed Knights: Am I just a cruel game designer?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 15, 2014

Am I just a cruel game designer? Are there any other games out there that have one of the longest dialogues in the game take place after the entire party has been wiped out? Is this me trying to be funny and take the edge off a frustrating situation, or was it me just rubbing it in?

I like to think the former, but sometimes I’m not sure.

deathdialog

Now, technically, I was trying to get a TPK (Total Party Kill) here, but the rats in Farmer Brown’s cellar are particularly nasty and make it pretty easy. But not as nasty as the critters at the Tower of Almost Certain Death. One of the challenges of going more “open” in design is that the player won’t necessarily take the smoothest path. If the player bypasses some of the little missions in town (including Farmer Brown’s cellar) and the mines in the Eastern Wilderness to go straight for the Tower of Almost Certain Death, and pushes straight for the top of the tower, it’s going to hard to avoid either getting a lot of TPKs and / or a lot of visits back at the inn.

I guess, in retrospect, I should have had Benjamin’s “tip” take the player to an easier dungeon, like the mines. Now, in my mind, there’s a gameplay / philosophical rationale here. But it may just be that subconsciously I’m just a really cruel game designer.

Anyway – if you are a new player to the game and are looking for hints, this is one: Unlike many RPGs, you aren’t expected to make a beeline between your quest areas.  In fact, there may be forces at work (NOT ME!) that are intentionally trying to push your party to failure. Take some time to smell the roses, go off the beaten path, and explore some of that terrain. You may find buried treasure. You may find a fierce enemy. You may find a whole dungeon that no “quest” pushes you to visit. And yes, you could find yourself completely in over your head in a few places, which may lead to that that dialog in the screenshot becoming completely un-funny. You may find your entry barred by something you cannot solve just yet. But it’s all okay.

I tried my best to make sure you can’t break the game this way. Much of the better loot can be found in “optional” dungeons. And the dungeons and countrysides are literally littered with little events, secrets, and dumb jokes.

Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is coming soon to Steam, but it currently available at our website, if you do not want to wait.

 

 


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Frayed Knights Update: Achievements

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 14, 2014

fktitle636x358Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon will be up on Steam in a matter of days. It could have been done a lot sooner, but in my stupidity / eagerness, I decided to add achievements to the game.

I don’t know if it’ll make a bit of difference in sales. But I thought it would be fun. I’m stupid that way, I guess. I have a hard deadline of a demo for Frayed Knights 2 that demands my attention, so the timing is bad. I’m futzing about with the old game, getting someone to do the icons, programming the changes in code that I haven’t looked at in over a year, and then… testing. Lots and lots of testing. Even with debug controls, we’re talking double-digit testing to make sure the game runs correctly with the code changes.

Ah, well.  Why do I do this? Because it’s fun. I don’t know if achievements will help sell a single extra copy of the game, but I do this because it’ll make things a little cooler. Hopefully. I can’t depend on awesome high-end graphics and visuals, so I’ve gotta do something, right?

It’s a little weird digging through the old code. After living with this stuff for so long, it’s like going back to the old neighborhood but not quite remembering everything. I don’t have all the tools installed that I used when I worked on it originally, so it’s a little bit harder to find where everything is, although it’s familiar enough that I haven’t had to dig around too much.

I decided against creating achievements that required psychotic multiple play-throughs… I already inflicted that on playtesters back in the day. You will definitely need to explore optional content and uncover a few secrets to get all the achievements, and some of the achievements may require you to make certain choices you might not have made on your original play-through (although if you have a prior saved game, it’s not hard to go back and try alternatives). I guess I just don’t feel it should require ridiculous levels of tedium and effort to get 100%.


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Game Dev Quote of the Week: Bits of Awesomeness Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 11, 2014

This Game Dev Quote of the week comes from a team effort by the wild, weird, awesome guys at Dejobaan Games, circa 2010, in a post-mortem about one of my favorite indie games, AaaaAAaaaaaah! A Reckless Disregard for Gravity.

An excellent video game isn’t just about presenting interesting rules — it’s about delighting the player with bits of awesomeness all over the place. The best arcades did this well during the ’80s.

In their heyday they were like miniature Las Vegases for kids, filled with interesting details. At the core were the games — but they weren’t just all dumped into a dusty warehouse. Step inside one now — the decor (tacky, yet awesome) starts with a pitch black room with wavy neon lights and disco balls. The cabinets are densely-packed, with illustrations sprawling over them. Peek around to the front of each one, and you get a glimpse of a ridiculous matrix of lights playing out. Off in one corner of the room is an illuminated glass cube filled with plush toys and a gleaming claw.

While you’re picturing the ambient glow, listen to the sounds of a dozen games beckoning with their distinctive sounds. The best arcades were spaces to explore. And like that, our favorite games delight us all over the place — it’s a little like stumbling across little Christmas presents wherever we go.

We tried to do this with Aaaaa!, starting with a solid core of gameplay. If we could then make people grin at something as silly as the options menu — and then apply that to all the details — people would want to keep playing the game just to see what’d happen.

So! BASE jumpers must lose a lot of teeth — why not make teeth the game’s currency? Elevator music in the level selection menu? Sure! And we included a guided anti-meditation, in case you lived a life of too much relaxation, and wanted to feel as though bugs were crawling around your body. Each little piece made the game stand out a little more.

Another example of excellence in this respect is the game Rock of Ages – which I think might be kind of a boring game if it weren’t for all the delightful details.

You can read more in the Aaaaaaa! Post-mortem. Full of little bits of awesome!

 


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Grim Fan-Frickin’-Dango!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 10, 2014

Grim_Fandango_boxartConfirmed: The “remastered” edition of Grim Fandango announced for the Sony PS4 and Vita platforms is also coming to PC, Mac, and Linux.

I still have my original copy. And the box. Getting it to actually *run* in a modern Windows environment without crashing is a major feat requiring hunting the internet and possibly running dubious files. But I do have it. It is a well-loved copy.

Just by way of reference – I received it as a Christmas present, alongside the original Half-Life.

Have I mentioned lately that I consider Grim Fandango to be the best adventure game of all time? Well, I do. My apologies to all my adventure-game developer friends and acquaintances out there. I love what you are doing guys. Maybe you’ve got a game out there that I haven’t played that equals or exceeds the majesty of Grim Fandango, and one day I will discover it and revise my proclamation. But of the adventure games I have played, Grim Fandango remains my high-water mark.

And honestly, I cannot tell you why. It wasn’t the puzzles. I only barely remember some of the puzzles. (“Run, you pigeons! It’s Robert Frost!”). Mainly, it was the characters – particularly the protagonist, Manuel “Manny” Calavera. And Glottis. Glottis was great. And the oddball setting. And the film noir style. And the awesome story broken up into chapters each set a year apart. And the excellent soundtrack.

Mainly, I remember how I felt playing it. This was 1998, and getting a more subtle emotional reaction (meaning – something besides fear or anger) from a game was a rare thing. But I did with Grim Fandango. I cared about the characters, and the ending left me feeling satisfied. It was a well-told story and a well-crafted game.

Technologically, I’m not sure how well the “remastered” edition will stack up to modern offerings. But it’s definitely a classic that deserves to be made available on modern platforms. I’m really excited by this news.


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Beware the Idea Fairy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 9, 2014

I just discovered theMeatly.com last night. Maybe it was the caffeine talking, but I was literally laughing out loud at many of the panels. Especially this one.

If you are an indie game developer, this is probably the story of your life. Every. Day.

IdeaFairy

I’ve taken to just writing the dang things down – writing up a page or two of stuff about the idea, and filing it away in my game design folder, and telling the idea fairy, “THANK YOU! It’s started!” Then when its back is turned, I go back to my original project.

Although sometimes, it takes a little more than that. That’s when a weekend personal game jam or something comes into play. I never get anywhere close to what I originally envisioned. My little totally awesome killer idea that makes my current project look like pig barf ends up looking something like this…

SoFar

Oh, man, that one also brings tears to my eyes from laughing so hard.

The thing is… the idea fairy is never satisfied for long. Writing down the idea or doing a quick prototype might satisfy the urge and convince the idea fairy to go away for a few days. Well, for a day. Maybe a few hours. At least an hour. Usually. Indulging it even a little bit really just encourages it. It comes back … again, and again.

Now, this isn’t really a bad thing. You want to be on friendly terms with the idea fairy. One day, when I’m all done with Frayed Knights and ready to work on the next project, I will have this awesome list of killer game ideas from which I can choose the absolute best concept. In fact, that’s how Frayed Knights came about.

But resisting the temptation to start playing with this shiny new idea right away can be very hard. You may have to pull a Ulysses and figuratively lash yourself to the mast so you don’t succumb to the siren’s call.

If the idea fairy is persistent after you’ve performed your ritual acknowledgement, one trick is not to do what I do. Don’t write games that take a long time to develop. The longer they take, the more persistent the frickin’ idea fairy becomes. It’s easier to resist the idea fairy when the current project is new and exciting, and when your project is getting close to release. Therefore, it’s good to reduce the window between those phases as much as possible.

Another is to do all you can to commit to a project such that it will be a major embarrassment or otherwise a pain to stop or delay it. Making yourself accountable to a third party with deadlines can help with that. By making it far less painful to stay the course and see the current project to completion, the easier it is to resist those temptations.

Just remember – ideas are great and important, but in the end, it’s the execution that matters.

(And pssst…. go visit theMeatly.com!)


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Playing Bad Games…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 8, 2014

Across the street… a neon sign.
“All you can eat for a dollar ninety-nine.
Our soul stew is the baddest in the land.”
But uh, one dollar’s worth was all that I could stand.

– Huey Lewis and the News, “Sometimes Bad is Bad.”

It’s often easier to figure out what has been done wrong than what has been done right.

For that reason, there’s virtue in playing bad games if you are a game developer. I may not know what to do to make a better game, but I can get a good list of “what not to do.” Bad games can be a stinky treasure trove of game design lessons.

Plus, there are some games that are really not great games, but do have some really great ideas or mechanics buried in the crap. In these cases, the baby frequently gets thrown out with the bathwater, and those ideas may never be revisited again. Mediocre or bad games can be mined for good ideas.

And sometimes, a game has enough virtues to be worth turning it onto easy mode and just plowing through the crap to enjoy the good parts. They aren’t irredeemable.

But sometimes, bad is bad, and a game’s greatest virtue is to serve as a cautionary tale.

(And no, I’m not going to admit what game I played a little of this weekend that served as the inspiration for this post. I’ll only say it’s not an RPG, and it’s not irredeemably bad, but I could write several paragraphs on what it’s doing wrong.)


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Pixels 4Ever?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 7, 2014

Old-school bitmap art can be pretty dang awesome. Like this, from the incredibly cool arcade-style freeware game Maldita Castilla, by Locomalito Games. Check it out – it’s freeware. Tip the creator with the number of quarters you would have dumped into this game if it had been in an arcade machine:

My kids and I thoroughly loved Towerfall for the Ouya. The new version has the hottest modern gaming hardware pushing 2D pixels like it’s 1992. While IMO the graphics weren’t quite as amazing as Maldita Castilla, they didn’t need to be. They were as good as they needed to be to support the outstanding gameplay. If you think this looks like fun, you’d be right:


Supporting the gameplay is really the key.

One of the problems with more realistic and detailed graphics – every possibility has to be meticulously modeled / animated / rendered. The answer to this, as budgets skyrocket, is to limit the breadth of interactions so that you don’t end up with the combinatorial explosion of necessary assets and variations. For example, you might have a game concept with a cool idea like, “Oh, what if we set a guy on fire, and THEN blow him up with an explosive arrow, and then his exploding, flaming chunks sets everything they touch on fire?”

My inner 14-year-old thinks this is the coolest idea ever. In a game like Towerfall, you’re talking maybe a half-day of coding, and maybe a day or two of art assets and variations. But if you were working on the latest Call of Duty game (one of my favorite punching bags for AAA gameplay, not that they are bad games… I do enjoy them, but they are what they are), you could be talking many hundreds of man-hours going into implementing the same feature. In a simpler game, it could be implemented on a whim. But in a AAA game, it will probably never make it past the brainstorm phase.

The Verge published an article a few days ago about the 8-bit / 16-bit “retro” style of game graphics that are very popular these days with indie games. Entitled “Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future,” it opines that while the graphics that would have been at home on a console twenty years ago might be there in part out of retro sensitivities and (somewhat) easier / cheaper development for indies, those are not the only reason it’s popular. Done well, the art won’t age as attempting to push the “realism” levels will. It invites the player to judge a game by a different criteria than the AAA blockbusters with tens of millions of dollars of budget, and maybe more importantly – it’s an artistic style.

UnderstandingComicsInvoking Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, the stylized form encourages the player to project their own imagination into the less-detailed, less-realistic graphics and animations. This potentially gives it greater power to evoke emotional reactions than the most photorealistic graphics available today.  The article makes several arguments and quotes people who know more about this than me, so I’ll let you read it.

But it’s kind of thought provoking.

Especially for people like me who grew up with the “low-res” 8-bit graphics, and dreamed of some day having graphics as detailed and realistic as we have today. I can’t deny that it’s cool, but graphical improvements haven’t taken gaming where I’d hoped it would go. Sorta like how live-action movies based on comics don’t always fulfill on their promises (although they are getting better!).

There’s something to be said for abstraction.

 


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Independence Day

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 4, 2014

Here in the U.S., it’s the 4th of July – Independence Day. So to my friends in the U.S. or from the U.S., Happy Independence Day!

LincolnOnBear

For everyone else out there, who didn’t have an Abraham Lincoln riding a bear into battle with an assault rifle, have an awesome Friday! Booyah!

(Okay, that may not be entirely historically correct, but that’s how it should have happened!)


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Surviving the Glut as a Game Developer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 3, 2014

After yesterday’s epic-sized post, today’s will be a small one – because Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software says a lot of good stuff that doesn’t need much additional commentary. He’s way better at this than me, anyway, and has been through a couple of market cycles since before “indie” was even a term (back then, it was called “shareware.”)

Jeff Vogel: Surviving the Post-Indie-Bubble Wasteland

Great advice across the board.

I’m not so sure about people wanting to root for you. Sure – some do. Indies do enjoy a bit more goodwill, and they will often have a small group of people cheering them on. But I don’t know that being “indie” earns you automatic goodwill these days from the larger market. When things are glutted, people will tend to be more indifferent towards individual indies, even if they still want to root for the concept of the underdog. Attention becomes harder and harder to obtain – you are just another faceless soldier storming the beach. They’ll root for you and mourn your failure only in the abstract.

Maybe I’m wrong there, but that’s my feeling.

That doesn’t really change the advice. Try not to give people a reason to root against you, if you can help it. Sometimes the very things that get you the attention you and your game desperately need will also burn you in the long run (see Phil Fish).

Bottom line though – Jeff is right, even if the term “bubble” isn’t 100% correct. The market is glutted, and that’s hurting the *average* indie developer. But being an average indie developer has never, ever been a recipe for success.


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PC Games: Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1992…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 2, 2014

I made a joke yesterday about partying like its 1992, as a PC gamer. It occurred to me that there’s a lot of truth to that. It seems that we’re seeing a lot of recent / new / upcoming remakes, spiritual sequels, and direct sequels of PC games that were pretty hot back in 1991 – 1993, but have been relatively fallow over the last decade or so.  Then of course, we have a couple of series that are still going strong (like Civilization).

1991 – 1993 were very influential years for me. I was in college as a computer science major. I was married in the latter part of ’91, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was a PC gamer on a very limited budget, and there were a handful of games that exerted a strong influence on me, and convinced me to give game development a shot once I graduated. I even contacted the H.R. department at Origin to find out what kind of qualifications / experience they were looking for (and from what the lady told me, it sounded like a college degree wasn’t highest on their list…).

I’m guessing there are a lot of others who were similarly impressed in that era, who have now “grown up” and are now either influential in a mainstream studio, or have the skills and rep to go at it as an indie and do a credible job of revisiting this golden age of PC gaming. As for me, I’m feeling a strong sense of deja vu. Mostly in a good way. It was a very good time to be a PC gamer.

Here are a few of the games of then… and now:

Eye of the Beholder / Legend of Grimrock (2)

Beholder2014I really only played Eye of the Beholder II, which was released in late 1991 (but it was mid-to-late 1992 before I played it). Of course, it was inspired by the Amiga title Dungeon Master, but it did it with a loose interpretation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules. Eye of the Beholder offered sort of a “slow-mo action game,” marrying traditional first-person perspective, grid-based dungeons with real-time gameplay.

grimrock2The Legend of Grimrock decided the ground had been left fallow long enough. While a grid-based world hadn’t been in vogue for years, they decided the gameplay could still be a lot of fun. They were right, and the EoB / Dungeon Master – inspired title proved to be a big hit.

They are currently working on a sequel, which recently hit the alpha stage. It promises to mix indoor and outdoor locations, better AI, an improved and more flexible skill system, and more of the insane puzzle-related gameplay from the first game. It sounds likely that we’ll see the game released before the end of the year.

Wing Commander / Eterium / Star Citizen

WC_and_EteriumIf there was any one game that I could say changed the direction of my life in any significant way, it was Wing Commander. I played that game, and had a vision of what games could be. The original Wing Commander dropped in 1990, but I didn’t play it until the summer of 1991… just before the release of Wing Commander 2: Vengeance of the Kilrathi.

Heading up the nostalgic spiritual sequels is the recently-released Eterium. I wrote about Eterium a couple of weeks ago. I really do like it. A lot. It is aimed squarely at the Wing Commander experience, and while it does offer a bit of new ideas to the mix, if you squint really hard you could swear you are playing Wing Commander 2 all over again.

SC_300iOf course, there’s also Star Citizen. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series, managed to score a butt-load of funding to make a publisher-free space combat extravaganza that will probably dwarf the budget of everything but his ill-conceived movie. Intended as both a single-player and a scaleable multiplayer persistent universe, it has some pretty impressive looks and aspirations, but something like this is always in danger of collapsing under its own weight and then under-delivering something hastily salvaged from the wreckage. But hey… we can hope. I really want it to be awesome.

Ultima Underworld / Underworld Ascension

underworld_ascension_700x240

Woah.

uw1I played Ultima Underworld at about the same time as Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and for a while it was a toss-up as to which game was the most revolutionary, awesome, incredible, mind-blowing RPG experience for me. Eventually, I gave the nod to Ultima VII, but it is really tough to say which game was actually more fun.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel – I’ve said quite a bit about both games, and will doubtless spill more virtual ink talking about them. For their time, they were technologically amazing. Even today, although their graphics are dated and the interface very difficult to use, they are brilliant examples of old-school design principles mixed with a cool first-person perspective. The design was part-simulation, with factions, trading, cool 3D puzzles, traditional RPG puzzles, and even a requirement to learn something of the lizard-man language to communicate with some of the characters. It didn’t include the kitchen sink, but it dang near included everything it could.

Now, we hear that Paul Neurath has gotten some of the original band back together and has formed OtherSide Entertainment with the original aim of creating a modern sequel to Ultima Underworld. Whether or not it will be an actual part of the “Ultima” franchise remains to be seen. This one will probably not see the light of day this year nor next, but it’s exciting to imagine what they may be able to create.

Wolfenstein 3D / Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolf3dandTNO1992 brought out an unexpected return to an old computer game series, Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein, in the form of the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D. While it wasn’t really the first FPS (Carmack had previously released Catacomb 3D), nor was it the phenomenon that Doom would prove to be, it  shook things up in industry. My local computer store had the shareware version of Wolf 3D running on all of their systems to prove how game-capable they were. It didn’t quite touch mainstream consciousness, but it was a big hit among PC gamers, launched a mainstream publisher sequel (The Spear of Destiny), and console ports.

In a way, I guess you can say that the series has continued since 2001. It’s been five years since the last Wolfenstein game (which I hadn’t even heard of), but Wolfenstein: The New Order was just released. It takes place in an alternate history 1960, when the dieselpunk Nazi regime has taken over the entire world. I don’t see it having the kind of impact of the 1992 release, but hey… it’s fun still seeing a Wolfenstein among new and recent releases.

Ultima VII / Shroud of the Avatar / Divinity: Original Sin

U7_SotAIt seems that most critics view Ultima VII (which included two games, plus expansions) as the pinnacle of the series, and I’d be one to agree. I could go on and on about the … ahem… virtues of Ultima VII.  But now is not the time. Suffice to say – it was a vision of open-world design. I recently read a contemporary review of the game following its 1992 release, and the author complained about how bored he was of the Ultima series… but admitted that Ultima VII: The Black Gate was excellent and proved that maybe the series wasn’t quite dead yet.

DOS_0009I wonder if that same reviewer misses it now?

Unfortunately, very few developers attempted to tackle that level of complexity, although I think the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout series gave it a solid try. More recently, Divinity: Original Sin attempts to incorporate a lot of that old-school love. It’s not a direct love-child of the Ultima series, or Ultima VII in particular, and probably can’t be directly compared to the 1992 classic, but publicly acknowledged inspiration is clear.

DriftmoonA somewhat closer comparison comparison could be made to the recent indie release, Driftmoon. Again – it goes its own way and marches to the beat of a different trombone. But the spiritual ancestry is pretty clear, especially with the unusual choice of the top-down camera.

The closest comparison of all should probably be made with the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series, has jumped in with a new company to create this single player / multiplayer world as a full-blown “spiritual sequel” to his earlier titles – particularly invoking Ultima VII and Ultima Online.

No, it still won’t be quite like playing Ultima VII again, but it’ll be as close as we’re likely to get to playing a “real” Ultima again for a while.

Frontier: Elite 2 / Elite Dangerous

EliteDandElite2

Jumping to 1993, still a little while before I graduated, there was another space game that devoured my spare time and blew my mind – Frontier, AKA Elite 2. This amazing title fit an entire universe on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, procedural generating worlds, stations, enemies, and missions. It was amazingly ambitious, and while the space combat was nowhere near the quality of, say, the Wing Commander series, it delivered on its ambitious promises. Go out in a procedural universe and make a living by any means necessary… and there were tons of means available.

Thanks to crowdfunding success, a new Elite is currently in development. Elite: Dangerous is being made by the original Elite series co-creator, David Braben, and his team. It looks and sounds pretty awesome so far. It has recently entered beta testing, and it is due for release at the end of the year.

Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra / Might & Magic X: Legacy

MightMagic3_and_X

Honestly, I’m a latecomer to the Might & Magic series. I played a little of Might & Magic 2 on a friend’s computer back in 1992, and of course read all about it in the pages of Computer Gaming World, but I’ve really only started playing the series about three or four years ago. But I finally get what people were talking about, and while the 1992 release of Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra was such a big deal. (And the two immediate sequels – which could link up and create an even bigger world when combined, was an even bigger one!).

I’m still playing the recently-released Might & Magic X: Legacy, the long-overdue return to the franchise. Interestingly, while the later Might & Magic games ditched the grid-based world, Legacy went back to the early 90s and embraced it, like Legend of Grimrock. While only being able to walk in four directions isn’t very realistic, I haven’t met anybody who has played the game who denied that it was fun. It’s a solid, very fun game that embraces its old-school roots – with a little bit of streamlining for modern audiences.

X-Com / XCom: Enemy Unknown / Xenonauts

xcom_both

Yeah, okay. We’re now well into 1993, with another title that consumed a good deal of my time – another of the most awesome games of all time. X-Com was the U.S. name for UFO: Enemy Unknown, and it was an instant classic. It was followed up by what amounted to little more than a re-skinning with X-Com 2: Terror From the Deep. Unfortunately, everything thereafter grew progressively worse and diluted the game’s good name.

The series was finally revived a little over a year ago with a fantastic offering called XCom: Enemy Unknown. While it differed substantially from the original, it nevertheless felt true to its roots, particularly with turn-based combat. It’s a hit, and deservedly so… and it still gave us turn-based combat!

xenonautsBut … that’s not all. X-Com spawned numerous spiritual descendents, and the strongest and most faithful of them has been in development for many years. Entitled Xenonauts, this is a faithful spiritual remake / re-envisioning that was finally released a few weeks ago. I picked up a copy when it hit the release version based on glowing recommendations by friends. I still haven’t played it yet, though I certainly intend to.

While I think it is kind of amusing that the “spiritual sequel” is more faithful to the original style and gameplay of the original than the “true” sequel, I’m pretty happy to find that there’s room for both.

Wasteland / Wasteland 2

wasteland1and2

Wasteland was actually a considerably earlier release (1988), but in 1992 there was still a thin, shriveled hope that a sequel would appear “any month now.” It didn’t happen. A few years later, we got Fallout, which was a worthy spiritual successor by any measure. But 2014 is finally delivering the long-anticipated true sequel that fans have been expecting for 25 years.

So yeah, I’m reaching a little bit on this one. But come on… Wasteland 2 deserves a mention in an article like this!

Wizardry 7 / Grimoire?!?!?

Wizardry7_Grimoire

Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was another major, awesome RPG released in 1992. It was huge, popular, full of new features and ideas, and could keep a player busy for a long, long time. Hey, it’s been over twenty years and I still haven’t finished it! :)  One day, I promise myself. One day. Considering its size and scope, however, that will be one day after many weeks of effort.

RPGWatch tweeted me yesterday with the idea that Grimoire was the new Wizardry 7, which certainly seems to be the intent of its creator. Okay. I’ll believe it when I see it. Grimoire has been living in the twilight zone of actual, playable product and vaporware for years, now. If and when it does release to the public, the hard-core, old-school PC RPG fandom will be stunned. But hopefully – hopefully – we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

Doom / Doom

doom5And we’ll finally revisit 1993. At the end of ’93, the big one dropped… Doom. It turned the industry on its head. PC gaming hit mainstream because of this game, though the game itself found its way to virtually every platform imaginable in time (particularly after the source code was released as open-source by id Software).

Doom 3 released ten years ago as something of a remake. It was technologically cool and very pretty, and had plenty of “jumps,’ but to many players it lacked the heart that really made Doom special.

There’s a remake that I believe has now or is very soon entering beta. Ditching the numbers and going back to the name, “Doom,” I don’t know much about it. But if it actually captures the feel of the original, I’ll be very happy.


contraptionmakerUPDATE: 
I knew there were gonna be more. :) Spotkin is readying the 1.0 release of their new game, Contraption Maker – a spiritual successor to / remake of 1992′s awesome The Incredible Machine – by many of the team members who worked on the original series. It’s currently available via Steam Early Access, but the release version should be out very, very soon. Congrats to the team in Eugene!


Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 14 Comments to Read



Ten Things I Love (So Far) About Divinity: Original Sin

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 1, 2014

DOS_0009Yesterday, Larian’s highly anticipated RPG in their Divinity series, Divinity: Original Sin, was officially released. As a backer from their kickstarter, I had access to the early release, but I didn’t play it. No, I thought I’d wait and play the “final” release version.

Consequently, as last night was a very busy night (and not just with game development stuff), I don’t think I got to play a full hour. But… wow – between what I played, heard, and some of what the “hints” that came up while loading said, I’m seeing a whole lot to like. In fact, the only thing I have any grief about right now are the save times and some stability issues (it crashed on me once).

So here’s what I’m seeing that has me all super-excited, and that these guys really are making games just for me:

#1 – Turn-based combat that moves quickly.

#2 – Party-based. By default, the game has you play two characters, but you can “lone wolf” it if you prefer, or find other characters to join you for a party size of up to four.

#3 – Co-op multiplayer! I haven’t really played a “real” RPG like this in a long time, so I’m… intrigued. Especially since there’s a built in disagreement – resolution system. And a drop-in, drop-out system for making multiplayer as seamless as possible. There is some very interesting stuff going on there. Color me tempted.

#4 – I haven’t really experienced this yet, but a hint says that almost everyone is willing to trade with you, right down to the lowliest peasant. Shades of Fallout and Ultima Underworld! This is a rare, awesome feature.

#5 – You can chuck an empty barrel on a trap to set it off.  I’m not sure how much this is going to be a thing, but it seems like being able to move things around is a big deal in the game. Or can be. Shades of Ultima VI!

#6 – The environmental aspects don’t end there. Electrical attacks on water zap everything in the water, while running into oil while on fire will set the oil on fire. Then there’s spell combos that work the same way – for example, using a water-based spell to make enemies wet before freezing them will make the freeze spell more effective.

#7 – There’s a large number of things that can be picked up. Lots of stuff to pick up. Even better, a lot of this stuff can be combined to make new items.  Shades of Ultima VII. Baking bread is back!

#8 – The default tutorial is easily abandoned just by going a different direction. The game kindly warns you that you are leaving the tutorial, and lets you go back. It’s very responsible of the developers to make sure you don’t stumble into a choice you didn’t want.

#9 – Characters can “evolve” beyond their starting class organically. So while you may have a character that starts as a fighter, over time they may pick up some useful spells. I suspect one of my characters is going to start learning rogue skills.

#10 – There’s no level-scaling, and the game doesn’t prevent you from wandering off to a higher-level area and getting in way over your head.

DOS_0006It’s off to a great start. While I grouse about Kickstarter (alternating between grousing and becoming a backer), it really has allowed some very interesting projects to make it to release. This is one. It’s a game that’s too dang expensive to do without funding, and has too many features that would never have been allowed by a traditional publisher (like turn-based combat).

I’m kinda dreading the moment when the honeymoon is over, and I find myself disappointed with the game in some way. It always happens. Well, almost always. No game is perfect. But so far, what little I’ve seen (and what I’ve read and been able to confirm so far) is really, really, really cool.

I’m crossing my fingers here, folks. We’ve seen some really tremendous new RPGs see the light of day, lately – mainstream, indie, “big indie” (like this one), low-budget indie, and so forth. Dunno about you, but I’m partying like its 1992.


Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: 3 Comments to Read



The Game that Changed Everything

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2014

DoomHQI spent a little bit of time playing Doom this weekend. Yes, twenty-year old Doom. Updated a little bit with some new technology to take advantage of modern hardware and to make it nicely mouse-playable and everything, but it was still the same game. Running in Doomsday with a fan-made high-quality texture pack. There are some other add-ons which I haven’t installed, like higher-quality audio, 3D models for the enemies, etc. Pretty cool stuff for an old game.

Who needs a remake?

Oh, I guess we do:

 

Ah, well. I can’t say I’m not a little excited about what Bethesday might come up with.

I’d recently finished a somewhat more recent first-person shooter, Spec-Ops: The Line, which I thought was a pretty decent game. Okay the game part was pretty straightforward to the point of being generic. At times it felt like one of those old arcade shooters like Time Crisis. Shoot, duck, reload. Face bad guys with different weaponry appearing in surprise directions in a cover-based shooting gallery in a highly scripted combat.  To distinguish the game from the pack of “modern combat shooters,” the developers incorporated a pretty decent storyline, which redeems things.

Going from that to playing the original Doom a little bit this weekend, I was struck by the purity of the game. After all, it was designed like a 2D game, with some tried-and-true mechanics transposed into a 3D (well, 2.5D) world. It felt a lot less scripted – partly because there wasn’t much by the way of scripting mechanics for the game.

But that wasn’t the only reason. I went and played a bit of Final Doom. I grabbed it from the Steam sale, since I’d never played it before. Final Doom – created by third parties and sold by id Software – feels a lot more like the modern shooters. In lieu of true scripting, there are environmental constraints and triggers everywhere to make the game more challenging – a twisted shooting gallery of pain without much margin for error.  Maybe I just suck too much, but after a couple of levels I went back to the original (or Ultimate Doom).  It was more fun and more interesting.

After Doom, everything changed. It was the Star Wars of the gaming biz. Even though the original shareware release didn’t post the kinds of numbers to compete with the best-selling mainstream games of the era, its popularity shook up the industry. After Doom, games industry attracted a lot of people from other sectors, including a non-insignificant infusion of people from television and the movie industry, who sadly sometimes saw games as movies with a little bit of troublesome player interaction.  That trend didn’t go away with the death of “FMV games.” A few years ago this amusing comparison of FPS maps went viral:

fpsmap

 

The map on the left is from Doom, of course.  To be fair, with the keys and switches limiting access, the actual progression through a level is a bit more linear than it appears. And the picture on the right only applies to single-player levels. But it’s still funny.

Going back and playing a somewhat souped-up Doom really did feel refreshing, though. Maybe it was nostalgia for the days when I was less jaded as a gamer, and it reconnected me to old memories when Doom was absolutely revolutionary and stunning. Maybe it reminded me of an era before the games industry had changed so much – changed in part due to this game. Back to an era where Doom conked the gaming industry on the head and made gamers and game developers alike believe that anything was possible.

But maybe it’s just that there’s something to be said for simple, visceral gameplay. You couldn’t just imitate Doom today, of course.  That well has been drained pretty dry. But it was all about combining basic elements – the building blocks of the game – into lovingly elaborate, deadly self-contained challenges with plenty of leeway for the player to work things out his own way. The behaviors of the monsters weren’t necessarily realistic, but they were predictable, and could be used against them. Some of the best solutions involved getting monsters to fight each other in wild melees of infighting. Or clever use of exploding barrels. These were not complex, specially-scripted “solutions” – they were simply the tools at both the designers’ and the players’ disposal.

And seriously,within its own self-contained world, it ends up feeling far more realistic and believable than the carefully orchestrated, cinematic, advanced AI of the modern era. To me, that’s putting on a show for my benefit.

Sure, post-Doom, almost anything seems possible today. But sometimes its questionable as to whether or not all that is truly more fun and enjoyable than what’s been possible for 20+ years.


Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 10 Comments to Read



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