Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Minimum Survival Skills in a Post-Gold Rush Game Development World

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 5, 2015

Can you spot the common thread(s)?

“Several different sources have indicated that the company has already used the majority of its funding, but not much has been created to show for it. The number most often received from people has indicated that, currently, the company has less than $8 million of what was raised from the crowdfunding efforts left [~ $90 million] – a number that several employees have stated is “common knowledge” within the company – although it is important to note that pledges are still being accepted for Star Citizen through the RSI website” – Star Citizen Employees Speak Out on Project Woes (The Escapist)

“Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money” – Tim Schaffer on Broken Age‘s cost overruns in 2013

“Since its release Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has sold 3 million units globally but compared to its budget, it’s got a ways to go before it likely breaks even let alone makes a profit.” – Forbes

“One of the last tweets from Curt Schilling before his game studios, Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, collapsed talked up sales of their first title, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. ‘Reckoning, 38 Studios first game, has outperformed EA’s projections by selling 1.2mm copies in its first 90 days,’ he said. While those are impressive figures, they were not enough to keep the studio afloat. At a press conference, Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee said that the game was a failure and that it would need to sell over 3 million copies ‘just to break even.’ ” – Shacknews

“Despite raising over $526,000 ($26,000 more than the campaign required) the developer [of Clang] has apparently run out of money and there’s no game in sight.” – Another Kickstarter Project Runs Out of Money, Blames Everyone Else, Kitguru

“Now developer Florian Frankenberger, who joined the team only months ago, has admitted that the game isn’t selling as well as hoping, and that development has now been abandoned.” (on Early Access title Towns) – Gamasutra

Yogventures exceeded its goal of $250,000 and brought in $567,665 in May 2012. Since then the project has been approved on Steam Greenlight, with regular updates on the game’s in-progress alpha and beta being sent out to backers and posted on Steam through August of last year. But updates suddenly ground to a halt, and now it’s come to light that the game has been canceled and disowned by its partners” – Polygon


DukeNukemForeverI could bring up some more games that actually (eventually) shipped, like Duke Nukem Forever, Strike Commander, and Daikatana. Or many, many more that had to pull the plug at some point down the road, although the reasons for canceled games are rarely revealed except in this new age of crowdfunded semi-transparency. I could keep going, but I don’t really need to, do I?

You could note that each of the games were relatively big-budget compared to others of their tier, be they indie or AAA. It’s true that sometimes having a much larger budget (or fewer limitations) than expected can cause people to get really sloppy. But that’s just a small part of the story.

Mainly, it’s about budgets. It’s about developing within an allotted budget, and of course making sure that expected sales justify the budget. Inexperienced indie developers and AAA vets alike screw this up. While it may be more understandable for the newbies, for the AAA vets, it is often more of a case of them being used to dealing with a publisher when they are behind schedule (and by definition, over budget) to get more money. In a crowdfunded world, getting more cash may not be an option, although some companies do go back to that well a second time, or start selling virtual items in advance to make up the cash.

I was once asked in an email how to estimate a budget for a game for a brand-new producer. Unfortunately, my only answer was to first make a game with that team, and then use that as a baseline to compare future projects with. It’s a dumb answer, but it’s true. And that estimate may change if you change team members. People have different strengths and weaknesses. A super-hot 3D modeler may be less-than-average when it comes to animating 2D sprites.

It’s also difficult to make estimates for sales. This is perhaps the #1 question new developers ask in one form or another: how many sales can I anticipate for this kind of game. We jokingly refer to that as a “how long is a piece of string” question, but the rationale is entirely justified: how can you possibly consider a budget when you have no idea what sales might look like. I’ve seen countless studios sunk because they grossly overestimated sales. And maybe they weren’t necessarily wrong… another game of similar genre and quality may have gone on and outsold them 100:1 with no clear reason.

It’s a tough call. It’s even harder in AAA, where competition and an emphasis on production values may mean that he who spends even a few (thousand) dollars more ends up winning all the marbles. You don’t want to miss out on millions of dollars of sales because you skimped by 0.5% of your budget. But that the problem is there’s no bottom to that hole, as the AAA game industry has been rapidly discovering.

Endeavor-Science-SevenWith indie, it’s still very tricky. Tons of indies spend tens of thousands of dollars (hard cash, not “donated” time) on games that have had trouble selling in the double digits. It’s very hard to plan a budget when the return is such a wide range. You are shooting yourself in the foot if you aim for either the bottom or the top of that range, but if you want to stay in business, you can’t keep setting budgets with the expectations of near-maximum returns.

Some indies have now started talking about “sustainable development.” Or as Dan Cook puts it, “Minimum Sustainable Success.” My friend Josh Sutphin of Kickbomb Entertainment also frequently talks about “sustainable development” – really, sustainable game development lifestyle – which means not having to constantly kill yourself to make games for a living in a constant state of crunch (the sadly all-too-common stereotype for AAA game development). There are a lot of different strategies and approaches to make this work, especially in an era where people are freaking out over the “indie bubble” finally bursting.

There are no guarantees. It sucks, but that’s life.

Sure, it may be possible to right the ship after-the-fact (as was done with Broken Age), but that’s fraught with peril and may lose a lot of customer goodwill in the meantime. Especially as an indie, at an absolute minimum, even the tiniest lone wolf game developer is going to have to master some basic survival skills if they want to make games as more than just a hobby (even if it’s not a full-time venture):

#1 – Budget
Understand upcoming costs, burn rate vs. income, and how much might be in reserves. It doesn’t matter how awesome the game you want to make, you are limited by your budget, and you have to make the game you can afford to make. And don’t plan a budget to take things to the ragged edge so that you have no margin for error.

#2 – Task Estimation / Scoping
Learn how to estimate requirements and the time / budget it would take to complete them. This could be as simple as deciding that you need 3 minutes of original music and getting estimates. Or it could involve careful and probably painful timing of your own work efforts and that of your team to provide better estimates in the future. And then planning out the scope of your game to match.

#3 – Tracking and Scope Revision
No matter how well you planned things in advance, things will change once you are in development, and you’ll have to adapt the project to match. This can be both good and bad… maybe in playing the prototype you realize a change would vastly improve the game, or maybe that another feature wasn’t as cool as expected and is taking far too much effort to implement without bugs. Either way, you have to be able to track how things are going and adapt and revise things to be able to deliver.

These are un-sexy skills and activities that have nothing to do with the quality of the game being released or the marketing needed to make it a success. But if the quotes above are any indication, the coolest game in development of all time with some of the coolest hype and excitement already raised over it can’t ward off failure if these basics aren’t followed.

Filed Under: Production - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Got Paranormal? I Need Some Early Readers.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 1, 2015

Beyond-the-Wail-274x200Hey folks, the book launch for the new paranormal anthology, Beyond the Wail, is less than two weeks away, and we could use a few more advance readers to check out an early version of the ebook in exchange for some honest reviews on Amazon and / or Goodreads.

If you are willing to do this, contact me ASAP. There’ll be a lot of reading over the next few days (twelve stories, after all), but hey… free ebook. :) It’s not the finished version… we’re finishing up the final proofing and formatting right now, but it’ll be pretty close.

I’m not sure of the formats, but usually we have it available in the major formats (PDF, Kindle, and epub).  Contact me (jayb at this site) if you are interested.

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Making Bigger, Badder Dungeons

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 30, 2015

WorldsLargestDungeonMaybe it’s because of stories of Castle Greyhawk, or that my first forays into CRPGs was through the mega-dungeon of Telengard. I’ve got this irrational fondness of really big, sprawling underground complexes. Maybe I’m enamored with the idea of huge, hidden worlds hidden below our real one. I don’t know. Even though the maps were only 10 x 10 squares, the original Wizardry dungeon left me feeling the same way. And of course, I’ll never forget the first time I read Fellowship of the Ring, and got to the part about Moria. It’s still my favorite section out of all of the books. I’ve always wanted to explore Moria, the great grandpa of imaginary mega-dungeons.

Many of my first maps for D&D were done on tiny graph paper that was something like an 8×8 grid per inch, and I filled it with lots of rooms and corridors and stairs to other levels. I never ran anyone through that dungeon… in fact, I don’t think I ever finished keying it up (all ten or so levels of it). If I’d actually run players through that dungeon, we might still be playing it today.

Vertical DungeonI was thumbing through Frog God Games’ Tome of Adventure Design the other day (an outstanding reference to kickstart your creativity when building adventures) and came across this quick vertical sketch of a dungeon complex, and immediately thought, “Yeah, that’s how it ought to be!” Several levels, different themes, all linked together in a giant complex. But it was more than just the idea of a big honkin’ dungeon. It had the “right ideas” in ways I’ll get to in a minute.

I don’t have a hard-and-fast definition for what constitutes a really big dungeon, but if one location (with multiple levels) dominates a computer RPG, it would count. Games that come to mind are the first five Wizardry games, Ultima Underworld, the Darklight Dungeon series, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Dungeon Master, the Eye of the Beholder series (at least 1 and 2), Torchlight 1,  Diablo 1,  Legend of Grimrock, and many (most?) roguelikes.

On the tabletop front, some of the titles that come to mind would be (obviously) The World’s Largest Dungeon (AEG), the Tomb of Abysthor (Necromancer Games) (Now included in Lost Lands: Stoneheart Valley by Frog God Games), Rappan Athuk (Necromancer Games / Frog God Games), Dragons Delve, Ruins of the Dragon Lord (Mongoose Publishing), and Expedition to Undermountain (Wizards of the Coast). Sadly, Gary Gygax’s attempt to recreate his legendary Castle Greyhawk campaign with Castle Zagyg ended prematurely with his death, and the first parts are no longer on the market.

diablo1_lavaThe obvious problem with giant frickin’ dungeons is that they can get pretty boring. I’ve experienced it in tabletop games. I’ve experienced it in video games. A huge, monolithic dungeon can get pretty dang tedious after a while. Variety is vital to keep things interesting. A good single-dungeon crawler needs several of the following:

  1. Variety of theming: A change of scenery every few levels, so that the players aren’t always looking at the same style of stone walls.
  2. Variety of terrain: More than just cosmetics, this is where room layouts take on a new style. Manmade architecture gives way to natural caves, where stalagmites and uneven ground change the tactical environment. Levels partly or completely underwater, levels shrouded in fog, or (my least favorite) levels where magic doesn’t work…
  3. Variety of challenges: This is more than just facing different monsters on each level, although highly different monster types with very different approaches to fighting them is certainly desirable. But each level should also have different “goal conditions” and/or different types of challenges (like the aforementioned underwater levels or other navigational hazards). Dungeons levels should play differently.
  4. Multiple points of egress: You shouldn’t have to go back through all of the previous levels to get back to “home base” (a place of relative safety) and back again – via newly discovered secret doors, activated teleporters, or whateverc. Alternately, if no such place exists in the game, a level could have safe locations integral into most or all of the levels (as in Ultima Underworld).
  5. Unique Storylines Per Level: Ideally, each level should have its own story, too. The idea is to have players not only interested in the end-goal, but interested in exploring their current environment. What happened here, and what is currently happening here, and how does the presence of the player characters change everything?

There may be more ideas to keep the levels interesting, but that’s what I think of.

Naturally, from a pure gameplay perspective, there’s no functional difference from a single-dungeon experience implementing these suggestions and a game where these levels are split up into multiple dungeons, all nicely different.  The same advice applies. It’s really just an interface and context issue… do you travel across the world to get to each spot individually, or all they all linked together? Other than lacking the need to travel, they don’t buy you much, but from a conceptual view, I love the clear progression in difficulty from the upper levels to the more dangerous lower levels, the oppressive feeling of being deep beneath the surface (where’s my canary?) and extending further and further from safety (even given shortcuts).

And of course, there’s that little voice from my childhood telling me that this is how dungeons are supposed to be. Epic!

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

How to Suck at Indie Game Development

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 29, 2015

optimistic-indie-dev1Cliff Harris reiterates some basic principles for what doesn’t work in indie game development. IMO, this list should be committed to memory by any aspiring game developer:

How to be Really Bad at Game Development

Now, everyone can probably name a game that seemingly violated at least one of these principles and went on to see great success… he even cites Flappy Bird. Sure, outliers and exceptions exist. But following those examples are kind of like not wearing a seatbelt in your car because of the rare cases where someone was “thrown clear” of a wreck they probably wouldn’t have survived inside the car.

The thing is, the market changes.  The free market means things can be elastic and supply can grow to meet (or often, exceed) demand. In the early days of a platform, maybe simple, quick games – or generic ideas that can rapidly fill the need – may work out just fine. Games may succeed with minimal marketing because the pent-up demand seeks them out. But that won’t last forever, especially when supply is growing faster than demand.

This happens with every console, every console generation, every “hot” trend, and has clearly happened with mobile. There’s nothing new here. That’s why the AAA studios *LOVE* the launch of a new console. If the console is a hit, just being a launch title, when the platform is young and the competition is scarce, you can do a lot of these things less-than-excellently and still have a hit title. This is always temporary. It always gets harder from there. If you create a business plan around the assumption that this is the norm, then you are gonna be hosed.

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: Be the First to Comment

Report from the Three-Day Geek Party

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 28, 2015

CC2015_AwesomeGlen_640Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…

Well, okay, it does come to an end, or at least a hiatus. Although between FanX, Comic Con, the new Salt lake Gaming Con, Steamfest, Winter Faire, Anime Banzai and the like, geek partying in Utah is a pretty regular event.

Meanwhile, I try to sell books and games. Although at Salt Lake Comic Con this year, the selling books thing was what happened in-between panels and talking to people. I guess I could call this “networking,” and in a few cases that really is what it was. But these kinds of shows might be great for meeting people, but not so great for in-depth conversations. Other folks have books and games to sell as well, and hundreds of other people to say.

So I had fun. I sold books. I attended panels. I saw a few celebrities, although the need to hang out by our booth kept me from attending the some of the really big stars where you needed to get in line a half-hour or more in advance.

I did get to see Jenna Coleman, which was pretty cool. That’s three of the actresses who have played the Doctor’s companions that I’ve been able to see at Salt Lake Comic Con or FanX. Unfortunately, she needed to be pretty cagey about what happens this season, especially of her barely-announced departure from the show. Someone asked if she’d be willing to make another appearance in the show at a later date as Clara, and she slyly answered, “Well, that just depends on how Clara leaves, now, doesn’t it?” and refused to reveal anything else. Of course. She explained that when she played Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks, the script was originally written for just a temporary, throw-away character, but then Steven Moffat decided, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if it was actually the Doctor’s upcoming new companion?” and ran with it. Coleman had already been cast as the new companion, and so it was no surprise to her.

CC2015_FantasyPanel3_640Most of the panels I attended were about writing. Go figure. We had a bunch of big authors this year, and so you’d better believe I was there soaking up whatever writing advice I could grab. The picture to the right is of the fantasy writing panel, consisting of James Owen, Jim Butcher, David Farland, RA Salvatore, Shawn Speakman, Jessica Day George, and Terry Brooks. How’s that for high-powered. Other panels mixed ’em up more with local best-selling writers like Michaelbrent Collings, Larry Correia, and Tracy Hickman, plus many more up-and-comers. While the panels weren’t geared for advanced writers, but they were full of advice and anecdotes.

I took tons of notes. Much of the advice was stuff that I’d heard before, but when a best-selling author suggests it, it holds a bit more weight. That, and there’s tons of advice and it’s easy to forget the more important stuff in the day-to-day tasks. The panels covered subjects like writing fantasy, writing urban fantasy, characters, handling violence in stories, writing horror, and how to grip the reader in the first five pages.

And don’t imagine that this advice doesn’t apply to other media, especially games.

CC2015_JimButcher_640Jim Butcher was full of a lot of amusing anecdotes, including how he wrote Harry Dresden to prove his writing teacher wrong. He was doing graduate work and had an English Literature degree, so he thought he knew everything, while his teacher had “merely” sold 40 novels or so. What did she know? He got tired of her criticisms, and in full-of-himself college student confidence that he knew everything, he tried to prove her wrong by deliberately implementing every single piece of her advice into one book, just to show her what a soulless piece of unsellable pablum it would be. That was the first Harry Dresden novel. Obviously, he lost that argument. He also spoke about how the Codex Alera series began as an Internet argument.  And BTW, he is definitely an extremely cool, sincere, humble, entertaining author that seems like an all-around nice guy.

Then of course, there was the costumes.

CC2015_Jane_640Sometimes I think half the entertainment at these cons are the other attendees. Some were absolutely amazing. Some were incredibly imaginative. Some, like Jane from Disney’s Tarzan on the right, seemed spot-on for all practical purposes. Others were inventive takes on favorite characters, like gender-swapped heroes or heroes transported into other eras or genres (like steampunk, etc.).

Our booth was right next to Ron Simmons, who was taking pictures and signing autographs. He had an almost constant influx of people coming to visit him, but he was a lot of fun to sit next to. He was funny and friendly the whole time.

With smaller cons, I run into the same people a lot – we joke that it feels like a family reunion more than a con. With something this size, though, we might run into people we know occasionally (it helps to have a lot of friends), or we have to hunt them down. It’s a challenge. Still, I managed to run into a lot of old friends – some of whom sought me out at my booth, some of whom I sought out at theirs. Friendly faces help make it a good time.

I left with half of a new wardrobe (helpful when I can keep wearing t-shirts to work), and I ended up buying as many new books as I sold. Ah, well. Maybe one day I’ll be in a position where I can make money at a con. Today is not that day, but that’s not a problem.


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The Four-Step Universal Indie Survival Guide

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 25, 2015

The first day of Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 is done. Thursdays are typically sparse, so if the wall-to-wall people and standing-room-only crowds for some of the panels this afternoon are any indication, Saturday is going to be absolutely crazy.

The panels I attended (all three of them) were writing-specific. Naturally, the rooms were packed with aspiring or neophyte authors. I thought back to two years ago, with the first Salt Lake Comic Con, when I was doing much the same. There were differences for me, personally – that year I was still “aspiring” and hadn’t yet ever published fiction (though I may have gotten my first rejection by then), and this year I had to boogie back to my table to make sure we were covered for selling our books, which I guess makes me a “neophyte” instead. :)

Maybe I was just in the wrong panels or talking to the wrong (or right?) people, but it felt like the tone has changed a little bit about the indie, self-published route. Maybe it felt like less of a “gold rush” mentality, I guess. Dare I say, it felt a little more mature, and more businesslike? The thing is, the indie book scene has become pretty saturated.

Having also attended the Utah Indie Games Night earlier this week, which I think might gave set a record for the number of games being shown in various stages of development, I was struck by a few parallels. The saturated market is an obvious parallel. But also how you deal with it, as an author. There’s no magic to it. While the details may change, it still comes down to the same things whether you are an indie author, indie game developer, or I expect even an indie rock musician:

#1 – Improve / Master your craft! This part is sadly neglected, probably because during the “gold rush” phase it’s not as important. This doesn’t mean achieving perfection, but it does mean being capable of meeting a certain level of quality. Otherwise it’s like trying to make an epic rock album when you haven’t yet learned how to play your instrument.

#2 – Produce! Be prolific! Create stuff that speaks to you, personally, but make it more universal and tuned to your audience, and keep improving (or maintaining) your competitive quality. Finding that balance between what the audience demands and what you really want to make might take a little bit of juggling, too.

#3 – Do all the crap that you probably don’t want to do to build and grow your audience and your ability to serve them. The marketing / sales / PR / business development kind of stuff. If you are no good at it, hire someone else to help, but it will still demand a lot of your time and effort. Just remember: you aren’t helping anybody if you have the perfect book or game for someone but they don’t know it exists.

#4 – Go back to #2 (or, arguably, #1, because you can always get better).

There are many more details and variations within those steps, but that’s the gist of it regardless of which creative field you happen to get into as an indie. Periodically, disruptions may occur that allow some temporary shortcuts and change some of the details – sometimes forever – but they don’t change the fundamentals.

Filed Under: Game Development, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

TheMeatly Kickstarter

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 24, 2015

Crowdfunding is pretty much a constant thing these days. My hope with all things saturated is that the cream will rise to the top. But sometimes the cream needs some help. For friends and really cool-sounding projects, I’ll make note of the projects and suggest them here, but even if the projects sound interesting to you, too, you have to assess your own risk. But I’m still glad that there’s at least a partial funding solution out there for indies that doesn’t depend on a handful of gatekeepers out there.

Anyway, I am a fan of TheMeatly comics. They are focused heavily on indie games and development. He is running a kickstarter this month to take both comic and game development to the next level. If you are interested in supporting that, you can check out his pitch and everything here:

TheMeatly Takes On Gaming Kickstarter


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Heading Off to Comic Con!!!!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2015

SLCC2015I’m going to be at Salt Lake Comic Con this weekend – from tomorrow (the 24th) through Saturday the 26th. It’ll be a good time.

I will be found (much of the time) at the Xchyler Publishing author’s table at BK17. We’ll be next to Curiosity Quills and Space Balrogs. Which means fun. If you are going to be there, come visit us and say hi!

We’ll have tons of books, including Terra Mechanica and Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology, with several authors on-hand to deface them with signatures if that’s your preference. :)  Sadly, the new anthology Beyond the Wail won’t be out for a few weeks. We’re still putting the finishing touches on that one.

No matter what, it’s going to be a fun three days.

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

Game Dev Tools Bundles!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 22, 2015

So Humble Bundle got together with GameMaker to create a bundle that includes some games that were popular / successful make with GameMaker, including *source code*, and the Pro version of GameMaker Studio, and the exporter for Android. By the sounds of how YoYo Games’ website is now getting HAMMERED with new registrations, I’d guess that’s a pretty popular bundle. (Over 64,000 copies of the bundle in one form or another have been sold so far, so… yeah, probably).

There’s only a couple of days left on this bundle, so act now if you are interested… It may be a pain in the butt to register your account for a while, but it should eventually work:

Humble Weekly Bundle: Play and Create Bundle

If GameMaker Studio isn’t your stile, BundleStars has a bundle emphasizing RPG Maker VX Ace and GameGuru. It has about six days left on this sale, but $8.50 gets you a crapload of game development software and expansions.

Game Makers Mega Bundle at BundleStars

Of course, the indie level of Unity is still free.

But man. What an incredible time to be a game developer, huh? Powerful tools, use for several commercially successful products, tossed at you for peanuts. :)  Good stuff.


UPDATE: The YoYo Games website is currently down for maintenance because of the traffic from the bundle. They are trying to fix things. That might mean you don’t get to download GameMaker Studio immediately (I couldn’t register the Android exporter last night, myself), but the bundle and the codes should be fine once things get stabilized.

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Funding: Legacy of the Elder Star

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 21, 2015

ElderStarPosterSince I was a child of the arcade era, shoot-em-ups (or “shmups”) hold a special place in my heart. Galaga remains high on my list of favorite games of all time, and a shining example of excellence in game design. I’m not as devoted to them as some other genres, however, so to this day I still don’t consider myself very good at them. But they are perfect for a quick 10 or 15 minute stress-relieving break.

“Bullet Hell Shooters” are a subclass of the genre where the player faces an overwhelming barrage of enemy projectiles. Frequently, towards the end levels, the “bullets” really are the level, forcing the player to create and navigate narrow free corridors within a wall of enemy shots. It’s crazy. It looks incredibly cool, though, and is something I like the idea of playing. But in practice… well, I suck.

A friend of mine, Josh Sutphin of Kickbomb Entertainment, had a similar problem a few years ago. He loved these really crazy modern shmups like Jamestown and Cave’s shooters (like Mushihime-sama Futari), but the really crazy-fun looking games not only had a steep learning curve, but they were intimidating to players. They are the kinds of games people would rather watch than play. Strong play tended to depend on memorization of levels and patterns, which can take a long time.

LES_OopsAfter spending a lot of time playing these games and really getting to understand their appeal and their challenges, he set forth making a high-powered shoot-em-up of his own, but one that (he hopes) can both appeal to veterans of the genre but also provide a good introduction for players like me who… well, suck at them, and get tired of getting stomped to the ground quite so quickly.

His answer is called Legacy of the Elder Star, and it’s pretty awesome. It’s still in development, although at this point the core gameplay is all there – it’s mainly expanding the content. He just started a Kickstarter campaign, and I wanted to share it with folks here:

Kickstarter: Legacy of the Elder Star

LES_SpecialOnBossNow Josh is an experienced game developer who has worked in AAA before (including working on the direct and a spiritual descendant of one of my first commercial games, Warhawk). He’s a friend, and he’s done a lot to support the indie community here in Utah over the last year or so. He’s a stand-up guy who I personally trust to get the job done. Which all means that I’d be happy to throw some money at him as a favor even if I didn’t care about the game.

But in this case, I think the game is awesome, and I’m really excited to see it reach its potential. I also like that it’s leading the charge as a PC (Windows / Mac / Linux) game, specifically for that platform, with some really cool direct mouse control & stuff like that. While I think it might be awesome to see it make its way to consoles in the future, I love it when indies embrace the PC. I also like how the more dynamic approach to enemies mean there is (of necessity) less emphasis on anticipating and memorizing the level and more on dynamically reacting to the enemies and their firing patterns. I’ve played several demos of the game during its evolution, so I do feel Kickbomb is doing a great job of executing on the concept. Yes, the game can still kick my butt pretty well, but I never feel like it’s beyond me. Even those #%^$ seekers don’t seem overwhelming, just challenging.

(The animated gifs are from my own playthroughs… from a nice tool built into the game, even if the gifs run a bit slower than the real gameplay.)

That’s where I’m coming from, anyway. You’ve got a different story, and don’t personally know these guys. I’d just like to invite you to check out the campaign and see if that’s something you’d personally be interested in and feel comfortable with contributing to. I’ll let Josh and Erik (the artist) pitch the game to you from here. Check out the campaign, and their website, and see what you think.

Good luck and have fun!


Filed Under: Game Announcements, Indie Evangelism - Comments: Read the First Comment

Utah Game Wars 2015

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 18, 2015

GameWars10The awards for Utah Game Wars 2015 was Wednesday night. This is an annual event that I haven’t attended or participated in before now.

Half of the event was private for the judges and the finalists, and then they let the rest of us in for food, games, and the award ceremony. The game devs got to do their pitch to the judges. The judging was partly about the games (although that was more for the audience choice award), but was more about the companies involved: Who needed the investment, who was really innovating, who was poised to grow. The winner and two runners-up of the eight finalists would be given a cash prize, and a lot of services from local companies representing legal, business, and health care services.

The eight finalists were:

HealthX, a game controlled by eye movement for diagnosis and treatment of Lazy Eye

Crashnauts, a multiplayer 2D “arena” game

Super Dragon Heroes – a multiplayer battle arena game on mobile

GameWars2Rogue Invader – A procedurally generated side-scrolling game with a really cool old-school black & white / dithered look. Seeing 3D graphics in action rendered as if they were black-and-white pixel art is something else.

Mechanical Mansion – really a show-piece for a really cool platformer-base Unity toolkit. The toolkit makes things easy enough that this game was able to be created within about 2 weeks.

Together: Amna & Saif – a 2-player cooperative puzzle game that requires two players playing cooperatively in order to complete the levels.

Momentum – an awesome 3D marble maze game

Reign of Darkness – a 3D free-to-play MMORPG


It was pretty exciting seeing what small gaming companies are doing here in Utah. The competition was for small companies – independent, but not what we’d necessarily consider “indie” – to compete with more of an entrepreneurial emphasis. As explained prior to the audience voting and the awards, what they are looking for is companies poised to grow – to build the local economy.

GameWars7Super Dragon Heroes ended up the winner for the evening, with Together: Amna and Saif and HealthX as runners-up. All three games will be sharing booth space at Salt Lake Comic Con in a week. (And there I was, a year ago, next-door neighbors with Together: Amna and Saif at Comic Con last year! 😉 )

One thing that was interesting to me was that I was only previously familiar with about half of the games being presented. The others I didn’t know existed. We keep discovering just how many local game developers there are – in many cases laboring in their basements or college labs – that are not really connected and don’t know what resources are available. We’re trying to improve this, but it’s still tough getting the word out to everyone.

Anyway, it was very cool to see the local business community supporting game developers like this. I’m not exactly sure how many years this has been going on, but it’s been at least three. I think they mentioned six years. Anyway, go Utah! Hopefully I’ll be able to attend again next year. Many congrats to the finalists, the runners up, and React Games for winning the grand prize!

Filed Under: Events - Comments: Be the First to Comment

On Ego Trips and Publishing Pace

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 17, 2015

Since I’m now doing double-duty as both a writer and a game developer (gee, anything else I should acquire as a major hobby / side occupation? Maybe get a law degree?), it’s been interesting having a foot in both camps and watching the parallels. Both have enjoyed an indie revolution, which has caused a good deal of turmoil and glutted the field – mostly with crap, but that’s Sturgeon’s Law at work. And besides, like the saying kinda goes, one man’s piece of crap that should never have been released is another man’s diamond in the rough, or something…

Now I fully admit I’m a lot slower at both than I would like to be. I’m working on it. Writing surprised me with how slow I am. Actually, game development is the same. In my mind, I’m a lot faster. Probably because when things are going really well and I’m really making tons of progress, time disappears for me and I think I’ve only been at it an hour when closer to three have passed by.

But if I could write four novels a year, or release two RPGs a year, or some combination of this (2 novels and 1 game?), I totally would. I aspire to this. Because my experience as an indie and my work with other indies (both in games and in print) who I consider to be successful leads me to believe that the “secret to success” in both fields (in most creative fields for that matter) is pretty boring:

  1. Predictable and reasonably frequent releases
  2. Sufficient quality
  3. Targeted to an appropriate market

Of course, there are tons of variables that change constantly in there. But ultimately, it comes down to getting a chance up to bat as frequently as possible, and being good enough that you can usually score a base hit even if luck doesn’t favor you with a home run.

And of course, everyone can name a handful of people who bucked this process and succeeded extremely well by most definitions of “success.” It happens. And we can all define “success” however we want.

However, a recent article in the Huffington Post which I am declining to link to in order to avoid this kind of linkbait trolling in the future made a case that nobody should be very prolific, and that if you were writing more than one book a year (yes, the author’s arbitrary cap on frequency) then you couldn’t possibly be creating a quality masterpiece like you should be, implying strongly that anybody publishing more frequently than that has sold their soul to be a crappy hack writer. She also stated quite firmly that indie was a second-class tier of far lower worth than getting released by the major publishers.

Of course, she herself has only one book released which she self-published, excusing herself because she did it after a very long period of painstaking development and was ready to unleash her masterpiece on the world, and hadn’t yet shopped it around to publishers (who, I guess, would have no doubt been chomping at the bit to represent her masterpiece if only she’d given them a chance).

This article has been thoroughly torn apart by a large number of authors whom I would consider quite successful. I’m sure some rich and successful author has risen to her defense at some point, but that could just be a ploy to keep the competition down. (Some interesting examples can be found here, here, and my favorite here).

I agree with many of the arguments against this. What makes one per year an arbitrary “reasonable” value anyway? And who is the arbiter of “great?” I really don’t know. Many of the classics we now revere were written by “hacks” who just kept cranking things out at a really amazing rate. With the exception of maybe Shakespeare, only a fraction of their work is really remembered and so honored, so none of ’em were batting 1.000 according to modern critics.

There’s another saying we had back at SingleTrac, which came out effectively as, “That’s why sequels exist.” In game development, the final product is NEVER as awesome as we imagined it. In hindsight, once it’s really too late to rip everything apart and start over, we know the things we should have done, and how we could have done it better. We learn with every game. I was on a panel with Steve Taylor of NinjaBee at the Salt Lake Gaming Con a few weeks ago, and he said about the same thing. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of, “I’ve developed and shipped over thirty games in my career, and I feel like I’m just now starting to figure out how to make games.”

The thing is – there’s no such thing as perfect. There’s no perfect book, there’s no perfect game. And echoing Steve’s statement, I feel like in both writing and game development, the more that I learn, the more I learn how much I still need to learn. There’s this really weird view that we can take our first pass on something, stick it in a rock tumbler called “workshops” and just keep going and going and going, and eventually it’s going to come out a polished gem. It’ll be more polished, but if it wasn’t a gem going in, it won’t magically transform when it comes out. Most of the time, we just need to take what we’ve learned and move on to the next project… with better ideas, better skills.

And yes, better ideas come. It seems that when you are a newbie in a creative field, you come in with some tender, awesome, wonderful ideas that may actually be pretty awesome and wonderful, but you hold onto them jealously as if that’s all you’ve been allotted in life and you don’t want to waste them. I suppose we do go through dry periods sometimes, but most of the people I know in creative industries have the opposite problem – they’ve got more things on their back-burners than they could finish in a lifetime.

But on a completely different tack… why are you creating this thing? Who are you creating it for? The implication by the article seems to be that you are creating it for yourself. Anyone else who happens to understand your creative genius can therefore bask in your glow. While I would agree that you are your own audience and you should make the things that make you happy… write the books you’d want to read, write the games you want to play… that’s a fundamentally self-centered viewpoint. It’s about serving our own ego. And while that’s not a terrible thing, if that’s your highest and noblest goal, IMO you are shooting pretty low.

In my view, we’re actually serving other people. Our audience. That is what we SHOULD be about. Worry about their happiness, and let our own take care of itself, I guess. I remember listening to an interview with John (“Cougar”) Mellencamp, and he was asked “Do you ever get tired of playing the same old songs in concert? Don’t you wish there was more demand for your newer music?” While I was never a big fan of his music, my respect for him as an artist went way up when I heard his reply. He said, “No, because I’m only here because of them. I’m an entertainer, and they are paying me to play what they want to hear.”

You hear a bit about games and software turning into a bit more of a service industry, but most of the time when people are talking about that, they are really only talking about ways to maximize their revenue generation. But I think to a large degree, all creative “industries” are exactly about that. So really, as artists or “creative workers,” shouldn’t our job really be about creating things for our audience in whatever quantity AND quality makes them happy? If one comes at the expense of the other (which is eventually true, but the relationship is a lot more complicated up until we hit a really high threshold), then we may have to strike a balance that pleases our audience.

If your average gamer / reader is like me… they really want both.


Filed Under: Books, Production - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Happy Birthday Ultima IV

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 16, 2015

Ultima_IV_boxUltima IV was released 30 years ago today.

How can it be that old? How can *I* be this old?

I didn’t finish it the first time I played it (on my Commodore 64). I had, you know, stuff.

Eight years later, I was in college and injured. I spent the next day (Friday) laid up and unable to walk very well. I’d been playing Ultima 7: The Black Gate, and since I wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to focus the day on finishing the game. I did, by mid-afternoon. I guess I was closer to the end than I thought. It was kind of a magical experience. When it was over, the Black Gate destroyed and the Guardian blocked from entering Britannia, I didn’t know what to do with the rest of the evening, and I seriously wanted to keep playing.

A neighbor had recently picked up the “Complete” Ultima collection for DOS, and so I called him up and asked to borrow one of the disks. I chose Ultima IV. I had forgotten a lot about it. For the first hour, I was really struggling to deal with the primitive graphics and interface (and today, the same happens when I play Ultima VII!). In another hour, I was doing okay, and starting to get into the swing of things. By the third hour, I was lost.

If you play it today (free on GOG.COM!), you’ll note that the much-discussed virtue system is really pretty straightforward and mechanical, particularly once you figure things out. You can even visit Hawkwind and see how you are progressing in your progress to embody the virtues.  While the game doesn’t spell out the exact details of how many points you move up or down, it’s reasonably transparent, and really kind of expects you to game it. Like the choices at the beginning of this and the next two games in the series, it’s not about attaining perfection, but achieving a personal balance.

What it did was add another dimension to the RPG, one that was on equal footing with the traditional power-gaining race. This was a huge step, and while other games have turned this into much more detailed and complex alignment or faction systems, the fact that it was a primary game mechanic changed the feel of the game in a way rarely experienced in today’s games. In my view, it still holds up today, although you do need a bit of patience for such a retro-game.

I love Ultima IV, but man. Thirty years? Really? Sheesh!

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Summoning the Imagination in Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 15, 2015

Akalabeth_boxA friend of mine in Junior High School showed me an ad in his computer magazine for Akalabeth: World of Doom. It pictured some kind of wizard near a glowing pentagram with a demon or lava-creature rising out of the earth at the center.

By the standards of the time, it was a pretty cool image. I instantly wanted the game, but it was an Apple II exclusive and I couldn’t have afforded it even if I had an Apple II. Not that I really wanted a game where you summon demons (or have demon summoning go awry) or anything like that, but the image suggested fantasy drama and detail that I really wanted to see. There was a story there behind that image, and I wanted to know what the story was. Who was that sorcerer? Why was he trying to summon such a horrible demon? Why was the world doomed? Or was it just filled with doom?

I never did get to play the game… at least not until decades later (thank you, GOG.COM) Sadly, the actual game had zero to do with the ad, as far as I could tell. Mainly the game was wandering around the world starving to death doing assassination missions for the king with clunky line graphics.

It was simply an inspiring ad. I got to imagine all kinds of amazing things in the game. The words “Beyond Adventure” channeled up thoughts of the two text-based adventure games I was familiar with at the time (Zork and Colossal Cave), and of course there was plenty of room for deep, dramatic, detailed stories in that medium. With no screenshots, I could only imagine the kind of awesome game my friends with Apple II’s had access to, even recognizing some of the technological limitations of the era.

u8pyrosMany years later, designer Richard Garriott made follow-ups with far greater depth, story, interesting characters, and worlds facing certain doom. There was even summoning of nasty beings, too. Sorta like he was trying to live up to that old ad.

As amazing as the Ultima games were, I think my imagination was a little better. Mostly.

Okay, the destroying of the Black Gate at the end of Ultima 7 was something of a riff on this theme, and it was pretty dang epic for its time, I’ve gotta admit.


I think some of the nostalgia older gamers feel for the classic games comes not from a belief that the games were literally superior to modern counterparts (although sometimes that’s the case), but more in that the older games – out of necessity – did a better job of invoking the imagination. The graphics were clunky, the text was limited, the UI was painful… but somehow we were more involved and engaged, and the world was more real to us than the most amazing graphical available today.

Scott McCloud explains this phenomenon in the book Understanding Comics. The more abstract images invite us to project our own thoughts and ideas into the scene. In some ways, this makes for a far more powerful message, simply because we have invested meaning into it ourselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Dungeon Hacks:

To their astonishment, the imaginations of the players filled in the blanks left by inadequate technology. “People would invent meaning,” Toy remembered. “They would place themselves in this situation and their creativity would express itself. They made the world more interesting and beautiful. So even though the thing I created wasn’t beautiful, people would color it with their own imagination, the same way you do when playing a text adventure. I’d listen to someone trying to explain how to play the game to someone else, and they’d start talking about something that was completely ridiculous and made up. They’d say, ‘this is how this particular monster thinks.’ And I’m thinking, That monster? He’s one of the non-thinking monsters!”

rogueNot that I’m a big proponent of going back to ASCII graphics, mind you.  After all, this post started with me talking about what I thought was a really cool picture when I was 12 or 13 years old. Although I did get pulled into Moria in a similar way once upon a time. But really, it’s about the world’s presentation being inviting enough to pull a player in (which varies wildly from player to player), and also inviting the player to expand on their own imaginary model of the world.

Here’s another excerpt from the book:

“We got drawn into the world, and you would imagine yourself in the world.  You’d see a letter ‘T’ on the screen, and it would startle you because you knew it was a troll.”

Nowadays, the focus is heavily on more realistic graphics, and cut-scenes to force the player’s attention on heavily scripted sequences. Is this an artifact of a bygone era, or is it still possible that abstract graphics have the power to cause this emotional reaction in modern players?

For that, I have this answer:


All Minecraft players know, hate, and love the Creeper. He’s become the mascot for the game. And while I’ve seen attempts to render it more realistically, they’ve always failed to improve on this simple, blocky, texelated model. He’s scarier when the details are left to the imagination.

It’s a fine line. On the one hand, I love the exciting modern detail. But artistically, I’d like to leave more room for the imagination to fill in the details. As an indie, I have to do that… I don’t have the budget to provide photorealistic detail for the entire world.

But even more realistic graphics can benefit from invoking more of the imagination. Sounds, reactions, clues about what’s happening in the back-story, explosions caused by something off-screen, that kind of thing.

FALCON4DemoInterestingly, for me, it feels like the more simulation-driven the game, the more I feel like my mind fills in the blanks. I’d expect that to be more of the case in a story-driven game, but that’s not usually the case. It’s like I assume that it’s not on the stage, it doesn’t exist in a story-driven game. I know that monsters will wait for me, that conversations hadn’t started until I came within earshot, and so forth. With a more simulation-oriented game, I assume the world is always running even when I’m not around. At least on a simplified level, stuff has been happening without me, and that’s where my mind starts filling in conspiracies and attributing design to what could just be coincidence.

Horror games have really improved over the last several years, showing that the simulation aspect isn’t essential. But the feeling of being “on rails” in some of these titles does lessen the impact, because I feel like everything is scripted and artificial. But regardless, the emotion of fear really does heighten the imagination. It’s a self-preservation instinct. Filmmakers learned a long time ago, they could both reduce the budget and heighten audience tension by leaving some things unseen. Sometimes a glimpse is far more effective than a close-up.

Whatever the case, I feel like mainstream games have gained larger audiences by lessening the imagination requirement. Some folks (including me) prefer more than just the letter “T.” But even in a world where incredible vistas and detailed 3D monsters are possible, games should do more encourage the player to invest their own imagination into the world. Provide enough to kickstart the imagination, and as a player, I’ll happily provide the rest. My imagination still beats VR headgear or a 4K screen, so you want as much of the game playing there as possible.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment

How much for that Palace of the Vampire Queen?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 14, 2015

PotVQCoverUntil this weekend, I’d never heard of the Palace of the Vampire Queen. It was arguably the first official Dungeons & Dragons module ever published… if you consider the Temple of the Frog (from the Blackmoor supplement) to be more of a scenario than a full-fledged adventure module. Here I was thinking Judge’s Guild had the lock on that, but no. A tiny company called Wee Warriors made supplements for the game, which were in turn published by TSR (owners of the D&D license).

The module was, in the words of one reviewer, “sketchy.” Your $4.50 got you a stapled booklet with ten maps – five keyed, five unkeyed duplicates – with effectively a spreadsheet of encounters. The spreadsheet had very little information beyond what monsters were encountered and what treasure they held. Dungeon Masters were intended to take the bare bones of the story and the provided encounters and let the players’ story evolve.

Which is actually a pretty cool concept when you think of it. But it might be a bit to ask of less experienced gamers and game-masters, as that’s often the part they need the most help with. Here’s an example of five rooms worth of keyed encounters, taken from RetroRoleplaying.com:

Room Creatures Encountered Max Hits Contents of Room
1 3 Goblins 4 3 3 17 GP on Goblins
2 none 6 bags – each bag contains rations for 1 for 1 week in dungeon, but 1 bag is poisoned
3 3 Goblins 4 4 1 Armory, 5 swords, 3 shields, 2 daggers. All non-magical.
4 none Chest with poison lock, 1,000 CP in chest
5 4 Goblins
2 sleeping, 2 on guard
5 2 3 3 Empty. 30 CP, 10 GP on Goblins

This is slightly more interesting than the results you’d get from running a random dungeon generator like Donjon. But only slightly. And even that’s arguable.

vampirequeenmapThe maps were nicely done, but still resembled the kind of thing anyone would do with graph paper and pencil, with a bit of higher-quality embellishment. But recognize that this was circa 1975, when things were still extremely local, low-tech, and really more of a hobbyist industry than anything else. And really, as far as maps are concerned, a game master really only needs three things:

  • It needs to be clear and easy-to-read
  • It should be interesting for the players to navigate and explore
  • It should be internally consistent and logical based on whatever laws of reality it is invoking. In other words, no defying major laws of physics or geometry without a cool reason.
  • It should actually save the DM some work.

Without actually being able to read through the whole module, I can’t vouch for all of the details, but it sounds good.

So back in 1976, this thing had a cover price of around $4.50. Multiply that by three or so for modern US dollars, and it’s around $15.  Yikes. Yeah, I’d expect a little bit more for my money in today’s world.

But as it is a less well-known piece of Role-Playing Game nostalgia, how much would an original copy of this supplement (called a “Dungeon Master’s Kit” at the time) set me back?

A little bit more than its original cover price:


*Coughcoughwheeze* Yeah, I expected it to be outside of my discretionary budget, but this is about 10x my best guess.

There is a more recent reprint and update available that’s a bit more within a curious hobbyist’s price range, but still…  Not a bad mark-up.  I’m just amazed that it took me this long to learn about it.

UPDATE: D’oh. Demoted the queen to a princess. It was late, and I think I conflated the title with that of another early (TSR-produced) module, Palace of the Silver Princess.

Filed Under: Dice & Paper - Comments: Be the First to Comment

[Archive] Life Lessons Learned Playing Computer RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 11, 2015

DOS_0006Note: This article originally appeared in 2006. I was playing a lot of Oblivion at the time, but it included many other RPG life lessons. It’s amazing how much you can learn about Real Life from these games…

#1 – People will use really elaborate locks to protect their pickaxes and yarn

#2 – Strangers met in cities are usually safe. Strangers met out on the road between cities are almost always trying to kill you.

#3 – It doesn’t matter if they are hungry or not – wild animals are ALWAYS aggressive and attack on sight.

#4 – Wild animals also sometimes have pockets in which they carry loose change.

#5 – People really don’t mind repeating themselves endlessly.

#6 – Burials are only for people who died of natural causes. If someone dies due to violence, their body will be left out in the street forever and people will just learn to ignore it.

#7 – The world may be coming to an end, the invading monsters marching in the street, and the town burning around their ears, but merchants will always have time to haggle with you over prices and will always make sure they make a profit.

TavernMM4#8 – But the merchants are right – you’ve also almost always got time to sleep, have dinner, and run errands in the midst of an immediate apocalypse.

#9 – Weapons and armor made of soft, precious metals are somehow much stronger than their more boring steel counterparts.

#10 – Perfect strangers will seek you out to ask you to run errands for them.

#11 – Monsters may all look alike, but if one of them has his own unique name, WATCH OUT!

#12 – You may be the best locksmith / lock picker in the universe, capable of facing down villains that can wipe out entire ARMIES – but there will always be some doors that are invulnerable to nuclear blasts and completely impossible to unlock without the correct key.

#13 – Nobody has a problem with you searching through (or even smashing) barrels and crates if they aren’t inside someone’s house (and sometimes even if they are).

#14 – Barrels are great places to store gold coins and suits of armor.

#15 – An enemy can fire an unlimited number of arrows at you in spite of having only five arrows in their quiver. It’s like a pointy, hostile loaves-and-fishes miracle.

#16 – The cashier of any store is willing to buy your pocket-lint from you for half retail price.

Got any more fun lessons you’ve learned? Lets hear ’em!

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

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