Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: The Positive Potential of Potions

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 27, 2014

DungeonMasterInventoryAbout ten months ago, I wrote about consumable / expendable resources in RPGs. More recently, Matt Barton penned an article about how much he wants to get rid of consumable items altogether in “Down with Pots!

Well, I’m gonna answer both him and my younger self. At least in part. Actually, I’m gonna write three answers as to why consumable / expendable items are a Good Thing in RPG Design.

Resource Management. It can be fun. No, really!

Early RPGs were all about resource management. That was a major element ever since D&D. You had hit points, you had spells, and you had items. You’d spend the first two and some of the third on every adventure. Note my wording: spend. It’s weird to think of “spending” hit points, but in effect, that’s what you are doing with every encounter.You may not have exact control over how much you spend (or risk), but in a non-trivial fight, the expenditure – potential or realized – is going to happen.

In classic RPG gameplay, managing the “big picture” was, like the Kenny Roger’s song, “The Gambler,” perhaps the greatest point of skill in the game. Random chance did its thing, but if you were careful, you could manage your risk — if not for your own character, than for the party as a whole. The early D&D modules (I’m thinking specifically of the G series – Against the Giants) even had suggestions for the changes that the monsters would make in response to attacks by the players, once the players decided to pull back. It was a constant tug-of-war between pushing your advantage of surprise against an unprepared foe vs. existing supplies. Eventually, you’d be low on spells, potions, scrolls, charges, and “uses per day” and would have to retreat and resupply. And when you came back, the enemies would be ready for you…

I am very disappointed in the modern RPG trend of having (almost) everything replenish over time, once you get a break from combat. Sure, you still have to manage resources – or at least timing – in the middle of a fight. And I of course recognize that there are limits to how much you want to ask a player to be patient in their entertainment choice.  But I also believe attrition of longer-term resources (which would include items – consumables) and the associated risk / reward management control the player can exert is a very enjoyable play mechanic – particularly for more experienced players.

Magic Should Be Magical (Or: Not another +1 sword!)

So here’s another argument: For upgrades (magical or otherwise) to really feel like upgrades, they should be noticeable. If a player is hitting 60% of the time for 20 points of damage, a sword that makes them hit 65% of the time for 21 points of damage is not a noticeable upgrade. So you are able to kill an Advanced Fang Beast in an average of 17 rounds instead of 18? Um, yay?

MagicSwordMST3KThat’s really what those kinds of upgrades do, in an RPG. They allow you to kill faster. Which means less expenditure of those other resources – your health and endurance / mana / whatever. Combat in RPGs is generally an inverted race to zero hit points. Whoever gets there first loses.  Even those items with really cool special abilities – the final, long-range mechanical effect is to allow you to go slower in that inverse race between you and your opponents. It’s better if they have cool effects that require some skill to take advantage of rather than being just another +1 sword.

The thing is … if you want to frequently provide upgrade rewards to players, then one of two things happen. Number one, the players escalate in power very quickly, so that the fights are really not about skill but about Level + Gear. This is sort of the Final Fantasy approach, with characters starting out with single-digit damage values at low level and doing triple-digit damage a couple dozen levels later. The other option is the Diablo approach, where the player is barraged with “junk” items that they must parse through to find the one that is an actual upgrade, ignoring or selling the rest.

I’m not fond of either approach, nor do I want to require too much patience from the player to get their next equipment upgrade.

The answer to this is to have powerful, exciting powers with limited use.  Consumables are perfect for this kind of thing. But again – they need to do more than simply provide an “edge” in combat. They should feel like game-changers. Not to the point of being instant-wins, but definitely a major supplement. Healing potions are like that in most games. A couple of well-timed potions will often feel like the difference between a reasonably easy victory and total failure.  Forget potions that just give you another +1 in combat. How about a potion that doubles your damage? Or even increases your damage by 50%? I’d be drinking one of those at the start of every single boss encounter! It would be one of my favorite “loot drops.”  Yet, while they’d definitely change the dynamics of major fights when I chose to use them, in the context of the whole game, they probably wouldn’t make that big of a difference.

HardChoiceLots of Interesting Choices

Choosing a potential equipment upgrade with a permanent effect can be a really interesting decision. Or not. If it’s a difference between a +3 Sword of Smiting and a clearly inferior +1 Sword, it’s not so much a decision as a straight-up reward. But with the more complicated weapon stats of games like the Diablo series, it’s an interesting decision of the kind Sid Meier credits as being the heart of gameplay.

The thing is, this is an interesting decision you make occasionally. Once you get some halfway decent equipment in most RPGs, the choices are trivial and uninteresting – you aren’t going to find upgrade candidates very often.  And sometimes, your interesting decision will be to keep what you are already using…. maybe it’s inferior in some ways to the potential upgrade (which made the decision interesting), but overall you felt better about the known advantages of your existing equipment. That’s all good. That’s a fantastic RPG decision right there.

But the problem is that this kind of decision only comes occasionally. With consumable items, you are making a similar decision in every combat. “Do I use this Potion of Rage now, or save it for later?” Or, “Should I use one of my charges on this wand of fireballs now, in a less-than optimal enemy arrangement? Will I ever get a completely optional arrangement?” If the answer is “no,” it simply means that the option remains available for the next fight (or for the next round).

But on the Flip Side…

While these are all desirable features in an RPG, there are trade-offs.

Hoarding is one problem. Players (including me!) are reluctant to use one of those precious charges on that Wand of Fireballs against trash encounters. By the time we realize the item would have been useful, the time to employ it has passed.

A decision forgotten about it is not a decision at all. When players opt not to use an item for so long, they will forget the option even exists. That’s not a good thing, either. That’s why we often end an RPG with backpacks full of stuff that would have made some of the later battles far easier.  There have been a couple of times where I finished an RPG with consumable items in my inventory that I was unclear on exactly what the things did.

Another problem is that too many potential decisions can overload the player. Different players have different thresholds, but generally speaking, humans tend to have a tough time with more than two or three viable options, to the point of prematurely dismissing even better options for the sake of simplifying the choice.

These are unquestionably issues with using consumable items in RPGs, and I do not believe there’s any magical design that will make these problems completely go away. But I do suggest that getting rid of consumables entirely in an RPG design is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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Last Year’s Treasure, Today’s Trash

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 26, 2014

My new computer arrived last Tuesday. In a confession that might lose me geek cred, I’ve been so insanely busy that I didn’t even get it out of the box to test it out until the weekend.

Statwise – it’s got a quad-core Intel i5-4690k (which I admit, doesn’t mean that much to me anymore), an NVidia GTX 750 (more than adequate for playing Wasteland 2), 8 GB of RAM, and two 2-TB hard drives. Yes, I wanted lots of hard drive space. Oh, and it’s running Windows 7, 64-bit edition. I’m still skipping Windows 8.x.

When I say I can’t tell you how awesome it is, it’s because literally I don’t know. I know I’ve run into some memory issues lately, and it’ll be nice having almost twice as much usable hard drive space as my current system. I’m not officially switching over until after Comic Con (which is in a week and a half), so it’s not actually running much right now.

What’s amazing to me is that this whole box actually cost me less than my first Intel-based PC… even before adjusting for inflation (which would increase the cost from over 20 years ago by about +65%). And that was with a free hand-me-down hard drive back then. And putting the machine together myself, in one of those shops in the early / mid 90s that specialized in selling parts and letting you put your machine together there inside the store.

What was that awesome system back then? It was a 16 megahertz 386-SX/16, with 4 megs of RAM (I think the CPU in my new machine has twice that much in just cache), the aforementioned hand-me-down 40 meg hard drive, a VGA card, and a Covox sound card that nobody seemed to support directly (but it was at least compatible with the AdLib cards).

It was good enough to play Wing Commander I. And Ultima V. And a couple of roguelikes. And Turbo C++.  And Wolfenstein 3D. That was enough. Although I was really happy to upgrade the hard drive so that I could handle Wing Commander II (which was, if I recall correctly, something like 38 megs fully installed, not including the voice pack if you got it). Yes, these days I sometimes deal with photos or textures that are pushing that size, but back then, it was simply unfathomably huge.

I’m not gonna lie… as much as I loved that era of gaming – the simplicity, the creativity, the newness of it as game developers kept finding new ways of using the ever-expanding technology… like everyone else, I’d not want to go back. It’s a weird thing now that – at least as far as indies are concerned – technology is no longer much of a barrier. The machines are way more powerful than what we have the budgets to take advantage of. But going beyond the technological limitations, it was probably the most difficult platform to use as a gamer. The amount of tweaking and configuring and compatibility issues we had to deal with back then…. sheesh.

It’s just fun looking back sometimes and seeing how far we’ve come.

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

Dark Dungeons: The Movie Takes Us Into Dark Imaginations…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 25, 2014

DarkDungeonsMovieMainWhen I was a kid and first starting to get into Dungeons & Dragons, it was riding a double wave of fad-like popularity and backlash from certain quarters for being dangerous or downright evil – which only added to its popularity. While I didn’t face too much direct opposition from authority-types over playing the game, it was an ever-present threat. We tended to play during lunch in the cafeteria at the school, and we’d heard about schools and districts in the region that had banned the game over fears that it led to teen suicide.

Never mind that the people cited as examples had a history of depression, drug abuse, and a host of other issues long before they tried D&D. Nope, the game was always to blame. After all, it was new and popular. Authoritarians will use any crisis to justify control, and will manufacture one if necessary.

So I grew up pretty defensive about my hobby. Fortunately, the obsession over its imagined danger waned as its popularity declined, but the damage was done. When the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released, it was watered down over concerns for the “angry mother syndrome,” losing any semblance of ad-hoc edginess of the earlier editions. No, in second edition, TSR was so afraid of angry mothers that they didn’t even use the words, “demon” or “devil,” and forced modules into family-friendly guidelines that mandated evil’s incompetence. But that’s another story.

darkdungeons_panel4Near the tail-end of this anti-D&D hysteria… the point where it jumped the shark… there was a religious tract called “Dark Dungeons,” which told a story in comic book form of the horrors associated with role-playing games. Oh, yes… occult, witchcraft covens with pentagram floors, teen suicide, it’s all there… with the joyful resolution wherein the heroine tosses her game books into a raging bonfire.

It was completely insane stuff, to the point where gamers actually embraced the tract with ironic glee. I guess it was because it was evidence that those who were most violently opposed to RPGs were living in exactly the nightmarish fantasy world they accused us of being in. My wife and I, years later, would joke about when we’d finally learn the “real power” since we’d hit level eight dozens of times over the years.

Well, some folks decided to make an official movie based on this deranged little world. To his credit, the creator of the tract, Jack Chick, provided the license for free. The movie-makers, partnered with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (the makers of the excellent movies, “The Gamers”),  worked to elaborate on this thirty-year-old comic about the occult evils of D&D.

As it is an officially licensed movie, they play it absolutely straight. I questioned this approach, thinking at first that it would be more of a parody. But really – the original comic strip was an unwitting self-parody. How do you parody that? The answer is, of course, that you don’t. You embrace it, and milk it for all of its unintentional ridiculousness as possible. The result is wonderful and terrible – terrible in that I may have hurt myself from laughing so hard.

So what you’ve got is a deliberately poorly-acted (I know, I’ve seen these people do far better…), over-the-top elaboration of the original comic tract, with some word-for-word dialog and panel-for-panel framing at key points. Yeah, some things have changed… but in a way that one could imagine applying in the creator’s dark imagination where D&D was a phenomenon created by evil witch covens.

DarkDungeonsMovieIn this world, the cool kids play role-playing games, an activity that has such an overwhelmingly powerful appeal that nobody – NOBODY – who starts playing has ever been able to quit. Helpful senior Mike tried to get them banished from campus but they were just too popular. Frat parties are clearly evil dens of sin and alcohol with predatory overtones (well, okay, maybe that part is legit… ;)  )  with drinking, dancing, and cavorting! But they culminate in the main event that everybody goes to these parties to really enjoy… a role-playing game! Yes! As a spectator sport!

And it gets more awesomely over-the-top from there.

Now, I am actually a pretty religious guy myself. Of course, my own religion has been warned about in Jack Chick tracts as well. So I feel like I’m in good company. Christianity in the movie is pretty true to how it is portrayed as it is in the tract – a good ol’ book-burning bastion against the fiendish legions. In Chick’s world, this faith is about as over-the-top and nightmarish as role-playing games. It’s hard to imagine anybody would take this movie’s depiction of religion, witchcraft, or role-playing games seriously. But the world is full of very strange people, and I’m sure there are those who will take the earnestness of the advertising campaign, mirroring the earnestness of the anti-D&D jihad of the 1980s that made this tract so notorious, at face value.

I guess some of the defensiveness that I used to feel back in the day never really died… that frustration of trying to deal rationally with irrational people who absolutely refuse to get it. In that respect, this film is a little bit cathartic. I’m sure many of the cast – who weren’t even born yet when the tract was first released, or who may have never been gamers themselves – may only get that in a secondhand way. But in its heart, this is a movie by gamers, for gamers, even including some in-jokes for the audience, like attacking the darkness with magic missile, and a battle against a gazebo. The filmmakers got permission from gaming companies to burn their specific products in the bonfire in the end (yes, Pathfinder books go up in smoke! Guess they’ll have to print some more). It’s a delirious delve into a dark fantasy, but not the one the original writer had in mind.

It is a bargain – and DRM free – for a download at only $5. If you have ever played a tabletop role-playing game… or ever wanted to… get this movie!

Dark Dungeons: The Movie

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

Maybe the dream job isn’t really dreamy… or even a job…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 22, 2014

I always want to post some things without commentary, but I can’t help but comment.

In this case, an article by my friend Lars Doucet, developer for Defender’s Quest. And the guy who did Tourette’s Quest. Warning, this is another one of those, “back to reality” pieces.

Follow Your Dreams!… Or Maybe Don’t…

This could also be called, “Why I haven’t quit my day job.” Of course, I could only dream of selling almost 200k copies of Frayed Knights. Of course, Frayed Knights is probably closer to Doucet’s Secret of the Dragons childhood dream game than it is to Defender’s Quest. So maybe going after that dream game isn’t even the slow track to success. It’s just a way to exorcise some personal demons. At great cost.

This makes me think of some advice long-time veteran (and totally awesome guy) Jeff Tunnell offered in his article, “Five Foundational Steps to Surviving as a Game Developer.” The games industry and indie world was totally different when he wrote that. Yet, mysteriously, almost exactly the same. The technologies and trends keep changing, but the key principles stay pretty consistent.

Jeff also has a fantastic old article called “Five Realistic Steps to Creating a Game Development Company.” I’ve been stuck in step 3 for a long time now, but then, my games have been in development a long time, too. I’ve got friends in all five stages, but mainly 3 and 5.  Some have had to go back a step.

What all this boils down to – and I speak mainly from long experience, not from the lofty heights of first-person success, but merely as a guy who has been in and out of the trenches through several industry cycles… is that there are no guarantees, and no long-lasting shortcuts (by the time they are discovered, it’s too late to use them). Go with caution.

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

Indie Games and the Gold Rush Mentality

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 21, 2014

PanningForGoldIn 1846, San Francisco was a tiny settlement of around 200 people. Then the California Gold Rush happened. The population exploded to 36,000 within six years.  Tons of people came to strike it rich. Some did. Most didn’t. Then a few years later, the whole thing petered out. The gold rush ended. Some people left. Others stayed. A lot of businesses that didn’t have anything directly to do with the gold rush prospered. Not all of them, of course. But that ruins my analogy, so I’d rather talk about how the city and surrounding area is now home to about 800,000 people, many of whom are only vaguely (if at all) aware of the history of the city as a boom-town during the gold rush.

I entered the games biz as an eager college grad during one “boom phase” of the gaming industry – one of many “gold rushes” that have occurred in the biz. Video games had recently exceeded Hollywood box office revenues (who remembers when that was an achievement?), which attracted a lot of attention – and money. The kids at id Software – not much older than me – had just taken the world by storm with Doom. The Sega / Nintendo war was in full swing, and nobody knew or suspected that Sony was quietly preparing to shake everything up. The industry was exciting, growing, and everything was awesome.

Well, okay, no, it wasn’t perfectly awesome or anything. But again, it’s my freaking analogy! I’ll overgeneralize and apply rose-colored glasses at my own discretion!

doomcoverEveryone wanted to be the next Doom, or the next Sonic, or the next Street Fighter II. Well, things eventually went south, and some investors discovered that it wasn’t the easy path to riches. And the competition was fierce! The thing is… the industry didn’t collapse after that. It shrank, sure. And then grew at a more subdued pace. Until the next boom.

Massively Multiplayer Gaming! Wow. From Ultima Online and Everquest to World of Warcraft, that was the thing. Remember Second Life? (Well, okay, I never actually played it, but for a while it seemed like the thing, too). That part of the industry never really died out, but it sure contracted, didn’t it?

We had a casual game boom. Everybody trying to be the next Bejeweled. Even the guys who made Bejeweled. That eventually tapered off. Lots of companies went bust. But a lot of others are still out there, still cranking out that kind of game.

Mobile! Big boom there! Angry Birds! Only, sure enough, it’s gotten crazy saturated and almost impossible to get noticed. Except for those very few that are. Yet… it keeps going. I can’t imagine it stopping.

More “core” indie games? Becoming the next Braid / Minecraft / Super Meat Boy / etc.? Ditto.

bubblepopThe cycles keep going. So it has been since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. There’s a boom, way too many people swooping in with dreams of making it big than the boom could possibly sustain. The “bubble” pops, leaving lots of closed businesses and crushed dreams. Yet… the industry keeps growing, keeps expanding, albeit in fits and starts.

Indie gaming – it’s here to stay. Yes, we’re facing (yet again) a bunch of crushed hopes and dreams, as we’ve got a glut of content, a race to the bottom in prices, and a world where a team can invest their life savings and two years of their lives into a title that, in the end, they might have trouble even giving away for free. It sucks, but it’s nothing new.

If you set out with dreams of making the next Minecraft, you are doomed. I don’t think even Notch himself could make the next Minecraft (unless, literally, he sets to work on Minecraft II). But like San Francisco in the 1860s, there’s still room to not only survive, but grow and thrive. It’s not easy. I certainly haven’t figured it out yet, so I’m basing this entirely upon evidence from others. And from history. Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk about how I achieved such great success in spite of the boom & bust cycle, but I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will. But I won’t quit trying.

And that’s the point. You can’t be in it for the gold rush. You can’t be in it for a single game. You can’t depend on that element of luck that determines that game A is going to be a hit while games B,C, and D – all of which are of equal or even better quality – will languish in obscurity.  You’ve got to work it and be prepared to capitalize on a hit, sure, but you can’t survive on a business plan that only works if you happen to get lucky.

And ultimately – talking to a lot of writers who are in the same boat with their craft – it really comes down to doing it because it’s in your DNA. Writers write because it’s who they are. Game developers make games, because they can’t help it. In a previous era, they’d have had to find some other outlet to express themselves. I’ve made a living making games in the past, but nowadays I make games because it’s simply what I love to do. It’s pain, frustration, hard work, lost sleep, but also immense satisfaction. I can’t help it.

So I guess I’m like one of those guys who stayed in California after the gold rush was over. I keep at it between booms. Most of the game devs I am friends with are the same. We’re permanent residents of GameDevVille. We’re game developers at heart, and we’ve watched the boom and bust cycle repeat many times. Sure, we keep looking to capitalize on the next big thing. Sure, we want to build up our little businesses so that we’re actually support our game-making habit. And that will be the same after the next big boom. And the next. And the next.

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Utah Game Jam

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 20, 2014

On Friday September 12th through Sunday the 14th, game-makers of all stripes in the Salt Lake area are invited to the Utah Indie Game Jam. There’s more information at the site. Note that board game developers are invited as well… it’s not just about game controllers and real-time graphics.

If interested, please register, as space is limited:

Second Annual Utah Indie Game Jam, September 12-14th

I wish I could personally participate, but this entire month is one big game jam for me, and I think my wife would kill me if I took the first free weekend after the Comic Con demo to participate in an optional game jam.  It wouldn’t be pretty.



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

PuppyGames: The Customer as a Commodity

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 19, 2014

Since I’m sleep-deprived and exhausted and haven’t had much time to spare to the blog with this Comic Con demo coming up, I’ll just link to a really good (and, no doubt, soon to be demonized) blog post by fellow indie Cas Prince:

Because You’re Worthless: The Dark Side of Indie PR

Because I have a fairly niche audience, I haven’t been through quite the meatgrinder that my more popular fellow indies have. While I’ve gotten some bug reports and had to help with some issues, I’ve been able to maintain more than a 20:1 ratio of supportive emails vs. critical emails. Since one nasty email has a negative influence proportional to twenty positive ones, that’s important.

Accept it or argue with it, he makes an interesting point. While the race to the bottom has commoditized games, the flip side is that they’ve commoditized customers as well. When things get super cheap, only big numbers count.

Stuff to ponder in the new indie world.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

To swap or not to swap game engines …

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 18, 2014

I love Unity. I’m very, very happy about it. My art guys… well, maybe not so much, but I think it’s more of a matter of what they are used to.

But although this article isn’t favorable towards Unity (it’s not really unfavorable, either), it’s an outstanding discussion of the analysis and challenge of switching game engines – and a little bit of why they chose the Unreal 4 engine in the middle of development.

An Unreal Decision

If I were in their shoes, I might make the same decision. And yeah, that’s me, Unity fanboy. The weird thing is, in two years, the analysis might come out completely differently. A year or two ago, it clearly *did* come out differently.

We live in a strange, new world. Engines have become a commodity within the reach of any indie. Grab ‘em off the shelf at indie prices. They compete in price, features, platforms, intended audience, and style. This is a great thing for game developers at all levels. Okay, maybe for us programmers, who historically were on the front-line of awesome creating the technology (and also making us the bottlenecks), it drops our importance down a few pegs. You know what? I’m okay with that. I’ve been okay with games not being tech-driven for many years.

I made the painful and expensive decision to switch to Unity rather than the upgrade of the Torque engine for the sequel to Frayed Knights. This meant having to rewrite a ton of code, and learn a whole new way of doing things. That took time. But I don’t regret that decision, at all.  And I’ve had to let a ton of sunk costs go (including about a year of work).

I’m still sticking with Unity for the foreseeable future. Unity 5 is promising some new new features to compete on several fronts, and I’m sure the leading competitors will offer some outstanding improvements to match. It’s a win / win for me.



Filed Under: Production - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Frayed Knights 2: First Official Screenshot

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 15, 2014

Getting Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath in photogenic state was a lot more difficult than expected. Aside from having a major rethink on the art style to try and improve the apparent quality of the graphics, and totally redoing the UI (I’m still paying the price for that one), and the Steam release of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon (ditto), there were just a lot of little challenges getting it from the world of gray boxes and stand-in monsters to something we can use in a promo shot.

Now, there are a couple of schools of thought on these. Some people will think nothing of throwing together pretty visuals into a mock-up and calling it a screenshot. However, I’m not one of those people. While there was a little bit that was staged, I wanted the actual game to be running, so what you see is what you get. Kind of. I wanted stuff to come through the actual pipeline, viewed from the party perspective, with the (current, minimalist) UI running, the works.  I wanted it to be a true screenshot from the game.

This entailed a lot of technical work as we’re ironing out the kinks in our process. But I think the final results are… well, reasonable. I don’t know if this particular orc is going to survive the art pass without having some kind of surgery to change his looks, but for now, he’ll do.

This is a dungeon known as the Valerian Vault. For backstory that might not ever be fully revealed in the game, this vault was built by the Valerian family in the early days of the Wizard War to protect their entire family – and fortunes.  However, while some precious treasures were stored there, the family never fully relocated, waiting for the imminent threat to appear. Instead, their city was destroyed quite suddenly one night, and the family was slaughtered almost entirely, the bulk of their treasures looted by the forces of Nepharides. They never did use their vault. The entrance eventually collapsed and was revealed via erosion, and the vault was filled with vermin of various levels of deadliness. A small orc tribe recently found it, and were amazed to learn that they not only had a new lair, but that it came pre-stocked with a handful of precious treasures. But there are parts of the the vault where the orcs will not go. The old Valerian family had cleverly built defenses into their lair, should it ever be discovered or breached by the wrong people.


Of course, the Frayed Knights are, almost by definition, always the wrong people…

Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

The Comic Con Upgrade

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 14, 2014

I remember back in the 90s when a computer upgrade was almost a mandatory bi-annual thing… on odd years I’d replace parts to keep it kind of up-to-snuff, and then on even years I’d replace the whole machine.  Man, I don’t miss those days. PC gaming was an expensive hobby. Nowadays, PCs cost half as much (before accounting for inflation!), and a decent gaming system can last you at least three years before you have to even start thinking about an upgrade.

My system is about four and a half years old, and has had an innards upgrade with a replacement video card about 2 years ago, a second hard drive put in about three years ago, an upgrade to Windows 7 about a year ago (yes, it was originally an XP system), and replacement case fan about a year ago. Surprisingly, it isn’t really limping along… it’s been humming along decently and has been able to play games like Skyrim, Borderlands 2, and even Bioshock Infinite reasonably well. No, I don’t crank up the visuals into the stratosphere on those, but it’s not been hard to find a decent balance between visual quality and fast framerate.

But as we’re coming up on five years, with some cool games coming up that may finally tax the system, I considered options. I decided that as a motivational factor, I wouldn’t replace my machine until Frayed Knights 2 shipped. After all, who’s gonna have time to play games until then, anyway, right? And Frayed Knights 2 sure doesn’t have problems running on this old box!

Well, as a side-effect of all that surgery, my poor old machine is missing its side-panel (because the mounting rails that supposedly came with the system are too big for that extra hard drive and the limited sideways (!) space, so it pokes out to the side. Well, who cares about heating problems anyway….? :)

As a result — it’s pretty immobile. Not a problem, it’s a desktop. I have a laptop and a tablet for when I’m on the go.

But I just discovered that my laptop doesn’t want to interface with the big monitor I’m supposed to use for my Comic Con booth. 780p televisions, no problem… but not this 27″ monitor. Nor could it support the higher resolution, if it could interface.

So the laptop won’t work. The desktop… won’t travel. I *could* bug friends to try and find if they have a computer to spare that will run Frayed Knights 2 at high resolution until September 9.

Instead, I broke my little promise to myself. The desktop is finally getting an upgrade. Yay. Maybe I’ll finally be able to play DCS: A-10 Warthog or, when it comes out, Star Citizen. Assuming I ever have time to play games again…

Man, I hope I sell a lot of games and get a lot of exposure at Comic Con… this whole thing is getting more expensive by the week…!



Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Passion and the part-time indie: Why the candle gets burned at both ends

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 13, 2014

When one is a part-time indie game developer, one comes to expect certain things. Like the inevitability that crunch mode at the Day Job will coincide with crunch mode for indie dev. If you are a serious, “professional” indie, this may also mean that you find yourself coming face-to-face with some very real deadline issues that can’t be easily dismissed.

That’s been my reality the last few weeks.

I haven’t pulled any all-nighters (yet), but I have pulled some nights with only 3 or 4 hours of sleep.  12-hour days at the day job followed by five or six hours doing the indie thing, with a break in-between only for dinner, a chance to remind my family that I’m still alive, and maybe 15 minutes of guitar practice. And of course, taking care of hygiene needs, and catching what sleep I can, because the following day won’t be much better than this one.

Waitaminute! Isn’t this supposed to be what going indie was supposed to get me away from? That whole psycho-work-week thing, long hours, no-sleep, no-time-for-life lifestyle that the major studios have been forcing their employees into for years?

Well, yes and no.

First of all – the day job is the day job. Crap happens. It’s the way of things. I’m still quite dependent on the steady paycheck from the day job, thankyouverymuch, and so there’s that. At least it’s not in the games biz.

Secondly – it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame when it’s your own game, and you have a stake in the results. I don’t harbor any illusions about Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath becoming any kind of mega-hit or anything.  But it is my baby. I take pride in it. I’m excited about it.  This is all intrinsic motivation… with some self-created (or at least signed-up-for) external deadlines to provide some extrinsic sticks to go with my intrinsic carrot.

I willingly sign myself up for this kind of crap, so I really can’t complain too much. And… let’s be honest… even if all it does is pay for my out-of-pocket expenses, it’s still a win to create something this cool, and have it go out there into the public, and to have it be fun and cool and enjoyed by others. There’s a level of satisfaction I obtain from that which is hard to beat. And it’s not just indie game devs – I’ve seen this in artists slaving away at web comics, in authors, and people with wild, weird hobbies that nobody seems to understand but themselves. We build things.

That’s really where the indie passion comes from. We create cool stuff, and share it with others. That’s what makes all this other crap totally worthwhile.

But in all this… I still have to give extra credit to my family for putting up with this. They have their own passions, their own things, and indie games development isn’t one of them. But they have always been incredibly supportive of this, with the understanding that I do have to make sure it doesn’t stay full-throttle all the time.

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

Black Triangles

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 12, 2014

One of my most popular posts was also my very first… which has since been lost to the Great Blog Devouring of ’14. So…  here’s the post from over ten years ago (has it been that long?!?!?!) about an event from almost twenty years ago. Still stuff I have to remind myself about some days.

warhawk_1In October of 1994, I’d just started as an honest-to-goodness videogame programmer at a small startup called SingleTrac which later went on to fame and glory (but unfortunately not much in the way of fortune) with such titles as Warhawk, the Twisted Metal series, and the Jet Moto series. But at the time, the company was less than 20 employees in size and had only been officially in business for about a month. It was sometime in my first week possibly my first or second day. In the main engineering room, there was a whoop and cry of success.

Our company financial controller and acting HR lady, Jen, came in to see what incredible things the engineers and artists had come up with. Everyone was staring at a television set hooked up to a development box for the Sony Playstation. There, on the screen, against a single-color background, was a black triangle.

“It’s a black triangle,” she said in an amused but sarcastic voice. One of the engine programmers tried to explain, but she shook her head and went back to her office. I could almost hear her thoughts… “We’ve got ten months to deliver two games to Sony, and they are cheering over a black triangle? THAT took them nearly a month to develop?”

What she later came to realize (and explain to others) was that the black triangle was a pioneer. It wasn’t just that we’d managed to get a triangle onto the screen. That could be done in about a day. It was the journey the triangle had taken to get up on the screen. It had passed through our new modeling tools, through two different intermediate converter programs, had been loaded up as a complete database, and been rendered through a fairly complex scene hierarchy, fully textured and lit (though there were no lights, so the triangle came out looking black). The black triangle demonstrated that the foundation was finally complete the core of a fairly complex system was completed, and we were now ready to put it to work doing cool stuff. By the end of the day, we had complete models on the screen, manipulating them with the controllers. Within a week, we had an environment to move the model through.

Afterwards, we came to refer to certain types of accomplishments as “black triangles.” These are important accomplishments that take a lot of effort to achieve, but upon completion you don’t have much to show for it only that more work can now proceed. It takes someone who really knows the guts of what you are doing to appreciate a black triangle.

Years later, I was chatting with another SingleTrac alumnus, and was excitedly relating my work on the multiplayer code. I’d spent a little over a week working on the underlying architecture, trying to make it clean and reliable and easy to use. It was all UDP rather than TCP/IP (for speed), so I created my own “guaranteed delivery” protocol for those rare packets that needed to be guaranteed. I’d rarely worked low-level network code before, so it was kind of a new experience. When all was said and done, I had another computer join the game and boom! There it was, on the host machine. Wow. No updates, it did next to nothing, but the core architecture was there. The rest SHOULD come together quickly. Explaining this to my buddy over IM, I explained, “It’s a black triangle.” He understood what I meant immediately. It’s a convenient shorthand metaphor.

So feel free to steal the term. And when progress seems a little slow because you are doing a bunch of hardcore architecture work, just remember it’s a black triangle.

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

Game Development: Rolling Your Own Engine?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 11, 2014

CorvetteEngineThis weekend in the indie game developers group on Facebook, a vocal minority (very much a minority) ventured “opinions” disparaging developers who don’t build their own game engine from scratch. The predictable crapstorm ensued. Mainly it was troll-feeding and simply fun to pile on, as these Internet arguments often go.

Now, ignoring for the moment the fact that any “opinion” used to put others down is really just vanity, I’d like to talk about this for a moment. If you followed my post from last week about GameMaker, you can guess what I’m going to say.

I wrote my own 3D engine for my first commercial indie game. It was a challenge, and it was also fun. It was nifty getting my hands dirty with trying to optimize collision detection, the rendering pipeline, and so forth. As a programmer, it’s awesome. After that experience, however, I realized that I’d rather write games than engines.

As a gamer – I really don’t care how a game was made. Sure, if you showed me the trickery and shortcuts behind the curtain, I might be somewhat disappointed, because the magic is gone. Or, like the sausage factory, I’m a little grossed out realizing what’s in it. But in the end, all that really matters is having an entertaining product.

Amateurs and the self-conscious seek to impress their peers. Professionals seek to impress their audience.

Now, it’s very cool if a developer *can* and *does* write their own game engine. That’s awesome. And there are cases where they probably should. Especially now that we are back to supporting less powerful devices (mobile), a custom engine allows us to make some optimizations that are just not possible in a general-purpose engine. I’ve seen efforts to provide Minecraft-style visuals in Unity, and so far I haven’t seen one that impresses me.

But if you do go back and create an engine of your own “from scratch,” how far back do you go? Is it okay to use a powerful, high-level SDK? Or do you have to go down to the metal yourself, writing your code in machine code? If so, you are unlikely to complete your game before the  platform becomes completely obsolete, but good luck.

Obviously, it gets pretty ridiculous to draw the line too far back. Which, to me, illustrates why the line doesn’t shouldn’t exist at all. If your hobby is creating graphic demos, or writing in assembly, or creating game engines, or writing games for obsolete systems, or any other works of technical prowess, then by all means, go for it! I think it’s cool! But if you are a game developer, making games for a more general audience than just “other developers who appreciate stuff written in assembly,” then you should start at whatever point makes the most sense for their game. If it’s a high-level, genre-specific platform like RPG Maker that lets you do your thing just fine, take it and run with it. If you are making a game for an Atari 2600 emulator just for kicks, you are probably going to have to make friends with machine language.

It’s always all about the audience.





Filed Under: Programming - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Little Pieces of Deviation Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 8, 2014

SuperMeatBoyIntro“Breaking your game down into small pieces forces you to analyze and evaluate your ideas on a deeper level. This is essential because you always want to be open to changes, you never want to set yourself into a path that you feel you can in no way deviate from. Deviation from the plan can yield the most interesting parts of a game. It’s a more organic way of developing because you are thinking within the game system and are applying new ideas to ideas that have already formed.”

— Team Meat’s Tommy Refenes, “How do I get started programming games???”


Filed Under: Quote of the Week - Comments: Read the First Comment

The Pros and Cons of Making Games with GameMaker

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 7, 2014

title_tntbfPC Gamer’s recent article, “No coding required: How new designers are using GameMaker to create indie smash hits” was pretty enjoyable and seemed reasonably accurate – even if its headline is a bit misleading. Part of the reason I picked up GameMaker several months ago and wrote a little arcade game in it was because I’ve been recommending it to wannabe game developers for a while… and thought I should actually get some first-hand experience if I was to keep doing that.

And yeah, I’ll keep doing that. While I don’t see it in my future as my development platform of choice, I came away reasonably impressed. With GameMaker, and a few of the many, many tutorials available online, it’s a pretty awesome way for a person with dreams but little experience to get their feet wet in the game development world.

But that has always been the case. If anything, I’d say it’s a little harder to use now than when I first encountered it many years ago. Originally it was intended more as a learning tool, but YoYo Games has made it more of a professional tool with each iteration. At least based on my dim recollection circa 2006 or so, it seems like the software has gotten a lot more powerful at the cost of some user (especially newbie) friendliness. That’s to be expected – if nothing else, it’s a major chore to keep things even close. I think the tool deserves praise for retaining it’s ease-of-use for new developers.

For a new developer who is doing a genre-specific title, like a 16-bit style console RPG, I might recommend a more specific tool, like RPG Maker, AGS, etc.  If you aren’t deviating much from the formula, these kinds of tools might offer something close to the “minimal code” ideal. The tools offer a great deal of power and (relative) ease-of-use at the expense of flexibility.

hlm_screen3That’s really the trade-off.  Based on my own limited experience and comments from others, GameMaker has achieved a pretty good balance, probably still erring on the side of catering to inexperienced developers. It has good support, an active community (for getting help or answers when needed), a decent feature set for making 2D games, and is still (relatively) easy to learn. That’s awesome.

It’s also good to see that plenty of indie developers are making popular, successful games with it. In the final analysis, that’s really all that matters: How much did it help you make your game, and how did it help you make it successful?  That means different things to different developers. But if the tool solves your problems, is comfortable to work with, and is capable of handling the kind of game you have in mind, it’s pretty golden. For the brave new indie world littered with 2D and “retro” titles, it seems like a pretty hard-to-beat tool.

So, yeah. I still recommend it. But it’s still not my engine of choice.



Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

Wing Commander III for Free?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 6, 2014

The good news:

Origin is giving away Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger for free today.

The bad news:

It’s a very temporary deal, so if you got here late, it’s already changed.

The ugly news:

It’s EA’s Origin online service.


I dunno. Even though I do have a rarely-used account on Origin, I’d rather pick up Wing Commander III from GOG.COM.

While I personally consider WC3 to be the weakest of the original series (Prophecy, Academy, etc. don’t count) both in gameplay and storytelling, it was still a fun game for its time, the first “true” Wing Commander (meaning: not counting Armada) with actual 3D models for ships, and the first with actual actors doing their best to emote on green screen. And Tom Wilson – well, the guy’s just awesome in general, but he makes a great Maniac.

Filed Under: Deals - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

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