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
Friday, August 26, 2005
Embracing the Kiss of Death
So I’m tackling the “mission impossible” of doing a single-player Roleplaying Game right now, which is a suicide mission by every rational piece of conventional wisdom. Kiss of Death. But I’m an idiot that way. The three things I figure I’ve got going for me are experience (to a point), a somewhat mature engine to work with (Torque), and it’s NOT multiplayer. And though I'm highly committed to the project, I'm still willing to cut and run if it doesn't work out. So I've been very carefully working on "proof of concept" and core engine work to judge the feasibility of what is something that independent game developers Just Don't Do (until they actually DO).
I got to spend about eighteen months of “Blue Sky” design phase on this project, which was delightful. Much of it occurred while I was still finishing up Void War. I got to read a lot of fiction and nonfiction books on the subject matter, listen to a very different style of music, and even talk to a historian (a relative) on the subject. And consult with an editor from the D20 “table-top” RPG industry who has a knowledge of both RPGs and the genre (which has never been used in a computer game before – so it’s a plus for being different, but might also be yet another Kiss Of Death.)
Then comes the really hard, painful stage of scoping down all those really great ideas to something that’s actually remotely achievable, imposing limits, and actual implementation – translating the ideal game-in-your-head to its less-perfect version on the screen. That’s occurred in the last four months, along with early implementation of the basic “engine” driving the game. I’ve posted a couple of blogs about my “proof of concept” stuff I’ve been doing for cutscenes, lighting, and figuring out stuff in Torque.
Lately I’ve been working on the user interface, the “skill” system, controls, and combat. None of this is anywhere resembling final yet – I’m just working on back-end code and using stand-in art resources to prototype the proof-of-concept. So far, it’s been coming along pretty well.
You can see a few tell-tale signs of the RTS Starter Pack I used to give me a leg-up. I’m actually not using very much of it at this point, but it pointed me in the right direction. I’ve had to create some custom UI elements to create animated buttons and images that slide around as actions take place. The character panels have a line of “action tiles” that behave a little bit like The Sims. The player can “queue up” commands to the characters, giving him some breathing room when controlling up to four characters at a time. Those actions can be aborted at any time by clicking on the action tile. Combat is handled in ‘slow motion’ turns to keep things controllable.
I’m also working on some really weird, funky systems to make non-combat activities more exciting. The setting is loosely based on the modern world, so going around hacking up the local citizenry (or even villains) would have pretty dire consequences. Now Joe Maruschak might call me out on letting story (and setting) get in the way of gameplay, but the flip side is that a those very limitations can propel you to come up with fun, unique gameplay that makes sense within a compelling metaphor. Well, assuming you are a talented and skilled game designer. I’m really not, so I’m just hoping I will get lucky.
The other challenge I’m facing is scoping the game. RPGs are typically exploratory in nature, and thus have GINORMOUS content requirements. I don’t have the budget, time, and resources to create something with hundreds of unique locations and a cast of thousands. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve I’m trying to employ to resolve this problem, one of which is to borrow a bit from the adventure-game aesthetic, allowing the same locations to have multiple purposes at different points along the game.
We’ll see how I do. It’s been a couple of interesting and educational months getting this far, and after living and breathing this thing for months (at least in my so-called “spare” time), it’s fun seeing it all take shape.
Labels: Roleplaying Games
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
The Casual Games Industry Sucks Too
Ron Gilbert is a game developer I respect greatly. His work on the the old LucasArts adventure games (Monkey Island I and II in particular) was spectacular - the games are still awesome even today. But he also did a great job with "kids games" (many of which were ALSO adventure games) with Humongous, and he took a chance with Chris Taylor to create a branch within Humongous to create a brand for more adult tastes - in the form of CaveDog and their infinitely cool RTS game "Total Annihilation" (still one of my favorites).
He's got a short update on his blog today, with the great quote: "I was hoping casual games would be different, but it's just a smaller version of it's screwed up drunk older cousin. " Sad, but true. After the IGDA published their first white paper on the tremendous growth of the casual / downloadable games market, it seemed like new "casual portals" started popping up like dandylions about two fiscal quarters later, flush with new VC or parent corporation funding, all eyeing on being the EA of the next decade. (Nevermind that when EA was in its early days, it was actually very developer-friendly and COOL.)
It seems the majority out there are very much as Ron describes. They want only variations on a formula - "Checkbox Innovation". They want to commoditize the developers so that there's no brand identity beyond their own. They have set themselves up to be the gatekeepers (the ones through which the money must pass), and in a recent developers conference they made no secret of their belief that they were the new overlords, and stirred up a lot of resentment from the development community. You can read Brian Hook's Pyrogon Postmortem and see the "evolution" of the major casual games portals in progress. The events of the article are a couple of years old now, and the trend has only continued. As a friend of his put it, it was "the mainstream game industry writ small." Very similar to Ron Gilbert's observation. Many of these portals are very pro-actively steering the industry to make certain history repeats itself.
I've chatted with a few people from these casual portals, and at least the ones I've talked to have been nice guys who care about games. But I guess those are the developer relations guys. Some of these companies really are trying to break the mold. Even PopCap - the poster-child for casual games - is starting to break out and do some more 'core' games, like Heavy Weapon. I've been really impressed with Reflexive Arcade and GarageGames (which is really more of a developer-support business than an indie games portal). And there are guys like Matrix Games out there who are quietly plugging along in their non-casual, non-mainstream niches.
So it's not all gloom-and-doom. Just mostly.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
More Indie Opportunities
The big news for game developers (especially budget-conscious indies like me) is the release of the Quake III engine to the public via the GPL by John Carmack and crew. An interesting comment came from John Carmack: "Anyone working on the Q3 codebase today should just delete all the asm code and use the C implementations. Making a commercial game with fairly high end requirements go 10% faster is sometimes worth writing some asm code, but years later when the frame rate pressure is essentially gone, the asm code should just be dumped in the name of maintainability. All the comments in the world wouldn't change this decision a bit." Does that mean he's dumping ALL assembly language coding in the future? I doubt it. He's saying here that if you are working on a cutting-edge engine, then the speed improvements you gain from assembly language make sense. But it's been 5 years since the Quake 3 code was a "next-gen" engine - if you are really needing cutting-edge, you need to go with a different engine.
It'll be interesting to see what gets produced with this engine by the indie game dev community. I haven't really seen much of anything come out with the previous engines, but I've no doubt they've helped in the education of many game programmers.
My little time-waster these days is Kingdom of Loathing, a humorous web-based massively multiplayer RPG. Ya gotta admire this game - the developer obviously had some halfway decent web programming skills but probably little in the way of artistic skills - it's all stick-figure art. But he's got a wicked sense of humor and an eye for parodying everything from Massively Multiplayer RPGs to 80's pop culture. You get to battle White Chocolate Golems, Knobb Goblin Harem Girls, Undead Elbow Macaroni, and Knights in White Satin, build a meat-car (the currency of the game is Meat), watch a hippo ballet, and raise your three attributes: "Muscles", "Mysteriousness", and "Moxie." It's got an interesting crafting system, and an advantage of having stick-figure-and-text content is that the developer is cranking out TONS of content for the game on a regular basis. It's quite impressive. It's not going to stop me from playing City of Heroes (not that I have time to play THAT one much - some months it's just an expensive comic book subscription), but it's a fun little distraction. The game is free, but apparently he's taking in some money via donations and merchendise. I'm not sure how PROFITABLE a venture it is, but I applaud the effort.
Another web-based game that my daughter got hooked on was Adventure Quest - another little web-based indie RPG. My ten-year-old saved her allowance for WEEKS to become a premium "guardian" in that game, so it's bringing in some money. The game also has a little bit of a sense of humor (though it's not quite the parody of Kingdom of Loathing), and regular events taking place.
A "build-your-own MMORPG" project taking place that I am really excited about is Prairie Games' "Minions of Mirth." It's in an open alpha stage now - it uses the Torque engine and is quite playable in its current stage. There's lots of missing content and rough edges to be ironed out, but the game manages to capture a lot of the flavor of the original release of EverQuest in 1999 (albeit with somewhat better graphics!) This is one of the most ambitious independent game development projects I've come across. If Josh Ritter (the principle developer and head of Prairie Games) didn't have the combination of a solid track record and raw enthusiasm, I'd assume this would be just another one of those bazillions of indie projects that never get off the ground. I really hope this game succeeds on a tremendous level.
These games may never rake in the EverQuest / World of Warcraft dollars, but what impresses me is that they are succeeding on some level that many of the really BIG, high-budget MMORPGs that fail to achieve critical mass never do. That's saying something - there's definitely room to breath, survive, and hopefully thrive as a small indie game developer, even in the woefully overcrowded MMORPG arena.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
In-Game Crime Spree Yields Real-World Arrest
This just in - something I never expected to see. Ever.
So a guy robs some players in a game, and gets arrested in real-life. BIZARRE. I was completely flabbergasted when I read this. WHERE Is the crime?
Some slashdotters brought up a point. Now that in-game merchandise is worth real-world money, cheating in the game is the equivalent to real-world fraud. What happens if you cheat in the casinos at Las Vegas? Well, back in the 60's and 70's, you might end up buried in the desert... but today you'll find yourself arrested and facing very serious jail time. So why should it be different in an online world?
It still blows me away. WAY back in the mid 80's I read a short story called "Catacomb" by Henry Melton (oh, and it's available online - check it out here! ) This story really blew my mind at the time, and got me thinking about the possibilities of what we now call "massively multiplayer online" RPGs. The story was both forward-thinking and naive. The big trick, of course, was the ability to cash in the in-game treasures for real-world cash. That was every young D&D-players DREAM in the early 80's - to convert their awesome playing skills into CASH. My dream was a little different - I wanted to WRITE THAT GAME!
Technologically, it was possible. There were 300-baud modems around, and even early, prototypical MUDs at the time. I didn't like the text-interface of the game in the story (though I was a big fan of the Infocom adventure games, I figured a graphical interface closer to the Ultima games would be more appropriate). I spoke to my dad about the whole money-for-treasure thing, and he explained about gambling laws. That took the wind out of my sails a little bit, but I still pushed forward to make a multiplayer fantasy adventure game.
I got to the point where two Commodore 64's could be hooked up together with a modem, and there was *kind of* a game you could play in single-player. I was having problems with multiplayer because things would get scrambled for some reason when I was passing data back and forth - I think you could see the first room, and that was it. I think the end result wasn't any more advanced than my little 40-hour dev project, Hackenslash.
And now Henry Melton's imaginary world is all real and growed-up - with people getting arrested by real-world police for cheating, and people running sweat-shops in Asia to farm items and power-level characters. And the whole concept of "roleplaying" in any of these games has gone out the window. And I no longer harbor fantasies of creating the game of the short-story. It's been done, and pretty well, and I sure don't envy the companies dealing with the sort of nightmares like this guy in Japan with the bots has been causing.
Labels: Mainstream Games
Friday, August 12, 2005
An amateur artist is me
I made it a goal a couple of weeks ago to put in 20+ minutes per day of art training / practice. This includes pencil sketching, learning Blender, and QuArk. Part of my inspiration came from working on Hackenslash. Now, the artwork in Hackenslash is hardly anything I'd brag about. I was largely mucking about with photographs or procedural textures. But I did notice my speed and quality improving in a slow-evolution fashion as I learned new tricks and became familiar with the tool - and learned by trial and error what worked and what didn't.
Granted, I'm still in the sub-cro-magnon cave painting stage, but even knowing how far I've got to go before I can draw anything resembling acceptable in a commercial environment, seeing rapid progress in the early stages of the learning curve was heartening.
Over the last few months I've given advice to new indie game developers (which is weird, because I'm still kind of a "new indie" myself - just one who has some industry experienced and a finished indie game). I often hear artists lament for the lack of programmers, and I respond, "Look, you can use these tools here to get something up-and-running with a minimum amount of programming or scripting. You don't need to be a genius coder, just learn to do enough to inspire programmers to join you." So I'm trying to see if the inverse is true.
Lacking anything resembling a real budget, I don't have artists at my beck and call to whip out concept art or touch up textures. I've been extremely jealous of the talent and skill of the artists and modelers I see out there who can contribute so much to a game when it feels like I code for WEEKS to create something that can't even be shown in a screenshot. So I'm hoping that with enough practice I can at least do well enough to communicate with the pros, create a thumbnail and say, "Hey, I need something like THIS."
Or maybe I could modify the texture of a character model without them getting spooky-weird bug-eyes and Cthulhu lips.
And I have to admit - learning to create visual assets for a game (like my still-not-quite-finished barn) has been a lot of fun. DANGEROUS, because I'm actually working on two projects right now, and it could get really easy to get sucked into playing with Blender for hours and hours.
Monday, August 08, 2005
Coming up for air here briefly. The "big project" at the day job is consuming 50-60 hours a week, and so my game development hours in my so-called "free time" have been a little restricted the last two months.
The new game is coming along slowly. Once again, I'm mired in user interface stuff right now. It's not very sexy, but it's very, very important. I spent some time over the weekend booting up old games to take screenshots, and downloading screenshots of those games I haven't had. Man, GUIs have come a long way. I'm still not an expert on the subject - I really need to read Brent Fox's book, "Game Interface Design" (it has lots of Outpost Kaloki screenshots in it, I hear...).
But browsing through a little history of UI in game design (with a focus on roleplaying games) was fairly enlightening - you can see the evolution take place. You can see some massive changes taking place once the mouse became standard equipment, and as you were no longer limited to 320 x 200 resolution. A lot depends on the kind of game - an action-rpg has different needs from a more cerebral, turn-based RPG. But there's a few tidbits I have been picking up (and I'd invite anyone reading this to add their own contributions):
* Less is more: The older UI's tended to crowd out the game graphics. More modern UIs try to show only as much UI elements as absolutely necessary in the standard game screen. Pretty much your core risk-reward-action decision-making stuff, and links to more information. Your key stats (like health and stamina), and what action will take place if you click the mouse buttons right now. (I do wonder how much of this is based on the graphics obsession the games industry is struggling under right now - as prettier pictures than the next game get harder and harder to achieve).
* Be consistent in style / design, as well as in behavior. That should be obvious, but sometimes gets overlooked.
* 90-degree corners are bad. Nice, rounded, non-rectilinear stuff is much prettier (but more work to make the computer display it properly).
* Show smooth transitions between states where possible. It's very jarring to just see things jump into new states. If a target drops in health, it's more satisfying to see the healthbar drop smoothly between the old health level and the new one than to suddenly see it jump to the new level. If you click on a button, having a short delay to show the button being pressed down and playing an audible "click" is more satisfying - and often preferable - to having an instant response to the button press that doesn't show that feedback.
* Show feedback on what the player is doing. Things like highlighted buttons when they are hovered over with the mouse. The same is true of highlighting in-game characters or objects when the mouse is hovering over them if clicking on them will allow some kind of interaction.
* When all else fails, appeal to conventions: Even if it's been done in a crappy way by every other game out there, people are at least used to it being done that way and won't have to re-learn a new system.
Old & Busted?: (Dungeon Master 2, Bloodstone)
Less Old, Not Hot: (Diablo 1, Ultima 7)
New Hotness? (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Knights of the Old Republic)
Monday, August 01, 2005
Endgames and Vampires
I was reading Damion's "Zen of Design" blog from last week about the endgames (or the "nearly-endgames" leading up to the endgame).
GUILTY. One of the worst end-bosses ever was the boss in "Outwars", and that was my baby. Shame on me. I think game designers get so terrified of the users slamming their games for being too easy that they deliberately make end-games as horribly nasty as possible. After all, people are less likely to complain about a game being too hard, because, you know, that wouldn't be macho. But the "l337" gamers - a vocal minority who often end up being opinion-leaders - will quickly denounce a game that wasn't enough of a challenge for their mad skillz.
He goes on to call "Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines" as one of the big offenders. Although I think the level he's referring to is actually NOT really part of the end-game at all... it's about two-thirds of the way in. Though he's right --- it's overly long and not very exciting. It's a lot of more-of-the-same three monsters lurking around every corner, with very few ammunition reloads.
My biggest dissapointment with VtM: Bloodlines (besides bugs) was that they only went halfway with the alternatives to combat. The game was so very good at giving you some interesting things to do with non-combat skills. There was content in the game you were only going to be able to handle if you had really high negotiating skills. If you were a combat god, you weren't going to get those opportunities. But then they set these boss-level roadblocks in the way that are designed to challenge the combat-optimized characters. Sure, Mr. Negotiator might have a few extra experience points than his brute counterpart, but he's probably put those experience points in, oh, I don't know... maybe yet more social / negotiation skills? If your "combat PC" can simply bypass (or not even have the option to take) the non-combat situations that he can't handle, shouldn't a non-combat PC have a similar option to bypass the combat-oriented roadblocks?
It wouldn't be too hard. I mean, a negotiator should be able to win friends and influence people - why not win a few extra thugs to help you with a boss encounter? Or maybe negotiate a deal where you can 'borrow' a really neat uber-weapon customized against a particular bad guy so you can even the odds a bit? But instead, you get stuck in the same chamber with no place to run, no place to hide, with a nasty monster that isn't going to be negotiated with. Yeah, those two experience points you "threw away" into being able to shoot your little 9mm pistol ought to come in real handy now... Rossa Ruck! See ya after a few hundred splutch-argh-restore-saved-games.
However, the actual end game cinematic (at least the one I chose the first time - the Anarch choice) of Bloodlines was pretty hella-cool. Nice little twist. I won't ruin it for you.
I liked that he mentioned Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption in a favorable light. I was actually pretty fond of the game. Yes, it was entirely too combat-heavy. But it was created by some friends of mine, so I was predisposed to look upon it favorably, and I loved how they captured the mood of the pen and paper game. Particularly the first half of the game - the medieval era. It seemed like they'd really done their homework, and presented something that was authentic in its feel, unlike most pseudo-medieval-ish RPGs out there that present Hometown USA with gothic architecture and people who say "thee" and "thou" and cast spells. The story was also fairly compelling. Taking the player from being a mortal crusader, to an undead vampire, to a being over a thousand years old with no recollection of the changes to the modern era, was really pretty cool.
The multiplayer was cool, too, though the difficulty of creating new content of having that content automatically transfer and run from the server to the clients really prevented it from accomplishing what Neverwinter Nights did a couple of years later.
The point Damion brings up is something I haven't really thought about in relation to computer RPGs - though I thought about it a lot in our "Pen and Paper" games. I'll make fun of a good friend right now, who I hope will forgive me. We made fun of this as it was happening, too, and he took it all in stride (and improved!) He ran a very fun Fantasy Hero campaign for us at one point that we all noted experienced an incredible escalation in power and expense as we played. When the campaign started, we were informed of how rare and valuable a single gold coin was. And we fought orcs. By the end of the campaign, a night's stay at an inn was several gold coins, and we were fighting REALLY BEEFY orcs. When we finally got to fight "normal" orcs later in the campaign, we were amazed at how trivial the fight had been. The game had kept escalating its power level to match us, and so we never had a chance to go back and benchmark ourseleves to see how much we'd progressed. As a result, we never felt like we were really progressing at all - no matter how good we got, the entire world got a LITTLE BIT tougher.
It's very gratifying. And while a game should challenge you, it's ultimate purpose is to entertain. Giving the player a chance to see just how far they've come - providing some dips in the rate of increasing challenge - is good gameplay, good drama, and good fun. So in my "pen and paper" games, I've been careful to present the players with the occasional opportunities to cause mass destruction to foes that used to terrify them. And it's a good thing to remember in computer games, as well.
And I'm really, really tired of those games that make you run a horrible gauntlet on the way to the final boss, with no save-point to avoid the tedious encounters. That's not fun, people! That's artificially stretching out the gameplay, and turning something that SHOULD be fun into something frustrating and boring!
Labels: Mainstream Games
Weekly Roundup of ... Stuff
My secondary hard drive went up and died very suddenly. It was a new one, I'd just used to replace one that had been dying for a long time. It's somewhat ironic that if I was still using the old one, it would probably still be working. On the plus side, when I replace the "new" one with a newer one, I should be able use the "old-old" one to restore lost data.
Since it was my secondary drive, I didn't lose anything really critical. Mainly the installation of a few games. And some recently-purchased music, which I did NOT back up... and since I bought it from Wal*Mart with their new, improved, more-private system, I'm not sure they still have the record of my purchase so I can re-download them. Bummer.
The day job is still killing me, but a little more slowly now, so I have time for actual game-coding. Trying to plumb through the logic of the Torque engine makes me feel really stupid sometimes. There are still large pieces that are unfamiliar to me, and the split in the code between client and server sometimes makes it difficult to track down exactly when AND where things happen. I have the basics of the control system working now, including camera control. It's progress - slow, and "Black Triangle"-y, but it's great to finally see things coming together.