Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

More MM2 Interviews

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 27, 2015

You can probably detect a pattern here this week. :)

Here’s an interview with MK Wiseman about her story, The Silver Scams. She was also in the first Mechanized Masterpieces anthology, with a “sequel” to Phantom of the Opera.

And one with D. Lee Jorner, author of “Payoff for Air Pirate Pete”, on J. Aurel Guay’s Blog.

As one of the authors, it’s only appropriate that J. Aurel Guay also has a little interview here.

And one with M. Irish Gardner.

The Rise of the House of Usher‘s author, J. R. Potter, is spotlighted (spotlit?) here.


And as one final reminder – the big online launch party will be tomorrow night. I’ve attended these things for other publishers as well, and have actually won some prizes (helped take care of Christmas for me last year…). So fun stuff. I’ll be giving away a copy of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon and a signed copy of the previous anthology, Terra Mechanica.


Filed Under: Books, Interviews - Comments: Be the First to Comment

Steampunk and Mechanized Masterpieces

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 26, 2015

SteampunkLookUpI was both a little early and late to the whole Steampunk concept. I was a fan of “Cyberpunk” back in the late 80s and early 90s (yes, I’m that old), and so I really enjoyed books by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. When I found out they were collaborating on a non-cyberpunk (or, as some phrased it, an “alternate-history cyberpunk”) book, I was intrigued. So I bought it and read it as soon as it was out on paperback, and found the concept very fascinating, if the execution not quite up to the best by either author.

And – that was kind of it. I told people about the cool idea from the book: the brilliance of imagining that the computer revolution happened a hundred years earlier than it did (a plausible past, actually, as  demonstrated by the London Science Museum actually building Babbage’s Difference Engine #2 using period methods and tolerances).

CastleInTheSkyIn the meantime, “steampunk” gained popularity. I’d also seen several movies and anime shows with a steampunk-ish style (Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky remains one of my all-time favorites). As far as other “steampunk” books, however, I’d been kind of ignorant. I’d read the His Dark Materials series – of which The Golden Compass was by far the best. I liked the steampunk fashion (who wouldn’t?), and the impressive gadgetry. It was just… fun.

Amusingly, the whole steampunk “movement” – fashion, conventions, imagery, etc. – are driven not by any particular shows or books, but kind of gained a life of their own. This is unlike the average science fiction / comic book / anime convention, where the media leads and the fans are fans of particular books / manga / shows. In Steampunk, the fans lead, and the media follows.

For me, however – blame it on programming at an early age – I still look to the media, especially books, for a foundation. So when I was dragged by my family – mainly my daughters – to a steampunk festival, and I found myself truly enjoying the experience, I sought out books to broaden my understanding of the genre. I mean, sure, if you really want to know more about it, you just hang out at these gatherings, but they are rare. Books can sit on the dresser for a fun read at any time.

So I attended panels on steampunk literature (which universally included The Difference Engine as one of the early works), and visited the dealers for some good reading material. One of the first books I read was a collection of short stories based on classic literature. It was called Mechanized Masterpieces: A Steampunk Anthology. And, as it turned out, one of the authors were locals – and a couple more were visiting the Steampunk festival the year I picked it up.

Mechanized Masterpieces was part of my introduction to “modern” steampunk stories. Maybe it was a better introduction than I realized, because it was pretty wild seeing authors having fun and re-envisioning classic stories with a steampunk twist. There were a couple of stories based on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – one a direct “what really happened” invention, and another about peripheral characters. There was a lovely prequel to Jayne Eyre involving airships and voodoo and Mr. Rochester. A wild story of cyborgs and privateers in “Sense and Cyborgs” based on the youngest sister Margaret from Sense and Sensibility. A mysterious secret about Victor Frankenstein’s wife in “Lavenza, or the Modern Galatea.” The tales ran the gamut from wild adventure to mystery, even tragedy.

I half-jokingly called it a book of steampunk fan-fic for classic literature. But I think that left a little bit of an impression on me. While steampunk can be dark, even tragic, it’s also very free and fun. You should have fun with it. It is what you make of it, taking place in an alternate history that’s recent enough for it to feel familiar, but far enough behind us (and with enough weird, fantastic elements) that it’s not clearly remembered.

And so, as I began writing steampunk, I was pretty happy to be accepted in an anthology by the same publisher – Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology. I loved writing in the genre. It had some elements of science fiction, elements of fantasy, yet was also kind of fresh and new. It was a great experience.

MMII imageBut in a lot of ways, it felt like even more of an accomplishment to have been accepted in the sequel to my modern introduction to the genre – Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology. It is an anthology of steampunk stories inspired by classic American literature. Since that first book inspired me and helped me get so enthusiastic about the genre, it’s an honor to be included in the second.

As before, the stories run the gamut of style and sources of inspiration. I hope that it will prove to be as good an introduction to steampunk to others as the first one was for me. My own story is based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I took what I thought was a different approach to the story than is usual, even discounting the steampunk elements.

Another story that surprised me was A Princess of Jassom. I read A Princess of Mars only a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. I was super-excited to find that one of the stories in the anthology was inspired by this series. It’s another wild adventure story in a similar vein, and in that same universe (and same family), but the action is decidedly more terrestrial.

There’s plenty more there. It all goes on sale on Saturday on Amazon and other sites, and is currently available for pre-order. Also, we’ve got a big Facebook-based release party going on that evening – you can get the details here, if you are so inclined. There will be prizes!!!

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In Defense of Big Media…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 25, 2015

GOTG-posterYes, I take my potshots at AAA. I’ve been there. Kinda. And I’ve seen where it’s been going.

But my ripping on the games coming out of the big publishers are due to their origin – designed (or at least constraints imposed on design) by committees and suits for minimum risk and maximum Return-on-Investment, with “checkbox innovation” dictated by marketing people and a “just like last year’s hit, only bigger” mentality. Not the developers themselves.

I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with these guys on big titles and chatted with them in our individual indie foxholes. The game developers at the big studios are no less driven, knowledgeable, and passionate than any indie, and probably a good deal more on top of their game than most of the low-budget developers cobbling together one of the first games and adopting the “indie” title. No, the designers, artists, programmers, and other development team members working in the trenches of the games industry are – as a general rule – some pretty sharp folks who dearly love games. And many of them would love to go indie and make their own games, if they didn’t have to worry about pesky things like paying the rent and making sure their family is insured.

And while it’s a different medium, I just wanted to share this little tidbit from filmmaker James Gunn, director of a little film you may have heard of called Guardians of the Galaxy, after he found himself the butt of several jokes about his making big superhero movies:

Whatever the case, the truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite. I’ve already won more awards than I ever expected for Guardians. What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films.

“I’ve made B-movies, independent films, children’s movies, horror films, and gigantic spectacles. I find there are plenty of people everywhere making movies for a buck or to feed their own vanity. And then there are people who do what they do because they love story-telling, they love cinema, and they want to add back to the world some of the same magic they’ve taken from the works of others. In all honesty, I do no find a strikingly different percentage of those with integrity and those without working within any of these fields of film.

“If you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we’re dumb. But if you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”

Okay. I’ll get along with my regularly scheduled indie evangelism and occasional AAA-bashing later. (Although these days, I almost feel pity for the AAA biz, truth be told… it ain’t the titan it used to be.)

Filed Under: Movies - Comments: Read the First Comment

Mechanized Masterpieces 2 – Interview With Jay Barnson

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 24, 2015

Okay, as part of the whole “blog tour,” this time I get to be the one interviewed

Here’s the interview with me over at A Virtual Hobby Store and Coffee House.

An excerpt:

5. What are your top 3 favorite books?
If I were to limit myself to fiction, I’d say… Neuromancer by William Gibson, The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold, and Small Favor by Jim Butcher. Although all three of those are part of a series of books and short stories, and I couldn’t possibly just recommend anyone read one book without reading the rest…

6. Do you have any particular writing habits?
Bad ones, mainly. My wife is amused by my habit of pacing while I’m thinking. If I get stuck trying to figure out how to say something or how to get to point B from point A, I apparently need to move my feet to resolve it.

Incidentally, I do that pacing thing just as much when writing dialog or doing anything creative / verbal in game development too. In fact, for a while – at a couple of jobs – I did a lot of my game design on long walks during my lunch break. Headphones & music on, and within a half a mile the ideas started flowing.

Filed Under: Books - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Mechanized Masterpieces 2 Interview: Megan Oliphant (Winged Hope)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 23, 2015


Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology is an upcoming anthology of steampunk short stories coming out on the last day of February – this Saturday! I’m so excited for you all to see it. I’ll be focusing a bit on it all week. We’re starting the week out with a bang, though – an interview with one of the other authors, Megan Oliphant. Plus, there’s a really cool contest at the end for free stuff, so… read on!

Megan Oliphant_ 200x274Megan Oliphant
An editor at The X, Megan Oliphant has studied creative writing since college, taking classes from the founder of LTUE, Marion K. “Doc” Smith at Brigham Young University, and attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in June of 2014. Her primary interests are in fantasy, ranging from dark urban to high epic, but she’s a sucker for a good mystery that she can’t guess the ending to before she gets there. She divides her time between reading, writing, and “familying” with her husband and five children in North Carolina.

1. Please share how you came up with the concept for your story?
Winged Hope came out desperation. I had been struggling with a steampunk version of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but got nowhere. For months. It was my desperate search for new inspiration that led me back to one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson. I’ve always loved her spare, punctuationally challenging poetry. Who knew you could read so much into a dash? I think some of that desperation leached into the story and Bea’s search for salvation for both her and her daughter.

2. Please name some of your other published works?
This is my first published work!

3. What is your preferred writing genre?
Modern day fairy tales, where unexplainable magic changes the course of ordinary lives. Not necessarily rewritten fairy tales, though I do have some of those in a drawer somewhere, but that moment when a life becomes…more.

4. And preferred reading genre?
Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, sci-fi, epic family sagas, romance…um…do I have to name them all? If a story blurb sounds interesting, I’ll pick it up.

5. What are your top 3 favorite books?
That’s a tough question, because I’m not sure which direction to go to find the answer. I have books that are my favorite for “rereadability”, ones that I’ve read several times and will probably read again. Then there are those that change me profoundly, but I know I could never go voluntarily into that world again. But off the top of my head, I would have to say anything by Robin McKinley. Her Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, not to mention Beauty (both versions of it) were some of the most lyrical prose I have ever read. So there you go. Three books by one author, lol.

6. Do you have any particular writing habits?
I don’t think so. My chair has to be comfy. Does that count?

7. Do you have a playlist that you created while writing your story?
I’ve run through a lot of types of music, but most recently I’ve settled on a Pandora station based off Rachel Portman, the film music composer. I’ve found I really love the stories film scores tell without words. They help flesh out the world I’m trying to get on paper.

8. Panster or plotter?
I’m a light plotter. I can envision the big scenes, but I need to plan out those connecting scenes that will help build tension and take the story to the next level.

9. Advice for writers?
Be brave. Write the hard thing, the thing that makes you question your ability to tackle it. And it may be too hard for you right now. If it is, put it away and write other things for a while. Then when you come back to the project you thought you could never write, you’ll have developed a new set of tools that will help you write the hard stuff.

10. What’s up next for you?
I’m currently working on one of those modern day fairy tales, set in Paris. It’s a story somewhere between “Sabrina” and “Chocolat”, if you’re familiar with those movies.


We’re gonna be having a big release party Saturday evening on Facebook. There will be free prizes and Q&A with the authors. Please come and visit. In the meantime, you can pre-order the eBook on Amazon here:

Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology

The paperback will also be available on Saturday, if you prefer that (I kinda do, personally, as much as I love being able to store a ton of books on my tablet…)

I promised you a contest. Here it is!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

As always, have fun!

Filed Under: Books, Interviews - Comments: Read the First Comment

RPG Design: The Dungeon as Simulation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 20, 2015

men-and-magicI kinda missed the earliest days of “0e” Dungeons & Dragons (meaning the original, pre-1st edition game) and similar role-playing games. By the time I got into D&D, 1st edition was The Thing, but it – and the community, such as it was back then – still contained vestiges of that old style of play that refused to completely fade. You couldn’t read through the original books and modules, or especially older copies of Dragon Magazine or Judges Guild supplements, without getting a feel for that older style of play.

It was that classic, original style that inspired the earliest computer role-playing games (CRPGs), on which our hobby is based today. Sure, things have changed a lot since then – CRPGs have become their own thing and followed their own path independent of their dice & paper cousins, although the two styles still continue to borrow ideas from each other.

What I’ve tried to do with the Frayed Knights series is to get in tune with the old style, and try to borrow – wherever feasible – the flavor and ideas of not only classic western-style computer RPGs, but the dice-and-paper gaming that inspired them. In fact, a lot of the character dialog in the game is inspired by “table talk” of players around a table joking around with each other as they play.

But delving into the old-school gaming culture reveals a lot of things that might seem strange or even alarming to modern players. Even the idea of “role-playing” is something of somewhat more modern origin. It was applied to the game style after-the-fact, and wasn’t perfectly appropriate (which is why I reject categorization of the genre based on how well they fit some definition of “role-playing”). One aspect that really struck home to me is the idea of the game being more of a simulation. This isn’t the same as it being fair or realistic – not even close. The dungeons in the old D&D games were in some ways pretty actively hostile towards the players in somewhat arbitrary ways.

But it was fun.

In the old days, this simulation was done with charts and random percentages and some standard rules defining the behavior of an adventuring area. It wasn’t something that required a ton of number-crunching. What made it “fair” was the consistency of the rules, I suppose. Navigating the environment was always half the battle. Doors would automatically close (and in some cases, re-lock or re-stick) a round or two after the players went through it. Slippery angled floors didn’t require coefficients of friction, exact angle, speed of crossing… you just required a Dexterity roll.

underworld_sm This was something I was kind of hand-waving around to someone when we were discussing the differences between Ultima Underword and its spiritual descendants, Oblivion and Skyrim. In the Elder Scrolls’ dungeons, there is dynamically generated content, and some pretty decent AI and physics. From a purely technical standpoint, it is far superior to what the 1992 game could provide, and theoretically a better “simulation.” But that’s not the focus, and that’s not the feel.

Just like how the simple charts and tables in D&D provided some simulation-esque feel to the dungeons, the simple rules and calculations in Underworld worked with the dungeon design to provide some semblance of a complete, self-contained world with its own ecology and purpose. You had the warring factions, you had food and water sources, and you had navigational challenges. And – maybe most importantly of all – you had a sense of history. This wasn’t just some set of tiles stocked with bad guys for you to take down. You were (especially in the original Ultima Underworld) an interloper who was bringing about massive change to this world. You weren’t the first, but in a major way, you would be the last.

But you had to start by simply learning how to survive, which meant a lot more than simply optimizing your combat actions to beat your foes into a bloody pulp. The idea of a simulated dungeon means – in concept if not so much in practice – a lot of interaction, with those interactions being connected; having consequences. In the Ultima Underworld dungeons, you had to make allies. You had to negotiate. Otherwise, you’d be incapable of winning.

This is entirely possible with dynamic content – Minecraft has a little bit of that feeling, as well as some roguelikes (Dwarf Fortress & the like taking this to extremes). But really the only required “dynamic content” is a flexible system that can handle a wide range of interactions and have the world things respond accordingly. And of course, a design that really emphasizes and takes advantage of it. And that might be the most challenging part, in a world where game design is increasingly focused on hand-delivering cinematic ‘experiences’ to the player.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Lessons learned from 22 years of making indie RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 19, 2015

GF5Jeff Vogel is something of a personal hero of mine. Nope, I’ve never met him (just know a lot of people who have), though we’ve exchanged a couple of emails and forum posts over the years. I can’t even say I’m a giant fan of his games, although they are quite good. But the guy is a poster dude for indie persistence. He’s been at this since the early 90s – longer than I have been in the industry, even – doing it his own way. He’s been an indie since before that was a term, and managing to do okay for himself.

And making RPGs. That’s what he does. Little niche RPGs. Nothing that would ever overwhelm a fan of Bioware or Bethesda for their graphical awesomeness or anything. But deep, fun RPGs nonetheless.

He’s a practical, working-man’s indie.

And he has some practical, down-to-earth advice (and, in his usual style, it’s not particularly encouraging) about being an indie and making RPGs, learned from over two decades in the trenches. Very very much worth reading:

The original indie dev: How one man made 22 games in 22 years, mostly from his basement

An excerpt I am finding to be more & more true as I go forward:

“It’s not good design, from a contemporary game design perspective, which is why I think that contemporary game design is actually kind of bad. I think a lot of game designers are so tight-assed and want everything to be so balanced and so super under control — I think that’s a bad instinct. We’re making games. We should allow them to go crazy sometimes.”

I’m gonna count that as my indie game dev quote of the week, too. Because it’s totally awesome.

This is something I’m actively trying to reconcile in my brain while working on the Frayed Knights series. I’m trying to embrace some of the ethos of the true “old school” role-playing from the pre-1st edition AD&D days – which was actually before my time (at least before I was old enough to play) – which was simultaneously far more ‘simulationist’ and yet also more off-the-wall and arbitrary. But dang it, it’s cool. Sometimes bizarre, but cool, and fun.

Filed Under: Design, Interviews, Quote of the Week - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Frayed Knights: improvement by constraint. Or: bypassing the hat and going straight to the rabbit

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 18, 2015

FK2AtComicCon1It’s funny. Right before Salt Lake Comic Con last fall, I was pretty sure that I’d settled on “it” for the UI for Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. And to be fair, as far as keeping things simple enough for strangers to pick up and play the game, I did okay. Not great, but okay. But that was because I’d limited the menus and pre-assigned “slots.” As I started to have to worry about how the player would actually modify or set up those slots on their own, I realized that what was simple to work with on one end was becoming a bear on the other.

So I’m re-doing things again – although it’s really more of a refinement of the Comic Con interface rather than a complete overhaul. I’m glad I got that feedback.

The issue was – and is – overwhelming the player with choices. It sounds like it shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Too many choices means it takes too much time – and too many button clicks or scrolling or whatever – to pick an action. What it really means – through hard experience learned in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon – is that players tend to settle on a few (possibly sub-optimal) choices and ignore the rest, and it’s unnecessarily complicated to choose something from their self-imposed subset of choices. “Analysis paralysis” can occur in gaming as well as real-life, and when that option-tree gets to be too wide or too deep in the UI, it… gets ugly.

I’m loathe to pare down options too much, because for me, that’s what makes an RPG fun – the variety of interactions with the world. I love having gazillions of options, assuming I am relatively familiar with the system. But I have redefined how some of those interactions work to make things cleaner. A lot of it comes by simply reorganizing things in the game so they have a more clear-cut role. A lot of it, too, is coming into play by forcing the player to make the hard decisions beforehand about what to prune out.

An example of the first is in the equipment. I’ve already talked before about how the equipment in Frayed Knights 2 is a lot more single-purpose. There’s no more potential for fireball-shooting bow-ties, for example. Not that I had any in the first game (that I remember), but the potential was always there, which meant organizing the player’s potential actions was a lot harder. In the sequel(s), worn equipment is restricted to passive effects. Weapons are used for direct attacks, and any special effects are strictly limited to things that happen when they score a hit. Scrolls are only for casting “friendly” spells. Wands are only for casting offensive spells. Spellbooks are for learning new spells. Potions and bombs have a limited number of varieties.

This allowed actions to be grouped together. So if the player needs a character to drink a healing potion, instead of simply going to the inventory and hunting down which of dozens of items was a healing potion and then using the item, they can go immediately to a potion list. They can still do it the hard way (outside of combat), too, but it’s a helpful way to guide the player to possible actions.

Spells are a more recent change, and an example of the second approach. After a whole lot of gyrations trying to allow the player to organize a large spell list for ease-of-access, I decided to get rid of the large spell list. I mean the character’s personal spell list, not the game, where the potential spells available is near infinite. But here’s the thing: in a game with nearly infinite spells, it doesn’t make sense to keep a whole ton of old, crappy spells hanging around in your personal spell book anyway. So now, spellcasters start with the potential for only nine spells – three per action tier – in their active library.  There’s also a small ‘reserve’ list to allow you to temporarily swap spells without permanently removing them from your library. (Note: There’s a skill in FK2 that allows you to increase that starting spell capacity).

I’ve also removed the idea of real-time decisions* to augment spells or not. It was one more choice to make before getting on with the spellcasting. I love the concept, but again – in a world with nearly infinite spells, it’s not hard to find a new, higher-level spell to do approximately what you want. Again, the idea of keeping some lower-level spells around forever no longer makes sense. The player still has access to a million times more spells than even Frayed Knights 1 offered. He or she just has to make the hard decision of what to keep and what to lose in advance, rather than playing a pack-rat.

The changes feels like the “it” thing with the design and UI. Like I’ve narrowed down to “it” – the right thing. But just like after Salt Lake Comic Con and more feedback, it’s all subject to change. But it does feel like the right direction. I just wish I’d figured that out before I’d written all that code and done all that testing to make it work the other, more complicated, ways.

Yes, ways, plural. Sheesh. Some days I feel like what John Carmack reportedly said to Michael Abrash after over a year of false starts experimenting with the graphics engine: “If we knew what we were making before we started working on it, we would have been done in a month.”


(* UPDATE – Currently, there’s still a skill for augmenting spells, but it does so automatically within limits. It’s good to extend the value of spells for a couple of levels, but we’ll have to see how things work as the whole game comes together. It may simply be that there’s so much upgrade potential in the game that it’s really not a useful ability)

Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

RPG Development: What Inspires Me

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 17, 2015

ultimaframedMaking indie games is, simply put, awesome. So is making RPGs. Making indie RPGs – man, if only it paid well, it’d be one of the greatest gigs on the planet. As it is, it’s an awesome hobby.

But it’s also very hard – at least the way I do it. Maybe I’m just bad at it. But anyway – working on big projects (exactly the way I warn aspiring indie developers not to…) that take a long time to complete can be very difficult at times. Even as much as I love it, sometimes I need some inspiration to remind me what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I need a little help to reconnect with the passion I feel for the genre.  Or – particularly in the case of Frayed Knights – I need to re-connect with the sense of wonder of the old games I used to play, and the wild half-formed imaginations of adventure that went through my head as I read through the old D&D books or started up a new RPG on my Commodore 64.

I’ve surrounded myself with some things that – if I get too frustrated and feel like I’d rather be watching Netflix than debugging the spell list code which randomly, rarely, ends up with some uninitialized values. If I find myself wondering, “Why am I bothering,” these things around my office quickly answer my question:

* An original cloth map from Ultima V, framed and hanging on the wall next to my desk chair.

* The map from Zork 1, from an old boxed set of the entire series given to me by Curtis Mirci of Califer Games

* An original promotional poster from Everquest, given to me by a Sony producer at GDC in either 1998 (before it was released) or in 1999.

* The first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, particularly the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

* The paper manual from Wizardry 6: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (the manual was written by Brenda Romero). I remember thumbing through it while installing the game the first time, trying to figure out how I was going to set up my party.

* A booklet of journal entries from the Gold Box games – compiled into a single book in a boxed set of the series I picked up in the early 90s.

* The Official Book of Ultima, by Shay Addams. Lots of going back over Richard Garriott’s history and methodology.

KODT179_cover* Lots of issues of Knights of the Dinner Table.

* The GIMLET evaluation criteria from The CRPG Addict. He’s done a pretty good job of breaking down the most appealing factors of classic RPGs. Actually, one of the best parts of the GIMLET system is how it allows games from radically different eras to be compared directly to each other without providing a heavy weighting on technological factors.

* Soundtracks – especially from classic games (a good reason to get games from GOG.COM – they do try to include soundtracks). I have a playlist specifically for developing fantasy games that is 4.5 days in length. And still the same songs seem to repeat… but anyway, some favorites that work well for me are mainly from favorite games: Re-orchestrated or remixed music from Ultima 7, Ultima Underworld, and Daggerfall, the soundtracks from Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, the Diablo and Torchlight series, Final Fantasy VII, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Might & Magic 6 – 8, Wizardry 8, Neverwinter Nights, and many others. (As an amusing aside, I have some music in my playlist from games I haven’t actually played. It’s weird when I finally get around to playing the game and immediately recognize the soundtrack…)

* And of course, the games themselves. That’s actually a dangerous thing, as it can be very easy to loose hours of productivity to an old game you are looking over for “research.”

Those are the big ones. Of course, 99% of the time I’m oblivious to them all (except sometimes the soundtracks). But every once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to thumb through an old manual or look at an old map and remember what it was like to explore those worlds.

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: Read the First Comment

What’s Old is New Again: “Pay Once and Play”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 16, 2015

Remember how I keep harping on the cyclical nature of the industry, and how gimmicks and trends may rise and fall, but basic principles stay the same?

Yeah, well, this:

Gamasutra: Apple Launches “Pay Once & Play” promotions for games that aren’t F2P

Is actually paying for a game and then playing it without it nagging you or offering to sell you more features is apparently rare enough that they are turning it into a marketing gimmick?

Or is just paying for a game making a comeback on mobile?

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

How to say “You’re Fired!” at a game company

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 13, 2015

Kotaku has an article entitled, “The Pizza Party Where Everyone Got Fired.” It contains horror stories about working in the video games biz. Or, more properly, about losing work in the video games biz.

Read the story. It’s amusing in a stomach-turning kind of way.

For me, it was right after a Valentine’s Day pot luck. Fifteen years ago tomorrow. Wow. That was a long time ago. Doesn’t feel like that long. But yeah – we had the big party, and then after the party, half the company was invited to one meeting, the other half to another meeting. In retrospect, although it was devastating at the time (I’d worked there more than five years, and it was my first job out of college), I think I was invited to the better of the two meetings. We got out clean, I got a small but reasonable severance, and I was able to snag a better-paying job by the end of the week.

A far worse case didn’t happen to me, but convinced me that the far better-paying job was going to end badly. We had some people from corporate visit. One particular team was really nervous, and at the end of the day they were all taken into a room and explained that no, layoffs were NOT happening. Even better, they’d received a two-month extension on their milestone. The brass explained that after two months, the game would be re-evaluated, but they had that much time to pour their heart and souls into this latest version of a long-running franchise product and make it really shine and become competitive in the marketplace again.

I guess the secret point of this pep-talk was to avoid any sabotage or something, because the entire team was laid off individually as they came into work the next morning and found their key-cards didn’t work.

I’d taken some non-game jobs after that. I learned working at some start-ups with sometimes inconsistent funding / revenue periods that I’d be willing to accept a single late paycheck. At one place, I went over six months with inconsistent paydays. The dev team – some of the last employees left at this shop – decided as a group that we’d draw the line at two paychecks overdue. It was a good rule-of-thumb which I’ve fortunately not had to follow too often since. When one paycheck hadn’t been made and another payday rolled around two weeks later without a check, we informed the remaining management that we were done. Effectively, we informed them that the company was now over. It closed up shop the next day.

When I had a game dev job a few years later with a few late paychecks, I followed the same rule of thumb. Then one day, a payday came along and our previous paychecks hadn’t been made. I’d already cleaned out my desk, and had a job offer waiting for me. At the end of the day, people were rounded up by teams for meetings. Paychecks didn’t require meetings, so I took my last remaining personal possessions out to my car. At the meeting, we were informed that the paychecks would be late – again – but that a milestone payment would be coming really soon. But, we were warned, layoffs would be coming soon, and would likely hit about half the company. So we needed to work extra hard to make sure we were in the top 50%.

“So wait a minute,” I asked a coworker. “We’re supposed to work twice as hard in order to keep this crappy job that they aren’t paying us for anyway?”

I resigned a half-hour after the evening. I was given a check covering all remaining pay, but I knew from experience that there was a good chance they’d bounce. I’d learned that I could call the bank and find out whether or not there were sufficient funds for the check to clear. About a week later, I called and was told that yes, there was enough to cover the check. Since I had a bank branch only two blocks away, I raced over and cashed the check before anything unfortunate could happen.

I might have been the last person at that company (of triple-digit employees) to receive all of his pay. Many of the other employees ended up going as much as three or four months without pay before the company finally collapsed.

It seems the games biz has a lot more problems dealing with layoffs than other industries. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because managers are pulled from the ranks of introverted game developers?

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Old-School RPG Design – Navigating and Exploring

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 12, 2015

MM1_Dungeon1So I was going to do some research. Just… you know, research. I’m always trying to capture the feel of “old-school” gaming in Frayed Knights, and so I thought I’d go back and check out Might & Magic Book 1 – The Secret of the Inner Sanctum.  So I got hooked on it once, but on a new computer I had to start over, and I’m really only going to take a peek for just a few minutes around the world. Well, okay, I’ll spend time making characters, just for old time’s sake (screenshot with the pre-gen characters notwithstanding), and THEN I’ll just poke around for maybe a half hour. Not very long at all. Just as a refresher.

Yeah. Right. That plan didn’t work. This is Might & Magic that we’re talking about. Nevermind I’ve got tons of cool new games waiting to be played – I’m now a few hours into Might & Magic 1. Again.

The thing is, these classic old games succeed – at least for me – on a level that many of their modern (yeah, indie) imitators do not. I know – I play ‘em. I *cough* make ‘em. How is that possible? There’s no inimitable genius here or technological or design wizardry (pun intended) going on in this game that’s pushing 30 years old (for the Apple II version). What gets missed? What’s so addictive for an old-school gamer like myself?

There are a lot of answers to that question, but I’m going to focus on something that gets lost a lot in modern RPGs – indies included. The most basic interactions of not only these old games, but of almost all games. Movement.

Movement in these old first-person dungeon crawlers is pretty basic. You can turn left or right, move forward, or move back. Some of the games also allowed you to move left or right. In these gridded game worlds, each step was a full square, so if nothing intervened, you could traverse the entire map for a level in seconds.

There’s our first little bit of possibly accidental brilliance – movement was really fast unless something interesting happened. This, at least, a lot of games “get.”

But something interesting happened a lot. That’s a probably intentional piece of brilliance, especially in the Might & Magic series. Not just getting into fights. Might & Magic 1 cribbed from the best of the genre, so it’s not like Jon Van Caneghem was startlingly original. He just did it very well. The game doesn’t stoop to the level of Wizardry 4, where practically every step was a torturous exercise in “messing with” the player (which actually came out a year later).  But even in wandering around the starting city, you really can’t take anything for granted.

mm_XeenSo what goes into walking around a gridded area in these RPGs? What is the world like, and what kind of state information can be accessed or manipulated?

Well, first, you have the player’s party. They have an X and Y coordinate, a facing, and a movement direction. The movement direction is usually the same as their facing direction, but not necessarily.

Then you have the map itself. For every square in the grid you may have an event tied to it, and you have four possible directions of movement which may be allowed or restricted. There are visuals representing this. If you can’t go in a direction, you’ll usually see some kind of wall or barrier. If movement is restricted by some means, you’ll often find a gate or door of some kind. And if you can pass freely, you’ll usually see nothing at all – just the square beyond.

But from there, things can get really interesting. What if there’s no natural illumination, causing no visual at all unless the player creates some form of light? What if the wall is actually an illusion, allowing the player passage but they have to hunt for it? What if a square allows movement into the next square, but that square doesn’t allow reciprocal movement back? In other words, you find you can only move one way? What if an event is triggered not only by entering the square, but based on your facing when you enter it? Then of course, there are the infamous invisible walls. Probably not the most enjoyable gameplay option, but it’s an option.

As far as events, some can mess with your state. Change your facing (an old, and somewhat annoying trick in the old days without automapping). Move you to a different location, possibly on another level (like pits dropping you to the next level), and possibly without warning or notification (leading to one of the notorious “infinite hallway” effects…)

And we can go further than this. What about the order in which the squares are entered or interacted with? How about squares that change their information based on interactions – walls moving, doors opening, illumination changing, an impassible chasm turning into a bridge, etc. Or just the event triggers changing based on other events in the dungeon. How about the timing in which you enter the square?

Legend_of_Grimrock_screenshot_06One of the best modern examples of this is the Legend of Grimrock series, although it was of course inspired by the Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder series. In these games, the dungeon feels much more like a collection of puzzles, and there’s definitely more of a feeling of “solving” a level more than exploring it. But the complex interactions of the map and movement across it are there.

And that, ladies and not-ladies, is a key part of the nature of these “old-school” western RPGs, and least within the “first person perspective” genre. Something many indie games would be well-advised to consider. Movement is not just something you do to get from one event to the other. Movement is a major gameplay mechanic. Exploration – truly discovering all the little tricky interactions and secrets and advantages  – is not a second-class mechanic. It’s not just something you do to find some bonus treasure. There were a whole bunch of puzzles, tricks, and gameplay to be found that had nothing to do with all the other RPG mechanics, like your inventory or experience or hit points – just with your location and orientation and the map state.

This can be fun. I think that’s what keeps getting forgotten in some modern attempts. Sure, it can get old after a while, too (a weakness in Legend of Grimrock), so it should be mixed with a variety of gameplay elements to keep things interesting (just like combat after combat can get very old very quickly). But it should be no great exaggeration to say that exploring the map is half the fun.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

Answering the Important Questions… Apache vs. Dragon

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 11, 2015

You know, we didn’t have documentaries like this when I was a kid. Instead, we had to research the material ourselves, the hard way, and turn it into an RPG or a wargame. Then we’d discover that the ol’ M-230 chain gun needs a critical hit to damage Smaug in a vital area, like his eyes, or his missing scale.


Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Coming Soon: Mechanized Masterpieces 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 10, 2015

“I’m dying already, Mr. Chase. I don’t know that I will survive another sleep in that machine, or another week outside of it. I should be long dead already.”
“But why accelerate it?” Miriam pleaded.
“Because I’m done surviving. I need to live again, if only for a few hours. I need to be strong, bold, and brash. I need to become Brom Bones again. Can’t you see what I am asking? Do you understand what a gift it would be for a man to choose not only when but in what manner he finishes his mortal life?”
— The Van Tassel Legacy, by Jay Barnson

I finished the submitted draft for this story about a year ago. It’s exciting to see it finally see print in this upcoming anthology. There were some pre-releases sold this last weekend, so the book is now out in the wild. It won’t officially be released on February 28th, but it’s now available for pre-order from Amazon:

MMII imageMechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology

This is an anthology of steampunk fiction that is inspired by classic American literature. My story, The Van Tassel Legacy, is based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. It takes place approximately fifty years after the events of the original tale. A young scientist arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and becomes embroiled in treachery and old secrets within the Van Brunt family. And, of course, a story about a phantom horseman from the Revolutionary War…

And if you aren’t familiar with Steampunk… here’s my take on the subgenre.


Filed Under: Books - Comments: Read the First Comment

AAA to Indie – is the flow of talent going only one way?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 9, 2015

Many years ago, I wrote an article for the Escapist called, “Going Rogue,” which was about mainstream – often AAA developers – leaving their big-studio jobs for indie development. A few months ago, Jeffrey Grubb wrote “Why Triple-A Developers Are Going Indie (and Why Indies Aren’t Going Triple-A.

I’ve definitely been noticing the trend lately. It feels like the big, mainstream studios are constantly closing down or performing major layoffs, and rather than hunt around and relocate in order to get another job for another game studio that will probably disappear in about three years, the folks are just forming their own indie studio. They’ll put together a Kickstarter to keep themselves in raman noodles for a few months, and go off to the races.

And thus we have a glut of indie game studios out there. Back when I wrote my article, having mainstream game dev experience as an indie was unusual. Now, it may not be typical, but it’s hardly uncommon.

This business is cyclical, and what I expect to see happen is… more of what we’ve always seen happen. Yes, you’ll see more AAA devs leave the mainstream industry to go indie than the other way around. However, once the industry gets its footing again (right now there’s a sea-change going on, and everybody’s reeling), you’ll get the bigger studios / publishers gobbling up the more consistent, quality indie studios. That’s the way AAA brings the talent back in. They promise the resources and deep pockets to help the little studios grow and weather the lean times. But over time, the little formerly-indie studio becomes completely borged and either fully assimilated or eliminated. It’s the game dev jungle.

Of course, I could be wrong. The whole industry / hobby / medium may be changing so much that, like the dinosaurs, the ecosystem may no longer support what we traditionally think of as AAA games. At least not on the scale that we’re used to. I think you’ll still have larger publishers / consortiums / businesses that act to consolidate the industry a bit – just for mutual survival – so there’ll still be the fragmentation / consolidation cycle.

But fundamentally, I think Jeffrey Grubb nailed it.  Right now, AAA doesn’t offer anything for an indie game developer except maybe a more steady paycheck. But as a programmer, I can make more money outside the games biz. And since working for a major publisher often precludes work “on the side” as an indie… that’s really not much more than a fallback position (game designers and artists, unfortunately, have a bit more struggle finding good jobs outside of the games biz). So why go back?


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Minecraft Didn’t Sell Itself

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 6, 2015

minecraftlogoIt’s popular (in indie circles) to say that Notch did everything wrong with Minecraft, yet it still managed to become the biggest indie success story of all time. The game was confusing to players until they’d checked out some kind of out-of-game tutorial (or had someone sitting next to them explaining it to them). It was written in Java. Distribution was weird. Notch didn’t go through the traditional channels. He didn’t even try to get his game on Steam, for crying out loud! (In fact, I think he refused the offer).

Oh, and he didn’t market it.

Except… really… he did. He marketed it quite well, and cleverly. And this should be a lesson to indie developers across the board. He marketed the game in a very indie way, bypassing some of the conventional wisdom and methods. But some furious marketing was good. Something for all of us to learn from. Not that exactly imitating him would yield the same results – we’ve all gotta find out own style and niche, adapting to (rather than following) current trends and technology.

Konsolo has a fantastic article about exactly how Minecraft was marketed that I’ve been meaning to share:

How Notch Marketed Minecraft

Filed Under: Biz, Game Development - Comments: Read the First Comment

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