Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Sunday, April 30, 2006
 
Low Commitment Games
This weekend was busy, but I did manage to get some actual game PLAYING in. After the whirlwind action of starting a new job, and preparing for the demo for Apocalypse Cow for the Utah Indie Game Developers' Meet, I didn't find much time over the last two weeks to actually enjoy playing a game.

But this weekend I managed to get in some quality Guitar Hero time (I nailed 5 stars for Bark At The Moon on Medium, which felt like an accomplishment!). One of the things that makes Guitar Hero awesome among Playstation games is that it's possible to plug it in, play, make progress, and save your game with only ten minutes to play. Now, once I'm going and playing, I usually put in a full half hour or more. But I find that I've got many games I just haven't bothered to try and play for months because I realize it requires a half-hour commitment JUST to get to a save point. But the seductive nature of Guitar Hero is that you can rip out a song or two, MAYBE improve over your previous best performance, and call it done --- though once you do that, you tend to go for "Just One More Song." But the lack of commitment gets me to play it.

Consequently, I'm going to be snagging Guitar Hero II the day it hits the shelves. I can't say the same for the sequels of some of these other games I've never finished because getting to the save points was too painful.

I also played a bit of RPG, Aveyond, for much the same reason. The game has no restrictions (so far as I have seen) to when you can save except for combat. It's easy to jump in and play because you only want a five or ten minute distraction in hopes of pulping a few monsters for gold and experience points. Then I get sucked in by the story, or find a new area, and the next thing I know I've lost a half an hour or an hour to this little roleplaying game. It seems it is very popular among non-hardcore gamers (for some of whom this is their first RPG)... It's another "Low Commitment Game."



It's not just the ease of saving the game that makes these games "low commitment" - it's the fact that if you play, you are only going to "improve" your game. If I were to jump into a saved game of Civilization, for instance, and might not have time to devote the attention to it that I should, there's a good chance I'll find my next saved game a worse situation than the previous. But in an RPG - or a game built around short sessions like Guitar Hero or Dance, Dance, Revolution - there's a high likelihood that I'll profit and improve my game in a measurable way even with a very short time commitment. So the reward is pretty constant even for "uncommitted" play.

This may be all old-news to Casual Game players and developers, but for me it's kind of an interesting observation of my own motivations and behaviors.

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Friday, April 28, 2006
 
How Can I Sell My Game Idea?
So I have this great idea for a game. How can I make money with it?

I've heard this question in various forms. There have been a couple of great responses to this question lately. I'll mention the one that was just posted by my new employers, NinjaBee. Also, Thomas Warfield recently responded with the most sensible explanation of why you can't get someone else to make your game for you (unless you pay them a lot of money to do it).

Last night, after the Utah Indie Game Dev Meeting, Steve Taylor said, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could somehow get all the guys working together to make a game... it would be AMAZING."

I said, "That kinda defeats the purpose of being indie, doesn't it? Everyone is here because they are working on their own game." Which wasn't strictly true - but in general, I didn't think these guys were casting about looking for IDEAS for games. I think out of that group of 30 people, you could have EASILY heard 300 different killer game concepts that had real potential for either commercial success or artistic satisfaction.

Ideas are important, but they are only the first step. It's like making the decision to go to the gym regularly and get into shape. Man, that sure is an important decision. But without the follow through and the tons of work, it's pretty worthless.

So how DO you make money with your game idea? Turn it into a full-fledged game. Or at least a partially completed game. What, you were expecting an easier answer?

One of the things that I have found is that once you've got SOMETHING concrete and playable, you are in a much better place for recruiting help. Even if your game is full of crappy programmer art, of you have beautiful visuals but the logic of the game is extremely basic. The very fact that you have something to show makes it REAL to people, and goes further to express your vision of the game than an idea that you spend two hours explaining.

So get out there and do it! Make a prototype, for crying out loud. If you've never done anything like that before, then that's all the more reason you should give it a try. Give your dreams a concrete form in reality. It's still no guarantee of making big bucks or anything like that, but if nothing else, it's good practice. Especially if one of your dreams is to make a living designing and creating games.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006
 
Utah Indie Game Developer Meet - Spring 2006
Wow.

The first Utah Indie Game Developer's meet about nine months ago was something like 10 people. The next one was 13. The following one was 16 people. I worried we might not sustain our growth this time, as there were some people I knew who couldn't make it this time (like the illustrious Russell Carroll, editor-in-chief of Game Tunnel, who recently made the move to California). But if we COULD keep up the rate of growth, we'd have 19 people.

Nope. We had 29. It was unbelievable. It was a huge party. It was a very interesting turnout.

First of all, we had a huge turnout of people who have day jobs in the game industry. I know the Headgate guys have kinda-sorta received their company's blessings to be there. And of course, Wahoo studios is committed to the whole indie game development movement. And there were guys from another local Utah game development studio as well.

WHY!?!?!?! Why were these guys who are getting PAID to make games as a day job taking time out of their busy evenings with family and other priorities to MAKE THEIR OWN GAMES and to attend meetings TALKING about making indie games? Apparently their day jobs aren't crushing their passion for game development, for one thing. But I think there's something else. I think a lot of it was just that they want to make their own games, and to be involved in something that is small and personal enough that they don't feel like they could simply be replaced. With small indie games, you change one member of the team, you change the whole game. Maybe that's not their reason, but it's one I thought of after talking to them.

And these guys also grouse about the awful rut that game design is in as loud as any gaming journalist. They want to make a difference.

I can't really begin to tell you what happened tonight, because I think I only saw a quarter of it. I saw and played some cool demos. I didn't get to play Bug Warz, but it was looking REALLY nice and polished, and should be released to the public in a few days. I got to play Mike Smith's Caster once again, and it has REALLY come along nicely. It still needs some polishing and cleaning up in parts, but as I played the first three levels I felt like I was playing a commercial demo. It's getting that close.

Another demo called "Wog" was just --- weird. But cool. It's a 2D game with tightly integrated physics. Basically, think of shooting your way through incredible SWARMS of enemies, so many that all you can do with your various guns (attack modes) is to clear a temporary path through the middle of them. That's Wog.

Some guys from Caravel were demoing Deadly Rooms of Death. Great stuff. I didn't even realize some of the team lived here in Utah.

Steve - sorry, I can't remember his last name - AKA "Dreamer" of MyDreamRPG.com gave demos of the "massively multiplayer RPG kit" for the Torque Game Engine. Unfortunately he ran into a few technical difficulties during his presentation to me - but I did get to see horses running around inside of TGE.

I demoed "Apocalypse Cow," which is REALLY not as far along as I intended it to be by now (my hope was to have it ready for alpha by now... silly me). Now I hope to have it to beta by the NEXT Utah Indie Meet, probably in July. But people were really complimentary of the game, in spite of the fact that I'd apparently BROKEN many pieces of it during my drive to get it ready for the demo. I REALLY have to get the "bridge building" mission more polished and complete, and get good ol' Cowfred Von Richthoofen done and terrorizing the country side first.

There were a couple other demos I really regret missing. But I did get into some intering conversations with lots of people about game design, and about massively multiplayer game design, architecture, and *ahem* pricing structure. There were a lot of bright, driven people in the room with good ideas and some fascinating background experiences. Those conversations were worth the evening alone.

Anyway - I WISH I could have experienced more of what was going on, but at times it felt like there were four parties going on and I could only participate in a small part. But I left as inspired and humbled as ever, and seized with a desire to Get My Game Done.

But not tonight. I was up till late doing game dev stuff last night, and I am exhausted. Rock on, and keep kicking tail and making games!
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
 
Game Moments #12 - Rainbow Six
There I was - on the port side of a ship, the last survivor of my team, facing the last survivor of the enemy team... none other than Bryan, the quintessential "perfect wingman" of Falcon 4.0. And in the next few seconds, one of us would be dead.

The game was Rainbow Six - the "thinking man's first person shooter." There was no rocket-jumping (or jumping at all). Moving while shooting was unlikely to score a hit. Holding down on the trigger was just "spraying and praying" and would most likely make you run out of ammunition before you hit anything. Rainbow Six was a game about being slow and methodical up until the point where it became split-second timing and action. Man, we loved that game.

Bryan wasn't so great on the split-second timing thing - that was my only advantage. But he was VERY methodical and exact. Better than me, which is why HE would end up finishing cooperative missions while I was neutralized (see the above link for THAT story). Which probably explained why he was the last man standing on his team. We usually played as teammates, so he knew how I operated. If I made a mistake, he'd kill me. As simple as that. And I knew he was being too careful for me to surprise him.

So I was extra careful. There was a door into the inner part of the ship up ahead. It was far enough away that if someone came through the door, I'd probably be safe enough for a couple of seconds while they took aim at me. So I took advantage of the opportunity to whip out the heartbeat sensor.

I doubt anything like the heartbeat sensor works in real life, but in Rainbow Six it was a little magic short-range radar to tell you where people were within 50 feet or so. 50 feet isn't very far, but in the close-quarters combat of Rainbow Six, there were so many intervening walls and obstacles that was a good length.

On my heartbeat sensor, I saw there was another dot right next to me. Maybe five feet away. Behind the metal wall of the boat. By the way it was moving (or, rather, NOT moving), I guessed that behind the wall, Bryan had his OWN heartbeat sensor out, and was seeing that he was standing next to me as well. He'd also gauged safety based on distance from the door ahead of us.

I put away the heartbeat sensor and drew my MP-5 submachinegun. I quickly moved over to the door - and then anticipated what Bryan would be doing on the other side of the door. He knew I was there. He'd probably moved right to the door at the same time I did. He was probably standing RIGHT THERE.

Grenade time. I popped the grenade, stood to the side of the door, and then thew the grenade through the door, bouncing it against the wall so it would land at Bryan's feet.

Even as I did this, I thought, "What is Bryan doing right now?" I realized with horror that he was undoubtably popping a grenade threw the door on his own. So I immediately backed up. And I saw Bryan's grenade bounce and land right next to where I was standing.

BOOM! BOOM! The two grenades exploded a split-second apart from each other.

The game didn't end with a success screen, so I knew I hadn't nailed him. In fact, he'd probably anticipated MY grenade throw, and had backed up himself. So far we were exactly mirroring each other's actions.

And I knew what he'd be doing next. The same thing I was doing. I drew the MP-5 and rushed the door, shooting (or doing the "spray and pray" thing). I don't know if he was charging too, or if he was just standing there to greet me.

Either way... as *I* remember it, I got lucky. I hit him with one of my wildly inaccurate shots enough to spoil his aim, and then finished him off. After thirty seconds of mirroring each other, I managed to get lucky in the "split second timing" phase of the action.

But you know, I may me remembering it wrong. The details of who actually won are really fuzzy. Maybe we killed each other. Maybe he killed me. That's the funny thing - it really doesn't MATTER to me. What I remember with clarity was the details leading up to the end - the mirror-image cat and mouse game we played for thirty seconds anticipating each other's actions.

That was a freaking awesome game!

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Monday, April 24, 2006
 
Stock Game Content
So how about a contest where you are allowed to ONLY use "stock" content - a contest where the difference between games is exclusively in the gameplay?

It's just been proposed in an article called the The Game Content Dodge. The concept for the contest is still an interesting one, a more "pure" test of game design and programming. But the article also raises some questions about the use of stock content in game development.

Now, I was (and still am) a fan of the concept of using off-the-shelf and reused content wherever possible. My limited experience in set design in High School convinced me that you don't want to build anything you don't have to. We'd hit thrift stores to get everything we could for costumes and set pieces, and sometimes we'd have to special-order flats. But sometimes we had to break down and do it ourselves for central or unique set-pieces. I remember having to make a bed on stilts for one play - I think it was "Butterflies Are Free." That was a pain and consumed a lot of our time.

I've also watched commentaries on DVDs (yes, I'm one of the freaks who loves watching the commentaries), and I love hearing about the stories of how they got certain set pieces or costumes. I think it's in one of the Firefly episodes where the ballroom gown was created out of the costume designer's own wedding dress - dyed and re-shaped.

This is how it's done in other dramatic media - why can't we take some of their GOOD ideas, for a change?

As much as I'd like this to be the case, it's unfortunately not quite so simple. What we do in computer games is a lot closer to animation than live-action theater or filmmaking. If you take Bart Simpson, Disney's Snow White, The Power Puff Girls, Sully (from Monsters, Inc), and Lum (from Urusei Yatsura, a classic anime series) and try putting them in a Warner Brothers "Bugs Bunny" cartoon, and how well will they work together? Not at all, unless something extremely silly is your goal. The elements are just not compatible.

And that's pretty much the state of off-the-shelf game content. You've got stuff that's clearly not intended for real-time rendering, and you've got monsters that were designed for Quake II era engine that just CAN'T look scary on 200 polygon budgets. And you have wild extremes of quality and style, just like our cartoon characters.

It's frustrating to me, because I still think the idea of using third-party content is not only a great concept, it's going to be critical as we scale up to the capabilities and demands of newer hardware. But right now, the most you can hope for is to wade through a ton of content that won't work looking for pieces that might be salvageable, and hoping for one or two gems that can be used as-is.

So is there a way we make it work?
Saturday, April 22, 2006
 
What makes a game great?
When I was in sixth grade, a friend of mine - Racheal - told me her criteria for judging whether a movie was great or not. It was really simple - if she found herself still thinking about it the next day, then it was great. A similar approach could be made with books or TV shows. If she found herself still thinking about a book a couple of days after finishing it, it was great.

A fascinating little tidbit of wisdom from a twelve-year-old. And a pretty useful rule of thumb I still use many years later. I'd like to apply it to games as well. But then you run into problems.

In conventional media, the object is really presented to the audience in a single form. The level of interactivity is very limited, but the presentation is definitely modified by each audience member's mood, familiarity with the topic, the periodicity (how much they read in one sitting), and so forth. In the past, Aint It Cool News made a point of presenting each movie review from the staff with a full accounting of their experience of going to the movie, including the events leading to them being in the theater. If their experience was tainted by someone in the row in front of them who kept coughing through the whole film, they wanted to record that so the readers could understand possible biases.

With games, it's a whole new dimension of interaction. To some degree, the player gets out of it what he puts into it. Games become a filtered mirror that may reflect their own experiences, interests, energy, and personality. How do you judge THAT?

For me, for example, Wing Commander I (and the expansions) is one of the greatest games of all time, because of where I was in my life when I was playing it. I was living with my fiancee's parents in California, but SHE had gone back to Utah to attend school for part of that summer. So here I was in an unfamiliar town where I didn't really know anyone, separated from my wife-to-be, and as a good Mormon boy I wasn't the kind to hang out at the bar after work with my coworkers. I got home at around 5:45 in the evening, and had about five hours to kill before going back to sleep. Of the options I had available to me to battle boredom, I ended up spending a LOT of time playing Wing Commander.

I mean, I studied that game. I think I could have gotten a degree in Wing Commander. I pretty much memorized the stats of every missile and ship in the game that came with the documentation. I could tell you the speed of the various missiles, the armor levels on the different sides of the capital ships, and so forth. I played through the game several times (deliberately failing in some cases to see the 'losing' campaign missions), practically memorized the scripts, and won the big award that came from finishing a perfect campaign.

Yeah, I thought about the game a little bit. Still do, fifteen years later. That may make it great to me, and the game certainly had enough popularity and a following that most people would admit that it was one of the great computer games in our hobby's short history. But could I have put as much energy into something considered more mediocre by the test of time? Say - I don't know - RISE OF THE TRIAD, Apogee's answer to Doom? I think I could have. In fact, I know I could have - I put a ton of effort into a crappy little RPG at one point called "Twilight 2000" - a game which crashed repeatedly right before (I think) the final boss battle. Something I don't think anyone could call great (though one reviewer, noting its incredible shortcomings in spite of what seemed to be a solid premise and game system, called it "Two Thirds of a Great Game.") And I do sometimes wonder what the final battle against Baron Czerny would have been like...

I really did love Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, in spite of its shortcomings. It passed the "thinking about it afterwards" test, and I thoroughly enjoyed the multiplayer game with friends for a couple of months, until its limitations became too frustrating. I dug the storyline, especially the first half in Vienna and Prague, WAY too much. But I don't know of any critics who would call it a great game.

I suspect that Dance Dance Revolution should be considered a "great" game. I don't know why it wouldn't. But I sure don't THINK about it much. It doesn't leave an impression on me or anything. But I sure have fun playing it - and that's the whole point of games, right? - and it also forces me to get exercise as a major added bonus. At least when I'm not still recovering from a sprained ankle.

I can name some objective and subjective elements that can be used to gauge the quality of a game. And of course, many critics would be very nervous about labeling a game as "great" until it has stood the test of time. But is there a simple little rule-of-thumb like my friend Racheal suggested that could be applied to games?

Or does it even matter?

(EDIT: I noticed today that there's a big difference between the subject line - what MAKES a game great - and the actualy topic - how to recognize a great game. Both are good questions. And WAY bigger than could be summed up in a blog entry. I'm just asking questions, I don't have answers...)

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Friday, April 21, 2006
 
Indie Revolution or Evolution?
Things are changing in the games industry, very quickly. This is being met with an attitude of doom and gloom by some of the "big business" of game development - and with joy and anticipation (and nervousness) on the part of many others, including the indie community.

Raph Koster is predicting an "extinction level event" for the traditional games industry model.

Earnest Adams, a long-time member of the traditional video game industry, is meeting the massive changes taking place with cheerfulness and enthusiasm, telling game developers that the future is looking very bright. But different.

Forbes magazine is talking about indie games. And I hear Rolling Stone is about to run an article about indie games soon. Both are focusing on XBLA downloadable content - but that counts.

Greg Costikyan and Johnny Wilson and company are putting together Manifesto Games, an indie portal / publisher with an emphasis on non-casual indie games. And of course, in the casual sector, the battle of the behemoths have been heating up with serious money being thrown around for a couple of years.

Ubisoft just dumped their DRM provider that tied the game to the media in a way that broke customer machines. By comparison, successful indie developer Stardock just released a hit game with NO COPY PROTECTION whatsoever, divorcing bits from atoms even further. Because it's not the CD / DVD that's important - it's the CONTENT. That's what people are paying for. That's what people expect to have access to when they plunk down their hard-earned money for a game (or movie, or song...). And of course, much of the talk this year has been about Valve's experiments with Steam, a proprietary channel to bring content straight from the developer to the consumer without going through a middleman.

Jay Moore's recent Open Letter to the GG Community explains how much he was in demand at GDC this year. I was there when they had the first IGF at the Game Developers Conference (I think it was still called the "Computer Game Developer's Conference" then --- and then the console guys took over).The attitude towards the IGF (one that I held, too, I admit...) was a little snobbish and condescending. Sort of like, "Oh, hey, let's hold a competition to find some hot up-and-coming developers to hire away so they can do some REAL games." Now it's not a joke anymore (or so I hear - I haven't been to GDC in years, but I am planning on hitting the Indie Games Con in October if I can possibly swing it). Oh, and CASUAL GAMES! Please! That seemed like the place where game developers went to DIE a decade ago. Now a bunch of investors are DYING to get a piece of that action!

And of course, everyone and their grandmother is talking about the surprise hit of the next generation of consoles, the XBox 360's LiveArcade service. Which includes a bunch of little indie games. And it's no small irony that the champion of indie games is turning out to be Microsoft.

The thing is, as much as I like to champion the indie community (and maybe feel some pride in my own insignificant contributrions to it), these things are not happening out of some sheer force of will in a revolutionary act to overthrow the yoke of oppression. Far from it. These things have been evolving for YEARS now. Technology has been improving, the need has been growing, and it's just that the two are now meeting to create more opportunities than ever. We've seen it before ... when Doom and Quake and Duke Nukem 3D embarassed some big publishers with their quality, or even back when guys like Richard Garriott put a game disk and photocopied instructions in a Zip-Loc bag for sale at a local computer store.

There are two ways to deal with change. You can be like the RIAA, frantically trying to use every trick in the book to fight the tide of change and turn back the clock. Or you could be one of those guys that looks for the opportunity in these changes. The opportunity is both as a game developer AND as a game player.

I'd rather number myself among the guys looking for the opportunity. Because if it's "only" a revolution, trying to turn back the clock might succeed. But if it's truly evolutionary forces at work, it's pretty much unstoppable, and you either evolve or die.

Go indie!

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Thursday, April 20, 2006
 
Working For The (Game) Man!
I've had some people ask how things are going with the new job, once again making games for a living and working for a game company. So here's how it has gone - at least the declassified stuff. The game itself is unannounced and it's all NDA'ed, so I can't talk about THAT. Sorry. But I can tell you about working for a game company.

In some ways, it's really weird to be doing games full-time again after a nearly six-year hiatus. In other ways, it feels like I never left. Maybe it's the familiarity of the stuff I lived and breathed for six years, and maybe it's the fact that I've been doing this part-time for more than half of my time out of the industry.

So the popular image of working at a game company is that there's a perpetual party going on, where guys are hammering out code and art in-between playing games and shooting each other with nerf guns. Or maybe two guys sitting on a couch playing on a console where a game is magically appearing while they are mashing buttons. I hate to break it to anyone who has their heart set on working at such a place, but in the three game companies I've worked, it's never been anything like that. While lunchtime and after-hours deathmatches could get a bit heated, and you may find a lone developer taking a fifteen minute break at an arcade machine, all three companies I've worked for have been relatively quiet, professional places. Though game companies tend to have employees who are a bit more driven and passionate about what they are doing. And the meetings are often a bit more exciting talking about boss levels and what a monster's armor might look like rather than developing more web-based reports for customers.

The first day was the usual first day of any programming job. Paperwork, proving I'm legal to work in the U.S., setting up the new computer and installing all the software, getting some lessons on how the pipeline & workflow work, and then reading design documents. The next day, I started fiddling around with real code. This was mainly a "hands on" training to get accustomed to how things worked in the code base. I'd try things, find out they didn't work, ask some questions of people, and then try something else. I probably managed to embarass myself pretty well in front of my boss, stumbling around and having people ask, "Why are you trying to do that?" But by the end of the day, I was finally getting some stuff added to the code base that was somewhat useful.

By the third day, I was starting to feel back in my element again. I started getting some real productive work done, cranking away on some new stuff, and fixing bugs in the existing code. Of which there are plenty - the area I was assigned to hasn't received a lot of TLC, and the guy who was previously on it was moved abruptly to a new project and didn't have time to clean up what he'd been working on. But I finally started getting real items at least partially checked off on my hit-list for the next milestone.

The project is tremendously fun, something I *wished* I could have done back in the Singletrac days, but never had the opportunity. The Wahoo guys are stark-raving crazy for taking it on, but after having worked with the team a bit I think they are ALSO just crazy and brilliant enough to pull it off. I'm coming face to face with the magnitude of the tasks ahead, but I'm seeing how well people are pulling it all together. The pipeline at Wahoo is well-designed, and integration is fairly constant, so you get to see a steady evolution of the game towards its finished form. The guys there have their act together, and are very smart, professional, and know their trade.

It's good to be back.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
 
Multiplayer vs. Single-Player Design
Designing any game is challenging (if you are doing it right). But designing a game that is playable both with multiple players and by a single player is one of the more difficult design struggles any game developer must face (though it is probably second to designing a major massively-multiplayer game that attempts to break the mold of established MMORPGs and MUDs).

It's not just the technological issues (though these can be challenging). It's trying to create a game that serves the needs of a lone player, a group of players grouping together for a cooperative experience, and the need to provide an interesting battlefield for competitive multiplayer play. Trying to accomodate all these modes results in what I half-jokingly refer to as getting "two games for the price of two," in terms of development cost and effort.

Several friends and I (and my wife) have been playing multiplayer Neverwinter Nights almost since its release. Neverwinter Nights has an incredibly awesome module creation suite, which has resulted in somewhere north of 5,000 player-created adventures appearing on the web. Neverwinter Vault has a form you can fill out which includes information on whether the module is multiplayer or single-player. Because Neverwinter Nights handles multiplayer pretty automatically, the technology is not a limitation. But there are still the design issues of creating a game geared for multiple players versus one designed for one person.

Most fan-created modules are never even tested in multiplayer (I'd guess that less than 25% of Neverwinter Nights players have actually played online for more than just a single exploratory test). But even without testing, they still check the "multiplayer" box because they figure there's no reason why a party of six people with lower-level characters can't play the module just as easily as one.

Some of the design problems we've found in "multiplayer" modules:

* Really long conversations with NPCs - one player ends up talking while the rest of the party wanders around bored.

* Quests that only give rewards to one party member rather than the group.

* Quests that give rewards to the entire party when one member completes it, but the quest can be completable by the entire party (thus we finish the quest SIX times for six times the reward).

* The party ends up with different faction ratings from each other - some of the party members end up being attacked on sight by monsters that are 'friendly' to the rest of the group.

* "Boss Monsters" fall easily to a party of six, whereas their minions (which spawn dynamically based upon the size and strength of the entire group) are actually harder to fight.

* Areas that can only be reached by a player doing something which can only be done ONCE - meaning one player can go and the rest of the party gets left behind.

* Storylines that are focused around a single-character fail to take into consideration the fact that a group is participating now. Characters who never spoke to an NPC are greeted as friends with an assumed history that never actually occured.

* Quests "break" because a player who started the quest on one night are unavailable for a later play session.

There are far more subtle design issues, as well, which are only noticeable over time. In one module that we've currently been playing, there seems to be relatively fixed treasure: The monsters dont' generally drop loot, and the treasures are always the same. Many areas of the module are also only reachable if you have a special magic item that can be purchased at the town at a hefty but seemingly reasonable price.

The trick is that in single-player, the player ends up with way more treasure than he needs, and sells the rest. He can very quickly afford this magic item and visit all these additional areas.

However, in a party of six players, there's very few "excess" items that we can sell (thus there is less liquid currency as a whole!), and what we do sell has to be split six ways. By the time we could afford to buy SIX of these items, we had already explored well over half the module, and now we have to back-track to find these half-dozen areas that we missed (which may be far too underpowered for us by now).

Probably the easiest (I won't say 'best') way to handle both the multiplayer and the single-player experience in the same game is to make the single-player game mimic the multiplayer game as closely as possible, as id Software and Epic did with Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, respectively. This puts a lot of demands on the AI to behave like other players, but it solves a ton of design problems.

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Monday, April 17, 2006
 
Jay Sells Out! Or maybe the opposite...
I left the videogame industry in September 2000 (though I kept coming back as a consultant into October). I had a lot of reasons. I was fed up with some of the practices in the industry, and bored with doing "other people's games" that were mainly sequels and clones. And then there was the realization that I could make 10% - 20% more money writing business applications. And the (false) assumption that things were more stable outside of games.

I rationalized that I could write 'boring business apps' during the day, and write my own games at night. Wow, what a concept! And somehow in there I could also juggle the demands of family, friends, church, and so forth. So after six years in the games biz, I checked out. I was one of the "lapsed game developers."

It took me a while to get around to doing "my own games" on the side. It turns out that it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to come home from a grueling day of programming only to start programming some more. And it took me a while to discover that there was actually a thriving "indie" game development community already out there doing what I was doing (and in some cases, doing it much better than me). But eventually, Void War was born. And Rampant Games. It's been slow going, especially as my ability to acquire quality content for the games has been limited.

Meanwhile, the non-game software development business turned out to not be a place where streets were paved with gold, either. I dealt with small companies tanking on the one hand, and big business politics on the other. Sometimes the work was exciting, sometimes it was really, really boring. My wife, Julie, became frustrated with the lack of stability in the non-games side of things (from small start up to big businesses that performed layoffs as a matter of course before the end of the fiscal year). She was also disappointed with the lack of family-focused Christmas parties at some places where I worked - to the point where she only half-jokingly said I have to make sure a company has a Christmas party before accepting a position.

Julie sometimes asked if I would ever go back to the games industry as a full-time gig. I told her only if I could go in on my own terms. Which would mean either Rampant Games does well enough to take it full time (not likely any time soon!!!!), or if I could find a game company that was very friendly to the idea of me running a game company of my own on the side. Which was, of course, NOT VERY LIKELY. So doing that would pretty much be selling out on the whole indie game developer thing.

Finding myself between jobs again over the last three weeks, I found that the job market has largely recovered (at least here in Utah) for software engineers. The ones I interviewed for were largely similar - the pay was okay, but the jobs weren't particularly exciting. Except for one.

I interviewed at Wahoo Studios (AKA NinjaBee), a small game studio, largely as a courtesy to the friends I have there. I knew they couldn't pay me as much money as I was used to making outside of the games business. But the project they needed me for sounded exciting and challenging, and they offered me tangible, critical resources to help me with Rampant Games. While of course their own needs will take precedence, they were willing to make Rampant Games a priority. An offer I could not get anywhere else, games industry or not.

I received a formal offer letter from them a week ago. The letter contained all sorts of formal language concerning salary, start date, benefits eligibility, and additional forms of compensation that we'd agreed upon. And in the middle of all this dry, formal, language, there was the following paragraph (which I received permission to post publicly):

"We promise to have a Christmas party, but we can't guarantee that Julie will be swept away by its elegance."

Well, there you go. As of this morning, am no longer a "former full-time member of the video game industry." Or a "Lapsed Game Developer." I am back in the business as a salaried game development professional. To add icing to the cake, it's an independent game studio with real, honest-to-goodness indie game projects (along with the more traditional, publisher-funded ones). So I'm kinda-sorta a full-time indie now. Six years in, six years out, and now I'm back in the saddle again. And more interestingly, the structure of the deal actually ENCOURAGES me to push the development of games in my off-hours.

So I guess I managed to do it without selling out. Kinda weird how life works sometimes.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
 
How do you create "Fun"?
So what makes a game "more fun" than another? Or what makes a game "fun" for one player or "boring" for another. What's "fun" all about anyway. And how can I make my own game more "fun?"

I got a wonderful experience in 1994 to really ponder those questions. I'd just graduated from college with a computer science degree from BYU, with a family of two-with-one-on-the-way. My wife, ever the ultra-supportive person in my wife, decided to let me shoot for my 'dream shot' for a job before settling with something to pay the bills. My dream job, of course, was to make video games for a living.

I had a few little game projects I'd tinkered with while in school, and I spent a bit of time in-between trying to get interviews with local game companies polishing them up and making them more resemble "complete" games. I'd had a 3D tank game with networking capability which absolutely SUCKED, but proved I could write code to rasterize polygons (in the days when all 3D had to be done in software - this was an era where DOOM 1 was the hot new thing) and do some kind of network coding. I had a dumb little fighting game I'd put together with art from a friend (who had included a Homer Simpson looking guy as one of the combatants). I had an early-early-prototype of a game that I probably shouldn't have shown that was a world domination type strategy game that bore more in common with the board game "Supremacy" than the popular computer game "Civilization" of the time.

And then I had this little action-adventure-arcade style game with a cyberpunk theme that kinda combined the action of the classic games "Shamus" and "Berzerk" with a sci-fi 'computer hacking' theme, a storyline, equipment upgrades, and a whole bunch more. It was the game I was most proud of. But it was still just a demo - there wasn't much finished. But it was playable enough that you could see where I was going with the thing.

I managed to score an interview at a local game development company, and had the chance to interview with the president of the company himself. I showed him my demos - embarassing by today's standards, or even by 1994's standards. The one he focused on was my cybperpunk action / adventure / whatever type game. I guess he saw some glimmer there. But only a glimmer. It was far from complete.

So he asked me if I would be willing to spend some more time on it and come back and talk to him for a second interview in a week. I answered, "Sure." After all, I was probably just gonna be working on the game during the week anyway. Well, that and playing some games, too. He said, "I want you to see what you can do in ONE WEEK to make the game 'fun'."

"Okay," I answered. "What are you looking for? More levels showing where I'm going, or more of the storyline, some of the other enemies and weapons I've got planned, or what?"

He shook his head. "I want to see what YOU come up with. You do what you can to make this game 'fun'."

Wow. I went home that afternoon in a daze. It sounded like the interview had gone well, but now I had a week to make my demo "fun." What would it take? What was "fun" anyway? I didn't know and hadn't really thought about it. I mean, sure, I "knew it when I saw it." But I'd not really ever thought in a deep sense as to the core of what made a game more fun or less fun than another. I wasn't sure what this game company president really wanted to see.

I ended up spending much of the afternoon playing games. I picked my favorite, most "fun" games. At the time, one of my favorite games (and my wife's favorite) was a classic from Epic Megagames called "Epic Pinball." It was simple and delightful. We owned the whole series (it was a shareware title) of pinball games. And it even had a "cyberpunk" style level, of a similar theme to my game (pictured). So I played, critiqued, and wondered.

I think I really 'studied' these games more than I ever had before. I pondered the nature of "fun." What were the common ingredients of "fun" games? And of what I learned, what could I then use to add to my little game to make it "fun" and win me the game development job with less than a week of development time?

I couldn't just sit and think the whole week - I had a lot of work to get done, but I was under pressure to get the RIGHT work done. What I didn't realize at the time was that this was the same exercise the professional game designers have to do all the time. It's not about designing the "dream" game, or making it the "coolest game ever." It's not about wish fulfillment or cramming every cool idea you can think of into your favorite game. It's about calculating the biggest "bang for the buck" with limited resources and correctly estimating what it will take to achieve it. It's about understanding risks and payoff, estimating the effort involved, and deciding on the plan of action to make the best game possible within your constraints.

I can't remember everything that went into my improved demo. I do know that it wasn't all game-play. Some of it was 'flash' to make it sexier (and thus more compelling to play). Some of it was improved rewards (such as storyline or graphics) for successful play. Some of it was adding more levels and AI, to show off the variety and new strategies and tricks th eplayer had to learn and master. And a lot was tightening up and polishing what I already had.

I assume the effort was a success. When I came in for the second interview, they made me an offer. The company president also said he didn't want my efforts to go to waste, and that had contacts with some second-tier shareware publishers (remember that term, "Shareware?") that would be interested in my game if I were to finish it.

I didn't actually end up taking him up on either effort. The following day I had an interview with another Utah videogame company - "SingleTrac" was its name, and it had some fresh funding from Sony and was ready to apply the considerable expertise of its key people in the field of 3D graphics to the videogame industry. They also offered me a job, based partly on the strength of my little game demos... including the game I'd spent the week "making fun."

I never finished the game, though I have had some temptation to re-write it for modern machines using all I know now to make it better than it had ever been. I found the demo lying on a 3 1/2" floppy disc the other day - still playable (using DOSBOX) and with complete (largely useless, now) source code. I played the game, and found myself really wondering WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN NEXT. I was sucked into the little demo in a small way, and for the life of me I can't recall everywhere I was eventually going to take the thing. But hey, I guess that's yet more evidence that I succeeded in some small little way on the quest to create fun.

So even though I never finished the game or even accepted the job offer that came from my efforts on it, it was a very valuable experience and a week well spent. I just went through a similar experience over the last couple of weeks, with enough free time for a change to really focus some effort on games in development and Rampant Games. I'm a bit more jaded now than I was twelve years ago, but it's still a great learning experience.

I still can't tell you definitively the complete recipe for creating fun, though. I can make some suggestions, and there are guys out there that I know who could provide much more educated and experienced information than I can. But sometimes it's not the knowledge itself, but the process of discovery that is so important.

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Friday, April 14, 2006
 
Game Moments #11: Falcon 4.0 (Again)
"One Pass, then Haul ..." Well, you know what to haul.

That's the advice given to combat pilots. What that means is you make your strike with the advantage of surprise, drop your ordinance, and then get out of there and be halfway home before your bombs ever hit your target. The BDA guys (Bomb Damage Assessment) will figure out if you hit your target or not.

Being a macho flight sim game player not in fear for my life, I ignored this advice in every other flight sim I'd ever played. For one thing, the "advantage of surprise" rarely ever really applied - the AI was the same either way. And particularly with scripted missions, you had to fight your way through the worst defenses just to get to your target. By the time you dropped your bombs on your target, the worst was over. You may as well just make sure you've emptied everything off your wings and shot every round out of your cannon before going home, because THAT was how you earned the promotions in the game.


Then came Falcon 4.0. With the most complex, dynamic campaigns in history. And also one of the buggiest. But I digress...

In Falcon 4.0, you really could catch the enemy by surprise. And once they woke up, they'd get REALLY nasty. But on one particular mission, I was supposed to attack an airfield, and I did a DANG good job. It's defenses were shattered, and there were only a couple of planes defending the area. I was dominating. And I still had a couple of bombs. And there were a couple of planes on the ground I could straff. Oh, the mission report was going to look awesome!

So I loitered. I carefully dropped every one of my bombs, had my wingmen do the same, and we pretty much made sure the airfield was NOT going to be very usable for a while. There was nothing left on the ground when we were done (at least nothing that could shoot back at us, except for a couple of infantrymen with their rifles), and we'd already wiped out everything in the air for miles around. My wingmen almost all reported back that they were "winchester" (meaning they were down to nothing but guns). Satisfied, I decided it was time to bring us all home.

Now, with a scripted mission, if the enemy forces were going to route some planes to take us down, our length of time over the target would probably have meant that we were on a totally different time table, and the planes that were supposed to "accidentally" run into us on our way back would have already passed us by. I know this, because I had used this trick in other games (like one of my all-time favorites, Jane's ATF Gold). The scripted missions tend to break down pretty badly when the player does things he's not really supposed to. Not as in "buggy," but they usually end up being harder if the player plays "by the book." Just because it's so hard to script up all the possible exceptions and deviations the player may come up with.

Those deviations aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves. Except when they are absolutely stupid when the AI is actually "thinking" and reacting to the dynamic situation rather than just following a script that had been designed inside a game studio a year or two before. In this particular case, there were MANY MANY airfields full of enemy fighters all over Northern Korea. And there were several flights with plenty of fuel left that could be vectored towards the attack when our surprise came.

And they did.

Now, normally, if you are playing "by the book," these guys would be WAY too late to shut down the party. By the time they'd arrived on the scene, my wingmen and I would have been on final approach, getting ready to celebrate their victories at the officer's mess or whatever the little simulated fighter pilots do in the imaginary Falcon world. But instead, we were still making multiple passes over the demolished airfield, unwilling to quit until we'd pretty much stopped anything from moving.

We detected the incoming MiGs at long range, coming fast. NO BIG DEAL. I'd been waiting for this to happen. I gathered the flight together and we turned and ran back for the friendly part of town. We had a defensive screen of fighters and our own anti-aircraft missiles on our side, and our pursuers would not want to touch that. We were still doing fine on fuel, so I goosed the afterburners to get us up to speed and and heading for home. We'd never even get within their missile range (though I could hear the audible drawl of their radar constantly painting us).

Then we saw four more MiGS coming from the left. Okay. THAT could get things interesting. They'd been vectored from somewhere to the east to come cut us off. We couldn't afford to mix it up with them, because while we were fighting, the four MiGs behind us would catch us, and then it'd be pretty much history.

I vectored our flight a little bit to my right (the west). It would take us a little further to cross the boarder, and we'd be flying over terrain that had not yet been cleared of enemy anti-aircraft weaponry. But we'd have to take that chance. By angling our escape, we'd also let the first four MiGs catch up with us enough to fire their missiles at extreme range, but with a very low probability of success. Another risk, but acceptable.

But my little overkill on the airbase didn't seem like such a good idea now. I was starting to sweat.

THEN came the flight of two MiG-21s from the right and ahead of us. Sent to cut off our escape. NOW things were really starting to suck. Fortunately, the MiG-21's generally had fairly limited, shorter-range missiles. So if we were lucky, we could shoot at them at extreme range, causing them to break off their attack, and meanwhile we plow right through at full afterburners for safety. We'd be running on fumes by the time we got to base, but we could NOT afford to tangle with these guys AT ALL. Doing so would allow the eight planes behind us to catch up and blow us to pieces.

So I ordered the attack, and hoped my wingmen AI would be smart enough to just fire and stay in formation.

It wasn't a great plan. But it was the only option we had left.

It didn't work.

The enemy planes got their shots off. I think we managed to kill one of them. But I had a missile launched at me, and I had to evade it. By breaking formation to dodge the missile, the rest of the flight fell into disarray. One of my wingmen was destroyed within seconds. I dove to treetop level and ordered the rest of the flight to rejoin formation - follow me and we were going to race for home while the MiGs were making their turn. That didn't happen.

My two remaining wingmen were engaged, and the other fighters had caught up to us. Calls of missiles inbound were constant. I stuck with the plan, making a cowardly beeline for home and requesting that my wingmen do the same. This was gonna look TERRIBLE on the report.

The other two jets in my flight were destroyed. I think we'd taken out one of the enemy. I was down in the weeds, a really horrible place to be for speed. Up above and behind me, the enemy raced to catch up.

About thirty miles from the friendly border, I was destroyed by multiple missiles. I wasn't even able to eject.

On the mission report, it stated that the target had been moderately damaged, but that all four aircraft had been destroyed, and the pilots MIA / KIA.

Right. Next time... ONE PASS! THEN HAUL....

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Thursday, April 13, 2006
 
Do Games Matter?
So our little industry has come under fire pretty constantly this year by politicians, journalists, and ambulance-chasers looking to win big fame and money in class-action lawsuits. They have made attacks against videogames that they'd never dare make against other, more "established" media. Some media, such as novels, survived similar attacks in the past. Others, like comic books / graphic novels, haven't fared so well.

One of the things that is missing in games' defense is the question of whether or not games are important, or have anything to "say" as a "serious medium." Are they worth defending, or are they simply a worthless distraction?

Cinema Parallels
Roger Ebert last year went on record as saying that he considered video games as being inherently inferior to movies, and that "... the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art." This is because the artist is not in control - the interactiveness of the medium which is the greatest strength of video games is a liability, according to Ebert.

I was at a GDC talk by Brian Moriarty several years ago where he talked about "Entrainment." Throughout his talk, he superimposed two clips. One was a clip from "The Great Train Robbery" - the final moment where the robber points his gun at the audience and fires. This was followed up by a short clip of a scene from Quake II where the player (looking down the barrel of his pistol) shoots and kills an enemy Strogg warrior. These two four-second clips replayed over and over throughout his talk, morphing into a hypnotic pattern over the course of the hour.

One of the many points he brought up was that early motion pictures originally leaned too heavily upon their spiritual ancestor, the stage. The camera was effectively placed in a single position (front and center) and simply followed the stage play. Effectively, movies were made into nothing more than a cheap imitation of real theater. "Inherently inferior to the stage," one might say.

Another point he brought up was that as movies evolved, they survived on spectacle. The final seconds of The Great Train Robbery were thrown in simply to shock the audience. The sight of someone pointing a pistol directly at them and firing was a thrill akin to hitting the loops in a roller coaster. Reportedly, it had audiences screaming in terror. Nowadays, of course, it's no big deal. Once the key thrill of the show, the same scene bores us today. As audiences became used to these sorts of spectacles, they had to grow in intensity to maintain the same thrill. This practice couldn't continue forever (though the device is still utilized to a smaller degree by the summer action blockbuster). And so were movies dragged kicking and screaming into evolution as an art form.

Also interestingly, movies were not considered an "art form" and thus subject to First Amendment protection until 1952, with the Supreme Court ruling on Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson. This was well into the history of American cinema, and even after cinema's "Golden Age."

It's hard not to see the parallels between the movie industry and the videogame industry, including our over-dependence on mimicking movies in our games, and our dependence upon increasingly expensive technical "spectacle" to thrill audiences (which seems to be failing, based on polls showing an increasing apathy towards the next generation of games).

What Kind of Game Would Shakespeare Have Designed?
When you discuss literary and dramatic masterpieces, the name that invariably comes up is William Shakespeare. One element of Shakespeare's brilliance was that he knew how and when to play to the "cheap seats" (the groundlings) with the cheap thrills, tawdry jokes, and violence. Yet even so he told a timeless human story that left the audience pondering and discussing it HUNDREDS of years later. It's a delicate juggling act, yet his mastery of it makes his stories more powerful to modern audiences than almost all modern creations (only time will tell if any of today's artists managed to equal or surpass him).

There's a great article by Jessica Mulligan called, "Just Give Me a Game, Please." In it, she contends that in his day, William Shakespeare was not considered one of the great artists of his day. He was not respected by "serious" critics. Mulligan goes so far as to call Shakespeare "the Aaron Spelling of his day." He was just a guy making a buck by writing simple entertainment designed to please the masses. It's only with a few centuries of hindsight that we now consider his creations high art.

Admittedly, most games haven't gone far beyond trying to appeal to the cheap seats. Those that demand the most real "thought" on the part of players are often doomed at the cash register. Modern designers haven't learned Shakespeare's balancing trick yet, I guess. But is it possible in games? Why not?

Are Stories Or Games Important?
Why do we have stories? Are they important? Well, a great deal of the world would say so, citing the stories of religious scripture (including many fictional 'parables') as the basis of the entire structure of their lives. Stories teach. Maybe they don't always teach the right things, but they do teach. Much of our childhood is full of cautionary tales (some of which evolve into 'urban legends' or simply 'fairie tales') which reinforce cultural patterns. Why don't you talk to strangers on your way to Granny's house in the deep dark woods?

Stories teach us. Stories let us celebrate being HUMAN. Stories let us connect with the rest of the human race. Popular stories give us a common experience with others in the human race, allowing us to connect and communicate. Just watch two perfect strangers who are also Star Wars geeks get into it. Sure, finding a cure for cancer would people to survive, but I argue it is in our art, entertainment, and communication of emotions with each other that allows us to LIVE. That is why we put such a value on Shakespeare and Mel Gibson and Bach and "Must See T.V."

Many videogames tell stories. In fact, some tell pretty dang linear stories. The player is in charge of running a gauntlet of challenges between storytelling points, and gets rewarded with a storytelling sequence. Some games allow you to tell your own story, and derive your own lessons from them. The quality and content of the lessons are very much rooted in the game designer's own vision. The stories are often pretty simple, with themes such as "Love Conquers All" or "Protect The Earth!" (Play the Final Fantasy series to get beaten over the head with that one). The lessons aren't always obvious, and rarely have clear parallels with reality. Video games are the among the first "games" that have been able to blend storytelling with play. While it's often a very turmoil-filled, rough marriage, it's there and sometimes even works.

We also learn and grow from play. Simulation is a long-recognized and respected training tool. I will never forget my first game of "Supremacy" and how much I learned about international politics from that single session that hadn't been drilled into my head after reading weekly issues of Time and Newsweek for years. The crude, simplistic boardgame simulation didn't teach me what I would need to be to be the leader of a real-world superpower, or how to best survive a limited nuclear war. Just as putting hundreds of hours into first-person shooters won't teach you how to handle a real-world gun.

No, what I instead came to 'grok' were more abstract concepts like the value of keeping forces in reserve. Or some basics of negotiation. Or just WHY researching a purely defensive technology would get an entity that honestly doesn't intend you any harm (probably) really really mad at you - as it robs them of their negotiating power and makes them feel very, very vulnerable.

Multiplayer games are shrinking the world and forming REAL relationships, communication, and understanding between people. I'll never forget a story I read back in the early days of multiplayer gaming where some flight sim enthusiasts from the UK decided to re-enact the Battle of Britain against some players in Germany. The twist was that the German players were playing the beleagered RAF, and the UK players got to hop into the attacking planes.

And there are countless stories of people making real friends online, finding future business associates or even spouses in multiplayer games. Sure, there are tons of stories of scary weirdos out there too (it's those important CAUTIONARY TALES, remember! They are there for a reason!), but there are real success stories as well. Playing together brings people together. That's a HUGE inherent advantage games have over movies --- though it might not make games "Art," I think it makes them important.

And can video games reduce the debilitating effect of age or Alzeimer's on the brain? I'd say that's pretty important.

I think games matter.

Personal Importance
And is MAKING games important? Sure! As important as, say, searching for a cure to AIDS or Cancer or fixing the ozone layer or helping feed children in third-world countries? I wouldn't think so. But everything's got its place.

When I was making games for a living, it was satisfying just to know that my efforts were helping feed my family. I could think of a lot worse ways to earn a living than programming the flight pattern of fictional swarm-missiles.

My last couple of job had me working on handling distribution of nutritional supplements. The one before that had me working on security software to help protect enterprises from malware and intruders. Both sound kind of "important." But I was so insulated from the people I was supposed to be helping that I didn't get that feeling of satisfaction for "doing good" that I thought I would. Almost the only time I heard from the end-users was when something had gone wrong.

Contrast that to the feeling of satisfaction I have received reading "fan mail" for some of the games I've worked on. It's not some earth-shatteringly great thing I've done for people. But I've helped add a little bit of extra joy and fun to their lives - enough that they felt compelled to write the game-makers and say "Thank You! I had a lot of fun playing your game!" - That is an awesome feeling.

And that matters to me.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006
 
Aveyond!
While I've been spending a lot of time WRITING games the last couple of weeks, I confess I've also been playing a few too. No, I still don't have Oblivion. I'm saving that one for a new computer that I'll be getting "soon." But I've been playing a couple of indie roleplaying games that I have really enjoyed.

The first is, of course, Cute Knight, but I've told you about that one before.

The other one that has been hurting my productivity is Amanda Fae's excellent "Aveyond." This game is in the style of the classic 16-bit console RPGs. It's a story-heavy title with over 50 hours of gameplay. It's HUGE. No, I haven't finished it yet. But I'm really enjoying the game. And no, it may not be Chrono Trigger, but it's got a story and style all its own. This is important! I've seen a few "demos" (so few of these indie RPGs ever get finished!) of these kinds of games that really seemed to be nothing more than "fanboy" imitations of past favorites. Aveyond goes beyond that, building on the style and structure of the genre to create something different. It's still very much a console fantasy RPG, with the usual monster-killing and dark secrets and characters with angsty backgrounds. But it tells a story that is at once familiar and new.

Aveyond is a game I wish I had made. The graphics are good. The story sucks you in, with an immediate mystery that gets revealed only slowly. The characters are - well, cute, as they always have been in console-style RPGs, but that's not a bad thing. The game is *meaty* with lots of quests, hidden areas, places to explore, problems to solve, and people to talk to. It boasts over 50 hours of gameplay, and I've nothing that I have seen has given me reason to doubt that value. It's BIG, Jack!

And as I mentioned above, the other thing Aveyond has in spades is PERSONALITY. I don't really know Amanda other than some exchanged emails, but I imagine that if I did I'd see a lot of her personality in the game. That's one of the very cool things about indie games, created by very small teams. Without the dillution of so many people involved in the design, development, and decision-making, the people working on the game have a chance to let their own style and individuality shine through.


Aveyond is a very impressive indie offering. I recommend at least trying out the demo - it clocks in at TEN HOURS of free game play. You can check it out at:

http://www.rampantgames.com/aveyond.html

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Monday, April 10, 2006
 
Easter Eggs
I think it was Atari's "Adventure" that had the world's first Easter Egg in a videogame. I have YET to see it. But I have heard it was there. Atari's policy at the time was not to give individual developers any kind of public credit for their games, so the developer (Warren Robinett) snuck his name in a secret area.

For a while, Easter Eggs were in games were a way for game developers to "put their mark" in a game, a personal touch which rewarded players who really explored the game. Even when these easter eggs weren't there, rumors abounded of their existance. For some reason, we kids somehow believed that the game makers hid the coolest stuff in the game so that the average player wouldn't find it. So there were stories of players being able to drive to the volcano in Battlezone, finding a castle within. Or that there was a secret room in Pac-Man that you could get to if you moved up at exactly the right moment as Pac-Man transitioned through the tunnel.

Of course, nobody would REALLY hide that much of the game like that. I mean, you want the cool stuff to be front-and-center for the player to gush over, right? Until Shigeru Miyamoto did exactly that in Super Mario Brothers for the NES. Half the fun of the game, according to players, was finding all the secrets in the game. It was amazing.

Unfortunately, I think that publishers learned the lessons from that experience. So they started demanding to know every secret 'easter egg' inside the game. That way, they could "leak" the easter eggs to the public, renewing interest in the game to generate more marketing. That's not too bad, but easter eggs became more about publicity and marketing and part of a planned, committee-designed initiative rather than touches of individualism.

I noticed at Singletrac that we had a LOT of Easter Eggs in our first two games - possibly products of demented minds working FAR too late into the night. But especially as Sony came down on us to make sure that every single Easter Egg was fully documented to be leaked to the press (rather than discovered by the players), they became less fun and interesting to us. So our later games didn't have nearly as many. Of course, in a day and age where developers hide "adult"-rated content in games, I can understand the publisher wanting to know ALL those details.

Some easter eggs that I actually remember from our first two games:

* In multiplayer Twisted Metal, there were two secret spots where you could park your car in every level that would restore you to full health.

* In Warhawk, if you picked up one of the cannisters in each level (a specific one, but there was always one), with the plasma weapon selected and guns overheated, you'd get a message "Singletrac Rules!" and you'd get a weapon upgrade (one of the testers stumbled across this one accidentally in one level, and for the life of him couldn't figure out how to reproduce it). That one was mine :)

* In Warhawk, if you took out the second canyon boss and had 0 rockets remaining but a full load-out of swarmers (in other words, you played like I did), you'd get a message "'Ey, Jay Mon!" and you'd get all the rockets restored, and a double loadout of swarmers and guided missiles. Or something like that. Naturally, that one was also me :)

* In Twisted Metal, the rooftops level, if you looked down at one point (or fell off the roof and crashed in a particular spot), you could see the Singletrac office building (165 South Main, Salt Lake City).

* We had a bunch of people in our games named after people in the office or people at Sony. "Mike and Dave" (drivers of the Monster Truck) were named after Mike Giam and Dave Jaffe, who were producers over those games. The skydiver in Jet Moto, Polly Harris, was named after one of the programmers. And so forth.

One of my favorite Easter Eggs I ever discovered completely on my own was in Falcon 3.0. If you flew up the canyon outside of Las Vegas far enough, following the river, you'd eventually come to the source of the river - a giant water faucet.

I also loved the secret "Wolfenstein" level in Doom 2 (and the hanging Commander Keens). As a guy who had played those old games before there was a "Doom," I really appreciated those references to their older titles.

More recently, a got a kick out of the "Trogdor" flamethrower in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines - and the "Burninator Brand" fuel. Not a huge secret, but more of a joke for those familiar with Strongbad Emails.

So - what are your favorite game Easter Eggs? Post it in a reply!

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Sunday, April 09, 2006
 
Ouch! That was my ankle!
Was walking the dog this afternoon, enjoying the spring weather, when my foot hit an edge wrong and got twisted fairly bad. So I've got a sprained, swollen ankle right now. The fun never stops.

Well, it means I can't do much more than work on the laptop computer from the LA-Z-BOY. That part's not so bad. Except I had a bit of work to do on the computers downstairs. I've got an installation I need to test...

EDIT: Oh, did I say walking the dog? Well, that part was true. But then these NINJAS sprang up on me! Yeah. Three of them. In broad daylight. I fought them off, and luckily only suffered from a badly sprained ankle! Yeah, that's the ticket. :)
Friday, April 07, 2006
 
RPG Conversation Redesign
So I was dwelling on Noah Falstein's article in this month's "Game Developer" magazing about "Emergent Complexity." (See his 400 list, item # 105, if you haven't read the article). Muddled with that was a couple of talks I heard LONG ago by Chris Crawford on storytelling in games, and some ideas I have had in my brain about creating "non-combat challenges" in Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs), and the trickiness of doing conversations in said games. And risk-reward structures, etc.

Am I the only guy who ever muses on these things? This probably reveals way more about my lack of mental stability than I should be admitting in public. But oh, well..

Anyway, so I'm ruminating on this collection of topics, and I have a "Duh!" moment. Which is sort of like an, "Ah-hah!" moment, but more of a realization of how I've been handling things all WRONG while simultaneously discovering the blindingly obvious. Why I was having a tough time working out how to make conversation work as a game challenge. Part of it was that I was still thinking inside the box of how conversations are handled in other RPGs.

And quite frankly, in about every Computer RPG I can think of, Non-Player Character (NPC) Conversations are simply a variant of terrain.

Huh?

Think about it. What is the purpose of terrain in an RPG? It's not really part of gameplay. It's mainly something to navigate and explore, something which creates a natural separation between game segments. It gives you different visuals and pretty stuff to look at. But there's not really an option of "failing" to navigate the terrain - it's either possible, or not given your current game state.

NPC Conversations serve the same function. You navigate the conversation trees, which dispense knowledge about the game world (scenery). Conversations separate the game elements by unlocking options. If there are any random elements in conversations, it is restricted to purely optional content. But everything else is automatic, you just have to walk your way through the "conversation path" to access it. To quote Yoda, you either "Do, or do not. There is no try."

In order to turn the 'conversation engine' of an RPG into a full-fledged part of gameplay, you need to make a few fundamental changes:

Risk / Reward:
You need to add a risk / reward structure for all conversational options, including the (possibly invisible) option to not engage in conversation whatsoever. The "reward" is the easy part. Gifts, payments, or access to additional content are already common. The trick is forcing the player to invest some kind of game resource into the conversation. The player character has nothing to lose by talking to everyone available and exploring every conversation tree as fully as possible.

In The Sims, this investment really comes down to in-game "time." Poor performance in a conversation can have a negative effect on the relationship between the characters, which means more time will have to be spent later to "repair" the relationship.

Most RPGs don't really have "time" as a gameplay element. Some games will have day and night cycles which might have some effect on availability of NPCs and shops and so forth, but time is RARELY plot-critical. The imminent invasion by demonic hordes will almost always pause in their plans until you've cleared out the newbie dungeons and talked to everyone in town six times.

But time doesn't have to be the resource to be invested by the player. It could be something as abstract as a "number of conversations allowed in a row," or preferably something closer to how Real Life works. But the player has to be required to put in-game resources at risk somehow.

Failure Must Be An Option
So the next thing that needs to happen is that the player needs to be allowed to "fail" conversations.

I think the lack of failure as an option at all is exactly why most combat is generally the most common in-game challenge: Failure effectively ends the game (with the death of the Player Characters), so the designers don't have to deal with the explosion of branches that could occur. Like what would happen if the players FAIL to rescue the princess from the dragon? The entire rest of the game would have to be written to handle both the "Princess-Rescued" and "Princess-Was-Devoured" outcomes. Multiply that by hundreds of such outcomes, and it can be tough in a story-based game.

Non-story based games, like "Civilization," take this kind of thing into stride. Failures and successes are simply abstracted into the running game state. But the flip side of this is that individual successes or failures lose importance before the aggregate whole. We'd really like the fact that the player botched the princesses' rescue attempt to MATTER in the course of a game.

But bringing it back to NPC conversations. Traditional "conversation tree" design wouldn't allow something like this to be bolted on. The game would screech to a halt if the player had to make a "conversation" skill check on every branch to continue exploring the tree, and somehow managed to fail every roll with major NPCs. The player might find themselves unable to leave the newbie area of the game. Instead, a much more "organic" system would have to be put in place that could aggregate individual successes and failures, never leaving the game in an unwinnable game state.

And then....?
Hmmm.... I thought I had a third thing, but it's eluding my sleep-starved brain right now. So maybe it wasn't as blindingly obvious as I thought.

So that's what I've got so far. This doesn't solve the problem, but it does point out some directions to look for a solution. So am I on drugs, or shouting from the lowly heights of Mount Obvious? Or both? Post and let me know!
Thursday, April 06, 2006
 
Apocalypse Cow Progress
In-between job interviews and Disneyland trips and handling a handful of "honey-dos" my wife has arranged for me during my current unemployment, I've managed to get a ton of progress done in Apocalypse Cow.

I've got three levels "roughed out" and playable now, and I'll be starting level 4 tomorrow. There are still LOTS of details to be taken care of, and additional content to be added, sound, and layers of polish that will need to be applied. So I can't really call them "done." But it's definitely a game now, and progress is now very fast. The Black Triangles are now almost done!

The event scripting has turned out to be remarkably easy. I'm sure I could do it more elegantly than I am, but what I've got is working nicely. Particularly for the tutorial levels, there are lots of events that need to take place in a specified order. One of the powers of TorqueScript is the ability to do higher-level functions with relative ease. You can generate the name of the event handler on-the-fly based upon the name of the level, like "Level_1_Pickup_Event" and make the call. CAKE!!!!

The trick with this is that it's really easy to let the architecture get away from you. I've been doing a little bit of pruning and reorganization as I go, but I've got some more serious overhauling to do in the not-to-distant future. The AI Manager, in particular, has gotten a little bit out-of-hand.

The way I've organized the progression of the early levels so far are as follows (subject to change at any time, of course):

Level 1: MILK RUN - the player learns how to rescue prisoners, shoot things, and transport large objects.

Level 2: CATTLE CANYON - Pure rescue operation, but the player must deal with static defenses - dodging attacks and blowing up non-moving targets.

Level 3: COWABUNGA - The player must deal with air threats that continually respawn, and now has to deal with "soft" time limits.

Level 4: BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER COW-AH - The player must build a bridge

Level 5: BARON COWFRED VON RICHTHOOFEN - The first "boss" level.

One of the design issues I'm struggling with (yes, even for a silly game about flying cows, one must deal with serious design issues) is keeping the player learning and developing new skills and strategies throughout the game - not just ramping up the challenge against the same handful of skills until the end of the game. This means there needs to be far more interactions with the environment (and with the AI itself) than just shooting things and dodging dangers. But I cannot complicate the control scheme with any additional buttons or commands.

The boss levels should then be a test of all you've learned in the previous few levels, hopefully combined in intriguing ways.

And of course, MORE BAD PUNS AND LIVESTOCK HUMOR!

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006
 
Playing To Crush with Life
This blog entry may get a little weird and fuzzy. For that, I apologize.

The last week I've been poking around with the game "The Sims," simply trying to re-aquaint myself with the design decisions that turned it into the best-selling computer game of all time. I'm kind of a goal-directed "play to crush" kind of guy, so I learned back in 1999 how to max out the sims so they could reach the top of their career ladder as quickly as possible, and have all the wealth and friends they needed. Of course, I also understand that the thing that made the game successful was that it was NOT designed for my style of playing the game.

I'm now trying the game out with the expansions which I'd never tried before. They are dirt-cheap now that The Sims 2 is out. The expansions have screwed up my little maximization strategies. I can no longer turn a perfect stranger into a true friend or romance in the course of a single evening. And there's tons of more options to consider. And I haven't played the game much in about five years, so my mad Sims skillz are a little rusty anyway.

So I find myself projecting a little bit into these little computer people (oh, wait, that was a different game...) as they are shifting career tracks with the new options available to them. In spite of not getting too serious about job-hunting yet (it's only been two weeks, and we went to Disneyland during one of them!), I've found myself in a few interviews and getting offers for doing a few different things (all programming-related). Some are permanent, full-time positions. Some are contract. None are "perfect."

I haven't really run my own life in "play-to-crush" mode. But being in a minor transition as I am now, I'm reevaluating the goals in my life - with much discussion with my wife - and we're trying to zero in on some strategic goals of where we want to be five, ten years from now. That makes considering the job offers a lot more interesting - it's not just which job pays the most, but which one yields the highest chance of getting us where we want to be.

It feels kinda weird trying to manage my life like I'd manage a software project. But if you can quantify those goals, you can then set a path for measuring your progress to those goals. This appeals to the gamer in me, as I can keep score and maybe work the system. And maybe apply a little bit of my "play-to-crush" mentality in my own life.

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Monday, April 03, 2006
 
More Tail-Kicking and Game-Making
We have a Utah Indie Developer meet on the 27th of this month. It's my goal to have several playable levels completed for Apocalypse Cow (maybe not content-complete, but code-complete and fully functional) by that date. Pretty much everything up to the first "boss" (Baron Manfred Von Richthoofen).

I'm pretty much developing-by-the-levels right now. The first three levels are very tutorial-esque, as the player is instructed how to fly the helicopter, shoot things, pick up people, and pick up / drop cargo. I started the second level today, and I intend to have it finished sometime tomorrow. It is visually very different from the previous level, which is exciting to me as a developer. Hopefully it will be exciting to players.

What's really funny about this project was that it began as an almost throw-away exercise. I am finding that a few elements from a project I cancelled in May last year are coming back to find a home here. And it's starting to "design itself" in a few ways. I hope it's a good sign.

Or maybe it's because I have a terrible sense of humor and I'm just loving the chance to use a bunch of really terrible puns in a game.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006
 
Profit or Passion?
So I kinda skipped over the obligatory April Fool's post. Just 'cuz the tradition irritates me. Maybe it's because it's the day before my birthday (oh, hey, coincidence... it's my birthday. Happy birthday to me! I'm ancient).

So a bit of a hubub has emerged regarding Dan MacDonald's article "Sustaining Independence." Dan states a point which he has made (but less vehemently) many times before: "An independent developer that wishes to sustain their independence must pursue their own interests in game design and development and give them preeminence over their interests in business and profit. " In other words, independent game developers should be artists and visionaries, ignoring (or at least minimizing) all those horrible business parts like marketing and sales.

In the past, he's also suggested that the only people who can be truly free and independent in their game development are those for whom games are not their primary souce of income. If you are worrying about making the mortgage payment, he implies, you will compromise your vision to improve sales.

I think the arguments result mainly from the polarization of the issue into two extremes: You are either a visionary artist looking to push the medium, or you are a sellout churning out pablum designed for the lowest-common denominator designed to maximize sales. I think it's a false dichotemy, but it's a useful one for spurring conversation. In that purpose, it has succeeded.

Of course, I have to put my two cents into the discussion. I don't think it matters if you are trying to sell your game, or releasing it as "freeware" out on the net - you are creating a game for other people. Ideally, you are creating a game for an audience that includes yourself. Then it's easy - you make a game that you want to play. But even so, I feel you should never lose focus on the rest of your audience. As an obvious example, your target audience isn't going to know how to play it as well as you do, so you'll need to tailor the early part of the game to ease them into it. But there may need to be other ways you need to "compromise" your vision of the "perfect game" to make other players happy.

I can't see this as a bad thing. And I don't see how you can't be creative, visionary, and innovative while doing this. And I'd submit that the lessons learned from making highly polished, successful "casual" games shouldn't be applied to "core" games.

What if you are doing a game where you are not part of the target market? What if you are creating a game for children? Does this mean it's impossible to be artistic or innovative? Well, by looking at most children's games, I'd say the answer is "yes." But I don't think it has to be. I think a good game designer can and should put himself in the head of his target audience, or find ways of otherwise making the audience inclusive of himself. I think Shigeru Miyamoto is a perfect example of this. His games are outstanding games for children, yet they are enjoyable by adults as well. Miyamoto finds the child within himself, and designs games for that person.

I once had dinner with author Emma Russell, in Roy, Utah. If you have never heard of Roy, don't be too surprised. It's a little town near Layton, not too far from Hill Air Force Base. But it's not exactly an exciting, happening town. Ms. Russell told me that when she first moved to Roy, she hated it. It was her impression that the town was absolutely boring and devoid of any kind of character.

Her solution to the problem was unique. She decided to write the book on the town. She did the research, and discovered the stories of the families there and the town itself. In so doing, she came to love the town, and to feel a part of it.

I think I agree with Dan MacDonald insofar as it is something of a sin to create a game without any level of passion in its creation. Paint-by-numbers game design isn't doing our hobby or industry any favors. I know I've been guilty of it in the past, and I know that the mainstream game development biz is full of this. It's because game design is being dictated by bean-counters and businessmen who have come from canned-food industries who have zero passion for games and all their interest in profit. The fact that we have any level of depth and innovation at all on the game shelves at Wal*Mart is because there is a layer of understaffed, underpaid designers who still love games who inject some of that love into the projects that get dictated to them from above.

But I also feel strongly that games should be designed for other people. It's all about the players. Not the money. Not for the artistry. But for the audience - making them happy. If you do that, I think the opportunity for innovation and artistry and feeding your personal creative demons will still be there, and the money will (eventually) come.

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