Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Dungeon Crawling: Ten Ways It Is More Than “Hack & Slash”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 24, 2015

a1_slavepitsI saw an article not long ago that was equating “Dungeon Crawlers” to more action-heavy, monster-bashing RPGs. It’s what we used to call “hack & slash.” The article maintained that this was the essence of old-school D&D.

I disagree. Vehemently.

I have no doubt that some people played D&D that way back in the day. I’ve played in those games. The term “hack & slash” was, IIRC, coined back in that era as a way to describe “those kinds” of games. Gamers back then considered it an inferior (and, ultimately, boring) way to play the game, but frequently how the newbies did it because they didn’t know better, and running combat with dice was a novelty. Very few people kept playing that way, because they grew bored and either quit the game, or played the game more as it was … ahem… intended.

If you go over those old modules that epitomized old-school dice & paper “Dungeon Crawling,” you’ll find that at while combat opportunities about, at least in the better-known modules, many of those encounters depart from straight-up fisticuffs. And if you look at one of the best-known (and deadliest) adventures of the 1st edition era, Tomb of Horrors, there is something like a grand total of two combat encounters – and neither are straightforward.

What did they have instead? What did the rest of the classic modules have in spades that defines the “Dungeon Crawling” experience for me, which is very much removed from “Hack & Slash”? This is pretty much my list of “what elements make a CRPG awesome”, but here goes (with some examples):

VaultDrow#1 – Tactical challenges: Combats with exceptions to them to make things interesting. Usually this involved geography that played to the advantage of the monster being fought. Like the fire giant encounter with narrow walkways along a river of fire – the giant would hurl boulders at party members to knock them off the path and into the flames. Or the demons in Queen of the Demonweb Pits setting high on a perch who would use their telekinetic abilities to lift characters high into the air to engage them – splitting the party and introducing the problem that if you kill the thing that’s keeping you up 150′ in the air… you may still not survive the encounter.

To get an idea just how nasty these kinds of tactical challenges the players could face when fighting monsters in their home turf, read Roger E. Moore’s editorial about Tucker’s Kobolds. In fact, you want the essence of a good dungeon-crawling, old-school adventure, that’s a fantastic place to begin.

#2 – Role-playing encounters: Theoretically, any encounter was a potential role-playing encounter. But many times, the modules encouraged players to negotiate their way through an encounter – even to the point of making allies in the “dungeon.” And there were some encounters that were likely to end badly if the party opted for the brute-force approach, encouraging stealth, negotiation, or trickery.

#3 – Puzzles! Yep, lots of puzzles. From characters or statues asking riddles, to head-scratching devices that were not only difficult to solve, but difficult to figure why the wizard who built the dungeon would put something like that in his lair.

#4 – Exploration and Secrets: If you look at the Gary Gygax-penned modules, half the treasure (which was worth most of the XP back then — the main source of XP was supposed to be from obtaining treasure, an early form of objective “quest XP”, NOT combat as is commonly and mistakenly believed) was hidden, disguised, or had some other “trick” to obtain it. Or in some cases, hidden in plain view but likely to be disregarded by the players. There were things like a magical sword hanging on a wall that had an illusion cast on it to appear like a torch (I think that one was in The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but there were other situations like that), secret panels that could only be opened by the players discovering the trigger, etc.

#5 – Traps – Many of the traps were intended to be discovered and disarmed by role-playing rather than rolls. While entertaining, it did kind of undermine a thief’s major role in the party. But still… it could be lots of fun figuring out how to disarm, avoid, or subvert a complex trap. While I guess modern Diablo-like players might hate the idea, but I loved how the threat of an ambush or trap or other danger around any corner or through any portal paced the game at a more thoughtful level.

TOH_ResourceManagement#6 – Resource Management – that was a large part of what the old D&D games were about. You didn’t “clear a level” (let alone a full dungeon) in a single push. Your resources would deplete – health, magic, potions, even food and light sources. You’d make repeated forays into the dungeon, and it was always a case of having to juggle the advantages of pushing ahead with making sure you had enough to safely exit. Which brings us to the next one…

#7 – Reactive, Dynamic Dungeons – the monsters weren’t intended to just sit on their keisters waiting for the party’s next attack. Between forays, the denizens of the dungeon were expected to make changes and mount a better defense the next time around. That required some DM creativity (which could be hard to provide on-the-fly, granted).  Monsters would have patrols (or at least there’d be “random encounters” to simulate the same). The monsters were expected to gather or hire reinforcements to assist them the next time around. In very old-school D&D, the dungeons almost had a mind of their own, with rules for doors

#8 – Physical Challenges – there was a standing joke about all the different swimming rules for D&D, because lacking an ‘official’ method at the time some of these modules came out, each designer created their own rule system as one of the challenges in the module. But there was often one or more areas where players needed to either try their luck (and adapt when they failed) climbing / swimming / diving / balancing / jumping / breaking / forcing / racing / dodging / resisting / dancing / whatever, or they needed to figure out a clever way to circumvent or reduce the risk of the challenge.

#9 – Open-Ended Problem Solving: This is a tough one in CRPGs, and many players (and, sadly, DMs of the era) have a tough time wrapping their heads around the idea that you could attempt anything to resolve problems or stack the deck. We think of it as “cheating,” but back then it was simply good playing (within reason). Challenges weren’t necessarily set up to be “fair,” and the spells and abilities weren’t rigidly “balanced” either. You took advantage of what you head. Like the Tucker’s Kobolds story… instead of taking the stairs or elevators you use spikes and ropes to descend an air shaft? Sure. You disintegrate a trapped door rather than deal with the consequences of facing both the trap AND what’s on the other side? Okay. Collapse the ceiling on the hydra rather than fight it? Sure, but it will alert the rest of the dungeon and make collecting the treasure (and the bulk of the XP for the encounter) more challenging.

#10 – Weird, bizarre situations: They’d happen. They made things interesting. They really defied logic and physics even in a magic-rich world sometimes. They broke the “rules.” If overused, they’d get annoying. But once or twice, they were interesting. Things like anti-magic zones, anti-gravity zones, statues that would grant one wish (or the reverse of your wish), “wild magic” areas where anything could happen and spellcasting could be very risky, dimensional gateways, bizarre area illusions, mirrors that would create evil opposites of the party, technology or ideas appropriated from popular movies or books with the barest of rewrites to make them vaguely “fit” in the fantasy setting, that kind of thing.

All this is what I think of when I think “Dungeon crawling.” And yeah, “crawling” is right – the pace was of necessity slower and more methodical. Except when it wasn’t.  And sure, it had its share of straight-up battles that wouldn’t be out of place in a Diablo-like. They were great fun, in moderation. But a true, old-school style Dungeon Crawl was, and should be, so much more than that.

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

The Big Steam Roguelike Sale

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 23, 2015

I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed over how many of these are in my library right now. Not all from Steam – I have some through GOG.com, some through Desura, and at least one stand-alone direct from the developer.

Whatever… now, if you ask how many I’ve really, earnestly played to a point where I got pretty familiar with it, that number dwindles somewhat.

But whatever the case… I guess now is the time (between now and April 27th at least) to get your Roguelike / Roguelike-Like / Procedural Death Labyrinth love on.

Steam’s Roguelike Sale

I hesitate to give recommendations, because so many I haven’t played enough to really get a firm feel of them, and I’d probably end up recommending half the list. But if I were starting my collection over, I’d probably choose Spelunky, FTL, EldritchTales of Maj’Eyal, Dungeons of Dredmor,  Desktop Dungeons, and Delver. I will be adding Crypt of the Necrodancer and NEO Scavenger to my collection as it is, because I’ve heard good things about them.  I have Steam Marines, Risk of Rain, and Rogue Legacy in my collection already and really look forward to playing them, but I haven’t yet. Oh, and The Pit is pretty good too. Dang. There, I went and recommended half the list, didn’t I? And now I feel bad for the ones I didn’t mention, and I know some of ’em are pretty good. There are also some good ones that are conspicuous for their absence from the list…

Ah, well. Anyway, cool stuff!



Filed Under: Deals - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Five Questions New Indie Game Developers Should Ask Themselves

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 22, 2015

DontFeelLikeDevA recent survey found that most authors make less than minimum wage. Must game developers do, too, although I’ve arrived at that conclusion purely through anecdotal evidence. Seriously, on a per-hour basis, I’d do far better flipping burgers at McDonalds.

Daniel Cook wrote not too long ago about Minimum Sustainable Success in the games industry. His point is that even as a low-budget indie, it’s still a hit-driven industry, and as far as playing the numbers is concerned, the chance of releasing a hit game that makes up for all the failures is diminishing in glutted market.

If you want to get really brutal about it, there’s the cockroach analogy.

Making a living on your creative efforts is not only “not easy,” it can be frustratingly difficult, requires a long-term commitment, and the road is fraught with peril and an easy death (well, bankruptcy) as a business. There’s a lot more to it than just “doing what you love.”

And yet – with my emphasis more on games than on writing – I still see people coming in with a get-rich-quick game idea that they believe nobody has ever thought of before (mainly because they haven’t done their basic research, yet consider themselves to be “idea” people).

Look, I love games and game development. And I am a big cheerleader for people wanting to jump into the indie game development arena. I always have been. It’s never been easier to make games. I love people being empowered to turn their ideas into something real. But as encouraging as I want to be, I would also encourage people to do a little self-assessment as they jump into game development.

Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t know whether or not its for you until you try it. And usually, that first experience is a troublesome, sometimes rude awakening about the realities of the process. The question is whether or not you emerge from that process feeling energized by the challenge, or thinking there’s no way it was worth it.

Sure, there are days that motivation can be hard to find, because it is hard work (like the included comic suggests). But ultimately, there are some questions an aspiring indie game developer should ask himself or herself. If the answer is solidly “no” to any (or especially most) of these, some reconsideration might be in order.

#1 – Do I really want to make games, or do I just want to see my game idea made? (In other words, am I asking for help, or am I asking people to do the work for me?)

#2 – Am I willing to get my hands dirty doing the hard work, learning new skills, and and growing?

#3 – Am I willing to suck at it for a while, and admit to the world that I might not be heaven’s gift to game development? (If your ego is too wrapped up in this, you might never be able to release a game to the public.)

#4 – Is the process of creation as exciting as the final product to me? (Granted, some parts of development might be less exciting than others…)

#5 – If this game were to utterly fail, would I still keep making games? (Assuming you could afford to do so)

The last one is the key. Creators create. They find it hard not to. The challenge isn’t in the creation, it’s in honing skills and learning how to create things that are of worth to others. There are too many people in the games industry today (even the indies) who put that cart before the horse, who consider “monetization” as their primary goal, and their designs all feed into that. That’s the glut that I see in the games business.

In the end, making games – or any other creative product – is a long-haul gig. It’s about the journey, and hopefully turning it into something sustainable to you can actually live on what you love doing. Yeah, paying the bills is critical. I get that. But the first step is not figuring out how to make money at it. The first step is learning how to make something worth people spending money on. Once you can do that, then you can start worrying about all the details of how to turn it into something that will pay the rent.


Filed Under: Game Development, General - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

How does it feel to get my butt kicked by an 11-year old girl?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 21, 2015

How does it feel to get my butt kicked by an 11-year-old girl? Hmmm… Not gonna lie. It doesn’t feel awesome. Although I have known for a while that she’s better than me.

I assumed (correctly?) that the leaderboards were platform-specific, and also assumed (incorrectly?) that this terror of less than a dozen years was playing on a console. But no! It seems her depredations are now on the PC, and her conquests include my leaderboard positions, humble though they may be.

I vaguely recall being #1 in the leaderboards in Rocksmith 2014 for rhythm guitar for Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Maybe I was only in the top three. I’m not #1 in very many songs, so you’d think I’d have that list memorized, but that’s the thing about leaderboards… they change. I haven’t been paying attention, and for the last four months I’ve been focusing on lead guitar more. Whatever the case, I’ve been bumped down to #5. And one of the people doing the bumping last month was Audrey (“Audrey123Talks”), an 11-year-old Japanese girl.



She even recorded the event. Obviously, she specifically wanted to humiliate me with her own solid 100% performance and better timing.

I became aware that this pitiless pre-teen was dominating the leaderboards in my efforts to break into the top ten on this song on the Lead part (which is almost identical but for a different solo). I’ve only cracked position 17, and I saw her handle, sixteen names above me. Number one : Audrey123talks. Crap.

I hope she does not discover the rhythm part for Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance. I’m holding on to the #1 position only because of it’s relative obscurity (as Rocksmith 1 DLC)… and because people haven’t realized that the rhythm part on that song is way more fun than the lead. That’s not always… or even usually… the case, but it is for that one. I’m not at 100% accuracy on that one, so I know fer sher that my score is pretty beatable.

Based on the video (and my limited experience), I’d say this also points out the weaknesses of Rocksmith-only training (which is what I believe she’s doing… thus becoming one of Ubisoft’s favorite success stories). She’s going to have to have some training and practice to correct some of the habits that don’t get corrected / prevented by the game, but it’s clear she has learned her way around the fretboard pretty well.

Better than me, at least…

Sigh. Yeah. She kicked my butt. She earned it.

Filed Under: Guitar Games - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Releasing a Game Has Grown Much Harder?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 20, 2015

GSB2_SS5According to Cliff Harris, releasing an indie game in 2015 (in this case, Gratuitous Space Battles 2) is much harder in 2015 than it was only two years ago. Or, as he says it: “Of more interest will be what I’m learning about releasing a game in 2015 vs one in 2013. Holy f**k, its got harder. [H]ere are some observations.”

Cliff is a seasoned pro who’s been doing the indie thing successfully for a long time, so his opinion carries a lot of weight for me:

Well my game is on sale…time to relax? Ahahahaha

It’s worth noting his observations, but the general points are – the price-point “race to the bottom” is continuing in full force, with people now ignoring launch discounts while waiting for the seasonal 50% sales. It’s increasingly difficult (and expensive) to get any attention to a new game. And it’s really hard to get people to leave Steam reviews.

For the price-point problem, I am being programmed to follow that behavior too, especially when I have more games than I have time to play right now, anyway. Unless I *really* want to play it as soon as it launches, I just assume it’ll take me a year or two to get around to it anyway, and so I’ll snag it when it goes on sale. I think the real solution to this is going to have to be on the developer’s side (as we are currently seeing in a handful of AAA titles) – rewards exclusive to early adopters / launch customers / full-price customers, etc.

As far as getting attention is concerned – I wish I knew the answer.

That last one though… this is something I think we gamers who love indie titles can contribute to. Try to leave reviews – especially if you really like the game. It’ll both help inform future customers, and help the game gain more visibility, so you are helping both sides with very little effort. The audience of this blog tends to be the kind of game fans with informed opinions, so I think your reviews will be very helpful to others.

Anyway, as always… have fun!

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Teasing Us From a Long, Long, Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 17, 2015

Well. I wanna be skeptical. I want to be unbiased. I’ve been burned. We all have. Many times.

But… but….


Okay, there’s a very slim chance that maybe, MAYBE you may be here and not know what I’m talking about. This was just released:


I think anything I’m about to say is just joining a chorus of voices. A whole bunch of us old fans had exactly the same experience – which this teaser is exactly trying to evoke. We all became 10 years old again, for two minutes. Argue all you want, but if the final movie in December manages to recapture that for two full hours, it’ll be a win.

Although, in reality, I was eight when I saw the original Star Wars… which was, I believe, just “Star Wars” then – not “A New Hope.” But for me, The Empire Strikes Back was the film. I guess I was eleven when that one landed, and I was able to understand what was going on much better. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. Another Star Wars, only better. The characters gained more depth. Excellent lightsaber battles. The big reveal about Darth Vader. The awesome Imperial March music. “I love you!” “I know!” The cliffhanger ending. Man. THAT, to me, was what a sequel should be. I watch this, and this hope springs that maybe, at long last, I get another Empire Strikes Back.

But the tiny voice of caution in my head is saying, “Hey! You felt that way when you saw the teasers for The Phantom Menace, too!” And it’s not wrong. In fact, I just re-watched that old trailer, and … it hurts. I haven’t seen it in years, and now it reminds me of how drastically the final film differed from my imagination. The movie in my imagination was way, way cooler than the final result. I feel the disappointment anew.

But dang it. That impossible-looking droid in the teasers is actually a real robot operated by remote-control, not a CGI effect. And that’s possibly the one thing that I’m latching onto as evidence that this movie is going in the right direction.

UPDATE: Yeah, this:

After seeing the new Star Wars trailer

Filed Under: Movies - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Indie Books, and Book Length

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 16, 2015

I’m still a newbie to the author world. It’s been exciting to learn new stuff, and of course to have my stories published and actually make money at it. Not a lot of money, especially for the time put in, but I feel like I’m still in training. I probably always will be, if my experience making games is any indicator.

But right now – both at the stage I am with writing, and the stage I’m at with Frayed Knights 2 development, I’m having a whole lot of fun.

So far, I’ve still been focused on short stories. Recently, I had some questions about how big novels should be – and learned that like many things in life, there may be a formal answer, but wildly varying informal answers. Part of the source of confusion for me was that when I was  a kid, often reading older / used novels, they weren’t very big. But through the 1980s and 1990s, they seemed to balloon in size. It wasn’t a strictly linear progression, but it did seem like a trend.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), for the purpose of its awards, refers to a short story as being less than 7500 words (in which case, I’ve never published a short story), and a novel as being over 40,000 words. If it’s bigger than a short story but less than 17500 words, it’s a novella. Bigger than a novella and smaller than a novel, then it is a novelette. Sound clear?

But what constitutes a word? Yeah, there are different rules, but for the most part, it’s handled pretty loosely.

Is 40,001 words acceptable for a novel? Well, your publisher may not think so. Or they might. It may depend on genre and audience. 50,000 words would probably be considered too slender for even a “young adult” novel, but about right for middle-grade audience; whereas for an adult audience 70k is more of your minimum size. But again, these are loose.

As for the ballooning size through the 80s and 90s – I’ve heard it explained from multiple folks who seem to be in the know, but I haven’t independently verified it. But based on the explanations:

As big publishers continued to scale their operations through the 20th century, they streamlined and optimized the print and distribution process quite a bit – including buying up printing houses and so forth. They got to the point where – on the scale they printed – the difference in cost for doubling the page count was negligible. So a novel of 180k words cost only a few pennies more to print than a novel of 90k words… yet the publisher could tack a couple of extra bucks on to the cover price.

Of course, the bigger word-count also means more time spent writing, more time editing, more time proofreading, typesetting, etc. So those fixed costs went up. But if sales were equal (and high), bulking up the books meant more revenue. Thus there was some subtle upward pressure on the word count.

With the indie revolution and the emphasis on e-books, that’s reversed itself fairly sharply. At least that was my perception. And again, the same explanation applies. With e-books, page count doesn’t matter… and e-books are really where the indies are making the money. And there’s not a whole lot of audience incentive to pay more for a bigger book. So it makes more sense to publish two 80k-word books than one 160k-word book. Thus there has been some downward pressure on word-counts for the indies… and not a subtle one, either.

This also explains another phenomenon: Why some books (mainly indies) are so much cheaper in their e-book format than in paper format. I was confused by this when I first started dipping my toe into reading digital format books. I’m still pretty old-school: I consider the paper version to be superior to digital versions. Although lately, more of my reading has been done using my Kindle reader. But I still have that perception, mainly because the paper version doesn’t require any support (like a device or a service) to be able to own and read. Also because I like getting author signatures. So if the inferior and superior versions are the same price, why would I not buy the paper version?

Some of this was probably due to publisher resistance to the digital format. But perhaps a greater reason was that they’d streamlined and optimized this whole paper-publishing / distribution system so much that the cost per unit (to them) was super-cheap. Not as cheap as almost-free distribution of digital copies, but still cheap. The main costs were fixed – editing, proofing, marketing, etc. And those costs, for a big publisher, can be significant and require a lot of books sold at full price to cover.

Indies, on the other hand, tend to have smaller costs to recoup. And they don’t have the massive optimization and economies of scale on the print run, so costs for hard copies can be significant. Therefore, big “discounts” on the digital version of the books. For a self-plugging example, the digital version of Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology is 65% less than the paperback.  It’s a big, fat book of stories (all of which would probably count as novellas by the SFWA).

Anyway – this may be useless trivia for most, but it helped me understand a bit more about what’s been going on in the world of fiction.

Filed Under: Books - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

And a content-free post!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 15, 2015

I was starting a blog post last night when I got the call (around midnight), and had to rush into work. Until about 4:30 AM. Went home, slept, showered, and came back into work. So… although I have about five half-written blog posts right now, none are ready to go up.

So today we’ll just have a content-free day.  I guess I have to devote some time once again to getting “ahead” in my posts so that this sort of thing can happen without messing stuff up too much. In the meantime, catch ya on the flip side.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 5 Comments to Read


Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2015

GreatScottA friend ordered me a book for my birthday. Unfortunately, it hadn’t arrived on time, but they’d given her a PDF of the book in the meantime. So to tide me over until the hard-copy’s arrival, she gave me a thumb drive with the PDF on it.

“Do you want the thumb drive back?”

“No, it’s only 8 gigs,” she answered.

I gave her an amused look. I think others in the room caught it and got the joke. Most of us are old enough to remember the era where memory was measured in K, not M or G (or, increasingly, T). But 8 gigs today? Hardly worth the effort. I mean, those things cost like $0.50 a gig now?

Q: If every one of my 170k floppy disks for my Commodore 64 were loaded onto that thumb drive, how much room would I have left over?

A: Almost all of it. I mean, I’d guestimate that I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 disks. Assuming they were all at full capacity, that’d be less than 21 Megs. Not quite enough to fill up my first 40-meg hard drive for my 386, which is itself further back in history from the present day than the Commodore 64 was from its own. That would take up something like 0.2% of the thumb drive space.

And Yet….

I’m not going to complain that things were better in the C-64 days (or my old Sinclair ZX80 days with 1K of RAM). No, some might, but I won’t. The C-64 gaming space was kinda like the indie game scene today. Only… the indie scene is even more crowded. There were tons of games, some good ones, some that looked phenomenal for such limited graphics capabilities. I won’t even say games haven’t improved much since then. They have.

Although… it does feel like progress has slowed.

Not for things that can be measured in megabytes or gigabytes. AAA games have kept pace with the increase in computing power and memory / storage capabilities just fine. We have realistic sweat on characters who have faces with more vertices than the Atari 800 had pixels. For what it’s worth, cool. We’re putting that stuff to good work. Better graphics. Better sounds. Better UI. There’s nothing BAD here. They can present their own challenges, but at their heart, they are good things.

But they aren’t the extent of the quality of the experience.

I saw a review of Pillars of Eternity the other day that said it was the best RPG Obsidian had ever done. Sorry, can’t locate the review right now.  Anyway – whether or not you believe that, there’s something very interesting about the fact that PoE – on its very limited, indie budget, which is rooted strongly in older technology  (2D with 3D bits and effects) could knock it out of the park so handily (it has a metacritic score of 90, and I don’t think it’s just got nostalgia going for it).

It’s not just PoE. Or Minecraft. Or Thomas was Alone. Or any other low-budget (relatively speaking) hits that are far behind the bleeding edge of the tech race. It’s simply that there are a lot of layers to quality, and sometimes those can be hidden behind a lot of Michael Bay-style explosions. But playing some of the best indie games these days that have held back from the bleeding edge, I see some fascinating experiments (whereas the bigger games, for all their higher production values, tend to adhere closely to the tried and true) or a honing of older styles to a razor-sharp edge.

Even for those games, it’s nice to have the luxury of all of that memory and CPU speed and graphics hardware. But it really just means that you can focus on making the most of the technology rather than making it all work.

I titled this after the McGuffin of the movie Back to the Future – which was released as long ago this summer (30 years) as the era Marty McFly traveled to in the movie. While we don’t have a Mr. Fusion today (sigh…), in the movie, in 1985, 1.31 Gigawatts was a big deal but attainable (with plutonium stolen from terrorists). 30 years in the past, it was a complete impossibility without for pre-knowledge of a lightning strike. 30 years in the future (2015), it was supposedly trivial. But throughout the sixty years touched on in the movie, there was this totally frickin’ awesome time machine. It’s just that the tech needed to power it was easier to obtain.

Okay, in my head, it sounded like a cool analogy. And worked with the 8 gigabyte story. Bottom line: Tech doesn’t create coolness. It simply makes coolness easier to power.


Filed Under: Geek Life, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

Geek, Game Developer, Author, Dancer (!!!)…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 13, 2015

When I was a kid, I dreaded growing up. As far as I could tell, once I grew up and had to become a responsible adult, life would be boring.

Yeah. About that. Not so much. If anything, the opposite.

Granted, some of the things which I consider kind of fun now would have seemed a little boring to me as a kid. All I know is I had a lot more occasion to “be bored” when I was under twenty than I have since.

This weekend we had two events put on by the Utah Winter Faire folks – the “Geek Boutique” and the “From Venice to Xanadu” Gala. The Geek Boutique was basically a geek shopping / gaming opportunity, with some of the vendors often found at conventions or Renaissance Festivals selling stuff, gaming tables, etc.

I got to play vendor again, which isn’t exactly super-exciting, except I managed to almost sell out of all of my copies of Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology. That was pretty cool. I think this was the first time I sold books at an event that I didn’t lose money. I think when taxes, fees, and book costs (to me) costs were all combined, I didn’t actually make any money either, but hey… it was a non-loss (or at least a trivial loss), and I had a lot of fun meeting people, talking about geeky things, signing books, and eating some excellent Texas BBQ. Good times!

And hey, it’s marketing, I guess.

The following night was the gala, in which I was a ‘playtron’ – our cost for a most excellent dinner and fun-filled night was to perform with our group, Clockwork & Gears Vintage Dancing. Yes, I’m dancing. How I got roped into this I’ll never know, but now I’ve been doing it for a year. But it’s exercise, which we geeky types can always use more of. We had a very good time. We weren’t the only entertainment of the evening – there were also belly dancers, and pictures, a full-sized TARDIS (members of our troupe tried to test the “bigger on the inside” thing and found that at least our replica…. was a little  crowded. (I was a latecomer and so didn’t fit in the box…)

Sadly, I didn’t get any good photos myself (I was kinda busy…), and I haven’t had time to ask permission to post others that haven’t been made public, so… you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’ve heard this (or something like this) might become an annual event. That’d be cool, but oh, my weekends… my precious weekends. Maybe I’d like a little more boring…

One point of conversation during the weekend was how events like these are beginning to feel a little like family reunions – for our extended geek family, I guess. Some folks we know well, other folks we recognize, and there’s always some new people to meet. It’s a good time.

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

Why I love science fiction

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 10, 2015

I have never known the moon upon which man has never set foot.

I realize that most of my audience here is in the same boat. In my case, technically I predate the Apollo 11 moon landing by just a few weeks. It changed in my lifetime, although I was far too young to recognize it.

The moon was once so unattainable that it was almost the definition of impossible, a cliche – like the expression, “to promise the moon.” But someone imagined it and wrote stories about it. Actually, lots of someones, and lots of stories. And then, one day, while I was still learning to crawl, we had the one giant leap for mankind. And suddenly, a trip to the moon was old hat, commonplace. The impossible was now no big deal.



My early childhood included plenty of fantasy, from stories I was told to my books and children’s shows. But like many people my age, it was a particular movie that came out when I was still very young that left a lasting impression on my life. There was something very special about it… then and now.

And while you can call it “science fantasy,” for an impressionable young boy it was a revelation. Back then, movies were in the theater only, and there was nothing else like it to be found. Instead, I found books. Lots of books. I wanted more stories like Star Wars.

I found some. Many (at first) were kid’s books, like Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars (the whole series), Slobodkin’s The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree series, or Abrashkin and Williams’ Danny Dunn series. But I didn’t limit myself to age range, and I was soon reading a combination of the younger stuff as well as more mature fare from authors like Ben Bova, Andre Norton, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, Fred Saberhagen, and Keith Laumer.

I discovered that science fiction could be serious or funny. It could be optimistic or paint a brutal picture of humanity. It could give us visions of the future, or provide us a lens to view ourselves in the present. It could have a message about who we are and should be, or simply tell stories of particular individuals caught in impossible situations – impossible from the perspective of the writer in that time frame. It can be a parable with a real-world theme, a soapbox for an author to preach from (not my favorite), an exploration of character or humanity, or a rollicking escapist adventure – or all or none of the above.

I read about alternate worlds. I read about cool, “impossible” technology in the modern era. I read about time travel. I read about the future. I read about cyborg tanks and friendly robots, life on Venus, and life on Earth after a nuclear war. I read about great big ideas and little tiny trivia. I wondered how much of it I’d end up seeing in my lifetime.

There was also the TV. Star Trek was (mostly) older than I was.  Battlestar Galactica – that was a fun year, cheesy as that show was. I caught turned onto Doctor Who and old Twilight Zone episodes. Buck Rogers (more cheese!). But it was all great fodder for my young imagination.

And I discovered video games, which could (imperfectly) give me another venue to live out these science fiction fantasies. But it always seemed like the inherent limitations of the written word were also advantages, allowing things to be expressed that just didn’t translate well to video or to games.

My GPA suffered when I discovered The Stainless Steel Rat. More great Harry Harrison humor.

I read Dune without realizing it was supposed to be way above my fourth-grade level.

I wanted to make movies.

I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, or Han Solo.

I wanted to build a computer in my bedroom before I really understood what computers did, and I tried to build a space ship in my backyard starting with the seats (which was about as far as I got).

In fact, I learned a lot about the world – and science itself – from science fiction. Sometimes directly, as there is a lot of real science, meticulously researched, to be found in some of those ‘hard’ science fiction novels. Sometimes  indirectly, as a story inspired me to look things up and find out how things really worked.

I still wonder whatever happened to the copies of Analog and Asimov science fiction magazines I collected in middle school and high school. It wasn’t extensive or anything, but I had several copies and I’m not certain if I ever read every single story.

When Cyberpunk became a thing, I was right there, devouring books by William Gibson, Walter Jon Williams, George Alec Effinger, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, and several others. I read Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic and thought it would make an absolutely incredible movie. Then the movie happened, and it sucked. I was angry an Keanu, although it wasn’t his acting that destroyed it. But he redeemed himself in The Matrix, which seemed to borrow a bit from Gibson’s vision. For a few years there, in the late 80s / early 90s, I was all about using technology to take the revolution to The Man, whoever The Man might be.

Naturally, I was also excited about fantasy as well – pretty much all speculative fiction. Even a bit of horror. Actually, with my love of Dungeons & Dragons, I loved the mash-up between fantasy role-playing and science fiction found in Larry Niven and Steven Barnes’ Dream Park series. (Actually, I just looked that up and discovered there was a brand new book in that series published just a few years ago that I was unaware of! Gotta read it!!!!) I was amused at how the technology actually seemed to downgrade over the course of the novels and become more and more realistic. If you followed the announcement of Microsoft’s HoloLens, then we might have much of that technology now – or very soon.

Lately, some of my favorites have included Lois McMaster Bujold’s absolutely incredible Vorkosigan saga, and Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series. I’ve got a ton more books on my Kindle reader I’m trying to get to. Recently, I really enjoyed Brad Torgersen’s debut novel, “The Chaplain’s War,” good ol’ fashioned military SF / Space Opera and a powerful theme of how completely alien cultures with nothing in common except a mutual desire to exterminate each other on the grand scale can come together on the personal scale through common experiences and hopes. All of these somewhat more recent books (recent to me, at least, although The Chaplain’s War was just published last year) prove to me that any concern I might have about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to” can be put to rest. There’s still plenty of awesome science fiction coming out right now that could proudly stand on the same podium with the classics.

In the end, I’m not a super-fan. Not like the rabid kind I used to read about.  Not like the kind that hit the con circuit year after year, who devour genre books as fast as they are printed. And not like a few friends of mine, who read more genre books in a month than I’m likely to read all year. I’m a slow-burn fan with huge gaps in my knowledge and experience. But that’s okay. I grew up with this love of stories  of the implausible, coming back with visions and warnings of the future. I grew up loving the genre, with feelings very much like what Wil Wheaton spoke of about what’s awesome about being a nerd.

And while we nerds who love these kinds of things can be prone to fits of nerd-rage, and can get into incredible fights over who is stronger, Tarzan or Flash Gordon. I still want to believe that we’ll eventually find that common ground, like in Torgersen’s novel, and come together over the important things. Things like the need to keep telling ourselves stories of what may yet be, so we can inspire each other and future generations to make that next giant leap for mankind, to make things that were once impossible into the commonplace.

Filed Under: Books, Geek Life - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

RPG Design: Leveling Up the Game

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 9, 2015

I’m an overachiever. I want bonus XP (eXperience Points). I want to hit the optional sub-quests and pick up the extra-cool Butt-Kicking Boots of Bophram which will be a nice boon to my butt-kicking for at least three more levels. Which I’ll go through a little earlier than “average” because, hey, I like bonus XP and I like being a little over-prepared for the gatekeeper bosses.

If a game doesn’t offer this, I start feeling some RPG fan equivalent of claustrophobia if a game doesn’t offer these kinds of opportunities. Even if I’m not having any problems dealing with the difficulty progression, when the drip-feed of progression (in terms of gold, equipment, and experience points) is completely on the designer’s schedule without any amount of control on my end, I feel more hemmed-in and railroaded than I do in an otherwise linear plot.

But the flip side is that you get the positive feedback loop problem: The extra work is rewarded by… making the game easier. For the very players who needed an easier game the least.

Back in the arcade days, this positive feedback loop was actually a mechanism to terminate the game faster. The game was balanced around the player being good enough to hit the power-ups. If you couldn’t do that, you’d likely lose a life, and the game would end more quickly and demand another quarter. Sadly, it feels like some RPGs are balanced that way as well… if you don’t pick up on some of these “optional” activities, then … well, you are in for a rough boss fight.

But then is the optional content truly optional?

Or, there’s that other twist that has become something of a joke in certain JRPG games – you defeat the toughest enemies in the world to obtain the uber-weapon, but now, what do you need the uber-weapon for? After that, you’re just showing off.

I’m really not fond of auto-scaling content to match the player’s level, because then the designer is punishing the player for making progress.

My approach in the Frayed Knights series has been to balance the game around the player hitting *some* of the optional content. If you skip all of it, it’ll be difficult but possible, and if you play all of it, he game will just be kind of easy towards then end. I took a similar approach to character advancement, balancing around a sub-optimal (but not deliberately pointless) “builds”

But that’s not super-satisfying to me. In a perfect world, and an ideal game, completing the optional content and getting ahead of the character power curve would unlock an optional increase in difficulty in the main quest line (as well as an increase in story content), and maybe some additional optional content down the road. In other words, I want to be able to choose whether or not to face scaled-up content, and have the storyline scale up to explain it. But it shouldn’t be in such a way that it cheapens the ending for those who finish at “normal” difficulty… like saying, “Oh, hey, you never faced the boss’s REAL final form” or something cheesy like that.

Of course, that’s a lot of extra work for RPG developers. But it’s worth exploring.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

When It All Just Works

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 8, 2015

I think I managed to damage myself working in the Torque Game Engine for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Not meaning any disrespect for the people who developed and improved on it, as it was pretty dang cool for its time, but I kept finding things that I needed to do were really, really clumsy to do within that framework. I think it made me a little gun-shy of making certain changes or implementing some kinds of features.

Maybe it’s just my increased familiarity with Unity, but I am still frequently amazed at how I want to accomplish something that would have been a nasty 3-day long project (given my part-time schedule) in another engine, and I find that things just … work. In this particular instance, what I thought was going to be a little bit of an onerous task was something like 10 lines of code – and it worked perfectly on the first try.

This isn’t just Unity. It’s how I build stuff. I don’t meant that in a pat-myself-on-the-back kind of way… I mean it in a way that Unity matches my style. Or that I’ve adapted my style to match Unity. Probably a little bit of both. That’s something that doesn’t get talked about a lot when we go into the big developer arguments asking “Which engine should I use?” Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. You want an engine that fits your style… but the engine may very well shape your style, too.

So now I get people asking me how I like working in Unity, and my answer is, “I don’t know. Most of the code that I work on is game-code, and I don’t realize I’m working in Unity.” That’s a good thing. Sure, it surrounds and structures everything I do and how I do it – but once I get comfortable within that framework, I find that most of the time I’m working on game logic or UI code. These days, more UI code.

But ultimately, the whole point of working with a third-party engine is so that it can do all the heavy lifting for you and then get out of the way so you can focus on making your game. That’s the goal. For me, Unity does a better job than any other engine I’ve worked with. For others, they find a more natural fit with something else, like Unreal, Game Maker Studio, or something else entirely. It’s all about finding something that works with you – not necessarily the featiue – list.


Filed Under: Programming - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

How the Arcade Biz Really Works

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 7, 2015

Stuff I didn’t know….

I was a child of the arcades. That’s where my minimal income from chores went each week. I think it was interesting that while I had a couple of peers that fantasized about running an arcade one day, my own fantasies were about making the games. I lived out this fantasy by learning to program games on home computers (mainly my Commodore 64).  I ended up making video games for a living – which in spite of it’s challenges and frustrations is still admittedly a cool gig – but the time of the arcades had largely passed by that time. And where they used to be found in every mall and in some cities almost on every other block, they are very rare animals today.

Eric Yockey shines some light on the realities of the arcade business (and why video game arcades have largely vanished in the modern era) in this article at Gamasutra:

What Really Happened to Arcades

An excerpt – and one of the more obvious issues with making arcade games:

“Day-0 patches may be common in the rest of the games industry, but arcades do not get that luxury, and therefore time spent in QA is much longer, and simplicity in game design to avoid logic errors is strongly encouraged. The arcade industry has evolved somewhat from the days of mailing out repair boards to all your locations whenever Shang Tsung starts to march across the ceiling (I may be dating myself with that reference), and internet access is largely ubiquitous among arcades, but developers cannot assume that their machines can receive updates and that operators will be willing to bother themselves with your problems if online updates fail. And this is especially true when most operators have an attractive alternative.”

Interesting stuff! Okay, for me, we’re talking a big part of my childhood, so it’s downright fascinating. But I hope you find it interesting as well.


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: Read the First Comment

The Awards Problem

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 6, 2015

At the Academy Awards in 2014, two of the voters for the film that one Best Picture admitted later that they’d never actually watched the film. They thought they’d have been “disturbed” by it, but voted for it anyway because of its presumed “social relevance.” I suspect that this happens a lot, but it was the first time (to my knowledge) that this was publicly admitted.

Winning a major Oscar can really boost a film’s financial success, so there’s an awful lot of behind-the-scenes campaigning, scheduling, and so forth to snag one of these awards, especially if it’s not a typical formulaic crowd-pleasing ‘blockbuster.’ But if this sort of thing actually happens a lot, it really brings into question the quality of the awards. It doesn’t matter about the quality of the film, only the behind-the-scenes award campaigning.

This weekend, the Hugo Awards – which historically has been a pretty influential and prestigious award for science fiction and fantasy – announced their nominations to something of an upset. The bottom line is that while there was always the kind of ‘behind the scenes’ campaigning by an inner circle with their own preferences (and political and social agenda), another group has taken this sort of “legal, but gauche” campaigning out into the public. This resulted in a record-breaking number of members and voters but a major “invasion by barbarians” reaction from the long-standing old guard. Both sides have their own views of what “fair” means, but the “invasion” (called the “Sad Puppies” campaign) was a direct result of these competing visions – what was fair to one group seemed completely unfair to the other. We’ll see how things shake out in the long run.

Extrapolating from Gaming

Now, I kind of embarrass myself talking to some friends about this who REALLY know their SF & F – some on both sides of the argument. And I’ve got friends in the movie business who know the industry a lot better than me, making me entirely unqualified to argue with them over what’s going on in that community. I’m just jaded enough that it takes more than a formulaic summer blockbuster or a by-the-numbers pot-boiler to get me excited, I can’t have the same level of vocabulary or experience as these friends. What is still new and exciting to me is old hat to them.

I do know a thing or two about games, though. Not a lot (it seems the more I know, the more I realize how little I know), but at least an above-average familiarity. And I do see some of the same problems appearing in the games biz. This concerns me. But it also brings to mind questions about the purpose of the awards and of the judges for these awards.


When an award achieves a certain level of popularity, it can affect overall sales. This makes sense. Having an “independent” and somewhat trusted validation of the quality of a work elevates it above the usual marketing hype. But once there is some real monetary gain associated with an award… well, it’s no longer just recognition. In some ways, it becomes a sponsorship, or a grant. There’s a lot more competing pressures going on about how to award the prize.

For example, there’s the pressure to give the award to the most deserving. For example, of you have Creation A and B of nearly equal quality, but Creation A is already a success with plenty of media attention, but Creation B is relatively unknown, Creation B would definitely benefit far more from receiving the award, there’s going to be some subjective weighting to Creation B’s advantage.

Then there’s of course the social pressure of these overt or more subtle campaigns. If you hear a lot of your peers suggest that Creation A is somehow landmark and important, awesome, and that all the smart / good / perceptive critics are impressed by it, and you are faced with comparing A and B together and they are both in the same ballpark quality-wise, there’s a lot of pressure to vote for A. After all, you are smart, good, and perceptive, right? You don’t want anyone to perceive you otherwise. Even if you don’t “get” why Creation A is so excellent, you may be influenced to vote that way anyway just because that’s where all the other independent thinkers are voting, and they must know something you don’t.

The flip side of this is simply the popularity factor. Somewhat counter-balancing the desire to award the most needy, there’s a tendency to go with the familiar.

Then there’s the comfort / time factor. This is especially notable with games. Bottom line – the judges and voters have limited time, and it’s been made abundantly clear that most judges don’t play all the games in the major awards. This weights the small, tiny games that get to their point (and may basically be “done”) within the fifteen minutes. But as noted above with the Academy Awards, some judges may shy away from the more challenging fare and base their vote on the campaign buzz instead.

Then there’s simply the fact that the folks who are involved enough to participate as voters / judges may simply be so jaded that they need some novelty to catch their interest. Well-crafted twists on an old, familiar theme level them cold. So whereas something like The Avengers may thrill the mass-market audience and be considered by the vast majority of the best movie of the year, the critics have all felt that they’ve seen it before (and seen it better) in previous offerings.

What is “Fair?”

While you’d hope that all these factors (and tons more that I didn’t mention) balance out into some reasonably approximation of “fairness.” I do believe that in at least the major awards I mentioned above and some major industry awards in games, the majority of judges / voters really do try to toe the line or at least make the most ethical / fair decision that they can. But it also means that the calls for reform and improvement will frequently be justified. There’s no way to make these things perfect, but there may be times where the purpose or approach of a particular set of awards ought to be called into question and re-evaluated, and maybe the process should get overhauled to better fit reality. That, or maybe the barbarians gathering at the gate will crash the party and force the issue.

And maybe there’s a point where new awards need to get set up and promoted. For example, I point to Craig Stern’s discussion about the bias against role-playing games in the IGF awards (and probably the same could be said for Indiecade). By “bias,” I mean results, not necessarily the judges’ subjectivity. But the whole way the judging process is structured works against long-form games. I don’t see any easy way to “fix” that.

And fundamentally, that’s the challenge that we face in these industries where we do want to show public recognition for people doing really cool stuff. If it was easy, there’d be little value to it.

Filed Under: Biz, Books, Movies - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Frayed Knights: Things to Do in a Dungeon (on a Saturday Night)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 3, 2015

FK2_Vault1_ss6One of my design guidelines for Frayed Knights  is to avoid having too much repetition of an encounter “type” along what is the likely a critical path in my levels.

In other words, I don’t want a dungeon that is just full of similar combat encounters. That’s boring. In fact, I try to avoid having more than two planned encounters in a row that feel too much alike. I developed that rule-of-thumb during the development of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, although I was basically trying to turn my “gut feel” of design into an actual checklist. Of course, given the player freedom to do whatever and the chance of random encounters or patrols, it’s still possible to encounter three or more vanilla fights in a row, but my guideline helps me minimize the number of times that happens.

Of course, having some kind of lock or trap or dialog counts towards that level of variety, but while I don’t have a specific written rule about that, I don’t want a dungeon to follow a formula of fight-talk-fight-trap-repeat either. Nor do I want a repeat of vanilla-fight, vanilla-fight, somewhat-different-fight either. Variety is the spice of life, and it must be the spice of dungeons, too. As a player, I want dungeons to be full of mystery and wonder, even if it’s just an orc lair.

I guess in that way, I kinda follow Richard Garriott’s design philosophy from back in the 1980s (from Shay Addam’s The Complete Book of Ultima): “Assorted activities and the diversity of activities are what makes a game rich in my mind.” When discussing, further talked about FTL’s Dungeon Master – which was pretty revolutionary at the time and a bit of a harbinger of RPG design to come. “I was interested in seeing all the neat new things I could do, and after it ran out of different activities, I was finished.I enjoyed it till that point in time, and was ecstatic for those few hours.”

Of course, that’s all well and good to start as a philosophical standpoint. It’s right up there with saying, “Make sure your game is polished, well-balanced, and bug-free.” Sure, nice goals, but actually achieving that can be a problem. When sitting at the computer at one in the morning trying to be creative figure out something cool and interesting that would give the player something fun to do and would still belong in an old, until-recently-abandoned underground complex. Preferably one that doesn’t require a bunch of new code or new models.

To come up with ideas, I spend time looking over maps & walkthroughs of old games, browse through old D&D modules, brainstorm, or I can do what I used to do when I was fifteen (and had the time!) and just lay down on my bed and daydream. I think the last is probably the best approach, but the first two are good for getting me thinking along those lines.

So if you want to volunteer any ideas, go ahead. Otherwise, it may look like I’m just napping on my bed with a notebook and pencil next to me (I learned the hard way not to do it with a pen…), but really, I’m working hard! I promise! :)

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

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