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Realm of Unfinished Games
We managed to make it back home in one piece tonight. It was a good vacation, except for the fact that it did end up raining one-and-a-half days our of our three. I had good intentions of playing lots of games and doing game development each night after we returned home from the park - but 11 hours of running around the parks and keeping track of kids pretty much dropped me. I did manage to sneak in some game-playing the first night. Okay, it was Cute Knight - I'm not too proud to admit it. It's dang fun. I've now finished the game in one way or another about a half-dozen times, and it's still got some intersting surprises in there.
So tonight I found myself digging through some old games I own, many of which I always intended to "finish" but somehow I never did. Occasionally I'll go back to these games and try again. Sometimes I *do* end up finishing them. Most of the time I don't, and the games remain indefinitely forgotten. This is the Realm of Unfinished Games. And why (as far as I know) they remain unfinished. I should note that this is nowhere REMOTELY close to an exhaustive list. I have a ton of games in my collection, and I've failed to complete a LOT of them:
BLOOD: Using the Duke Nukem engine. It was some kind of horror-based First-Person Shooter that I got for free when Singletrac got bought out by GT Interactive (the publishers of Blood). They gave us a handful of free games. I played the first level, and I guess I got bored or something.
Wizardry 7 - Crusaders of the Dark Savant: This is a game I keep kicking myself for NOT completing. This is a vast roleplaying game of the legendary Wizardry series. I think I got stuck on the same part - going into the mountain to look for flowers or something. The random encounters always became tedious after a while, and I was forever annoyed when the monster's advanced weaponry (like guns and shock-rods) would vaporize when I killed them, preventing me from using these really cool weapons. But this is still a game I imagine myself actually booting up and finishing one of these days (probably with a walk-through in hand). It was COOL.
Ultima 6 - The False Prophet: This is another legendary RPG I keep trying to finish, and never seem to complete. I think I've re-started the game about six or seven times over the years. I usually get stuck trying to find the pieces of the pirate's map... I never know where to go next. Then I get bored and quit, and forget to finish it for another 2-3 years.
Twilight: 2000: Oh, boy. Yet another RPG - this one set in a somewhat realistic post-apocalyptic world. No mutants, but lots of bloodthirsty leaders with military vehicles and problems with things like marauders and diseases. I tried to finish this game. Really. Twice. It locked up and crashed at exactly the same place during the final series of battles both times, on two different machines with clean reinstalls. We're talking ancient DOS history here, predating CD-ROMS.
The Wheel of Time: An Unreal (I) engine game based on the epic series by Robert Jordan. I've only read the first book. Maybe that's why the game keeps boring me around the time I enter this one evil city (it seemed pretty cool in the book, though).
Starlancer: Man, I tried to like this game. It had everything going for it. I mean, it held the Wing Commander legacy in the palm of its hand, including Chris Roberts heading up production. But it lacked one critical thing: Interesting characters. I would play through, and find myself going through the same kind of motions I'd been through in all the Wing Commander games, and in the Freespace games, and in a few other wannabe games. But I couldn't bring myself to care.
Warcraft III: Ah, a big-name supergame. Yeah, even the wizards at Blizzard never really managed to hook me on their last entry in their legendary RTS series. And I LOVED Warcraft II. Big-time. I really don't know why I never finished Warcraft III. I guess I felt too relieved at the end of each battle to finally be done I didn't much feel like starting a new one.
Sam & Max Hit the Road: I don't know how it ended up being uninstalled. Maybe I upgraded my drive or something. But somehow, I lost my savegame, and never got up the gumption to go back through this delightfully quirky adventure game again. But I should. I really, really should.
Aegis: Guardian of the Fleet: I bought it because it was cheap and some hardcore grognard-type told me it was an absolutely fabulously detailed simulation of modern naval warfare. I couldn't figure out how to play it. I kinda got stumped in the opening screen. And mind you, I'm a guy who reads the Falcon 4.0 manual for fun.
Elder Scrolls: Morrowind: It's still on my machine. I don't have Oblivion yet. I still intend to finish Morrowind. Maybe. Sometime. It's just a game you can just PLAY and play and play and play and play and play and play and play and never ever seem to actually finish...
Unreal: Man, this game ruled. Right up until the point where it couldn't really run on my poor, pathetic 4MB video card anymore. So I upgraded my video card ( also to play certain levels of EverQuest without horrible framerates), but found it wasn't compatible with the 3DFX-centric Unreal. So I never finished it. I don't really know if anything really HAPPENED at the end of the game... I mean, there was kind of a story set up at the beginning, but there wasn't much to it. But I was still upset that hardware limitations prevented me from finishing it.
Roller Coaster Tycoon: LOVED this game. Just never quite got to the final scenarios. Dunno why.
The House the Mouse Built
After three days in Disneyland, it's hard not to be awed by the whole Disney empire. Of course, Mickey Mouse is the branding, trademark, mascot, and symbol of Walt Disney's legacy.
Even more interesting: Mickey came about because Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks were so very successful creating someone else's Intellectual Property - a character named "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" for Universal Pictures. Because it was not Universal's IP, not Disneys, after it became successful the production company demanded that Disney reduce his fee per short or get cut out of the contract entirely. Disney refused, and they snagged his animation team from under him to form a new studio to make Oswald shorts.
Disney and Iwerks decided to create their OWN Intellectual Property in response. The new character was named Mickey Mouse - and rather closely resembled Oswald in most ways.
Change the ears and tail, and who do you have?
About twenty-seven years later, Walt Disney opened Disneyland. And a little over fifty years later, we have a company that's generating as estimated $30 billion each year in revenue.
One of my former employers, Acclaim Entertainment, built most of it's foundation on licensing other people's IP. The story (or so I have heard, I haven't researched it) is that they bought the original license to do videogames based on the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) for a song. Something like a 10-year exclusive. And, to a large degree, the success of the videogame series really helped market the WWF and make pro wrestling a far, far more popular entertainment (I hesitate to call it "sport") in the mid-90's.
So did the WWF thank Acclaim for its help? No. When the contract was up for re-negotiation, they realized that they now held the power, and their license was worth a great deal more money than Acclaim had been paying for it. So they jacked up the price by more than an order of magnitude, and Acclaim walked away from the deal. I believe the attitude from Acclaim's head honchos was, "We MADE you, we can go make someone else."
They tried to "make" the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) into the new WWF, and failed. Acclaim went bankrupt, shut down, and now exists in name only. Unlike Disney, they weren't able to stage a comeback.
When I was at Singletrac, I got mad at my boss at the time, Mike Ryder, when he announced one day that Singletrac was in the Intellectual Property business (as in, making IP). I voiced my frustration privately by saying, "Gee, I thought we were about making videogames." However, I now understand where he was coming from (though I think he was going about it the wrong way). If you don't own the rights to the property, you will always be just a "hired gun." You may be a highly valued hired gun (so valued that you might eventually be bought by the people you do work for, as eventually happened with Pixar and Disney). Or you may become commoditized, and replaced (as happened with Walt Disney's production studio in 1928, or Acclaim in the late 1990's).
Owning the Intellectual Property rights certainly doesn't entitle you to anything. The world is not likely to beat a path to your door and offer you wheelbarrows full of money to parcel out a portion of your rights. Well, okay - maybe it WILL, but please tell me how, because I haven't figured out how, yet.
But it does put you in the driver's seat. From a more personal perspective: Void War isn't exactly a household name, nor has it made me any significant amount of money. But owning the rights, free and clear, to a completed title that is out there selling and generating some minimal amount of revenue has opened a ton of doors and generated a lot of opportunities that wouldn't have been there otherwise.
Yet in the retail-game side of the business, we developers routinely sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, to the point where publishers have made ceding all rights and ownership of the property a standard part of their "boilerplate" contract with developers.
It seems to me that game developers should take a long, hard look at the stories of Acclaim and Disney.
Polish: Attention to Detail
So I spent eleven hours today wandering about Disneyland with relatives and a close friend of the family. I am pretty exhausted now. But I had something strike me - one of the principle reasons why people come from all over the world to go to Disneyland, but not to our local amusement park. The reason that occured to me was attention to detail.
It's glaringly apparent in the decoration. The sets look like real, livable, working models of whatever they are trying to reproduce. I could swear that if you just went in a side door in the haunted mansion, the rest of the building is a fully functional. Ditto on several other features of the park. Like the balcony belonging to (apparently) a voodoo priestess in New Orleans Square. The laboratory of the wicked stepmother in Snow White's Castle. Or the nonfunctioning ticket office of the Jungle Cruise, complete with an aging copy of a vintage National Geographic sitting on the desk.
It's also apparent in the cleanliness of the park. There are places in other parks that one would expect to see a little coated with things like bird droppings and so forth - but not so Disneyland. I don't know who they have cleaning the high fence once a week or whatever to make sure there's no bird droppings there, but it seems to be getting done.
In the movie Ed Wood, Edward (played by Johnny Depp) explains that (in his opinion) the details don't matter - the audiences are just there for the story, and they will happily look past little issues. Of course, Ed Wood's movies prove that his philosophy on moviemaking were not exactly aligned with reality.
Bringing it all to videogames - I once solicited the Indiegamer forums with a question about applying polish to games. There's a high correlation between the level of polish in a game and the number of sales it achieves in a mature / saturated genre, so polish is pretty important. I was looking for some kind of a checklist of items that people might follow in making sure their games are "polished." I never got such a beast. Polish is one of those things where "You know it when you see it." Usually. But I think it has a lot in common with Attention to Detail. In fact, it may have everything in common.
The trick is knowing where to place the detail. There are restrictions imposed by budget and other resources - and the limitations of the medium - that may prevent us from doing everything. We just can't blow 125,000 polygons on the model of a car that takes into consideration every nuance and curve apparent to the naked eye. So there's two pretty tough skills involved: One to recognize a problem (being able to pay attention to the details and note deficiencies), and another to actually correct this problem.
Edit (follow-up now that I'm more awake):
I think a big part of the original success of Star Wars (now subtitled, "A New Hope"), was this attention to detail. A lot of it went into making the universe of the movie look "lived in" and practical. It was visually stunning in 1978 (and the original still holds up pretty well today). Even though dialog has never been George Lucas's strong point, there were details and references there that made viewers believe that there really was an entire universe and history that these people lived in.
But even so, I have read about areas where they skimped on the details. In the set-up shot for the battle of Yavin, I have heard that the trailing X-Wings and Y-Wings were quickly thrown together with spare parts that barely resembled the higher-quality models. Did anybody notice? Not me. Even knowing what to look for, on my videocassette of the original edition. I also understand that there was only ONE full-scale model of an X-Wing and Y-Wing for use in the hanger scenes. What did they do? They re-positioned the two set pieces, so they were both present behind everyone who was speaking, and darkening the hanger so to present the illusion that the hanger was vast and completely filled with fighters.
So it's not just extreme attention to detail. It's knowing WHERE to apply those details, lacking infinite time, budget, and talent. Is adding millions of dollars to a game budget to give characters realistic, flowing hair (the reason cited by Mr. Brown of Electronic Arts a year ago why the big-budget studios were going to bury the indies) really the answer? Is being paralyzed into replicating only known, existing game types because the details could be too tricky the answer? I don't think so.
That's where games-as-art comes in. It's a tightrope walk, and the producers & designers who succeed are the ones who master it.
Labels: Game Design
Tales from the Road - Cute Knight!
So here's some bits of independent game news from Rampant Games. Reported from the road just 2.7 miles from Disneyland.
First of all - I went ahead and tried out the inner of the RPG of the Year Award from Game Tunnel, "Cute Knight" (Kishi Kawaii). This is a sim / roleplaying game from Hanako games. It's really geared for more of a female audience, but I have to admit that once I started playing with it, I found it really intriguing. I bought it thinking, "Oh, my oldest daughter will get a kick out of this," but so far I'm the one who's been playing it :) The promise of over 50 different endings is pretty compelling. So far, I've unlocked five, including 0ne fairly explosive one. I have YET to "finish" the dungeon within the three year timespan of the game.
Anyway, the game is now available from the slightly-redesigned Rampant Games' main page. Check it out! Yeah, even if you are a hardcore RPG gamer guy like me... you may be pleasantly surprised.
Right now the most "winning" solution I've found to avoid an early loss of "dream" is to take dance lessons at the university as your first weeks' action - I'm having trouble finding something else that is self-sustaining. Dungeon-delving on week 1 has proven very hazardous, though it may be reasonable under certain birth signs. Got any more hints for the game? Post 'em here, or email 'em to me at jayb
(Vaguely) Related Cuteness. Or Knightliness:
* Cute Knight Hints, Tips, and Spoilers
* Aveyond! (another casual RPG)
* Hybrid RPGs
I'm Going to Disneyland!
When the layoff on Valentine's Day 2000 happened, I was caught completely off-guard. I'd worked at Singletrac for five-and-a-half years, and had worked on some big hit games like Twisted Metal, Warhawk, and Jet Moto. I'd also worked on some games that... well, weren't such big hits. Like Outwars. We'd already had a couple of layoffs, so the writing was on the wall, I guess. But I didn't realize that Singletrac, now wholey owned by Infogrammes (now "Atari" in the U.S.), was on its last legs.
Five months later, SingleTrac would exist no more, having finished its last contractual obligation and good for nothing more than the hardware and software licenses. But that's a story I'm not involved in.
This was my first time experiencing such a thing - Singletrac had been my first 'real' job after college, and I'd learned not just how to write games, but to a large degree how to engineer software in the real world from that company. So suddenly finding myself without a job after five-and-a-half years of working crazy 90-hour weeks sometimes scared the crud out of me. I had no idea how I was going to support my family and pay for the mortgage (Gee, kinda like I feel right now...)
It turns out that Acclaim Studios Salt Lake was in a completely different bind. The director of software development had been given a mandate to staff up, and needed seven new experienced game programmers in just four weeks. He had no idea where he'd find them. Then he heard about the massive Valentine's Day layoffs at Singletrac. For many of us, Acclaim swooped in like a brilliant white knight to rescue us. By Wednesday, we had a group interview at Acclaim. The offer came in the next day (Thursday), with a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I was told that they didn't need me for two weeks (March 6th or something), but they'd start paying me from the day I accepted the offer. Wow! I still had four more weeks of severance from Singletrac, so that would mean double pay (more than double, as I got a bit of a pay raise going to Acclaim) for four weeks, plus two of those weeks would be a vacation! We said yes on Friday. Now what do you do when you have two weeks off with double pay? I told my family to set up the trip - we were going to Disneyland! And we did. I'll always be grateful to the folks at Acclaim for making that happen.
While things weren't perfect at Acclaim (they began layoffs of their own within two months of my signing up), it was definitely a great opportunity for me, and a reminder that as one chapter ends - painful as it may be - the next chapters can be full of promise and good experiences.
Anyway, fast-forward six years later. Our youngest daughter is now about to turn eight and can actually fully enjoy (and remember) the trip now. We cemented plans for it in January. I had no idea that history would repeat itself and I'd once again be laid off right before our Disneyland trip. I'm in slightly worse shape this time around, as I've got no firm plans for after I get back. But I'm gonna have fun with the family. And I hope that history will repeat itself, and I will find that new opportunities abound in the next chapter.
One thing that ain't changing, though, is my love of MAKING games. And I'm bringing my laptop with me to do some coding late at night in the hotel room (or lobby). Assuming the hotel has broadband (it is supposed to), I imagine I'll still be posting. But in case not... TTFN!
Game Moments #10 - Operation: Flashpoint
While everyone else was playing Battlefield:1942, I was off playing a different military combat game called Operation: Flashpoint. This was a gem of a title taking place in an alternate-history cold war conflict in 1985. Interestingly enough, it was created by a group of developers who were all on the other side of the "Iron Curtain" that year.
The game had reasonably decent graphics and amazingly expansive environments - four entire islands. All vehicles were able to be entered and driven, including the civilian aircraft, helicopters, boats, and tanks. Buildings would collapse when they took too much damage. Equipment was persistent, so you could kill an enemy and take his weaponry if you felt so inclined. The game featured tons of 1985-era weapons and vehicles. And on top of it all, it included a fairly full-featured scripting language and mission builder, and full multiplayer play.
I wasted many, many days of my life to that game, none of which I regret. Multiplayer with a nearly impossible cooperative mission with friends was absolute frantic joy. Our little custom-designed deathmatch arenas were also a lot of fun. We were addicted and having a blast playing it. George McEwan, who did some of the modeling for Void War, got so good that he was able to capture tanks with a silenced MP-5 in a popular mission. Normally, when you shoot the commander or gunner, the other one would immediately duck into the vehicle and "button up." George could shoot both of them before they had a chance to react, and the driver would panic and flee the tank. That made that particular mission pretty easy when he could pull it off.
The game's physics weren't stellar, but they worked well enough. On more than one occasion I'd managed to blow a helicopter out of the sky with a well-placed rocket or portable anti-aircraft missile (well, okay, it usually took multiple hits) only to have my smug glee replaced with desperation as the burning aircraft came crashing down to the ground right on top of me. There were all kinds of other "tricks" to the game - like flushing out snipers by simply bringing the building they *might* be in crashing down around them. In one free-for-all multiplayer match the single helicopter was always destroyed so early in the game that we just got used to using it kamikaze-style as a big bomb, usually ejecting and parachuting to safety as our would-be destroyer got a face-full of of falling metal. And few things were as satisfying as seeing that annoying and nearly-indestructable tank drive over the anti-tank mine you'd placed while it was chasing you. Except when the same thing happened but you managed to survive the encounter - that was even better (but rare)!
One of the coolest "moments" in the game wasn't recognized by me until a couple of weeks afterwards. Three of us at the office were playing through the campaign. In one part of the game, your "character" is captured and is being taken to be executed. You are flown in to a prison camp by helicopter, and dropped off. Then you'd be marched off to a pit and shot by a firing squad. Needless to say, that's not the satisfactory "conclusion" to the mission - your true goal is to escape and make it back halfway across the island to friendly territory.
Shortly after disembarking the helicopter, the guards got distracted. I took the opportunity to break ranks, and run behind a building. Lucky me, there was an AK leaning up against the back wall, and I snagged it. The guards were running around both sides of the building to get me, so I shot two of them, and then shot the pilot of the helicopter. I jumped into the helicopter, and with the popping sounds of small-arms fire hitting the vehicle, I took off. This whole sequence actually took me about a half-dozen tries - I'd usually get killed before entering the helicopter. But I eventually pulled it off.
The flight home wasn't bad, but as i mentioned, the islands were pretty huge. And mostly occupied by enemy forces. There was at least one other helicopter that gave chase, and there were several times I had to dodge anti-aircraft guns or missiles. I deliberately took a circuitous route, trying to defeat the 'scripted' enemies, but they seemed to be everywhere. But I got back to friendly territory pretty quickly. Mission complete.
So we were talking about the mission at work, and I commented on how short the mission was, but how cool it was that they scripted out all the enemy forces occupying the island so that I couldn't just avoid them by not making a beeline to safety.
George, on the other hand, had a completely different story to tell. He'd not stolen the helicopter, but had rather been marched out to where the execution was to take place, but found an unattended BMP (an armored personnel carrier) and had jumped in and escaped by roads. He said the mission was long and difficult, as he was being chased by no less than two tanks and encountered numerous enemy convoys and roadblocks all the way back to safety. It had not been a short mission at all!
One of the other guys at the office had a completely different story to tell. He'd escaped on foot, without weapons, and had been required to dodge patrols (and the aforementioned tanks and convoys) the whole mission, and it had taken forever! I think he was kicking himself for not taking the helicopter.
At that point, we were all pretty impress with how open-ended the mission was, in spite of the inherent limitations of scripting. Somehow, we'd come away from the same game, the same episode (or "level"), with three completely different stories to tell. And they were all exciting.
So when I think about Storytelling and Narrative in games, I think back to that one prison-break mission. While there were several little scripted elements to the mission (mostly to provide you with an opportunity to make a break for it), the real "story" was of the player's making, assisted by the game. Everyone felt they were taking the "obvious" option and following the mission's pre-designed chain of events, but the truth is that there were neither.
Full-Time Indie Time... I guess
Well, I was planning a different topic for the blog tonight, but life has a way of sneaking up behind you and giving you a pinch once in a while just to make sure you are still awake.
We had a "reorganization" today at work. The new head of IT (yes, we got a new VP of IT, two months ago... I guess this WAS in the cards) decided that the department would outsource development to other companies. Since we only had to do integration rather than development, it was time to scale things down so we'd have a bigger budget to pay third parties. And I was part of the scale-down. Considering I was one of the most senior guys who was still working on new development rather than production support or on the RFP / RFQ team for third parties, I guess I was a good cost-savings measure.
However, it was handled pretty nicely. I've got some severance to tide me over to find a new job, and they are paying me for my unused vacation time. I actually can't blame them much for doing it... I was just caught off guard. We'll see how I feel tomorrow.
I don't pretend that Rampant Games could yet pay the bills as a full-time endeavor. But until I get something else lined up, I guess I'm a full-time indie game developer for a few weeks.
Though we had a vacation planned already for next week. So I'll be full-time except for the well-deserved vacation :)
Non-Combat RPG: A Fool's Errand?
Besides Apocalypse Cow, I'm also working on an RPG that is still in the "engine" stages. I had a good discussion with an old game-programmer buddy about the complications of RPG design, and I thought I'd kinda open it up here on the blog. Though this sort of thing makes me wanna resurrect my forums if people have some good input on the subject.
The problem was I came up with a great little design that would work famously for a Pen & Paper (or as I usually call 'em, "Dice & Paper") game - targeted towards more hardcore roleplaying geeks (like me). But once I started prototyping, I ran into some roadblocks with certain elements just not working. I decided I needed to re-evaluate my system, starting with figuring out exactly what skills and stats are needed by the game. That comes down to something of a chicken-and-egg problem of what sort of activities the player would actually do in the game - and what sort of granularity my target audience would want and expect over the character's abilities. A new activity could conceivably require a new "stat," which in turn could suggest a multitude of new activities.
One of the problems with computer RPGs (CRPGs) is that they fail to capture the breadth and depth of other forms of storytelling - or even that of their dice & paper cousins. The games are largely combat encounters strung together by (usually) crappy dialog and wandering-around sequences. Maybe the occasional irritating puzzle (Final Fantasy X, I'm talking about YOU!). You do get some semblance of it peeking through - from the angsty-and-eco-friendly stories of the Final Fantasy games to the hints of political intrigue in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.
But look at movies and books. Combat sequences are usually few and far between even in action-packed 'summer blockbuster' films. There are usually action "beats" between plot and character development "beats." These action beats can be combat, or chase scenes, or hunt scenes (the opposite of chase scenes, I guess), or maybe a race, an obstacle, survival against the elements, sneaking past the enemies, escaping a deathtrap, or the like. We get a few of these in RPGs, though they are usually heavily scripted, and rarely dependent upon character skills or much player interaction.
And what about the non-action plot elements of courtroom dramas, or romantic comedies, or psychological thrillers? Things like trying to convince the evil mastermind's underling to join your cause, or secretly spying on the enemy plans, or trying to talk your friend out of getting involved in a relationship with a known womanizer, or fast-talking your way past a guard. How about planting a bug in a suspect's room and escaping before he returns, or negotiating a treaty? Maybe convincing the policemen that you aren't crazy and that they should help you track down the vampire before it kills someone else? Impress the ladies with your mad tango skillz? All of these are cool, dramatic, or funny story elements that SHOULD be perfectly workable in an RPG - alternatives to combat which could / should in theory be fun to play.
But we almost never see 'em, except in scripted cut-scenes. Why? Three reasons:
#1 - They branch the storyline. Combat doesn't do this, because if you fail, the game ends. But what happens if you are allowed to save your girlfriend from being murdered in the first chapter, when the rest of the game is built around the idea of you avenging her death? You failed to plant the bug in the agent's hotel room, but you did sneak out without him seeing you. Now how will you find out the location of the secret base? Most games are structured in a linear storytelling format - you can vary the order of some activities, or skip certain subquests, or have the possibility of failing certain insignificant elements - but anything that would actually have a real effect on the game is too dangerous.
#2 - Even if the game developers go the extra mile and actually allow the branching from #1, they often remain unexplored by the players. This happened a bit with Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, one of the few games that really tried to give you things to do with non-combat skills. So as a player, you have a choice between adding a skill point in "Basket Weaving" or " Dodging Bullets." WHICH ONE WILL YOU CHOOSE? Chances are, a failed Basket Weaving roll won't leave your character half-dead en route to the final confrontation with a boss. Players will naturally put their points in skills that have the greatest risk on failure, and only "splurge" on non-combat options if they feel comfortable with their current level of survival skills.
Alternately, in a single-player game, the players will avoid the 'failure' side of the branch by simply re-loading the game. Origin discovered this with the first Wing Commander game - they very carefully created a mission tree with success and failure paths for all missions. They discovered that players were simply re-playing missions until they received total success. All that work on the 'failing' missions was wasted, because few players bothered to allow themselves down that path. Consequently, future Wing Commander games were extremely linear, with only non-performance based branching (if any at all).
#3 - There's a belief (and not unjustified) that in spite of the vocal minority claiming that they'd LOVE a non-combat CRPG, people still play those games to beat the pulp out of something. I read an article by a freelancer who has written Dice & Paper sourcebooks emphasizing non-combat resolutions to situations --- and so far sales have sucked in comparison to similar-but-more-violent supplements in the same line.
I am working on a game that is set in a more-or-less contemporary setting (with fantastic and horrific differences). This really restricts the opportunity for combat - going around town killing your neighbors isn't a recipe for success. Even if you KNOW the guy working the night shift at the local convenience store is actually a brain-sucking alien or something. So I want to pack it full of exciting things to do that are NOT lethal and violent, to supplement the slightly-less-frequent conventional fights to the death.
I think I have problem #2 licked by a couple of different ways. One is to unlink skill advancement such that improving a non-combat skill has no bearing on the more critical "survival" skills. The other is to incentivize or disguise the "failure" branches such that the player is not only willing to accept and explore them, but if given full control over the branching and knowledge of the outcomes they'd still face an interesting choice.
Problem #1 and #3 are harder nuts to crack. Games like "The Sims" and "Civilization" resolve this problem by leaving the system completely open-ended. The Elder Scrolls games (so far - I haven't played Oblivion yet) are also open-ended and allow for this to some degree, but mostly dodged the problem by having failures have no impact on the main plot, or they derailed the main plot entirely (usually with a warning to that effect in the case of Morrowind). Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines avoided the branch by making the noncombat elements optional subquests. If you failed to place the hidden cameras in the model's apartment without being detected, you didn't get the reward. No other harm done. Actually, a bug in the game prevented you from getting that reward ANYWAY, so it didn't really matter. But I digress...
What about problem #3 - will people actually BUY (or even PLAY, if it's free?) a non-combat (or non-combat-emphasizing) roleplaying game? I dunno. They picked up The Sims in droves - while it didn't profess to be a roleplaying game, it sure shared a lot of mechanics with RPGs. Façade was a fascinating little title that really amounted to a social adventure game. Make the responses not purely deterministic but rather based on skill checks, and you've turned it into something of an RPG. Would it sell?
What do you think? Is it possible AND commercially viable to create a non-combat RPG?
It seems like some of my emails to people are getting blocked by their anti-spam software (I *think*), and some people's emails to me are getting similarly blocked. In some cases blocked and unseen, though in one case a friend (whom I'd emailed in the past just fine) found my email in his junk mail folder.
Yet I still get a whole bunch of spammy crap in all my mailboxes every day. So spam is getting through, and legitimate email is getting blocked somewhere up the line.
Are we going to end up with email becoming a useless form of communication, because the spammers have effectively crippled it?
More bits from the game about flying cows. Tentative title: "Cutter Hawke In Apocalypse Cow." The graphics are all stand-in right now, but I think the screenshot conveys some of the action.
As you can see, it's kind of a 2D game with 3D graphics. I'm not going to say that it's wildly innovative, but so far it's very fun and funny. And it's got flying, exploding cows. What is NOT to like about that?
I'm using the Torque engine, version 1.4 plus the Torque Lighting Kit, which has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Since it's an arcade-style game, extremely responsive movement, collision detection, and camera movement in a single-player game is critical, and I've had to do some tricky work-arounds to make Torque responsive enough. On the plus side, much of the game logic can all be handled within TorqueScript, and of course Torque provides great support for 3D terrain, objects, animation, and particle systems.Most of the interactive objects in the game (except for the weaponry) were created with a subclass of ITEM, of all things. I chose Item because it was a fairly lightweight object. The camera-code is all custom, client-based stuff.
The game still has quite a ways to go, but it's been coming along pretty nicely.
Okay - here's a special effect that just didn't work (still stand-in, mind you): The idea was to have a blown-up cow fly through the air and smack the screen like a bird hitting a window, and then slide down. The problem is, it obscures the gameplay area too much (which I was afraid of, but prototyping proved it to be the case).
Labels: Apocalypse Cow
I was not much of a "Doctor Who Geek." My wife watched more episodes than I did as a kid. I really loved the show, but it seemed to always get aired at inconsistent times. I watched the 1996 TV movie, but didn't like it very much.
Tonight on the Sci Fi Channel, they aired the first two episodes of the first "real" Doctor Who season since 1989. We taped it and watched it when we got home from a party. In the first five minutes, I got hooked. Mainly with the Doctor asking Rose, "What's your name? Glad to meet you, Rose. Now, run for your life!" Classic Doctor Who (at least Tom Baker Doctor Who, who was "the" Doctor in my mind, and the one I watched the most).
Christopher Eccleson definitely seemed to be channeling Tom Baker throughout both episodes, and the storylines seemed to be pure late-70's/ early-80's Doctor Who. The storylines were really off-beat and WEIRD (definitely Doctor Who). The special effects were much better that I remember in the original series.
Anyway - I guess our friends on the other side of the Atlantic got to enjoy this a year ago. I'm jealous. I have no idea how modern, American audiences will enjoy the show. But so far, I am.
Customer Support Isn't A Four Letter Word
There's a very amusing article at Gamasutra about the pitfalls of working customer support for a casual games portal. I've little doubt these are absolutely true. We laugh, we wince. We've all kinda been there. Customer support is one of those necessary evils. We like to think that we are developing a product - just something you stick on the conveyer belt, wave bye-bye too, and then wait for the money to come in.
But there's much more to it. A friend of mine sells a shareware utility, and told me last night how he had a man who was upset that it wasn't working for him. He worked with the man, and with a bit of effort found the bug that was probably affecting a handful of customers and prospective customers. In return, this guy turned around and ordered THREE licenses for the product (for his department, I guess).
I've had similar experiences. It's amazing how grateful people will act when you really work with them - treat them as a human instead walking credit card number. No, it's not EFFICIENT - if every one of your customers needed as much support, you'd never be able to get anything else done. But that human touch goes a long way.
Looking at my own experiences as a customer - aside from completely shoddy workmanship, the determining factor for me with many places I do business with is determined by how I was treated by customer support. My wife refuses to do business with AT&T ever again, because she's "Got nothing but four letter words to say about that three-letter company!" Why? Because when we had a problem getting an order from them fulfilled, they gave her the run-around between sales people in Georgia and tech support in India. My previously good relationship with Comcast was ruined pretty much forever due to a billing screw-up that took MONTHS for them to resolve, giving me the same run-around and in some cases actually LYING to me.
And my loyalty to Dish Network is still high because the last couple of times when we've had problems (which are fortunately RARE), they treated it like it was a real emergency on their end, and refused to give up on the problem until we were completely satisfied. So when we moved two years ago, it was a no-brainer to stick with them. Even though I'm sure the company has changed, and the customer support people we worked with in the past may not even be there anymore.
How you treat your customers really does reciprocate into how they'll treat you, it seems. If you are implementing ultra-draconian copy protection systems onto your customer's computers under the assumption that they are all criminals, guilty until proven innocent... don't be too surprised if they treat you like The Enemy. But show 'em that your motto about the customer coming first isn't just pretty words, and it's amazing how it can pay off.
Unless they really are trying to rip you off. But that's another story :)
Making Money Making Independent Games
There have been some really good, frank discussions on the web lately about making money by independent game development. One excellent one (at least part 1 of an excellent one) is provided by Jeff Tunnell, of GarageGames:
Another one followed shortly by Phil Steinmeyer, with a more distinctly casual-game focus:
I feel a little awkward commenting on these, because I have limited experience in the independent games arena, with only one released "indie" game - Void War. But I figured I'd comment by chronicling one guy's independent journey so far.
When I first decided to get serious about developing Void War, I had no idea an indie game development community even existed. I guess I'd been in mainstream game development for too long, and wore blinders that considered anything less than 100,000 sales as a dismal, company-sinking failure. Or a lowly budget title that only existed on the fringes.
I started building the game first, in ignorance. As I learned more, I asked similar questions to the ones Jeff Tunnell mentions on his site. I hope my questions were phrased more like the professional one in his example than the wannabe example. Ultimately, the question is: What should I expect and plan for?
Since then, with much more knowledge under my belt, I give the same answer that frustrated me as a newcomer to the indie game realm: "It depends."
I was totally unprepared for the difference in scale for indie games. I learned that among the few (10%, or less) of indie game projects that actually make it to completion, only a handful actually rise to selling consistently more than a trickle of single-digit sales per month. Only the rare hits managed to sell triple digits per month (or more) on a consistent basis - and that is usually because they appear on multiple portals (with the devs receiving a typically reduced royalty).
Ouch! That was daunting information to me. However, I'd quit the mainstream game business in hopes of being able to make my own games on my own time. As Mark Knopfler sings, I had a day job and was doing alright. So I figured if I kept development costs way down, it would be a worthy experiment in my "spare" time, and I'd learn the indie side of the business in the process.
If I was purely mercenary, I would have pretty much abandoned development right then and there and gone on to do something far more lucrative with my spare time. If I was mercenary but still determined to make games, I probably would have abandoned the weird, nich-y 3D space-combat game I was working on and jumped on the action-puzzle "casual games" bandwagon (not that there's anything wrong with that - I still get the urge to do one, but it's so hard coming up with a concept that's not already done to death).
But I kept at it. Mainly because I loved games. I was in love with the concept of Void War. I was creating a game that I wanted to play. And I also figured it would be a great learning experience (Oh, if only I knew then what I knew now, though!). I expected to take the lessons learned from Void War and keep progressing, making better and better games. And MAYBE, someday, do well enough to transition Rampant Games from being a part-time effort to a full-time business.
Well, it WAS a tremendous learning experience. I learned more from creating, marketing, releasing, selling, and maintaining an indie game than I could have possibly imagined. I'd learned a lot about game design, development, and even sales and marketing as a hotshot young programmer working on some major console games (and some not-so-major ones). But it was still nothing compared to having to deal with the entire scope of a commercial product from start to finish (is it ever finished?). Things like managing a small team. Contracting out and licensing content. Business and legal issues. Marketing. And all the opportunities that can come from simply owning the full IP of a released title.
From a pure money-making perspective - well, the depressing advice I picked up on the long road to releasing the game was dead-on. I need to check my books again, but I *think* Void War actually broke even last month. By about enough money for me to buy a pizza. Woo! Go, me! I can share a slice with my buds who donated their time and talents to making the game a reality. They RAWKED.
But you know what? Nothing compares to the feeling you get when that very first order comes in. Realizing somebody out there thought your game was worthy enough to fork over their hard-earned money and spend their precious spare time playing. Or getting email from a player saying, "Wow, this game totally rocks, I'm having a great time playing it! Thank you!" This is a perspective you DO NOT GET working for a big development company insulated from the customer by layers publishers, distributors, and retailers. It's a Jerry Maguire-esque epiphany.
And so I keep making games. And I'm even working on a new (overdue) update to Void War. I love making games. I love playing them. Sure, I'd love to actually make money doing this, and I'm definitely taking the lessons learned with Void War and applying them to upcoming titles. Maybe someday it'll be all profitable for me and stuff, and I can spend more time making and playing games (on my own private island! Hey, as long as I'm dreaming, I can dream big, right?).
Long live indie games!
(PSST.... Want to help me with my down-payment on my next pizza? Please check out the games at Rampant Games and buy 'em if you like 'em! And tell their friends about this site!)
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Video Game Voters Network
Okay, everyone and their cousin is talking about this - but since I've been talking about the constant barrage our hobby has taken in the last few months from politicians anxious to score family value points regardless of the cost, I'd be remiss if I didn't post this here:
We'll see where this goes. Basically, it's an attempt to get gamers to come together as a political force. Politicians haven't come to realize yet that videogamers are well within voting age. Hopefully we'll prove that our "interactive" tendencies means we're not only ready, willing, and able to make out voices heard at election time, but that we can be enthusiastic about doing so.
In addition, this site looks to be a clearinghouse of information on current antivideogaming bills, and articles in the press concerning politics and law as it relates to the videogames.
I guess this was inevitable. When networks blame declining ratings on the rising popularity of videogames, you know something big is happening. Has Happened. I was at the Game Developers Conference (then the "Computer Game Developers Conference") in 1997 or so and heard a great talk by Brian Moriarty about videogame violence, "entrainment", and parallels between the early days of the motion picture industry with the videogame industry. He closed out his talk by reminding us that we were not just "videogame developers," but that we were the pioneers of the dominant entertainment medium of the 21st century.
Okay, so it's probably not a great business practice to go talking up the "competition's" games - but heck, if we indies don't support each other, who will?
I just got done playing the trial version of Steam Brigade, which was mentioned in one of the posts following the "Armor Alley" blog entry. I'd never heard of it before, but I'm glad I did. While I now know that's it's based on earlier games, I have to say it's a triumph of indies reviving largely forgotten genres of games and proving there's life (and really fun gameplay) left in 'em still.
The game has sharp, professional graphics, and is tightly themed with an entertaining "Steampunk" Jules-Vernesque setting. You control a powered, hot-air balloon with a magnetic grapple. You control one factory at one end of the battlefield, and your enemy controls the other. You purchase forces that march towards the enemy factory - which includes infantry, engineers, tanks, flack trucks, and other vehicles not appearing in the demo version I played. The troops only stop to fight, take possession of an gun emplacement or bunker. But of course you can also pick them up and move them with your balloon and magnetic grapple. And that's where all the strategy lies.
Like Armor Alley and most RTS games, there's a "rock, scissors, paper" element to matching up the forces, but even in the demo version it's clear it gets much more complex than that with the addition of only a few rules. One interesting difference between this game and Armor Alley is that the player's vehicle is completely (at least as far as I've been able to play) unarmed. However, that doesn't mean it can't be used offensively. With your grapple, you can pick up enemy units and toss / drop them. Aim well, and you'll turn the enemy's own tank into a flying bomb to destroy his own units. I was taught this trick by the AI, which is MUCH better at doing it to me than I am at returning the favor.
One of the great little style / flavor elements is the mini-map at the bottom of the screen, which is made to resemble a chalkboard. One thing I'm not quite so sure on is how the story is presented as poetry, but at least it's different. And everyone keeps saying they want different, right?
Another potential problem in the strategy is that the game really stacks things against you as you get closer to the enemy base. Besides dealing with the "home field advantage" (the enemy can create counters to your attack almost instantly, and your troops take a very long time to arrive from where they are created), your balloon can't take too much of being so far from home (you have to return a get 'more steam"). This may victory very hard to "drive home" when you own 3/4ths of the battlefield. I noticed this mainly when the AI had me up against the ropes in the third mission, but could never really get that close to finishing me off. I don't have enough experience with the game to state with certainty that this is the case, or how big of a problem it is, but it is something that occured to me.
The biggest thing that is missing from this game is multiplayer, which is promised in a future update. If a multiplayer gaming community builds up around this game, it could be a real hit to my productivity. In fact, I'd like to put the Pedestrian Entertainment guys on notice now that I'm really mad at them now. I think they've gone and made the competition for this year's Game Tunnel Awards a lot harder, and it's only March. Durn them.
Videogames Are A Disease.
The whole thing about Clinton and Lieberman spending $90 million of taxpayer money to divert CDC resources away from real, deadly diseases to study the effects of violent games really left me feeling like the whole "Videogames are Evil" thing are one big expensive practical joke being played on the poor U.S. citizens. I mean, I coulda sworn I heard JOKES about this kind of thing happening in the 1980s. While I wouldn't mind yet another study demonstrating the link between violent videogames and real-world violence are tenuous at best, I also know that even the weakest of links will be perverted and exploited by these politicians to match their agenda (which is wholely to pick on weak targets to make themselves look big). And it's frustrating that so much time, money, and resources that COULD be going into --- I don't know AIDS research maybe? --- Is instead going into seeing if Mario turns little Johnny into a bloodthirsty zombie.
Now I am not an artist, nor am I very skilled with The Gimp, but the whole situation reminded me of the tagline from the 1980's Sly Stallone movie "Cobra" (which was otherwise a very forgettable movie), and it stuck in my brain. So I put my meager Gimp skills to work while pondering the very UNIQUE and (to me at least) unexpected ending to the second Battlestar Galactica season. And this is what I came up with:
Probably only my wife and I were amused by this, but oh, well.
In other news - the Rampant Games website was down for a few hours. Apparently our ISP's ISP had some minor disaster that left it without power (I cannot confirm or deny that a backhoe was involved). We've gone up and down a couple of times, so we may be a bit spotty today.
Work continues on THREE game fronts. I'm feeling stretched pretty thin (but not so thin that I don't have time to make really crappy doctored movie posters, apparently). The game with the Flying Cows is making a lot of progress - and showing it around to people has resulted in some very positive feedback. It's silly, dumb, but fun. I'll post some in-development screenshots soon, but bear in mind that it's still largely stand-in content.
Back o' the Rack: Armor Alley
Steve Taylor turned me onto this ancient game (funny how something only a little over 15 years old can be ancient in this industry) called "Armor Alley." This little gem hails from about 1990 or so - originally a Macintosh title (!) which was ported to DOS. Anyway, with the miracle of DOSBOX, I've had the chance to play it a little. I've got to say I'm impressed, even just playing the tutorial missions against the AI.
The big deal about Armor Alley was that it was one of the few multiplayer games over network and modem back in the day. From what Steve tells me, the game was unbelievably addictive in multiplayer. The gameplay is interesting --- and different. I don't know WHAT they'd label it today (or what they labeled it back then, either). It's kind of a Real-Time Strategy Game with Arcade elements - but it is NOTHING like Warcraft or Age of Empires.
The game looks like a typical 2D side-scroller. You are flying a helicopter out of a base on one side of the battlefield. The enemy flies a helicopter from the opposite side. You both have a certain amount of funds from which to buy a convoy. Your funds build up over time - I don't know if there's a way to increase the rate at which your funds increase. You use your funds to buy spare helicopters (if you run out of helicopters and enough money to buy one when you are shot down, you lose). As you buy new elements of your convoy, they rise up out of the ground behind your base (from an underground bunker, maybe?) and slowly move at a fixed rate towards the enemy base.
The enemy has a convoy built the same way, heading towards your own base. As the convoys meet, there's a rock-scissors-paper battle between the different units. Tanks clobber infantry, infantry clobber the missile launchers, and the missile launchers can destroy tanks. You also have a van full of explosives for destroying the enemy base (but it's very vulnerable to anything else), and you can choose between regular soldiers and engineers. Besides the convoys, there are bunkers along the road which you can capture (with anti-air balloons), anti-aircraft guns you can destroy or capture, and who knows what else.
Just picking the convoy arrangement (tank, tank, soldiers, missile launcher) wouldn't be much of a game, but that's where your helicopter comes in. It has a limited supply of bullets, bombs, and missiles it can use to attack enemy forces (particularly the high-value enemy helicopter). It can also transport soldiers to change their arrangement within the convoy. Or drop them on enemy bunkers to capture them. And so forth. There's a lot more to the game - I'm sure Steve could privide tons of details and strategies from the "good ol' days."
With these fairly simple rules, a fairly complex action / strategy game emerges. Last year I voiced the opinion that in the mid-90's, developers and publishers raced into the "polygon war" making every game 3D, unfortunately leaving a lot of 2D concepts on the table. Playing a little bit of Armor Alley made me think about all the kinds of possibilities that still remain in both 2D and 3D gaming for innovation. Not necessarily groundbreaking, never-thought-of-it-before ideas, but certainly some new or under-explored concepts mixed in with the tried-and-true. Armor Alley definitely represents a branch of gaming evolution that was never fully explored.
Lock 'n Chase Game Moment
Gianfranco Berardi has also taken up the call to celebrate "game moments" - the little memorable times when games became something MORE and moved you, inspired you, made you think, or just really excited you in the same way that a good book or movie might.
This time, it's about having played a game for a long time and then suddenly discovering something brand new about it: Great Gaming Moments: Lock 'n' Chase
How To FUBAR an MMO Launch
So I bought into Tubine / Atari's marketing, and pre-ordered Dungeons & Dragons Online. I was already planning on playing, as our group of friends were all thinking it'd be fun to play together once a week or so in the game. And I had friends in the beta that really enjoyed it.
The launch has been rough. Unsurprising, considering launches of any Massively Multiplayer Online game is usually pretty rough. But it has been a little rougher than one would expect of a company that's been doing this for six years and has had two major MMORPG launches under their belts. Oh,there's been the usual server downtime, rollbacks, bugs, problems logging in, and so forth.
One particularly amusing problem is that people have already been able to "max out" their characters to tenth level (the highest level in the game) in under a week of play. They used their fifteen minutes of fame (which was literally only about fifteen minutes) to voice their complaints about the lack of "high level content." They pretty much skipped all of the low-level content anyway, so what are they really complaining about? But that's another rant. Still, I doubt Turbine really expected people to level up quite so fast, and they'd probably planned for more high-level content in, say, three months or so. Oops.
Turbine responded by yanking the most exploited quest, increasing the death penalty, and possibly a few other stealth changes. Those swift changes MAY have introduced a new bug that causes quests to suddenly dissapear - which pretty much screws up the quest royally and requires you to fail them and start them over again (if allowed, and with attendant penalties). Yeah, that one bit me.
But here's the most amusing thing. Turbine was very smart in allowing pre-orders to participate in a weekend "head start" before the game officially opened. They gave pre-order players some free in-game goodies, and guilds that reached a certain minimum size some in-game recognition (forthcoming). This was a great move - the people willing to fork out money IN ADVANCE for the game are going to be your hardcore "opinion leaders" who will be your primary source of "word-of-mouth" advertising. Getting as many people pre-ordered as possible helps the companies involved get a much more solid expectation as to the success of the game (and how many copies to manufacture), and also builds a community for the less-hardcore players who will be joining later. The whole idea of rewarding guild formation was an excellent part of this scheme - you get your community leaders in-place and already serving the community.
Great idea if it WORKS. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with the retail channels about the importance of this "Head Start Key." So while they were pushing pre-orders (primarily through EBGames Online) on their website, and the retailers were enjoying a flood of last-minute pre-orders, they .... um... ran out of headstart keys. The retailers just kept taking in the orders, and failed to communicate (until the complaints started mounting) the fact that they'd run out of the promised head-start keys to Turbine. Not quite realizing that THIS WAS THE REASON PEOPLE WERE BUYING THE GAMES FROM THEM.
This was apparently swiftly remedied (I received my key by the time I got home from work, so it was no problem with me). Some people lost out on about a half-day of "head start" play. Not a huge deal - if this was the extent of the "glitch". By late Friday night, the SNAFU with the retailers was largely cleared up, and people were in playing the game.
The problem is that the effort to get a "critical mass" (and early $$$ ) into the game, they had to give everyone temporary keys. At some point, they needed people to switch over from the temporary "Head Start" keys to their actual retail keys, which are printed on the jewel case for the DVD-ROM inside the box. Now, mind you - THOUSANDS (Tens of Thousands?) were playing the game just fine without a box, or a DVD, or anything else that came in the box. All they needed was that little number that could have been sent in an email.
Turbine decided to cut off the accounts that didn't have the retail key Sunday night (which was easy, as all the servers were pretty much offline all of Sunday and well into Monday). This would have been okay, except MANY, MANY of their customers hadn't received their pre-ordered boxes yet. If you didn't pay extra for expedited delivery, there was about a good shot you didn't have your game by then. Which meant those same "opinion leaders" and community leaders who Turbine had wooed and earned so much good will with found themselves locked out of the game.
Some Best Buy pre-orderers found themselves treated even more poorly. While every Best Buy store managed to get an ample stock of DDO boxes on their shelves on time, many people who pre-ordered from Best Buy have found that their orders have been delayed two weeks due to "insufficient supplies". Many of the other companies (EBGames, Gamestop online) had so many pre-orders that they spread shipments out through the entire week. So people who had their shipments mailed out Thursday or Friday via standard shipping will be lucky to be able to play the game again by the end of this week.
So this bunch of early adopters found themselves cooling their heels last night - and may be doing so for a few days yet, since Turbine won't let them play the game they already paid for. Some desperate folks have gone out and purchased new copies of the game, intending to "return" the shipped copy back to the local retailer when it arrives. Others, found locked out of their account for no fault of their own, had nothing better to do than to...
... uh, post on the Internet and forums about how pissed off they are. Or they broke their forming addiction early to go back to World of Warcraft.
How bad this turns out to be remains to be seen. As for me - I like the game, but I only intend to play once or twice a week. I'm a little dissapointed that aside from persistence and matchmaking, Neverwinter Nights is actually a better online game of D&D. But D&D Online has tons of content, tons of adventures, and I have friends that I can link up with regularly and "hit a dungeon." So I think I'll stick with it for a while. I think the game has a lot of potential, but Turbine really has to get their act together if they are going to make it succeed.
BUT MORE INTERESTINGLY:
I think people (MMO publishers, particularly) are going to take note of the minor disasters that have taken place that were entirely related to shipping the retail "box" version THAT NOBODY REALLY WANTED OR NEEDED. That's where the breakdown in getting the headstart keys came from, and it's where the breakdown in getting player's their full account took place. Yeah, Turbine really didn't make good by their customers on this latter bit (it doesn't help to just blame the online stores for not shipping on time when you are the one locking your customers out of the game they paid for).
But it comes down to the fact that the retailers handling the shipping of pre-orders were the weak link in this chain, and that the boxed sets were entirely superfluous.
I don't think this will go unnoticed, and may prove to be another nail in the coffin of "Brick and Mortar" sales channels - at least as a PRIMARY channel for online-only games.
Where Is Indie Innovation?
So Jeff Vogel, an indie game author and writer I admire and respect, says that indies will not be the source of innovation. "But truly innovative games? The sort you're only going to see a few more times in your lifetime? Those will come from Electronic Arts. Please feel free to kill yourself now."
I don't know why his "view from the bottom" column is quite so pessimistic. Maybe he's really trying to overcompensate for the almost frightening levels of enthusiasm and optimism from newbie / wannabie game developers that see indie gaming as a quick and easy "rags to riches" scheme. But his article looks to be geared more for the game players rather than game developers. Are game players really thinking indie games are some kind of new golden age? I think the trouble is more along the lines of them realizing they EXIST.
While I don't disagree on many of his points, I disagree with his tone. But he's been at the indie game development thing for longer than me. He started doing the indie game thing about the same time I started working on big-budget (for the time) retail games for consoles. My points of contention are more about semantics than anything else.
Indie Innovation is Alive and Well
First of all, here's more indie innovation than you can shake a stick at it. Yeah, a lot of it SUCKS. Creativity ain't always pretty. In fact, it's usually not. But there are some wild, hairy ideas in there that could find their way into an actual commercial release - indie or retail. So there. Neener.
There are many other innovative indie games out there that are just BIZARRE and refreshingly new. But you've never heard of them. I stumble across them from time to time, and become utterly amazed that I never heard of them and they have, in some cases, been out for years. They just languish in obscurity. For reasons I'll adress in a minute.
How Much Innovation Is Needed To Make a Game Innovative?
Second point of contention: The definition of innovation. I've heard it said that there are only three human stories, and that all stories are simply variations and combinations on those same three stories. Does that mean we should quit writing novels and short stories now, because it's all been done before? Is there no innovation left in fiction? Those are two very separate questions. The first answer is a vehement "no." The second --- I don't know. It really depends upon your definition of "innovation." There have been a lot of gimmicky things that have been tried - like telling stories in the second person, or telling a story backwards (as in the movie "Memento"). Is that the innovation the audience really craves?
Vogel complains that the innovation in the gametunnel.com indie innovation awards, stating that they are just "incremental innovation" and as such don't count, since that's the same kind of innovation you see in big-budget retail games. Apparently it HAS to be a blow-you-out-of-the-chair absolutely-never-seen-this-before type of game to count. The games he mentioned as being innovative from the mainstream are all things I *could* argue the same way against: The Sims was simply a variation on Little Computer People, Dogz, Catz, Tamagochis, and a couple of papers I read on "virtual theater" games back in 1995! Not to mention the "Sim" games Wil Wright himself had been doing for ages - you could trace the evolution in his own interviews on the game in the late '90s. Deer Hunter was simply a low-budget first-person shooter with a "hunting" theme (targets are rare and don't shoot back). Black & White was Populous combined with Dogz / Catz / Tamagochi.
I'm not really saying that these games don't deserve being labeled as innovative - they really are. But I do argue that Vogel sounds like he's applying a double-standard to indie versus commercial games. I mean, is Black & White THAT much more different from previous "god games" (and "pet games") than Facade is from text-adventure games? I really don't think so. The article sounds like a deliberate attack against indie games, and I really don't understand why.
He's Right, Though - Innovation Is Overrated
Now - on to what I agree with. Jeff is right on the money on many points, in spite of his overly sour tone. Truly radical gameplay ideas are extremely difficult to market. The whole "if you build it, they will come" thing works for cheesy baseball fantasy movies, but not in real life. The market, in spite of pleading for innovation, doesn't seek out innovative titles. Not usually. Nope, it goes for safe-and-familiar territory again and again. There's a reason those formula "summer movies" keep getting made and sell so many tickets over and over again. In fact, I think it goes further than that... the market actively avoids anything really new and different (read: "weird" and "scary").
What is interesting to point out is that two of the three games suggested by Jeff Vogel as being the most innovative games of the last few years were NOT enjoyed by gamers hungry for innovation. For the most part, the existing market hated Deer Hunter and The Sims. This is pretty telling. The success of these two titles was largely due to bringing in a brand new audience that had not been catered to by the videogames industry. And Black and White were initial critical successes, but ultimately proved dissapointing to gamers and critics alike as the promised innovations turned out to be not-so-much-fun gameplay. Sure, having your monster poop on villagers sounds like a fun game at first, but the shine goes off of that particular gimmick pretty fast.
The market demands "incremental innovation." While many critics call for absolutely revolutionary innovation, what most players choose is "Familiar but different."
A Window Of Innovation Tolerance
I have three "Dance Dance Revolution" games. Well, they are my wife's, but I bought them for her, and I play nearly as much as she does. The difference between the three? In all honesty, not much but the songs. There's some funky "challenge modes" and so forth in the different editions, but we don't play them unless we are forced to in order to unlock new songs. The differences in the selection of songs is enough to support us owning three different editions of what really amounts to the same game.
Would that be enough for us to own six different editions? Well, maybe, if they packed them with a bunch of songs (or remakes) that we already know and enjoy. If they are all nothing but Japanese pop music that we've never heard, then we'd be less inclined to bother. I mean, that stuff can be catchy, but we've got plenty of it on the three discs we already own. Would that be enough for TWELVE editions of DDR gracing our library? Probably not.
I think there's a window between two thresholds for people. On the one hand, there's a limited amount of similarity they'll tolerate between games. Too much, and they end up becoming "more of the same," and that gets boring. But beyond that, you are pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. While there's not a hard-and-fast threshold of how "weird" and "different" a game they will tolerate, the further you go from their level of familiarity, the more you have to incentivise them to actually give it a try, and to stick with it until it becomes familiar.
And maybe that was what Jeff was trying to say. That incentivising takes MONEY - marketing money, promising the player, "Wow, this will TOTALLY be worth it to you if you give this a chance!"
Giving the People What They Want
In the end, it comes down to giving people what they want. And the market votes with their wallets. As a game PLAYER, think about your last ten game purchases. How did you make your purchase decisions? How many of the games you purchased were:
* Not a sequel of another game you enjoyed, AND
* Not based on a familiar license (Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc), AND
* Not very SIMILAR to other games you've played before (RTS, RPGs, FPS, Puzzle Game, etc)?
For myself, I can answer only one in the last eighteen months or so: Orbz (an indie game). Two if you include Guitar Hero, which has solid roots in conventional rhythm games but added enough of a solid twist to the mechanics and presentation that I'd be happy to call it "innovative." Though part of that might be because I haven't played some of the other guitar-type games that I understand are available in Japan. The other games I bought? Let's see. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (an RPG in a familiar license), Battlefield 2 (a sequel, and a team-based FPS game), D&D Online (A massively multiplayer RPG in a familiar license), Gran Turismo 4 (sequel), Age of Empires III (sequel, RTS category), DDR games (sequels, popular category), Ricochete: Lost Worlds (an AQUANOID-clone), Robotech: Battlecry (license - hey, it was cheap!), etc., etc.
But even though I bought my share of sequels, licensed games, and familiar genres, I still join the cry of wanting more innovation. But the truth is, while I want something different, I still don't want anything TOO different. Probably. I'm ready to be surprised. But when I play a new game, I really want something that is both familiar enough and new enough to make me feel like I did when I first discovered similar games in the past - to get that same thrill, to repeat the experience I first had years ago.
I am going to assume I'm not that atypical.
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Mysterious Lost Arcade Game Revealed
In 1981, I had a brief tour of the Air Force Academy, where my stepbrother was attending at the time. I had just barely gotten hooked on videogames like THAT WEEK - an obsession that lasted for twenty-five years and counting. We briefly passed by a game room there where I caught little more than a glimps of a highly psychedelic (was that even allowed at the AF Academy?) arcade game called "Tunnel.." something-or-another. It looked like there were Star Wars TIE-Fighters involved. I wanted to jump in and check it out, but it was currently being played, and my tour apparently didn't involve the game room.
I filed it away and hunted around for that game for years. And of course, it built itself up in my imagination to be some extraordinary (if primitive) and cool 3D branch of videogames that was unfortunately skipped over and unpursued by the evolution of our industry. At one point, I thought perhaps I had only imagined the game. I had numerous dreams of videogames in those teenaged years, when the whole industry was catching fire and argued hotly by pop scholars as to whether it constituted a new entertainment medium or simply a passing fad.
Well, I am pleased to announce that the mystery has been solved. My enigmatic dream-game was known by the title, "Tunnel Hunt." Through the miracle of MAME, I was able to discover what, as far as I know, only the priviledged students of the Air Force Academy in 1981 were able to experience. Sometimes these little virtual time-travelling expeditions reveal some true nuggets of gold.
Alas, this is not really one of those times. Tunnel Hunt is one of those games which can really only be appreciated in the era in which it was released. A series of multicolored boxes kinda-sorta resemble a tunnel which you steer through, simultaneously steering rip-off sprites of George Lucas's Magnum Opus into your waiting crosshair. Firing lasers in the general vicinity of these ships rewards you with an explosion, in increase in score, and an increase in speed of both the tunnel's movement and the enemy ships' movement. Your lasers overheat quickly, so you can't just hold down on the fire button the whole time. The enemy ships also periodically shoot fireballs of some kind at you.
As far as I can tell, that's pretty much it.
Part of me wishes this game still remained a mystery, because my imagination had created something SO MUCH COOLER. But I'm glad to know what I was missing all these years, and to know that my phantom game really existed, and that it wasn't anything too earth-shakingly ahead of its time. Like a prototype for Doom or something.
But hey, it was kinda fun to play for a few minutes. Even in 2006.
Games as Porn Bill Quietly Fails
I wrote pretty much every senator covering the Salt Lake City region with my thoughts on Representative Hogue's bill, HB0257. I am completely disgusted that it passed with a nearly unanimous vote in the house. I am also equally disgusted that, in spite of receiving emails AND a detailed list of concerns from the Utah Merchant's Association to the contrary, the house Judiciary Committee decided to provide a fiscal note that there would be "no fiscal impact" for the business and individual impact.
Yeah, guys losing their jobs and businesses moving out of Utah is no fiscal impact. While I'd like to chalk it up to incompetance, I'm afraid this sounds like outright lies to me. These guys were informed of the impacts, and chose to ignore it in order make the bill look pretty.
As far as I can tell, the Senate decided to kill the bill quietly by letting it expire rather than being viewed as "anti-family." A full report can be found here:
This COULD have been somewhat motivated by a recent guest editorial by two legal scholars, Clay Calvert and Robert D. Richards, co-directors of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Ammendment, which appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune at an opportune time.
There was an outstanding commentary by W. Jayson Hill on the reason that videogames have become giant target for every politician and ambulance-chasing lawyer looking to make a name for himself. The article can be found here:
One excerpt that really drives it home:
"As we reevaluate our adversary, we have to accept that legislators are not really interested in resolving this issue. They pay lip service to working with the industry, but this is an issue politicians have framed as "child safety", and it is too valuable a soapbox to abandon. These legislators have distorted the industry and the ESRB to make their constituents fearful and exploited that fear for votes."
His point is that appealing to the lawmakers is ultimately going to be a dead-end because the videogames industry is FAR TOO USEFUL AS A SCAPEGOAT FOR ALL SOCIAL ILLS. This is a war they are fighting against an illusionary enemy. The rise in violent crime in America (which doesn't exist - violent crime has been dropping dramatically over the last twelve years) is directly linked to violent videogames (which also hasn't been proven), which are being marketed to children (also untrue in MOST cases - the average "mainstream" videogame player hasn't been a minor for nearly 10 years). By claiming to be fighting on the "front line" of an "intense battle" that the average American can't even see, they can make themselves look heroic and pro-active.
Because, you know, solving REAL problems is way too much work, involves way too many compromises, and doesn't gain you nearly as much political clout.
Bottom line (according to Mr. Hill) is that we need to do an end-run around the politicians and go straight to the people at the grass roots level. People fear what they don't understand. So help them understand. Letters to your government leaders are good. But letters to the editor in the newspaper may be better. And getting an "expert" to come to community / PTA meetings and explain the ESRB rating system, and replace FUD with FACTS might be even better.