Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Ye Olde Archives. Visit the new blog at http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/ - and use the following feed: http://rampantgames.com/blog/wp-rss2.php
Ye Olde Archives. Visit the new blog at http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/ - and use the following feed: http://rampantgames.com/blog/wp-rss2.php
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Joss Whedon Rules All
Okay, I'm a ridiculous fanboy. But the trailer to Joss Whedon's "Serenity" just hit Apple's movie trailer site, and it rocks my world.
I am about ten times more excited about this movie than the upcoming Star Wars movie. I never thought I'd say that, but it's true. I'm afraid I am completely biased about this trailer, because just seeing the cast reprising their old roles in something new (and "shiny") after watching the original Firefly episodes about four times each is just thrilling.
The show never got a chance. Hopefully the movie will prove as good as the trailer.
In other news - I just replaced my ailing 30 gig secondary hard drive with a new 120-gig hard drive. I figured it was better to replace it now while I could still pull the data off it (albeit very slowly) than later. And now I have about 100 gigs of extra space on my machine now. Woo! More room to make games! Or something.
Saturday, April 23, 2005
Red-Line Analysis in Mainstream Games
In Jamie Fristrom's blog entry entitled "Finish", he notes that an online marketing survey of the Spider-Man 2 game indicates that only 55% of those responding indicated they actually finished the game. And in theory, this could actually be a lot smaller, as online surveys tend to grab more of a hardcore audience.
Based on my previous blog, entry, that would indicate that there's a Red Line drawn somewhere through Spider-Man 2 where players lose interest and quit playing. Now, unlike game demos, a full-game's worth to a player isn't necessarily tied to whether or not they finished it. In fact, there's some anecdotal evidence that players' evaluation of a game may actually DROP when they finish the game. I guess this is because they realize they've now seen pretty much everything the game has to offer, and there's no more prospect of undiscovered riches of fun to be mined as they make further progress.
But ignoring that for a bit - I've been starting to analyze some games that I've never finished but still enjoyed (for a while), trying to fins out why I never finished them. My collection is FULL of unfinished games that I still harbor illusions of going back to some day (Hey, I just recently re-started Ultima 6 with that in mind... it's the third time I've tried). Some common "red-lines" for me include:
* The save points were spread too far apart for my taste. It's not so much a case of restarting when I die, as having the opportunity to shut the dang machine off because I have a life and family and things I've gotta do. I remember one game that offered lots of respawn positions in-between the save points - talk about frustration! Why weren't they all save-points? I ended up leaving the Playstation on overnight so I could pick up where I left off - and finally shut the game off in frustration a little while later. I never went back to it, out of frustration.
* Frustrating boss-encounters: Level-bosses are supposed to represent some level of challenge that requires a bit more effort than normal to beat. I know that if I defeat one of these "gatekeeper" challenges too easily - without getting at least nearly stomped in the process - I feel it was weak. Getting beaten down once and making a comeback feels heroic. Getting beaten down constantly on successive replays just makes you feel like a loser and makes you lose interest in a game.
* Getting Lost: Probably the #1 "Red Line" in RPGs - getting lost in terms of knowing what to do next. This also occurs in action games where you just can't find the exit to the level even after you've explored practically the whole level eight times, or trying to find that last remaining peon or submarine on an older RTS game.
In RPGs, the most common incarnation is when you are told to go retrieve something and you have no idea where to start (or continue) looking. You need to find the brain-dip ectoplasmer from Dr. Strangeglove, but you have no idea who Dr. Strangeglove is, what continent he's on, and nobody else in the entire world has Dr. Strangegl0ve's whereabouts as part of their canned conversation. The assumption, I guess, is that you found out about him in your starting village *if* you happened to trigger that one conversation. But that was eighteen hours of gameplay ago, and probably something that happened three months ago of real-time, so that you don't remember it even if you did happen to trigger that piece of exposition. Few things trigger my dissatisfaction with a game more strongly than wandering about well-explored territory over and over again in search of something new to allow me to make progress again.
It's funny - I'm going back to play Ultima 6 for about the fourth time. I get stuck on this same point every time. I've talked to several people about the game, and they all tell me they gave up at the same point - finding the pieces of the pirate treasure map. Apparently lots of us "got lost" at the same point.
* Game-Halting Bugs - 'nuff said. I've experienced three of these - two of which ruined games which I had LOVED until that point.
* Unyielding Stress Levels: This is a weird one. But I find that there are some games that I just end up feeling too tired to play. While I love the challenge, a lot of times I play games to relax, to take a break. The difficulty level on some games ramps up to the point where playing the game is mentally exhausting, and it just never lets up. I find myself wanting to take frequent breaks from the game - and when the breaks become longer, I find myself jumping in "cold" into high-difficulty scenarios that were tough when I was nicely warmed up. So I quickly go frustrated with the game and quit playing (or if it was REALLY good, I go back to re-enjoy another level).
Games should take a note from Shakespeare's tragedies - they were broken up by 'comic relief' and had several "peaks and valleys." These helped break up the tension - and make the tense, emotional peaks seem all the more powerful. If you want a challenge to feel more difficult, lead up to it with a few 'cakewalk' sections. It serves a dual purpose - it also gives the player a chance to feel good about how his skills have improved, as he sees how easily he can deal with things that challenged him at the beginning of the game.
Of course, these aren't nearly as important as discovering why players get tired of a game within the first hour of a game demo --- if players have stuck with you far enough into a game, they often have enough of an investment to plow through a few goofs later on. I remember I wasted HOURS of Ultima 7 part 2 trying to get a critical event to trigger that never happened - because of some obscure bug that only seemed to occur on my particular brand of CPU (according to the customer support person I talked to). But players of course shouldn't HAVE to. So I am trying to compile a list of these "red-line" factors to create something of a checklist for the games I develop. A lot of these are hard to notice as a developer, but I'm hoping that if I go through a game looking specifically for these cases, I might find and fix a lot of the "low-hanging fruit" so testers can focus on trickier problems.
Labels: Game Design
Monday, April 18, 2005
An embarassing truth is that I'm a fan of game music. Yes, even the crappy boops and beeps of the bygone era (though I do have my limits). I'm also a fan of movie soundtracks. I guess I'm very audio-oriented that way - the music recalls to my mind the excitement and fun of a particular game - and sometimes nostalgia.
This weekend I discovered SLAY Internet radio - proof once again that the Internet can create communities of people with such weird niche interests that couldn't possibly exist without such a large pool of people to draw from. SLAY radio is devoted to Commodore 64 game music - remixes, in particular. A lot of it isn't much better than the original SID chip warbles (as awesome as the SID chip was back in its day...), but there are some very cool pieces that only barely resemble their source material (and some musical pieces are merely inspired by games or gaming in general, and aren't remixes at all).
Through this (and a recording of an earlier live show), I discovered Machinae Supremacy. They apparently did the soundtrack to the indie shooter "Jets 'n' Guns," which was just recently released. I guess I should not be surprised at that - they are a fun indie band with a real love of classic, old-school gaming. Their vocals aren't great, but I highly recommend their purely instrumental "Sidology Episode 3" and "Great Gianna Sisters." (And I REALLY want to know what happened to Sidology Episode 2...)
Thursday, April 14, 2005
When this baby hits 88 miles per hour...
As a gamer who remembers the early days of the arcade, I sometimes wish I could go back in time, meet my younger self, and show him just where videogames would be like 24 years later. I don't know what the point would be - I doubt I'd have changed my life or anything. I'd just like to say, "See how cool it'll be?!?" Show him Unreal Tournament 2004, or City of Heroes, or Gran Turismo 4. Just to blow my poor, younger-self's mind. The photorealistic graphics. The silky-smooth framerates. The realism. The force-feedback controllers. The massively multiplayer possibilities in an Internet-connected world.
THEN (Pole Position) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . NOW (Gran Turismo 4)
Knowing me, my younger self would probably say, "What? You aren't playing holographic games yet? What a rip-off! And you came back in time just to show me THAT? Dude, bring me something I can USE. Like stock tips. Or a functional lightsaber. Or the source code to that Doom game you just told me about! Well, just leave me that PlayStation2 and the games here with me, please, so I can make my buddies all jealous when they try and tell me about how good their Intellivision is."
Little 12-year old punk. I oughta smack him. Or introduce him to Jar-Jar. Same thing.
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
The "Red Line" in Game Demos
So here's my latest thought-dump.
The Devil is in the Details
Maybe I just have a fragile ego. I read a bad review, look back on my Game-In-A-Week effort, and look at the miserable state of my current project, and think, “Oh, man, I am the Ed Wood of videogames.” The fact that my current Torque project bears a passing resemblance to Plan 9 from Outer Space doesn’t help any. And when I got back to it, after being away from it for a while to do the “Game In A Week” project, I found that the control scheme I previously thought to be “okay” was utter crap. What was I thinking?
In Tim Burton’s movie “Ed Wood,” Wood (played by Johnny Depp) explains his philosophy about movie-making, which was that people only care about the story, and that they don’t care about the details. Whether or not Wood actually said something like that in real life, it’s important advice to remember – and avoid!
Attention to detail is the mark of most quality products. And the lack of such attention is the mark of some utter, dismal flops. My most painful gaming memory is the 24 hours in which I possessed – and for over two hours played and desperately tried to enjoy – “Tresspasser,” the Jurassic Park game. There were undoubtedly some very, very cool technologies in there, and I’d like to believe there were some seeds for some brilliant gameplay. Unfortunately they were contained in one of the most appallingly poor game products I’ve ever seen. From framerates that drove a nearly-top-of-the-line machine to unplayable levels (two frames per second? With a then-modern 3DFX card?), to the ridiculous “waldo” interface, to the super-stretchy arms, to the guns and boxes that were impossible to stop from rolling end-over-end down a 10 degree incline, to the two-item interface, to the completely brain-dead and boring dinosaur AI. Absolutely unforgivable lack of attention to details!
Unfortunately, when you are really close to a game, it can get easy to get used to glaring problems, and ignore those details. Another problem is that with limited resources (and everyone has this problem, from indies to dev teams on $50 million projects), there’s only so much attention to details you can provide – eventually you need to prioritize, know which deficiencies still need improving, which can be safely ignored, and know when to say, “It’s good enough.”
The simple answer is to get outsiders to test our game for us – but getting useful advice from testers can be quite a challenge. During the Test Fest for Void War and Outpost Kaloki, I found that I got more useful information watching players rather than hearing their suggestions later. It’s difficult to sponsor an event like this every time you need a fresh perspective on your game, so having more tricks up your sleeves is important.
Borrowing a Trick from Another Medium
In college, I once sat in on a panel of popular science-fiction / fantasy authors at a conference. The question was raised about how to improve the quality of one’s writing. The universal answer was ruthless editing and revising.
One of the authors (was it Barbara Hambly?) mentioned a trick she uses within a group of writers / editors that trust each other. They read the manuscript WITHOUT the expectation that they will finish the whole thing. They draw a red line at the point where they lose interest and quit reading, and send it back to the author. The author then finds out where everyone quit reading, tries to understand why, and revises the story and sends it back out again. The exercise is repeated again and again, with the goal of pushing that red line further and further towards the end until eventually they find themselves sucked in and finish the entire story. Now I imagine they include additional notes in red ink about the story – problem areas, compliments, etc. But the bottom line is literally the bottom line.
Can this be done with games? A short-story might take an hour or two to read, and it reads the same way every time. A game, on the other hand, may have 10, 15, 20, or even more hours of gameplay, and certainly shouldn’t play exactly the same each time.
But as independent, “shareware” developers, we do have a demo. Often the demo allows around an hour’s worth of play – when it ends, the player should be left hungry for more. While the full version of the game must be a solid extension and worth the money the customer is planting down for it, our success is directly tied to the demo. And I have lost count of the number of demos I have uninstalled from my machine long before the demo time expired. If it were a short story, you could draw a red line where I lost interest.
It certainly seems like there’s an obvious analog in the gaming world to this ‘polishing’ exercise in writing. For my current project, when it reaches “alpha,” I am NOT going to ask my associates to slog through as much of the game as they can, courteously pushing themselves past the point of frustration and boredom so they can try and provide me with a more complete list of issues – and in the process also blinding themselves to the same ugly details that I’m also blind to. Instead, I’m going to ask them to play only to the point where they would make the decision not to buy the game – and tell me where and why.
Now this will have to go hand-in-hand with a more traditional testing process during beta. And I can’t neglect the full version – but chances are the same things that suck or rock in the demo will also suck or rock in the full version, so the benefits of the process shouldn’t be limited to just the demo.
Now, I am still a little ways out (unfortunately) from Alpha, so if anyone else tries this technique out before I do, please let me know how it goes!
Ron Gilbert’s Engine-In-A-Week Experience
I have started following Ron Gilbert’s blog, and I saw today that while I was experimenting with a game-in-a-week with PyGame (Python’s SDL binding), he was doing something very similar, ripping out the guts of Sauce (his update to the classic SCUMM engine) and replacing the graphics side with SDL. I have a helluvalotta respect for Ron as a game developer and designer, so I found his report fascinating. And curiously enough, he’s about to delve into the mysteries of Torque next. I can’t wait to hear his thoughts. You can check it out at:
And the Next Hit to My Productivity Is…
Last night my copy of Gran Turismo 4 arrived. Gran Turismo 3 and Dance Dance Revolution Extreme have been the two “killer apps” for my Playstation 2. Combined with the PS1 compatibility so I can play my old titles, those games pretty much justified my purchase of the box. I lost so many hours in GT3 I lost count – and I am NOT a racing-game fan! At first blush, there seems to be some weirdness with incomplete text that looks like it should be scrolling but isn’t – and some funky HUD display issues on replays that might simply be an attempt to be artistic and edgy. I will try to be disciplined – I will try to be strong – but I’m expecting the addiction to begin anew.
Labels: Game Design
Saturday, April 09, 2005
2004: The year of the Indie
Nope, I didn't write the date wrong. I'm just slow to write about it.
When I was working in the PKI industry (Public Key Infrastructure), every year it was announced that the FOLLOWING year would be the Year of PKI. It would finally "catch on," and the world would be much safer with much less threat of spam, viruses, credit fraud, identity theft, and so forth. Next year we'd finally get 'traction', and it would be a new golden age... and make our companies a lot of money in the meantime.
It never happened. In fact, with the weakness in the MD-5 hashing algorithm, and the recent cracking of the SHA-1 (which was expected to replace MD-5), that year seems further away than ever. Not that digital signatures or Public-Key encryption aren't fantastic ideas... but it's just got a long way to go before it gains any sort of universal acceptance. It's still too difficult and cumbersome for the perceived benefits. It's more of a very slow evolution - we're seeing it now with signatures on websites and downloaded applications.
Around 2003 I started discovering the "independent gaming community." I read a few back-articles proclaiming that 2002 would be the year of the indie, or that 2003 would be the year of the indie... or 2004. When I began investigating what was available, I wasn't too impressed. There were definitely some great titles out there (Orbz amazed me with it's simplicity, originality, and playability - and of course everyone knew about the incredible games from PopCap. And then there was Savage, the "independent" game with a development price-tag approaching a AAA game's).
It may have just been my deepening involvement in the community, but it seemed like things really began kicking into high gear in 2004. First you had the "discovery" of the rabid growth of the casual games market by an IGDA paper - and it seemed like 1-2 fiscal quarters later, everybody and their cousin was getting a business plan funded to create the new casual gaming portal that would, twenty years from now, be the new Electronic Arts. I lost count of the number of new portals springing up. Some are willing to cater to "non-casual" independent games. Others are maintaining a very strict focus of appealing to the stereotypical "soccer mom" demographic of 40-year-old females.
Then you had some really powerful exceptional titles released. If you look at the top 5 games in every category of Game Tunnel's 2004 Indie Game of the Year awards, you'll see some really fantastic titles that should give the AAA publishers a pause (or make them get greedy). My own personal favorites (besides Void War, of course) include Outpost Kaloki, Starshatter, Ricochet Lost Worlds, Anito: Defend a Land Enraged, and Raptisoft's Hamster Ball.
I was also very impressed with games like Aerial Antics, Gish, Alien Hominid, and Lore: Dark Horizons. I think these games all demonstrate that not only are Independent games not confined to 2D puzzle games or clones of ancient arcade games, but that the top indie games can have great quality and production values.
Finally, you had the big deal with Valve releasing Steam and working out a non-exclusive agreement (with much legal wrangling) with Vivendi so that they could also self-publish their game in an online-only release. Bioware is doing similarly with their release of premium Neverwinter Nights modules, and recently Irrational Games released their sequel to the stellar "Freedom Force" game online - the indie way, with no traditional publisher.
The trends that began in 2004 (and earlier) are gaining steam (no pun intended with Valve's delivery system). In my opinion, 2004 was our year - but it keeps getting better. The revolution happened. The fighting continues (and always will), but we're winning. Our time has come. The changes are here - they just need maturing. Let's make the most of it.
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
An RPG in a week
Woo-hoo! I finished another game! Well, kinda. Some blogs I post both here and at GarageGames - but this time I'm simply going to link to the one at GG:
If you want to play a new, free game - I won't say it's any GOOD, but it's free - you can download the fruits of my labors here:
HACKENSLASH - A game built in a week!
So what the heck is this?
Basically it was a dare. Build a game in a week, using NOTHING but free tools / content, WITHOUT using a higher-level engine (some of those are free) - just an API. Since there was no way I was going to get my boss to give me a full week off of work to crank out a game (and my wife has WAY better things for me to do if I find myself with a week off), I decided to define a week as a work-week: 40 hours.
Now, this was an extremely PRODUCTIVE 40 hours. I didn't count time spent web-surfing or answering emails or writing documentation or playing Unreal Tournament when I was SUPPOSED to be working on Hackenslash. So it's pretty close to an ideal 40 hours of time spent working on a game. I used Python + Pygame - raw installation, compiled with py2exe.
There was a learning process involved - I'd only had one aborted 6-hour project done in PyGame before, and I didn't remember anything about how to do it. But it proved to be extremely easy to do.
Now, I fudged a little on the time. I actually clocked in a little over 40 hours by a few minutes - but not 41 - finishing this thing up. The 40 hours was to get me to a "feature complete" condition. Afterwards, I had to spend some time getting py2exe to create a distribution for the game (so people wouldn't need to install Python to play), and fixing up some crash-bugs. After some discussion with Steve Taylor, I was convinced that I'd ONLY fix crash-bugs with the post-development time... so the game has plenty of other bugs from it's rapid development. For one thing, the display to the right doesn't display the player's correct armor class (or some other stats).
I originally intended there to be a much bigger dungeon - with a big quest item at the bottom that you had to bring back to the starting area to win. And there was supposed to be a merchant with whom you could buy magic items and potions from (using some of that hard-won silver for something more than bribes). And LOTS more monsters - I didn't intend it to be a dungeon of only goblins.
My brother even did some great music for the game that didn't make it in.
Oh, well. Five more hours and I could have had a LOT more cool things in the game. But I'm pretty happy with how it ended up. No, it's not the best game EVAR. It's mildly interesting for a few minutes, and I'm pretty proud of the complexity that got in there.
Anyway - I'm anxious to see if anyone else will do the Game In A Week in the future. Consider the gauntlet thrown!