Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Book Break!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2015

I interrupt the regularly scheduled Wizardry 8 archive reprints to talk about some books – just released, soon-to-be-released, and not-quite-as-soon-to-be-released.

SteelAndBoneFirst up is another Steampunk anthology from Xchyler Publishing called “Steel and Bone.” I’m not one of the authors of this one. However, I have several friends who are, including my long-time collaborator on games (and nowadays, crane simulators) John Olsen, who occasionally posts comments here.  I’m not done reading all the stories in this one, so I haven’t seen fit to give it a full review on Amazon or Goodreads yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. If you enjoy good steampunk stories (and you’ve [begin shameless plug] already read Terra Mechanica and Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology, [end shameless plug] ), you should consider picking this one up. It’s cheap, and it’s fun, steampunky goodness!

I have been friends for a very long time with Melissa McShane, and I enjoyed her first novel, The Emissary. Maybe it’s because she first ran a priestess of death (albeit a fairly different character from the one in this book) in one of my D&D campaigns, and took the type of character most people would pigeonhole as an antagonist, and made her a sympathetic protagonist. Sometimes one I wanted to reach into the pages and smack a little bit, but that’s because a good character should have weaknesses. It did a good job of turning some tropes on their ear and creating a fantasy story that differs from any other I have read, involving gods and ghosts and priests and a whole lot of political intrigue.

ServantOfCrownBut what I really wanted to mention was her soon-to-be-released book, Servant of the Crown. I haven’t read it yet, though I really look forward to it. I know a few of her beta-readers, and universally the word is coming back: “Wow!” While they’ve enjoyed her previous two novels, this one sounds like it’s really something special. It launches in the middle of next month. My wife’s comment was that it shakes up the fantasy / romance tropes in an outstanding way. Anyway, after hearing so much praise, it’s moved up to the top of my list once I’m out of the double-extra-heavy-duty self-imposed crunch mode I’m facing between now and the second week of August.

Speaking of the double-extra-heavy-duty crunch period I’m facing for the next six weeks… part of it will involve some exciting news: I am going to have another short story published in an upcoming anthology! I was accepted for the 2015 paranormal anthology by Xchyler Publishing. My story, “Cold Spot” will appear in the yet untitled anthology this fall.

As much as I love steampunk, I’m happy to be included in something a little different this time around.

 


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[Archive] Wizardry 8, Episode 4: Arnika Bank, No Safer than Under the Mattress

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 29, 2015

Back in 2008, I did a playthrough of Wizardry 8, a game I’d missed the first time around. At the time, it was hard to acquire (yay for getting it brought back as a digital title!), and I felt (correctly!) that I’d missed out on a classic title. I blogged my efforts, but with the Great Blog Reboot we lost those articles. Since they’ve been requested, I’m re-posting them now. I hope that with the game now made available again via digital distribution, this may help other people discover this overlooked “final” game in the Sir-Tech series.

I continue my play-through of 2001’s Wizardry 8, one of the last of the mainstream “old-school” style RPGs. Here’s Part 4.

Wizardry7Box-731913Since my last report, I have acquired a couple of tools to help me out. The first is… a manual! The used copy of the game I bought from E-Bay came with nothing but the discs (those with the full packaging are often selling for as high as three digits). I have found that I was able to figure out most of the game without the documentation just fine. I wouldn’t call Wizardry 8 intuitive in its gameplay, necessarily, but for fans of the series and the genre, things aren’t too hard to figure out. It would have been handier when creating race / class combinations, but familiarity with Wizardry 7 helped in that. You can find a PDF version of the Wizardry 8 manual at replacementdocs.com. (Editorial Note from 2015: Fortunately, you won’t have this problem if you get the game digitally from GOG.COM or Steam today)

So I’m grateful that I’ve held on to that paper Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant manual for all those years. (Editorial Note from 2015: And yep, still have it! Still enjoy thumbing through it from time to time!)

The second nifty tool is a utility called WizFast which was recommended by several people. I was able to download it from wolfie.wiz8.de. It speeds up monster movement beyond the 5x maximum for the in-game option. I’m actually pretty happy with it at around 5x, but for those really big wilderness encounters that turn into chase scenes, this could really be a time-saver. (Editorial Note from 2015: Not only was it essential, it still didn’t speed things up enough later in the game. But at this point in the game, I only *thought* I knew how bad it could get.)

Scorpia also contacted me, and offered me some semi-cryptic hints and tips. She always tried hard to do this without giving too much away when she was writing for Computer Gaming World (man, I miss those days). But she did warn me point-blank about the tower, saying, “The Arnika bomb is for real. The DS is not someone who bluffs.”

Ah. Good point. Important safety tip.

Anyway, I’m still in Arnika and the nearby areas. There have been plenty of things to do in the city, although most of those things involve that noble goal of adventurers everywhere: To loot anything not nailed to the floor, and to break into any place that is sealed against you. And the locals often don’t seem to mind. Hey, these are desperate times, right?

I recovered a diamond for the Arnika bank – stolen, somehow, under their tight security measures. I wasn’t pleased enough with the reward. So I made some withdrawals of my own. I was able to… uh, “find” several security cards that gave me access to the vaults in the basement. And the emotionless bank teller apparently didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t look much like Antone the Rapax. And she complains that these things (like the diamond theft) always seem to occur on her watch!

I found the nearby jail to be abandoned by its guards, who I guess were busy patrolling the streets to aid me in frequent battles against the minions of the Dark Savant. I found their security less than adequate. I ended up releasing some bandits, who I imagine must have been half-starved, as they attacked me immediately rather than expressing their gratitude. I unfortunately had to put them out of their misery. At the bottom of one cell, however, I found a secret entrance to a tunnel that went under the street and into one of the bank vaults. With more loot.

I had one other offer to interact with the bank. Some Ratkin named Rattus. Rattus asked me to cash a check for him. And he gave me a zip gun in payment. I agreed, and even made it all the way back to the bank. Before handing Rattus’s note to the teller, I decided to read it first. Good thing I did. It was a hold-up note. That prankster! I quietly folded the note and put it away and left the bank. I later found a gullible merchant who was willing to buy the note for 1 gold piece. I have no idea why.

I hope the Arnika Community Bank is insured. Because I don’t think they are going to be in business very long.

In true Gygaxian style, the same exploration that can reward you so handsomely can also bring you a great deal of trouble. While locked doors may be there to protect valuables inside from people like me, that can also be used to keep bad things locked IN. I discovered this exploring one too many locked doors inside the temple of Phoonzang. Who knew there were all those deadly ghosts inside? However, I prevailed, and I’ll consider it a service rendered to the temple. With the ghosts gone, maybe they can renovate the chambers and turn them into dining areas or guest rooms or something.

One of the treasures in the bank – the sword Bloodlust – turned out to have a curse attached to it. I wasn’t paying attention when I gave it to my samurai-turned-gadgeteer. I figured it’d make a good close-quarters weapon when we got flanked. Then I discovered he was incapable of switching back to his gun – or any other weapon. Fortunately, selling the sword back to its original owner, Antone the Rapax (who assumed it had been made by his brother – I’m not making this up!), almost made up for the cost of the “remove curse” scroll we had to use to free our gadgeteer-swordsman from its powerful compulsion.

Greed has its drawbacks.

I am now on the trail of the big artifact that the Dark Savant is after – the Destinae Dominus. The introductory movie made it sound like someone had just absconded with the thing moments before the Dark Savant arrived. But, according to certain townspeople, the theft took place a hundred years ago. I guess when you are dealing with ancient prophecies, a mere century is still a current event. Anyway, the thief was a former cop (well, HLL guardsman) named Marten. While he’s being painted as a villain by some, I wonder if he didn’t have a heads-up that the Big Bad would be coming one day and decided to keep it safe. Or maybe he was an adventurer like me, and had that problem with looting everything that wasn’t nailed down.

He apparently fled to the nearby town of Trynton, and the “Trynnies” hid him and the Destinae Dominus for some time. When the HLL came after him, he managed to give them the slip.

Since I think I’ve exhausted most of the currently-available quest opportunities in Arnika (I think), it looks like my trail now leads to Trynton. I wonder if there is anybody alive there who knows about Marten, or where he might have taken the Destinae Dominus…

And besides, it might be best to get out of town before people start discovering that their private vaults are empty and start putting two and two together. Maybe after I’ve saved the entire universe, they’ll cut me some slack.

Design Notes:

(Note: These are more recent, from 2015. I noticed the earlier episodes didn’t have ’em, and so I thought I’d add some thoughts to make them consistent.)

Cursed items aren’t popular anymore. Actually, they were never “popular,” at least among players. They were a thing in Dungeons & Dragons, and tended to pop up in many CRPGs of the 80s and 90s. From a design perspective, their purpose seems to be to introduce risk to the loot / equipment upgrade cycle. As with the threat of death or any other “risk” involved in the game mechanics, it’s the perception of risk that’s the fun part, not actually finding yourself on the business end of it.

BackbiterIn early D&D editions, the curses were pretty much impervious to detection until a life-or-death situation took place, in which case your character turned into a complete liability. We’re not just talking, “Oh, they can’t fight as effectively now” type problems, we’re talking full-on stab-yourself-in-the-back liability, here. Literally. Or even kill a character outright (which is admittedly super-bad, but in a game with resurrections not necessarily game-ending).

The reason to have that risk and the possibility of magic items “gone bad” was simply to keep the acquisition of new equipment interesting. As experienced computer / console RPG players know, that whole “upgrade cycle” can get pretty mechanical. This was especially true in older games where the magical abilities were deliberately simplified to keep things manageable. Nowadays, this has gone out of vogue, frequently replaced by systems where equipment’s special abilities are a combination of factors so that there’s no obvious upgrade “path,” or by balancing the extraordinary abilities of an item with some noteworthy drawbacks.

But there was nothing quite like having a full-on, character-crippling curse like the one on Bloodlust, for making an item memorable.


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[Archive] Wizardry 8, Episode 3: Vi Domina Tricks

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2015

Back in 2008, I did a playthrough of Wizardry 8, a game I’d missed the first time around. At the time, it was hard to acquire (yay for getting it brought back as a digital title!), and I felt (correctly!) that I’d missed out on a classic title. I blogged my efforts, but with the Great Blog Reboot we lost those articles. Since they’ve been requested, I’m re-posting them now. I hope that with the game now made available again via digital distribution, this may help other people discover this overlooked “final” game in the Sir-Tech series.

After running the gauntlet along Arnika Road (and finding another bolted-door building along the easier Arnika-Trynton Road that may or may not be capable of being entered at some point), I am now in civilized territory: The formerly thriving town of Arnika.

I’m still not exactly sure how it is pronounced. The residents all pronounce it a little differently. Most seem to pronounce it ar-NEE-ka, but I’ve also heard AR-nee-ka and AR-ne-ka. While it’s a small thing, it’s noticeable. We’ve got a town west of Salt Lake City called “Tooele.” Everyone in the region pronounces it correctly – at least after being corrected once after trying to call it “Tool” or “TOOL-ee”. It’s pronounced, by the way, “Too-ILL-a.” Don’t ask. We also have a town called “Hurricane” which is pronounced “HURR-i-cun.” Actors might screw this up, but residents never would.

wiz8talk-796620Arnika is a lot more fun than my last session. There are people to talk to. There are abandoned houses to clear out. There’s a rogue named Myles whom I found myself grouped with. Since I already had a rogue, it enabled me to turn my rogue into a bard. I’m not positive how long Myles will stay with our group, but for now, he’s with us.

The big quest Myles had for us (though he’s talked about robbing the bank) was to rescue some girl by a crashed space ship. We had to fight off a group of Savant Guards – robots with blades on their hands. Definitely challenging, and they don’t scare easily. There were also some bandits – Higardi raiders – monkeying around outside the ship that we had to fight our way through. Fortunately, they do scare fairly easily. We had to use every bit of tactics I could come up with to defeat them without losing anyone in our group (I actually took them on before bringing Myles on board).

One bummer about fights in Wizardry 8 is that the enemy can flank and surround you, but you can’t really do the same to them. You can change your formation to reduce your vulnerability when flanked, but it’s not like you can separate your party into two or more groups. You can, however, dictate a lot of the terms of the fight – maneuvering with your back to a wall (or better, a corner) to limit their frontage, force them to come to you while you pelt them with ranged attacks (especially magical area-effect attacks), and use temporarily disabling spells like fear spells or sleep spells to disrupt them from attacking.

In Arnika, you can also try to maneuver your fights to within earshot of the friendly guards or monks in the area. They are quick to rush into a fight, draw off a little heat off of your beleaguered party members if you need it, and add their own firepower to assist you. If there is an XP hit to receiving their aid, it’s not been that noticeable.

Wiz7Intro_ViDominaAt the crash site, we rescued the girl from a bunch of savant guard robots, though she was kicking butt pretty well. Once we rescued her, she turned out to be Vi Domina, formerly appearing in Wizardry 7 (pictured in the intro to the previous game on the left). She joined the party – and turned out to be merely my own average party level (6 at the point she joined us). Somehow I thought she was a much bigger bad-ass than that. I guess skills atrophy over time.

She joined the party, gave us gold, scads of experience points (taking some party members to level 7), and asked us to escort her to visit friends. Free XP for a milk run, plus a chance to get introduced to characters who can use less-than-generic dialog with other NPCs. This was a cute design trick, actually. It gives the NPCs a bit more personality, and helped turn them into “characters” rather than “information and quest dispensing machines.”

Except they keep treating us as “junior adventurers.” Smirking a little about how we “rescued” Vi. Like we’re the kid brothers playing pretend adventurers, and couldn’t really handle any real danger on our own. Okay, granted, they probably have a point. We are wusses compared to just about everything else around us (except rats and green slime). I wonder if that will change later? It seems like our quest involves ascending to godhood. I’ll bet people won’t smirk and be all condescending THEN!

We had to pay off Myles’s bar tab, which wasn’t so fun, but it was a lot cheaper than pair of leather boots purchased from the rapax arms-dealer in town. And we also went to visit the tower of the Dark Savant. It was naturally guarded by his robot troopers. They repeated a warning Vi Domina gave us earlier about there being a bomb in the tower that would blow up the entire world if we tried to enter it.

I think they’re bluffing (Editorial Note from 2015: Nope. Not bluffing) . But… after dispatching the guards, I couldn’t find an obvious way in, so I didn’t try to call them on it.

Now, given the era that this game was released – just shortly after Baldur’s Gate II – I can see how some players might be dissatisfied with the simplicity of the quests thus far, and the necessity of hunting them down a bit.

There is a large menu of options to interact with every NPC, from topics of conversation to trading and even recruiting them to join your party. Morrowind players would have felt right at home. Granted, the majority of NPCs you can talk to in this town are nameless, disposable guards and priests. But I do like the depth of interaction of named NPCs. As the game progresses, the number of things you can talk about increases. They may have nothing but bored “blow you off” responses to the new topics of conversation, but the impression it gives is that these NPCs might grow more interesting as the game advances – rather than the opposite, as is usually the case in RPGs once you’ve “used up” the NPC’s conversation tree.

An artifact of the technology is that the city is pretty sparse. Buildings are spaced far apart, and it is difficult to make out more than four of them at a time through the fog. This is actually a response to the limitations of 3D rendering of the era – you have to be very careful with how is visible at any time. It’s still a problem today, although now we tend to have far more elaborate objects. From a gameplay perspective, this wasn’t very different from Wizardry 7, with the rectangular walls of the city forming odd-shaped buildings that were only visible to a range of about five squares.

All-in-all, Arnika has been pretty fun so far. I’ll have to take Myles up on his bank-robbing idea and see what other trouble I can scare up. There’s plenty of surrounding countryside and stuff to explore, yet, so I have not yet run out of things to do. At this point, I am having a little bit of trouble figuring out the next direction to take, so I’m gonna have to play adventurer and beat some bushes a little to find something.

Design Notes:

(Editorial Note from 2015: This is all new stuff, trying to keep things consistent between the articles)

 

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Wizardry 8‘s party-based gameplay was no longer in vogue when it was released. I guess it’s still not in vogue, but it’s been regaining steam. Anyway, Wizardry 8 joined its contemporaries from Bioware to embrace the party-based design, and embrace recruitable non-player characters (RNPCs).

The cool thing here (and with the Baldur’s Gate series of the era) was that adding an NPC to the party wasn’t just an extra warm body and extra attacks. They came with something of a personality, including an unwillingness to go to certain locations (baggage!), and also with some quests surrounding them. While Baldur’s Gate may have really spearheaded this concept and did an excellent job of it for the time, it always felt like the other characters were just random folks looking for something to do. Many of the RNPCs in Wizardry 8 are tied into the overall storyline and setting, at least peripherally.

This helps compensate for the fact that the player’s characters are created by the player at the beginning of the game and can’t therefore be neatly folded into the plot. They are kind of forced / shoehorned in as best as possible, but it’s not an organic fit. So instead, the party can “adopt” pre-created characters who are already woven into the fabric of the game world. That’s a clever way to get the best of both worlds.

Plus, it’s a lot more interesting to do quests tied into a party member than some random NPC standing on a street corner.


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[Archive] Wizardry 8, Episode 2: Running the Gauntlet

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 25, 2015

Back in 2008, I did a playthrough of Wizardry 8, a game I’d missed the first time around. At the time, it was hard to acquire (yay for getting it brought back as a digital title!), and I felt (correctly!) that I’d missed out on a classic title. I blogged my efforts, but with the Great Blog Reboot we lost those articles. Since they’ve been requested, I’m re-posting them now. I hope that with the game now made available again via digital distribution, this may help other people discover this overlooked “final” game in the Sir-Tech series.

Since I got started on this discussion over the weekend on my recent acquisition of Wizardry 8, I figured I’d continue this “retrospective.” Though it’s really more of a first-time play-through for me, as I never played it when it was initially released in 2001. But frankly, this game was a last hurrah (from mainstream developers, at least) of a very fine tradition and style of computer role-playing games that I feel met a premature demise. (Editorial note from 2015: Since this is a repost of a years-old playthough, I guess it now does qualify as something of a retrospective. And happily, indies really have taken up the torch since then, although Ubisoft at least gave it a try again recently with Might & Magic X: Legacy.)

Now, if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember how I complain about how games these days hold your hand and expect you to “brute force” your way through every encounter, never requiring you (or even allowing you) to considering alternatives that don’t require killing everything in sight?

This ain’t one of ’em.

wizarmy-777038

Yeah, that’s 27 enemies, each roughly equal to any of my characters. Nine-to-two odds. The gods of butt-kicking can be capricious and cruel. Or maybe that’s the game designers?

Scorpia refers to Arnika Road in Wizardry 8 as the “Terrible Road,” and I now understand what she was talking about.

The previous location, the monastery, had a lot going for it. It was full of interesting features (including computers and an elevator), clues as to the “big picture” of what was going on and as to the history – ancient and recent – of the order that dwelt there and the world itself. While it had its share of empty tunnels (I guess the contractors thought they could ad lib a bit and get paid extra for making long corridors that didn’t really go anywhere), it was worthy of exploration. And while it had a couple of challenging encounters, it had nothing truly punishing. It was a solid, exciting intro dungeon with lots of promise for the rest of the game.

Arnika Road was something of a let-down after that. And not just because I had my kiester stomped on the second encounter. And the third. And the fourth. That pretty much defined my experience on Arnika Road, and that part isn’t all bad. It’s just unfortunate that it was pretty much the most interesting part of the journey. But more on that in a minute. Let’s talk kiester-stompage.

I tried to be far more tactical and clever after that first defeat, and started using tactical maneuvering on the third. What eventually worked was me “pulling” enemies (just as in an MMO) to a location where I could limit their ability to flank me, and then take them out well away from other enemies who could join them. I did that a couple of times, and then made a run for Arnika. Literally. I stayed to the edges of the canyon to avoid detection as long as possible, and then when combat was joined, I ran like the coward I am. It took me a couple of tries to even do that successfully.

But it worked, eventually. Which, all-in-all, represented a little under two hours of somewhat tedious play. The tedium was particularly pronounced when it came to waiting for massive groups of monsters to move, one-by-one, into position. I found myself thumbing through a book. When I talk about how cool turn-based RPGs are, this sort of thing undermines my arguments. I didn’t mind it so much when I was fighting three or even four monsters at a time. But eight… twelve… twenty-seven… that took things to an annoying extreme. (Editorial Note from 2015: This remains a problem throughout the game, even with a combat speed-up patch. This is my worst memory of this game, and its biggest flaw.)

Now, it could be that Arnika Road was designed to teach players the importance of fleeing from bad odds (Editorial Note from 2015: Actually, yes, it kinda was, I learned later from designers. See an upcoming post!). And it may be that they had some flaw in their encounter-scaling logic that overdid it at level 5. And it could be that the designers deliberately made Arnika Road a speed-bump in the game.

While I couldn’t see much of it in my flight to the nearly abandoned city, I really only noticed one “interesting” feature of this area (besides some items sprinkled across the landscape): a building with an impenetrable barred door. I can totally understand the reason why the door was barred, considering the threat level of the creatures roaming the road. And now I’m very curious as to what is inside. That’s exploration for you. You get teased by seeing something you can’t quite reach, and wonder what lay beyond.

Aside from that, Arnika Road strikes me as “filler.” There’s another path I can take when I’m no longer required to run for my life. Maybe there’s a lot more that way. I look forward to checking it out. But from what I’ve seen – it’s just filler. Not that I mind a little filler in my games. I can get kinda zen-like about wandering off into these kinds of areas and just doing some XP-harvesting. But the difficulty level seemed to get frustratingly difficult at this point, a feature which might not earn maximum gratitude from players in a game’s design. Unless, of course, the point was to learn to run like hell, in which case a suggestion that this might be the way to go at the beginning of the gauntlet might be an appropriate way to help train players for future fleeing-like-a-little-girl later in the game.

Wizardry7Box-731913Upon reaching Arnika, I’ve found that most of the citizens have fled from the city, fearing attacks by minions of the Dark Savant. As a total meta-meta-gaming aside, I have to admit – it’s cool and strange hearing about the Dark Savant in a game. The last time I *really* played Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was back in ’92 or so. It’s almost like running into an old friend from high school. Only then, you remember that this acquaintance wasn’t actually a friend, but was a total jerk whom you always wanted to punch in the mouth. But while the desire for mouth-punching remains, it temporarily takes a backseat to savoring the reunion out of nostalgia.

So now that I’m off the road (for now), there are once again places to explore, people to talk to, and of course more butts to kick. I’m excited and ready to go!

Design Notes:

(Editorial Note from 2015: This section is new) As we find out in a future post, Arnika Road was supposed to teach players certain skills that would be called upon later in the game many times. Unfortunately, IMO, the features of the game they were supposed to teach (stealth & evasion) were not well-implemented, and there were many times there was simply no way to escape combat that I could find, at my level. I guess since I did learn to try to avoid unnecessary fights (where possible – later in the game the constrained paths and huge groups of respawning monsters left you with nowhere to hide) it succeeded on some level.

That’s how it should be, especially in the beginning of a game… efforts made to teach players a part of the system at a time, without hitting them over the head with it as in a tutorial. So even if the attempt fell flat, at least it was attempted. So there’s that.  From my perspective – given that it’s been a few years since I played through this – I’m not entirely sure what they could have / should have done better here, short of the really boring hitting-you-over-the-head-with-it approach. Maybe some NPC interaction, with more obvious hiding places (particularly at this stage of the game), where you could see scripted sequences where NPCs are dodging from place to place to avoid contact with patrols of monsters.


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[Archive] Wizardry 8, ep. 1: A Samurai, a Valkyrie, and a Bishop Walk Into a Bar…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 24, 2015

Back in 2008, I did a playthrough of Wizardry 8, a game I’d missed the first time around. At the time, it was hard to acquire (yay for getting it brought back as a digital title!), and I felt (correctly!) that I’d missed out on a classic title. I blogged my efforts, but with the Great Blog Reboot we lost those articles. Since they’ve been requested, I’m re-posting them now. I hope that with the game now made available again via digital distribution, this may help other people discover this overlooked “final” game in the Sir-Tech series.

Wizardry_8_boxA samurai, a valkyrie, and a bishop walk into a bar…

That’s either the start of a really lame joke, or a regular play session of one of the definitely non-lame Wizardry games. Although the Valkyries didn’t appear until Wizardry 6. No matter…

Ye Olde Day (and Night) Job gave me Sunday off, so I managed to pour a few hours into playing my new acquisition, Wizardry 8. Yes, all this talk of new RPGs hitting the store shelves, and I’m thrilled about getting my hands on a seven-year-old game (Editorial note: Now it’s been almost as long since this was originally posted. Time flies!).

I am just a few hours into it, but I’m mighty pleased. Why?

#1 – The world and storyline are intriguing. I was never a huge fan of the mega-epic plot-line of the power to create and destroy the entire universe and all that from the previous two games, but I’m not minding it so much here. The game starts you out with a trite imperative (you are the sole survivors of a crashed space ship, and have to survive and save the universe), but the monastery section was focused and felt a little like unfolding a mystery, full of hints and clues to a bigger picture. I love that.

#2 – TACTICS! Holy cow, this game reminds me of how fun turn-based, party-based RPGs can be. Granted, Wizardry 8 probably takes it a little overboard, with party movement and positioning, party formations, and everything. But still, I’m having a great time with it. I got clobbered in a combat on the road to Arnika last night, and found myself considering all the things I could have done differently to have won. Too often, in RPGs these days, it really comes down to having been too unlucky, too slow on the healing-potion button, or not having saved during the middle of the battle often enough. Here, it was a case of me encountering a new monster type and underestimating their capabilities.

Wiz8_OpeningSpot#3 – The monastery – the first “dungeon” – was not a run-of-the-mill miniature bunny-slope dungeon. I spent three hours of playtime in there, and dealt with multiple “boss monsters” and lots of exploration. Maybe I’ll get sick of similar dungeons with the same graphics set in the future, and I did play through some of this in the demo, but for now, I enjoyed it. I’m really a dungeon-crawler at heart, I guess.

#4 – I’m also a sucker for first-person perspective RPGs. Chalk it over to being more “immersive” or whatever – I’ve always preferred it. Not that I don’t love other perspectives, too (Ultima VII remains, to this day, my favorite RPG), but I love seeing the world through the eyes of my character(s).

#5 – STATS! Lots of juicy, geeky numbers. This might be a detriment for many players, but I really like the customization opportunities and being able to numerically compare my characters and my improvements as I level. Seriously, I get bugged by RPGs that seem to say, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about these big, scary statistics… just look at the eye-candy and you can see your character get cooler special effects!” Give me crunchy numbers, please. As much as I get into story and roleplaying and all that jazz, I’ve got repressed power-gamer tendencies that need to be exercised.

I wish we would see more games like this (Editorial Note from 2015: Happily, they have made something of a comeback, so I guess my wish was granted!). But alas, the game was, from what I have heard, something of a failure. Sir-Tech, from what I understand, was in dire straits even before the game was completed, and I don’t remember the marketing being all that hot for it. It was kinda sandwiched between some much higher-profile releases.

I mean, I didn’t even get a copy when it was new. But I think it was because of a review that claimed the game was buggy. (Though I possibly got that confused with a review of Wizards & Warriors or Dungeon Lords. Those were designed by David W. Bradley, who worked on at least two previous Wizardry titles but – to my knowledge, had nothing to do with Wiz 8).

So I guess I was Part of the Problem. It’s all my fault! *SOB*.

And maybe it’s just the case that my tastes are now horribly divergent from that of the common gamer. I’m just a weirdo. Maybe there’s no market for the potential Wizardry 8s of the world anymore. If so, that’s truly a shame. But maybe there’s enough of a market left for indies to keep stepping up and filling the void. I can only hope.

Design Notes:

(Note – This section is all new from 2015. Most of the old articles had design note sections, but not all, and I’m making them more consistent. Besides, there’s a heck of a lot an RPG developer can learn from this game.)

Two things I’d like to note here. First of all, in spite of being an entirely new game engine and removed from the previous title in the series by a decade, they did a few things to make sure the game felt like a Wizardry title. The carry-over of class types (albeit changed), races, and factions and certain characters from Wizardry 7 are another. People play a sequel because they want more of the same, only different (you can quote me on that :) ). When a game is very different from its predecessors – as this one was, for technological reasons if nothing else – there are still a number of things that can be done to tie it back in and make it feel familiar even if it’s a totally new game system. I’d played a lot of Wizardry 7 back in the day (yet still never finished it! That game was huge!), so this really did feel familiar in the right ways.

Wiz8_Dungeon1_SlimesSecondly – the monastery was one of the best dungeons in the game, straight up. In a way, I’m disappointed about this, because it wasn’t merely the baseline of quality. It set my expectations high, and didn’t always follow through. But there’s an adage in game development that you should develop your first level last, because you want to create your first impression at the height of your skill as designers for that particular game. They did that, they hooked me early, and convinced me to invest my time and attention into the game. I was hooked for many, many hours.

(Editorial Note from 2015:  Brenda Romero kindly corrected my confusion over reviews … without calling me a moron. She said, “W8 was published at the tail end of the grand era of solo RPGs. It wasn’t rushed out the door, though. In fact, it was released a lot later than some would have liked it. It was truly a labor of love for all the developers involved. It got a number of RPG of the year awards, in fact. As far as bugs, I do think you are confusing it with the other title which did have a good number of them if I recall it right.”)


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Wizardry 8 – The End of the Beginning

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2015

Wizardry_8_boxSeveral years ago, I played Wizardry 8. This was many years after its initial release, back in the day when the only way to get a (legal) copy was to buy one off E-Bay for more than its new cost… sans manual or the original box. Fortunately, there are cheaper, better, digital options today, particularly on Steam and GOG.com. At the time, it felt like Wizardry 8 was the (belated, for me) swan song for an entire subgenre. It was definitely something I wanted to check out, as I was an indie diving back into that long-lost subgenre and trying to remember exactly what it felt like.

Other role-playing games were jumping on the 3D bandwagon with both feet to provide a single-character action-y experience reminiscent of the popular FPS (First-Person Shooter) genre (albeit often more as a ‘third-person’ action game). But the long-standing computer RPG series Wizardry and Might & Magic took the 3D route while sticking to their turn-based, party-based roots… at least partly, offering their old fans turn-based gameplay. Maybe this wasn’t to their financial benefit, I don’t know.

With the company’s failure after the 2001 release, it seemed like the days of the “old-school” western-style RPG was over. Possibly forever, save for a few small indie games.

It was the “small indie games” thing that changed everything. Back when I played it, anything with a budget of more than a few thousand dollars was steering well clear of this approach. And as far what RPG Codex calls a “blobber” or “blob with legs” (a first-person game where your avatar is a party ‘blob’ – a group of adventurers that you don’t really see), well, you had almost nothing.  Wizardry 8 was the last gasp… and on playing it, warts and all, I felt some loss.

BugTrap-705606I chronicled my adventures (and excessive complaints about the length of the combats… the Achilles’ heel of this game, IMO, the one flaw that spoils an otherwise fantastic game) in a series of blog posts at the time, which were lost and purged last year over security issues for this website. I still have copies of ’em, archived, but other folks have asked me to make them available again. Since I’m up to my eyeballs getting this Frayed Knights 2 demo ready for a show in about six weeks, I figured… what better time to save myself some effort and re-post the whole series!

However, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so I’m doing a little bit of editing here and there, and adding some commentary from today’s perspective, turning this into simultaneously a first-time playthrough and a retrospective.

But here’s the joyous, wonderful bit: Since I wrote this, the landscape has changed a lot. For the good, I hope. Besides my own humble efforts with Frayed Knights, a whole lot  more indies – and bigger-budget indies – and even non-indies – have taken up the torch. The old-school, western-style RPG is back. Even at the time, folks like Spiderweb Software and Basilisk Games that were solidly rooted in the game style, if not the first-person perspective. Nowadays, it has exploded, to the point where “old-school” has become kind of a meaningless marketing term, but we’ve even had a surge of first-person perspective party-based titles, like Legend of Grimrock, Might & Magic X: Legacy, Paper Sorcerer, Swords & Sorcery: Underworld, Elminage Gothic, and even an upcoming new sequel to The Bard’s Tale (kickstarter ending soon, pledge now if keen on the idea) and a proposed spiritual sequel to Dragon Wars (currently called Shredded Worlds: Dragons of the Rip… I’m not in love with the title, but I do like the concept) by a bunch of old-school veterans calling themselves, amusingly, Olde Skuul.

Wiz8_SS1So I guess Wizardry 8 was in many ways The End of the Beginning of that style of computer role-playing game. Maybe they can duke it out with Might & Magic 9, released six months later, for that honor. But really, it was hibernation – waiting for the seasons to change, and for the climate to no longer favor only the big lumbering giants with the biggest budgets. They aren’t exactly the same – nor should be – but many of them are solidly rooted in the ideas forged by these earlier games, like Wizardry 8. Because even now, well over a decade since its original release, it turns out that this game was FRICKING FUN. A kind of fun that was scarce for a while. And it’s still fun now.

And so, with that, I’m gonna bring back that old article series, along with a few side-articles and commentaries. And if you really want to have fun, you can grab yourself a copy and play along.

Either way, I hope you have fun.

 

 


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[Archive] Wizardry – The Most Influential Game I Never Played

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 22, 2015

This is an archived post from 2009, with a few modern edits. To this day, I’ve still never played Wizardry 1 to completion – although I’ve delved a little deeper than I had at the time I wrote this. Still, the post isn’t really about Wizardry. It’s about another game that only existed in my mind.

Wiz1_CharsThe original Wizardry (full title: “Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord“) was published in 1981 for the Apple II, written by Andrew C. Greenberg and Robert Woodhead. It was definitely one of the most influential computer RPGs of all time, and it was certainly a big influence upon me. And yet, I never played it.

Okay, “never” isn’t entirely true. But I didn’t have a machine that would even run it for many years. I played it a little on friends’ computers when I could – particularly the gimped IBM port on my buddy’s IBM Peanut – but I never made it past the third level.

But I read about. Oh, did I read about it. It was the single game I wanted most to be ported to my platform of choice during the mid-80’s (by the time it was finally ported to the Commodore 64 – in 1987 according to MobyGames- I had moved on). I read about it and its sequels in magazines. I talked to friends who played it.

survivalkitIn 1983 I bought a book entitled “The Survival Kit for Apple Computer Games,” which I still somehow have in my library. Not that I had an Apple. But back then, books on computer games were still pretty rare. And there was almost nothing for the C-64 out yet, though I knew many developers were frantically attempting to port their libraries to this new system. So I picked up the book in anticipation of seeing some Apple II classics hitting my beloved machine. I was especially interested in the Adventure games and RPGs (which they called “fantasy games” in the book).

I read and re-read the chapter on Wizardry. This was the game… the Cadillac of RPGs. Later, it would be dethroned by Ultima III: Exodus, which enjoyed a much speedier port to the C-64 and would totally blow my mind.

The cool thing about the book is that authors Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser would not only include some hints and tips for playing the game, but would offer some prosaic paragraphs highlighting interesting or key locations in each game. In so doing, they would inject a little bit of their own imagination into what was otherwise pretty rudimentary, workmanlike in-game descriptions.

Between this book and tons of other reviews and descriptions of the game from other sources, I envisioned Wizardry as a glorious masterpiece of programming and game design virtuosity. Sure, I understood its limitations as a self-taught programmer, and I expected nothing that was technically unfeasible or outside the obvious bounds of the design. But I did envision a narrative thread and event-handling that was far more detailed and complex than really existed. But the Wizardry in my imagination was probably closer to what was eventually realized in SSI’s “Gold Box” D&D games (with a touch of Zork) than what players were enjoying in 1981.

But that imaginary Wizardry became my goal as I continued to improve my coding chops and trying to envision where computer RPGs would be in coming years. I was tilting at a pretty awesome windmill.

I ended up with one “playable” game that in a proud creator’s blinded vision might vaguely resemble Wizardry. It was a party-based game. It allowed you to create characters,which meant accepting random stat rolls, picking a class, and giving the stat-block a name. You’d travel through a randomly generated maze in search of an “orb” – a very original goal I came up with all by myself. The upper-left corner would display basically one room’s worth of walls and doors, and you could turn and move in pseudo-3D. I had maybe a dozen different monsters that would attack, with a little six-note musical fanfare that would play when combat began and ended. I started out by making the dungeon ten levels deep (with 10 x 10 rooms), but ran into memory issues and had to scale it back down to six. I don’t believe the goal of the game – the “orb” – was ever actually possible to find, but some friends and I had some fun playing my little game together one weekend.

Later, I taught myself assembly language and wrote a routine to display a more complex bitmapped world several squares deep, similar to what you’d see in The Bard’s Tale or the SSI Gold Box Games. It was a simple painter’s algorithm thing that could display fountains and trees and stuff in addition to walls, floors, and doors. I failed to think far enough to realize I could render the whole scene in an off-screen buffer FIRST and then copy to the screen – so as you walked you could catch a split-second glimpse of whatever was behind the nearest walls. That project was never more than a tech demo, though. But hey – the visual display was cooler than that of Wizardry!

But it was the design possibilities that really got me thinking. I’m all about exploration in RPGs. And I struggled not only with the technical issues involved in scripting a world big enough for my imagination, but also just coming up with a world as full and exploration-friendly as I wanted. I wanted a world with all kinds of meaning and story.

I’m still tilting at that particular windmill.

(Editorial Note from 2015: And I feel pretty proud of what I accomplished from that tilting, with the Frayed Knights series…)


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Lotsa Little Newsy Bits…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 19, 2015

It’s been an interesting week. There’s been a ton of news from E3, of course, but… that’s not all. Some bits that interested me:

Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy VII would have a remake. They also noted that the remake would not necessarily follow the original exactly. As folks over at respawncomic.com suggest, this could potentially be like a giant piñata – destroy the franchise to cash in big time. Won’t happen, but I literally laughed out loud when I saw this. Anyone who played the original without spoilers knows the feeling.

FF7_Remake_Cash

 

Tonight’s the world premier of Mythica 2: The Darkspore at the FilmQuest Film Festival, and we get to go. Okay, it’s not like frickin’ Lord of the Rings or anything…  but ultimately, I had a lot of fun watching the first one. I hate prefacing it with phrases like, “for a low-budget indie movie” or something like that, but going into it with realistic expectations left me pleasantly surprised and fully entertained. I hope my expectations for the sequel haven’t been raised to unrealistic levels. I look forward to just having fun, hopefully being entertained by a fantasy movie, and hanging out with some folks at the after-party.

 

Rumors have spread for a while that Ouya was for sale, with the latest being that they were in serious negotiations with Razer. It looks like it’s actually a done deal, simply not made “official” via announcements yet. I’m not sure what to make of it yet, though I doubt Razer bought them to kill the competition. Both as a gamer and as a game developer, I want the whole microconsole concept to succeed, but I admit that it’s tough seeing how it can be positioned. If I really wanted a “secondary console” in my house (and I have several already), why’d I choose an Ouya over the PS2 Slim, when they are both approximately equal in capability and cost (new), when the PS2 still has tons of high-quality games that I haven’t already played on my PC or phone? Lately Ouya seems to have repositioned itself as more of a general android game distributor rather than console maker.

shenmue3I can’t think of much of a segue other than the fact that the Ouya was once a Kickstarter record-breaker, and right now so is Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue 3. The original games were the killer exclusive for the Sega Dreamcast, but with the early death of the platform, so was the case with Shenmue. Apparently it became the fastest game project to ever pass $1 million in funding, doing so in less than two hours. I’ve heard it has some additional backing as well. Bottom line – it looks like the long wished-for conclusion to the proposed trilogy is finally going to see the light of day through a method that was virtually unheard of when the series was current.

Well, cool.

And finally, we have yet another entry into the VR fray – StarVR.  Sounds like 2016 – 2017 will be the years of VR hardware becoming the “it” platform. Which sounds good, until you realize the microconsoles like Ouya were anticipated as the “it” platform a couple of years ago. There’s quite the spectrum of possibilities, but as someone who’s been anticipating this for over twenty years, I’m crossing my fingers.

Have fun!


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[Archive] RPG Design: Solving The Brute Force Problem

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 18, 2015

This is a previously-published (and lost) article from many years ago. I’ve discussed it a few times, but usually in reference to this original article. I’ve edited it a little bit and reposted it here. The sad thing was that when I wrote this, Gary Gygax was still alive and kicking butt. *Sigh*. Anyway, now that I have more design experience than when the article was originally written, and now that some new games that have been both bad and good examples of what I’m talking about, I’ve been able to dust things off and rewrite the conclusion a bit to be more… um, conclusive.

tomb-of-horrors-classic-coverI remember reading an article by Gary Gygax (the co-inventor of roleplaying games…) where, at a gaming convention in 1999 or so, he ran one of his classic modules. He was aghast at how horribly and quickly parties were wiping out. He’d run the adventure many times in the past many times, and while it always had a reputation for being deadly, he’d never seen players fail so rapidly and consistently before. Some veteran players (who had even played through the module before, back in the old days) came up to him later and asked what they had done wrong.

His response (as I recall) basically came down to the fact that they were trying to “brute force” the dungeon. He then launched into something of a gentle tirade against modern adventure design (and the influence of computer games on them). “Old school” adventures didn’t expect the party to “clear out the level.” That didn’t really start until the late 80’s or so.

That stuck with me.

The actual game rules for old-school D&D were pretty simplistic. The fighter was the “beginner” class for the game, and the hard decisions of the combat system for fighters consisted of “Who do I try to hit this round?” You could pretty much predict the mathematical probabilities of an all-fighter combat (for higher-level characters, at least, where lucky / unlucky rolls weren’t a make-or-break situation) with a pretty high degree of accuracy. All those combined dice rolls resulted in one heck of a bell curve. You could break down combats into pretty much a damage-per-turn calculation on both sides, a race to zero hitpoints, and the conclusion could be determined before the first blow struck.

Hmmm…. sorta how most MMORPGs work these days. What’s the DPS of that sword, again?

Now, apologists for the “old-school” RPG systems (specifically Dungeons & Dragons) maintain that the lack of rules for doing anything else aside from swinging at your opponent are a virtue. The intention was for players to be creative with their characters actions, and the human game master (“Dungeon Master”) would then make a ruling on the results. Anything goes.

To a point, I agree. One of the differentiating factors between skilled and unskilled players was how creatively they delt with the challenges of the games. The old “tournament modules” would outfit groups of players with exactly the same characters, and they’d score points based on how effectively they played those characters and used the weaknesses and strengths of those characters, as well as the features and limitations of the environment, to “win” the adventure. You couldn’t just leave a tough encounter for after you’d gained a level or two and could crush it with ease. You couldn’t get some edge in gameplay mechanics over other tournament players. You had to think your way around the challenge.

That, to me, is the essence of RPG gameplay. Well, okay, that and melodrama (spiky-haired angsty teenagers optional).

The melodrama is well-handled in many RPGs. But avoid brute-force solutions and requiring a lot of thought and player skill going into potential combat encounters? Not so much. Especially now that “action RPGs” have started dominating the genre on PC… player skill is too often limited to rapid mouse clicking, being fast on the healing potion selection, and practicing your circle-straffing and aim techniques from FPS games.

Some of this is the limitation of the medium. Without human moderation, it’s very difficult to enable a player to “think outside the box” – both from an interface perspective, and by allowing the game to properly react to a unique situation. Note that while I say, “difficult,” I don’t mean impossible. While I’m not a cheerleader for “realistic physics” in games, the biggest value it can add is enabling the player to use the complexity of the physics systems to, say, build a booby-trap for a monster. Or work out some other advantages.

Some of it is player expectations. Such as in Gary Gygax’s tabletop game. Especially in computer RPGs, where the game lets the player proceed at his own pace, even though it may taunt him (or her) with promises of impending doom and warnings that time is running out. Players are encouraged to simply leave off the difficult encounters until they’ve gained more power and can effectively “brute force” the solution and clear the dungeon. I do this myself (maybe that’s one of the reasons I dislike games that scale to your level).

How do you solve this dilemma? (Editorial Note from 2015: Everything from this point on is new)

  • First and foremost, the game design has to have an open-ended approach to meeting goals. A lot of modern design is built around the idea of scripted, cinematic experiences — to the point where we even have “quick-time events” where the player really just mashes buttons to keep the movie rolling. This is the exact opposite of what we’re talking about here: We want the player to be clever, not to let him watch how clever the designers were. The idea has to be “The player meets an objective” rather than “the player completes activity X, Y, and Z.” While the following suggestions suggest concrete ways of meeting this design goal, they’ll be useless unless they feed into the overarching vision. While a lot of it is pretty scripted (at least in the early version that I played – and it sounds like this is a big part of the reason it’s been so slow reaching completion), Iron Tower’s Age of Decadence has really taken this perspective across the board.(And before anyone says anything… yes, mea culpa. Frayed Knights is not designed this way, although it has some elements of this. But I’ve got a bunch of ideas for what I’d like to do after the series is done that do take this approach).

 

  • Divinity_OS_SS32Secondly, you need open-ended gameplay with a significant level of general-purpose interactive depth. Basically – you need a more simulation-oriented world. This means you don’t just have a scripted area where you can drop a rock on a monster’s head… you need to make the world full of rocks and other things that could be dropped on monster’s heads. Divinity: Original Sin recently made some good strides in this area, with ways the environment could at least be used to the player’s advantage. The Thief series – particularly the earlier games – also offers some good examples of a flexible tool system that allows multiple ways of “solving” problems.  Several newer “sandbox” games have taken this approach, but you don’t need to be a sandbox game to do it.

 

  • Third, the reward system should not favor a “brute force” solution over a more clever, subtle solution. This means that if the game awards experience points for killing a monster, it should give experience points for outsmarting, negotiating with, defeating via other means, or even bypassing the enemy. It’s tough when we’re so focused on risk-vs-reward and we know that the player has actually minimized their risk. That’s why point #1 is so important – it requires a bit of a ‘paradigm shift.’ The player must know that in the long run, they are not losing anything or missing out on anything by trying out alternative solutions.

 

  • Fourth – even though scripting is generally avoided, during the early stages, the game will have to train the players to keep an eye out for alternatives by pointing them out. It’s not something we’re used to these days, and we’re not used to being allowed to think outside the box. In conjunction with this, the game should deliberately (at least in early stages) provide challenges that cannot conveniently be “brute forced” (but personally, I feel it shouldn’t necessarily be impossible to brute force, either).

 

  • Fifth – as a bonus to make it “stick” – the game should recognize the player’s use of alternative solutions. This is again part of the “training” thing, but it’s a really nice reward to hear in-game/in-context that the player’s cleverness or or weirdness was somehow recognized and appropriately responded to.  This reinforces the “anything goes” approach. And frankly, it’s just fun… it’s a continuation of the interactive world.

 


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XBox chief promises that this time they are REALLY REALLY PINKY-SWEAR serious about PC Gaming

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2015

From Gamasutra:

XBox chief admits Microsoft “lost its way” in PC game market

“There have been times in our past where maybe Microsoft has lost its way with PC gaming,” Spencer said, adding that games are critical to Microsoft and Windows’ success.

REALLY? No kidding?

You know, this might be encouraging if we didn’t hear EXACTLY THE SAME FRICKIN’ THING every single time Microsoft releases a new version of Windows. “Oh, gee, we totes ignored games last time, but THIS TIME we’ll do better, I promise! Install our new version of Windows, and we’ll make gaming rawk for you!”

Gee, remember that gigantic “Games for Windows Live” push that they made, even buying up Computer Gaming World magazine and re-branding it as proof that Microsoft was BACK with Vista, baby, and gaming was a key part of their strategy?

Yeah, turned out that was nothing but marketing hype, and they killed the magazine once the marketing drive was over.

Yes, but this time it’s different, we’re promised in an article from before the interview.

Oh, yeah. And don’t worry, we’re not competing directly against Steam. Nope.

And Hitler really only wanted Poland. Okay, no, I’m not trying to compare Microsoft to Hitler on any broad basis, Godwin’s Law objectors. I’m merely saying that the camel just wants to stick its nose in this here tent for a breather, that’s all, promise!

Yeah. Promises.

What does Microsoft really want?

I think it’s pretty obvious that they want the App Store for Windows. They want a piece of the action for every single program sold for Windows. I’m not saying they are going to get it, but they are trying. They keep trying and failing. Games for Windows Live. Windows Marketplace. And now, making the Windows Store the exclusive sales channel for Metro-style apps, that was a major shot across the bow. Oh, sure, conventional desktop software will continue to be nice and open. Just like DOS-based apps… you can still make and distribute those, you know.

But guess what’s going to get the red-headed stepchild treatment in the future, assuming  they manage to get enough traction and not screw things up this time around?

Anyway – bottom line, Microsoft keeps holding the football like Lucy van Pelt, promising to hold it so we gamers as Charlie Brown can kick it to the moon. Who knows? Maybe this time it’ll be different. It could happen.

Honestly, I want to believe. All Charlie Brown-like.

But while Windows 10 seems like a nice step away from what I felt was kind of a nuclear option with Windows 8, I’m still hesitant to see Windows as my own future in PC gaming. For now, it’s a convenient port in the storm, still, and I suspect Windows 10 will be pretty decent. But as a game developer, I’m still no longer considering it a primary platform. Just “one of.” I’ll keep using third-party engines that support easy multiplatform development.

 

 


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Sequels and Remakes

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 16, 2015

I was paying a little bit of attention to the some of the big unveilings at or just before E3. I saw articles in the media complaining once again about all the sequels, remakes, and reboots. The list is impressive… on my end, I’m kind of excited about a Final Fantasy VII remake, and Fallout 4, and the new Star Wars Battlefront, and… somewhat by Doom (just Doom, not Doom 4). So yeah, I get excited about the sequels / remakes too.

Games based on existing IP always seem to make up the bulk of the E3 announcements. And yeah, as budgets have risen, so has the ratio of proven titles to new IP. So they aren’t wrong there.

But here’s the funny thing – and again, this is hardly new this year: The bulk of the media coverage has been on this existing IP, while there have also been quite a few brand new titles announced which have gotten scant coverage. Why? Because the very market forces at work that drive the release of sequel after sequel are at work on the game news sites. They want the page views, so they go with the tried and true. A whole lot more people will be checking out their take on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate than will be hunting for information on For Honor. These companies need eyeballs for revenue, and so they write articles about… the highly anticipated sequels.

In my mind, if a particular site is complaining about the plethora of games milking existing cash cows, but isn’t devoting the majority of its virtual ink to the new IP out there to remedy the situation… or at least doesn’t provide a mea culpa to go with their complaints, then perhaps they should consider their own glass house.

As for me, I’m going back to work on my sequel to IP that hardly anybody has heard of…

 


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Old and New

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 15, 2015

This is the week of E3… the video game industry’s biggest show. There are going to be a lot of games and game-related things announced this week. I’ve gotta admit, as jaded and cold-hearted as I may be about the mainstream biz, I’m a little excited. Bethesda opened up with a preview of Fallout 4 that… okay. Yes. I’m feeling a little bit bonkers about it. And the new Doom could be cool, too, maybe.

There’s also the news that the XBox One will be made backwards-compatible with “a selection” of XBox 360 games. Wish I could get excited about that one, but… nah. I’ve got my 360. Maybe I’ll get something newer. Someday.

Meanwhile, the sales at Steam and GOG.COM rage on. My wallet has taken some hits, I admit.

But this isn’t a news site. So while I’ll be reserving some space here this week for some new stuff, I’m also going to be posting some archive content for the next couple of weeks. These are articles from the old blog before I nuked the site from orbit for security reasons (it was the only way to be sure), generally ones that people have been requesting access to, or ones that I know have references to ’em.

(Let me know if there are any favorites that have been lost… I’ll try and dig ’em up.)

Anyway, I hope this week is a nice mix of new and old!


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Oculus Rift Unveiling

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 12, 2015

oculus_rift_consumerVR: Coming to a living room near you soon. Like within 9 months.

Oculus VR has announced their consumer product, available in the first quarter of 2015. 

Including a new set of positionally-aware controllers called “Oculus Touch.” In addition to traditional buttons and sticks on the controllers, it also recognizes gestures made by the thumb and index finger.

In spite of how sick I was the last time I spend time with the technology (on a DK1 device), I am petty excited about this. I really want to play Underworld Ascension on VR. And honestly, I’d love to make VR games… but Frayed Knights, heavy on the text, ain’t that kind of game. That’s why I’ve been waiting for the consumer release, rather than jumping on a dev kit. But one day… one day in the not-too-distant-future…. it’ll be happenin’.

Hopefully not accompanied by a desire to hurl my lunch.

UPDATE: And they want indie games for the platform. $10 million worth of indie games, apparently:

Oculus Offering $10 million budget for indie games on the Oculus Rift

 


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Utah Digital Entertainment Meeting – June 2015

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 11, 2015

StayTalkingAudienceLast night I went to the fourth meeting of the newly-renamed Utah Digital Entertainment Network. It was the first one I attended, mainly because they’ve been doing better at getting the word out and because my friend Steve Taylor of Wahoo / NinjaBee Games was the guest speaker, talking about “Building a Game Studio in Utah – Lessons Learned, and What’s Needed.”

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was really impressed. The meeting was on the top floor of the Zion’s Bank building in the heart (literally) of downtown Salt Lake City. While it remained a less formal meeting, it had a much, much different feel from Utah Indie Night. That’s actually a good thing for both. They serve different purposes.

The UDEN meeting was more professional and structured, and fit in with their goals: To be a point of connection between all these businesses, schools, organizations, government, and events happening in this combined field here in Utah, so that we can all stay coordinated and provide a more unified front to improving opportunities in our state for ourselves and others in our fields.

Or, in other words, to make Utah a mecca of digital entertainment – including filmmaking, animation, online publishing, and of course video games. The thing is – for years, it really has been pretty strong in this respect, it’s just that it’s sort of a well-hidden. That’s a big purpose for this group – to get the word out, both internally and externally, and help things grow. If we all know what resources are available, we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel on our own.

The meeting was therefore a hodgepodge of information, announcements, and suggestions. They announced everything from the annual softball tournament between local game development companies to opportunities at the local universities to the big conventions coming up. A section of the time was devoted to helping introduce people involved in the community to encourage networking.

The networking was supposed to only be the last half-hour of the meeting. But… yeah. It kept going. In fact, I owe emails to a couple of people at this point (sorry!). Tons of talent, entrepreneurial skill, ideas, and stuff happening for one meeting. It was a great experience, and I’m excited to go to the next one!

For more info, you can check out the official UDEN website, or their facebook site.


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



Frayed Knights at Salt Lake Gaming Con

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 10, 2015

SLGC2015The new Salt Lake Gaming Convention is going to be at the South Towne Expo Center August 6th – 8th, and Rampant Games will have a booth there showing the current build of Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. The playable demo will likely be the same dungeon as last time (it’s short — that’s the whole point), but with a whole bunch of new features, and more complete (and balanced!) gameplay and tutorials. I hope to have something of an “attract mode” that will show some other areas and aspects of the game.

I will be there in conjunction with the Utah Games Guild, their “Arcade,” with some awesome local developers. I’m really looking forward to this – for demoing the game, it’ll be a LOT better than Comic Con, I’m pretty sure. If you happen to be in the area and want to visit, please come visit! It’s gonna be a big party! Here’s the blurb from the site:

Another major convention is coming to Utah!

Over 25,000 gamers will be attending the Salt Lake Gaming Con (SLGC) when it visits the South Towne Expo Center during August 6th-8th. This three-day convention will focus on video games, tabletop games, and cosplay. The convention will feature top game developers from all over the country who will be demoing their games and running tournaments. We will be hosting tournaments for different skill levels so everyone has the chance to participate and have fun!

In addition to interacting with major game developers, fans will have the opportunity to meet some of the biggest celebrities in the gaming industry. We will also be hosting and promoting nightly parties and concerts as part of the SLGC weekend—access to these events will be free with purchase of a 3 day pass.

The main goals of SLGC are to provide as much fun as possible to convention goers and to eliminate the less pleasant aspects of a con. SLGC will provide constant entertainment throughout the weekend offering entertainment, attractions and activities for everyone and anyone interested in attending the con.

I’m really looking forward to this. This will be HUGE by pre-Comic Con standards, but with a totally different focus. It’ll be exhausting, I’m sure, but it will also be a blast. I’d say “I can’t wait,” but ho-lee crap we’ve got a lot to get done between then and now!

Salt Lake Gaming Con, August 6-8: http://www.saltlakegamingcon.com/

 

 


Filed Under: Dice & Paper, Frayed Knights, Game Announcements - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



Learning to Fly… Among Other Things

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 9, 2015

Today, I want to talk about hardcore flight simulators. And Rocksmith 2014. Very different games, but I think the former could learn a little from the latter. And for today’s song, Rocksmith 2014‘s entry for Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly”

I love how Ellison pulls out the slide during that solo. That’s definitely not required by Rocksmith, but it works with or without. So aside from this song, what could this possibly have to do with flying?

Flying the Hard-Core Skies

dcs_a10_cockpitI used to fly the virtual skies a lot. My flight simming days probably culminated in a few titles that came out about sixteen years ago: Falcon 4.0, ATF Gold, and Longbow II. Yeah, I was always about the combat flight sims. I actually enjoy the civilian flight sims too – planning a flight, going by instruments or just enjoying the scenery in a really good simulator. But for me, the ultimate fun was yanking and banking in an airborne weapon. Maybe I was too influenced by the movie Top Gun, I dunno…

I preferred realism. The more realistic, the better. I wanted to believe that – except for the obvious physical issues (cockpit space, G-forces, monitor limitations, etc), I wasn’t “cheating” – I wasn’t doing anything a real pilot couldn’t do, and I was going through exactly the same process. I wanted to live out that particular fantasy, I guess. I studied books on the subject. And around that time frame, the games were starting to get pretty dang realistic – not only with graphics, but with their ability to simulate aircraft systems with reasonable fidelity. Not only that, but playing online with or against other players became not only possible, but relatively easy.

dcs_heli1The trick was – and is – this: It takes a long time to train a real fighter pilot. In an extremely realistic simulator, you could be expected to spend a similar amount in virtual “training.” You can’t just “kick the tires and light the fires.” Sure, the basics stay the same: Once you know where the throttle, pitch, roll, and yaw controls are (plus cyclic and collective on a helicopter), you can easily get a “feel” for any aircraft and tool around the sky enjoying the sights. Figure out the controls for the flaps, landing gear, taxi steering, and a way to look around the nose of the aircraft (and get a decent idea of the stall speed), and it’s not rocket science to get a plane on the ground in good visual conditions.

CliffsOfDover1It’s everything else that kills ya. Especially in a competitive environment. If you don’t really have your stuff down, you will be convinced the more experienced players are cheating. How can they fly so much faster, turn so much tighter, or keep evading your missiles? Or if you do something like trying to take down a bomber in a World War II simulation, and discover just why they positioned the guns where they did. You really need to know your own aircraft as well as your target in order to exploit its weaknesses without getting turned into scrap yourself.

Dialing it Down a Notch 

Back in the day, even those of us who adored the complexity of Falcon 4.0 had a lot of fun playing ATF Gold. It was still a simulator in every sense – allowing you to fly dozens of modern(ish) military aircraft from several armed forces around the world – but the controls were far more simplified. Or, I guess you could say, automated. Whereas in Falcon 4.0 you had to go through a tricky manual process to get a lock on a ground target for your Maverick missiles, in ATF Gold it was as simple as hitting the “Next Ground Target” button, and deciding if that was the target you wanted or not.  However, the practical effect was that while a pilot in Falcon 4.0 (or in real life, I have heard…) might need to be lucky and skilled to get two Maverick shots off in a single pass, a pilot in ATF Gold could launch all six of his Mavericks in a single pass, and it wasn’t even interesting. However, within those generous parameters, it was still a simulator.

While flight-sim vets had no problem getting used to it, it could still be daunting to beginners. But the weapons and vehicles all more-or-less behaved according to their real-life parameters. We had some really tremendous online battles in this game. It was realistic enough, I guess. At least someone didn’t have to clock over 100 hours of cockpit time in a single aircraft to have a hope of having fun.

atfATF Gold is the kind of flight sim I don’t seem to see these days – the “mid-level” simulator. it seems that you’ve either ultra-hardcore-realistic (even to the point of blowing away the standard of what we thought was ultra-realistic back in the 1990s), or totally arcade-style with only some semblance of simulation.

Now, in theory, you’ve got a whole bunch of tools to “dial down” these ultra-realistic simulators with cheats to make them a lot simpler to fly, including an arcade-style flight model, simplified avionics and radar systems, unlimited ammunition (always my favorite), and other tools. These are great if the player even understands what they are and what they do. Even the simplified avionics might require some detailed explanations.

We Need More Than Simplicity

So here’s where I draw the parallels: Flying a realistic aircraft is a challenge in a simulation, particularly with modern instruments. Even flying a World War I era aircraft in a competitive or combat environment (like the excellent Rise of Flight) isn’t easy, but it’s quite within the realm of anybody’s capability, given some training and practice.

ROF1Kinda like the guitar.

And that’s where I’m getting to the parallels. We don’t have the “mid-tier” flight sims anymore, so anybody who might have fun playing Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters or Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and would like to try something more realistic doesn’t have a clear path. The next step up has a really steep, frustrating learning curve. It’s… like the difference between playing a plastic Guitar Hero controller and a real guitar.

The thing is, learning new skills and exhibiting mastery over skills are inherently fun. We just do a very good job of sucking the fun out of things in our schools. But learning by doing – particularly by playing – is hardwired in our brains’ operating system as fun. A lot of simpler games understand this, and their approach is pretty straightforward. Level 1: You learn and practice a new skill. Level 2: You learn and practice a different skill, built on top of the skill you learned in Level 1. Level 3: You test both of those skills with a twist, like against a boss. Level 4: Learn and practice a new skill. Repeat.

Rocksmith pulled this off to train people to play a real guitar. They made the learning process fun (and in the 2014 edition, made the learning process far more effective. No, it’s not perfect, nor is it (or anything) enough to motivate someone who doesn’t have a serious desire to be able to play competently. But it does a lot to help people get through the grind of the intermediate skill levels and have fun while doing it.

Why can’t these hard core flight sims do the same?

Okay, yeah. “Budget.” I totally get that. It is a tall order – especially since these flight sims aren’t quite the money-makers they once were, and the hardcore ultra-realism is freaking expensive to develop. But these games need to do a better job of making the learning curve more fun to climb. Like Ed GrNot just dry lessons, but giving the player games to play while they learn. Flying through imaginary rings in the sky, scoring strafing runs on stationary ground targets, little “turkey shoots” against airborne drones (or just more stationary targets), speed runs, stuff like that. Combine that with instruction and make an entire training path something that is fun to play for the dozens of hours necessary to get competent with the systems.

DCS_F15In addition, these simulators should start with the simplified “cheats” turned on by default, and more… the game should automate certain activities as an invisible co-pilot until the player is ready to manually take on that workload. Let the AI handle the electronic countermeasures and dropping the chaff and flares for a while, until the player disables that option. Maybe the AI could assist in handling the flaps, slats, landing gear, trim, and fuel mixture for a while (informing the player of what it is doing the whole time) so the player can focus on the critical mastery of the stick, rudder, and throttle. Oh, yeah, and the guns. Gotta use the guns!

In a properly (but optionally) structured approach, the whole process can be a lot of fun, and the player can be taken from an experience not a whole lot different from playing these “arcade simulators” all the way up to the full complexity of a modern combat aircraft in DCS World. That’s how to develop a new audience.

Not Just Flight Simulators

Now, everything I just said about these hardcore flight simulators apply to every single game genre out there, particularly those that tend towards being complex and harder to get into, like strategy games and role-playing games.

CliffsOfDover2“Beginner” shouldn’t just be easier opponents.

And we shouldn’t be stuck with dry tutorials. In fact, going through a “tutorial” level in an RPG is one of my least favorite activities, mainly because it is so rarely done right. A tutorial shouldn’t feel like a tutorial… it shouldn’t feel like something you have to “get through” to get to the fun part. While it may necessarily be staged to teach you skills, it should be fun all the way until the training wheels come off. Like the impatient Ed Gruberman wanting to trash bozos with Ti Kwan Leep right now, we don’t want to go through boring training for weeks before we get to the “fun part.” And we shouldn’t have to choose between “fun” and “depth.”

But if you take the theory of fun that “fun” is our brain’s reaction to learning and mastering new skills, then this is something that could be and should be supported throughout. These games should always be introducing new skills, new activities, new things to do. And many of them do (kinda), at least on the first play-through. For strategy games, this can come as part of a tech tree (a reason why it’s so common in popular strategy games…). For RPGs, this comes as the inclusion of new character abilities.

Perhaps they can do a better job of helping the player learn to use these skills. In many casual games, there are fewer options and the level design is structured around this process. But a “smart” virtual coach in these other games could certainly make suggestions and help out.

Yeah, as a game developer, I think, “Ugh, one more thing that’s gonna be costly and painful to add.” And yeah, maybe. But maybe it simply comes down to a better way to handle tutorials, something more player-driven and doesn’t try to teach the player everything up-front in training and expect them to remember it after they’ve not had a chance to play for a month.

If nothing else, if game designers start thinking of these things in terms of staged learning, of helping the player have fun from the moment they click “New Game” from the menu all the way through dozens of hours of gameplay, it’ll be better for the games and for gaming. We shouldn’t have to wait to have fun.


Filed Under: Design, Flight Sims - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



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